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The Eternal Wrath

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It’s late afternoon in Lana’s suite, and the Alliance Commander – no, Galactic Peacekeeper – and her partner haven’t left their bed yet. The scent of Rishi flowers greets Lana as she opens her eyes. Viri is still fast asleep, curled up at her side.

Lana takes a moment to study the sleeping woman next to her. Strong arms. Muscular shoulders. The black and bright purple ink of the tattoo emblazoned on her bicep. Long fingers. Large hands. Tousled, curly hair framing a pale face.

Viri’s face is serene in sleep, and only the dark shadows under her eyes belie the nightmares that haunt her in both slumber and waking hours. It seems impossible that less than 24 hours earlier, Viri had been seated on the Eternal Throne, battling for her mind and soul.

It’s the first bit of rest she’s had without Valkorion’s presence in nearly seven years. No wonder she’s calm. Lana smiles at her, resisting the urge to reach out and capture her mouth in a kiss. Viri’s Force signature is a deep blue pool; completely unburdened. There’s nothing hovering in the background anymore; no hint of the evil Emperor who had invaded her mind and tried to steal her body.

Viri shifts in her sleep, reaching unconsciously for Lana, and Lana runs an affectionate hand over her forehead. Her eyes open, fixing Lana with a brilliant blue gaze.

”Hello, love.” Lana reaches over to kiss her on the head. “It looks like you were having pleasant dreams, for once.”

Viri nods, and her lips curl into a sweet, drowsy smile. Lana can feel her languor; every muscle in her body is still relaxed from last night’s sensual delights.

She can feel…

”Well, this is fascinating, isn’t it?” Viri says, lacing her fingers with Lana’s. Without Valkorion, they’ve been able to let down the walls in their minds, and their bond has flourished. The connection between them is stronger than either of them had ever thought possible.

Viri tilts her head and smiles up at Lana. Hello.

Hello to you too.

So we really can talk to each other. Before it was just flashes, but now…

Now we don’t need to speak. Lana touches her hand to Viri’s forehead and stretches out beside her.

”I like the sound of your voice, though,” Viri says, speaking out loud.

Lana narrows her eyes and sends a simple image to Viri. Can you see this?

Yes. It’s a sleen. Viri closes her eyes, and Lana sees a beach and a waterfall before her. How about this? It’s Naboo.

I…can almost feel the water around my legs. Try this one. Lana sends her an image of a warm living room with a fireplace. This was the living room in the apartment I lived in as a child.

Cozy fireplace, Viri muses, snuggling closer to her and shivering.

”What’s the matter?” Lana asks, speaking the words. “You’re going wobbly on me.”

”We’re truly us now, aren’t we? Fully bonded. Just you and me.” Tears begin to run down Viri’s face. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted this?”

”Force, Viri, you’ve got me going now, too…” Lana cries along with her, holding her close. “I meant what I said to you yesterday. Every moment with you has been worth it. More than worth it. I don’t want to be anywhere without you.”

”Likewise, “ Viri whispers. “I love you.”

”I love you too. So much.” Lana falls into their bond, letting the full force of Viri’s feelings envelop her, and she responds in kind.

You are mine.

And you are mine.

As it should be.

“What do you want to do, love?” Lana asks, drawing back to look at Viri. “I suppose we do have to get up and face the galaxy, sooner or later.”

”Yeah, I---“ Viri’s eyes widen. “Shit. I really am in charge of everything now, aren’t I?”

”Indeed you are,” Lana chuckles.

”Er…Eternal Fleet vessel 2734?” Viri says, speaking uncertainly into the quiet of the room.

”Yes, Commander?” Viri’s eyes open wide when the GEMINI captain’s voice echoes through her comlink.

”Um. Have a nice day.”

Lana snorts with laughter behind her hand.

”….thank you, Commander.” The GEMINI unit sounds confused. “Do you have any orders?”

”No, remain where you are, patrolling over Odessen,” Viri stammers. “I just wanted to test the system. Commander out.”

As soon as the connection is cut, Lana bursts into gales of laughter.

”Have a nice…oh stars, Viri.”

”I didn’t know what the hell to say to them!” Viri giggles. “I don’t have my work face on right now. Forgot to be authoritative and all.”

”Point taken,” Lana chuckles. “It might take a little while to adapt to this ‘ruling the galaxy’ business of yours.”

”Can I decree that I want to stay in bed with you all day, as long as I’m ruling the galaxy?”

”As much as I’d love that, we both know you need to get up.”

”All right,” Viri sighs, and rolls out of bed. As she stands, Lana gasps. The backs of both legs are covered in vicious burns.

“Viri, your legs!” Lana’s jaw drops.

”That throne was a bit hard on the body,” Viri shrugs. “I was planning on getting rid of most, but not all of them…unless you object.”

”It’s your body. I don’t have a say in that…”

Viri turns and looks at her with a shy smile. “I know. But if there’s something you’d prefer, I’m open to listening.”

”Just one thing,” Lana says, before she can stop herself.

”Tell me.”

Lana’s fingers trace the scar on Viri’s abdomen – the souvenir of her duel with their adversary on Asylum – and the matching exit wound on Viri’s back. “I hate these.”

Viri’s brow knits. “Why?”

Lana winces. “It…Viri, I saw you get stabbed. I saw you almost die. Do you even remember, we had to do a mind trick to get you back to the Gravestone? You were in so much pain you couldn’t even walk. Every time I see this it reminds me of yet another time I almost lost you.”

”…it reminds me that you saved my life again.”

”I wouldn’t have had to save you if I hadn’t left you alone there. You weren’t recovered. We both had a bad feeling. And yet, we still…” Lana buries her face in Viri’s shoulder.

“Love, it’s done,” Viri says, soothing her with a gentle hug. “I’m here. You’re here. The enemy who stabbed me is extremely dead. I killed him and the galaxy watched.”

“You asked,” Lana says. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

”Yes, you should have,” Viri tells her. “If you feel this strongly about it, I’m getting rid of these scars.”

”Thank you,” Lana says softly. “I still feel guilty about asking.”

”Don’t. If the situation had been reversed, and I’d seen someone cut you up, I’d likely feel the same way.” Viri hugs Lana close. “Do we really have to leave this room?”

”I’m afraid so, love,” Lana says, hugging her back. “Come. Let’s get cleaned up.”

Viri nods and follows her to the fresher, steeling herself to deal with her new reality.

Chapter Text

Viri walks slowly through the base, surveying the damage from the Eternal Empire’s final attack on Odessen. Lana, Theron Shan, Vette and the rest of the Alliance’s core team trail behind her.

”They damaged about half of the computers,” Vette says, reading notes from her datapad.

“I’d recommend re-coding and encrypting all of them, damaged or not,” Theron suggests. “We have no idea what they were doing while they were here, and they could have sliced every single database.”

Viri nods. “I agree. Can I put you in charge of that, Theron?”

”Of course,” Theron nods.

”In terms of structural damage, there are numerous cracks on the walls outside the main plaza, but the walls and foundations themselves are safe,” Koth says. “We are cleaning up that area, so it’s blocked off from traffic. They didn’t breach the Force enclave or Oggurobb’s labs, so that’s something.”

“They did get into the military hangar, but the damage isn’t severe. We lost several ships, but most of our fleet is intact,” Bey’wan Aygo says. “We did well.”

”We lost some people,” Viri murmurs, looking down. “I wish we hadn’t.”

”You did what you could,” Shae Vizla says, holding her eyes. “It’s a war. You know it, I know it, and everyone who has signed up for this Alliance knows it.”

”I know you’re right,” Viri says quietly. “It doesn’t stop me from grieving the loss.”

”You’d be a terrible leader if you didn’t feel for those who follow you,” Theron says.

“Seconding that, kid,” Shae says.

“Have we taken care of them? Notified loved ones, done whatever they need for their funerals?” Viri looks at the floor, lost in thought. “I’ll attend any memorial where my presence is wanted. If someone’s family wants them shipped home, the Alliance will cover it, and whatever burial or funeral services they want, in full. I’d like some sort of memorial monument or wall here at the base, too.”

”Understood,” Lana says. “We’ll see to that.”

The team walks toward the Commander’s suite.

“We had massive damage in this area,” Bey’wan says. “The rest of our barracks and crew quarters are fine, but yours were nearly destroyed. They figured out where your rooms were and stormed them. Took a baradium bomb to the door.“

Viri walks through the rubble of her suite. Some of the supply closets are still locked, but most of the room is in shambles.

”Some of this can be salvaged, but before it’s touched, I’d still like it swept for any nasty surprises,” Lana says.

“Do you have enough supplies to suffice in the meantime?” Theron asks. Vette snorts behind her hand.

”Sorry, Theron, you don’t realize…this woman has enough clothes to last her a thousand years.”

“Vette’s right. I have plenty of things on my ship, and on the Gravestone, and…elsewhere,” Viri says. “It’s all right.”

”Can you stay somewhere else while this gets cleaned up?”

“I think that could be arranged,” Viri says, and Vette bites back another smile.

“In the meantime, let’s break for lunch and then meet back in the War Room in an hour. We have a lot to discuss,” Lana says.

The group nods and breaks apart, ambling in different directions. Viri lingers at the door to her room, frowning.

”Lana, HK, can you cover me? There’s something I need to find in here. “

”Viri, whatever it is….”

”No. It’s too important.” Viri crosses her arms. “I’m going in. Cover me.”

”Fine, fine, impossible one.” Lana draws her lightsaber and follows Viri through the rubble. HK begins sweeping his scanners across the debris of the room, tracking Viri as she rummages around in one of the overturned cabinets.

”Yes! It’s here, and it’s okay…” Viri puts a small box in her pocket and stands up. “HK, scan this?”

“Results: Clear,” HK-55 says.

”What did you find?” Lana asks.

”Nothing.”

Lana frowns at her. “Viri, you just ignored the base’s safety protocols to root around in a potentially contaminated room to find something, and now it’s nothing?”

”It’s…I…”

Viri.

”Fine,” Viri sighs, and opens the box. Lana’s heart skips when she sees the contents. It’s a small stone tablet, inscribed with a verse in High Sith that Lana recognizes instantly.

”It’s for you. I was hoping to give it to you at the right place and time, after we defeated the Eternal Empire.”

”I’m touched, Viri…but why?”

”Why not? I love you.” Viri offers the tablet to Lana. “And I wanted to thank you.”

”For what?”

Viri switches to Sith and grins bashfully as she grabs a slip of paper from the bottom of the box. “I actually wrote out what I wanted to say to you.”

“Go on.”

Viri takes a deep breath and reads in Sith. “Nobody ever thanks you for what you do. They should. You sacrificed so much to look for me and rescue me. Every day, you give everything to this Alliance. To me. I can’t thank you enough. Thank you for being my advisor. My friend. My partner. My love. Thank you for loving me. For being patient when I need you to be. For watching my back when we’re on missions. For keeping me safe when my mind won’t let go of nightmares. For the passions we share. For being you. Your soul, your mind, your spirit, your body…everything about you makes the world around you better. I love you so much that I feel it to the bottom of my soul.”

When Lana finally speaks, her voice is hoarse with emotion. “From the moment I met you, I knew my life would change, and it has. So much. And so much for the better. I love you. I…I didn’t write something out, Viri, so I’m not going to be at my most eloquent right now, but I love you beyond anything. Wherever you go, I want to be at your side.”

Lana throws her arms around Viri, and they embrace for a long moment, silent, feeling the love coursing through their bond. When Lana pulls back, her eyes are shiny with tears.

“The soothsayer on Rishi was right,” Lana murmurs. “She told me…that when we ran together again, we could not be separated.”

”She was,” Viri says. “What was the rest of her fortune?”

“I didn’t understand it at the time. She said we would run together for a time and then our paths would diverge. There were two flames in her prophecy. One crashed and was nearly extinguished; the other dived into it and rekindled it. And then the flames were one.”

Viri shivers and kisses Lana’s head. “That’s eerily on target.”

”Yes,” Lana breathes. “It is. I’m so happy.”

”Me, too.” Viri says. Her eyes flick back to her ruined quarters. “Lana, something just occurred to me. I know you like having your own space, and so do I. But given that we have to repair this section of the base anyway, we could always…um…make a suite for you over here.”

”Something closer to you, you mean?” Lana says, smiling.

”We’d still have our own rooms,” Viri says quickly. “But if you were over here, we wouldn’t have to run back and forth between our suites. We spend every night together as it is.”

”I love it,” Lana replies, kissing her. “I’ll put in the order.”

Viri’s stomach rumbles. “I should probably head to the cafeteria before our meeting. I’m starving.”

Lana looks sharply at her. “When’s the last time you ate? I noticed you didn’t have breakfast.”

”I had a piece of fruit this morning. Before that…Force, not since we were on the Gravestone, on the way to Zakuul.”

“Viri, go eat! I have to work on a few of these tasks, but I’ll meet you later. HK, bodyguard duty. Stay with Viri.”

”Statement: It will be my pleasure,” HK-55 says.

“See you later, love,” Viri says, and kisses Lana again before ambling off toward the Alliance cafeteria.

Lana watches her go, and then looks at the tablet in her hand. It’s her favorite stanza from her favorite sonnet, and the High Sith letters are carved masterfully in the stone. It’s a gift that was obviously chosen with great care and contemplation, and as Lana studies it, she feels yet another surge of love for Viri. She holds the tablet to her lips and then places it carefully in her pocket, before heading back to the War Room to work.

*

The room erupts into applause when Viri sticks her head into the Alliance cafeteria. The cheers turn into giggles when Viri blushes profusely.

”Finally, you emerge!” Gimna Belfin, one of the chefs, bustles out of the kitchen. “You haven’t eaten in a year, have you, poor kitten? Sit down. Let us feed you.”

“Any chance there’s some Naboo cuisine on the menu today?” Viri says hopefully.

Gimna laughs. “Of course! Defeating the Eternal Empire warrants the best we can make for you.”

Viri pretends to swoon and walks toward the counters. “You’ve made my day.”

When Viri has her tray of food, she scans the room. Vette spots her and waves her over, making a place for her at a crowded table. Pierce, Shae Vizla, Koth and Tora are all already tucking into their meals.

“So, Commander! How’s the running the galaxy thing going?” Vette quips.

”I’ll get back to you on that,” Viri laughs.

Vette catches her eyes. “I know this is sappy and all, but I’m proud of you, Sister Sith.”

“Thank you, Vette. I’m proud of you, too. I couldn’t be happier that you’re here to share this with me.”

”I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather see leading us,” Pierce says quietly. “A toast to you.”

Everyone clinks their glasses. “Hear, hear.”

”What’s your first order for the galaxy, Viri?” Vette says jokingly. “Do tell.”

Viri pulls herself up to her full height, squares her shoulders and lifts her chin. “My first edict is…enjoy your lunch, everyone.”

The table erupts with mirth, and Viri laughs along with them as she savors her delicious Naboo pasta.
*

“So. We have a lot of threads to tie up.” Viri steeples her fingers and looks down at her datapad. The team has assembled in the War Room, and it’s obvious that there’s a lot of ground to cover. Lana has set up several holo-boards with bullet points and galactic maps.

“We need to do this in pieces,” Lana says. “If we try to address it all at once, we’re going to be exhausted and overwhelmed. What do you think are the most critical tasks, Commander?”

“Reaffirming our alliances,” Viri says. “I’d like to shore up our relationship with the Sith Empire, the Voss, the Mandalorians and the Selkath. But I think the most pressing matter is to see where we stand with Zakuul.”

”That has to come first,” Theron agrees. “Zakuul could be a powerful ally, and I think we should cultivate that link. Indo Zal has requested a meeting to discuss how the Alliance will work with their transitional government. The Knights are another issue, and while they’ve agreed to a temporary truce, we’ll need to have a chat. We can send Sana-Rae and…”

”I’ll talk to them,” Viri says. “We’ll have to figure out how to make it safe, and we can bring Sana-Rae, but I’ll fight the battle myself.”

“Bring some Zakuulans,” Koth interjects. “Let us talk to the Knights. Indo Zal, Len, myself – even Malita – we can vouch for you, and that might carry some weight.”

“That’s a really good idea,” Viri agrees. “Thank you.”

“Your allies want to see you in social settings, too,” Lana says, reading from her datapads. “Already there have been all manner of invitations for parades and inaugurations. I think we should cooperate with Zakuul and the Sith Empire, and that you should attend some of these functions, but we need to be cautious.”

“Doctor Oggurobb has been working on new stealth security technology for you,” Theron says. “It goes without saying that anywhere you go, it’s going to be with a team of bodyguards, and ideally, one of your advisors or core team members. Your top advisor and Vette will also need security.”

“And you?” Viri asks.

”Yes, but I’m not quite as likely to be a target,” Theron says. “I work behind the scenes. You, Lana, and Vette are front and center.”

“HK will help with that,” Lana says. “We have some Sith allies who have expressed an interest in joining your security detail, too. Darth Hexid and Darth Imperius.”

“We’ll have to interview them,” Viri says.

”Anyone who comes to this base is going to need to be vetted extensively,” Lana says. “I think the Eternal Fleet’s current position – patrolling over Odessen – is a prudent one.”

“I agree,” says Bey’wan. “We have a lot of work to do. Luckily we have good people to do it.”

”So to recap, our first priority is speaking to Indo Zal. Second, the Knights. Third, the Sith Empire. And then other allies,” Viri says, typing on her datapad. “I’d also like to make a formal address to the Alliance and thank everyone for their help.”

”Yes. Let’s take care of those, and then address three more of our goals,” Lana says. “Indo Zal said that he’s ready to talk whenever we are. Let’s aim to have your speech to the Alliance tomorrow morning, and put Indo on the schedule after that.”

“Your presence has also been requested at a number of funerals and the Mandalorian Death Ceremony,” Koth says.

”Let me know when. We’ll block out that time and work around it.”

“We’ve got enough to do for now,” Theron says. “We’ll get to work.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Viri says. “Thank you, everyone.”

The core members of the Eternal Alliance stand and disperse for the day.

*

After ordering the reconstruction of Viri’s suite – and the addition of her own – Lana returns to her quarters. Lana smiles before she even unlocks the door; she can feel that Viri has already arrived.

Viri is meditating at the small altar in the corner of Lana’s suite, channeling the Force. She’s far more serene than she had been earlier in the day; white wisps of Force power circle her along with purple and red.

As Lana observes her, she’s struck by how different Viri is when she’s off-duty. With her simple shirt and trousers, messy ponytail and bare feet and hands, she looks deceptively gentle. Tendrils of stray hair frame her face, and Lana has the urge to brush them back and kiss the soft skin of Viri’s forehead.

I would destroy the stars for her. The thought rises unbidden in Lana’s mind. A strain of fierce protectiveness is twined through her deep love for Viri.

Viri opens one eye and grins. “I heard that, you know.”

”I do know,” Lana smiles. “You didn’t need to stop for me. I didn’t mean to interrupt. But can I join you?”

“Of course. You always can,” Viri nods. Lana removes her gloves and boots before approaching the altar.

When Lana sits down, Viri turns to face her. “Can we…”

“I was hoping you’d want to,” Lana says, lacing her fingers with Viri’s. She and Viri have explored meditating together, through their bond, and it’s become one of Lana’s favorite things.

“Through passion…” Viri begins, closing her eyes. She says the words in Sith, and Lana immediately feels a welcome pang of familiarity. Over the years Sith has become far more than the language of their shared order; it has become theirs.

”…I gain strength.” Lana finishes the line, feeling energy coursing through her body.

”Through strength…”

”…I gain power.”

”Through power…”

”I gain victory.”

“Through victory…”

”My chains are broken.” Lana squeezes Viri’s hands as she says the line.

”The Force shall free me.” Viri and Lana repeat the last line of the Sith code together, deep in their meditation. They are both immensely strong, but together they are even more powerful. They both feel it as they reach into the Force.

Viri rests her forehead against Lana’s, and they sit quietly together, eyes closed, minds open to their bond and the Force. They are Sith, they are together, and they are mighty.

When Viri’s comlink rings, she sighs before pulling herself from the meditation. She squeezes Lana’s hands as she disengages from their shared trance, walking over to the bedside table to retrieve her comlink.

“Commander, sorry to disturb you, but the Eternal Fleet will not admit any ships to Odessen. Including ours. The Gravestone is in, but we have vessels coming back from the Core Worlds that can’t get through.” Theron says. “Everyone’s keeping their distance so the Fleet isn’t attacking, but they’re also making it clear that nobody’s getting past them to get to the base. There’s a roster of Alliance vessels on the portal. Can you tell the Fleet that they’re friendly?”

”I’m on it,” Viri says, grabbing her datapad, accessing the files and reading through the long list of Alliance ships. “Eternal Fleet, all captains. The following ships are to be considered friendly and permitted to enter and leave Odessen airspace: Gravestone. Aurek-Fury-One, codename Tyuk, Aurek-Imperial One, Aurek- Imperial Two. Besh-Thranta-One…”

“Understood, Commander,” one of the GEMINI captains confirms, once Viri is through the sizeable list.

“Also any ship with an access code from Advisor Lana Beniko is to be considered friendly. Access code for Lana Beniko is as follows…” Viri gives the GEMINI captains a long series of Jawa words. “Repeat that back to me. “

”Yes, Commander.”

”Thank you, GEMINI. Commander out.”

Viri turns her comlink on again and contacts Theron. “Are the ships being admitted now?”

”Yes, Commander. The Eternal Fleet is making a corridor to allow our ships to pass without harm.”

”Good. I have an access code for you so you can get a single ship without weapons past the barricade if you need to, but I’ll give it to you in person tomorrow.” Viri turns off the comlink again.

“Easy enough to take care of that,” Viri shrugs. Lana does not respond. She’s gone deathly silent, and her eyes are wide as she looks at the table next to Viri.

”Viri…is that your earpiece?” Viri follows her line of vision, and her face goes white. Her earpiece is in a jar of cleaning solution on the table, being disinfected.

Viri clutches her ear. “I’m…how did I speak to the Fleet just now?”

”I don’t know,” Lana whispers. “But you did.”

“No. No no no no no…..” Viri crouches down and puts her hands over her ears. She’s on the verge of panic, and Lana can feel it.

”There has to be another explanation,” Lana says. “I know where your brain just went, but don’t jump straight to that…”

”This can’t be his doing. I can’t still be connected to him, Lana. I just can’t be. I can’t do this again.” Viri’s voice catches on a sob. “Tell me he’s not in my head. Please. Tell me.”

”Love,” Lana sits down beside Viri and pulls her into an embrace. “Breathe. He is not there. I think I’d be able to tell. I felt something different about you when Valkorion was present, and again after his children died. I felt it when you were fighting them. I feel nothing now, except you, and how frightened you are. Viri, love, I know. I’m here.”

”You felt him die, right? Right?”

”Yes. I felt Valkorion die in the Force. Didn’t Satele Shan tell you she felt it too, even so many parsecs away? Some of the Force users on the base apparently passed out from it.”

Viri nestles into Lana’s shoulder and shivers.

”He’s dead, my love. He cannot hurt you anymore. Neither can his children. You won.” Lana cups Viri’s face in her hands and looks into her eyes. “He can’t hurt you.”

“I want to believe you,” Viri murmurs. “He’s dead, but…”

”…but the trauma he caused will remain with you. We know that. We’ll work through it.”

Viri nods.

“Vaylin and Arcann both controlled the throne, and Valkorion wasn’t in their heads, right?” Lana says, trying to calm Viri.

”But they were related to him…oh, no. No. What if I have his DNA now? What if…” Viri whispers.

”There has to be something that locks in your control of the fleet,” Lana muses. “As soon as you defeated Vaylin, there was chaos with the Eternal Fleet. They knew she was dead without anyone telling them. Nobody else was able to take the throne before we got to Zakuul, and there was certainly an open window there. ”

Viri begins to cry again.

“Viri, it’s all right.” Lana hugs her.

”No, it’s not,” Viri cries. “I want nothing to do with Valkorion. If he’s done something to my body…”

“There’s obviously something that ties you to the throne, but that doesn’t mean it’s Valkorion,” Lana says, rubbing her back. “Remember when I told you I felt that it was your destiny? There might be something to that. You also found the Gravestone. It seemed to call us. But the Fleet, the Gravestone and Iokath are older than Valkorion. Remember?”

Viri nods, trying to catch her breath. “I hadn’t thought of that. Someone controlled the Fleet before Valkorion, didn’t they?”

“Exactly. And SCORPIO seized the throne, and I doubt Valkorion did anything to her. She had a connection to Iokath. The answer to this could have nothing to do with what you’re afraid of.”

”You always help me see reason.”

”I’m your advisor, remember?” Lana smiles. ”It could even be a good thing for you to be linked to the Fleet. It might mean nobody can steal the throne from you. Let’s talk to Oggurobb and Talos and see if they can ease your mind a little.”

”I don’t know if I trust them,” Viri says. “Not on this.”

”All right. We can still talk to them, right? We just won’t confide in them. Remember the Rakata? They had Force-imbued technology and alchemy, too. This could even be theirs.”

”Talos, maybe Talos…” Viri stammers. “We don’t have to tell him the whole story. Just ask him what he knows about any Force alchemy or relics that might operate like this. Damn it, why am I crying?”

Lana strokes her hair. “You just fought someone who tried to steal your body, invaded your mind for two years and tortured you for five more years, and now you’re worried that something about him is still lingering. We recently finished a battle in which Alliance members were lost. You’re the leader of the galaxy and you have had all of what, 48 hours to process it all. If you weren’t reacting to that, I’d worry.”

”I’m so glad you’re here,” Viri whispers.

“I’ve got you. We’ll figure it out, sweet one,” Lana says, holding her tightly.

*

”Your DNA and blood types remain unchanged,” Dr. Oggurobb says, consulting the console in front of him. “Commander, you have Type 1+ blood; Lana, you’re 3+. Neither you nor Lana are showing any mutations or alterations.”

”How do you know?” Viri asks. She’s been in Oggurobb’s lab all evening, under the guise of having a post-batttle medical checkup. Lana has volunteered to go through all the testing with her, under the same pretense.

Talos taps some buttons on his computer. “Both you and Lana have available biodata samples. We were able to compare the blood you gave this morning to those. They’re identical matches in every respect. We have two older examples to compare to the new one, in fact, so we can confirm that the comparison is accurate. You have the same exact genetic codes you did when you had your intake blood tests on Korriban and were registered with the Sith as children.”

How do they have… Viri silently asks Lana, as they watch Talos pull up the biodata information.

I took your official file and mine from Sith Intelligence before I left the Empire. HK-55 had your biodata loaded in his memory bank so he’d recognize you, even if you didn’t look like your photos anymore. He had mine so he’d always know how to find me, Lana replies.

Clever.

”So we know that our trip to the Eternal Throne didn’t alter our genetic makeup,” Viri muses, speaking out loud.

“Correct. The brain and heart scans don’t show anything unusual either,” Oggurobb says. “Lana, we don’t have control examples of those for you, but Commander, we compared your new scans to the one you had for the Czerka carbonite study. There aren’t any changes. The labs we ran on your blood are all within normal range. Your complete blood counts, liver and kidney functions, hormones, every single test looks perfect.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Viri says. “That makes me feel better.”

Does it really? Lana asks silently.

Only a little, Viri admits.

*

The two women knock on the door of Talos Drelik’s lab. In the time he’s been with the Alliance, he’s turned his office and lab into miniature versions of his old facilities back on Dromund Kaas. Every square centimeter is covered with dusty books, holocrons, stone tablets and statues. There’s a warm messiness to the rooms; a sense that the person who inhabits them gets a great deal of joy from his work.

“Commander! How splendid to see you!” Talos meets Lana and Viri at the door with a smile. “To what do I owe this pleasure? Can I get you some tea?”

”That would be lovely, Talos. Thank you,” Viri smiles. Something about Talos always puts her immediately at ease, and she smiles as she accepts her cup of hot herbal tea. Beside her on the couch, Lana sips her own tea gratefully and smiles.

“Can we talk to you in confidence?” Lana asks. “What we discuss cannot leave this room. Will you agree to that?”

“Darth Nox trusted me with some very sensitive information,” Talos says. “I did not betray her and I have no intention of betraying you. I can assure you that with me, trust is sacred.”

”Thank you, Talos,” Viri says. “I consider you a friend, and I appreciate your loyalty. Nox always spoke highly of you, and she was right.”

“I still wish we knew what became of Nox,” Talos says.

“So do I,” Viri says. “I know we’ve been searching for her, along with Jaesa and Ashara, but we’ve found nothing.”

”We won’t give up,” Lana says. “Now that we have less hostility with Zakuul, we might have more tools to help us locate them.”

“That’s something we should run by Indo at our meeting,” Viri says.

”Excellent suggestion. But to get back to our current topic: Talos, what can you tell me about relics and artifacts that are tied to specific owners?” Lana asks.

“Quite a lot, actually. Darth Nox had such relics. There were items stored in boxes only certain families could open, and other items that only members of Kallig’s line could use. Some items seem to be keyed to respond only to blood relatives,” Talos hauls a huge book onto the table and starts turning pages.

“So some artifacts are tied to family lines. Are there those that are not? Could a person, say, pass on their control of an artifact to another person voluntarily?”

”Yes. We have precedent for that here and here,” Talos says, pointing to several passages in the book in front of him. “Also here. Of course the person would still need to be compatible within the Force with the artifact or weapon. If the old Lord Kallig had ceded control of his lightsaber to me, I probably would still have put my eye out with it, for instance.”

“So someone who isn’t given control in one way or another cannot use the artifact, if it’s imbued with the Force in this way,” Lana says.

“Precisely. Sometimes there are also people who seem to have a way with things; something reaches out to them in the Force for reasons known only to the Force. Destiny, if you will.”

Viri and Lana look at each other.

“You’ve been incredibly helpful,” Viri says. “Are there any texts you can lend us? We can read them and get back to you to discuss this more.”

“Of course,” Talos says, and hands them each a stack of books and holocrons. “I do hope you will let me know what you’re researching. It sounds intriguing.”

”We will,” Viri promises. “I…think we may be able to trust you with it. So when I can explain things to you, I will. Thank you, Talos.”

Chapter Text

The floor and tables around Lana's suite are littered with open books, maps and holocrons from Talos's office. Viri and Lana have spent long hours reviewing them. When they've found something relevant, they've scribbled it on a holo-board Lana has set up in the middle of the living room.

“So,” Lana says, pacing and rubbing her tired eyes, “Vaylin and Arcann were able to take the throne due to their relationship to Valkorion. SCORPIO managed it because of her link to Iokath.”

”The throne was vacant for at least a week while everyone was trapped on Iokath, too,” Viri notes, consulting the board. “Nobody jumped up and took it.”

”Or if they tried, they did not succeed. The binding process looked brutal, from where Theron and I were standing. If someone were not meant to be bound to the throne, it would probably kill them.”

”It would explain why nobody else was ever able to take the throne,” Viri muses. “If it were just a matter of sitting down, it would be too simple. Valkorion would never have left an obvious security risk like that, especially since he was moonlighting as Vitiate and vanished from time to time.”

”His kids had to kill him to take the throne. The throne recognized his death and then accepted the next genetic match,” Lana says, looking at the diagram they've drawn. "Since Thexan was dead, that was Arcann, SCORPIO cut his access off via her link to Iokath, but Vaylin got it back via her genetic link. And as for you…”

”Valkorion was in my head, but from what Talos and Oggurobb said, there was no change to my genetic makeup. So he must have granted control of the throne to me. It would have made sense. He was planning to take my body as soon as the binding process knocked me out a little, but he needed me to be able to bind, first.” Viri sits down and puts her chin in her hand.

“Sounds about right,” Lana says.

”When we brought the throne back to Odessen, there was nothing connecting it to the hyperwave station,” Viri muses. “That seems to have been a red herring.”

”All the same, I think that throne should stay under tight guard,” Lana says.

“Agreed.”

“Are you feeling better about this now?” Lana asks. “I think we should share at least some of this with Talos. He’d be fascinated, and could probably tell us way more than we could find ourselves.”

”Yes, I think so,” Viri says. “I do feel better. He had a hand in this, but he’s not here now. I can handle that.”

”Good. I -“ Lana’s words are interrupted by a knock at the door.

”Lana? Viri?” Vette’s voice echoes in the hallway.

”Yes,” Viri says, jumping up. “Come in.”

Vette wanders into Lana’s suite, followed by Tora. She looks around at all the books and holocrons and shakes her head.

”Are you going to Empress school?” Vette quips. “Learning to do the princess wave and all?”

Viri laughs. “I wish.”

”We don’t want to disturb you, but Tora and I both had gifts for you.”

”No, Vette, you don’t have to.“

”Exactly. A gift is something you don’t have to give. You want to.” Vette hands Viri a large armor rack covered by a piece of cloth. When Viri takes the cloth away, she sees a beautiful set of gray and red armor with large, spiky wings.

”Oh, Vette. It’s beautiful.” Viri holds the armor breastplate up to admire it. It’s clearly been tailored just for her, to accentuate her height and long torso.

”You have wings, but they’re durasteel now,” Vette smiles. “It’s based on Freedon Nadd’s armor. But retooled for you.”

”Thank you…I don’t know what to say. I love it. It’s so me.”

“I can’t wait to see this on you,” Lana says, appreciating the armor from several different perspectives.

”I have good taste.” Vette bows and gives her a quick hug. “Tora’s present is out in the hallway. Now, I told her you won’t get to keep this. But she has worked out a contingency plan.”

Tora runs in and hands Viri a small Kowakian monkey-lizard.

Viri’s face lights up as the monkey-lizard grabs a handful of her hair and laughs uproariously, shaking its spindly arms. Viri erupts into gales of mirth along with it. That in turn makes the monkey-lizard laugh harder.

”Oh, Tora,” Lana groans, imagining the creature climbing across her bookshelves and swinging from the lighting fixtures. “You. Shouldn’t. Have. Really.”

“Who’s a cute monkey-lizard? Who’s the cutest little gremlin!” Viri coos at the creature, who has climbed to her head. “Does he have a name, Tora?”

”His name is Grumpy,” Tora says.

“Lana, look at him! Isn’t he cute!” Grumpy has plastered his paws across Viri’s forehead and is chortling away.

”Darling,” Lana says, pasting a smile on her face. It isn’t that she doesn’t like animals. It isn’t even that she hasn’t resigned herself to the fact that Viri can and will adopt any beast that comes across her path. She can’t even count all of the animals Viri has rescued for the makeshift animal refuge in the hills and valleys behind the Odessen base. Sleen. Nexu. Lizard bats. Four exoboars who followed her home from Vaylin’s palace. A Nathema Voreclaw, of all things.

No, it’s not the animals. Lana’s used to those, and she’s very fond of some of them. She loves Viri’s sleen and nexu, in particular. Bolt, the miniature nexu, sleeps in a basket in Viri's room.

It’s that monkey-lizards cackle and screech almost continuously. In Rishi Lana had winced every time she had stepped out of the safe house, because they had been everywhere. If someone wanted to truly punish Lana Beniko, locking her in a room with a pack of laughing monkey-lizards would easily do the trick.

“You do know that…um…monkey-lizards require a lot of upkeep. And they like to go everywhere with you. They can’t live in the paddock and hangars like the exoboars. Bolt already needs a babysitter when we’re away from base. Are you sure you want to bring this little guy into battle with you?” Lana says delicately.

Viri frowns. “Good point.”

”We thought you might have difficulties keeping him full-time,” Tora says. “We were also concerned that Bolt might try to eat him. So I’ve volunteered to keep him for you. But you can visit him any time you want. You can be his…aunt…of sorts. I’ve decided he will be the Gravestone’s mascot. Koth isn’t thrilled, but he’ll come around.”

”All right,” Viri says, reluctantly pulling Grumpy off her head and handing him back to Tora. “He’s just so cute.”

*

The Alliance meeting with Indo Zal takes place the next morning. Indo is already waiting for Viri and Lana when they arrive at one of the conference rooms, exhausted from their long night of research.

”Ah, Commander! Lana!” Indo bows deeply to them before sitting down. “So good to see you both under happier circumstances.”

”Likewise, Indo,” Viri smiles. “How’s Zakuul doing?”

Indo’s smile vanishes. “Massive damage around the planet. In the city, the Spire and other parts of town have been decimated. The death toll is still being estimated. The Knights are going home to home to make counts because the computers are down.”

“We’ll send in some aid and volunteers,” Viri says.

”This is why I love you, Commander,” Indo says. “You know what I need before I ask for it. We’ll need to arrange logistics for help. But on a brighter note, we’ve also made inroads into establishing Zakuul’s government.”

”What have you decided?”

”We like the setup of your Dark Council, with twelve people overseeing different aspects of government. We also like the idea of a chancellor. The difference is that we will not be fighting to the death. There will be free elections and appointments.”

”That sounds promising, Indo,” Theron says.

“We’ve also decided that our head of the Sphere of Military and Defense should consult with our Empress,” Indo says. “You.”

A shadow crosses Viri’s face. “I’m not sure I understand. I’m a Peacekeeper.”

Indo smiles. “Zakuul has always had a monarch. They want one now.”

“I don’t think the average Zakuulan is a fan of me or the Alliance,” Viri says. “They’ll hate me more than Valkorion’s children.”

”The hatred you garnered for killing Valkorion has been greatly mitigated by killing Arcann and Vaylin,” Indo responds. “Anyone who knows a Knight, Scion or member of Zakuul’s military can vouch for the viciousness that occurred. We can show Zakuul what Valkorion did in your part of the galaxy, and that might help, too.”

”You’re sending aid,” Lana reminds Viri. “That’s likely to further raise your stock, if the Alliance makes genuine efforts to help rebuild.”

“You control the Fleet, the Gravestone, and the Skytroopers,” Theron points out. “You basically own Zakuul’s defenses.”

”True,” Viri says. “So…what would I need to do as Empress?”

”Nothing you’re not doing now,” Indo Zal says. “Work with our military sphere when necessary. We will not ask the Fleet, or you, to fight Zakuul’s wars. Hopefully there will be none. We will just ask you to defend us if we are attacked.”

”I can do that,” Viri says.

”Delightful!” Indo beams. “I can’t wait to introduce our brave new Empress and her lovely Royal Consort.”

”Royal Consort?” Lana asks, slightly horrified.

”Would you prefer Princess?”

Viri bites her lip and Lana can tell she’s trying hard to avoid laughing, even if her expression is neutral.

This. Is. Not. Funny.

Oh, but it is, Princess Beniko. We’ll get you a tiara. You’ll be all sparkly.

I’m going to get you for that.

Please do.

“We’ll get back to you on that particular title,” Viri says smoothly.

“Of course,” Indo says. “For yourself, however: Empress Viridana? Empress Dragoi?”

Viri thinks for a moment. “Empress Wrath.”

Lana and Theron turn to look at her, surprised.

”As the Empire’s Wrath, I protected my people. That’s what I’m still doing, isn’t it? I have the Fleet and the Skytroopers, potentially the allegiance of the Knights. I’m Zakuul’s protector, as much as the galaxy’s. And a protector is not always benevolent. Sometimes they need to be ruthless in order to continue protecting their people.”

”I like it,” Indo says quietly. “It suits you. You’re being called “the Wrathful Angel” by some, because of the wings you wore on that Holonet broadcast. I think that should be your brand, so to speak.”

”It does suit her,” Theron says.

”That’s settled, then,” says Indo. “Is there anything you would like to undertake immediately, Empress?”

”I have two immediate edicts: no more slavery,” Viri says. “No more animals in the pit fights.”

Indo looks surprised. “Really?”

”Really. I want every slave in Zakuul freed. I want the pit fights with animals stopped. If warriors – trained, free adults who are acting of their own volition – want to fight each other for entertainment, that’s their prerogative. Non-sentient battle droids, fine. But I don’t want to see another slave, prisoner or animal thrown into a pit to be killed for the public’s amusement. Not one.”

“What do we do with the slaves, then?” Indo Zal asks.

“Send them home,” Viri says. “Or help them find shelter and work and let them join your society. Let them choose. The Alliance will provide aid and transport in either case.”

Vette waves her hand wildly in the air.

”Yes, Vette?”

”Commander, I noticed that a lot of those pit fighting slaves – and the slaves forced to be prostitutes – are Twi’lek. I’d like to be on the team that helps them.”

“Excellent,” Viri says. “You’re on it.”

“Anything else?” Indo asks.

”We need access to the treasure vaults and databases. Some of our people were never recovered from Marr’s coalition, and we need to see if we can get a bead on their whereabouts. Or at least learn their fates. Also, any sacred artifacts that were looted from our worlds need to be returned. I’ve been told the Sith Academy obelisk was taken as a prize, for instance. That cannot stand.”

”Consider it done.”

“Let’s leave everything here. That’s certainly enough to work on.”

“Very well,” Indo says. “I can reach out to the Knights and let them know you’re ready to talk. Also…we need to have a festival for you. It’s the Zakuul way. We coronate our Emperors. If we schedule it for next week, will that be enough time for you to prep for it and tend to your security issues?”

Viri looks to Lana and Theron, who nod.

”That should be ample time to work out security for the Empress,” Lana says. “We’ll be in touch about that.”

The core team rises from the table, and Indo Zal takes his leave with a bow.

“Vette, I’d like you to work with Bowdaar, since he has extensive experience in liberating slaves specifically in Zakuul. I’m going to allow you to choose some other Alliance members to work with. You know who you trust. Indo, talk to Vette about how you’re going to work out the logistics of giving every slave their liberty.”

“Good call, Comm—Empress.”

”Please, Commander is fine,” Viri says. “I’m only Empress of Zakuul. Not here.”

“You’re a complex woman,” Vette laughs, and hurries down the corridor toward the Underworld compound to find Bowdaar.

“Commander, we do have something else to show you,” Bey’wan Aygo says. “We have been working tirelessly on a new, updated Command Center for you. It’s more secure than the War Room. And there’s something special there for you. Vette, come on back so you can see this”

Aygo leads the way to another section of the base. The Command Center is behind several cortosis and durasteel doors. When the doors open, Viri can’t help but gasp. It’s beautiful, clean and bright. Security-enhanced windows look out over the valley, and Viri can even see her sleen playing in the river. In the center of the room, there is a dais with…the Eternal Throne.

“It’s a copy, isn’t it?” Viri says. She can instinctively feel the difference.

“Yes, we didn’t feel it was safe to have the real throne out here,” Aygo explains. “This is strictly ceremonial.”

”Um…I appreciate the gesture, but what do I do with it?”

”Official photos, state visits, that sort of thing,” Theron says. “It’s a prop for when you need to look official and intimidating. The same way Empress Acina and the Dark Council have their chairs, but use them more for show than anything else.”

“I see.” Viri tests the throne with a Force push, and when it doesn’t spark, she sits down.

”This is a lot more pleasant than the other one was,” Viri chuckles.

”I can imagine that it is,” Theron says. “That Eternal Throne looked painful.”

”Thank you, everyone,” Viri says. “Really…thank you. This is new territory for me, and you’re making it much easier.”

“We do our best, and it’s our pleasure, Commander.” Aygo says. “Take some time to get your bearings, and we’ll see you later.”

”Sounds good,” Viri nods, and watches the team as they file out of the throne room. Vette and Pierce linger and turns back to her.

”Hey. You look good up there,” Vette says, and gives her a hug. “You’ll do fine. Stop worrying.”

”You know me,” Viri says with a smile.

”Of course I do,” Vette grins. “And I’m proud of you.”

”Love you, little sister.”

”Love you too, Sister Sith,” Vette responds. “Now, back to Empress business! Grrr!”

Viri laughs. “I’d almost forgotten that. It used to be ‘back to Sith business,’ Lana.”

Pierce clears his throat. “I’m not as big on words as Vette is. But I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather see on that throne. Or anyone else I’d rather serve or call a friend. Well done, Viri.”

“Thank you, Pierce.” Viri reaches to shake his hand, but he pulls her into a hug, too.

”Hey. I think after so many years together, we can hug.”

“Having you two here with me means a lot. You’ve been here since the beginning, and you’re still here. Thank you. I’m honored you’ve stuck with me.” Viri says, folding her hands.

“We’ll continue to,” Pierce says, leading the way to the door. “See you later, Empress Viri.”

Viri watches them go with a fond smile, but as soon as they’re out of sight, her shoulders sag as her mind turns to other issues.

“What’s the matter?” Lana asks. “I can tell you’re not happy.”

“This throne. It’s beautiful, Lana, and it’s clear that a lot of time was spent on it…but where do you sit?” Viri asks.

”This throne is meant for one, lover,” Lana says, stroking her cheek. “This is your power. Not mine.”

”In Alderaan, the nobles had their spouses with them on the dais,” Viri insists.

”I’ll proudly stand by your side.” Lana strikes a dramatic pose by Viri’s throne. “How’s this?”

“Lana!”

Lana crosses her arms and glares. “Would you prefer me in Sith Lord mode?”

Viri laughs, but a moment later, she takes Lana’s hands. “Love, I’m serious. Can’t I have my wife up here with me?”

“When you’re on this throne, you’ll be at work,” Lana reminds her. “I’m your advisor and your second when we’re working; not your partner. We have to keep that relationship professional, no matter how difficult that is. You know that as your second I’ll be close by. So will Theron and Vette.”

”Agreed. There are so many things that blur those lines, though,” Viri admits. “I still can’t believe we’re here.”

”It’s going to take a while for things to sink in, won’t it?” Lana says, perching on Viri’s lap and leaning into her. Viri’s hands immediately circle her waist.

Empress, for Force’s sake.”

”Empress Brat,” Lana chuckles, kissing her nose. “I love it.”

”Do you think I could get them to actually call me Empress Brat?” Viri says, a devious smile crossing her face.

Lana groans. “Don’t you dare. Please remind me never to make outlandish suggestions. You’ll take them.”

”Would that make you Brat Consort? Princess Brat?”

”You are the most insufferable person I know.”

”You adore it.”

“I do indeed,” Lana says fondly. “So are you all right with being up here solo, lover?”

Viri shrugs. “I get it.”

“You’re disappointed.”

”Yes. I know keeping our relationship private is probably safest, but…”

“Love,” Lana says. “I don’t want to keep our relationship secret. I don’t want to hide or be hidden. It’s just more appropriate for me not to have a throne.”

”Really?” Viri asks.

“Viri, we’ve never denied who we are or hidden our relationship. Not during our time on Yavin, and not here. We haven’t advertised, but we’ve never concealed anything. Anyone in this Alliance who has spent any time around us knows what we mean to each other.”

”This isn’t going to be like Yavin,” Viri reminds her. “Or like the Alliance. It’s going to be a lot more like my Wrath days, when everyone knew who I was.”

”Viri…I know. You’re going to be in the public eye again. You already are, and it’s just going to increase. You’re a galactic Empress. There’s no way around it. People already know I’m your advisor, and if they have seen footage of your battles, they know I’m your second. As to having them know I’m your partner – I won’t hide that, either. I’m proud and honored to stand by your side…as your partner; as your wife; as your friend. I don’t need a throne for that. When we’re out and about, I’ll be right there with you. If anyone asks, I’ll proudly tell them I’m your partner.”

”I love you,” Viri murmurs, hugging her. “Thank you.”

”I love you too,” Lana replies. “There’s only one thing I ask.”

”Name it,” Viri says, winding her arms around Lana’s waist.

”I’d like the details of our personal lives to be just for us. I don’t want Holonet cameras at our wedding or visiting our homes.”

”I couldn’t agree more. Those things are ours,” Viri agrees. “I want you all to myself. We could do a private blessing for the wedding, and I’d be happy.”

Lana looks at her. “Why don’t we? We could always hold some sort of celebration for friends later. What do you think?”

”I love it,” Viri says, pulling her even closer and ghosting one hand across her thigh. “Our union will be ours alone. Can we do that soon?”

Lana blushes. “I, um, may possibly have looked up one of the old Sith love incantations a long time ago. And may possibly have it, and all the necessary accoutrements, ready to go whenever we are.”

”Well..” Viri says. “I may possibly have picked out a spot for our wedding. And have packed my ship with supplies to elope. It’s ready to go.”

Lana and Viri stare at each other incredulously and laugh.

”Perhaps we both forgot that we need to tell the person we intend to marry about our preparations?” Lana snickers.

”I feel like…I want to do this before we get bogged down again. It’s already happening. But now, when we have meetings and parties, and not armed conflict, we have the time.”

”Peace is a lie,” Lana agrees. “Sooner or later someone’s going to react to you, and we’ll have to deal with it. Now, we’re at a glorious truce, and I agree, it’s the time to act. It’s not rash. I’ve wanted to marry you for a long time.”

”It’s odd,” Viri says. “I’ve never thought I’d marry anyone. I’m not really into it. But I want everything about you.”

”I can’t say I ever thought of marrying anyone either, until you. You…I don’t just want it. I need it,” Lana says. She glances up at Viri. “The spot you’ve chosen…can we leave for it tonight?”

”Yes,” Viri says. “I’d love that. Can I kiss the bride before the ceremony?”

“Cheeky brat, I see where that hand is going.”

”Any objections?” Viri says, raising her eyebrow and pulling Lana flush to her chest.

“You’re most persuasive…” Lana grins, leaning back against Viri.

”Are you all right with this, love?” Viri says, bouncing her knee against Lana slightly as she slides her hands across Lana’s tunic.

Lana looks toward the door and secures it with the Force, and then mentally deactivates the security cameras in the room. “Oh yes.”

”Good,” Viri whispers, running her hands across Lana’s chest and lowering her mouth to Lana’s neck again.

”I love it when you’re this forward,” Lana gasps.

Viri hesitates and considers the statement. “I feel…freer now.”

”I sense that,” Lana says. “I like it.”

“So do I,” Viri whispers, but then frowns as she looks around the room. “We probably should remain dressed in here.”

”Don’t let that stop you. Do you remember our first day in Yavin? You showed up for that meeting in the armor that I’d ravished you in. All those dignified coalition members, and all I could think about was the look on your face when my fingers went deep and…” Lana murmurs, her voice low in Viri’s ear. She grabs Viri’s face with both hands and kisses her roughly, opening her mind in their bond. Viri’s pleasure is reflected back to her, and she moans as she unlocks her own mind to Lana.

Lana straddles Viri’s waist and grinds against her, feeling friction even through her clothing. Her mouth never leaves Viri’s, and as she rocks her hips, jagged, raw pleasure courses through both of them. It’s impossible to know who is saying what to whom.

You. I hear you. I feel you.

More.

Mine.

Don’t stop.

Viri’s hands clutch at her ass, pulling her as close as possible, and her hips rise to meet Lana’s. She’s already panting; lost in their shared pleasure. She picks up Lana and, without breaking the kiss, gently lays her on the floor. Lana locks eyes with her and smiles, bucking her hips up.

Go hard. I won’t break.

Yes.

Viri pulls one of Lana’s legs over her shoulder and settles in, grinding against her. She is rewarded by a sharp flare of pleasure through their bond and Lana’s cries, muffled by the kiss. Her tongue mimics the movement of her hips, rocking in one direction and then the other. Lana’s hands grab her ass, squeezing hard. Their clothes aren’t getting in the way; just intensifying the sensation.

Viri breaks the kiss for a moment to study Lana’s face; Lana shakes her head and pulls her down again.

Don’t you dare stop.

Viri gives up trying to brace her hands against the floor and drops down onto Lana. Lana whimpers around the kiss again, pulling Viri flush to her.

Force, your body…

You…

Mine.

Give it to me.

Viri holds Lana’s hips with both hands and moves hard and fast, delighting in every cry and gasp. Lana’s hands help her, setting their pace and driving Viri onward. Every nerve in Lana’s body seems to be on fire, and she moans into their kiss.

Now.

Lana feels it down to her toes as a blazing climax washes over both of them, and she finally breaks away from their kiss, screaming into the empty room. Viri’s mouth opens but no sound emerges. Instead, she arches her back and tightens her hands on Lana’s hips. One wave, another; a third; and then Viri collapses on top of her, breathing hard.

Lana is too relaxed to move; too stunned to think. When Viri finally raises her head to look at her, her lips are bruised.

”Damn. I love this bond.” Viri stands and extends a hand to Lana.

Lana laughs as she stands up, running one hand down Viri’s cheek. “I do, too. I also love how uninhibited you’re becoming.”

Viri smiles shyly. “Not having anyone looking over our shoulder…it helps. It’s better now.”

”Oh yes, it is.”

Doubt crosses Viri’s face. “It wasn’t bad before, was it? I know you’ve been dealing with someone who has almost zero experience.”

”Don’t,” Lana says, with mock sternness. “You act as though that’s a bad thing. I know what you went through, Viri. What your past experiences were like. That some of them, the things you claim were ‘experiments’ with other acolytes…were not your choice.”

Viri freezes. “Wait. You know?”

Lana squeezes her hand before drawing her close. “Yes. I’ve seen it in your nightmares. And based on your reactions to certain things, it’s been obvious, my love.”

Viri buries her head in Lana’s shoulder.

Lana rubs her shoulders. ”It wasn’t weakness. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. And I want you to know something: helping you get past that hasn’t been anything but a joy. Seeing you wake up this way, and find pleasure in your body and mine…lover, every time we’ve been together it’s been the best I’ve ever had. Knowing that you’ll give yourself to me that way; give yourself over to what we can do together and trust in our explorations has been wonderful. And those discoveries have just added to the bliss.”

Viri hugs her tightly, letting love wash through their bond. Lana rocks her, kissing the top of her head, and speaks again. “Together we can do anything. And we do.”

Viri opens her eyes and looks at Lana. “I’m so glad I don’t always have to be the Wrath,”

”So am I,” Lana says, kissing her long and deep. “I wish we didn’t have to get back to work now.”

”The longer we put it off the harder it will be. We’re supposed to meet the Knights and Horizon guards in two hours. We need to prep,” Viri sighs. As they leave the room, they both stop and stare at the throne again.

“Empress Wrath.” Lana says, a touch of awe in her voice.

”You didn’t like the name at first,” Viri says.

”I’m still not sure about it,” Lana admits. “Why that?”

”The Eternal Empire took my title from me,” Viri says. “I want it back.”

”I thought you weren’t totally keen on the name.”

”I am ashamed to admit I was the Emperor’s Wrath. I helped the Empire despite that title, but the fact that I carried his name, and was proud of it, even for a short time, is something I regret. I didn’t know what he was really like. But I still regret it.”

”Understandable.”

“As the Empire’s Wrath, however? I had purpose. I protected my people. I would have been honored to carry that title for as long as I could.”

”Sound reasoning,” Lana says. “The name’s growing on me, and that logic make sense. I can’t see you functioning effectively as Viridana the Benevolent. People would take advantage of that and then be surprised when you weren’t a pushover.”

”The Wrathful Angel, I like that one.”

”So do I,” Lana says, kissing her. “My sweet angel.”

”You’re my angel, more than anything,” Viri says, and kisses Lana again so she won’t object.

*

Viri and her team are lost in thought as they fly to Eternal Fleet Ship 7384 for their meeting with the Knights of Zakuul.

They’re meeting in neither Zakuul nor Odessen; a nod to both security and neutrality. They are meeting on one of the Eternal Fleet ships, an acknowledgement of who technically has the upper hand. The lone Fleet ship is somewhere in space between the two planets, with the Knights’ vessel and the Gravestone lingering at a respectful distance. The Knights and Horizon Guards have been guaranteed safe passage away from the Eternal Fleet, regardless of the meeting’s outcome.

There will be six people allowed into the room from each side, including the leaders. Indo Zal will mediate. So many rules were quickly hashed out for this meeting. The Knights’ group is deathly silent as Viri, her advisor and her core bodyguards– Lana, Pierce, HK-55 and Darth Hexid - enter. So does Shae Vizla, who has volunteered to be the last member of the security team for this rendezvous.

Nobody greets them; nobody rises from their seats. The Knights and Horizon Guards that have been chosen to represent their orders stare the Alliance members down as they walk to the table at the center of the room. They continue to stare Viri down as she sits. The Empress Wrath is wearing what she considers one of her “middle of the road” outfits; strong enough to be authoritative; soft enough not to immediately inspire terror like some of her Wrath armor; red and black and accented with simple, elegant flairs.

There are new covert armor and stealth technology to protect her secreted under the visible armor; the members of her security detail are similarly equipped. All three of the Alliance Force users are sporting new implants, designed jointly by Oggurobb and Talos Drelik, to block the Force-suppressing technology favored by the Eternal Empire. They’re hoping for the best from this meeting, but prepared for the worst.

Lana and Pierce stand to Viri’s right; Hexid and HK-55 take the left. The positioning is deliberate; there’s one Force user and one non-Force user on either side of her. Shae stands behind Viri. It’s all been carefully choreographed.

”Thank you for agreeing to meet with us,” Viri says politely, looking at the Horizon Guard captain who seems to be acting as the spokesperson. She doesn’t offer to shake hands; she knows there’s no point. The Guard is masked, and it’s been emphasized that she will not be revealing her identity, for fear of reprisal from both the Alliance and Knights.

“You’re welcome.” The woman folds her hands on the table. She’s speaking through a voice modulator to further disguise her identity. “I suggest you say your piece.”

Viri nods. “I’m going to try to see if I can understand this from your perspective. Things were going damned fine in Zakuul before I showed up. You had it good. Most people had a high standard of living. And then here I came, and I killed an Emperor you loved. You got Arcann and Vaylin, who did terrible things to your orders and exterminated the Scions. The war with the Alliance caused a lot of grief, death and destruction. In sum, I screwed up your lives. You have no reason to like me or want to ally with me. Am I on track so far?”

”Yes,” the Horizon Guard concedes. “Can you explain why we should consider anything else?”

Viri nods. “You must understand that outside of Zakuul, your Emperor Valkorion was anything but benevolent. In the Empire and Republic, he was known as Vitiate. Ever wonder how he was the immortal Emperor? He stayed alive by stealing other people’s bodies and feeding on death to fortify himself. His immortality carried the price of death for many. Here is what he did to Ziost, one of the Empire’s core planets. Millions of men, women, children and animals died on Ziost to feed the Emperor’s immortality.”

Lana activates a holo-screen and shows footage from Ziost. Many of the Knights lean forward to look.

”He did the same on Nathema,” Lana says. The footage changes.

“And incidentally, he also sent Vaylin to Nathema as a child, to be tortured,” Theron adds. “Some of you went on a mission with her to that planet. She was attempting to undo some of the damage that had been done to her.”

Everyone in the room winces – either outwardly or behind their helmets and masks - as recovered holo-journals from the Nathema sanitarium play, describing Vaylin’s fate.

“We have extensive information, if you’d like to verify any of this for yourself. Ancient Sith lore. Holocrons from both the Jedi and Sith, describing the Emperor’s activities. Accounts from Darth Revan. Hundreds of years ago, a group of Dark Councilors discovered his true nature and tried to stop him,” Lana says.

“In addition, your princes were attacking our worlds,” Viri says. “We did not provoke them. They invaded Korriban, the historic heart of our order, as well as Tython, the seat of another order of Force users. The Eternal Empire destroyed our way of life and exterminated an entire generation of our Force users in Valkorion’s name.”

Lama silently clicks the holo-screen, and images of the destruction on Korriban and Tython appear.

”I see,” says the Horizon Guard.

”Your Emperor intended to annihilate all life in the galaxy. Even me, I was his Wrath. I was his enforcer in the Empire. He promised to kill me last. It is for this reason that my colleagues and I allied and traveled into Wild Space. Not to invade Zakuul or to disrupt you, but to protect us all. We also obviously wanted our worlds to stop being invaded. Zakuul was engaging us. They began this conflict. We didn’t. We would have been happy to go on as we were, with no thought of Zakuul or Wild Space.”

The Horizon Guard nods, but says nothing.

”Arcann put me in carbonite, and it nearly killed me. He also nearly stabbed me to death. That turned this into a personal matter; I had a right to defend myself against someone who tried to kill me. As the Wrath, I had the right to defend the Sith Empire. As the Alliance Commander, I had the right to defend those who depended on me. He was subjugating and oppressing our worlds and engaging in wholesale slaughter. It needed to stop. We fought back, just as you would have done – and did.”

“Understood,” says the Horizon Guard. “And now?”

”And now that Valkorion’s children are dead, we want peace,” Viri says. “My issue was never with your order. Only the masters you served. We have former Knights working with us in the Alliance. Zakuul has been through much, and I’d like nothing more than to see your planet return to a peaceful existence. One that does not threaten the rest of the galaxy. But we’ll need your help for that.”

“You truly want peace? Not to exterminate us?”

Viri nods. “Yes.”

”How can we trust you?”

”My key Zakuulan Alliance members have asked to speak to you themselves. They’re waiting outside. I’m sure you are all familiar with Captain Koth Vortena and his associate. Len Parvek. You have probably heard many of Malita Tal’s songs. Indo Zal, leader of the new Zakuul, can have a word with you, too. I can leave while you discuss things. But what they will all tell you is that I’ve demonstrated a commitment to saving civilians when and where I can. That was true when I was the Empire’s Wrath. It has remained so.”

One of the Knights gets up; Lana and the others immediately reach for their weapons. The Knight shakes his head and shows his empty hands. “I’m not attacking; I just want a word with our representative.”

Viri’s team nods, but they watch closely as the Knight speaks quietly to the Horizon Guard spokeswoman. They do not relax until he has returned to his seat.

The Horizon Guard speaks again. ”One more point, Outlan—Commander. Would you require us to be Sith?”

”It’s not my business how you choose to connect to the Force, as long as you don’t persecute other orders who think differently,” Viri shrugs. “Being Sith is important to me. It does not need to be important to you. We have Force users of all alignments and practices in the Alliance. I don’t agree with all of the points of their creeds, to put it mildly, but I agree with their right to embrace the Force as they see fit. Sana-Rae here, for instance, is a Voss Mystic, which is a Force order outside of both Jedi and Sith. She’s here to speak with you if you have any concerns.”

“What would you have us be, then?”

Viri stares intently at the Horizon Guard. “At peace with the Alliance and the other planets. After that, it’s up to you. I do not seek to direct what you do. But I’m sure that your presence and help would be appreciated by the new government of Zakuul. It will be up to you if you want to continue that or forge a new path for yourselves. All we ask is that you cease all conflicts. If you move against us, we will obviously have to defend ourselves. If you seek to slaughter others, we will obviously have to address that, too. Don’t. There’s been enough bloodshed to last for centuries, don’t you think?”

The Knights and Horizon Guards look at each other.

“You don’t have to decide anything now,” Viri says, rising from the table. “The only thing I’ll ask from you at this time is to respect the temporary truce.”

”That we can grant you,” the Horizon Guard says. “We would look at these film clips and the information you have brought. And…we would speak to your representatives from Zakuul, and the Voss.”

Viri nods and walks out of the room.

“Take your time.”

*

The Knights speak to Indo, Malita, Koth and Len for more than an hour. When the Zakuulan Alliance members finally exit the room, Sana-Rae is called in. It is well into the evening before Viri and her team are signaled to return to the table.

“Empress, we’ve deliberated as much as we can. We have also spoken to our colleagues back in Zakuul,” the Horizon Guard begins. Four of the Knights with her at the table are looking at Viri; the last is pointedly looking away.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Viri says. The Horizon Guard’s use of the title bodes well; but everyone on her team is quietly noting the one Knight that isn’t looking at them.

“The Horizon Guards will join you, cooperate with the new Zakuulan government, and recognize, protect and obey you as Empress Wrath. So will most – but not all – of the Knights. Some still object to your rule. Not many. But a few. However, they will no longer be a part of the Knights. That was our compromise. We cannot force them to comply, but we do not have to keep them if they are rebelling.”

”I see,” Viri says. “I will hazard a guess that one of the Knights at the table with you is among the dissenters.”

”We would ask that they be given safe passage back to Zakuul on our ship, under our agreement, nonetheless.”

”The condition was that you would be allowed to leave peacefully regardless of the outcome of this meeting,” Viri says. “I will not stray from that agreement.”

The Horizon Guard looks to the Knight. “Our Empress is honorable. Even if you cannot see it.”

”Thank you,” Viri says.

”We would like to bow to you.”

Lana?

Let them.

Viri nods and stands. The Horizon Guard and four of the Knights come around the table and take a knee.

”Empress.”

Viri nods. “Thank you.”

”We understand the Royal Consort is present, as well. We bow to you, too.”

”Thank you,” Lana says, keeping her composure.

*

”Well, that went well,” Koth says, as he guides the Gravestone through the Eternal Fleet and back into dock in Odessen.

”They were willing to listen to you,” Viri asks.

”All four of us, yes,” Koth says. “Malita has a lot of fans, and has done a lot of humanitarian work for Zakuul. Her words carried weight. Indo, of course, as the new Chancellor. Myself and Len had the least pull, but I finally got them to see why we deserted. I also was able to tell them I’d seen you personally risk your own neck for Zakuulans, and they liked that. Even Firebrand – you got her off the streets and stopped her crime, so it didn’t matter so much that you’d recruited her.”

“I hope that the ones who resisted will come around,” Viri muses. Grumpy the monkey-lizard has found her again, and is currently scaling her back, munching on a cookie.

”They might. They might not,” Lana shrugs and hands Grumpy another cookie. He laughs and runs away, holding his prize. “You have most of them. That’s what counts. Getting the support of the Horizon Guards was huge. But some of them went to Nathema with Vaylin. They got it.”

”Proud of you, Commander,” Koth says, anchoring the ship. “See you at dinner?”

Viri glances at Lana. “No. We need a break, so we’re taking off for the night. We’ll see everyone tomorrow.”

*

A half hour later, the Tyuk is gracefully flying to Viri’s private beach, followed, clandestinely as ever, by several security details. Both women are giddy with excitement, and Viri is all but hopping at the controls as she sets the ship down on the makeshift landing pad that has been cleared for it.

“Stay in the ship,” Viri tells Lana, grabbing a crate and running out to the sand. When she sticks her head back into the ship, she’s beaming.

”We’re all set out here. Anything we need to do before we head out?”

”We each need to shower, wash our hair and wear these,” Lana says, gesturing to two purple and red robes she’s laid out on the bed. “Nothing else. No shoes.”

”Underclothes?” Viri says, wiggling her eyebrows.

”Yes, but plain white or black ones, if you have any.” Viri is given to electric colors in her undergarments and socks as much as the rest of her clothing.

”I do own a few,” Viri laughs, but she has to rummage to the back of her underwear drawer, through a sea of neon bras and striped panties, to find them.

Once the two women are showered and dressed, Viri leads the way out to the sand. Lana catches her breath. Their path along the beach has been illuminated with blue and green luminaras. At the end of the trail, Viri has placed a small canopy with a soft blanket and a few beach torches. There’s a small basket with a wine bottle, as well.

“It’s beautiful,” Lana whispers. She takes Viri’s hand and starts down the path with her. The waves roar soothingly in their ears as they walk, their bare feet sinking into the cool, soft sand. When they reach the canopy, Lana sits and places her bag of supplies beside her.

”Sit down,” Lana whispers to Viri. She takes a Sith brazier and a small diffuser from her bag and lights them. The air immediately fills with fragrant incense and purple flames.

”It’s Sith,” Lana says softly. “An ancient mixture from the Temple of Passion on Yavin 4. We never were able to visit. But I was able to procure some of the incense blend. It’s still used in a few temples here and there.”

”It’s lovely,” Viri murmurs, inhaling deeply.

Lana sets one more item next to her and turns to Viri. “Are you ready?”

”More than I ever have been,” Viri answers. She takes Lana’s hands and centers into the Force with her. When Lana speaks, it is in Sith.

” Viridana Revarre Dragoi, I give myself to you, heart of my heart, soul of my soul. You will walk with me and I with you. We will live in passion and strength; we will love and be loved.”

Without prompting, Viri knows to repeat the words after Lana, substituting her name.

Lana takes a long knife and holds it over the brazier, sterilizing it in the flame. A Sith poem is inscribed in script down one side, and Viri recognizes it from Lana’s room.

“Give me your right hand,” Lana says softly. Viri extends her hand without question, letting Lana cradle it gently.

Lana slices a shallow cut in Viri’s palm, and then passes the knife to her. Viri meets her eyes and repeats the process, and they press the wounds together as they clasp hands. A blinding white light with purple and red sparks surrounds them as they lean into each other, forehead to forehead. Their minds are entirely open to each other, and their emotions are so raw and so urgent that they cannot tell who feels what.

”Woman I love, heart of my heart, soul of my soul. You are mine. I am yours.” Lana intones the final words of the ritual, and Viri repeats them. As the glow around them subsides, they sit back and open their eyes. The cuts on their hands have healed, and there are purple scars in their places.

“Wedding rings?” Viri smiles, looking at the scar and flexing her fingers.

”The mark of union,” Lana explains. “It’s in the Sith passion texts. It signifies a successful ritual, where the participants also have a Force bond.”

Viri kisses the scar and then picks up Lana’s hand and kisses hers. “I love you so much.”

”Beyond words,” Lana says, stroking her face. The ocean crashes behind them.

Viri turns to her basket and picks up the wine bottle and a glass. “It’s Corellian Red. Would you like some?”

”Yes,” Lana smiles. “Be careful. You know how you get.”

“I’m just going to sip from yours,” Viri smiles. She picks Lana up and settles her on her lap, then hands her the glass. Lana locks eyes with her and puts the glass to her lips, giving her a sip. She takes a larger drink herself, and then offers it back to Viri.

They sit together and enjoy their wine, the restless song of the night ocean, and the cool sea breezes until the sun comes up and finds them asleep on the sand in each other’s arms.

Chapter Text

DOWN WITH THE ALLIANCE!

DEATH TO THE EMPRESS WRATH!

THE ALLIANCE IS DOOMED.

Lana’s eyes are bleary as she peruses the latest stack of Intelligence reports. Viri and the Alliance have countless fans; they also have bitter foes. Someone on a distant world has decided to launch media attacks against them, and they’re doing a good job.

On Lana’s second computer screen, the Holonet is tuned to a Republic news channel. Satele Shan has given a press conference in Coruscant; the news stations are replaying it again and again. She has publicly praised and supported Viri, and has urged the remaining Jedi to cooperate with the Alliance. The Republic government has taken no such stand.

Lana’s third screen is set to the Imperial News Service broadcasts; the fourth is scanning Sith-language social media. The Sith Empire has been far more supportive, with both Empress Acina and Darth Vowrawn loudly reiterating praise for their ally. Even there, however, Viri has detractors. Lana frowns as she reads negative comments on someone’s Holonet page.

“Who hates us today?” Theron asks, wandering over to Lana’s desk.

“The usual,” Lana sighs. “That Valkorion fan in Zakuul posted another blog. Let him rant and rave all he wants. He’s clearly a fool.”

”Yeah. Viri’s humanitarian aid to Zakuul and the support of the Knights have won her a lot of fans. I’d pay more attention to that.”

Lana tilts one screen toward Theron. “Yes. But these missives from the Outer Rim concern me.”

Theron’s eyes narrow as he studies the anti-Alliance propaganda. “They’re not happy with us, all right. Let me get some tracers on these.“

“Good luck. It’s masked three times and encrypted. I’ve been trying for hours.”

Theron flexes his fingers. “Challenge accepted.”

“Other than Valkorian’s biggest fan, Zakuul’s quiet, at least,” Lana says. “Nothing that concerns me.”

”You’re heading over there today, aren’t you?”

”Yes,” Lana says. “The Zakuulans want to visit. And we’ve been granted access to Arcann’s treasure vaults.”

”Good luck,” Theron says. “Indo’s given me access to the Knight’s coded databases, and I’m trying to find more information on our missing allies.”

”I know Viri and I would both like to find Darth Nox and Jaesa most of all,” Lana says. “If you can, concentrate your efforts on that.”

Theron crosses his arms and leans against the console. “Have any of the newcomers had any information on them?”

Lana shakes her head. “Not much. Darth Hexid had some passing reports of both Ashara and Jaesa for Viri, so we do know they're both alive, but she had nothing on Nox. Neither did Imperius. Nobody’s seen her or heard from her, even in passing.”

”Viri was found. Darth Nox can be, too.”

”That’s my hope,” Lana says, locking down the console and rising from her chair. “I’ll be keeping my eyes open while we’re in Zakuul. There has to be a lead. We just haven’t found it yet.”

*

There are almost a hundred Zakuulan members of the Alliance, and they all cluster anxiously around the windows of the Gravestone as it descends into Zakuul’s orbit. As usual, several Eternal Fleet ships form a vanguard around the ancient vessel, ever vigilant.

”We’ll be sending you down to the city in shuttles,” Tora says over the intercom. “We need you to all be in the docking bay now so we can divvy you up.”

For some of the Zakuulans, this trip is the first time they’ve been to their home planet in nearly seven years. For others, the separation has been shorter, but still fraught with danger. Almost all are returning to Odessen after their visit; the rest will be working in Alliance support on the ground in Zakuul.

Koth stares out at the spires of Zakuul. “Can’t believe I’m back.”

”What are you going to do today, Koth?” Viri asks.

”Get some food. See some friends. Just walk around. It’s good to see the city again without being worried about being arrested, even with the destruction.”

”I’ll be doing a concert in the Old Town,” Malita Tal says.

Viri smiles. “We have work in the vaults, but I wish I could see you perform. I’d wager your concerts are much more exciting than our open mic nights at the cantina.”

Malita nods. “That they are. I’d love it if you’d sing with me sometime, Commander.”

“Trust me. If I sing we’ll have another revolt, just to get me offstage. But if you need a backup dancer, call me. That I can do for you.”

”I might take you up on that,” Malita says. “Perhaps not when I sing at your coronation. But another time.”

”You could disguise her,” Vette chimes in.

”I feel some plans hatching,” Viri says, rubbing her hands together with glee. “Not now. Let’s come back to this discussion sometime soon, though?”

Lana frowns and mentally calculates the security that would be required to keep Viri safe onstage at a dance performance. She shakes her head and starts directing the Zakuulans to their shuttles.

“Third group, I need you in your shuttle, and not standing around on the docking bay. Malita, I hope you enjoy your day in Zakuul. I’m sure we’ll have a lot to talk about when you get back. Viri, our shuttle’s this one here. Let’s go.”

*

Lana gracefully steers Viri’s shuttle to the landing pad outside the Eternal Empire’s treasure vaults. Security ships hover overhead and below the landing pad, and before Viri alights from the shuttle, several Alliance personnel sweep the vault.

”Is this really necessary?” Viri complains. “I haven’t forgotten how to use my lightsaber, you know.”

”Yes,” Vette and Lana say in unison. They leave the shuttle before Viri, checking the path again before motioning for her to follow. Talos Drelik walks alongside her, and HK-55 brings up the rear, his gun drawn.

“It’s odd being here when I’m not fighting everyone,” Viri admits. She turns in a circle to study the landscape before her. Her previous visits to Zakuul have been so fraught with danger that she’s never had the time to really look around.

“It reminds me of a Hutt palace,” Vette comments, squinting. “That gold on the buildings is reflecting the sun right into my eyes. Ouch.”

Lana laughs. “That was my first impression, too, with this gold and white color scheme.”

Viri grins as they enter the building. The Knights at the door bow to her, and she turns to Lana incredulously.

“We’re walking in. Nobody’s trying to kill us. Wow.”

*

Viri is stunned as she walks through the building. The spoils of victory from the Eternal Empire’s attacks across the galaxy are piled up in every room, and there are objects from every world imaginable. Statues. Monuments. Precious metals and gems. Religious artifacts from many Force-using orders. Banners and flags from noble houses and embassies across the galaxy.

“How much did he loot?!” Viri says incredulously, looking around at the collection.

”Anything shiny, apparently,” Vette mutters.

”Koth and Len once told me that Arcann collected significant cultural monuments from every world he invaded,” Lana says. “That seems to have been the understatement of the century.”

When they reach the section of the vault that contains items from Korriban and Dromund Kaas, the mood turns solemn. Two tablets with High Sith inscriptions are propped against the wall by the doorway.

“I recognize those tablets,” Viri says indignantly. “Those are from Korriban!”

“Yes. Naga Sadow’s tomb, if I’m not mistaken,” Lana agrees. “I remember seeing those during one of my trials.”

“Those are indeed associated with Naga Sadow,” Talos says indignantly, crossing his arms. “The idea of someone desecrating that tomb and stealing these tablets is infuriating.”

”Don’t get too angry yet, Talos, there’s way more of these artifacts,” Vette calls from another room. “Looks like they raided a number of tombs. Plenty to be pissed off about. Hell, I’m not even Sith and I’m insulted.”

“All of this is going back where it belongs, if we can figure that out,” Viri says. “Talos, can you discern where each of these pieces came from?”

”Most of them, probably,” Talos says. “The ones from the ruins on Korriban and Hoth are easy. These Voss things are similarly simple to place. At the very least, I can identify each of these artifacts’ origins – Sith, Jedi, Rakata, what have you - and we can try to decide where they should go.”

”Excellent,” Viri says. “I’m putting that under your supervision. You know who works best with you; choose a team and we’ll bring them in. Will five people be enough?”

”It should be more than enough, Commander,” Talos says, beaming. “This will be splendid work.”

“That might make a nice gift to confirm our alliance with the Sith Empire, too,” Lana muses. “Returning sacred artifacts to their rightful places will make Acina very happy.”

”Excellent point, Lana,” Viri smiles. “Truth be told, it makes me happy. This is our heritage we’re talking about.”

”Shall we be nice and obliging and return the Jedi artifacts?” Lana asks.

Viri pauses. “I suppose being nice and obliging would be appropriate in this case.”

“Wonderful,” Talos says. “Maybe you could have Theron call Satele and—“

”No,” Lana and Viri say simultaneously.

”Oh. I see.”

”No, there’s nothing wrong, Talos,” Viri says quickly. “But I don’t want to do anything that will require Theron to call his mother.”

“There’s another Jedi we can call,” Lana muses. “Someone on Nar Shaddaa you might know, Viri. He’s been busy with our war efforts, but I’m sure he’d love to hear from you.”

”I hope it’s Timmns,” Viri says.

”I will neither confirm nor deny,” Lana says with a wink.

“I can’t wait to talk to him,” Viri grins. “So we’ve got the Sith and Jedi artifacts handled…for the Voss? Sana-Rae could be sent as an emissary to deliver these things, if she’s willing to go there.”

”It would be healing, after all Voss has been through.”

”You know, Commander, I appreciate that you want to restore these sacred artifacts, and that’s admirable, but mightn’t it be a good idea to keep some of them around? A museum to expose Zakuulans to the rest of the galaxy, perhaps?” Talos suggests.

Viri tilts her head and considers the idea. “Why don’t we ask everyone if they’d be willing to part with a few pieces?”

“Diplomatic. Affable. Open. Excellent idea,” Lana says. “We should probably peek at the weapons, too, as long as we’re here.”

Lana leads the way to the next room, where floor-to-ceiling display cases are filled with weapons of all kinds. There are blasters and crossbows; lightsabers and cannons. Almost all appear to be dented and damaged.

”I am guessing these belonged to the people Arcann froze in carbonite or killed?” Viri asks.

”Exactly. The ones he considered trophies, anyway.”

”Was my lightsaber in here?”

”Yes,” Lana tells her, and points to a red and blue lightsaber on the shelves. “See that one there? T7 was able to disable the alarm for a moment so I could grab your saber and replace it with that decoy.”

”Smart,” Viri muses, looking through the cases. Her face turns white when she notices a Sith mask and lightsaber on the top shelf. She floats them down to her for a closer look and blanches when she reads the inscription on the saber’s hilt.

Darth Marr. Marr’s mask, his lightsaber…the bastard kept them as trophies!” Darth Marr had carried a lightsaber inscribed with his full name and title; there’s no denying the weapon’s ownership.

Lana, Vette, Talos and Viri stare silently at the mask and saber for long moments.

”Marr deserved better,” Viri finally says.

”You never did tell us…how did Valkorion…” Vette starts. “If you don’t mind sharing.”

Viri looks at the mask again. When she speaks, her words tumble over each other. “Valkorion asked Marr to kneel and recognize him as Emperor of Zakuul. Obviously, Marr said no. Not only that, but he resisted. He was in Force-suppressing cuffs, and he still fought back. He even managed to throw a few Knights over the ledge, but Valkorion blasted him with lightning. He was killed instantly.”

“It sounds like he didn’t suffer for long,” Lana says, rubbing Viri’s shoulder. “There’s that, at least.”

”I was right there,” Viri says, holding the mask and saber to her chest. “I watched him die. I could not stop it. I couldn’t protect him, Lana. They had those Force-suppressing shackles on me, too. It happened so fast.”

”I’m so sorry, my lord,” Talos says quietly. “You can’t save everyone.”

“Valkorion asked me once if I was happy Marr died. He actually asked me that. How dare he.”

”What do you mean, Valkorion asked you?” Talos says.

”His ghost lurked around me for a while after I killed him,” Viri says smoothly, covering her mistake. Not everyone in the Alliance was aware of Valkorion’s past presence in Viri’s mind. In fact, the secret had been restricted to Lana, Theron, Koth, HK-55 and Vette. Koth’s crew had found out when they’d freed Viri from the Scions ambush, and Lana had deftly assisted them in forgetting once they’d returned to the Gravestone.

”Ah, Lord Kallig visited Darth Nox a lot, too,” Talos says.

Viri nods and takes a shaky breath. ”These things need go back to Dromund Kaas. Marr was a champion of the Empire. He would have wanted to be buried there. I think. I don’t know. I wish I did.”

”Let’s meditate on it,” Lana says, putting a hand on her shoulder. She gently takes the mask and saber from Viri and puts them in a crate for safe transport. “We don’t need to decide right now. In the meantime, we’ll keep these things secure.”

Vette squints up at the shelves again. “Does anyone recognize anything else in this case? Let’s make sure we’ve really looked through these weapons carefully.”

The team scans the display cases weapon by weapon. When they get to the corner, Talos stops short as the blood drains from his face. “C-commander?”

”Yes?”

Talos raises a shaking hand toward the display case. “Look in the second row. That…that’s Darth Nox’s lightsaber. I’d recognize it anywhere.”

Viri rushes over, and her eyes open wide when she sees the antique polesaber. “Oh no. It is.”

“Shit,” Vette says.

“Remember, Viri’s lightsaber was in here,” Lana reminds the group. “So this collection includes weapons from people in carbonite. Not just the ones that were killed outright. I wasn’t sure if I felt Nox die.”

Vette nods. “I remember our conversation about that. Ashara, Jae, Xalek…none of you were sure.”

”Not even Khem was, and he had a special bond with Suvia,” Talos says. “My hypothesis was that the ghost that resided in her mind was sustaining her. When Darth Thanaton tried to kill her, she had no heartbeat, and by all accounts she should have been dead. She lived because of the spirits within her. Something similar might have occurred again in this case.”

”I thought Suvia freed the ghosts?” Viri asks.

”She did, but one spirit refused to leave. Perhaps he’s been keeping her alive. It would explain why you weren’t clear on whether she died or not: she did, but she didn’t.”

Lana sighs. “I was never able to find anything on Nox or Moff Pyron. My contacts and I did look. When we sliced records looking for Viri, we searched for other familiar names on the rosters. I never saw her in any of the prisons I checked, either.”

“We tried so hard to find Darth Nox as well,” Talos laments. “Ashara in particular was so driven. But there was nothing.”

“We have no report of Nox tangling with Arcann or Vaylin, as Viri did,” Lana mutters. “Whatever happened to her, it seems as though she didn’t even have a chance to fight.”

Viri floats the polesaber off the shelf and examines it. Unlike some of the other weapons, including Marr’s, it doesn’t appear to have been in a struggle.

“It’s a shame we can’t summon the elder Lord Kallig,” Talos says. “He could lead us to her.”

Viri looks at Lana. “I could do without summoning any more ghosts. Let’s not.”

“Did you see Darth Nox in the inventory list, Lana?” Vette asks, opening her datapad.

”No, but there aren’t always proper names,” Lana says, scrolling frantically down the list again on her own device. “Viri, for instance. You were here as the ‘Outlander,’ a female human. Neither your real name nor your Wrath title were in the database. Not even that you were Imperial. And they had five Outlander decoys. It’s one of the things that made it hard to find you.”

Talos and Viri crouch beside Lana and Vette and open their own datapads,

”Let’s see. How can we narrow this down? We can filter out male victims, that’s a start, at least…”

”They don’t have all the species identified, just human or non, but we can filter out humans, too…”

“How many people did he freeze? Force, there are a lot of entries here…”

“We’re already here,” Lana says, putting down her datapad in disgust. “It might be easier just to go through the carbonite vaults and have a look. We’d recognize her if we saw her.”

*

There are three rooms of carbonite prisoners in the Eternal Empire’s vault. Viri and her team study every single one of them, to no avail. They examine every carbonite block on the walls; they pull the slabs down from the ceilings and up from the basement. They scrutinize face after face. All of the carbonite trophies are dead, so it’s a relief, in a way, not to find Nox.

“This is where you were, Viri,” Lana says, as they amble into the last room. Viri stops short at the precipice. Her own carbonite slab – her prison for five years – is at the end of the catwalk.

Lana turns and locks eyes with Viri, sending as much support as she can. You don’t have to do this room, Viri.

I don’t want to do it. But the Empress Wrath should, Viri replies in her mind. But she’d like it if you stayed close.

Of course, Lana replies, sending reassurance through their bond.

Talos figures out the controls, and they pull down the other carbonite blocks from the ceiling one by one. Just as before, there are no Twi’lek Dark Councilors to be found.

“Suvia has to be somewhere,” Viri mutters. “Is there anywhere else on Zakuul with a carbonite gallery?”

”Probably,” Lana says. “We can put out some feelers to start tracking them down.”

”Wait,” Vette says, remembering something. “When we were trapped by Vaylin on the Gravestone, she said some things about wanting to use us as decorations. You don’t think someone has a frozen Darth Nox as décor for their house, or something…”

”My poor Dark Lord,” Talos whispers.

”I hate to say it, but it’s possible,” Lana says. “Indo might be our best point of contact on that. We’ll need to check the palace. And anyone who might have received a prize or present from Arcann and Vaylin during their reign.”

”Damned Eternal Empire…” Viri mutters, walking away. “We have to find her.”

Lana nods. “We will.”

The team leaves the vault and walks toward the shuttle bay.

”We still have to work on the artifacts, and Talos, I’m still leaving you in charge of that. But the minute we hear anything about Nox, we’ll let you know and pull you from this project. So choose a deputy who can run things in your absence, if needed,” Viri says.

”Thank you, my lord,” Talos says. “I appreciate that more than I can say. I’d like to be there when you unfreeze her.”

”It helped me immensely to have Lana present when I was found,” Viri says. “I don’t think I would have made it otherwise. Suvia’s been out for nearly seven years. Having you nearby should be a help and a comfort. Xalek, too. I think she’d want him there.”

”My lord thought very highly of you and Lana, as well,” Talos reminds her.

Viri smiles. “It was mutual. But you are closest to her. She’ll need that.”

”If only we could have found Ashara,” Vette mutters. “I don’t understand how she could have just disappeared, or why she wouldn’t have joined us by now.”

“That’s a question only Ashara can answer,” Lana says. “We’re still looking for her, as well as Jaesa.”

As they reach the doors to the vault, Viri pauses and looks back.

”Will you all give me a moment? There’s something I need to look at. Alone.”

“As you wish, Commander,” Lana says, and ushers Talos and Vette back to their shuttle. “Please take HK.”

Viri nods. “HK, I need you to be quiet while we do this. Okay?”

”Confirmation: I will not say a word, unless you are in danger.”

”Thank you.”

Viri walks slowly back into the room where she was imprisoned, and asks HK-55 to wait outside. The empty carbonite casing is still hanging from the wall, and she can see the imprint of her own body. She traces the outline with her fingertips, feeling a cold chill wash over her. She’s shaking, although she’s not sure why.

”Hey.” Strong arms wrap around her waist, and the welcome weight of Lana Beniko rests against her back. “I sent HK back to the shuttle. I know you said you wanted to be alone, but I felt that you might do better with company.”

”I’m always better with you here,” Viri says, covering Lana’s hands with her own. “I…I thought I could handle Zakuul. But not here. Not this place.”

Lana gently turns Viri around and embraces her, running her hands soothingly across Viri’s back. She’s still shaking, and Lana hugs her tighter and sends love through the bond.

“What’s it like for you, being back here?” Viri’s voice is low.

”Triumphant,” Lana admits. “I got you out. You vanquished our enemies. We’re now able to walk through this vault without being pursued by skytroopers or Knights. There’s no downside for me. All the same…seeing you in carbonite was horrible. I can’t shake that memory. And knowing what was done to you while you were in carbonite makes it worse.”

”I don’t remember even being here, you know,” Viri says. “Just flashes of memories. You. Mostly you, telling me that I had to live. I don’t think I could have done it, without your help.”

Lana kisses her cheek. “When I unfroze you, you weren’t in good shape.”

“You’ve saved me so many times.” Viri pauses and kisses Lana gently. “Even now.”

”I always will,” Lana says, kissing her back.

The women stand silently, locked in their embrace, for several minutes before Lana speaks again.

“I wanted to ask…why did Valkorion think you’d be glad that Marr died? Ambition?”

”No,” Viri shakes her head. “Because Marr broke us up after Yavin. I did hate him for that. But I knew he was important for the Empire, and hadn’t acted out of malice. All the same, I hated him with all my heart for interfering, Lana.”

“So did I,” Lana admits. “Losing you after Yavin was devastating. But Marr told me that if I didn’t tell you, he would.”

”Fucking asshole.”

”He did what he thought was right,” Lana says. “Our relationship was in the SIS databases by the time we dealt with Ziost. Anyone could have used it against us.”

”I don’t care,” Viri says. “Even if you’re correct.”

”It did teach me something,” Lana says. “Never to let anyone come between us again. Marr nearly killed both of us with that order.”

”You didn't even let this come between us. I wouldn’t have walked out of this room without you. You came back for me.”

“Of course I did,” Lana says, soothing her. “There’s no way I would have left you here.”

”Do we know where the carbonite freezing chamber is?” Viri asks, almost inaudibly, resting her head on Lana’s shoulder.

”It’s in the same building as the old Throne Room,” Lana says, curiously. “Not far from here. We could walk there. But why?”

”Let’s go. Tell the others we won’t be back to the shuttle for a little while.”

”Viri, what…”

”Do it,” Viri says, smiling serenely.

*

”Empress. Royal Consort.” The Knight stationed by the elevator bows to Viri and Lana.

”Thank you, Knight. At ease. Can you tell me where the carbonite freezing chamber is?”

”Down the hallway. Last door on the left,” the Knight says.

”Thank you. I’d like this floor cleared. Please guard the exits, but get everyone off this level for me.”

”As you wish.” The Knight speaks into her comlink, and a few minutes later, a small cadre of scientists and other Knights files into the elevator. “Will you be requiring anything else? Are you and the Consort planning on…er…freezing anyone?”

”No,” Viri says. “In fact, I want you and the other Knights to make sure the carbonite barrels are removed from this facility and taken to the munitions factory. There will be no more carbonite freezing in this building, or elsewhere, if I can help it. But be aware there may be…a commotion. Don’t be surprised. Unless I comlink you with the word “nexu,” do not interfere.”

”As you wish, Empress.” The Knight disappears into the elevator.

*

”Here we are,” Lana says, as she opens the door.

There isn’t much to it. There’s a console. There’s a small chamber behind a wall of heavy glass. And in that smaller room, there is a tray large enough for a person, surrounded by vents.

”I was somehow expecting more,” Viri says. “It’s just a room, isn’t it?”

”That’s all it is,” Lana agrees. “This room can’t do a thing to you now.”

Viri opens the door to the freezing chamber and walks in. As she stares at the tray, the experience of being frozen surges back to her. She hadn’t remembered it before. Valkorion’s sudden invasion of her mind had stunned her, and it had mercifully blocked out most of the freezing process.

Now? It’s all there, in vivid color, in her brain. Being flung onto the table. The smoke. The carbonite vapors stinging as they hit her. The single scream that had escaped her in the seconds before she’d been frozen. All of it.

“I remember it now…” Viri whispers. Lana comes up behind her and embraces her again. “I remember how much it hurt.”

“I can only imagine,” Lana says, tightening her arms around Viri. “From what I’ve read, it’s a brutal experience in every way. Show me.”

”Are you sure?”

”I asked.”

Viri nods and opens her mind. Lana shudders behind her as the memory flares.

”Viri…that was worse than I’d ever fathomed it could have been.”

“This room gave Valkorion the ability to torture me. For five years, nothing but torment.” Viri spits the words out.

”Love,” Lana says, tightening her hold on Viri’s waist. There’s nothing she can say to assuage Viri’s trauma, and she knows it.

Viri looks at the table, shoves at it with the Force, and blows it to pieces. “Everything. It’s going. Help me, Lana?”

”I’d love to,” Lana says. She may not have been frozen herself, but the room represents five stolen years. Five years of agony at being cut off from her Force bonded partner. Five years of trauma and grief and guilt.

Lana draws her lightsaber, but bows playfully to Viri. “After you. It feels right that you should get the first cut here.”

“Thank you,” Viri says, and with a cold smile, she swings her lightsaber and takes out the apparatus that held the tray. “Jump in at any time, Lana.”

Lana does, and in short order, the small chamber and the larger room are in shambles. Lana and Viri run their lightsabers through the controls. The vents. The doors. The pieces of the freezing tray are battered even more and sent flying. The walls are slashed and sliced. Finally, the only thing left is the plate-glass window. It’s several meters thick, presumably to prevent the carbonite vapors from affecting the Knights operating the controls.

Viri grabs Lana’s hand. “Together.”

Lana nods. She and Viri focus together on the glass, and it shatters into a thousand pieces.

”Gone! It’s gone!” Viri pounds her fists into the broken console again and again and hurls shards of glass around the room. She marshals her anger into a scream that cracks the walls.

”Love,” Lana says, grabbing her arms from behind. “Enough. It’s destroyed.”

”Not enough,” Viri growls. She lets her rage distill into pure power, and the remains of the computers explode, taking the wall with them.

”Love,” Lana murmurs, still holding her arms. She can feel power coiling within Viri, looking desperately for something else to strike. “Scream it out. It’s all right.”

Viri screams again and again, until her voice is hoarse and she sags against Lana’s chest. Lana rocks her silently, embracing her from behind. The only sound in the room is Viri’s ragged breathing as she attempts to collect herself.

“I’m sorry for that outburst,” Viri finally says.

“I’m not sorry,” Lana says. “I think you needed that.”

”Let’s go home,” Viri says, kicking rubble out of her way as she heads for the door. “I’ve had enough of Zakuul for today.”

*

“The Commander is safely on board,” Lana says, touching the shuttle down in the Gravestone’s hangar.

”Welcome back, Commander, Lana. Not all of the shuttles have returned yet,” Tora says over the comlink. “We’re still waiting on two. Malita did three encores so she’s running late.”

”Not a problem,” Viri says. “We can hold here to wait for them.”

“We’re going to get something to eat. Come with us,” Vette says, studying Viri’s face. She had returned to the shuttle looking wan and drained, and there are bits of dust in her hair.

“I’m not hungry,” Viri mutters.

”I didn’t ask if you were,” Vette says. “But I think you need to be around friends right now. Just a hunch.”

”Vette…”

Vette takes one of Viri’s hands; Lana takes the other, and they pull her down the hallway to the Gravestone’s cafeteria.

”No. We’re commandeering you,” Vette says. She compels Viri to sit and points a finger at her.

”Sit. Lana, I’ll get our food.”

Viri puts her head in her hands. “Why are we doing this again?”

Lana shrugs. “I think Vette’s right.”

Vette returns to the table with a tray laden with plates and bowls. “Soup and a cheese sandwich for our vegetarian; cutlets and veggies for Lana and me.”

”Looks delicious,” Lana says, picking up her fork. “Thank you Vette.”

”Thank you,” Viri says, stirring the soup listlessly. When she finally brings the spoon to her lips, though, she smiles.

”Good, huh?” Vette says. “I thought you’d like it. Finally, a smile from you.”

”It’s been a rough day,” Viri says.

”How do you even define those anymore?” Vette asks. “I mean, are the ‘electrocuted on the Eternal Throne’ days rougher than the ‘thrown in carbonite’ ones? Is there a points system? Is it based on the number of scars and broken bones? The body count? How blood-soaked you get? How tired Lana gets healing you? How fast the Gravestone has to haul ass out of the area?"

Viri laughs outright.

“I feel like by now, we should have other adjectives,” Vette says. “’Rough’ doesn’t cut it. We need some elaboration. So was this an ‘I almost died’ kind of rough, a ‘shit, that was a hard fight’ rough, or ‘I have been lightly pelted by beans and am mildly annoyed’ rough?”

Viri laughs again. “It was a ‘I’m physically fine but emotionally drained’ sort.”

”Ah,” Vette says. “You had to look at about a hundred dead people in carbonite and saw the block you were in. That why?”

”Yes.” Viri stirs her soup again. “And I remembered what it was like to be frozen.”

”So being frozen wasn’t cool?” Vette asks, with a straight face.

”Vette!” Viri giggles.

“You didn’t like…hanging out on the wall? I mean, it must have been hard being a wallflower for five years, with how much you talk…”

Lana can’t help but smile.

Vette isn’t done. “I know why you hated carbonite so much. You had to wear the same outfit for five years. I’d be upset about that, too.”

Viri laughs loud and long, and her eyes meet Vette’s.

”You always know just what to say. I adore you.”

Vette bows in her chair. “It’s a gift. What can I say.”

The three women finish their dinner together, laughing and eating, the tension broken.

Chapter Text

Morning on the Odessen base finds Lana and Theron at the conference table in the new Alliance command center, enjoying their caf.

”So how’s married life treating you?” Theron asks.

”Wonderful,” Lana smiles. She and Viri have decided to disclose their marriage to a few people; Theron is one of them.

”You look disgustingly happy, you know.”

“I feel that way,” Lana laughs. “I’m glad our new suites are finished. It’s nice being close by. That long walk to the Alliance quarters was getting to me.”

”How’s she doing with it all?” Theron asks.

Lana exhales. “She’s not having the vicious nightmares that she was. That’s a relief. Hearing her scream every night, and not being able to stop it…I don’t miss that.”

”I know how much that wore you out,” Theron says, pouring another cup of caf.

”Not in a bad way,” Lana says quickly. “I’m always there for her.”

”Of course you are,” Theron says. “But it’s never easy to see someone you care about suffering. I’m not with Viri, but when she was on that Eternal Throne, and was in so much agony, all I wanted to do was run up and pull her away from it. It still bothers me.”

“She’s healing,” Lana says quietly. “She had surgery for the burns yesterday.”

”Glad to hear it,” Theron says. “I—“

”Morning!” Viri says brightly, bounding into the room. She stops short when she sees Theron and Lana at the table, and Lana is stunned to feel a hot blade of jealousy arc through their bond.

“Finally, you wake up,” Theron says. “We all know why you wanted the Eternal Throne. So you could sleep late.”

I didn’t want it, asshole. Lana raises her eyebrow at the vitriol in Viri’s mind.

”You’ve found me out,” Viri says cheerfully, planting herself between Lana and Theron.

“Viri, Theron and I were having a conversation. Can we return to it?” Lana asks delicately.

”Sure, I won’t interrupt,” Viri says, sitting back in her chair and pouring herself some caf.

”No, I mean, Viri…we’d like to continue our private conversation,” Lana tries again.

”Oh,” Viri says, and stands up. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt. See you both later.”

Lana stares after her, blinking at the green cloud of jealous rage that is surrounding Viri.

“What was that?” Theron asks.

”I’m not sure,” Lana murmurs.

“I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but she’s been…slightly hostile to me lately. And the next minute she's apologizing for it.”

”Koth mentioned the same thing,” Lana says. “I don’t get it. I’ve asked her. She insists nothing’s wrong.”

“You don’t think Valkorion is still –“

”No,” Lana says, finishing her caf. “He’s gone. But he did a hell of a lot of damage to her. I think we’ll be picking up the pieces from that for a long time.”

*

Damn it, Viridana Revarre Dragoi, you’re smarter than this. Viri paces in her suite. You know it’s not true. None of it. You’re acting like a child. Why are you even on those Holonet sites in the first place?

When Viri sits down at her computer, her miniature nexu, Bolt, immediately jumps into her lap. She’s managed to train him not to walk on the keys, finally. As he curls up and falls asleep, Viri strokes his head absently and types her own name into the Holonet’s search engine. As usual, a variety of pages return for her perusal. News from both Imperial and Republic sources. Personal blogs. Message boards.

Viri’s eyes alight on a thread near the top of the page on the first message board. Every instinct tells her not to click on it, but she does anyway.

- Stars, she’s homely. Darth Ugly, I say.
- LOL. You’re too nice. I’ve seen cuter Ugnaughts. Except she’s taller than them.
- Scars on her face and that huge nose…why the fuck wouldn’t she have that fixed?
- Can you imagine being her girlfriend and having to wake up to that?
- Ew! I can’t unsee that image!
- Oh please. You know her gf’s probably fucking around on her.
- Yeah, that would make sense. She gets what she needs before going home to that hellbeast.
- I’m amazed she has a girlfriend in the first place.

The insults continue for pages. By the time she’s finished scrolling through the thread, Viri is covering her nose with one hand.

With a growl, Viri shuts down the computer and closes her eyes. She’s certainly had time to develop a thick skin as a Sith lord, but the words are cutting deep, for some reason. Peace is a lie. Through passion I gain strength. Through strength I gain power. Through power I gain…you’re ugly. You’re stupid. You’re too tall. Your nose is disgusting. The scar. The hair. The way you walk. Nobody wants you, Viri. Lana’s moved on. Valkorion’s words echo through her attempt at meditation.

Viri sighs and rises from her desk. Bolt yowls at being displaced, and she immediately reaches down to pat his head.

She’ll take a walk, Viri thinks to herself. That’s what she needs. A nice long walk in the Odessen wilds. She heads out of the base and onto the path toward the forest. Instantly, several Alliance troops, and HK-55, are at her side.

”That’s fine, HK. I don’t really want company.”

“Statement: I have been instructed to remain with you at all times outside the base.”

”I’m overriding it this time. Go back to Lana. That’s an order.” Viri turns to the troops. “You all, as well. Go.”

”All right, Commander. If you’re sure.” The troops look at each other, and then turn back to the base. None of them feels that leaving is a good idea; none of them is going to defy the Alliance Commander.

Viri exhales as the troops walk back into the base. Gloriously unencumbered, she runs into the forest. Without Valkorion in her mind, the Odessen wilderness holds no threat to her. She jogs down the sun-dappled path until she is deep in the forest.

The soothing sound of rushing water reaches Viri’s ears, and she veers toward it. There’s a waterfall at the end of the path, and Viri clambers out onto the rocks and sits down. The sun is warm on her face and the water is calming, and before she knows it, she feels her eyes closing. Her comlink beeps once, and she ignores it as sleep takes hold.

*

”She has to be somewhere,” Lana says, rushing around the Alliance command center. “How could she do this! HK, I told you to stay with her!”

”Statement: She told me not to. It seemed wise not to argue with the Empress.”

”Likewise,” the Alliance trooper says, sweating in his helmet. “I don’t think any of us approved when she told us to leave her. But she’s the boss.”

“You’ve got a link with her, Lana. Can’t you just use it?” Theron asks.

“She’s not answering. She appears to be either asleep or unconscious.”

”So she took a nap somewhere. I’m sure she’s fine,” Theron says.

”Damn it, Theron! No. I’m not sure she’s fine.” Lana clicks her comlink on again and checks in with the air patrol that has been sent to search for Viri. “Any sign of her?”

”Negative.”

”Damn you, Viri…” Lana whispers, and puts her head in her hand. “Not again.”

It is hours before one of the Alliance patrols calls in with a positive update. “We’ve found her. She’s been…sleeping by a waterfall. She declined to take the shuttle back with us. Said she’d walk.”

Lana exhales.

“See, told you she was fine,” Theron says. “You worry endlessly about her.”

”Of course I do, I love her,” Lana snaps.

“There’s no reason to worry,” Viri says, walking into the room. “I’m fine.”

Relief surges through Lana as she studies Viri’s unharmed face. She’s clearly had a lot of sun; Lana can all but feel the heat radiating from her skin. Her hair is windblown and her cheeks are red from her run back to the base.

”Where were you?” Lana snaps, as her relief dissolves into anger.

”I was out by the river,” Viri says. “I went for a walk. Chill.”

”Why did you send HK away?”

”I wanted to be by myself,” Viri says. “It’s Odessen. The entire planet is blockaded by the Eternal Fleet. It’s not as though anyone’s getting in here.”

”You should have let me know where you were,” Lana rages. “I was looking for you, and—“

”For Force’s sake, I was two kilometers away!” Viri rages right back. “Do I need a tracker on my back to make you happy?”

”Viri, you can’t do this! We need to know where you are at all times.”

“I’m not a child who needs a babysitter,” Viri storms. “I’m the fucking Empress, Peacekeeper, whatever, and I can’t be trusted to go out alone anymore?! I just got that creature out of my head, and now I have the entire Alliance looking over my shoulder?”

Lana slams her hand on the table. “Are you accusing us of being like Valkorion? Did you really just say that?!”

”Damn it, Lana, no, and you know it, so don’t go there,” Viri storms. “But it seems like I can’t even brush my teeth without surveillance anymore. I’m supposedly the leader of this Alliance, and I say I don’t want it.”

”Do you know how many people want you dead?” Lana shouts, pointing to the console. “Do you want to see the Intelligence reports I’m getting every single day? Could you stop being a brat for once in your life and cooperate with the measures we’re taking to try to keep you alive?”

“The measures you’re taking are ridiculous,” Viri shouts back. “I’m supposed to have a shadow every place I go? For Force’s sake, when I had Darth Baras trying to kill me at every turn I didn’t have this.”

”Darth Baras?!” Lana yells. “You’re comparing one Sith and his network to…planets? Nations? The Republic?

”No, the Republic didn’t want the Wrath dead at all,” Viri says sarcastically. “They were thrilled by my presence and took no measures to try to take me out. Look, I know people want me out of the picture. People have tried to kill me since I was an acolyte. But I can’t live like this.”

”If you don’t let us help you, there’s a damn good chance you won’t be alive!”

”On Odessen??”

”Not for nothing, but Lana’s right,” Theron says, trying to defuse the situation. “People do want you dead, and when you walk off like that it sets off an alarm. We had to send a patrol to search for you. They were needed elsewhere.”

”Oh, fuck off, Theron,” Viri shouts, and turns to leave the room. “Don’t you follow me, either. I’m staying on base. I’m going to walk down the hallway. Maybe go through a door. Go outside, even. Since I’m a damned prisoner in my own Alliance, I guess it’s the best I can do. But would you let me do that much without hovering over me?”

Vette, Lana and Theron stare uncomfortably at each other as Viri storms away.

”Wow,” Vette says, breaking the silence. “She’s pissed.”

Lana turns and walks toward the door. “Do whatever you need to do to run things, Theron. I’m done for today.”

*

Lana walks the perimeter of the base, seething. Viri’s Force signature, as felt through the bond, is a red, furious storm, and it shows no signs of letting up. For once, Lana doesn’t care about comforting her. She’s just as angry.

As she walks around the side of the base, she spies Viri in the distance, sitting under a tree with some of her pet sleen. Immediately, her anger lessens. The bond pulls her toward Viri, and she follows it. Lana steps through the security fence, grabs some sleen treats from the box by the gate, and walks across the grass to them.

Lana had once read that sleen couldn’t feel fondness for humans. She knows now that the literature was wrong. Viri’s two sleen, Lou and Ri, are curled up around her, and they’re clearly enjoying all the attention she’s lavishing on them.

“How are they today?” Lana tosses treats to each of the sleen.

“They’re doing well,” Viri mutters, petting Lou’s head.

The animals leave Viri’s side for a moment to excitedly crowd around Lana, snuffling at her clothes and looking for more snacks. Lana holds her empty hands up. “All gone. No more.”

When it’s clear that Lana isn’t going to feed them again, the sleen return to Viri.

”I’m glad to see you,” Viri says, keeping her eyes on her pets. “It got ugly in there. Sit down?”

”It did,” Lana says, sitting cross-legged on the ground next to Viri and her pets.

“We need to talk about this. But I’m not sure where to begin,” Viri admits.

“Can you tell me why you decided to do what you did today?” Lana asks. “Without anger?”

Viri nods. “I wanted to be alone. I’m so tired of having people following me.”

”You’ve been in your current position for a very short time. And you’re already tired of it?”

Viri shakes her head. “Lana, I’ve been followed and spied on since I was an apprentice. Darth Baras forced a spy onto my crew when I’d only been his apprentice for a matter of months. The Hands spied on me with their droids. Valkorion, wedged in my head, saw everything I did for almost seven years. And now this. I’m tired.”

”You do know that unlike the Hands or Darth Baras’s spy, we’re doing this to try to protect you,” Lana says.

”I do know. It’s still tiresome to be tracked everywhere. You can’t keep me under glass.”

”I understand,” Lana says. “But it would help if you’d taken a moment to let me know instead of walking off. Viri, when HK came back alone, and you didn’t answer your comlink…”

”Can you tell me why you are so upset about that?”

“As your advisor, my most important duty is to keep you safe,” Lana says. “When you try to confound that, it makes my job more difficult, and it’s infuriating.”

”I have a feeling my wife is far more upset than my advisor,” Viri says.

“She is,” Lana admits.

“Tell me.”

“Do you remember what happened when we left Yavin?”

Viri shudders. “I try to forget that.”

Lana nods. “I do, too. When I had to leave you after Yavin, it nearly destroyed me. The pain was intense. I don’t have to tell you; you felt it, too. But the one saving grace, even when we couldn’t be together, was that I knew where you were. I knew you were safe. We were separated, and that hurt, and I did worry about you, but I knew I could find you immediately.”

”Darth Nox always let me know how you were doing,” Viri says. “It helped.”

”She did the same for me,” Lana says, petting Lou’s head gently. The sleen snuggles into her lap.

“I don’t think I could stand something like that again,” Viri admits. “It almost killed me.”

”Neither could I,” Lana says. “Which brings me to my point. To not know where you are, if someone’s captured you, if you need help…it hurts, Viri. No. It doesn’t just hurt. It’s a nightmare for me. When you vanished when you met Marr and Satele, the incident on Dromund Kaas where Lorman claimed you’d died, Iokath, Asylum…every single one of those was painful. They weren’t your fault. They still were excruciating.”

”I’m sorry,” Viri says, putting one hand tentatively on her shoulder.

“And for you to act like it’s nothing, as though I’m just trying to control you because I want the courtesy of knowing you’re not being murdered or thrown into carbonite again…this isn’t an idle fear, Viri. I’m doing my best. I’m doing everything I can and it’s not enough.” Lana puts her hands over her face.

”I didn’t mean it that way,” Viri says. “Losing you is my greatest fear. I didn’t consider that it was yours, too. If I had, I wouldn’t have been so indifferent.”

“Not only is it my greatest fear, but I’ve come damn close to seeing it happen. Do you know what that’s like? I’ve seen you almost die so many times that I’ve lost count, Viri. You can take care of yourself, but every day I worry someone’s going to finally succeed in killing you. I just want to know you’re all right. I don’t want to control you or make you feel like you’re in prison.”

“You know…the time Vaylin beat you up on the Gravestone, it was the worst feeling ever. Seeing you hurt, it was horrible. You’ve seen that over and over again, haven’t you?”

Lana nods. “Seeing you on the Eternal Throne still haunts me, Viri. You were in so much pain, and fighting for your very soul. All I could do was watch and try to support you as much as I could. Do you how horrifying that is, seeing your loved one hurt that way, and knowing it has to happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it?”

Viri strokes her cheek. ”I forget you have trauma, just as I do, Lana. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking of you. And when it comes to us, I can’t do that.”

Lana smiles. “I appreciate that. The Alliance –“

“Fuck the Alliance. If it’s the Alliance or you, I choose you. I want the people I love in my life, and I want them to be safe and happy. You, above all. If you wanted to run away to the Rishi maze tomorrow, I’d do it.”

Lana feels the veracity of Viri’s words through their bond.

“You can’t do that,” Lana says. “Too many people depend on you. You know it well.”

”I do,” Viri agrees. “But the point stands. If it’s you or me, I will always choose you. If it’s you or this Alliance, I will always choose you.”

“Likewise,” Lana says quietly.

”The last thing I want is to fight with you.” Viri says, taking her hand. “You’re a wonderful advisor. Never think that I don’t value you. I know how much work you put in every single day. I’m not trying to dismiss your efforts.”

“I appreciate that,” Lana says, lacing her fingers with Viri’s. “I see now that you’re feeling boxed in by the security, and we’ll find a way to work on that. We need to protect you but if you’re feeling like it’s a prison, it defeats the purpose. It’s a learning curve. You’ve never been in this position before and neither have I. It’s going to take us both time to figure out this new reality of ours.”

“Let’s agree not to take it out on each other,” Viri says. “You’re right. I have no fucking idea what I’m doing, Lana. It scares the hell out of me.”

”You’re selling yourself short,” Lana says, caressing her cheek. “You’re a natural leader. And yes, that’s a good agreement to make. “

“I never wanted to be Empress,” Viri says quietly.

”Maybe that’s why you’ll be a good one.”

“Just…promise you won’t leave, Lana. Even if this gets difficult. And it will. You mean everything to me.” Don’t leave me. Please.

“What?”

Viri says nothing, but there are tears in her eyes.

”Viri,” Lana says, taking her other hand and unclenching it. She traces her thumb along the mark of union on Viri’s palm. “See this mark? We’re in it together. I’ve known since the day I met you that you walk a difficult road. I accept that, and I support you on that path.”

”I hope I support you, just as much,” Viri says, kissing her hand.

”You always have,” Lana says.

“I’m sorry I shouted at you,” Viri whispers.

”I’m sorry too,” Lana says. “We’ll work on it. All right? You don’t want to be boxed in. I don’t want you coming back in a box. There has to be a middle ground. Let’s go back to the war room and…”

Viri shakes her head. “Just sit with me. Please. We’ll have to have those meetings and negotiations later. But right now, just be with me.”

”I’m always with you,” Lana says, kissing Viri’s hand again. She lets Viri pull her into her lap and wraps reassuring arms around her.

”Mine,” Viri murmurs, tightening her arms around Lana’s back.

”Mine,” Lana agrees, closing her eyes and leaning against Viri’s chest.

*

”So let me get this straight,” Vette says, laughing. “This isn’t Viri’s coronation. It’s some sort of pre-coronation party.”

”Correct,” Lana says. Viri’s core team is the Alliance command center, discussing the event they’re attending on Zakuul that evening.

”Oh, Zakuul,” Vette sighs, “So silly. And this shindig is being held at the same palace where the coronation will be held, but again, it’s not the main event.”

“If nothing else, it will give Alliance Intelligence a chance to survey the security systems,” Lana says.

”Yeah, for that alone, I’m fine with this,” Theron says. “Can everyone be ready to leave in a half hour? Viri?”

”Yes, that’s fine,” Viri says. Lana feels anger and jealousy sparking through her again, and beneath it, she senses that Viri is struggling to push it away.

“I think we’re through here, then. Gravestone dock, 18:00. Latecomers will be left behind,” Lana says, rising from the table. “Viri, can I have a word with you?”

Viri nods and follows Lana from the command center. They’re both silent until the doors to Viri’s new suite close behind them.

“I feel the jealousy, you know,” Lana begins, as soon as the locks to the room engage. ”I feel the anger. What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” Viri admits.

“You don’t know why every time I talk to anyone else in the Alliance besides yourself you are on the verge of rage?”

”No,” Viri admits. “I have no idea where this is coming from.”

Lana tilts her head and studies Viri. Her Force signature is in turmoil, and she appears to be pushing back against something in her mind.

”Did you…take anything? Have anything to drink?” Lana asks carefully.

Viri paces, her hands on her hips, and shakes her head. “No.”

“What the hell is going on with you?”

Viri clutches at her head, and when she looks at Lana again, she appears to be herself. “I don’t know, Lana.”

“I’m allowed to have friends, Viri,” Lana says, with a touch of irritation. “You certainly do.”

”Of course you are, and we shouldn’t spend every minute together, but…” Viri flushes and looks away. “Look. I know it’s not fair and it’s not rational, and I’m doing everything in my power not to give in to it. I’m failing miserably on that note.”

Lana cups her cheek in one hand, caressing Viri’s skin with her thumb. “Love. Look at me. There’s no reason to be jealous this way. You have me. What will make you believe that?”

“I do believe it. It’s just…”

“It’s just that your fears and anxiety are eating you alive right now.”

Viri gets up and paces. “Lana, it’s more than that! I hate people you were with before I even met you. I know it’s not right. I know it’s completely stupid and irrational and possessive. I’m doing my best to tell myself that. I don’t need to be reassured of our love and union every five minutes. I know it well. I feel it in our bond. But…”

Anxiety spikes through the bond. ”But you’re still worried you’ll lose me.”

”Yes. Aren’t you worried of the same every time I go on a mission?” Viri asks.

”When you’re going up against multiple enemies with advanced weaponry who want to kill you, that’s a legitimate worry, is it not?” Lana says dryly. “Maybe that’s what you need to ask yourself. Is this reasonable?”

”I know it’s not reasonable. But I can’t stop it.”

”Love…what will fix this?” Lana asks.

Viri takes a shaky breath. “I want us to try something. At tonight’s party, you are to stay with one of them. I will stay with Vette or Pierce. I need to deal with this head-on. Whatever is causing this jealousy, I will not entertain it.”

”I think that’s an excellent idea,” Lana says, stroking her cheek again. “We are Sith. We do not back down from a challenge.”

*

“We should be in Zakuul in two minutes,” Lana says. She loves to fly, so she’s insisted on piloting the Alliance shuttle to Zakuul. Viri sits in the first mate’s chair, gazing listlessly out the windows.

”Hey,” Lana says, looking over at her. “You’ll be all right.”

Viri gives her a wan smile, but before she can talk, the cockpit door opens and several Alliance members come bustling in.

”My goodness, don’t you look just scrumptious tonight, Commander!” Darth Hexid says. As usual, she’s clad in black from head to toe. The Zabrak woman is tall and imposing; her lips appear to be permanently fixed in a knowing smile. The Sith Pureblood woman on her arm, Jiani – Darth Imperius – is also tall, but is, otherwise, Hexid’s polar opposite. She is so shy and unassuming that both Lana and Viri have wondered how she ever survived the Korriban trials, but her skill with a polesaber is undisputed.

“You’re looking lovely yourself, Hex,” Viri responds. “Hello, Jia. You look beautiful, too! Are you both ready to see Zakuul?”

“Yes,” Jiani says, her voice barely audible.

“I’ve heard of this palace,” Hexid says. “Heard you did some damage to it last time, too. I can’t wait to see it.”

“No time like the present,” Lana says, touching down on the landing pad outside the Eternal Empire’s former palace.

*

The Zakuulan palace is beautiful, with fountains and crystal chandeliers, but all Viri feels are the dark doubts pulling at her brain like spiders.

I am Sith. I channel my emotions. They do not control me.

You’re cute when you’re lying to yourself. The voice in Viri’s head is her own, but with a mocking, malicious timbre.

Peace is a lie. There is only passion. Through passion, I gain strength. Through strength I gain power. Through power I –“

Look at Lana over there. Tsk.

Shut up! Through power I gain… Viri chews through her lower lip and balls her hands into fists as she walks. She wanders to the dance floor, crowded with both Alliance and Zakuulan guests.

”Ah, there you are!” Darth Hexid says, coming over to her. “We were all wondering where you’d snuck away to. Dance with me. Jia won’t mind.”

“All right,” Viri says uncertainly, and allows Hexid to lead her onto the dance floor.

“I’ve heard you are a delightful dancer,” she says.

”I do my best,” Viri says. She puts one arm around Hexid’s waist and takes her hand with the other, and proceeds to literally sweep her off her feet as the music breaks into a waltz.

”You are most compelling, darling,” Hexid purrs, allowing Viri to lead.

”May I?” Jia asks shyly, cutting in. Viri steps away from Hexid, preparing to let her return to her partner, but to her surprise, Jia wants to dance with her.

“Have fun, dears,” Hexid says, as she spins away and grabs Vette for a dance.

”Oops, sorry, sorry, didn’t mean to step on your feet,” Jia stammers. Viri senses she’s blushing, even though her complexion is already bright red. “I’m used to leading, is all.”

”All right,” Viri says with a smile, and adjusts her arms. “Lead.”

Jiani smiles and takes the lead, guiding them around the floor. She only steps on Viri’s toes once more, and they enjoy a spirited dance.

“May I, my lady?” Talos asks nervously. He’s far shorter than Viri, and seems surprised when she asks him to lead, but he’s a skilled dancer.

”My goodness, Talos, how did I not know you were a dancer?” Viri smiles, truly pleased to be with a talented partner.

”I don’t think it came up during our battles,” Talos smiles, twirling Viri. “But I must say, I am enjoying this.”

Talos and Viri glide through several dances, but eventually Pierce cuts in. ”My turn, if I may. I’ve missed dancing with you, my lord.”

*

In the corner, Lana watches Viri gracefully dance with one friend after the next. She finishes her drink and extends a hand to Theron.

”Oh, no. You’re not getting me out there.”

”Come on. I want to see if she’s really over her jealousy.”

”All right,” Theron says, and takes Lana’s hand as they join the dancers.

It’s only seconds before the first wave of bitter jealousy hits Lana, and she frowns with disappointment. Viri’s on the other side of the floor, still in Pierce’s arms, and she’s not looking at Lana, but her jaw is clenched. Lana sighs.

”She’s not doing well, is she?” Theron asks.

“No,” Lana says, discouraged. “She’s fighting it. But it’s there.”

”Can you see why?” Theron asks.

”I shouldn’t,” Lana says. But she opens her mind and touches it against Viri’s, seeking.

She’s going to leave you she never loved you you’re ugly useless bad in bed act like a child awful she never loved you she’s always been biding her time all these suitors want her not you she’s slept with so many people better than you

Lana shivers as she retreats.

“Not good?” Theron asks, and brings her to the edge of the dance floor.

”No,” Lana says. “Something in her mind was telling her…terrible things. She was fighting hard not to listen. But it was getting to her.”

“Are you totally sure he’s not in her mind?”

”Yes. There’s nothing in Viri’s mind except her own psyche. She’s perfectly capable of being her own worst enemy, and unfortunately she is right now.” Lana scans the room for Viri, but she’s disappeared. She reaches for her comlink, but Theron puts a hand over it.

”Remember what else you discussed, Lana. You’re working on something, too. Viri is allowed to disappear without your immediately thinking she’s being murdered.”

“Right,” Lana says, but her fingers twitch as she pulls them away from her comm.

“Come get another drink,” Theron says, leading them both back toward the bar. “Space is good for you, and it’s good for Viri. Besides, you haven’t told me what you think of the Corellian rum they have here yet.”

*

Viri wanders along the second floor of the palace. She knows she’s truly not alone – Alliance Intelligence is keeping an eye on her at all times – but as per her new agreement with Lana, they’re trying to be clandestine. The building has not been renovated much since Vaylin’s residency, save to repair the lightsaber and blaster holes in the wall. The beast pits are all empty now, as per Viri’s request; the animals have been sent to safe homes.

The royal family’s personal effects have been looted but the furniture remains, and Viri looks around curiously as she mills through the empty rooms. Such opulence. Such misery. Such…

Viri sucks in a breath as she stares at the corridor before her. There’s a parade of carbonite slabs lining the hallway, and each one is a different alien species. The very first in the row is the frozen figure of Darth Nox - Suvia Kallig, to her friends - still dressed in her prized Dark Council robes. Viri presses one hand to her mouth to avoid vomiting and screams in her mind.

Lana where are you I need you now now now

In the main ballroom, Lana sits straight up in her chair and drops her drink. “Viri’s in trouble. We need to go.”

”I thought you said you and Viri were trying to deal with your issues by staying apart tonight. Running to her when she calls isn’t going to help that,” Theron says, but he doesn’t stop Lana from jumping out of her seat and rushing down the hallway.

”Something’s actually wrong,” Lana says. “I can feel it.”

Viri? What is it?

I found Suvia.

Lana’s eyes open wide and she turns to Theron. “Grab Vette and the others. We need to get to her, now.”

*

The Alliance contingent finds Viri stock-still in the middle of the corridor, still staring at the carbonite trophies. Lana, Vette and Talos recognize Suvia at once, and all three involuntarily gasp.

”Nox. Oh no. No.” Vette whispers, approaching the block.

“The bio-status light is green,” Viri says, her voice shaky. “At least she’s alive.”

Hexid catches sight of the other carbonite slabs in the hallway, and quickly ascertains the theme. “They…collected aliens.”

”Apparently,” Viri says.

“I think I know this man,” Theron says gesturing to another block with a dark bio-status light. “He was with the SIS and…damn it. He’s dead.”

“Viri, wasn’t she on Darth Marr’s staff?” Vette asks, pointing to a heavyset Twi’lek woman who is similarly dead in her carbonite prison.

“Yes,” Viri says. “That’s Ensign Markus.”

”I would put money on all of these people being part of Darth Marr’s coalition forces,” Lana says softly. “Some of the missing casualties.”

”Damn it,” Viri says, walking up and down the hallway. “Every single one of them, dead. Except Nox. Zakuul had a crappy carbonite chamber, didn’t they?”

”That was probably the point,” Theron says. “Think about it. If you put someone in carbonite they haven’t been killed outright. If they happen to die while they’re there…them’s the breaks, right? Gets Zakuul off the hook.”

”Yeah,” Viri says, staring up at Suvia’s still face. “Cunning of them, wasn’t it?”

”So let’s get her out of here,” Vette says, moving toward the controls. Lana immediately steps in front of her.

“No. Just unfreezing her could be very dangerous,” Lana explains. “She could die.”

”You unfroze Viri,” Vette says.

”I had two antidotes to cure her of carbonite poisoning, and the original plan was to get her to a med bay immediately,” Lana says. “Viri was extremely sick when we unfroze her. I would expect no different from Suvia, and we’re not equipped for that at this moment.”

”Yeah, I remember that,” Koth says. “She really was a mess.”

”We can’t unfreeze her now,” Lana says. “We need to prepare for that.”

Viri touches the carbonite block thoughtfully. “What I am going to suggest is that we take Suvia back to Odessen with us tonight. We can source the antidotes for her and have the Alliance medical team on hand to get her into a hospital bed immediately.”

“I’m organizing the transfer now,” Theron says, tapping buttons on his datapad.

”Carbonite antidotes were illegal under the Eternal Empire, and I don’t know their status now,” Lana says, consulting her own datapad. “We might need to speak to Hylo about sourcing some.”

“Talos, I want you and Xalek on standby, as well,” Viri says.

”What can they do?” Jiani asks.

”When I was unfrozen, the first thing I saw was Lana. I was in tremendous pain and extremely frightened, and seeing her made things so much better. I think Suvia will benefit from having some friendly faces there to support her when she wakes up.”

”If only we could have found Ashara,” Vette laments.

”We’ll have to make do with what we have,” Lana says. “We’re not her partner, but we’re her friends. Everyone needs friends.”

”Yeah,” Viri says quietly. “Theron, let me help you organize that.”

Lana catches her eye and smiles.

”I—I hope nobody will mind, but I want to go home now,” Viri says. “I know it’s still early, but I think it’s most important to get Suvia out of here.”

“I fully agree, Commander,” Lana says. “Theron, can you call the shuttle?”

”I already did,” Theron replies. “It’s close, in fact. I’ve asked the crew to bring in the emergency air cart for Suvia.”

Once Suvia’s slab has been placed on the air cart, Talos leads the way to the shuttle. The rest of the group walks slowly behind and around her, like pallbearers at a funeral. Lana can only hope that the comparison isn’t an apt one for Nox.

Chapter Text

Viri crouches in the rafters of the empty hangar, her lightsaber drawn, ready to strike. With no actual conflicts at hand, her training regimen now includes several hours every morning in the Alliance staging grounds, working through simulated battle scenarios. The Force users and skytroopers searching for her are all on her side, and their weapons are set to stun, but she treats it as seriously as she would an actual battle.

Now. Viri launches herself from the rafters and lands squarely in the middle of the melee, taking out two Jedi and a skytrooper with one blow. The next takes down two more skytroopers; the third knocks a lightsaber out of a Sith’s hand.

Viri smiles savagely as she faces Darth Hexid, sparring with her in the rubble. Out of the corner of her eye she spots Darth Imperius trying to mount a stealth attack and parries her. Lana jumps into the fray, and the two couples spar as vigorously as they can. A panel on the wall releases more skytroopers – some targeting Viri; some targeting Hexid – and they bat the droids away as they fight.

Lana finally disarms Darth Imperius, and the two women step back to watch Hexid and Viri finish their skirmish. Viri’s trademark leaps are cut short by Hexid’s polesaber sweeps; Hexid’s polesaber spins are stymied by Viri’s lightning-fast lightsaber work. Their blades flash as they clash, again and again.

Pain. Lana stares sharply at Viri as discomfort courses through their bond. Viri’s expression hasn’t changed, she hasn’t been hit, and her indigo lightsaber is meeting Hexid’s dual blades at every sweep, but there’s a steady pain spreading through her. And although Hexid can’t see it, Lana knows Viri’s work, and she can immediately discern that Viri is slower than usual. Her lightsaber technique – which has always been textbook – is sloppier than normal, and her movements aren’t as sharp. When Viri finally smashes Hexid’s polesaber out of her hands, Lana is relieved that the fight is over.

”Good show, darlings,” Hexid says, as Viri retrieves her polesaber and tosses it back to her. Lana and Viri shake hands with Hexid and Imperius, and the latter move on to their next training station, outside.

“We’re fighting the walker next,” Lana says, consulting the training agenda they’ve designed for the day.

”Give me a moment.” Viri puts her hands on her hips and paces, trying to walk out the pain. Lana feels the echo of it through their bond. Viri is resisting something in her mind again; and Lana can see her jaws grinding as her fingers dig into her own hips.

”Did you come down on something when you jumped from the roof?” Lana asks.

“No, that was fine. I’m not sure what’s happening. I’ll walk it off.” When Viri raises her head, though, her eyes are bloodshot and she looks worse than before.

"I…Lana, will you go through Soresu with me? I don’t think the walker would be a good idea right now."

"What’s the matter? Your eyes are red."

"I don’t know." Lana frowns. Those words have been falling from Viri’s lips frequently over the past few days.

"We should stop for the day."

"I want to work through this."

"All right. But take it easy."

Lana and Viri square off and go through some simple exercises. Viri botches one move, and then another. She frowns and corrects herself, but when they try the sequence again, Lana’s able to disarm her with no trouble at all.

”I would have run you through, Viri,” Lana says, bewildered. “You’ve never missed that.”

”Yeah,” Viri says, rubbing her head.

”We should wrap it up for today. Stretch and meditate with me.”

Viri nods, but she staggers as she sits down. Lana steadies her and studies her face, seeking answers that aren’t there.

”Viri, what’s wrong, tell me…” Lana’s voice is no longer casual.

”I’m sure I’m fine,” Viri says, and faints dead away.

*

She’s back in her mindscape, and the throne is empty.

”Why am I here again?” Viri asks, looking around. She gasps as she sees a woman lying on the ground at the foot of the stairs. It’s her…and she’s withering to dust.

*

”L—ana?” Viri’s eyes flutter open and meet Lana’s worried gaze. She’s cradling Viri in her arms, and her heat and presence are a comfort. The sharp smell of kolto is in the air, and the Alliance medical staff and Doctor Lokin are hovering unobtrusively around Viri’s hospital bed. She flexes her hand, staring at the IV that has been set.

“You were out for a while,” Lana says. “But the scans they ran came back negative, mostly. All they found was dehydration. It seems you just overexerted yourself.”

”That—“ That’s not it at all.

I know. Something’s off. But it’s not showing up on the tests.

”Try sitting up,” Lana says, and helps her. “They gave you some IV fluids, but have some water, too.”

Viri nods numbly and takes the glass of water that is offered to her.

“I think you should take it easy at your coronation tonight,” Lokin says, removing her IV line. “Drink some caf beforehand so you’re on your toes and be the gracious host, overseeing the party from your couch. In the meantime, save your strength.”

Viri nods again. Out of the corner of her eye she spots Suvia’s carbonite slab resting against the wall, and she bursts into tears.

The Alliance staff looks askance.

”Can we have some privacy?” Lana asks. The medics and Lokin nod and leave, closing the door behind them. Theron and Vette remain, hovering discreetly at the side of the room.

”Viri, love, what?” Lana asks, wrapping an arm around her.

”How close are we to getting the antidotes? I hate seeing her there.” Viri gestures toward Suvia.

”We’re working on it,” Theron says. “The antidotes are actually harder to source now than they were even two years ago, and sources like Asylum have been destroyed. Even Vandin isn’t yielding much help. We’re following up some leads at the chemical factories on Quesh and reaching out to some of the bounty hunters we know.”

”Work harder,” Viri snaps, and throws her water at the wall near Theron’s head. “Do I have to storm the damn factories and mix the antidotes myself to get what we need?”

“Viri!” Vette gasps.

”I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that,” Viri says, and floats a towel over to Theron. “I’m not sure why I’m lashing out right now. I hope you know I don’t actually hate you.”

”Thanks for clarifying that,” Theron says quietly, wiping the water from his face. “I’ve been wondering what is going on.”

”She’s snippy as hell when she’s in pain,” Vette says, reassuring Theron. “She always has been.”

”I wish I knew what was behind it,” Viri says. “I’ve had headaches since the Eternal Throne.”

“Maybe your body is still adjusting to that link,” Lana says.

”And maybe I’m a Jedi,” Viri snaps. “Use your brain.”

Lana’s jaw drops.

Viri blinks and covers her face. “No. Not you. I can’t snap at you. I’m sorry, Lana.”

”It’s all right,” Lana says. “I know you didn’t mean it.”

”How am I going to get through this coronation tonight?” Viri mutters, leaning into Lana. “I’m this irritable with people I love, I’m not going to do well with people I don’t care for.”

“Hey. We got through that Mandalorian party where you were blind drunk; we can handle this,” Theron says.

“Strategy,” Viri says, tapping her forehead. “I just won’t talk.”

”That might be a problem. They’re expecting you to give a speech, remember?” Lana says.

”Shit, that’s right. Can we at least edit down what I have prepared?” Viri says.

“Yeah,” Theron says. “Maybe we can actually float the idea that you’ve had too much to drink. Hear me out. Nobody would think anything of it, not at your coronation, and it would explain any snappishness.”

“I’ll go with that,” Viri says.

“We’ve got some painkillers here for you. Hopefully it will be enough to last the evening. Take one now, so we can see if they’ll work,” Lana says.

Viri complies, but her shoulder sag with worry. She meets Lana’s eyes, sensing the pain flowing through their bond

”We’ll get through it,” Lana says, rubbing her back. It’s not so bad.

You’re lying. You’re feeling my pain to your very bones, Lana.

I didn’t say that I wasn’t feeling it, mine. I said it’s not so bad. It’s not, because you’re here and awake. I’ve got you.

”I love you,” Viri whispers, and buries her face in Lana’s neck.

”I love you too, mine. Always.”

”You’ll be fine,” Vette says, giving her a hug. “Promise.”

”Yeah,” Theron says. “We’ll figure it out.”

“Thanks,” Viri says. “Don’t I get a hug?”

Theron hesitates. “I’m not sure you wanted one from me.”

”Of course I did,” Viri says, and hugs him.

”Lokin wanted you to rest as long as possible before we leave for Zakuul,” Lana says. “I feel like your own bed would be more comfortable than the med bay. Can you walk?”

Viri nods and stands up, leaning on Lana for support. “I think I’m good.”

”Let’s get you back to your room, then.” Lana loops an arm around her waist; Vette takes her other elbow, and Theron puts one hand on her back. Together they walk Viri slowly back to her suite, help her take her shoes off, and tuck her into bed.

“Home sweet home,” Vette says, and kisses her on the cheek. “Get some rest before you have to look fabulous.”

“What she said,” Theron laughs. “Feel better, Viri.”

”Thank you,” Viri says. “Both of you. Lana, you’re staying, right?”

”Of course I am,” Lana says. “Vette, Theron, we’ll see you later.”

When the door closes, Lana brushes back Viri’s hair and kisses her forehead before getting under the covers and settling down next to her. She’s about to spoon Viri when there’s a sharp knock at the door.

”Yes?”

“My lords, if I could have a word, privately?” Talos Drelik calls over the room’s intercom. “I regret to disturb you right now, but it’s very important.”

”Viri needs her rest, Talos. We’ll talk later.”

”My lord, that’s what it’s about. Please.”

Viri nods, and Lana gets out of bed and opens the door. Talos is standing in the hallway with a crate in his hands and a solemn expression on his face.

”Come in,” Lana says, and leads him to the couches. “Viri, can you hear us from there?”

”Yes.”

Lana nods. “All right, then. Viri needs to stay in bed, but she’ll listen in. What’s the matter, Talos?”

Talos’s eyes flick toward the sleeping alcove and back to Lana. “I’ve been watching Viri over the past few days. She seems to be deteriorating...”

”We are aware of that.”

”Suvia acted similarly at one point. I won’t presume anything; nor will I ask what Viri endured during her time in carbonite and her battle against the Eternal Throne. But in Suvia’s case, it happened because of her Force Walking.”

Lana looks sharply at Talos. “Go on.”

Talos sighs. “Suvia wanted this kept confidential. But I’m sure she would want to help Viri, and would give her this information of her own volition. Suvia had to bind four ghosts in a very short time period, and she used their power against Thanaton. Gaining power so rapidly, and hosting so many spirits in her mind, caused her great harm.”

“I see,” Lana says softly. Viri?

Go ahead. Tell him.

”Viri had five spirits in her mind courtesy of the Eternal Empire, four of whom joined her very quickly. All were powerful Force users; one was particularly malevolent. All have been either killed or freed.”

”I suspected as much,” Talos says. “Her actions were too close to Suvia’s to be anything else. I wasn’t aware you were skilled at Force Walking, Viri.”

”I’m not,” Viri says weakly. “The first spirit forcibly invaded my mind and brought in the others. And he happened to be the former Sith Emperor, which made it doubly fun. Except for Dramath—except for one I found in a holocron and absorbed in order to fight with me.”

Talos has gone ashen.

”I’m guessing that’s not good,” Lana says.

”It…no. It’s not. Suvia did have one ghost who refused to leave, but she negotiated with the others and they bound to her voluntarily.” Talos says. “Your situation sounds far more violent, and your mind is the battlefield, my lord.”

“Suvia seemed fine when we knew her,” Viri says, her voice shaky. “What did she do?”

”She underwent several rituals to heal her mind and body,” Talos says. “When we were on Yavin 4,she found a temple, and a ritual to perform there, which seemed to do both. It was one of her motives for remaining on Yavin 4 after our coalition ended; to see if it could truly help her. It did. Since she still had one spirit in her head, she’d planned to return there every so often for…maintenance, for lack of a better word.”

”I see,” Lana says. “Was there anything else she did?”

”She did a specific meditation ritual to try to boost her own Force healing abilities,” Talos says. “It helped her, but it needed to be repeated every day. I’ve taken the liberty of bringing a copy of those steps, in case it might be helpful. Other than that, she relied on pain medicine when it became too difficult.”

”Thank you, Talos. You’re a good friend.”

”I care deeply for both of you,” Talos says. “I don’t want to see Viri harmed the way Suvia was.”

Lana turns to look at Viri. Her eyes are closed and she appears to have fallen asleep.

”I won’t let her be hurt, Talos,” Lana says. “We’ll do whatever we can for her.”

Talos nods. “I’ll help both Viri and Suvia with this as much as I can. After seven years in carbonite with no opportunity to heal, she’s likely to need that ritual on Yavin 4, too.”

”We’ll work it out,” Lana says. “And Talos, it goes without saying that this should remain between us. Viri and I will likely tell Vette and Theron, but keep it quiet otherwise…”

”…just as Suvia kept it among the members of her crew,” Talos finishes the sentence. “You can count on me to keep this confidential. I’ll leave you and Viri to your rest now.”

“Thank you, Talos,” Viri says, her voice faint. “As horrible as this is…it’s a relief to know what it is.”

”I have every confidence you can deal with this, my lord,” Talos says, heading for the door. “Rest well.”

As soon as the door closes and locks behind Talos, Lana is at Viri’s side. Sheer despair is sparking through the bond.

”He never stops finding ways to hurt me, does he?” Viri says. “I killed him, and yet, here he is, causing more damage.”

“Viri, I can’t disagree with you, but we’ll deal with it, just as we dealt with everything else surrounding Valkorion.”

”It never stops!” Viri clutches her hair and screams. “It’s never going to stop, Lana. Face it. He’s going to keep hurting me until I’m dead. Every single time we resolve one problem, he just pops up again, and again, and again….first Vitiate, then Valkorion, and it wasn’t enough that he’s left me with nightmares and flashbacks, now he has to destroy my body and brain, too…I’m so tired, Lana. I can’t do this anymore.”

”Love,” Lana says, folding the shaking woman into her arms. “I’ve got you. “

”I can’t do it, Lana, I can’t…” Viri’s entire body wracks with sobs.

“Yes, you can,” Lana says, feeling Viri’s hopelessness as a cut on her own soul. “You forget who you are. I’ve seen you move the galaxy. This is one more challenge you will conquer. And you’re not alone with it. I’m right here, and I’ll help you.”

”Why? This is the life you want, Lana? Carrying me through one problem after the next? Being up every night with me when I’m screaming? Dealing with this, now, when I’m falling apart? I can’t even stop my pain from hurting you. You deserve better, Lana. You don’t deserve this.” Viri sobs into her shoulder, gasping out the words as she gulps for air.

“None of this talk,” Lana says, soothing her. “Stop. I love you. I told you before, I never thought your path would be easy. If we have to deal with a million more problems from Valkorion’s damage, I’ll be there with you. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Yes, I’m feeling your pain through the bond. Good. We’ll carry it together.”

”You always carry me. It’s not fair to you.”

“No, love. It’s not about ‘fair.’ You carry me in more ways than you know.”

“Really?“

”Yes. I can’t even begin to tell you. You’re my Veré.”

Viri blinks up at her. “You read that legend?”

”Of course I did,” Lana says, slipping from Sith to Naboo. “I wanted to know all about your heritage. Set and Veré’s legend is beautiful. The eternal lovers, bound across the stars. They went through much adversity together, but their love pulled them through. It fits, don’t you think?”

”They eventually had a break from their trials,” Viri says, responding in the same language. Naboo is as comforting as Sith to her; it carries a sense of home that wraps around her like a warm blanket.

”And so will we,” Lana says, holding Viri in her arms and switching back to Sith. “Do not despair, little demon.”

”You are meant to burn like the stars and light your path in passion.” Viri finishes the verse, breathing more evenly. She smiles at Lana through her tears. “I feel like I’m always crying on you.”

”After what you’ve been through, I’d be worried if you didn’t cry,” Lana says. “You’re allowed to feel it.”

”I’m the Wrath,” Viri says.

Lana kisses her forehead. “We both know your work persona. But this? This is sanctuary, love.”

”You’re the sanctuary,” Viri says, reaching for her.

”As are you,” Lana says, holding her close. ”Let me protect you. Let me be your Set. Please?”

Viri nods, and a single tear rolls down her face. Lana kisses it away.

“We’ll get through tonight. We’ll figure out how to free Suvia. We’ll go to Yavin 4 and we’ll heal you.”

Viri snuggles closer to Lana, wrapping one arm around her waist. “Back to Yavin 4. Can you imagine?”

”We’d wanted to establish a retreat there for the Force users for the Alliance,” Lana says, “It’s a good cover. Nobody will find it unusual for us to want to return there for spiritual edification.”

”True. Nobody’s going to question it if we sneak away to do our own Force rituals,” Viri says sleepily. “Maybe we could visit the Temple of Passion, as well.”

”I’d be disappointed if we didn’t,” Lana says, kissing her forehead. “In the meantime, we have to be up in a few hours to prepare for your festival. Let’s try to get some rest.”

Viri nods and rests her head on Lana, letting the gentle rise and fall of her chest and Lana’s comforting presence lull her to sleep.

*

“Time to get up, love,” Lana says, shaking Viri gently. “We have to get ready.”

”Nnnn,” Viri mutters, burying herself in the pillows. “You go. Tell everyone you’re the Empress. It’ll be fun.”

”Oh, no you don’t,” Lana says, playfully tugging at her arms. “Up. You can sleep on the way to Zakuul, but we need to get dressed. Unless you want to go to your coronation in your workout clothes.”

”All right, I’m up,” Viri says. As soon as she sits up, searing pain shoots down her back, and she cries out.

”Viri?” Lana says, alarmed. “I felt that.”

”I’m fine,” Viri pants. “It’s oka—“

“The painkillers must have worn off,” Lana says, squeezing her hand. Viri’s pain is spreading insidiously through her own body.

”Can I take another?” Viri gasps, gritting her teeth as she tries unsuccessfully to stand.

Lana floats the bottle over to the bed and checks the label. “Not for another two hours.”

”Fucking hell.” Viri puts her head in her hands. “And you’re feeling everything, so I’m weakening you along with myself.”

”Stop it. You know I don’t care about that. Let’s try the meditation Talos left for you.” Lana kneels by the side of the bed and takes her hands. “I’m right here. I’ll talk you through.”

Viri nods solemnly and closes her eyes. The Sith incantations are simple, and Viri is easily able to channel the Force and generate a healing field for herself. They both know that Viri has to do this alone, but Lana’s heart still flutters in her chest as she watches Viri concentrate. When she opens her eyes, they’re much less bloodshot, and she immediately embraces Lana. Lana leans in, feeling the Force in and around them.

”We’ll fight through this,” Lana murmurs.

“I’m always putting you through shit like this,” Viri says. “How do you even stand me?”

Lana holds her tighter. “I love you, brat. Body, mind, soul. If you didn’t keep my on my toes, what would I do with my time?”

”Thank you,” Viri whispers. “I love you too. All of you.”

”Feeling better now?” Lana asks, brushing Viri’s hair out of her face. She doesn’t have to ask; the pain she’s feeling through the bond has subsided to a dull ache.

Viri nods.

“Shower with me?” Lana says, kissing her again. “Let’s get you ready to meet your public.”

“All right,” Viri says, takes a deep breath, and stands up. She follows Lana to the fresher, pulling her clothes off as she walks. When she’s totally nude, she looks down at the bandage on her stomach. She’s taken to covering up the lightsaber scar, taping a thick layer of gauze over it so it's hidden from view. As she stands at the door of the shower, she peels the dressing away and touches Lana’s shoulder to get her attention.

”What do you think?” Viri asks, posing.

It takes Lana a moment to figure out what’s different, but as soon as her gaze drops to Viri’s abdomen, she gasps. The lightsaber scar is gone, and the muscled plane of Viri’s stomach is smooth and unblemished.

”Viri! Your scar is gone!”

Viri smiles. “I told you I’d take care of it. The one on my back is gone, too. I asked them to repair it when they took care of the burns on my legs.”

”And you’ve been hiding it under that bandage!”

”Couldn’t spoil the surprise,” Viri says. “Do you like this better?”

Lana grins, but shakes her head in the next second. “I…yes. But I don’t know if I should.”

”What?”

”Intellectually, there’s something that seems wrong about your modifying your body because of how I felt about it.”

”I get where you’re coming from, but I also think that since that particular scar had so much history attached to it, for both of us, it might have been a special case. Getting rid of it…maybe it means we’re truly able to put that behind us. That we’ve healed, at least a little.”

Lana kneels before her and runs her fingers over the new, soft skin. “It’s as though it was never there.”

”We both know it was. But now we don’t have to look at it,” Viri says.

“I think I need to thank you for this,” Lana breathes, but hesitates. “Are you up to it?”

”I need you,” Viri says, her voice low. “He will not take this from us.”

Lana nods and kisses Viri deeply, scooping the tall woman into her arms. Viri giggles as Lana carries her back to their bed and deposits her gently on the mattress.

“I love it when you carry me.”

”Do you?” Lana murmurs. “I’ll have to do it more often,”

”You’ll throw your back out, like Vette did.” Vette had once needed to carry Viri through the desert in Tatooine, and she’d never let Viri live it down.

”You’re not heavy,” Lana scoffs. “And it’s not like I’m Vette. You’re in Sith hands now.”

”I want those hands on me,” Viri whispers, biting at Lana’s fingers. Her tongue swipes across the mark of union, rearing back in surprise when it responds with a surge of energy.

Lana’s eyes open wide. “Whoa. I felt that.”

“Good?”

”Do it again and see.” Viri does, and Lana hisses with pleasure. She grabs Viri’s hand and drags her teeth across the purple scar, relishing Viri’s moans.

The next minute, though, Viri straightens up, looks curiously at her hand, and kisses her own mark. “Nothing. It seems to require your participation, Lana.”

Lana kisses the purple scar, and a bolt of electric sensation courses through Viri again.

“That’s fun,” Viri says, raising an eyebrow and kissing Lana again.

“That wasn’t in the ritual,” Lana laughs. “But it’s certainly a nice surprise.”

“I want you,” Viri says, her voice husky. “Just you.”

Lana smiles as Viri rolls them over and settles on top of her, stretching out to her full length. Viri kisses her again and again, finally catching her mouth in a deep embrace that intensifies. Lana wraps her arms around Viri’s back and holds her close.

Viri falls into Lana as she kisses her deeply. This is all they need, sometimes. Viri moans as she runs her hands through Lana’s hair, claiming every part of her she can. Lana’s breasts, tight against her own. Their hips locked together. Their bodies undulating softly against each other, heat rising from their skin.

”More,” Viri finally whispers, and tracks her mouth down Lana’s neck, savoring every shiver and cry. She knows Lana’s body as well as her own; knows which spots on her collarbone will make her shudder and clutch at Viri’s shoulders.

“Kiss me,” Lana whispers, and Viri smiles. There’s no room for teasing today; the fire is too bright for that. She curls her body until her head is on Lana’s thigh and nudges her legs open. When her tongue makes contact with Lana’s core, it sends a frisson through both of them.

”Get over here,” Lana gasps, and pulls Viri’s hips toward her. She rests her head on Viri’s leg and kisses her, and Viri cries out with surprise.

”Don’t stop,” Lana says, her voice low. “I’ve always wanted to try this with you…”

Viri nods and runs her tongue down Lana’s folds, tasting, exploring. Lana mirrors her. Everything she does to Lana is reflected back to her, both through the bond and Lana’s own actions.

Pleasure. So much pleasure. She clutches Lana’s thigh as her tongue laves the most sensitive spots she can find, delighting in every cry and moan that reaches her ears. One finger, and then another, slides into Lana’s heat, and she cries out as she feels Lana mirroring her actions again, thrusting deep.

Your scent. Your body. Your taste. You, everywhere. Fingers. Tongue. Viri is intoxicated by Lana’s presence, and the steady press of her head against Viri’s thigh. They seem to continue for an eternity, pushing each other to the edge and backing off, again and again. But finally the pressure is too much and they spur each other on, reaching their peak together. Viri cries out as she comes undone, feeling Lana’s climax strongly as her own. She collapses against Lana, breathing hard, and caresses her again and again.

Lana shifts position so she can pull Viri into her arms, cuddling her close.

”You know, I feel ever so much better now,” Viri laughs.

“I would hope so,” Lana deadpans. “If you felt worse it might defeat the purpose.”

”No, I mean it…” Viri says. “I feel totally fine now. Can’t you sense it?”

Lana taps into Viri’s mind again, and sits up in surprise. Viri’s Force signature is free of pain and doubt.

”Through passion you gain strength,” Lana quips. “If this is what it will take to keep you well, I think I can oblige.”

”A dose of Lana? Best medicine ever,” Viri laughs.

”There’s probably some perfectly logical metaphysical explanation about the bond and our connection to the Force working in a feedback loop with endorphins, but I’m going to take this as another Veré and Set moment,” Lana says.

”We’re stronger together,” Viri says, locking eyes with her.

”Yes, and—“ Lana and Viri’s comlinks begin beeping insistently. Viri floats hers over to the bed and opens the channel.

”Commander here. Yes?”

Theron sounds annoyed on the comlink channel. “Commander, Lana, are you going to the coronation, perchance? We were supposed to leave ten minutes ago.”

Viri and Lana stare at each other, shocked.

”Yes, we’re on our way,” Viri says. “Apologies for the delay.”

”It’s not like we can leave without you. We’ll wait.”

When the comlink cuts, Viri dissolves into giggles. “I’m sorry, our Empress cannot be here tonight. She’s making love to her wife.”

“I’d prefer that, honestly. But we are expected there. We’ll have to dress on the ship,” Lana says, as she hastily grabs the closest shirt and trousers and pulls them on.

Viri runs to the rack where their coronation dresses are hanging and stuffs them into garment bags. Lana sweeps their makeup and hairbrushes off the counter in the fresher, tumbling them into a small valise.

”I think I have everythin—shoes! Lana, where are our shoes?”

Lana runs to Viri’s closet. “Which ones were you going to wear?!”

”I hadn’t decided! Throw me the gold ones!”

Lana lobs the shoes across the room to Viri, who stuffs them into the bottom of a random garment bag.

Viri runs to Lana’s suite and yells through the connecting passage. “Lana! Which shoes did you want?”

”The black boots! Get those, Viri!” Viri nods and tosses Lana’s shoes into the garment bag alongside her own.

“We forgot underwear!” Lana cries, running back to the closet to grab undergarments for herself and Viri.

”Where are those painkillers? I can’t forget those,” Viri says, grabbing the bottle.

”Sabers! Never mind, I have them…” Lana summons their lightsabers from their hiding place on the bed and stuffs them into her pockets.

They’re halfway to the door before Viri realizes she’s still naked and doubles back. She hops into a pair of simple trousers as she tries to double-check the contents of the garment bags. Lana tosses a shirt to her.

”Is one of my shirts over there? This one’s yours,” Viri says. Lana’s clothes are too small for her.

”Sorry, here,” Lana says, throwing another shirt in her direction. Viri pulls it on as they race for the door, only to turn back again at the last moment.

”Shoes!”

”Going barefoot through the base won’t work…” Lana says, catching the boots that Viri throws to her one by one.

“I didn’t say goodbye to Bolt,” Viri says, as she struggles into her own boots.

”C2 is looking after him. I’m sure he’ll understand,” Lana says, as they finally escape from Viri’s suite and run for the hangar.

*

The Alliance contingent is bringing the Gravestone to Zakuul tonight, because so many people are attending the coronation. For safety’s sake, many of the Alliance staff are taking other vessels, but they will all travel together, surrounded by Eternal Fleet ships for protection.

Lana and Viri’s shuttle to the Gravestone has been idling in the hangar for several minutes, waiting for its passengers. Theron taps his toes impatiently as he waits in the pilot’s chair. When he sees Lana and Viri running toward the ship, he exhales.

”Finally,” Theron says. As the two women pile into the shuttle, however, he falls silent and stares at them in disbelief.

They’re carrying overstuffed garment bags and suitcases. Viri’s hair is falling out of a hastily tied ponytail, and Lana’s bob is in complete disarray. Lana appears to be wearing one of Viri’s University of Corellia shirts, and it is so large on her that it falls to her knees. Her boots are mismatched and unfastened. Viri isn’t in much better shape; her shirt is inside out and her pants are buttoned incorrectly and sliding low on her hips.

“What? We’re going to prep on the ship. Nobody likes sitting around in formal clothes for hours,” Viri says imperiously, strutting to the passenger seats with her chin held high and Lana beside her.

*

”We do clean up well,” Lana says, turning and looking at herself critically in the mirror. An hour into their flight to Zakuul, she and Viri are both showered, dressed, and about to put the finishing touches on their makeup.

“You look beautiful. I think I’ll marry you,” Viri giggles, doing her own catwalk spin. Her gown is blue and purple, edged in gold.

”Again?”

”Can’t you marry the same person more than once?” Viri says, blowing a kiss to Lana in the mirror. Lana is clad in a beautiful black shadowsilk gown with green accents.

”Get over here,” Lana growls, grabbing Viri’s hips and pulling her close.

”Here I am,” Viri says, kissing Lana’s nose. “We could skip the party…”

”The party will give me ample time to think of new ways to delight you,” Lana purrs. “The ride home might be interesting.”

”Challenge accepted,” Viri murmurs, kissing her again. “I suppose we have to go be official now, though.”

*

The Gravestone is far too large to land at the Zakuulan palace, so Lana, Viri and several of their closest friends take Theron’s shuttle to a heavily guarded landing pad.

”Back in the heart of Zakuul…as an honored guest. Go figure.” Vette, dressed in a glittering ruby-red dress, cranes her neck as she looks out the windows.

“Wonders never cease,” Darth Hexid opines, shaking her head. “All the same, caution is still prudent.”

”Yeah,” Viri agrees. “Not everyone is happy about this turn of events.”

”After all he did, the fact that there are still Valkorion fanboys out there blows my fucking mind,” Kaliyo says, shrugging. “You saved these assholes from Arcann and Vaylin, they could at least be grateful for that.”

”Opinions die hard,” Lana observes. “And people believe what they want to, sometimes. But we’re all armed, and Alliance Intelligence has turned this palace into a fortress, security-wise.”

”It’s a party. Can we go with that point of view?” Vette asks. “We’re going to get out of this shuttle and applaud for Viri and have a wonderful time. I’d like to think we can go out for an evening without drama.”

”Hope for the best,” Lana tells her. The shuttle sets down on the landing pad, and she steels herself as the doors open.

How are you? Lana’s eyes flick over to Viri. Viri’s Force signature is still calm, but she wants to confirm it.

Between our…medicine…and the painkillers, I’m good, Viri answers honestly. Are you ready?

Let’s do this, Lana says. She takes Viri’s arm, and the two of them step out onto a red carpet.

”Stars, are they trying to blind us?” Lana mutters. Her entire field of vision is cluttered with bright lights; the flash of one holo-camera after the next. She angles her gaze upward, and sees more holo-cameras floating above them. Next to her Viri is buzzing with adrenaline, and Lana tightens her grip on the woman’s elbow.

”Empress! Over here!”

”Wrath! Look this way!”

Viri tries to oblige as many of the photographers as she can.

”Can we get one of you alone?”

Viri frowns and looks at Lana. “I don’t want to…”

“Go meet your public,” Lana whispers, and gives Viri a tiny nudge. “My feelings aren’t hurt. Promise.”

Viri nods, takes a deep breath and walks further onto the red carpet. She gives the photographers her most dazzling smile and poses, proudly turning to show off her dress.

”She’s such a ham,” Vette mutters, approaching Lana.

”She really is,” Lana says. “She’s in her element.”

“Empress Wrath!” Indo Zal rushes down the red carpet, waving away the photographers. “That’s enough. She’s been most gracious.”

“Good to see you,” Viri says. “Thanks for the rescue.”

”It’s my pleasure, Empress,” Indo bows deeply and gestures to the palace doors. “Shall we? Your lovely partner should join you again.”

Lana is on Viri’s arm again instantly, and they walk the rest of the red carpet. As they approach the palace, Viri looks up and takes a deep breath.

”You’ll be fine,” Vette whispers, patting her shoulder. “Go on in and slay them.”

”The Sith Empire, Order of Shasa and several other groups have sent honored guests to represent them,” Indo tells her. “They’re waiting to meet you. You’ll mingle with them, we’ll have dinner, there will be a toast, you’ll say something, and the party will continue to the wee hours. How does that all sound? As for the rest of your group, I can show them where they will be sitting with you, on the dais.”

”I can handle that,” Viri says. "Lana, Theron, Vette, stay close."

Indo leads them into a side ballroom where numerous dignitaries are milling about, enjoying drinks.

”My Empress, allow me to present the representative from the Sith Empire,” Indo says with a flourish, before scurrying away to lead the Alliance contingent to their seats.

The Sith Empire’s representative is a tall Sith pureblood, and as he approaches, Viri’s eyes light up.

”Darth Vowrawn!” The smile that illuminates Viri’s face is genuine. Vowrawn smiles back at her, reaching out to grasp her hands.

”My dear Wrath!” Vowrawn says, kissing her on both cheeks. “It’s been far too long.”

”It has been. I was hoping to see you on Dromund Kaas when we visited Acina.”

”It was intended as such,” Vowrawn says. “There was to be a luncheon for you and your friends, and I was hosting. Alas, Lorman and Saresh’s machinations interfered.”

”A luncheon with you would have been far preferable to that grisly trek through the jungle,” Viri laughs. “We’ll have to reschedule.”

”Indeed,” Vowrawn says. “When you come to Dromund Kaas for your Imperial celebration, we’ll make it so. And how rude am I, not to acknowledge your companions. The beautiful Lana Beniko. Since you are on the Wrath’s arm, may I presume…”

”You may,” Lana says with a smile. “It’s a pleasure, my lord.”

”I’m so pleased. You two belong together,” Vowrawn enthuses.

“I think so too,” Viri mutters, blushing.

”And Vette! How lovely to see you again, and to know your friendship with the Wrath has endured.”

“My lord,” Vette says. “It’s so nice to see you here.”

“Zakuul has its charms, now that they’re not at our throats,” Vowrawn laughs, and turns back to Viri. “How are you, Wrath?”

”Better than I was a few months ago,” Viri says honestly.

“I am sure you have your share of sycophants saying whatever you want to hear right now, but some honest sentiment, Wrath: I am blissfully proud of you.”

”That means a lot coming from you. I’m…so glad to see you, my friend.”

“It’s rare in this galaxy that we can trust other powerful beings as friends. I’m grateful to count you among mine, Wrath. And I have a gift for you.”

”Oh, you didn’t have to…”

”It would have been dreadfully rude of me to show up without a gift for the Empress Wrath on the occasion of her coronation,” Vowrawn says, “And I have one, with compliments of the Sith Empire and Empress Acina. But this is from me to you, Wrath.”

Viri nods and accepts the red silk bag that Vowrawn offers to her. When Viri looks inside, she discovers a holo-portrait.

”I found this in the temple,” Vowrawn says, as Viri activates the portrait. “I know she isn’t here with us today, but I have to think that Darth Merwo would be as deliriously pleased with you as I am.”

Viri gasps as the holo activates. It’s a picture of her as a young child, posing with Darth Merwo and her parents.

”I can’t think of a more wonderful gift,” Viri says, and the words are heartfelt. “Thank you so much.”

Another guest ambles up to Viri’s side and clears his throat.

”Your attention is needed elsewhere, Wrath, but I hope we’ll talk again soon before the night is out,”

”We will,” Viri says, as Vowrawn kisses her cheeks again. “I will make it so.”

”You always do,” Vowrawn says, fondly. “It is why you are who you are.”

As Vowrawn disappears into the crowd, Viri’s attention turns to the other delegates. She adopts her most diplomatic expression and greets guests from Manaan, the Tion Hegemony and Portho the Hutt alike.

Chapter Text

The Festival of the Eternal Alliance is, in Indo Zal’s eyes, a resounding success. Malita Tal gives a concert; followed by several other bands. The food and drink are plentiful; the laughter is frequent, and Zakuulan, Imperial and independent guests alike appear to be enjoying the festivities.

And on the balcony above the banquet tables, the Empress Wrath – Galactic Peacekeeper, Empire’s Wrath, Sith Lord – is waiting to take her bow. As she steps up to the microphone, time seems to slow. There are ten different Holonet cameras in her face, and she adeptly ignores them.

“The galaxy has been at war for far too long,” Viri begins, looking over the assembled guests. Her gaze lingers on the friends and family seated at the dais in front of her. Lana. Vette. Theron. Pierce. All of them are staring at her with proud smiles. Viri nods imperceptibly and continues.

”Many of you fought and bled to achieve this victory. This is your night, too. I thank and congratulate every single one of you for your sacrifice and your strength.

"This might not be the outcome all of us wanted. This might not be the battle all of us wanted to fight. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. This is where we are: at the end of a long, bloody confrontation that ruined far too many lives. We have a chance to move forward; to usher in a new era of peace. I would like to go there. I hope you do, too.

"When I was the Empire’s Wrath, my solemn mandate was simple: to protect the Empire and its citizens to the very best of my ability. I still take that responsibly seriously through my alliance with the Sith Empire, even though my title has changed. But now I feel I am the galaxy’s Wrath, as well. I will do everything in my power to protect you all, to the last. Thank you.”

Applause breaks out across the ballroom, and Viri steps back from the microphone as Indo steps up beside her again.

”The Empress Wrath!”

Viri’s Alliance members are all on their feet, and most of the Zakuulans are, too. Viri humbly soaks up the adulation as she smiles serenely. She locks eyes with Lana again, and Lana reaches out through the bond to offer reassurance and love.

I’m so proud to see you there, beloved.

I couldn’t have done it without you. Love and joy surge through the bond, but beneath them, Lana senses something more, and it stops her in her tracks.

Viri…you don’t want to be Empress. The cold truth hits Lana like a saber through the gut.

Viri looks back at her with a resigned expression. And she does not disagree.

Let’s be honest, many of them would have preferred it if Valkorion actually had taken over my body. And I am meant to protect, not to rule. But we’ll go along with it, because it’s all we can do, Lana.

Lana nods, a lump rising in her throat, as she applauds for Viri.

*

The toasts and tributes continue through dinner, and by the time the coronation festival segues into a regular party, Lana’s head is throbbing from the cacophony of voices and the bright lights of the ubiquitous Holonet cameras. Not even the Tionese wine that Indo Zal has procured can dull the ache.

Viri outwardly appears to be a vision of strength, laughing and talking as she takes full advantage of the dance floor. She accepts any and all dance partners; sweeping around the ballroom with everyone from Vette to Indo Zal. She’s in her element again; her tall frame bending gracefully as she alternately leads and follows.

Lana sips her drink and smiles as she watches Viri dance. Darth Vowrawn is her latest partner, and they are both chuckling about something as they twirl and dip. When she senses Lana’s eyes on her, Viri reaches out through their bond.

Everything all right, Lana?

I’m fine, love. Enjoy yourself. Viri nods and returns to her dance. When the song ends, Darth Vowrawn escorts her to the edge of the floor.

“Not only did I get to celebrate your triumph, but I got to dance with my favorite Wrath. A rare treat,” Vowrawn says, kissing her on the cheek.

“It’s always a pleasure, Vowrawn."

”I’ll turn you over to your lovely partner now, but please see me before you leave tonight, Wrath,” Vowrawn says. “I am determined not to discuss politics on your special evening, but I do have a few messages from Acina.”

”Understood, and it’s safer to do this in person, not over a holo,” Viri agrees. “I won’t leave until I talk to you.”

Vowrawn nods. “I owe miss Vette a dance. I think I see her over there. Until later, Wrath.”

Viri turns to Lana. “Having fun?”

“Yes,” Lana says, taking her arm. “Are you going to save a dance for me?”

”Of course,” Viri says, kissing her. “Any and all of them. Just say the word.”

Lana finishes her drink. “Shall we?”

”Yes, my lady,” Viri says, bowing. She leads Lana onto the floor, puts one hand on her waist, and takes the other in her own.

Lana has never been fond of dancing. With Viri’s strong arms around her, however, she feels her discomfit fading away. Viri gazes down at her, her face suffused with love, as she carefully steers them around the floor.

I love you so much. This. This is what it’s all about.

You conquered the Eternal Empire so you could dance with your wife?

Exactly. Viri kisses her cheek and twirls her around again.

*

It is close to dawn before Viri and Lana head back to Odessen. Morning meetings are cancelled; everyone will be sleeping in to recover from the night’s festivities. Viri cannot stifle her yawns as she alights from the shuttle.

C2 has already turned down the bed in Lana’s suite, and Viri can hardly keep her eyes open as she prepares for bed. When she finally ambles into Lana’s bedroom, she all but collapses onto the mattress.

“It’s been a long night,” Lana observes, joining her.

”It has been. I had wanted to…”

”Will you even be awake for that?” Lana teases her.

”You have a way of waking me up,” Viri says, but she yawns again. Sleep is pulling at every fiber of her being, no matter how much she wants to fight it.

”How about a goodnight kiss, instead?” Lana asks gently, pulling Viri close.

“Goodnight, my love.” Viri cuddles close and kisses her, again and again. Lana cups her cheek and deepens the kiss, melting against Viri until sleep claims them both.

*

Pain. It’s pain that rouses both Lana and Viri from their slumber; pain that makes Lana sit upright in bed and stare at her wife. Viri’s teeth are clenched and she’s clearly trying to battle the agony; she’s clearly failing as tears begin to form in her eyes.

”Where does it hurt?” Lana whispers, holding her.

”I don’t even know,” Viri murmurs between gritted teeth. Every nerve in her body seems to have decided to spontaneously combust, and the pain dances along every synapse. “Everywhere.”

”Can you sit up?” Lana asks, helping her. Viri nods, but sways unsteadily and puts her head in her hands.

“Viri?”

”I’m fine,” Viri says, rubbing her forehead.

”Would you stop saying that!” Lana snaps. “You’re not fine, and you seem to keep forgetting I can feel it. Why are you constantly lying to me about this?”

Viri looks at her with bloodshot eyes. “Because I don’t want to worry you.”

Lana shakes her head. “Viri, I’m already worried. Do us both a favor and just tell me so I don’t have to guess.”

“I’m sorry.”

”Just…” Lana grits her teeth. “You don’t have to be sorry. Just level with me, would you?”

”Stop yelling at me.” Viri covers her ears.

”I’m not yelling at you, I—“ Lana softens her voice. “All right. Let’s try this again. What’s the matter?”

”My head is spinning,” Viri says. “And your voice is so loud. It hurts.”

Better?

Yes. But…let me get some water…

Viri’s Force signature is in distress. As she tries to get up, her legs give out on her, and she falls to the floor.

”Well, that wasn’t graceful, was it?” Viri quips, but they both feel the terror coursing through their bond.

“Viri!” Lana crouches beside her and helps her stand, but her legs are still too wobbly to support her.

“Damn it…” Viri hisses as she passes out.

*

“…second time she’s fainted.”

”She’s been looking so tired.”

There’s a hand on Viri’s forehead, cool and comforting. Even without opening her eyes, she knows that it belongs to Lana; knows every crease in the palm as though it were her own. It’s comfort and strength and protection, and Lana’s voice in her ear is love.

”…Viri. Can you hear me?”

”Yes.” Viri opens her eyes. Lana is kneeling next to her, keeping her hand on Viri’s head. As she’d expected, she’s on a gurney in the Alliance’s med bay, and there’s an IV in her hand again. Eckard Lokin is sitting on the side of her bed, consulting his datapad. Thankfully, her pain is gone.

“You’re dehydrated again, Commander,” Lokin says sternly. “You really need to drink more fluids, unless you’d like having this IV as a permanent accessory.”

”I’ll be all right,” Viri says, and attempts to sit up. The room immediately sways on its axis, and she leans heavily against Lana.

“Interesting thing about this “all right” of yours, Commander,” Lokin says, examining Viri. “You have dark shadows under your eyes. Slight cyanosis in your nail beds and lips. Bloodshot eyes. Muscle wasting. Fatigue. Clouded processing. The bloodwork we took today is considerably worse than what we did just last week. Lowered immune response. Low platelets. Anemia. Elevated C-reactive protein, showing inflammation.”

”I’m sure it’s nothing,” Viri says.

Why are you so exasperating?! Lana glares at her.

Lokin raises his eyebrows. “You can keep saying that. Or you can allow me to help you.”

“It’s a Force thing,” Viri says.

“A Force thing that is rendering you unconscious and causing other physiological symptoms, including measurable cell damage,” Lokin shrewdly observes. “I may not be able to give you any remedies for your Force issues, but I certainly do have experience in treating debilitating conditions. As a member of the Alliance, I would hope you would trust me enough to give me a chance to assist.”

Lana catches Viri’s eye.

Beloved. Tell him. Let him help. I’m begging you.

I—

If you can’t do this for you, do it for me. For us.

Lana, I—

Please.

For you. Always, for you. For us.

Viri takes a deep breath. “You clearly can see that something is wrong with or without my input, so I’ll be honest. The Force issue I’m dealing with is causing massive deterioration to my body, and I think it’s moving more rapidly than any of us anticipated. Left unchecked, it’s probably going to kill me.”

”Do you have a bead on any treatment for the Force aspect of this?” Lokin asks.

”Yes,” Viri says, “But it requires help from someone who is not available right now and a ritual on another planet. We’re working on that as fast as we can. In the meantime…”

“In the meantime we need to find ways to slow your deterioration and keep your pain levels under control,” Lokin says, consulting his computer. “We can treat anemia and low platelets, and there are some supplements you can take that will bolster your immune system and muscle mass. I know pain is an issue, but we also have analgesics that can keep you more comfortable for longer periods of time. Interested?”

”It depends on the side effects, but yes,” Viri says.

”Here’s what I’d recommend,” Lokin says. “I can give you a cocktail of three different meds to treat the anemia and boost your natural defenses. I’m including an antibiotic to proactively ward off infection, since your immune system is not top notch at the moment. A pain patch should give you continuous relief. As to slowing down the rate of progression, your best bet is stasis.”

Viri goes white. “No. Oh, no. You’re not putting me back in carbonite. No.”

“Carbonite would cause additional damage, and you need to run the Alliance, so that wasn’t what I had in mind,” Lokin agrees. “And we don’t have access to a conventional Rakata stasis chamber. I do have something that might help you, however.”

Lokin unlocks a cabinet and extracts a large crate. Inside are three small Rakata pylons, which Lokin arranges in a triangular formation.

“You and Lana graciously gave me the tools I needed to attend to my own condition when you sourced those samples from the rakghoul tunnels and the sarlacc. I thus have no need for this anymore, but before I was cured, I used this every day. I brought it along to Odessen in case it might ever be useful. It’s a type of Rakata stasis chamber, even though it doesn’t look like one.”

Viri eyes the apparatus uneasily. “How does it work?”

”Allow me to demonstrate.” Lokin presses some buttons on a console on the largest pylon and steps into the middle of the triangle they form. Immediately, yellow bolts of electricity surround him and suspend him in a bubble. A minute later, an alarm goes off on the console and the electricity fades away.

”Obviously, you would need to use it for more than a minute. If you used it overnight, for instance, it might help stabilize you. At the least, it would give your body a brief reprieve from the deterioration.”

”So this will help heal her?” Lana asks hopefully.

”No,” Lokin says. “But right now, what’s happening is that the damage is outstripping the Commander’s natural healing factors. Considering that she’s a Sith and is incredibly hardy, that’s not particularly good. If she’s in stasis, it might give her healing factors time to catch up. Or at least pause the damage for a while.”

”I see,” Viri says. “How do we know it won’t cause any harm?”

”I used it for over six years with no adverse effects,” Lokin says. “But we could test it on you here.”

“All right,” Viri says, swallowing hard and walking into the triangle.

”I’ll set it for three minutes so I can take some readings,” Lokin says, attaching sensors to Viri’s arms. “Ready?”

”Yes,” Viri says gravely. Her eyes find Lana’s.

I’m right here, love. Lana sends as much reassurance as she can, but when the machine activates and suspends Viri in a bubble of sparking electricity, she cannot help but cringe.

”I assure you, she isn’t in any pain,” Lokin says. “It’s no more traumatic than taking an nap.”

Lana walks around the pylons, staring at Viri. Her eyes are open, but unfocused and glassy.

“She can’t see me, can she?” Lana asks.

“No. She’s in a trance. She can’t see or sense anyone. But the results might reassure you that it’s worth it.” Lokin tilts his console toward Lana so she can read it. “These readings up here are her vitals. Pulse. Blood pressure.”

”They’re slowing.” Lana gestures toward the screen, pointing at the falling numbers.

”That’s what we want,” Lokin says. “If you put a monitor on yourself when you sleep, you’d find the same would happen. The body doesn’t work as hard when it’s resting. But as you can see, she’s not in distress. The machine is doing its job and slowing her down, but not hurting her.”

Lana watches silently as Lokin continues his assessment, and before long, the three minutes are up and Viri is awake and alert again.

”How do you feel, Commander?”

Viri shrugs. “I can’t discern any difference, but I don’t feel worse. It feels like I haven’t been asleep at all, actually.”

Lokin nods. “It has the same effect as anesthesia: no dreams; no awareness of time passing. You could be in there for five minutes or five hours and it will be all the same. So what do you think?”

”I’ll give it a try,” Viri says. “Why don’t we try this treatment protocol for a week, and see how I do?”

”Excellent idea, Commander,” Lokin says. “I’ll see you back here in a week and we can do more bloodwork, reassess your condition, and see what needs be adjusted, if anything.”

*

”How are we doing with sourcing the antidote for Darth Nox?” Viri asks, leaning forward in her chair. Illness or not, the Eternal Alliance needs to be run, and afternoon finds her at a conference table in her new War Room.

“Here’s the problem,” Theron says. “After Lana rescued you, Arcann doubled down on his ban on antidote production. He bombed all the factories that produced it, severely subjugated worlds that provided raw materials and upped the penalties for anyone found with it.”

”I thought the penalty was already death,” Vette says. “How could he up it from that?”

”Torture and death,” Theron says.

“Ah,” Vette says. “Understood.”

”He wanted the Commander back in carbonite and he wanted to make sure she wouldn’t get out again,” Theron says. “Unfortunately, it resulted in the antidotes becoming almost totally obsolete. They weren’t even being privately made, because nobody could obtain the ingredients.”

“What I was able to get, through a contact of mine, is the recipe,” Lana says. “Only for one of the antidotes; not both. I think this is the best we’re going to be able to do, though. If we can source these ingredients, we can mix the antidote in our own labs.”

“If we can open up production of the antidotes to the galaxy again by freeing the supply lines, it will win the Commander a lot of fans in a lot of places,” Shae Vizla observes, leaning back in her chair. “It’s something to consider.”

”She has a point,” Hylo agrees.

”I’m amenable to that,” Viri says. “But where do we start gathering the antidote ingredients?”

”We’ve already run the list of components past Dr. Oggurobb,” Lana says. “The good news is that out of the five natural ingredients we need, two of them are actually found here on Odessen, as well as Dromund Kaas. They escaped the Eternal Empire’s notice. On Dromund Kaas they’re considered weeds, so nobody’s taken much note of them. We’re cross-referenced the other ingredients with known planetary sources and tried to select the easiest. Two more ingredients are found on Belsavis, and we have an outpost there, as well as goodwill for eliminating the Star Fortress above the planet. It’s Republic territory, but we’re officially not at war with them. For the others…Hoth has what we need, but they’re in the middle of a White Maw pirate uprising at the moment.”

”So we put down the uprising and get the ingredients,” Viri says. “Is that all?”

”There are some chemical components, but Lokin and Oggurobb have assured us that those are easily manufactured here with the resources we have,” Theron says.

”So we manufacture some antidotes here, use what we need for Darth Nox, and sell the rest?” Viri asks.

”Exactly. Since two ingredients are found on Dromund Kaas as well as Odessen, it will give Acina a very valuable resource to sell, too.”

”I like it.” Viri sits back in her chair and steeples her hands. “How soon can we depart for Hoth and Belsavis?”

Theron and Lana look at each other. “You wish to put down the White Maw uprising yourself?”

Viri shrugs. “Of course. I dealt with the White Maw numerous times when I was on Hoth. I’d rather handle it myself.”

Lana locks eyes with Viri. Are you sure? I don’t doubt your abilities, but…

…but I can’t sit around in my room, Lana. I need to do this. I’ll take you and Vette as my seconds.

Yes, you will. I’m not letting you out of my sight on Hoth, lover. You need to stay safe.

”We’ll prep for the Hoth expedition and give you an ETA, Commander,” Theron says, rising from the table. “We should be able to get going within a day or two.”

”I’m assuming you want your usual strike team, Commander?” Lana asks.

Viri nods. “Yes. You and Vette as my core team; HK-55, Shae, Pierce, Darth Hexid and Darth Imperius backing us up. Broonmark is from Hoth; I want him along as well.”

”Some of my people have experience with that terrain too,” Bey'wan Aygo says. “I’ll assemble some troops for you.”

”Good,” Viri says, flexing her fingers. “Let’s get this done. Darth Nox has been in carbonite far too long.”

*

Viri spends the rest of the evening poring over Hoth maps and talking strategy with her strike team; Lana connects with the Alliance’s allies on the frozen planet. By the time she returns to Viri’s suite, the sun is low in the sky and she’s exhausted.

She finds Viri sprawled on the couch, asleep, a book on her lap and Bolt curled up at her feet. She’s prepared a pot of tea for Lana, and it’s still steaming hot, waiting for her on the living room table. Lana’s pajamas are laid out on the end of Viri’s bed. As Lana removes her armor and pulls on the simple pants and tunic, she feels another surge of love for Viri: the clothes have been warmed.

Lana adds her bourbon to the tea – Viri always leaves the bottle by the side of the teapot so Lana can attend to that detail herself – and takes a long sip before returning to the couch. Viri is half-awake, and she smiles sleepily at Lana.

“Good book?” Lana asks, gesturing to the datapad.

”Yes,” Viri says. “They have some amazing writers coming out of the Empire right now.”

“I’ll have to read it when you’re done.” Lana grabs her knitting from a box by the couch, and sits down next to Viri. Viri instantly shifts so her head is in Lana’s lap, and they sit in companionable silence, enjoying each other’s company.

You were right, Lana says, breaking the silence. This is what it’s all about.

Viri smiles up at her. Yes.

When an alarm goes off on Viri’s comlink, they both cringe. They’ve said nothing; they’ve both been dreading this moment. Viri’s new stasis apparatus has been set up in the back of the suite, and they’ve both been doing their best to pretend it’s not there. The alarm rings insistently, though, and Viri wraps her arms around Lana, holding her tight.

“This isn’t easy for me either, love,” Lana soothes her. “At least it will be dreamless sleep for you.”

“He’s taken so much,” Viri says. “And now I don’t even get to hold my wife at night.”

Lana traces her face, intending to say something supportive, but finds that she’s crying right along with Viri.

“Damn him.” Hatred fills Lana’s heart. “If I could kill him a second time for this, I would.”

Viri contemplates the statement. “I think he may have already been killed twice. Or more than that. Between me, the Hero of Tython and me again…”

Lana has to laugh through her tears. “That isn’t nearly enough to punish him as much as I want to right now.”

“I hate him,” Viri whispers, burying her face in Lana’s shoulder.

”I do too,” Lana says, rubbing her back.

”We’ll get through this,” Viri says. “I’m going to reset the chamber for five hours. Not eight. I’ll recharge and then sleep with you.”

”That’s not ideal, love,” Lana says. “I feel like I should dissuade you, but…I want you in my arms.”

”We’re doing our best,” Viri murmurs. “Compromises are necessary.”

“The sooner you recharge, the sooner you’ll feel better,” Lana says, but she doesn’t let go of Viri.

“Yeah,” Viri agrees, giving Lana one more hug. She turns to the pylons, sets the timer on the console, and looks back at Lana, locking eyes with her.

“Goodnight, Lana,” Viri says miserably.

”Don’t be afraid,” Lana whispers, squeezing her hand before letting it go. “I’ll be here the whole night with you.”

Viri nods and kisses her gently before stepping into the triangle. She locks eyes with Lana, and keeps her gaze steady until the pylons activate and the bubble separates them.

Lana claps one hand to her mouth and stifles a sob. It’s as though Viri’s in carbonite again. Her Force signature is dulled and unresponsive, and Lana can’t reach her.

“It’s saving her,” Lana says, trying to calm herself down. “It’s helping. It’s not carbonite. She’ll be awake again soon.”

Her own words cannot convince her, and she paces restlessly around the pylons, watching Viri’s body float in the bubble.

You need to sleep, Beniko. You can’t help anyone – least of all her – if you’re too tired. Lana takes a deep breath to center herself. She spots Viri’s bathrobe draped across a chair, picks it up, and puts it on. The fabric is soft on her arms as she wraps the long sleeves around her. The robe carries Viri’s scent and energy, and Lana closes her eyes to soak it in. There’s always a sense of safety in Viri’s clothes for her.

But Viri herself is still suspended in the Rakata chamber, and Lana has to resist the urge to reach out and grab her away from the pylons. Instead, she floats a pillow and blanket off the bed and curls up on the floor near the machine.

Screenshot of Viridana Dragoi, a tall blonde woman, curled into a ball inside her Rakata stasis bubble, made of yellow electricity.

*

The suite intercom buzzes in the dead of night, rousing Lana from a deep sleep. Viri is still suspended in her bubble, bobbing gently in the air as she heals.

Lana frowns and pulls Viri’s robe snug around her shoulders as she rises to answer the call.

”Yes?”

”It’s Theron. Can I come in?”

”I’ll come out. Viri’s asleep.” Lana opens Viri’s door slightly to get out of the suite, blocking the view of the room with her body. Theron is leaning on the wall outside, sipping a drink.

“New look for you?” Theron gestures toward Viri’s bathrobe, which is so large on Lana that it drags on the ground.

”It’s hers. Leave it.” Lana says defensively.

”I’m not knocking you. I just noticed it, that’s all. I’m going off duty and I wanted to check on you two. How’s she doing?” Theron nods toward Viri’s door.

Lana shrugs. “Hopefully getting some needed rest and healing.”

”And how are you?”

Lana shakes her head. “I…seeing her like this…”

”You’ve seen her when she’s unwell before,” Theron says. “What makes this one different?”

”She’s supposed to be getting a break,” Lana says, and there’s an edge to her voice. “We put her through so much. She’s always up to the challenge. But I wish life would stop challenging her to this extent, at least for a while. To be free of Valkorion and yet have this damage from him, and to have another battle to fight…it’s unthinkable.”

Theron puts a hand on her shoulder. “I know what you mean. It never seems to stop.”

”She can’t die, Theron. She just can’t.” Lana’s voice shakes. “If I lose her…”

”You’re getting way ahead of yourself.”

”She’s deteriorating. She’s got holes poked in her brain from that…thing…and his children. She’s in pain almost all the time, and she lies and tells me it’s nothing. Do you know, that’s the worst thing? She doesn’t even worry about herself. She worries that it’s hurting me.” Lana chokes and turns away.

“She loves you,” Theron says, patting her shoulder. “She’s trying to protect you. Would you do any differently?”

”No, but…”

”But nothing. She’ll keep you safe at all costs, and you know it. You love her. It’s not surprising. You have such a bond. It’s not just the Force thing, you have an affinity with each other. It’s always been there. I remember how protective you were of each other on Manaan.”

”What do you mean?” Lana asks, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.

”Remember, you went to meditate, and I took over Viri’s comm support? When I told her you were unavailable, I thought she was going to rip my head off through the comlink. She didn’t care that I was with the SIS; she cared that you’d stopped talking. She stopped the mission in its tracks and hissed at me until I finally brought you back to the comm and proved I hadn’t murdered you.”

“I remember that,” Lana laughs.

”And then when she had to face that cyborg and get out of the lab before it blew, I thought you were going to rip my head off. You kept shouting at me to help her, and you didn’t relax until she was safely away on the submarine.”

Lana leans against the door and closes her eyes. “She was so badly burned from that cyborg.”

”You worried so much about her. She worried as much about you. When you told me you were just friends, I wanted to laugh in your face.”

”We were, at that point,” Lana says. “Neither of us had admitted our feelings yet.”

“You didn’t need to,” Theron said. “It was obvious. “

“I think it took Viri and I longer to realize it than anyone around us.”

Theron shrugs. “It was ridiculous when Viri was feeling so jealous a few days ago. I would never try to get between you two even if I had a death wish. I actually thought Viri was cute when I met her, but even in Manaan I knew both of you were off limits because you were so attached to each other.”

Lana laughs slightly. “I know. And so does she. I think she’d be highly amused to know you thought she was cute.

”Of course, I mean it in a completely friendly non-sexual her-wife-would-eviscerate-me deadly Sith sort of way.”

”As it should be,” Lana laughs.

An alarm rings on Lana’s comlink.

”Viri will be waking up in a moment,” Lana says. “I think she’d prefer privacy. Thank you for stopping by, Theron.”

Theron nods. “You remember what you told me on Manaan? You said that she was tough. Don’t forget that. She’s got this, and so do you.”

“I will never lose faith in Viri,” Lana says, “But I still fear for her.”

”Will she be okay for Hoth?” Theron asks.

”Yes. Even if she isn’t, she’ll bluff well enough to get by. I know her,” Lana says, looking at her hands.

”I’m glad she’s taking the whole strike team, nonetheless.”

”As am I,” Lana admits. “Vette and I are her seconds. We won’t fail her.”

”I’m sure you won’t. Good night, Lana. Give Viri my best when she’s awake.” Theron ambles down the hallway.

Lana steps into Viri’s suite, closing the door behind her. A sensor on the pylon console is blinking, and the electricity is fading.

When the bubble vanishes, Lana rushes forward to catch Viri before she hits the ground. Viri blinks rapidly and focuses on her.

”Rise and shine, love. How do you feel?” Lana says, kissing her nose. Viri reaches up to stroke her cheek, smiling slightly.

”Better,” Viri says, shaking out her arms and legs as she stands. “What time is it?”

“0400,” Lana tells her.

“We don’t have to get up yet, do we?” Viri rolls her head in a circle, getting the kinks out of her neck.

”No. Not for several hours. But you need meds and hydration before you sleep.”

Viri takes the offered water bottle and medicine and injects herself quickly. When she sees the pillow and blankets scattered on the floor by the pylons, she frowns.

”Lana, that looks uncomfortable. Please tell me you didn’t really sleep on the floor.”

”All right, I won’t tell you,” Lana says, picking up the blankets and tossing them back on the bed.

“Oh, Lana, no.”

“I needed to be near you,” Lana says, and something in her voice tells Viri that arguing will be futile.

”Dearest,” Viri cups her cheek. “Tomorrow night, maybe we can set up a chair or a cot for you?”

”That might be a good compromise,” Lana says. “For now, how does some real sleep sound to you?”

”One requirement: I need a blonde Sith lord in my bed.”

”Any special Sith lord in mind?” Lana says wryly, undressing.

”There’s this beautiful woman I keep seeing,” Viri says, giving Lana a cheeky grin as she removes her own clothes. “She’s everything I could ever want. Smart. Brave. Gorgeous. Two meters away from me. Think I have a chance with her?”

”My best guess is that she would be receptive to your attentions,” Lana laughs, wrapping her arms around Viri and nuzzling her nose.

Viri tumbles into the center of her bed, pulling Lana down with her. Lana smiles as Viri spoons her, wrapping both arms and legs around her body to hold her close. She tucks the blankets around them and leans back against Viri’s solid form, covering Viri’s hands with her own.

“Sweet dreams, love,” Viri murmurs, kissing Lana’s neck as she drifts off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Odessen

“Here we go,” Viri says, grinning as she takes her seat at the table. “Back to work.”

“Indeed,” Lana says, looking around the room. Viri’s handpicked inner circle sits around the table, datapads and maps at the ready. Vette. Theron. Pierce. Talos. Her small strike team of Darth Hexid, Darth Imperius, Broonmark, HK-55 and Shae Vizla. Lokin is accompanying the team as well, under the pretense of being the on-call Alliance medic.

”So,” Viri begins. “We’ve got our plan. Hoth first, since that uprising is getting out of control, and then Belsavis.”

Theron nods. “The Empire has already guaranteed us free access to their planetside services and bases, as well as their orbital stations above both worlds. We can dock the Alliance vessel there and shuttle down.”

”They’ve asked for nothing in return, but in the spirit of reciprocity, I think it would be wise to see if there are any local missions we can take care of while we are there,” Lana says.

”I agree,” Theron says. “The Alliance needs to generate as much goodwill as we can.”

”I’m open to that,” Viri says. “What are we looking at?”

”On Hoth, a cleanup of the White Maw should suffice,” Lana says, studying her data. “On Belsavis, they’re still dealing with the Esh-Ka and some of the more dangerous prisoners that were released by the Eternal Empire. If there’s nothing else, I want everyone prepared and at the hangar in a half hour. Thank you.”

As the group disperses, Talos hangs back.

”I can see that look on your face, Talos,” Viri says fondly. “Is there something else we need to know?”

“We may wish to extend our stays on Belsavis. One of the ancient vaults there stores the Mother Machine. She is an ancient Rakata device, and an AI of sorts, that was able to reconstruct Suvia’s physical body so she could endure Force walking.”

”Why would the Rakata have had something like that?” Lana asks.

”When they were losing their connection to the Force, they were desperate,” Talos replies. “The Mother Machine created various species and ran experiments to try to reconnect the Rakata to the Force.”

”That,” Lana says, “Is fascinating. So this machine agreed to heal Suvia?”

Talos nods. “In exchange for freedom and a scan of Suvia’s DNA to study and use toward the creation of future projects. Viri, I think you should at least try to talk with her. I don't know if she will agree to assist you, but it's worth the attempt. You’re going to require more healing than that, just as Suvia did, but if it can relieve the physical symptoms, I am sure it will help.”

Viri nods. “It’s at least worth a try. Lana, anything spring to mind as a cover?”

”We’re exploring Belsavis in our free time,” Lana shrugs. “People know you like Rakata décor. They will understand that. It’s simple, and sometimes, simple is best.”

Viri rises from her chair and stretches her arms. “Thank you, Talos. This should be a very productive trip. We’ll be close to being able to free Suvia, and if we can heal me along the way, all the better.”

*

Hoth

The entire Alliance team has been fitted with special cold-weather clothing, and as they pile into the shuttle to the surface of Hoth, they’re barely recognizable under their hoods, hats and goggles. The only hints to their identities are their heights – and, more pointedly, the name tags embroidered on their coats.

”This is so much better than what we had when we were on Ilum and Hoth before,” Vette says, her voice muffled by her scarf and respirator. “I’m toasty. I never thought I’d say that on Hoth.”

”I would have liked this coat when we were tracking enemies through the snow, yes,” Viri replies. Thanks to Doctor Oggurobb, the coats have heat-retaining technology, and are soft and comfortable. Viri and Lana’s coats are designed to work with their covert armor, and to accommodate lightsaber combat.

”Oggurobb should market these,” Theron says, snuggling into his coat. Oggurobb has designed Theron’s coat with his personal tech in mind, and the arms of Theron’s jacket incorporate buttons so he can operate his shuttle and carry out other tasks with his implants.

”It wouldn’t be out of line to market this tech to the Empire,” Lana says. “It would certainly help the troops here.”

”I know Oggurobb has been looking at an Imperial patent for his cold-weather line,” Talos interjects. “He’d likely be amenable to that.”

”Excellent,” Viri says. “In the meantime, it will keep us comfortable while we’re here.”

As the shuttle descends to the surface, Lana stares silently out the window.

Love? Viri touches her arm.

This planet has…a lot of history for me. It was my first stop as an apprentice.

Stamek? Lana has already told her about her relationship with a fellow apprentice; one that turned markedly sour.

Yes. And other things. I’ll explain when we’re alone.

I love you, Viri says, sending affection through the bond. I won't pry, but you know I’m here for you.

Lana sends her own wave of affection back to Viri. I love you too.

”Estimated ETA on Hoth, five minutes,” Theron says. “We’ll be convening at Frostwake to get our bearings, and then heading out toward the factory on the speeders we brought.”

Let me show you, Lana says, reconsidering. Viri nods and closes her eyes, leaning into the shared memory.

*

The Treaty of Coruscant is only a few weeks old, but the fighting on Hoth is as relentless as ever. Lana Beniko strides across the snow with a scowl on her face, letting the wind sting at her bare skin. She is a Sith, and the pain does not faze her. Her eyes are fixed on the Imperial troops before her; on the skirmish that they’re still engaged in, against the Dark Council's strictest orders.

All one can see in the clearing is a storm of blaster fire, and the tall form of Lana Beniko, leaping into the fray. The soldiers on the Imperial line instantly stop shooting.

”What is going on here, colonel?” Lana snaps, her eyes shining dangerously. "Is there any particular reason you are choosing to violate the Treaty this way?"

The colonel chuckles and shakes his head. “I doubt you would understand the nuances of this military action, Sith. Stick to intimidation.”

Lana says nothing, but an orange lightsaber blade flashes quickly through the air, there is a scream, and the snow around them is splattered with blood. The colonel crouches down, clutching his arm, and stares senselessly at where his right hand used to be.

”All right, I’ll stick to intimidation,” Lana hisses. “Get back to the base before it’s your head. All of you!”

The Imperial troops nod wordlessly and scurry back toward the base; the colonel staggers along behind them.

Lana turns to the other side of the clearing and walks fearlessly toward the Republic troops, her cape whipping in the wind around her.

”I suggest, if you value your lives, that you also return to your base. And remember that we have a treaty in effect.” Lana glares, letting lightning simmer at her fingertips in an open warning.

The Republic captain shouts something to her troops, and they, too, retreat.

The Imperial colonel is fitted with a cybernetic hand. But he never forgets, and when Stamek rises to try to destroy Lana, the colonel is beside him.

Viri links hands with Lana, seeking her warmth and presence even through the heavy gloves they both wear.

That’s why he helped Stamek try to kill you.

Yes. Lana looks out the window listlessly.

I’m so sorry you were betrayed.

I was young and naïve. It was probably inevitable. I truly thought that everyone working with me valued what I valued, and that such subterfuge was left in the Academy.

It should be, Viri says, looking out at the approaching base. Lana says nothing, but nods and nestles closer to her.

 

*

Frostwake Outpost hasn’t changed much in twenty-odd years, and as Lana walks through the cavernous corridors, there’s a discomfiting sensation that time has stopped. There are less Sith; the Imperial officers seem even more haggard; and there are banners on the walls announcing the Empire’s partnership with the Eternal Alliance, but it’s all uncannily familiar. Lana adjusts her goggles and respirator on her face, grateful that her unease is concealed from the strike team by the layers of the protective clothing.

Are you okay? Viri senses it all, of course.

Yes. But I’ll be grateful when we do this and get out of here. Lana stares straight ahead.

“Lord Wrath? Commander? I beg your pardon, but I am not sure how to address you properly now.” A Chiss officer clears his throat and approaches the Alliance group.

”Colonel Yudrass!” Viri says with a smile. “How nice to see you again.”

Moff Yudrass,” the man says proudly.

”Congratulations! Let me introduce you. Moff Yudrass worked with me back during my time with Darth Baras. Moff, this is my advisor, Lana Beniko. Theron Shan. You might remember Vette and Pierce, although they’re difficult to see under all the gear. Darth Imperius and Darth Hexid, here. Talos Drelik. Broonmark. Shae Vizla. HK-55.”

”It’s a pleasure. And did you say Talos Drelik is hiding under that gear?” Yudrass asks. “I remember you from the Reclamation Service. You do fine work.”

”I’m pleased that you think so,” Talos says proudly.

Viri activates her holo-screen. ”Moff, let me show you what we have planned, in terms of strategy. We’ve got two teams, each taking a flank. I will be leading Team Aurek; Major Pierce will be the head of Team Besh. We will have two Force users on each team, and the goal is to sweep through swiftly and completely. Theron and Talos will be staying here with you to coordinate.”

“Excellent,” Yudrass says. “We can have our troops clean up after each team and support you on the periphery. The White Maw has completely infested the factory.”

”The workers are to be avoided,” Viri says. “No collateral damage, please.”

”Understood,” Yudrass says. “We can clear them out and have an evac shuttle ready to get them back to base. Your ground transport is waiting. Infiltrate the factory, and we’ll keep in comm contact.”

As they walk to the shuttle, Viri and Lana both take off their goggles for a moment to lock eyes with each other. On Yavin, on Zakuul, throughout all of their battles, the ritual has never changed: a split-second of eye contact to check in and gain strength.

”Let’s go to work,” Viri smiles, flexing her fingers above her lightsaber.

*

Three hours later, the Firefrost Lavaworks factory is under Alliance control, the White Maw pirate uprising on Hoth has been put down, and Teams Aurek and Besh stride confidently back into the Outpost.

”One Imperial casualty. No Alliance casualties. The factory under Alliance control, with all workers rescued alive. We also got the supplies we needed for Suvia’s antidote. I would call it a win,” Lana says.

“Most of the Lavaworks employees have already agreed to continue working for the Alliance, once we configure the factory for our needs,” Theron says.

"Good," Lana says. 

"It's been a pleasure working with you again, Commander," Yudrass says. "We appreciate the care you took in bringing back our troops alive. If you ever need our help on Hoth, you have it."

"Likewise," Viri says. "Call on us again if need be. And if you'd ever like to visit Odessen, just let me know."

"I just might," Yudrass says. "I will be letting our Empress know that I'd like to work with you again, if the opportunity arises."

"I'd like that," Viri says.

Lana turns to Viri, pleading silently with her. I have to get off this planet, Viri. Please. Chat with him on the holo some other time.

"We do have a tight schedule, and need to leave now, but I'll keep in touch." Viri shakes the Chiss officer's hand and boards the Alliance shuttle. Lana follows quickly behind. Once she is on board she looks away from the windows until the ship jumps into hyperspace, leaving Hoth behind.

*

Belsavis

The Alliance shuttle touches down without incident at the Imperial Signal Monitoring Center, up in the Tomb region of Belsvais. Ancient Rakata prisons, temples, tombs and other facilities are scattered across the grounds.

”Why aren’t we going to our own base, again?” Vette asks, polishing her blaster.

”This is closer to our target,” Theron replies. “Acina has asked if we’d help push back some of the Esh-Kha surrounding this outpost. We can start here and make our way across to our own base.”

”Should be easy enough work,” Lana says. “There will be Imperial troops at our back, so all we have to do is clear the way and let them clean up.”

“The plants we need are in this general area, as well,” Lokin says. “While the strike teams are at work, Talos and I will be gathering.”

“Let’s get this over with, then,” Viri says, stretching her arms as she alights from the shuttle.

”I’m going to get the team set up,” Theron says. “You and Lana might want to have a word with the command post leader.”

Viri and Lana nod as they walk across the base together. They haven’t gone five meters when a pureblood Sith woman approaches them.

Oh Force, is that who I think it is? Viri asks through the bond.

Apparently so, Lana replies, her heart sinking.

“Commander Wrath, it’s an honor to have you here. And who is this? Lana Beniko, as I live and breathe,” the woman says with a smile, looking her up and down.

“Lord Shaar,” Lana says, pasting a smile on her face. “I see you’re still working here on Belsavis.”

”I see you too, kitten,” Shaar purrs. “It’s been ages, hasn’t it, since we had our…productive meeting.”

Lana feels Viri’s anger escalating, and she sends a warning through the bond.

Don’t you dare. I can defend myself, Viri.

…but!

Viri, I mean it.

Viri grinds her teeth, but says nothing. Frustration simmers through the bond.

”I’m surprised by such familiarity and disrespect, Lord Shaar,” Lana says smoothly. “I am the Eternal Alliance’s Chief Advisor and Spymaster, and you will do well to remember it.”

“Power? How alluring,” Shaar counters.

”Not to you,” Lana retorts. “We are here to do a job, and it would be appreciated if we were allowed to do so without any further commentary.”

“Understood,” Shaar says, batting her eyelashes at Lana. “But if you need me, I’m sure you know where to look.”

”I won’t,” Lana replies.

”Oh, and Commander, there’s no need to be jealous. You can always watch,” Shaar purrs.

”You flatter yourself too much, Shaar,” Viri says, her voice low and controlled. “The only thing I will be watching is your reassignment to Quesh, if you don’t check yourself. You are speaking to the Empress Wrath and the Alliance Advisor, not a pair of acolytes, and you will show proper respect. This is completely inappropriate, and I will not tolerate it.”

Something in Viri’s eyes stops Shaar in her tracks.

”I…see. I’ll leave you two to your duties,” she stammers, and bustles away.

”Finally,” Viri says. “Lana, a word with you?”

The two Sith walk to a nearby building. As soon as Lana shuts the front door, Viri balls her hands into fists. She says nothing, but takes her lightsaber and smashes a disused console, over and over again, until it is in pieces. Her Force signature is a maelstrom of jealousy and rage.

”Love…” Lana begins. Viri shakes her head and puts out a hand to stop her.

”You slept with her once, a decade before I knew you. You told me about it...back on Rishi? Years ago, in any case. I should not be jealous. This should not even be on my radar. This is not a reasonable reaction, Lana.” Viri exhales heavily and puts her hands on her hips.

Lana winds her arms around Viri, hugging her from behind. “I’m glad you realize that. She was behaving completely inappropriately, however.”

”I hate what my brain is doing to me, Lana,” Viri whispers.

“What is your brain telling you now?” Lana asks, rocking her slightly.

Viri sags and hangs her head. “Nothing you want to hear.”

”It might help if I did hear,” Lana says, turning Viri around and embracing her. “I know this is torturing you. Show me.”

”All—all right.” Viri takes a deep breath, rests her forehead against Lana’s, and opens her mind.

Idiot ugly she’s going to leave you that Sith was so much better in bed than you everything about you is wrong she is going to leave she hates you they all hate you worthless stupid nothing

Lana rears back, shocked by the stream of sheer hatred.

”Viri, you know none of that is even a little true, right?”

”Yes,” Viri says quietly. “It doesn’t stop it from being in my mind.”

”Is that what it was like, with Valkorion in your head?” Lana squeezes her tightly.

”More or less,” Viri says. “That’s the monologue he kept up. Almost nonstop. At least once I was out of carbonite, I could talk over him and push those thoughts away. And all of you were talking too, and that drowned out the noise. But now…now I can’t stop that echo.”

“I know,” Lana says, caressing her cheek. “But I don’t think she will needle us again, not after that threat about transferring her to Quesh.”

”I hope not,” Viri kisses Lana tenderly. “To work?”

”To work,” Lana says, smiling.

*

“Vette! Heads up!” Viri calls through the closed comm channel as she sweeps an Esh-Kha warrior out of the way. His body flies through the air, nearly hitting Vette.

”Do I have to have this talk with you again, Viri? What did I tell you about hitting me with corpses?”

”I did warn you,” Viri retorts.

”You are so messy,” Vette laughs, as they run down the corridor of the disused Rakata tomb.

”They don’t have a class on combat tidiness at the Academy.”

”That is true,” Lana laughs.

”I swear, though, you go for the veins.”

”Why do anything halfway?”

“I see Team Aurek is having fun,” Pierce chuckles through the comlink. “You’ll be glad to know that Team Besh is finished here, and we’re doubling back to join you now.”

”Copy, Pierce. We could use your support; it’s very thick fighting here.”

”On our way.”

”We have one more floor to do,” Lana says. “We’re nearly through, and –“

Viri, Vette and Lana all wince as their comlinks sound an emergency tone.

”Theron? What is it?” Lana says.

“Get out of there, now,” Theron says. “Go back the way you came. Move!”

”Aurek, fall back! What’s going on?” Viri asks, as she runs back toward the Imperial troops. “Troops, something’s wrong. Run for the exit.”

“Orbital strike! Commander! Lana! It didn’t show up on my scans, but a stealthed vessel just came out of hyperspace, and…” Theron’s voice is panicked.

”Team Aurek! Run!” Viri grabs Lana’s hand and pulls her along, but they barely have time to react before the walls come crashing down on them.

Viri clutches Lana’s hand as the smoke rises around them and another barrage of bombs falls.

I’m here, Lana, I’m –

Silence, and Lana’s hand is slack in her own.

*

“Commander? Can you hear me?”

Viri opens her eyes and nods. The room around her comes into focus: the med bay in the Alliance outpost. The Alliance has taken over a disused Rakata facility in the depths of the Tomb, and a statue of a Rakata warrior still looms overhead, casting its shadows along the walls.

“You’re all right,” Lokin says, helping her sit up. “A few scratches, a bruise or two, but nothing serious. Even with things…as they are…your natural healing factors took care of it.”

”Good to hear. Did everyone get out? Where is Lana?”

Lokin pauses before he answers. “Not everyone. Many of the Imperial troops were killed. The remaining Esh-Ka were either killed or forced to fall back, however, so the mission was still technically accomplished. Among the Alliance…there are no casualties right now.”

Viri looks around the room and does a head count. A few of her strike team members have bandages on various body parts, and Pierce is sporting a cast on one arm, but everyone seems to be alive and intact.

”Why the long faces? And once again, where is Lana?” Viri asks. All of them are staring silently at her. Vette’s eyes are red and puffy, as though she’s been crying.

Lana. Viri dips into their connection immediately. Lana is alive, but the bond is red and ragged, and Lana is pleading for help.

”Where. Is. Lana?"

Vette and Talos look at each other and swallow hard.

”Why do I have to ask this a fourth time?” Viri asks again. “Tell me where my wife is.”

Theron is ashen. “She—Viri—um—she’s in another part of the med bay, and…”

“Back there, yes?” Viri says, following the pull of the bond.

“I’m sorry, but you cannot go in there right now.” An Alliance medic droid stops her.

Viri snorts. “That’s my wife. Of course I can.”

”The medics have requested privacy…”

”Bite me,” Viri says, and sweeps the droid out of the way. She only gets a few meters before another medic – a human, this time – tries to stop her again.

”Commander, no, you can’t…”

”What is going on?” Viri screams, her patience frayed. “Why aren’t you getting out of my way?”

Pierce and Theron step in front of her, and she roughly shoves them both to the side.

”I don’t know what’s going on, but the next person to try to keep me from Lana is going to be very, very sorry,” Viri hisses, drawing her lightsaber. The bond is a cacophony of raw agony and panic, and every cell in her body is telling her to get to Lana’s side immediately.

“Viri!!” Vette darts in and grabs her hands. There is nothing in the galaxy that could ever compel Viri to hurt Vette, and they both know it.

”Vette?” Viri takes a deep breath and stows her saber.

”Please listen to me. Lana was hurt very badly,” Vette says, enunciating the words as carefully and clearly as she can.

”Everyone here is fine! How is she hurt?!” Viri rages in disbelief, but the bond tells her otherwise.

Vette shakes her head. “Some of the pieces of the wall hit her…the wrong way. The medics are trying to save her right now. You need to give them room to work. Storming in there isn’t going to heal her.”

”I need to help her,” Viri chokes out. “You don’t understand.”

Lokin walks up and waves away the medics. “Let her go in.”

Viri hugs Vette fiercely and runs toward the back of the medical tent.

”Lokin, that had better not mean what it sounds like,” Vette snaps.

Lokin takes a deep breath. “They can’t help her, Vette. She’s got massive internal bleeding and organ damage.”

”No. Oh, no. She can’t die,” Vette shouts. “Lokin!”

”If we were near a hospital, or even our medical center in Odessen, they could help, but here…” Lokin’s voice trails off. “Let Viri go to her. And don’t disturb them. Whatever time Lana has left, I’m sure she’d want every second of it to be with Viri.”

*

The med bay at the Alliance Outpost is merely a partitioned area with a kolto tank and some hospital beds. Lana has been placed on a gurney at the back of the space, behind some privacy curtains. When Viri draws them back to see Lana, she puts one hand to her mouth in horror. Lana’s entire face is mottled with purple and blue bruises and her hair is matted with blood. Her outer armor has been removed, leaving her with her black undershirt and trousers.

The medical droid looks up and nods when Viri approaches. “Commander.”

”Yes,” Viri says, trying not to cry.

”I will leave you. She is unconscious. Do not expect her to wake up.”

”What is all this?” Viri says, gesturing to the IV bags by Lana’s bedside.

”Fluids to hydrate her and mitigate her pain,” the droid responds.

”What’s helping her get well?” Viri asks.

”Unnecessary. Prediction of survival = 0%.”

”Get out of here before I disassemble you,” Viri hisses. The droid hastily complies, retreating behind the curtains.

Viri closes her eyes and reaches out with the Force. There it is; Lana’s Force signature, pulsing weakly with pain and confusion. It veers toward her, and Viri embraces it.

”I’m right here, love,” Viri says, kneeling by her head. “You’ve done this so many times for me, haven’t you?”

Lana’s Force signature seems to calm and strengthen at Viri’s touch. Viri strokes one finger gently across her face, healing the bruises.

”You never gave up on me, when everyone told you the Wrath was dead,” Viri says softly. “You never give up on this Alliance. You never stop having faith in me. I’m not going to give up on you. Zero percent chance of survival? They don’t know you and what you can do, my love.”

Now that she is with Lana, a sense of calm falls over Viri, and through the bond, she knows exactly what to do.

Anything she needs, take it from me. Viri concentrates and puts her hands on Lana’s torso. Her eyes close as she pours every bit of love, strength and devotion she has into her healing. Anything. All of it. Take from me. Give to her.

Lana’s pallor lessens slightly, but she sleeps on. Viri marshals her remaining strength and tries again. You will live. You must. I give you my strength, my love.

Lana’s Force signature responds, and Viri sobs with relief. She pushes even more and leans into their connection, willing the Force to serve her healing. Lana begins to glow as raw power sparks along their bond.

You will live. I will keep you alive. Viri tightens her hands on Lana’s shoulders. Pain is blossoming in Viri’s stomach and chest, and she ignores it. Something in the bond is activating and drawing them closer together; Viri can feel it through her innate connection to the Force.

Lokin and the Alliance medics bustle in, followed by several members of Viri’s team. “There was an alarm. Her vitals have changed. Viri, can we have a look at her? You can stay right here, by her head.”

Viri nods and steps to the side to allow the medical team to scan Lana. She keeps one hand protectively on Lana’s head, continuing to channel as much healing and strength as she can.

”Well? How is she?”

Lokin pauses. “She’s…better.”

The Alliance medic stares at the monitors and back at Viri. “How did you…these readings are significantly improved.”

”Trust in the Force,” Talos says. “That’s it, isn’t it, Commander?”

Viri nods and turns her focus back to Lana.

“What are you talking about, Talos?” Vette whispers.

“It’s not safe to discuss here,” Talos says quietly.

“Whatever she did, she’s stabilized Lana,” the medic says, stunned. “The most devastating damage is gone. The rest…is survivable now.”

”Can we revise that zero percent survival estimate?” Viri asks, her eyes locked to Lana’s face.

”Yes.” Lokin says, smiling. “She will live.”

Every individual in the room, including the medical droid, seems to exhale with relief.

You will live, my love. I knew they didn’t know just what you could do.

”Commander, if I may,” Talos says. “The Mother Machine is actually very close to this outpost. It’s in another vault in this sector, in fact.”

“If we got to the Mother Machine, could it heal Lana?” Viri asks, sending another pass of Force energy across Lana’s body.

”Yes!” Talos says, jumping up. “Both of you!”

”How do we get her there safely?” Viri’s hands are shaking as she channels the Force even more.

“We could put her in one of these kolto tanks…maybe put it on an air cart…” Talos paces around the station, considering.

”Do we have enough people to protect her on the journey?” Viri gasps as pain bursts along her spine, but she continues pushing healing energy into Lana’s torso.

”It’s not that far,” Theron says, consulting the map with Talos. “We can sweep it first, to make sure. There are a couple of wild beasts, but no Esh-Ka, no escaped prisoners, and no Republic troops here.”

“We’ll take every person we have,” Pierce says. “We’ll make it count.”

*

Viri is accustomed to moving quickly. As the Alliance convoy leaves their outpost, however, her feet are heavy and slow. Beside her, a resting kolto tank floats on an air cart. Lana is encased inside, her face covered by a breathing mask. Lokin has placed a cloth over the tank, shielding Lana from view and giving her a small measure of privacy, but her Force signature pulses in Viri’s blood. Viri rests one hand on the tank and keeps her connection with Lana as open as possible, feeding her Force healing and reassurance with every step.

Pierce and Shae Vizla lead the group with their guns at the ready, grimly surveying the terrain. HK-55, Vette, Darth Hexid and Darth Imperius, their weapons drawn, help Viri surround the tank. They are encased in an energy shield, an extra precaution from Theron’s stock of technological marvels. The other members of the Alliance strike team form a protective circle around them.

Theron’s assessment was correct: this deep in the Tomb, even Belsavis’s adversaries stay away. It was one of the original reasons for locating the Alliance base in the sector; now that decision is proving sound. Broonmark and HK-55 shoo away the few wild beasts that dare to approach the convoy, and the group proceeds unhindered toward the Mother Machine’s vault.

The only light in the cavern is provided by the lightsaber blades from the kolto tank’s escorts and the vicious lava troughs threading their way through the rocks. Unlike Viri’s usual missions, there is no chatter. No levity. There is a sole, unrelenting focus: to convey Lana safely to the vault.

Once in the vault, the group’s footsteps echo on the Rakata tiles as they descend deeper and deeper. Talos consults his map again and again, directing them to the Mother Machine’s chamber.

“The room is clear,” Pierce says. “I don’t think all of us should go in. It might overwhelm the machine.”

“I agree. Talos, Vette, Theron, follow me. The rest of you, hold here.” The three take places on either side of Lana’s kolto tank and walk slowly with her into the vault.

Talos leads them to a console at the front of the room. “Before, we needed to press something here, and wake her up…ah, here is the code…”

”That will not be necessary. I am most certainly awake.” A voice speaking Rakata echoes through the room, and a large projection of a Rakata individual appears before them.

”Hello,” says Viri.

”One who is strong in the Force. Like the other who visited. But different.”

”I am a Sith,” Viri says. “My name is Viridana Dragoi.”

”My name is Ashaa.”

”Ashaa?” Viri tilts her head in thought. “That sounds very close to a Sith word.”

”Is it? What does it mean, in your language?”

”Victory,” Viri says. “Many parents name their children that, or a variation of it. One of Suvia’s friends was named Ashara, even. And victory is an important part of our code.”

”I’d like to hear it,” Ashaa says.

”All right,” smiles Viri.

”Nwûl tash. Dzwol shâsotkun. Shâsotjontû châtsatul nu tyûk. Tyûkjontû châtsatul nu midwan. Midwanjontû châtsatul nu asha. Ashajontû kotswinot itsu nuyak. Wonoksh Qyâsik nun.”

The words echo throught the Rakata temple, resonating with Viri’s conviction.

”Why is it ‘Ashajontû” and not just ‘asha’ in that one line?’” Vette asks.

”Because it’s through victory,” Viri explains. “You link the words in that case.”

”You believe those words,” Ashaa interjects.

Viri takes a deep breath. “I do. I do not always believe – or agree – with how others intepret them. But for myself, as they are, they offer guidance and comfort.”

”But today you come to me for guidance and comfort. You are in need of healing.”

”I am,” Viri admits. “And so is my friend.”

”Show her to me.”

Viri carefully lifts Lana out of the kolto tank and wraps her in the cloth that had covered the tank. “She needs your help. Far more than I do.”

“I see. And she is also Sith? She teems with the Force.”

”Yes.”

”How was she injured?”

”We came to this world for supplies to help Suvia,” Viri says. “We were ambushed.”

”Suvia is also injured?”

”Yes.”

”And you are her friends?”

Viri nods. “We are. You remember Talos, he was with Suvia when she visited you before.”

“Intriguing. I will offer you the same agreement I offered Lord Kallig,” Ashaa says. “If you allow me to continue operating in peace and permit me to scan you, I will offer a reconstruction.”

“We have no desire to interfere with you,” Viri says. “In fact, since we have an Alliance base nearby, we can do our best to assure your safety. We will not stop you from operating as you wish. As for the scanning, Lana cannot agree to that right now, but you’re welcome to scan me. Take what you need.”

”Scan me, too,” Vette says.

”Any of us,” Theron offers.

”All I want is the Sith, but I thank you,” Ashaa says, scanning Viri from head to toe.

“You have kept your end of the agreement. I will keep mine. Two of you are wounded. I will heal one,” Ashaa says. “Choose.”

“Oh no,” Vette mutters.

”She only healed one person when Suvia visited her,” Viri says. “We can’t expect more now.”

“You know what Lana would want,” Theron says quietly.

Viri carries the unconscious woman in her arms up to the machine. “Yes, I suppose I do.”

”Viri, she’s going to be so angry with you…we can heal her back on Odessen, now that she’s stable…” Theron stammers.

Viri nuzzles Lana’s head and looks toward the hologram. ”I don’t care. Ashaa, please…rebuild Lana. Heal her.”

”As you wish, Sith. You cannot enter the chamber with her, so you must leave her there, but I assure you, she will not be harmed.”

”I’ll hold you to that promise,” Viri says. She places Lana in a sitting position inside the machine, leaning her back and head gently against the wall. The door to the Mother Machine slides shut, and she watches Lana intently as the chamber illuminates.

Vette steps up and clasps Viri’s hand.

”Good choice,” Vette whispers.

”The only choice,” Viri whispers back.

”I know,” Vette says, looping an arm around Viri’s waist. They watch in silence as sparks course through the chamber, illuminating Lana’s still form. When the glow finally fades, Viri kneels down to study Lana through the door. She looks the same, but her Force signature is robust again.

“You may retrieve the woman,” Ashaa says.

”Thank you,” Viri says, opens the door, and picks Lana up. “Why isn’t she awake now?”

”She has been rebuilt, Sith,” Ashaa says. “What was torn asunder has been mended, and that is an exhausting process. She will wake when she has rested.”

”Thank you,” Viri says, choking on her words. “Thank you so much.”

”There’s an interesting phenomenon between the two of you, in addition to your Force ties,” Ashaa says.

”Love. Attachment. Devotion. Trust. Friendship.” Viri replies, stroking Lana’s forehead.

”This person provides all these things to you?”

”Yes.” Viri holds Lana close.

“She completes you?”

”No,” Viri says. “She is Lana; I am Viri. We’re complete on our own. She complements me. She makes life better. My…my soul needs her.”

”And for this person, you would sacrifice yourself this way?”

”Yes.”

”I see,” says Ashaa. “You have given me much to think about.”

”Does that mean you’ll heal Viri too?” Vette asks hopefully.

”No. I said I would heal one. I have done so. The process is taxing for me, as well. But the Sith will keep her love, and I would presume that is just as valuable as being healed to her.”

”More so,” Viri murmurs, cradling Lana in her arms.

”She will be stronger now, Sith. It will take much, much more to kill her. Or you, through your bond. You and your love should have many more seasons together.”

”Good,” Viri says. “Thank you, Ashaa. We’ll be going now.”

*

Alliance Shuttle

Lana is awakened by the gentle sweep of a washcloth across her face. She keeps her eyes closed for a moment, savoring the sensation. Comfort and protectiveness hum through the bond, and she senses Viri at her side.

”Are you awake, love?” Viri asks, carefully washing Lana’s face. “You don’t have to get up or talk. Just rest.”

Lana opens her eyes. The Alliance shuttle’s ceiling looms overhead. The gurgle of a kolto tank nearby tells her that she’s in the med bay, and medical droids are bustling about at the edge of her peripheral vision. She’s dressed in a pair of pajamas, and a warm blanket has been drawn up to her neck.

”I’m so thirsty,” Lana says, sitting up. Viri’s arm immediately goes around her back to support her and help her lean against the wall.

”Here. Drink it slowly. You’ve been unconscious for a while. Do you remember anything that happened?” Viri says, pouring some water for Lana.

”Just…everyone screaming, and an explosion,” Lana says, taking the glass from her. “It all went black. How long was I out?”

”About twelve hours,” Viri says, sitting next to her and stroking her forehead. “How do you feel?”

”Fine,” Lana says, finishing the water. She wiggles her right hand. “In fact…this hand feels great. Strong. As though it was never injured, in fact.”

”Good,” Viri says, smiling and taking the empty glass back from her.

“But why are we on the ship again? Did we finish our mission on Belsavis and find the Mother Machine? All I remember was collecting the plants…”

”Yes, love, we did. The Mother Machine was very close to where you were injured.”

”But you…I presume she refused to help us?” Lana wrinkles her brow as she stares at Viri. All Viri’s aches and pains, and the sickness coursing through her, are still present, and the dark shadows under her eyes seem even more profound.

Viri kisses her forehead. “She healed you. Not me.”

Lana blinks. “Tell me you’re joking.”

”She healed you,” Viri repeats. “End of story.”

”No, not end of story!” Lana says, jumping up. “What about you?”

”She was able to help one of us, but not both, and you were injured,” Viri says. “I made a decision.”

”Viri!” Lana shouts. “You—you threw away a chance to help yourself, to end this sickness—what is wrong with you? Why? How could you…of the pigheaded, silly things you’ve done in your life, this has to be the most…how, Viri? Why?!

”Do you really need to ask that?” Viri says, her voice shaking. “I’m your wife. I love you. You had massive internal injuries, Lana. They weren’t…at first they thought you weren’t going to make it!”

Lana turns and stares at her as the magnitude of Viri’s actions seeps into her mind. “Viri…of course…but your illness…”

When Viri looks up again, her eyes are shiny. ”I refused to leave you injured and in pain. I had an opportunity to help you, and I took it. If the Mother Machine had asked for my life for yours, I would have given it freely. Would you have done any differently, Lana?”

”No,” Lana says, “I wouldn’t have done. I would have chosen you before myself.”

”So why are you angry with me for having the same priorities?”

Lana finds that she has no answer. She reaches for Viri, but Viri steps away.

”You will always be first, Lana,” Viri says, and she’s crying openly. “I won’t let you die. Don’t ask me to change that. Never that. I will never let you die.”

”Sweet Viri,” Lana murmurs. “Don’t cry. Please. I’m right here. I won’t ask anything of the sort of you.”

Something breaks in Viri, and when Lana reaches for her again, she collapses against Lana’s shoulder and sobs.

”I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have shouted. I…” Lana soothes her, rubbing her back. “I understand. I love you.”

Viri nods, but does not stop crying. Instead, she clutches Lana closer.

”I almost lost you. They said you had a zero percent chance of survival. You were dying right in front of me. I can’t…don’t leave me. Don’t die. Please don’t die, Lana...” Viri’s words dissolve into an incoherent jumble.

”Shhh,” Lana says, hugging her close and switching to Sith. “Love, it’s all right. I’m here. I’m well. You made sure of that. Thank you.”

“I was thinking,” Viri says through her tears, “Of all the times you’ve sat in the med bay with me. You never told me it was hell.”

”Yes, it is. I won’t lie to you. It’s horrible. But when you wake up, and I see you are alive and well, it is heaven,” Lana says, kissing her nose. “Focus on that.”

“There was something in the bond, as well,” Viri says, kissing her back. “I was able to channel sufficient Force energy to heal your fatal wounds. Not enough to cure you, but enough to keep you alive.”

”Was it similar to when you were stabbed on Asylum?” Lana asks, stunned.

”Yes, but there was more to it,” Viri says. “I felt the bond reacting. Connecting us. We really are stronger together. Talos understood what was happening when I healed you. We’ll have to talk to him.”

”That sounds like a good idea,” Lana says, holding her close. “On Asylum our bond was not complete, and that monster was in your head, so it might have lessened the impact. All the same…I was able to help you live.”

”That makes me feel better,” Viri says. “Valkorion always insisted he kept me alive. He didn’t. You did. Twice.”

Lana is silent for a moment. “Where are you getting the other one?”

”When you freed me from carbonite. I was dying, and I knew it.”

”I had two different antidotes, Viri,” Lana says, considering it. “I wouldn’t take credit for that one.”

Viri shakes her head. “No. All I heard was your voice. Your presence. You, telling me to stay alive. I ran toward it. I clung to our bond. I don’t think I could have done if anyone else had freed me, antidote or not. I don’t think I could have made it to Koth’s shuttle without you, either.”

Lana thinks for a moment. “You know, I was aware you needed my help at that point. I knew you were about to die, which is why I rushed to Zakuul instead of sticking with the plan I’d made to rescue you.”

”The same happened today,” Viri says. “I didn’t know exactly what was wrong. I just knew I needed to get to you immediately.”

”We really are stronger together,” Lana says, smiling.

”You keep saving me,” Viri says, touching her face.

”You’ve saved me plenty of times,” Lana retorts. “Today. On the Gravestone, when Vaylin had me…and you save me in other ways.”

”I love you,” Viri says, tears running down her cheeks again.

”I love you, Viri,” Lana says, kissing away each tear. They embrace, clinging to each other.

A knock at the med bay door startles them, and they draw apart.

”Morning! Listen, we know you two need your quality time, but um, there’s an army out here that is dying to see Lana. Now that she’s not dying and all. Seriously, can we come in?” Vette’s voice is cheerful over the intercom.

”Yes,” Lana says, smiling. No sooner are the words out of her mouth than the entire Alliance strike team piles into the room, descending on her with words of encouragement.

”What’s all this?” Lana says, flustered.

”You’re so very loved, Lana,” Viri tells her.

”I thought I told you that you’re not allowed to die on us, Spooky,” Tora says sternly. “You’re not allowed to scare us all this way, either.”

”What she said,” Vette laughs. “Stay with us.”

“It’s good to see you alive and well,” Pierce says. “All is right in the world again.”

”Yeah,” Theron adds. “It really is.”

Chapter Text

Odessen

Twelve hours earlier, Lana was badly injured on Belsavis. Ten hours earlier, she was being healed by the Mother Machine. All of that is washed away in the early morning on Odessen, where Lana and Viri are nestled together in the sanctuary of their bed.

”Morning, lover,” Lana says sleepily, planting a tender kiss on Viri’s forehead.

“Hello,” Viri says, smiling up at her. “How are you feeling?”

”Wonderful,” Lana says. All the little aches and pains she has accumulated during her years as a Sith – the ones that have simply become background noise – have vanished. In the empty space, however, she feels Viri’s pain more acutely. Viri isn’t complaining, but Lana feels the ache in her body down to her bones.

“You pushed yourself too hard on Belsavis, love,” Lana frowns.

“It was necessary,” Viri says, locking eyes with her.

”I’m not saying it wasn’t,” Lana replies, kissing her. “But I can feel how exhausted you are. You’re in pain, even with all that medicine.”

Viri nods and looks away. “Yeah.”

”Let me help you?” Lana asks.

Viri hesitates. “I don’t want to wear you out.”

”Oh, stop,” Lana says, spooning Viri. “Come here.“

“Are you healing me or hugging me?” Viri asks, the smile evident in her voice.

”Both,” Lana murmurs, kissing Viri’s neck as she channels the Force. Purple tendrils of power wrap around Viri’s body as Lana heals her, and she groans involuntarily.

”Force, that feels good,” Viri murmurs, closing her eyes. The bond is alive with love and raw power, and Lana’s Force signature envelops her.

”I love being able to help you,” Lana whispers, caressing her stomach.

”Thank you,” Viri whispers back, lacing her fingers with Lana’s. Safety. Passion. There is nothing beyond the shimmering circuit they create with the Force. When Lana finally gently stops channeling, Viri is warm and drowsy in her arms.

”I didn’t mean to put you back to sleep,” Lana chuckles, holding her close and leaning into the bond. Viri’s Force signature is calm blue, and Lana dives into it.

”Do we even have to get up?” Viri whispers.

”I wish we didn’t,” Lana tells her, nuzzling her cheek. “But you have to rule the galaxy, and I have to help you.”

”Fair enough,” Viri murmurs, but she makes no move to get up. She and Lana remain spooned on the bed for several more minutes, drinking in each other’s presence, until C2 rings the intercom, reminding them that scheduled meetings await.

 

*

Viri has her game face firmly on when she strides into the conference room, Lana by her side.

”There’s a lot on the agenda this morning,” Lana says briskly. “Theron has a report for us that is somewhat urgent.”

Theron nods. “There’s a rumor floating around in the Outer Rim that Viri is terminally ill.“

”Oh, come on. That’s not true,” Viri snaps indignantly.

We hope. Lana’s worried thought echoes in Viri’s brain.

I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Valkorion kill me after all. I won’t be taken from you, Viri tells her fiercely, sending reassurance through the bond.

”Obviously, the way to counter it is to show the Commander out and about, as vigorous and well as possible,” Theron says. “We can work on some promo holos; get some training recordings; use footage from the Hoth mission; make sure you look as healthy as a baby bantha.”

Viri nods. “That sounds reasonable. But…how did that particular rumor get out? We know how things are at the moment, and it sounds as though someone took the actual situation and exaggerated.”

Lana paces, counting up all of the people who know about Viri’s condition. ”I think Vette and Talos would give their very lives for Viri. We know who I am. Theron, there’s no question. Lokin is the wild card, but I don’t think he would turn traitor either.”

”Lokin has his own secrets, and we keep them,” Viri says. “He’d be hunted down faster than any of us, if anyone knew his connection to rakghouls. We also know where many of his hideouts are. I don’t see Lokin betraying us, even without that leverage.”

”The base could be bugged,” Lana says. “Vaylin’s forces did come through here. We’ve checked, but we’ll do another extensive sweep.”

“That would be the most reasonable idea,” Theron says. “Someone knew where our strike team was on Belsavis, as well, with enough precision to do an orbital strike. I don’t think anyone on that team is a traitor. I’d assumed that Imperial Intelligence may have been compromised, or the Republic might have been able to slice in, but now that raises more questions. Let’s sweep the ships, too.”

“And the comlinks and ears,” Lana says. “Anyone who has implants that can communicate, vet those. Everything.”

“I’m on it,” Theron says.

”What do we know about the attack in Belsavis?” Viri asks. “We desperately need to know who was behind that.”

Theron sighs. “We don’t have much information yet. The Empire was able to shoot them down after the first strike, but as we all know, one strike was almost enough to destroy us.”

”Yes,” Viri says, looking over at Lana. “It almost destroyed everything. We need to ensure it won’t happen again. I am going to suggest that anywhere we go from now on, we take a vanguard of Eternal Fleet ships to patrol and prevent any other orbital strikes.”

”Sound thinking. We’ve already had a joint Imperial-Alliance team recover the black boxes from the wreck,” Lana says. “There’s one thing that is immediately troubling: the ship appeared to be Republic. Thranta-class, with Republic livery and a Republic-assigned call sign.”

“Why would they…?” Viri asks, stunned. “We’re helping them! We’re not at war!”

“I’m as confused as you are,” Lana says. “Keep in mind that I said the ship appeared to be from the Republic. There’s a chance that it wasn’t, and that someone attempted to manipulate us into a conflict.”

“Bey’wan has reached out to his contacts in the Republic military,” Theron says. “I’ve reached out to mine. Everyone is claiming they know nothing and would not have attacked the Alliance.”

”Well, that doesn’t mean much,” Viri deadpans. “We both know that the Republic and Empire alike are adept at claiming that they don’t know about terrible things that just happen to occur.”

”On the other hand, we certainly have experience with rogues breaking away and carrying out actions that are not officially endorsed, in both positive and negative ways,” Lana points out. “I can recall a coalition of Sith and Jedi on Yavin 4 that was not approved by either the Jedi Council or the Dark Council, for example. You know as well as I do that people splinter away from the whole. A Republic ship does not mean that the Republic Senate or Jace Malcom ordered this.”

”Fair point,” Viri concedes. “Can we research the ship’s serial number, too? If it was stolen from the Republic, we should be able to tell.”

”Yes,” Theron says. “We’re analyzing everything, down to the type of paint used on the livery. If it’s a ruse, we’ll know.”

“In the meantime, Belsavis and Hoth did yield some good results,” Lana says. “Lokin and Talos brought back entire plants. We are able to grow them both in our greenhouses here, and we should thus be able to eventually have our own supplies. We’re using the samples that were brought back, as well. Oggurobb’s team has set up a small production facility away from the base, and they’re manufacturing the first batch of antidotes now. They still need to undergo some quality control tests, but it looks as though we may be able to unfreeze Suvia soon.”

Viri exhales. “Good. She’s been frozen way too long. Is there anything else?”

Theron nods and gestures to a pallet of open crates at the side of the room. “You have received some mail. Gifts for you. We swept them for bugs and weapons, both mechanical and biological. They are clean.”

Viri looks through the crates, marveling at the luxury. Gemstones. Bottles of expensive wine. Furs, which make her wince. Flowers from far-flung corners of the galaxy. There are cards attached to each gift, and Viri takes one at random to read it.

“This is a marriage proposal!”

”All of these are,” Theron says apologetically.

”…but Lana has been on my arm at every single event I’ve attended! Surely they understand from that, I’m attached.”

Theron shrugs. “Yes, but officially, you’re not married. So various entities are testing the waters.”

Viri reads the cards one by one, incredulous. “’…you need a man so you can bear an heir to the throne…’ What!? I don’t want a man! How dare they presume such things. I certainly don’t plan to have any children. Not officially married?! The Sith rite is the most official you can get! I love my wife!”

”Viri, love, from their point of view, they don’t know all of that,” Lana says. Her general policy is to use Viri’s title when they’re at work, but she instinctively knows that formalities must be discarded temporarily.

”You’re not invisible!” Viri storms. “I have made it clear that I adore you! What is wrong with people that they’d try to overstep that?”

“It’s not about love, it’s politics. A union with the Eternal Alliance would benefit these governments. On paper, you’re single, so they’re asking if you’d be open to it,” Lana says.

”You’re not suggesting that I…” Viri’s eyes are blazing.

”No, of course not! I’d be very strongly against that, in fact, as both your advisor and your wife. But I don’t think they presumed you’d take it as an insult.”

Viri paces restlessly. “You’re right. I suppose they feel this is flattering, in their minds. I’ll draft a polite, yet firm refusal letter we can send to them.”

”Good,” Theron says. “In the meantime, I don’t mean to pry or overstep, but do you have any intention of making your marriage official? I know that whatever you did as a Sith to marry, it was official within your faith and within the Force. But the larger galaxy doesn’t know about it, and you don’t have a marriage license from any government. We can’t issue those here on the base. If you had a legal marriage and made it public, these proposals might stop.”

”He has a point, love,” Lana says gently. “Our ritual married us in the Force, but you know as well as I do that some legal standing would likely be beneficial. It wouldn’t be much trouble to fill out the forms for a marriage license in the Empire. We’re still Imperial citizens. We could likely do it from here.”

“Point taken,” Viri concedes. “Let’s work on that today.”

”What do you want me to do with these gifts?” Theron asks, waving toward the crates of treasures.

Viri shakes her head. “I don’t know. I don’t want these things. They feel tainted. Take whatever you want for yourself. See if the strike team wants anything. Send the wine to the kitchens. Throw anything that’s a liquid asset into the Alliance account. Donate the rest around the base. Record who sent what, so I can thank them when I turn them down.”

”I want no part of these gifts either, but some of these things are rare, Viri. Are you sure?” Lana asks.

”I can’t, Lana. I’m sure they’ll make other people here happy.”

”All right,” Theron says, sifting through the crates. “Early Life Day for the rest of us, I guess. I get it, though.”

*

”Parents’ names…” Lana speaks out loud as she types in the information for herself and Viri on the Imperial marriage form. Viri is draped over the chair next to her, looking on.

”Siblings: none. That’s easy enough. Occupation. Um…Chief Advisor, Eternal Alliance. Which title do you want here, Viri?”

”Sleen wrangler,” Viri says. “Write that.”

”This is our marriage registration, can you be serious?”

”Er. I don’t know. Um. Commander of the Eternal Alliance and Empress Wrath of Zakuul.”

Lana types it in. “Oh, the next question’s a challenge. Are you Sith? Yeah, let me ponder that. Highest position achieved in the Empire? They don’t have a checkbox for ‘Wrath’ or ‘Minister of Intelligence,’ alas.’ Lana laughs.

“Highest position achieved? There was that time I put you on my shoulders and…” Viri wiggles her eyebrows.

”Cheeky brat,” Lana grins. “Wouldn’t all those times in flight be the highest, technically?”

“Do we have the altitude stats? We could get a number for them,” Viri says, resting her chin on Lana’s shoulder.

“I really don’t know what to write here,” Lana says seriously.

”Is there a checkbox for ‘heroes who saved the Empire’s ass from the Revanites and the Eternal Empire?’”

”I’ll just write that in,” Lana giggles. “I have half a mind to really do it. Ah, wait, here’s a space for ‘other.’ Darth Viridana, former Empire’s Wrath. Lord Beniko, former Minister of Sith Intelligence. There, that should do it.”

”You know Acina is probably going to offer to Darth you the next time we go on a state visit,” Viri muses.

”I’ve already had three different Dark Council members try to Darth me. Hasn’t stuck,” Lana says with a laugh.

“I could Darth you too,” Viri observes, smirking. “Shall I?”

”Don’t you dare,” Lana says, laughing. “I’ll still say no to a Darth title. Even from you, beloved.”

”Darth Sith Wife? You’d say no to that?”

”I dare you to introduce me that way when we visit Acina.”

”You sure you want to take that chance?” Viri snickers.

”I know you. You wouldn’t do that to your wife, would you?” Lana kisses her and turns back to the form. “All right. Look this over with me. I think I have everything. Looks like we can file from here, but we have to appear in person at an Imperial magistrate’s office for the formalities.”

Viri groans. “So, Dromund Kaas?”

Lana squints at the screen. “Hm. No. Looks like any planet with an Imperial embassy or outpost can handle it. We could also do Voss, Alderaan, Nar Shaddaa…there’s a list here.”

”Why don’t we just call in a favor with Acina?” Viri asks.

”That works for me,” Lana says, pressing ‘send’ on the application.

“You know, eventually people are going to wonder why we’re not having any sort of public ceremony,” Viri muses. “I really don’t want one. What we did on our own was perfect.”

”I agree,” Lana says. “I think we’ll need to look at it as a performance, Viri. Or perhaps just a way to celebrate with friends. We know when the real ceremony was.”

”Can we call it the ‘hooray, my wife is gorgeous’ celebration? A festival of Lana?” Viri grins.

”A festival of…you are incorrigible,” Lana laughs.

”We could sing songs of tribute to you!”

”The only tribute I want is the one you can provide,” Lana says, pulling Viri into her lap and kissing her deeply.

”Any time you want,” Viri whispers, kissing her back.

*

Several hours later, Viri and Lana have moved from the chair to the console to the floor, and they rest, sated, in each other’s arms. When Viri’s ear communicator rings, she groans.

”Yes, this is the Commander.”

”Commander, we have an urgent holo from Satele Shan,” Vette says. “Can you come to the War Room?”

”Tell her we’ll be there shortly,” Viri says, standing up. Lana is already sifting through the pile of discarded clothing to find her armor, pulling her garments on one by one.

”What’s happening?” Lana tosses Viri’s undergarments to her.

”Satele’s on the holo, and Vette said it was urgent. Leave it to a Jedi to disrupt a moment of passion.”

”We’d best see what she wants,” Viri says, buttoning her trousers and smoothing down her hair. Several love bites are speckled across her neck, but she can’t be bothered trying to heal them. Lana’s neck is similarly decorated, and she pulls up her turtleneck and arranges her hair to hide the marks. She puts on her gloves as she sprints down the corridor next to Lana.

In the War Room, a large group is gathered around the holo.

”I’m here,” Viri says, striding to the center of the room. “Satele, thanks for waiting. To what do we owe this call?”

Satele’s face on the holo is enough to concern Viri. Her jaw is set and her eyes are shadowed and tired. When she speaks, however, there’s no doubt that she is indeed the Jedi Grand Master.

”I hope you are well, Commander. I’m here on Coruscant, and I’ve intercepted a situation that may prove to be catastrophic for the Alliance. I don’t think I even need to ask this, but you don’t particularly have any plans to blow up the Senate Tower, do you?”

”What?! Of course not!” Viri says, her eyes wide. “Why?”

”There’s a plot underway to detonate explosives under the Tower…and attribute it to the Alliance. That’s why.”

Viri chews her lip. “Someone’s trying to spark a war between us and the Republic, apparently.”

”You do not appear surprised,” Satele observes.

”We just returned from Belsavis,” Viri explains. “A ship attacked our strike team, and it happened to have Republic livery and call signs. We’re still analyzing the data to discern if it was truly a Republic ship, or a false flag. Our allies in the Republic military claim they knew nothing about it. Now I’m inclined to think, more than ever, that they’re telling the truth.”

”This seems to be part of something larger than I’d anticipated,” Satele says, rubbing her chin. “Nonetheless, the immediate concern is the plot I’ve described. I will volunteer to help put it down, but I cannot do this alone.”

“I’m vetting the information she’s transmitted,” Theron murmurs. “This looks genuine.”

”We need to send a strike team to Coruscant, then,” Lana says briskly.

“Here’s the problem,” Viri says. “I’m a Sith. So is my second, and so are the other Force users on my strike team. As I recall from my Wrath days, the natural response for a Jedi upon seeing a Sith seems to be to try to kill us on sight.”

”Or to attempt a conversion, and then kill us when we refuse,” Lana interjects.

“There’s also the matter that we’re not exactly friends with the Republic, and that the Alliance is officially allied with the Sith Empire,” Viri continues. “None of those things are going to endear us to anyone on Coruscant. I don’t need us getting blown out of the sky the moment we enter Republic airspace.”

“I’m sure I can negotiate at least temporary diplomatic immunity for you and your team,” Satele says. “I’ve already made it known to the Senate that I’m your ally, regardless of their decisions. However, I agree that having you on the Republic’s capital world will be difficult. Even with your immunity, there may be those who still hold grudges from your Wrath days.”

”We do have some Jedi allies,” Lana muses. “If we went in with them…”

Satele smiles. “You’re following my train of thought, Lana. I am going to make an educated guess that if you and Viri walk around Coruscant in the company of the Jedi Grand Master and other Jedi, there will be less of a chance of interference. Most people in the Republic respect the Jedi, even if they don’t care for us. I’ve already contacted Somminick Timmns, and he and his team are happy to come to Coruscant and escort you.”

”That certainly makes things easier,” Viri muses. “I trust Somminick.”

“The perpetrators of the plot – I have one Commander Kallin pinned down, but nobody else identified – are planning to use the Works to carry our their bombing. We’ll be underground most of the time, which will help.”

”I’ll bring my full team,” Viri says. “There are several Sith and Imperials on it, and I hope that won’t be a problem, Satele. We can send a humanitarian transport to Coruscant – we do that regularly, so it won’t raise suspicion – and tag along.”

”Excellent. However, in regard to your team, if I could request that Shae Vizla stays home,” Satele says. “I have nothing against her now, but seeing as she was directly responsible for the assault on the Jedi Temple here, it may be far more difficult to assuage concerns about her presence on Coruscant. I also doubt I will be able to get diplomatic immunity for her.”

Shae shrugs as she looks at the holo. “Understood. No apologies about that temple attack, though.”

”None requested,” Satele says, meeting her gaze. “Just understanding of the sensitivity of the situation.”

”Absolutely,” says Shae, nodding.

”Is there anyone from the Republic that can take her place, temporarily?” Theron asks. “Rusk, perhaps?”

”How about Aric Jorgan?” Viri asks. “Former Havoc Squad. Good man. Formidable fighter. Any objections to his presence, or Republic drama with him I should be aware of?”

”Jorgan should be fine,” Satele says. “Havoc Squad has an excellent reputation, and his presence is an endorsement for you.”

”Good,” Viri says. “I’ll assemble my team. Send over anything you have – schematics, profiles, anything – and we’ll study them on the way to Coruscant. We’ll leave immediately.”

*

Coruscant

Viri stares out the windows as the Alliance shuttle gently descends to the Coruscant landing pad they’ve been assigned. The towering buildings and endless stream of speeder traffic remind her uncomfortably of Zakuul.

The other Imperial members of the strike team are similarly glued to the windows, drinking in everything they see.

”Never thought I’d see Coruscant,” Vette remarks, her eyes sparkling as they travel across the skyscrapers. “Especially under these circumstances.”

”It’s odd being here,” Lana agrees. “Never did I think I’d be landing in Coruscant as a personal guest of the Jedi Grand Master, I’ll say that.”

”It does defy explanation,” Viri says. As the shuttle lands, she and the other Sith on the strike team put on heavy cloaks with hoods. They are doing their best to conceal their identities under the long black robes. Pierce has changed to a set of gear that is conspicuously missing any Imperial or Alliance logos, and is a similar color scheme to Havoc Squad, and Vette has removed the Alliance emblem from her armor’s chestplate.

Theron takes a deep breath as the shuttle doors open.

”Are you all right with this?” Viri asks. “You can stay here, you know. You don’t have to—“

”I’m a professional,” Theron says, cutting her off. “I can handle it.” All the same, his jaw works angrily as the team walks out into the hangar. Satele and her team are already waiting for them.

“Commander, welcome to Coruscant,” Satele says, with a small bow. “It’s a pleasure to see you, although I wish it were under more pleasant circumstances.”

”Likewise,” Viri says, returning the bow. “Thank you for extending your hospitality to us and offering your aid on this mission.”

”I could do no less,” Satele says, and her eyes travel over the rest of Viri’s team.

”Grand Master, I’m sure you remember Lana Beniko, Major Pierce and Vette. They were all with us on Yavin 4.”

”I do,” Satele says. “You were all instrumental to our success there. It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

”T7=happy to see Grand Master!” T7 chirps, spinning in a circle.

”And I don’t have to introduce you to T7,” Viri says with a laugh.

”Of course not. Hello, old friend,” Satele smiles slightly. “Who else do I have the pleasure of meeting?”

”HK-55, who is a bodyguard, not an assassin,” Viri says. “We have Aric Jorgan from Havoc Squad. Darth Hexid and Darth Imperius, who have more recently joined us. And Agent Shan.”

Satele’s eyes turn toward Theron. “Agent.”

”Grand Master,” Theron says, in a voice just as neutral. “We should get to work.”

”Excellent suggestion. I wasn’t able to turn your diplomatic immunity into access to the Senate tower to talk, but you’ve landed at my Jedi sanctuary. We can talk here. Your shuttle will be guarded. In the meantime, someone else here wants to say hello.” Satele steps aside and a Miralian man bounds forward.

”Somminick!” Viri shouts.

”Viri!” The Jedi sweeps the Sith into a hug, to everyone’s surprise.

”It is so good to see you, alive, well, and victorious,” Timmns says. “And you too, Lana.”

“Thank you,” Lana laughs, accepting a hug.

”We seem to meet in the oddest places, Somminick. Jungles, ancient Rakatan prisons, Republic homeworlds…” Viri says.

”At a Jedi sanctuary, no less,” Timmns deadpans. “It’s so weird for me to see four Sith here, calmly standing on Coruscant.”

”I won’t disagree,” Lana says. “But it’s truly good to see you again.”

”We’ve had so many holo calls, but there’s something to be said for actually visiting with you, yes,” Viri says. “Thank you for volunteering for this mission.”

”It’s the least I can do,” Timmns says, brushing it aside. “I don’t want to see the Alliance at war with the Republic. We’ve worked too hard for peace.”

Satele clears her throat. “I know you’re all pleased to see each other, but time is of the essence. I suggest we go downstairs and start developing our strategy.”

*

”So,” Viri says, studying the schematics on the holo screen in front of her. The twists and turns of Corsucant’s gargantuan Works – the labyrinthine, gargantuan underground sewers – are being quickly committed to memory. Viri has always memorized maps, and she’s absorbing as much of this one as possible. The schematics are dotted with notations and colorful symbols, as the strike team marks entry and exit points, targets and possible obstructions.

“We’re all clear on our cover mission, correct?” Satele says. “We’re looking for an Alliance member being held hostage in the Works.”

”So team Aurek goes here, and team Besh follows,” Lana says, reviewing the plan. “We don’t take separate paths; just separate groups.”

”We’ll have Agent Shan and one of my Jedi on the surface, monitoring our progress, slicing as necessary and providing comlinks support,” Satele adds. “We’ve established a private channel.”

”I have Bey’wan and a few others in orbit with some Eternal Fleet ships nearby,” Viri adds. “I doubt they will attempt an orbital strike on Coruscant, but just in case, we’re ready.”

”Who are on our teams?” Satele asks. “Commander, I think you and I should stay together.”

”I agree,” Viri says. “Lana and Vette are my seconds, so they come with me. We usually have our Force users divided up so each team has some. Imperius and Hexid work as a pair. Aric and Pierce both have extensive military experience, so we usually split them too.”

”Let’s send Somminick with Besh, then, so we have three Force users per team.” Satele says. “Keep Pierce with us. It will be easier to explain why an Imperial Black Ops mastermind is on Coruscant if I’m there. Aric and HK-55 can go with Besh.”

”T7-O1 can travel between groups to slice as needed,” Somminick adds. “By the time we get to Commander Kallin himself, ideally, any and all security systems in the base will have been disabled.”

”Do we know anything about Kallin?” Viri asks. “I can’t say I ever came across him in my work.”

Theron shakes his head. “I snagged his SIS files. There’s nothing suspicious. He’s been around for a while. Hardened combat veteran. He was stationed on Belsavis for a while; Ilum; numerous other planets. He participated in numerous battles during the Galactic War and tried to defend the Jedi Temple during the attack on Coruscant.”

”No indication as to why he’d have done this?” Viri asks, steepling her fingers.

”Commander, some Republic citizens have been unhappy that anyone from the Republic has worked with the Alliance, due to your Sith ties,” Satele says. “It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do. It doesn’t even matter that you are helping Republic worlds right now. You’re a Sith, and that cancels the rest out.”

”That’s ridiculous,” Viri flares. “Would they rather still be under Vaylin and Arcann’s thumbs?”

”I concur,” Satele says, “But it doesn’t change the fact that those individuals exist.”

”But why draw the Republic into a war?” Viri asks. “Surely they know that if they ever went up against the Eternal Fleet…they’d lose.”

”That is where I think we have a red flag,” Somminick muses. “Some people might want to kill you, but to incite a war, and risk the Republic’s safety, is another story altogether. I feel as though there’s a larger motive.”

”So do I,” Lana says, studying the holo screen.

”I don’t disagree,” Satele says. “And we need to discover those who would destroy all you have built, but first, we need to take care of this. If everyone’s ready, I’ll lead the way. Those of you who are Imperial, please stay close to the Republic citizens. Both Somminick and I are carrying diplomatic permits for you, but if you’re off on your own, we may not be able to help you as quickly.”

”I think we’re set,” Viri says. “May the Force serve us well. And be with us.”

*

Viri’s boots echo loudly on the cement paving of the Works as she runs down one corridor after another. The ancient sewers stink so badly that the entire team has wrapped scarves around their noses, and they’re still breathing through their mouths. Decaying beasts and decomposing corpses of unfortunate visitors and invaders scatter the grounds, and the local vermin converges on piles of rotting food and flesh.

Teams Aurek and Besh follow one of the sewage conduits to the sector below the Senate Tower, where they reset relays and reroute circuitry used by the covert base. As they run through the long hallways, battling errant beasts, a voice sounds over the Works’ loudspeaker.

“Intrusion detected in Sector G. No personnel necessary at this time.”

“Stay on target, team,” Viri says calmly, helping Satele cut down a reprogrammed droid.

”Someone’s reprogrammed a lot of droids down here,” Somminick observes over the comlink. “Way more than I anticipated, in fact.”

”I agree,” Satele says, dispatching another droid. “They’re further along in this plot than I’d expected. And have larger numbers.”

”I’m glad we’ve brought a lot of people, then,” Vette says, deftly slicing and reprogramming a wall panel.

”We’re close, though. I sense people nearby,” Viri says. The two teams run down a metal ramp, making the chassis shake with their footsteps. Sure enough, as they round the corner, they find themselves confronted by a phalanx of Coruscant Security personnel, their weapons drawn.

”Coruscant Security is part of this?!” Timmns asks in disbelief. “I thought you had more honor.”

The captain glowers at them. “Oh, most of my colleagues have fully fallen for your Alliance scam. But…not all of us. It will be my pleasure to destroy you.”

The Security forces surge forward, and teams Aurek and Besh react. It takes them only a few minutes to take down every man and woman, and they run down the next ramp.

”The base is just ahead, by my calculations,” Satele says, pointing to a reinforced steel door. “There.”

”Slicing into the network and…” Theron says over the comlink. “You should be in…wait. No. Oh, no.”

Viri turns abruptly as a door slams behind them, and noxious green gas begins to permeate the air. Everyone immediately begins to cough and stumble, clutching their throats.

”It’s poison! There was something similar on the Eternal Fleet ships when we commandeered one…” Viri chokes as she bashes one of the control panels with a lightsaber and barks orders on her comlink. “Team Besh! Look for the control panels upstairs!”

Vette and Pierce run around the room, shooting as many control panels as they can find, while Satele and Lana focus on the door, trying to open it with their combined Force powers.

“Got it,” Jorgan says, gasping for air over the comlink. “Here—got one—Imperius just got two, but stars, it’s getting hard to see here…“

”Theron, open the door!” Pierce shouts.

”I’m trying!” Theron says, his voice laced with panic. “The cipher they’re using is…maybe that…shit, come on!”

Viri joins Satele and Lana. “We got a damned ship to rise once, we can blast a fucking door,” she hisses, channeling her rage and panic. She feels both of the women beside her straining as they shove at the door, and all three exhale with relief when it finally gives way. The gas immediately dissipates, and teams Aurek and Besh collapse to the floor.

”Everyone all right?” Theron asks over the comm.

Viri looks around and does a head count. Pierce looks visibly ill, Vette is vomiting in a corner, and Darth Hexid is holding Imperius and helping her sit up.

”We have oxygen in the med kits,” Viri says quietly. “Pierce and Imperius, it looks like you need it. Everyone else, even if you don’t need air, take the anti-chem antidotes and some kolto, please.”

Pierce nods and puts a mask over his nose and mouth, breathing hard. Hexid gently holds another mask to Imperius’s face. Satele, Lana and Viri inject themselves with anti-chem and kolto and roam the room, checking on the rest of their strike team and administering Force healing to those who seem to need them.

Too close. The words resonate nervously in Lana’s brain. Viri has chewed her lip bloody again.

But everyone survived. Lana reassures her. Still…I know.

”Imperius, Hexid, T7-O1, I want you to stop here,” Viri says. “We’ll combine Aurek and Besh and continue.”

Hexid is gently cradling Imperius in her arms, whispering to her. She looks up and locks eyes with Viri. “Thank you, Commander. We can stealth here and wait.”

”T7 = guarding the Sith lords!” T7 chirps.

Viri nods and Hexid pushes a button on her comlink, rendering them invisible. Another voice sounds over the loudspeaker, making them all jump.

”All available personnel report to Sector L! Intruders must be eliminated with extreme prejudice.”

”I guess they didn’t think we’d get past the poison gas,” Vette observes. “Surprise.”

”As always,” Viri says, and they continue into the base.

The fighting deep in the base is thick, and every room seems to have an endless contingent of droids and wild beasts, as well as more rogue Coruscant Security.

”Does this base ever end?” Viri complains, as she cuts through what seems like the thousandth droid of the night.

”No. But you will,” a man says quietly, emerging from a hidden door.

”Commander Kallin, I presume,” Viri says.

”Correct, Sith scum. I should have guessed you were behind this. Your Alliance has brought nothing but death and destruction to the Republic! You took a lot of good people today. Soldiers, true patriots! And you may have brainwashed Havoc Squad and the Jedi to your side, but your tyranny ends now.”

”What you’re doing is madness, Kallin,” Satele says. “The Alliance ended the Eternal Empire’s tyranny! You will kill countless more by dragging the Republic back to war!”

”If that monster dies, it’s worth it,” Kallin hisses. “I will bring down this Alliance. Killing you myself should do it.”

Viri squares her shoulders and jumps toward Kallin. He is fast, and fueled by hate, but she is faster, and more agile, and before long, he is dead at her feet. She stares down at his body and wipes off her gloves.

”There’s a lot of data here,” Lana says, looking around. “And a lot of bombs. Let’s grab everything we can, document what we can’t, and make sure this base cannot be used again.”

For the next two hours, the team studies, copies and records every bit of information they can find around the base. They leave with arms full of data and weaponry, and hearts full of dread at the magnitude of what they’ve discovered.

Chapter Text

Coruscant

The mood at Satele Shan’s Jedi sanctuary on Coruscant is somber. The Alliance strike team has been combing through sliced and downloaded data for hours, and nothing they’re uncovering has done anything to assuage their concerns.

”The poison gas we faced is not legal in the Republic,” Theron muses, consulting his datapad. “They brought it in from somewhere else, and that alone is a concern.”

”It’s not legal in the Empire, either,” Lana replies. “The only place we’ve encountered it is Zakuul.”

”It’s one of the standard defense systems on every Eternal Fleet vessel,” Viri agrees. “We dealt with it ourselves when we tried to commandeer one of the ships. And…that’s how Darth Marr and I were captured.”

Theron looks up. “How do you mean?”

”During the assault on Marr’s flagship,” Viri explains. “One of Zakuul’s ships actually swallowed Marr’s vessel once it was on the verge of falling apart, and they gassed us to knock us out. I didn’t wake up until I was in a holding cell.”

”So they used it to both subdue and to kill,” Lana muses, pacing. “The question becomes: how did a supply make its way to Coruscant?”

”It’s one of many questions,” Theron replies. “Where he got those explosives. How that many droids were sliced and reprogrammed. How he was able to establish a covert base of that nature. And the origin of the poison gas. Those are top in my mind, right now.”

”Do we have the forensics back from Belsavis?” Viri asks. “Does anything match with those explosives?”

”Not yet,” Lana replies. “We’re still working on it. And trying to see if there are any trails with the communications traffic from Belsavis to here.”

“Kalin did have ties to Leontyne Saresh. For a start, it would probably be wise to keep an eye on some of her other known associates,” Theron says. “Remember that the Republic publicly condemned our actions in killing Saresh. Some of her sympathizers may be on board if there’s a plot against the Alliance.”

”We’re not the SIS, but I’ll be as vigilant as possible,” Satele promises. “If I hear anything, even if it’s tentative, I will be in touch immediately.”

”Thank you, Satele,” Viri says. “Your help here is truly appreciated.”

”After what you’ve done, I could do no less,” Satele says. “In the meantime, I don’t think that this is going to be a dilemma we can solve in one evening. You’re going to need to run this information through your own Intelligence back on Odessen.”

“We have thwarted the plot we knew about and taken down the conspirators we could find,” Lana agrees. “For the moment, the immediate threat has been quelled.”

”We should probably head back to Odessen soon, assuming Jia’s able to fly,” Viri says.

”Let’s go check on her,” Lana suggests.

*

The poison gas in Kalin’s base has affected all of the members of the strike team to one degree or another, despite their anti-chem injections. Darth Imperius, however, has taken the brunt of it. Pierce had needed to carry her back to medical center in the Jedi sanctuary, and there she has remained.

Viri knocks on the med bay’s door. “Jia? Your fans are here.”

”Come in.” The voice belongs to Darth Hexid, not Imperius, and sure enough, she is perched on Jia’s bedside, holding her hand. Jia is sitting up in bed, with an oxygen mask on her face and an IV in her other arm.

“She’s still on oxygen, but we’re seeing progress,” Hexid says, smiling tenderly at Jia.

“How are you, Jia?” Viri asks.

Jia smiles and nods.

”Her throat is still sore and she needs all the air she can get, so she’s trying not to talk,” Darth Hexid explains.

”The poison levels in her blood are dropping, her blood oxygen is increasing, and her vitals are normalizing,” the Jedi medic explains. “So she’s improving, and I would expect that she will continue to do so.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Viri says. “Jia, we’ll let you rest. I’ll back later to check on you.”

Jia nods and closes her eyes as the strike team members offer their best wishes one by one.

As the team leaves the medical bay, Vette shakes her head. “Whatever was in that gas, it really knocked her down.”

”All the more reason for us to ascertain what it was,” Lana says.

”Those defense systems are still active on the Eternal Fleet ships,” Viri says. “We could always sample it and see if it matches the gas we faced here. And have Oggurobb and his team work up an effective antidote.”

”Wise thinking,” Lokin says. “And while we don’t have the gas here, and you’ve all unfortunately already cleaned your armor, I can ask the medics to give us the results of Jia’s blood panels, if she’s amenable to that. The poison has been circulating in her bloodstream, so we might be able to identify at least some of the ingredients.”

“Smart,” Viri says. “I’m sure Jia will give permission for that. She’d want to help.”

“It’s probably safest for Jia to stay here for the night, or until all her vitals are in safe ranges. Our shuttle doesn’t have a medical center like this, and it’s a long ride back to Odessen,” Lokin continues.

”You’re welcome to stay over until she’s cleared to travel,” Satele reassures Viri. “For safety’s sake, I’d suggest you stay in the building instead of camping out in your shuttle. We have extensive security in the hangar, but you’re safer in here, where we can protect you. I’ll have some of the padawans make up rooms for you.”

”I appreciate the hospitality,” Viri says. “Will our diplomatic immunity cover it?”

Somminick nods. “I should think so. It would not be good press for the Republic’s leaders to eject the team that had been providing humanitarian aid to Coruscant and just saved the Senate Tower, especially when one of them is ailing.”

“Commander, I’d like to request leave for the evening,” Aric says. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been on Coruscant. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to visit some old friends.”

”Granted,” Viri says. “You can have the whole night. Be back by 0800. Take T7, just in case there’s trouble.”

”I don’t know that I’ll need that long, Commander,” Aric says, smiling. “But I certainly appreciate it. Pierce, I’d offer to take you out for drinks, but you being an Imp and all, and this being Coruscant…”

”No worries,” Pierce says, shrugging. “You’ll just owe me an extra drink when we get home.”

”Deal,” Aric says, heading toward the door with T7-O1 beside him.

“I think the rest of you should stay here,” Satele says. “There are those on Coruscant who will shoot first and ask about diplomatic immunity later.”

”I’d love to catch up with you and Lana,” Somminick says. “You too, Vette and Pierce. I’ll make my famous Tython stew. As I recall, it was a Viri fan favorite back on Yavin 4.”

”I could go for that,” Viri grins. “If we’re all agreed…”

*

Satele’s Jedi sanctuary has a rooftop meditation garden, and when Viri, Lana, Vette, Theron, Pierce and HK-55 find their way there, they discover that a feast has been laid out for them. The defensive shield that covers the building and the steady traffic of Coruscant just outside the bubble do not detract from the garden’s beauty, and Viri finds herself sprawling on the soft grass and savoring the heady aroma of the garden’s many flowers.

True to his promise, Somminick has prepared the vegetarian Tython dishes that Viri so enjoyed on Yavin 4, and there is a welcome touch of familiarity as she and Lana tuck into their meals.

“I sense some unease with you,” Somminick says, once they’ve finished their meals. It’s past midnight, but the parade of speeders and omnibuses in the Coruscant sky appears to be endless.

Viri nods as she looks around and considers. “Your feelings are correct. This garden is lovely, truly, and I’m enjoying the company, but we’re a few kilometers from the Galactic Senate, in the heart of Republic territory. It also reminds me of Zakuul, with all these tall buildings and so much traffic.”

”I’m reminded of Nar Shaddaa, with all the gangs,” Vette says.

”It’s very different from Dromund Kaas, I suppose,” Somminick says.

”Entirely. Kaas City is a major metropolis, but there are a lot of open spaces outside the city,” Lana says. “Lush green jungles. Wildlife. Rivers with waterfalls. Despite the constant lightning storms, it’s a calming place to roam.”

”I didn’t realize that.”

”Ziost, too,” Pierce said. “I grew up in New Adasta, and that’s a huge city, but my planet has – had – green countryside. A lot of Ziost was farmland.”

”Odessen has a lot of open space,” Viri says. “It’s one of the things I love about it.”

“Since you are mentioning Odessen, I wanted to ask you something. I was hoping you wouldn’t mind some tag-alongs to the Alliance base,” Timmns says. “I’ve never seen where you all live now, and from what you and Lana have said, Odessen is beautiful. I think it would benefit some of my apprentices, too, who don’t have any exposure to the multiple perspectives shared in your Force enclave. We all certainly would pitch in and work where we are needed.”

“You’re welcome to join us,” Viri says. “But what of your enclave on Nar Shaddaa?”

”It’s been an impromptu Alliance base for some time now,” Somminick shrugs. “You know that. Those that are still on Nar Shaddaa are very capable individuals, and they will continue that work. The apprentices and I can continue to guide them; we will just be taking a job transfer.”

“We’re happy to have you,” Lana says.

“May the change of scenery be good for you, Master Timmns,” Satele says.

”I think it will be,” Somminick says. “I’ll be able to help Lana and Viri more directly and meet more of their friends.”

”I think you’ll like Odessen,” Viri says. “Satele, I know you’re not going to want to stay with us, but the door is always open for a visit if you wish.”

”I appreciate that, Viri,” Satele says, finishing her drink. “I’m needed on Coruscant right now, and you need me here to monitor for you. But I will keep it in mind.”

Theron looks away, finishes his drink and pours himself another.

*

One of Satele’s padawans leads the Alliance team down a long corridor, consulting his datapad.

”So Agent Shan, this is your room,” he says. “Miss Revarre, you’re here. Major Pierce, this is your room. Lord Beniko, over here; Commander Wrath, over there…”

“Oh, we’ll be staying together,” Lana says, taking Viri’s hand.

”As you wish,” the padawan looks stunned for a moment, and shrugs it off.

”We’d like to leave HK-55 on patrol,” Viri says. “We know that Master Shan and her staff are going to do everything that they can to protect us, but we’d like to help.”

”Of course,” the padawan says, before scurrying away.

Viri and Lana turn to the Alliance strike team. “All right, who’s taking first watch?”

”We’re doing watches here?” Vette groans.

”She’s right, Vette,” Pierce says. “Can’t be too careful, and wouldn’t want HK to be overwhelmed if something happens. My lords, I’ll take the first watch. Major Paws can spell me when he gets back, and then you’re up, Vette.”

”I’m monitoring the shuttle, and I’m sure Hexid and Lokin will keep an eye on Jia,” Theron says. “Lana, Viri, take the night off.”

”Thank you, everyone,” Viri says, as she and Lana walk into their room. True to Jedi aesthetics, the floor is luxurious marble, but the décor is sparse. For safety, the rooms are windowless, but there are several paintings, depicting Tython and Coruscant vistas, on the walls.

“This place is something else,” Viri murmurs, studying each painting. “Lana, are you all right? You’re very quiet.”

”No, I’m not all right.” Viri spins to study Lana’s eyes; to delve into their bond. She feels nothing but affection and lust, and she looks quizzically at Lana.

”What’s wrong, love?”

“There’s something I haven’t been able to do all damn day,” Lana says, and grabs Viri by the shoulders. Viri allows herself to be pushed against the wall, and melts into Lana’s embrace. As her mouth closes over Lana’s, she feels the bond spark with the pent-up desire they’ve been unable to satiate on Coruscant. Lana’s hands are frenzied as they roam across her stomach, sliding lower to caress Viri through her trousers.

“Whoa,” Viri chuckles, as Lana pushes back her shirt to nibble on her neck.

"Clothes. Off,” Lana mutters, pulling back to help Viri undress. She pulls her own armor off as quickly as she can, throwing it all into an untidy heap on the floor.

”I love it when you’re like this,” Viri murmurs, as Lana picks her up and deposits her on the mattress. Her skin is hot against Viri’s, and Viri moans softly as Lana settles on top of her. The next moment, though, a mischievous glint sparkles in her eyes and she flips them both, grinning down at Lana.

”Oh no, you don’t,” Lana growls, and flips them back. They roll around on the bed, scuffling and laughing, until the edge of the mattress takes them both by surprise, and they end up in an undignified heap on the floor, legs tangled and arms akimbo.

Viri stares at the ceiling and breaks out laughing, and Lana can’t help but join her. They laugh and laugh until tears form in the corners of their eyes and they are holding their stomachs.

”Just had to be on top, didn’t you?” Lana says, but she can’t stop laughing.

”Did I floor you with my impressive passionate skills?”

”Oh, definitely,” Lana laughs.

Viri props herself up on her elbows. “At least down here, there’s nowhere else to fall.”

Lana crawls toward her on hands and knees, mirth giving way to renewed desire as her eyes travel across Viri’s body. “True.”

”C’mere,” Viri whispers, moving to meet her. She rises up on her knees, bringing Lana with her. They kneel together, moving slowly against each other, hands sliding over the tender skin of hips and backs. Lana catches Viri’s eyes and holds her gaze, golden eyes locked with blue. When she moves forward and pulls Viri close against her thigh, they both moan softly.

”Lana!” The word is half whisper, half prayer.

”Beloved,” Lana says, ghosting her fingers across Viri’s lips before capturing them in a deep kiss. Her tongue wraps with Viri’s, and she feels Viri’s muscles tighten against her. She angles her own core over Viri’s leg, making her moan around the kiss and grab Lana’s hips to pull her closer.

Lana’s nails rake down her back, evoking another cry from Viri. Her hands find purchase on Viri’s ass, caressing the ample curves again and again as they move against each other. Viri’s head drops to her shoulder as Lana rocks her hips in circles, stoking the fire that is blazing through their bond.

Fire. Lust. A red glow begins to surround them as they lean into the bond, but neither notices. There is nothing else needed; no words; just them, together, and the passion surging through their connection with an intensity that makes them both close their eyes and clutch each other tight. Their minds are open, and they feel each movement as one. When their climax sweeps across their bond they tremble against each other, swallowing their cries with a kiss.

Lana rubs her cheek against Viri’s chest and plants a tender kiss on her collarbone, tasting salt and sandalwood. Viri nuzzles the top of her head, feathering kisses across her hair. Eventually she stands, lifts Lana into her arms, and carries her back to the bed.

“We’re not going to sleep, I hope,” Lana says, snuggling against her.

”No, I have other plans,” Viri purrs, licking her lips. “It’s a few hours until dawn. I fully intend to kiss you until the sun comes up.”

”Challenge accepted,” Lana grins, leaning in.

*

By the next afternoon, Jia’s condition has markedly improved. The strike team, Satele Shan, and Somminick Timmns cluster around the med bay as Lokin examines her again.

”Your blood oxygen readings are back to normal. Only trace levels of poison linger in your bloodstream. I do think you will live, Darth Imperius,” Lokin declares, reading the information on his scanner.

”Of course she will live,” Darth Hexid says, embracing her.

”Thank you,” Jia says. Her voice is ragged and hoarse.

”I’d strongly suggest taking a few more days to rest, but you’re cleared to fly,” the Jedi medic says.

”We should be on our way, then,” Lana says.

”Understood,” Satele says.

”Back to Odessen,” Jia says in a whisper, as Darth Hexid wraps an arm around her waist.

”My apprentices and I will meet you in the hangar in a half hour,” Somminick says. “Some of them would like to say their goodbyes to the padawans here.”

*

Theron, Aric, T7-O1 and HK-55 are already in the hangar when the rest of the strike team appears.

”Just doing some final systems checks and sweeps,” Theron says. “We’ve detailed the engines and refueled, and we’re good to go.”

”Thank you again for hosting us, and for all your assistance, Satele,” Viri says, with a slight bow of her head. “You’ve helped us avert a major disaster, and I’m very grateful to you.”

”I’ll help the Alliance however I can,” Satele says. “In the meantime, may the Force be with you. All of you.”

”Likewise, it’s been a pleasure, Grand Master, padawans. Good luck,” Theron says, and boards the shuttle without looking back.

Viri stares at Lana. She’s really not going to talk to him?

I guess not.

“Let’s go, people,” Theron barks, and the rest of the strike team quietly boards the shuttle to head back to Odessen, along with Somminick Timmns and three of his apprentices.

Once the doors are closed and the ship is safely out of Republic airspace, Theron summons Lana and Viri to the bridge.

”There’s something else I didn’t want to mention in front of the Jedi, but it’s the reason I was so eager to get moving. Oggurobb sent us a message this morning. The antidote tests were successful. We can unfreeze Suvia now.”

Odessen

Doctor Lokin and several other physicians and nurses are clustered on one side of the private room in the Alliance’s medical center. The room’s kolto tank is clean and ready for use. Numerous surgical instruments and medications have been prepped and laid out on trays for easy access. Several medical support droids are on standby, ready to assist. Doctor Oggurobb is also on standby in his lab, prepared to offer additional support if necessary.

Talos Drelik and Xalek stand on the other side of the room, looking nervously down at Suvia Kallig’s carbonite slab.

“So we initiate the thawing sequence, and as soon as the carbonite melts off, aim for the jugular,” Lokin mutters as he checks the antidote injection gun again.

As Lana looks around at the assemblage, she cannot help but marvel at just how different the situation is from Viri’s carbonite unfreezing. Suvia will have full medical support; Viri had nothing. Suvia will be able to be transferred to a hospital bed immediately; Viri’s first night out of carbonite was spent sleeping in a swamp.

“I want everyone to be clear before we begin,” Lokin says. “The antidote we will administer represents her greatest chance of survival. We have the Alliance’s best medical personnel and equipment ready to assist her immediately. However, she has been in carbonite for years, and we don’t know what happened to her before she was frozen, or what injuries she sustained. I want everyone in this room – especially you, Mr. Drelik and Xalek – to be prepared for the possibility that she may die immediately, regardless of what we do to try to save her.”

”Understood,” says Talos.

”I also want you to understand that even if she survives, she may have a very long road to recovery. Carbonite freezing carries some severe side effects, as some of us present already know. Please be prepared for her to be extremely disoriented, upset or angry.”

The medical team nods solemnly.

“I want Talos and Xalek to be the first people she sees,” Viri says. “Stand here, but be prepared to move quickly if you need to. Lana and I will cover you in case she lashes out.”

”One more thing,” Lana says. “I don’t want anyone telling her anything about what’s happened. The Alliance, how many years she has been frozen…not right away. Talos and Xalek, you know her best and I’ll trust you two to break the news to her gently when she’s recovering. If you tell her now, she’ll be upset, and it will not facilitate her healing.”

”Vouching for that,” Viri says.

”Agreed. She will need to concentrate on survival, not politics. With that clarified, I think we’re ready,” Lokin says.

One of the other doctors inputs a sequence on the keypad on the side of Suvia’s carbonite block. The response is immediate. The carbonite begins to glow and small holes begin to appear in the metal. After a moment, one of Suvia’s green lekku comes into view. As soon as her head and neck are unfrozen Lokin injects her with the antidote, and she begins to scream.

Viri’s breath catches as she watches Suvia awaken. Her Dark Council robes are in tatters, her green eyes are pinned and bloodshot, and her face is speckled with black bruises. Her hand immediately goes to her hip, seeking her polesaber, and she screams again when she realizes it’s missing.

”My lord, it’s all right,” Talos pleads, but Nox doesn’t seem to hear him. Instead, she shrieks and unleashes a barrage of Force lightning into the room. Lana deftly deflects it before it fries one of the lighting fixtures.

”Darth Nox! Suvia! Listen to us!” Viri shouts, deflecting another bolt of lightning.

Nox clutches at her ears and screams long and loud.

”She can’t hear us.” The realization stuns Viri, and she pulls out her datapad to type a message to Nox. She dangles it in front of Suvia’s eyes, hoping to get her attention.

-Darth Nox, you are safe now. Talos and Xalek are here, and so are Viridana Dragoi and Lana Beniko.-

Nox blinks at the datapad, snatches it from Viri, and holds it very close to her face to read.

”Oh no, she can’t see well, either,” Lana mutters.

Nox’s words are shrill and desperate. ”Where am I? Why can’t I hear you? Why can’t I see?! What is going on?!”

Viri takes the datapad back from her, sets the font as large and bold as she can, and types another message.

-You’re on a planet called Odessen. It’s safe here. You’ve been frozen in carbonite for a while, and you’re experiencing some side effects. You’ve been given an antidote to facilitate your unfreezing, and we have medical help here for you. Can our doctors treat you? We promise you will be guarded.-

Nox finally nods and stops struggling, and the Alliance medics swarm in to set an IV and transfer her to a hospital bed.

”My lord…” Talos tentatively touches her on the arm, and Nox blinks at him. She seems to relax when she finally recognizes him and Xalek.

“Where is Ashara?” Nox mutters, as the medics inject her with medication. “Where is she?!

-She couldn’t be here today. She is alive.- Viri types the message and holds the datapad in Nox’s line of vision.

”She’s alive? All right,” Nox sighs, and closes her eyes. Talos takes one of Suvia’s hands, and Xalek takes the other. They sit on either side of Suvia as the medics work.

-My name is Eckard Lokin, and I’m one of the physicians who is going to be looking after you. I promise no harm will come to you. – Lokin types the message on his own datapad and shows it to Suvia. He waits for her nod before scanning her.

”We’ll leave you to your work, Lokin,” Viri says quietly. “We’ll be back later to check on Suvia.”

As Viri walks away from the medical center, she reaches for Lana’s hand.

”What’s troubling you, Viri?”

”She’s so sick.” Viri chews on her lower lip anxiously.

”She spent nearly seven years in carbonite. It’s an expected reaction. But it was hard to see her that way. I won’t lie, it was unpleasant. I am glad Talos and Xalek are there for her. I wish we could have found the rest of her companions.” Lana threads her fingers through Viri’s and squeezes her hand.

”When you pulled me out of carbonite…was I like that?” Viri asks,

”You were worse,” Lana says quietly. “Perhaps now we know why. Her ghost was probably trying to sustain her; yours was hurting you. You looked like hell, you couldn’t walk straight, you could barely see, your skin was gray, you were rambling and slurring your words, you were so emotional you sent things flying around Koth’s shuttle…it was bad. You panicked when you saw my gauntlet and thought my hand had been stolen.”

”Seeing that must have been terrible,” Viri says, putting an arm around Lana.

“In a way I was relieved. You were alive and there, and that was more than I’d had in five years. But you were also so gravely ill, and when I couldn’t get you to a med bay, I was frightened for you. You stopped breathing for a moment when I first unfroze you. I’d been warned it might happen, and it still terrified me. I don’t know what I would have done if you’d died.”

Viri blinks. “I wish I could remember. It’s all a blur.”

Lana stops and puts one hand under her chin. “I could show you, you know. But I’m going to warn you that it’s upsetting.”

Viri wraps her arms around Lana. “Show me.”

Lana opens her mind and feels Viri stiffen against her as the memories flood between them.

…”Wake up. We need to go,” Lana says softly. As the carbonite begins to melt away, Viri’s frightened face appears. She blinks as she’s slowly unfrozen.

“Don’t try to move. You’re dying. I may have your cure, but I’m not going to lie: this will hurt.” Lana steels herself, aims the injection gun at Viri's bicep and pulls the trigger.

Viri screams as the antidotes hit her, and keeps screaming as she tumbles out of the carbonite casing. Lana catches her before she hits the floor and sits down with her, cradling Viri's head in one hand. All of the literature she’s read about carbonite unfreezing has suggested standing back and letting the victim revive without interference, but Lana knows she cannot abide by that. She sends as much comfort, healing and love through their bond as she can, trying to soothe Viri as the antidotes do their work. I don’t know if you will live or die. But either way, I won’t let you go through it alone.

After a moment Viri’s breathing becomes shallow and she stops thrashing. As she lies motionless in Lana’s embrace, her eyes glassy and unfocused, time seems to elongate and slow. Lana can feel Viri's Force signature flickering; fighting; fading slightly and struggling back again.

"Love, stay with me,” Lana begs her. "You can do this. Focus on my voice. Fight."

An eternity seems to pass before Viri’s breathing deepens again; her chest heaving as her lungs try to remember how to take in air. Her Force signature is a maelstrom of deep pain and confusion, and Lana senses that she has no idea where she is or what’s going on. All the same, she’s alive, and it makes Lana want to cry with relief.

“Time = 1.5 minutes,” T7-O1 reminds Lana.

”Viri? Are you there?” Lana asks softly…

…“Lana,” Viri shouts. “Where are my people? Where’s Vette? What happened to them?! I dreamt they’d all been slaughtered. Is that true? Is that why they’re not here?!” Viri’s skin is a sickly gray, her face is twitching, and her eyes are so pinned that her pupils are almost swallowed up by her irises…and now she’s agitated on top of everything else, and it’s making her even less coherent…

…Lana, tell me it’s a joke, please…I hurt everywhere…why…Force, why can’t I think straight…” Lana winces. Viri’s Force signature is in total chaos.

“Shhh, my love,” Lana says in Sith, as she cups Viri’s face, forcing her to make eye contact. “Dearest. Stop. I need you to listen to me. I know you’re very upset, and that you don’t understand what’s happened. I promise I’ll explain it later. For now, I need you to calm down. Look at me. Breathe. Center yourself.”

…Viri’s speech, slurred and incoherent. She picks up her lightsaber and drops it. Her legs are too weak to walk from one end of the ship to the other after a long day.

…Lana, encouraging her. “One more lap, Viri. I know it’s hard. Just one more lap around the ship. You can do it.”

…Lana, stroking Viri’s hair as she sleeps fitfully, her head nestled in Lana’s lap. Lana, deeply afraid for Viri, but pushing away her fear. Viri has to get better. She just has to.

…Lightsaber drills. Sparring. Conditioning. Viri’s reflexes, slow and sluggish. “You have this, Viri. It’s coming back.”

…” Talk to me in Naboo. Remember the words. It’s there, Viri. We’ll make it come back.”

As the memories fade, Lana realizes that Viri is shivering against her.

”I know, those aren’t easy images to see.”

”Force, Lana,” Viri says, burying her face in Lana’s hair. “You did so much for me. You brought me back. Body, mind, soul…I would have been destroyed if not for you.”

”I love you,” Lana says, running her hands in soothing circles across Viri’s shoulders. “Of course I brought you back.”

”Thank you,” Viri murmurs. “Did I even say that to you before?”

”A million ways,” Lana says, nuzzling her hair. “And from that, to…here. To ruling the galaxy. You did it, Viri.”

”We did it. Don’t forget that, Lana. We. This isn’t something I could have done alone, and you’ve been with me every step of the way. You’ve accomplished this, too.”

Lana kisses her head and holds her close as deep love sparks through the bond, warming them both.

”Ahem. Excuse me, Commander, Lana.” Lokin clears his throat. “I thought you might want a status update on Darth Nox.”

Viri and Lana draw apart and turn to face the Alliance’s physician.

”What’s going on, Lokin? How is she?”

“We’ve got her on fluids and pain medicine, and she’s in the kolto tank,” Lokin says. “For the time being, we also have her sedated. She wasn’t lashing out anymore, but she was still very agitated, and the sedation will help her recover in peace. Apart from that. for someone who’s been in hibernation for an extended period of time, she’s doing well. We found some injuries on her, from whatever she faced before being frozen in carbonite. One of her arms was broken and there were some lacerations on her head. There was also gas residue on her clothing. We are treating everything we’ve found and we’re cross-referencing the residue against what we have on the gas from Coruscant and the Fleet ships.”

“The battle against the Eternal Fleet was terrible,” Viri says. “No wonder she was injured. What about her hearing? Her vision?”

“There’s a high probability they will return as she heals. But we’ll have to wait. It’s far too early to tell.”

”Your vision was affected when I rescued you,” Lana reminds Viri. “You walked into walls and nearly went off platforms in Zakuul. I don’t think you were able to see well for several days, in fact. But eventually it did resolve.”

”True,” Viri concedes. “So how long will she be sedated?”

”We’re going to reassess every six hours,” Lokin says. “We’ll have her up and about as soon as possible.”

“Thank you, Lokin,” Viri says. “Keep us posted.”

*

Medics swarm in and out of Suvia’s hospital room around the clock. Talos and Xalek almost never leave her side; pausing in their vigil only long enough to eat and shower. Lana, Viri and the rest of the Alliance staff keep a respectful distance.

It is a week before Suvia requests a visit from Viri and Lana. They find her sitting upright in her hospital bed, a heavy cast on one arm, gingerly picking at a bowl of broth.

”Six and a half years in carbonite, and I wake up to…broth,” Suvia mutters, stirring the soup with her spoon. Her words are slightly slurred, but her vision and hearing have returned. “It’s very good broth, but what I wouldn’t give for a bantha steak.”

”My lord, you won’t be able to process a bantha steak ye—“ Talos tries, but Suvia waves him off.

”Yes, yes, I know, my body’s still not sure how to operate, and I’d probably vomit it up immediately. I understand that, Talos,” Suvia says, rolling her eyes. “It doesn’t mean I won’t desire food with more substance to it.”

“I wanted cookies when I was unfrozen,” Viri laughs, sitting down. “Ever so much.”

Suvia nods. “I have heard that you also had the Eternal Empire’s carbonite hospitality.”

Viri smiles. “I have already destroyed their carbonite chamber in a fit of rage, or I would have invited you to join us for that. We still have the casings to destroy, though.”

”We may need to get creative about that,” Suvia agrees, a diabolical glint coming into her eyes.

“First things first. Before we discuss anything else, we found something in Arcann’s vault that belongs to you. I’d like to return it.” Viri offers the antique polesaber to Nox.

Nox accepts the lightsaber and runs her hands affectionately over the hilt. “This lightsaber belonged to the old Lord Kallig, originally. He bequeathed it to me. I’m relieved to see it again.”

”I’m relieved we’re able to give it back to you,” Viri says.

Suvia turns her appraising gaze on Viri. “From Wrath to Empress and galactic commander. You’ve done extremely well, and it isn’t a surprise to me. Congratulations.”

”Thank you,” Viri says, settling down into a chair by Suvia’s bed. “Darth Nox—“

”Suvia,” Nox says. “Just…that. It’s not as though the title matters here.”

”As you wish,” Viri says gently. “I’d prefer to be called by my name, as well.”

Suvia nods. “Very well. And as I know we all detest idle small talk, I’ll get right to it. Talos and Xalek have explained as much as they could to me. I was apparently in carbonite for seven years. During that time frame, the galaxy as I knew it has vanished. Does that sound correct?”

”Yes, Suvia. It's been nearly seven years. It's a long time, I know.”

“I am seven years older.”

”Chronologically, yes,” Lana says gently. “It’s up to you if you want to count them in your age. Viri does, but you don’t have to.”

”One more thing stolen from me,” Suvia says bitterly. “Talos said it took Lana five years to find Viri. But longer for me? Why?”

”I will admit, my priority was finding Viri,” Lana says. “But every single place I sought her out – and the Eternal Empire had set out no less than five decoys in their prisons across the galaxy – I also looked for you and Moff Pyron. I had my agents searching for you, too. But you weren’t being held in a prison. You were in Arcann and Vaylin’s palace, and thus weren’t in any records.”

”They…collected carbonite blocks of aliens,” Viri said gently. “We found several other members of Marr’s coalition alongside you. People from Marr’s crew, as well as some from the SIS detachment that was with Marr’s Republic allies. Unfortunately, they were all dead.”

“I was a possession again,” Suvia says, spitting out the words.

”Not anymore,” Lana says quietly. “Never again.”

”I wish I could trust you,” Suvia says. "And you are allied with the Empire?”

Viri nods. “Yes. They were very strong allies during our fight against the Eternal Empire.”

”When Xalek told me you had Jedi and Republic officers on this base, I was worried about your loyalties,” Suvia admits. “But this is another coalition, isn’t it? Like the one we had against the Revanites.”

”Precisely.”

“Ashara. Where is she? I was told that you were searching for her. Why hasn’t she been found? What about Khem and Andronikos?"

"As best we know, Ashara is still alive, but we don't know more than that,” Viri says apologetically. “We’ve searched for all three of them since the Alliance was founded. That’s nearly two years now. Jaesa is still missing, too. None of them have been found among Zakuul's prisoners or carbonite holdings. A few people have reportedly spotted Ashara around the galaxy or heard rumors of her activities. We’ll introduce you to them so they can share the information with you. But know that we are still searching for those who are missing.”

“What about my ship? My apartment? My money?” Suvia asks. “What about Moff Pyron and my fleet?”

Lana sighs. “In terms of your property, I could not intervene on your behalf. I was able to save Viri’s accounts and personal effects as her significant other, but I had no right to claim a Dark Council member’s belongings. Neither did any of your companions. Ashara in particular had no standing whatsoever, as an alien and a former Jedi who was not formally trained as a Sith. Moff Pyron was declared killed in action at the same time you were. All of the ships with Silencers were destroyed in the war with Zakuul.”

”My lord, I was able to recover everything in your office at the Citadel, since we worked there together,” Talos interjects. “But as Lana has said, I was not given permission to access your home.”

Suvia sighs. “So. To recap…I have almost nothing. No Dark Council position, no money, no home, no ship, and three missing team members.”

”Suvia…” Viri stops. She’s painfully aware that Suvia is telling the truth.

Darth Nox turns to her, her eyes as cold as durasteel. “So what do you want from me, now that you have me?”

Viri stares back. “Nothing. I’m not using this as leverage.”

”Why did you rescue me, then?”

”You were our ally. We didn’t want to leave you as a prisoner. We had no idea if you would survive being unfrozen, but we weren’t going to leave you in that state.”

Suvia stares hard at Viri. “You’re…telling the truth.”

Viri nods. “I am. I value my friends, Suvia. You’ve been a good friend and ally to myself and Lana. We want to help you however we can. If you want to stay with the Alliance, we’ll support you, and we’d love for you to stay. If you want to return to the Empire, we’ll help with that. If you want to vanish into Wild Space, we’ll give you credits and a ship and wish you well. It’s up to you.”

Suvia looks away. “I can’t decide that now.”

”Understood. Take all the time you need. We have a suite for you here on the base, if you’d like a place to sleep that isn’t the med bay,” Viri says. “It’s close to Talos’s quarters. We’ve put together some clothes for you. And we can show you where the kitchens and the training rooms are.”

”I’d like some time by myself,” Suvia says faintly. “Talos will show me where everything is. I’d ask to be left alone for the time being. I need to think.”

”Take all the time you want,” Viri says. “I’ll be around the base if you want to discuss anything.”

”One more thing,” Suvia says, staring from Lana to Viri and back. “Please tell me you fools are finally together.”

”We’re married,” Lana smiles.

Suvia exhales. “Oh, thank the Force. You have no idea how awful it was watching you both struggle through Darth Marr’s ridiculous edict. I’m sorry I missed your wedding.”

”You haven’t, actually,” Viri says. “The official details are taken care of, but we still haven’t found the time to organize a celebration for friends. I’m glad you’ll be able to attend.”

“So am I. There are still a few other things I’m curious about,” Suvia says. “Namely, how several dead people could help you fight Valkorion. And how he died twice in the same body.”

”They were Force ghosts,” Viri says, flushing.

”Force ghosts who had extraordinary power?” Suvia says, raising one eyebrow. “Or was there a host involved?”

Viri sighs heavily. “I was the host. Not voluntarily. Valkorion forcibly bound himself when I killed him the first time. He pulled in his children when I killed them and harnessed their power for his own use.”

”Three Force ghosts of vast power…”

”Five,” says Viri, counting them up. “I absorbed a holocron that contained the essence of Valkorion’s father, and he helped me as best he could. And Valkorion’s dead wife – ex-wife, I guess – showed up in the dreamscape when I was fighting to regain control of my body. Eventually all of the Force ghosts, except Valkorion, were on my side.”

”You seem to have omitted that detail from the narrative.”

”Valkorion was grooming me to take over the Eternal Throne, and his ulterior motive was to ‘hollow me out’ and take my body as his own. As soon as I was bound to the Throne, he tried to take over and kill my soul. I had to fight him.”

“That sounds very familiar to me, for obvious reasons. My old master tried the same., although she ended up possessing Khem and not me. You’re looking very good for all that. I’m sure that by now you’re aware that hosting ghosts comes with several drawbacks,” Suvia remarks placidly.

”I’ve been doing everything I can not to deteriorate,” Viri says. “But I do need more. It’s taken a lot of effort to maintain this level of function.”

”My lord, I took the liberty of telling Viri and Lana about Yavin 4. I thought you would want to offer assistance and would tell them yourself, if you were able,” Talos says tentatively.

Suvia looks at him for a long moment. “You’re right. It was a sound decision to tell them. I would have done the same. But why haven’t you gone, then?”

”Freeing you was our first priority,” Viri says. “We had to go to Belsavis and Hoth to get the ingredients for the carbonite antidotes, and while we were there, there was an uprising, and then there was an issue we had to sort out in Republic space, and…”

”You traveled to two different planets for me?”

”How else were we going to help you?” Viri asks.

Suvia puts her head in her hands and winces. “Just…thank you. Leave me alone. I need to think.”

“Of course,” Lana says, and leaves the room with Viri.

Chapter Text

Art by TinyBuggyArt All Rights Reserved. Posted with artist's permission

Commissioned art of Suvia by TinyBuggyArt. All Rights Reserved. Posted with artist's permission: http://tinybuggyart.tumblr.com/

Around the base, Darth Nox quickly becomes known as the Ghost.

The young Twi’lek woman still dresses in Sith black and red, but without her Dark Council opulence. She speaks only to Talos, Xalek and the medics who treat her lingering carbonite sickness. When she walks the corridors of the Alliance base, people step back, chilled by the air of malevolence that surrounds her. In the Force enclave, she spars only with Xalek, and glares at anyone else who comes too close to her training area. She goes through ten training dummies in a week and mangles enough practice droids that Oggurobb has to step up production.

As Suvia wanders through the base mutely, most of the Alliance staff learns to adapt to it. In the café, she steps up to the counter at the Naboo or Ryloth food stations without a word, and lets Talos or Xalek order for her. In the Alliance’s shops, she picks up what she wants and pays for it silently. If she bumps into someone she keeps walking with neither apology nor care.

*

”Well,” Theron says, starting the Alliance’s weekly briefing. “We’ve accomplished one of our major goals, unfreezing Darth Nox. She survived the thawing process and seems to be doing well, physically.”

“So…what?” Koth says. “She’s just going to walk around the base like a ghost indefinitely? We all know I didn’t get along with Viri when we first met, but I can freely admit that she helped out with the Gravestone and actually spoke to people, and she was far sicker than this Suvia person.”

”Suvia has lost almost everything,” Lana says quietly. “I can’t imagine how much she’s grieving right now. We can’t give her back her old life, her fleet, her Dashade or her Dark Council position. We haven’t found her lover yet. Time. Patience. Space. It’s all we can do for her, and we will.”

”She’s spent nearly her entire life listening to people telling her what to do,” Viri adds. “I won’t add to that. Let her be, Koth. She’s not hurting anyone.”

”I didn’t mean it that way, just…” Koth shakes his head. “She’s seen some bad stuff, huh?”

”That’s putting it mildly,” Viri says. “For her privacy I won’t say more, but I will insist that we all leave her alone for the time being. Commander’s order.”

”She’s not a threat to anyone on the base, is she?” Bey’wan Aygo asks. “I trust your judgment implicitly, Commander, and I understand she’s a long-time ally of yours. But her silence is disturbing to some of the soldiers. She’s killed a lot of people in her time. She won’t…turn on us, will she?”

”I doubt it,” Lana says. “Any one of the Force users or soldiers on this base could potentially be dangerous, couldn’t they? I’ve killed more people than I can count. So has Theron. Viri, it goes without saying. Vette. I could go on.”

”Vette? Oh, come on,” Bey’wan laughs.

”You do know that Vette is a trained assassin and former pirate, right? And she was my second from the time I was an apprentice,” Viri says, raising her eyebrows.

”Oh,” Bey’wan says. Vette flexes her fingers and grins.

”The point is that yes, Nox is extremely dangerous, but so is every single person sitting at this table,” Lana says.

”Nox was part of the coalition with Darth Marr that went after Revan on Yavin 4. She was the only Dark Council member besides Marr to be part of that coalition and work alongside Republic soldiers and Jedi. Satele Shan was on our strike team,” Viri says. “And she didn’t so much as sneer at the Jedi Grand Master.”

”When I was Minister of Sith Intelligence and we had our cataclysm on Ziost, Nox was the only Dark Council member to offer assistance. She volunteered her entire fleet and crew to help us evacuate the planet, and she and her crew assisted the Commander in surveying the fallout, despite the risks,” Lana says.

”She never bothers anyone in the Force Enclave,” Darth Imperius volunteers. “She will not meditate or spar with anyone except her former apprentice, but she doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s practice.”

”I see,” Aygo says. “All right. You’ve convinced me that she’s a worthy ally.”

”She’s one of the most loyal people I’ve ever met,” Viri says. “And right now she’s healing in her own way. I need to ask, again, that everyone respects her space and leaves her be.”

“Noted,” Theron says. “Moving on. We have moderate stores of the carbonite antidote now, and we’re producing more. Production has also begun in Empire worlds, and Acina is grateful for the new source of revenue. I’ve offered some of our carbonite antidote to Taran and Lucinda Walrez as a goodwill gesture for their assistance.”

”I’d like it if we could continue to do so,” Lana says. “They were instrumental to the Commander’s rescue two years ago, and Lucinda Walrez gave us the recipe for the antidote this time.”

”Agreed,” Viri says. “Do we have plans for the rest of our stores?”

”Since it keeps indefinitely, we’re storing some, in case we find any other allies that have been held by Zakuul. We’re negotiating with Shae Vizla to sell some of it to the Mandalorians for their bounty hunters. At this point, private sales are safer,” Hylo Visz says.

”All right,” Viri says. “Do we have an updated report on Yavin 4?”

Lana smiles. “That’s the good news I had for you. The reconnaissance team I’ve sent ahead has found an unoccupied minor temple complex that will be suited to the Alliance base. It’s already been swept, and we’ve started modifying the temples to our needs. It’s ready for a visit, Commander, so you can direct some of the work.”

”Let’s gather some of the Force users, and my strike team, and plan to leave within the week,” Viri says. “Is there anything else?”

”Yes,” Lokin says, looking at his datapad. “We’ve been analyzing and cross-referencing the lethal gas on the Eternal Fleet’s ships versus the poison from Darth Imperius’s blood samples and residue from clothing used by the strike team in Coruscant. It’s a perfect match. It’s also made from a substance found only on Zakuul and a few distant planets. I think we can make a very educated guess that the gas used on Coruscant came from Zakuul.”

Viri frowns. “Which means that Kallin was not working alone, and had at least one ally on Zakuul that was able to access a supply of poison gas.”

“That would be the army, Knights and Horizon Guards,” Lana says. “I suggest we look into ways of restricting access and monitoring the supply on Zakuul.”

”Make it so,” Viri says. “And I’ll direct the GEMINI captains to guard the supplies on their ships. What about the gas on Darth Nox’s clothing?”

”Also Zakuulan, but a different formulation, designed to subdue and not kill,” Lokin says. “They apparently were masters of inhaled poisons. You mentioned being gassed when you and Darth Marr were taken by the Eternal Empire. Nox has spoken to me and reported the same. She said that she remembers waking up in a hangar near the wreckage of her flagship, but that the room filled with gas and everything went black. It seems to be how Zakuul captured all of you.”

“I’d like to speak to some of the Knights of Zakuul we find trustworthy, to find out what their protocols were,” Theron says. “We need to know about any and all chemical weapons Zakuul had at their disposal, and how much damage control we might need to do there.”

”Can we create antidotes for any of the chemical weapons we do know about?” Viri asks.

”We’re working on something to counter the lethal gas you encountered on Coruscant, Commander,” Lokin says. “Once we have it, we can include it as an essential part of everyone’s medical kits, alongside the Bloodbane and Anti-Chem.”

“So Research and Development is working on the antidote, Bey’wan, your people are going to see what else we can learn about the chemical weaponry, Sana-Rae, I need you to prep the trip to Yavin with me, and Hylo, your team is taking charge of the carbonite antidote negotiations. Does that sound like everything?” Viri recaps, looking at her datapad.

”That’s it, Commander,” Lana says. “We can be ready to leave for Yavin 4 within a day. Your entire strike team has already signed on. The wild cards are Talos and Darth Nox.”

”I’ll send a message to Talos,” Viri says. “If that’s everything, I think we’re done for today. Thank you everyone.”

As everyone rises from the table, Theron holds up his hand. “There’s one other matter, Commander.”

“What is it?” Viri asks, following him to the next room. She’s disheartened to see several new crates of proposal gifts.

“Commander, you’ve received several more marriage proposals.” Theron gestures to the open crates. “Everything’s clean.”

”Damn it, I thought I declined them all!” Viri snaps, looking through the crates. “Why are they still bothering me?”

”A few of them are being persistent; others are new suitors.”

Viri sighs. “How do we stop this?”

Lana shakes her head. “You know as well as I do that some…public spectacle is likely to be the only thing that stops it. Or most of it.”

”My relationship with you is not a public spectacle!” Viri snaps.

”No, it’s not, Commander,” Lana says. “It shouldn’t be. But our choices seem to be limited. We can either do something publicly and stem the tide, or you can be seen as single and receive these proposals.”

”What’s to say they will even stop if we have some sort of media circus?” Viri asks.

“I can’t think that most governments would consider it a sound diplomatic move to propose to someone who just had a grand, highly publicized wedding,” Lana says. “I’m sure there are a few who will disregard it, but it’s likely to stop most of these would-be suitors.”

”Theron, please excuse us,” Viri says, taking a deep breath. “I need to speak to my advisor.”

When the door closes behind Theron, Viri sinks into a chair.

”Commander,” Lana says, emphasizing the word. “What is your concern?”

”All right, Advisor,” Viri says. “Without going into detail, my wife at home asked me to keep our personal lives out of the public eye. I can’t agree to this without feeling that I’ve broken my word to her. And that is the last thing I’d do, Alliance or not.”

”I’m sure your wife understands the situation. I’ve met her. She’s reasonable.” The joke fails to get a smile out of Viri, and Lana frowns.

”What’s my word worth, Advisor? I promise something, and then when it’s more convenient, I come up with an excuse to renege? I’ll walk out of this Alliance before I hurt my wife,” Viri says, gritting her teeth. The crates of proposal gifts go flying across the room.

”Viri, enough,” Lana says. “I’ve already told you I’m not bothered by this. If it’ll stop complete strangers from asking for your hand in marriage, I’m all for it.”

”Lana…”

“You didn’t break your promise,” Lana says, taking Viri’s hand. She pulls off Viri’s glove and rubs her thumb across the purple Mark of Union on Viri’s palm.

“That feels nice,” Viri smiles.

”Not too nice, I hope, because I need you to listen to me,” Lana says, folding Viri’s hand into her own and reaching for her mind. Where did this mark come from? Our wedding. Our real one. The one that was just for us, with no cameras.We’re Force bonded and have Marks of Union. There’s nothing stronger than that.

Viri squeezes Lana’s hand. “And it’s sacred. It shouldn’t be cheapened by a Holonet camera.”

”The public wedding will be nothing more than a performance. We get dressed up, we enjoy a good party, we celebrate with our friends, and the proposals stop.”

“You really wouldn’t feel that I was going back on my word?”

”No,” Lana says. “Considering I’m talking you into it, especially not. You know what I’d enjoy about it? Showing you off. Walking in with you on my arm, and knowing you’re mine. Knowing that you’re only mine.”

”Flatterer.”

”You know I can’t lie to you,” Lana says, looking into her eyes. “Come on. Let’s put on a show. I know how much you enjoy taking center stage, lover.”

”This is why you’re my advisor, isn’t it?” Viri smiles faintly.

Lana smiles. “I do my best. So do you think you will be able to do this, Commander?”

”As long as my wife is completely comfortable with it. And as long as we have a civilian to officiate. No Sith rituals on camera. That’s too personal.”

”That’s fair,” Lana smiles.

Viri sighs and rubs her head. “We didn’t think of half of it when we went after the Eternal Throne, did we? I don’t remember seeing ‘stave off marriage proposals’ on the list of things to do.”

”No,” Lana says, pensive. “There’s a lot to think about. You have a lot on your shoulders.”

”We.”

”You’re the Empress and the Commander, love. I just have your back.”

"If I fail, we all suffer," Viri says. “And you’ve been instrumental in everything. Don’t sell yourself short, Advisor. I'd be a wall ornament if not for you."

"You're never going to stop thanking me from freeing you from carbonite, are you?” Lana says.

”Nope. Just get used to it.” Viri kisses her long and deep, letting her lips linger against Lana’s, before drawing back. “As much as I’d like to show you my very special appreciation right now, I suppose we have to prep for Yavin 4, don’t we?”

”Afraid so,” Lana agrees, studying Viri’s face. Her pain and fatigue have become background noise for both of them, but her eyes are shadowed and her skin is paler than Lana’s ever seen it.

You hurt.

Viri nods. I always hurt.

”We need to leave for Yavin 4 as soon as we can,” Lana says, stroking her cheek.

”Yes,” Viri murmurs. “Before we can't."

Lana leans forward to whisper in her ear. “When you’re healed, there’s another temple on Yavin 4 I want to visit with you. The Temple of Passion. The home of ancient Sith erotic practices.”

Viri gasps as Lana’s hand slides down her hip. “Force, yes.”

”We have to prep now,” Lana purrs in her ear. “But we have a long journey through hyperspace ahead of us.”

”And I intend to make full use of all of it…” Viri says, kissing her deeply.

*

The final preparations for Yavin 4 are completed by the evening. The Alliance is taking several small stealth vessels, as well as a cotillion of Eternal Fleet ships for protection. The ships will not leave until midnight, coordinating with hyperspace lane time differences to arrive on Yavin 4 at dawn. The Alliance’s contingent of varied Force users – including Somminick Timmns and his apprentices, several former Knights of Zakuul and Sana-Rae – are packed and ready to fly.

Viri leans on the railing of the balcony of the military hangar and watches as their supplies are loaded into the shuttles. She senses Suvia’s approach, but does not turn to greet her. When Suvia leans on the railing nearby, however, Viri nods silently and returns her attention to the ships.

”You haven’t asked to speak to me, Commander. I’m surprised.” Suvia’s voice is clear and strong again; a credit to the medics treating her carbonite sickness. Her red and black robes are simple and sparse. Only her jeweled headband – one she has not taken off since being unfrozen – belies her Dark Council past.

”You’ve lost much, and all we can give back to you is safety, time and space, Suvia,” Viri says. “I didn’t want to encroach on any of those things. I expected that when you were ready to talk, you’d do so. You don’t owe me conversation.”

”I appreciate that,” Suvia says, looking out over the hangar. “You’ve created a formidable presence here. How long do you think it will last?”

Viri shrugs. “I don’t know. Our goal was to defeat the Eternal Empire. We accomplished that. We’re trying to rebuild as much as we can now. Eventually that goal will be exhausted, too.”

”I think you rather enjoy being outside the Empire,” Suvia observes.

”I do,” Viri admits. “It’s easier to do what I want; what I feel is best. I’ll always be Sith; always be an Imperial, but it’s liberating to be away from politics.”

”I don’t blame you. Being away from Sith politics is most refreshing. It’s like Yavin 4, except that the peace accord is genuine.”

”Would that it remains that way.”

”I hope so, too,” Suvia says. “I would like to be a part of it, if your offer to join your Alliance is still open.”

”You’re always welcome,” Viri says.

Suvia smiles slightly, but in the next second, she is frowning again. “What would you even have me do on this base, Viri? You seem to have a fully capable staff.”

”I sense you wouldn’t necessarily enjoy being on a strike team again. You’re one of the most knowledgeable people in the galaxy on Force-related lore and artifacts. We could use that. Would you want to work with Talos on the library? I can create a title for you. Director of Force Lore. Master Archivist.”

”Yes. And you are correct about the strike team.”

“At present, we’re establishing a Force sanctuary in our Yavin 4 base. Your knowledge would be most welcome there. We’re loading the ships to leave at midnight.”

”I was wondering why you hadn’t left for Yavin 4 yet,” Suvia says. “You’re not looking too well.”

”Going to Yavin 4 does seem to be something that I need to do…sooner rather than later,” Viri confirms. “Will you join us?”

”I will,” Suvia says, turning away from the railing. “I’d like to assist, and I could do with a visit to the Temple of Strength myself.”

“You’re always strong, Suvia. One of the strongest people I know.”

”It’s kind of you to say so,” Suvia says, and smiles slightly before walking away.

*

Yavin 4

The Alliance contingent is scheduled to arrive on Yavin 4 in two waves, for safety’s sake. Theron, Darth Hexid and Darth Imperius have headed the first wave, clearing and checking the site one more time before the Commander’s arrival. When Viri, Lana and Suvia touch down on the moon, the reconnaissance team and first wave are both on the landing pad to greet them.

“Welcome back to Yavin 4,” Theron says, as they alight from the shuttle.

”I feel like I need to report to Darth Marr and Satele,” Viri chuckles.

”I think we’re Darth Marr and Satele now,” Lana says, looking at her in horror.

”Oh Force, no. Which of us is which?” Viri laughs.

”I think we’ve got Marr times two,” Suvia deadpans. The entire Alliance contingent turns toward her in shock.

”Yes, I’m fully capable of speaking and I do possess a sense of humor. Stop gawking,” Suvia says. “It’s like you’ve never seen a Dark Councilor before.”

”Let’s show you around,” Theron says, and the group walks toward the base. “We have three empty temples we’ve been working with. The reconnaissance group, plus Sana-Rae’s contingent, have been setting up various Force sanctuaries. Sith, Jedi, Voss, Order of Shasa, even Rakata. Plus some open meditation and discussion spaces for those who want to explore outside those parameters.”

”Excellent,” Viri says, as the group walks into a large temple. The war table and Alliance computers look out of place among the ancient stones, but the base is already alive with activity.

”We have radar dishes monitoring the surrounding areas,” Theron says, “But we do seem to be fairly alone out here. There’s an Imperial Reclamation Service dig in progress on the other side of the moon, and the Sith Empire knows we’re here, but they don’t have any issue with our base. In fact, they’re seeing it as extra protection for their Reclamation Service staff to help them work in peace.”

“One thing I’m wondering, if I may,” Somminick Timmns asks. “We had a fairly large area cleared for the previous coalition. Landing pads, space for housing, empty temples, little Massassi interference right by the staging grounds. Why not use that again?”

“Our complex is deliberately across the moon from the coalition staging site and the former Imperial training grounds,” Lana says. “There are many former coalition members and Imperial guards who have knowledge of those areas, and that might compromise Alliance operations. We’ve also taken pains to ensure that this isn’t a site of any real interest to archaeologists or anything sacred to the Sith. These temples don’t even appear to have ever been used, but merely built and abandoned.”

”Understood,” Timmns says. “That’s sound logic.”

”Commander, there’s a room for you and Lana downstairs,” Theron says. “Right now we have barracks for most of our Force users, but as we build, we should have room for quarters,” Theron says. “We also have room on the landing strip for about five ships, and we can encourage people to live there, too. In fact, it might be safest for at least the Commander, Advisor and our Master Archivist to remain in their ships.”

“That was certainly the most comfortable option before, to live out of one’s ship,” Viri agrees. Lana smirks and catches her eye.

Especially if one is insatiable.

Is there any other way to be? I can’t get enough of you.

“The dual purposes of this base are to provide a retreat for our Force users and a strong surveillance presence in this part of the galaxy. The Voss have allowed us a small outpost in thanks for our help there with the Star Fortress and Vaylin’s invasion, and it’s appreciated, but we’re able to do much more from here. Given recent events, that would be more necessary than ever,” Theron continues.

”We’ve also set up a space for our Master Archivist and her team,” Lana says. “The Imperial Reclamation Service has already said they are open and eager to share knowledge and for our members to participate in their digs and studies of Sith lore and artifacts on the moon.”

As the group leaves the main temple, Viri’s breath catches. There are numerous waterfalls and natural pools, as well as a large expanse of green jungle. Alliance guard towers and control stations are barely visible between the trees.

”We thought you’d appreciate this, Commander,” Darth Imperius says. “We have some animals here, as well. We didn’t think sleen would be happy here, but there’s plenty of room for the nexu to run around, and we have several other species that get along with them.”

”This is stunning,” Viri says, walking up to the edge of one of the pools.

”We’ve already surveyed the water quality, and it’s good,” Lana says. “We’ll still send all the water through our own purification systems before we allow anyone to drink it, but it should be safe to swim.”

”It’s early Life Day for me,” Viri says, smiling in the sunshine.

”Indeed, Commander,” Lana grins. Although I hope we won’t have another Darth Nudist incident.

Hey, you didn’t mind seeing me nude. Viri winks.

As the group ambles back into the main temple, Suvia steps to the front of the crowd.

“I hope you don’t mind, Commander, but if we’re done familiarizing ourselves with the base, there’s a temple of interest off-site that I wish to explore,” Suvia says. “I was surveying it before the Eternal Empire struck, and I wish to resume those studies. I’ll need Talos and Xalek. Since they were my assistants they are familiar with the terrain already. But since I’m still recovering from carbonite, I’d like some additional backup.”

”Already?” Darth Hexid frowns. “We just got here.”

“No time like the present,” Suvia says, “And it would be helpful for me to reconcile the status of the temple versus the resources we have available at the base. I’d like to get my team working as soon as possible.”

”Lana and I can accompany you,” Viri says quickly, taking Suvia’s cue. “We’ve been to Yavin 4 before and are probably more familiar with this moon and its perils than anyone else. We’ll bring HK-55 along for extra support and take the stealth shuttle.”

”Understood,” Theron says, following the thread. “There isn’t much more we can do this evening; we’re still waiting on one more cargo delivery from Nar Shaddaa.”

“We’ll see you all later, then,” Viri says, leading the way to the stealth shuttle.

*

“Thank you, Suvia,” Viri says, as soon as they board the shuttle.

”You needed someone to intervene and get you out of there,” Suvia shrugs, entering a set of coordinates into the navicomputer. “And I had a better excuse than you to go looking for a temple. You look as though you’re barely standing, so I thought we should get you over there now.”

“Yeah.” Viri leans against the back of her flight seat.

”If I were you, I’d rest until we arrive,” Suvia says. “You’ve got a fight ahead of you.”

An hour later, the shuttle touches down in front of another small temple. The area is thick with vines and overgrowth, and the stones of the building are barely visible through the trees.

“There aren’t even any Massassi,” Lana says in wonderment, looking around.

Suvia shrugs. “I cleared the area the last time I was here. I didn’t want to take the chance that anyone could disturb me while I was involved in the healing ritual. There’s also a bind on this building now. You can’t find it unless someone tells you the location or personally brings you here.”

”Our safe house in Rishi was similarly bound,” Lana says.

”Why this temple?” Viri asks.

”It’s a location that is very strong with the Force. The ancient Sith found the most potent locations on Yavin 4, infused them with even more Force energy, and built temples corresponding to lines in the Sith Code. Vitiate’s Temple of Sacrifice was not related to them. These were strictly for personal edification. Most seem to have been destroyed, but the Temple of Strength, Temple of Passion and Temple of Freedom still exist.”

Suvia leads the way into the temple’s inner chamber and ignites a torch. They can barely see, but Lana catches a glimpse of Sith incantations carved into the walls.

”We’ve been over the basics, but are there any last-minute questions?” Suvia asks.

“Can I have a second, or do I need to do this alone?” Viri says.

”You can bring Lana. I’ll be taking Xalek as my second. Someone who is strong in the Force is essential; I’d never bring a non-Force user or a novice into this temple.” Suvia looks away. “Ashara went in with me before. She did all the rituals with me. This, the dream walking on Voss…”

”We’ll find her,” Lana assures her.

Suvia shakes her head and sets her jaw. “We can’t think about that now. No distractions. Viri, I think you need to go first.”

Viri nods and follows Suvia to the altar. “What do I do?”

”Viri, sit here. Lana, sit next to her. You need to recite this incantation, exactly as written,” Suvia says, handing Viri a piece of parchment. “It’s written out because datapads short out in here. We found that out the hard way before.”

”HK, hold onto my datapad, and Viri’s, too,” Lana says, handing the device over. “Please wait for us outside.”

Viri takes the piece of parchment and studies the High Sith incantation. “So I say this, and…”

”And you’ll take this torch and light the cauldron in front of you. These seeds need to go in the cauldron when you get to line seven. Inhale the fumes and don’t resist when they send you to sleep. Lana, you’ll be able to follow Viri into her dream state and help, but you need to remember that you’re there as a second. She has to take the lead.”

”Understood,” Lana says gravely.

”Can you give me any hints about what will happen in the dream state?”

Suvia nods. “Count on fighting some of your most traumatic memories. And yourself. You’ll need to win. If there’s any deep dark secret you don’t want Lana to know, be warned. She’ll see everything.”

“That’s fine. I have no secrets from Lana,” Viri says.

“Are you ready? We’ll cover you outside the room,” Suvia says.

Viri swallows hard. “Thank you for your guidance with this, Suvia. You’re literally saving my life.”

”You restored mine. It’s nothing,” Suvia says, as she leaves the chamber. “Safe travels.”

Viri lights the cauldron and settles down before the fire, but hesitates.

”Don’t be afraid,” Lana says softly, rubbing her arm. “I’ll be right here with you the whole time.”

Viri says nothing, but turns to embrace her. She’s shaking under her robes.

”I’ve got you. I promise.”

”I love you,” Viri whispers. “Thank you for coming with me.”

”I’d do nothing less,” Lana says. “I love you, Viri. You can do this. You’re the fucking Wrath, damn it.”

Viri laughs outright, takes a deep breath, and begins to recite the High Sith incantation. When she reaches the seventh line, she tosses the seeds into the flames. A blue haze begins to fill the room, and both Lana and Viri feel their eyelids becoming heavier and heavier.

As Lana slides into unconsciousness, she reaches out to Viri one more time. Safest travels, my love.

Lana’s eyes open to stare at a black sky. Black volcanic rocks cover the ground. Hills of ash surround them. The stink of sulphur chokes the air. Lana blinks as she stands up and looks around.

Viri is already battling a ghost; one that looks suspiciously like Darth Baras. Her teeth are bared and she’s railing on her former master with every bit of venom she can muster. As Baras goes down, Nomen Karr rises. And Lord Draahg. And Revan. Arcann. Vaylin. Valkorion.

As Valkorion’s illusion falls, a staircase opens beneath Lana and Viri’s feet. The two women run down the steps, spiraling down into Viri’s conscious mind. Around them, people are laughing. Taunting. Accusing. Screaming. Lana hears both friends and foes, and stops short when she recognizes her own voice, and Viri’s, among the cacophony. Every trauma Viri has ever experienced is spilling over them in waves, and tears run down Lana’s cheeks.

The stairs lead to a long corridor with open doors, and Viri peers through each of them, seemingly searching for something.

”What – who – are we looking for?” Lana gasps, trying to keep pace with Viri.

”Her,” Viri says, and keeps running.

At the end of the corridor, the two women stop short. A closed door, locked with numerous chains and electric barriers, lurks in an alcove.

The void is stronger here.

“This is the only door that’s still closed. Is this what we need?” Lana asks.

Viri goes pale and backs up. “I can’t go in there.”

”It’s your own mind. Can’t you go where you want?”

Viri shakes her head. “Not there. Never there.”

Lana sighs. “Do you mind if I have a peek, then?”

”You know I can’t let you go in alone, in case it’s dangerous,” Viri sighs, and heads for the door.

“No!” The voice is neither Lana nor Viri’s, but that of a child. A young girl, wearing the uniform robes of the Corellia Sith Intermediate Academy, darts in front of them.

Viri. Lana recognizes her instantly. She appears to be eleven, twelve – somewhere in the nebulous preteen age range – and her curly hair is pulled back in a tight bun. A well-used practice blade is strapped to her back.

“Vee?” Viri asks in disbelief, staring down at the child.

“I don’t know who you are, or why you’re here, but I suggest you go away.” Vee’s eyes flash. Her voice is high and squeaky; Lana has to resist the urge to smile. “And that nickname isn’t yours to use.”

”It’s one of the things your parents call you,” Viri says.

”Yes, and you’re not my parent.” Vee crosses her arms. “Get the hell out of here.”

”Nope,” Viri tells the girl. “Sorry to break the news to you, but I have final authority over this mind. It belongs to me.”

”How dare you tell me I don’t know my own mind!” Vee snaps, drawing her practice blade.

”Oh, put it away, Dragoi,” Viri rolls her eyes and bats the blade out of Vee’s hand. “You’re impossible. Don’t you recognize me?”

Vee falters. “You look like me, but…”

Viri kneels down and looks into her eyes. “You like girls and boys, but are attracted to none, and that confuses you. You like girls far more, and that’s totally okay. You love your mom and dad more than anything and you’re so proud of their work. You miss Naboo. You go to work with your mom on the weekends, and your favorite animals are sleen and jaggalors. You hate peas. You walk into walls a lot. You got in trouble for dyeing your school robes blue and purple. You’re really happy you’re growing so tall. You—“

Vee stares at her. “You’re me.”

”Yes, I am. I need to get into that room and see whatever we’ve locked away.”

“No. You won’t like that room.”

”I’m sure I won’t,” Viri says dryly. “But I still need to go in. Do you have the key?”

”Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Vee sighs, and reaches into her pocket. She hands Viri a stack of keys.

”Which one opens this door?” Viri says, confused.

”All of them. It can’t get out.”

”You locked it up as tightly as you could, didn’t you?” Viri says softly. “It must have really scared you.”

Vee puts her chin in the air. “I am to be Sith. Sith do not let their fear rule them. They channel it.”

”You’ve learned your Sith Code, that’s for sure,” Viri smiles as she starts unlocking the door.

”You’re really going in there? Force, no! No! Don’t make me hear it!” Vee screams, covering her ears.

”You don’t have to,” Viri says, conjuring memories of a few of her favorite pets. “I’ll be going in with my wife. You can stay out here with the sleen.”

”Good,” Vee says, running to the animals. “I’ll be over here. If you die in there, don’t blame me.”

”I won’t,” Viri says, and as the final lock falls away, she catches Lana’s eye.

”In we go,” Lana says gravely, grabbing Viri’s hand as they walk through the door.

Chapter Text

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The vision is fragmented into painful shards. A training room. A shadow; a man. The smell of ozone, the crack of lightning and a scream.

She’s killed the trainer. She’s always known that eventually, she would probably kill someone – such is the life of a Sith – but she wasn’t prepared for it quite so soon. His eyes are still open and he’s staring at her. And for a moment she is not a young acolyte, a promising future Sith, or a Force user. She’s a little girl, and she acts on reflex: she calls her mother.

Within an hour, she’s no longer alone in the training room. Her mother is hugging her close, her arms around Viri’s shoulders, and Darth Merwo is by her side. But the trainer is still there, and he is still dead, and even though she’s explained it to her mother and her mentor, her mouth is dry and her words are dying on her tongue.

There’s a chorus of voices in the room, some raised, some reasonable; fingers pointed at the girl and the trainer’s body.

”I didn’t mean it…he was…”

”It’s against the regulations to kill a trainer!”

”It’s also against the regulations for a trainer to hurt a student. She was defending herself.” Darth Merwo’s deep voice is strong and sure. “Look at the bruises on her wrists. Do you think she did that to herself? He was trying to…”

”These look broken,” Tullia Dragoi says, gently examining Viri’s wrists. “She’s going to need the med bay after we’re done here.”

”She killed him! There was no need to fry him to a crisp, whatever the situation.” The trainer’s apprentice is livid.

”She’s twelve years old. Her control over the Force is not perfect yet. So?“ Darth Merwo puts her hand on Viri’s head. ”This clearly wasn’t in cold blood. The trainer attacked her. She reacted and defended herself accordingly. That’s what a Sith should do. I cannot recommend any punishment for this student. And apprentice Marven, if you lay one hand on this girl or anyone associated with her, I fully guarantee that you will pay for it. If not from me, from her. Viridana, if he bothers you, you have my full permission and immunity to defend yourself and kill him if necessary.”

”I’m sure that won’t be required,” Tullia says, glaring at Marven. He mutters an apology and slinks away.

She’s safe; she’s exonerated; she’s free from harm. Marven takes Darth Merwo’s words to heart and doesn’t try to kill her. Her broken wrists are set, splinted and eventually healed. She learns all manner of Force-related tricks; masters the art of destruction with a single push from her mind; learns to use her practice blade with finesse.

But never again does she shape energy into lightning and set it free.

..

“That’s why,” Lana whispers, staring in disbelief at the scene as it fades. “That’s why you can’t do Force lightning. That’s why you’re triggered every time you try.”

”Yeah,” Viri says, looking at the ground. “Apparently so. I didn’t even remember this.”

”Your mind went through a lot of trouble to lock it away,” Lana says, touching her shoulder.

Viri rises to her feet and brushes the dust from her greaves. “I don’t know what else we can do with this room. We know. Might as well leave.”

A shadow falls in front of Viri’s face.

”I’m not done with you,” the dead trainer hisses. His skin is still smoldering.

”You’re in my mind. You’ve been dead for decades. You can’t hurt me,” Viri snaps, reaching for her lightsaber. She gasps when she discovers she can’t use it, and cringes in the far corner of the room.

Lana starts toward her, and finds herself frozen in place. I didn’t know her when she was twelve. I can’t help her. Oh, Viri.

“Fight him!” Lana shouts. “You’re stronger! Whatever Vee could do at twelve, think what you can do now!”

Viri’s eyes narrow, and she stares at her hands as a crackle of Force lightning erupts from her palms. “Welcome back.”

”Yes! Focus! Remember what you know!”

Viri smiles, and the smile is all Wrath as she turns the lightning on the trainer. “I killed you once. I’m happy to do it again.”

”Keep hitting him!” Lana shouts. “More!”

Viri persists until the illusion of the trainer is little more than a pile of smoking ash. A golden ball rolls from his pocket to land at Viri’s feet.

”What’s that?”

”I think it’s my lightning,” Viri says, picking it up. It warms and hums in her palms, as though it’s found a long-lost friend. The ball dissolves in her hands, making them glow.

Lana smiles. “And now it’s yours again.”

”Yes,” Viri says, her eyes misty. They step back into the corridor and pause. Young Vee has vanished.

”Open or closed?” Lana puts her hand on the door.

Viri shrugs. “There’s nothing in that room now. Might as well leave it open. I don’t think Vee will mind.”

”Where did she go?”

Viri smiles. “She’s in my Naboo memories now. She didn’t need to stay here.”

“Is this – is this what you needed to do?” Lana asks carefully.

Viri shakes her head. “No. We still need to find her.”

"Who?!"

”We’ll know when we see her.”

Chapter Text

”Viri, we’ve been through the entire fortress,” Lana gasps. “We’ve been here for hours. Who are we looking for?”

Viri crouches down and puts her head in her hands. “Myself.”

“We’ve run into six versions of Vee here. Three of your adolescent selves. The apprentice. The Wrath. Which memory of you do we still need to find?”

”The one who was – wait. Yes. That’s where we need to go.”

Viri pushes on the stones of the corridor, and they fall away. Before them, a platform with a long staircase with a throne looms.

”This is where she was,” Viri explains. “Where she told me to go, when Valkorion shattered my mind. She had absorbed the holocron, so I could find it here. But now she’s – “

"Viri, I'm lost."

"Okay. Sorry. Remember when Valkorion seized my mind, and tried to kill my soul? When I was in my own mind, fighting that battle, a version of myself was coaching me along. She told me where to go and what to do. I wouldn't have remembered the holocron otherwise; I was too scattered. But she vanished as soon as I found the holocron and started to fight Valkorion."

Lana looks around. “And you think she’s still here?”

”I know she is,” Viri says, searching around the throne. “I feel her here. You take this side; I’ll take this one. We need to find her.”

Lana shakes her head, but begins searching the platform. There are signs of a fierce battle – blood, hair that looks suspiciously like Viri’s, pieces of broken armor – but a pale, motionless hand, barely visible behind a rock, makes her scream.

”Viri! Over here!”

Viri vaults over the rocks and picks up herself. The version of Viri who lives in her mindscape is battered, bruised and barely alive. Her armor is shredded and her shoulders and arms are bare.

”I’m sorry,” Viri says. “It took us a while to get here.”

Mindscape Viri smiles faintly, but is in too much pain to talk.

”Valkorion took a lot out of her – of us. She used every bit of energy she had to help me survive.” Viri strokes her face.

”How do we help her?” Lana asks, kneeling down next to them.

”We heal her, and bring her someplace safe,” Viri says, closing her eyes. The mindscape Viri begins to glow as healing energy surrounds her. Lana puts one hand on each Viri’s back and adds her own mending powers to theirs.

Viri rises, carrying her mindscape double in her arms. “She needs to get out of this room. And this room…all of it…needs to go. We’ve already cleaned Valkorion’s damage out of the rest of my mind. This is the last of it.”

”Do you need my help?” Lana asks.

”No, just hold her,” Viri says, passing the double to Lana. “I think I need to do this on my own.”

”May the Force serve you.”

”It will,” Viri says with a smile, marshalling her power and shoving it at the throne. The room explodes around them as Viri attacks it, reducing the platform, steps and throne to dust, and then to nothing. Lana gasps as the ground beneath her disappears, leaving nothing in its wake.

”You’ve got a big block of…well…nothing…here, Viri…” Lana says uncertainly, but in the next moment, the ground around her materializes again. She’s on a lush green lawn, near a waterfall and a small, but beautiful, house.

”Give her back to me,” Viri says, taking her double back from Lana. She walks toward the house.

”No, put me down…let me feel the sun.” Viri nods and conjures a lounge chair for her double, before setting her down gently.

”You’re not trapped in that throne room now,” Viri tells her softly. “You can live here.”

”Naboo,” the mindscape double says, smiling as she looks around. “Thank you.”

Viri nods, but as she looks at Lana, she begins to flicker.

”I think our time here is up, love,” Lana says, and grabs Viri’s hand again as the vision goes black.

”Yeah. We did what we needed to.”

*

”Wake up.”

The stones are cold against Lana’s cheek. She’s back in the Temple of Strength, the room is clear of smoke, and Viri is unconscious in front of the altar. Suvia is kneeling next to them, another torch in her hand.

”You were out for a long time,” Suvia said.

”How long?” Lana asks weakly.

”Five hours.”

”Force alive…” Lana mutters, rushing to Viri’s side. Viri’s eyes are still shadowed, but there is vitality in her face that Lana has not seen in weeks.

”Did she do what she needs to do?”

”Yes. I think so.”

”Don’t wake her up. I should have mentioned that. She’ll need to sleep this off. Take her back to the ship.”

”We won’t be able to cover you,” Lana says, worried.

Suvia laughs. “Talos is outside, Xalek is my second, and HK-55 is patrolling. The area is bound. I think we’re fine. The last time I did this ritual it took me twenty minutes.”

”And when we get back to the base?”

”I’ll make an excuse for you,” Suvia says with a wink. “You two can’t keep your hands off each other so you’re going to stay in your cabin all night.”

”Thank you, Suvia. Truly.”

”As I said before, it’s nothing. Shut up and stop thanking me, and get out of here. I have a ritual to do.”

“We’re leaving,” Lana says, carrying Viri out of the room. “Safe travels.”

”Thanks.”

Lana carries Viri to their bedroom, pulls off her boots and gloves, kicks off her own, and gets into bed with her.

”Lana? Where are we?” Viri mutters, opening one eye.

”Safe in our cabin,” Lana murmurs, cuddling her close. “You finished your ritual. Rest now.”

Chapter Text

Yavin 4

Quiet. It’s the first thing Viri notices when she opens her eyes in her starship’s cabin. It is completely, entirely, blissfully quiet in her brain. All of the echoes of Valkorion’s torments are silent.

”Lana,” Viri whispers. Lana is fast asleep beside her, one arm casually curled around Viri’s waist. Viri gives her a nudge. “Lana, wake up.”

Lana opens one eye. “What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Viri says, sitting up. “Lana...I don't hear it anymore. Listen."

Lana sits up and stares into Viri’s face as she opens her mind. The difference is dramatic; Viri’s physical pain is almost gone, and her thoughts are entirely her own again.

”Stars, you did it. You really did it, Viri!” Lana beams. “And…do you remember anything that happened?”

Viri nods. “All of it. Even the matter with…the lightning. And all the others. I’m sorry you had to see all that.”

”It helped me understand things, lover,” Lana says gently. “I have to say, that young version of you was a handful.”

"Oh, I was a real brat,” Viri laughs. “Hard to believe, I know. I wonder, though…do I have my lightning back now?"

"Try it," Lana nods toward the sparring dummy in the corner.

"All right,” Viri says, squaring her shoulders. She stretches her hands toward the dummy and smiles when wisps of red lightning begin to run down her fingers. Almost instantly, the lightning vanishes as Viri clutches her head and terror surges through the bond.

”Okay,” Lana scoops Viri into her arms. “Your name is Viridana. I’m your wife. You’re safe in your cabin on your own starship. We’re on Yavin 4.”

“Stop…” Viri whimpers. “Make it stop.”

”Eyah seh maat, shu kor huann,” Lana says, holding Viri as she shakes. “Can you look at me?”

Viri shakes her head and screams.

”I’ve got you,” Lana murmurs, holding her. When Viri is gripped by her terror, sometimes all she can do is ride it out. Viri’s entire body is bathed in sweat, and her eyes are squeezed shut as she cries. Her Force signature is a maelstrom of fear and anguish.

Lana continues speaking softly to Viri, trying to bring her back. Eventually Viri stops trembling and looks up.

“It’s good to see you again, lover,” Lana says gently, brushing Viri’s hair out of her sweaty face.

”Damn it, damn it all,” Viri whispers, tears running down her face. “I thought that ritual was supposed to cure me.”

“t was supposed to heal your Force walking injuries, those inflicted by Valkorion and the other ghosts,” Lana says gently. “Suvia didn’t say anything about it curing past trauma.”

”Why…”

”Love, it’s all right,” Lana says, cuddling her. “We’ll deal with it, just as we always do. With some of the other injuries healed, it might be a little easier, don’t you think?”

”I’m sorry you have to put up with this,” Viri says, curling up in Lana’s arms.

”Never apologize for that, Viri,” Lana says sharply. “I’m sorry someone did this to you. When we were in your mind, and I saw those memories, I wanted to kill every person who ever hurt you enough to make you react this way. I’m sorry it still affects you. It’s hard to see you so upset. But it’s not your doing, and you have nothing to be sorry about.”

Viri nods. “Right."

”I can say it, but you need to believe it, lover,” Lana says, holding her.

”That’s the trick, isn't it?” Viri says softly.

”What would help?”

”Hold me,” Viri murmurs. “Right now, that’s what I need.”

And Lana does.

*

Mid-afternoon finds Viri and Lana back at the main temple in the Alliance’s complex, wandering through the various Force shrines that have been set up. Selkath. Voss. Even Jedi. Every Force path has a place in the complex, and Viri is pleased to see the Alliance’s Force users traveling freely between them.

”A place like this would have benefited Ashara,” Suvia says wistfully, walking with them through the temple. Since completing her own ritual, her cheeks have color again.

”She was still finding her way, wasn’t she?" Lana asks.

Suvia nods. “She was. She’d been raised to believe in the Jedi as absolutes. The only way. Seeing other possibilities was confusing to her. I hope....you found me, even though it took a while. I hope we can find her. What Darth Hexid was about to tell me about her reassured me that she is alive and well, and isn’t stuck in carbonite or a Belsavis prison block, but I need to find her.”

”We’re doing our best,” Viri says. “I promise.”

“Commander! My lord!” Talos Drelik’s bright voice echoes across the stones as he scurries over to the women. “I have found the most unbelievably scrumptious ruin. Associated with Freedon Nadd!”

Suvia’s face lights up with excitement as she bustles to Talos’s side. “Show me what you’ve got, Talos. We need to examine it! Excuse me, Commander, Lana…”

Viri and Lana nod as Suvia and Talos walk away together, excitedly talking and consulting a datapad.

“Our schedule for today is light—no. Oh, no,” Viri groans, reading the itinerary on her own datapad. “We’re supposed to meet with that wedding planner.”

Lana sighs. “Can we go fight some Revanites instead?”

”I’m with you on that,” Viri says. “I suppose the faster we meet with her, the faster we can get it over with.”

*

The Zakuulan wedding planner is waiting for them in one of the makeshift conference rooms that has been set up in the main temple. As most Zakuulans, she is impeccably dressed in luxurious fabrics, and her hair is piled high on her head and dyed three different colors. Her unease as she studies the room around her is palpable.

”A bit different from Downtown Zakuul, I suppose.” Viri smiles, walking in. “I’m the Alliance Commander.”

”Margot Kal,” the woman says, flustered. She stands to shake Viri and Lana’s hands. “And this must be your fiancée.”

”Lana Beniko. Chief Advisor.” Lana says, nodding. She and Viri take a seat at the table across from Margot and wait for her to speak. She’s eyeing them both, and Viri can all but see the mental calculations she’s making.

”Well!” Margot says brightly, handing them both datapads, “I have some of my standard wedding datapads for you to look though. Why don’t we start there? And why don’t you tell me what you’d like to get out of this? Since you are the Commander, it needs to be opulent. Large. Showy. The celebration of the century. Beyond that, I need your input.”

I can’t do this. I really can’t. Viri grinds her teeth, and Lana shoots her a stern look.

You’re the Alliance Commander. You can shoot down any idea you don’t like.

Viri clears her throat as she swipes through the images on the datapad. “We’d just like something that represents us. I’m sure you’ve already been informed that even though we are Sith, we do not want a spiritual ritual.”

”That makes things ever so much easier,” Margot enthuses. “I was worried I was going to have to look up some creepy Sith rites.”

Viri bites her tongue.

”Our creed is not creepy,” Lana says politely. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t refer to it as such, and so would Viri.”

”We will want Sith decorations,” Viri says, and Margot’s face falls.

”Your wedding party! Why don’t we start there?” Margot says, clearly wanting to evade a discussion of what ‘Sith decorations’ might entail. “Who is giving you away?”

”Nobody.” Viri and Lana say in unison.

“We don’t like that aspect of weddings,” Viri says politely. “We are not going to be given away by anyone.”

”I see,” Margot says, tapping some information on her own datapad. “Will your parents be attending, regardless?”

”No,” Viri says, looking at the table. “They’re dead.”

”Likewise,” Lana says, keeping her eyes on her hands.

”Oh,” Margot says sympathetically. “Do you have any family that will be attending?”

Viri shakes her head. “I have an adopted sister. Vette Revarre. She’s here on the base with us. Other than that, my friends are my family, and if anyone stands with me and Lana at our wedding, it will be them.”

”I don’t have anything to add to that,” Lana says.

”I’d like you to each make a list of, say, the five people you’d like to invite to be part of your wedding party,” Margot says. “After that, everyone else will be on the guest list.”

”We can do that,” Lana agrees.

”Moving on, which name will you be taking after the wedding? Beniko or Dragoi?”

Lana and Viri stare at each other again.

”Um…we’re not changing our names,” Viri finally says. “I love my name, and Lana loves hers.”

”I see,” Margot says, beginning to sweat. “Do you want any sort of toast or blessing to future children?”

”No, we’re not having children,” Lana says.

Margot rubs her head. “All right. Why don’t you two look through the wedding dresses and see what appeals to you?”

Lana and Viri huddle around one datapad and scroll through the images. It’s immediately apparent to both of them that the dresses aren’t going to work for them.

Viri wrinkles her nose. “These are dresses. I can’t wear these. Off the shoulder? No way.”

“I want to marry my wife, I don’t want to show my midriff to the galaxy,” Lana opines, gesturing at the images. “And I look awful in white.”

”So do I. Why not black?”

”You want to get married…in…a black dress,” Margot says.

”Why not?” Viri shrugs. “Black with accents in blue and green, for both of us.”

”I like that a lot,” Lana says, brightening. “We could incorporate both of our colors.”

Viri puts down the wedding catalogue and taps her own datapad to find one of her books on the ancient Sith. “Lana, what do you think of one of these?”

”That one, maybe; or that…no, that one! It has to be that one.” Lana points at an illustration of an ancient Sith lord.

”You’d be beautiful in that robe,” Viri says, her eyes shining with pride. “Margot, we’ve found what we want.”

”Right,” Margot says, rubbing her forehead again as she copies the information. “Now, hair…”

Viri shrugs. “Eh. Lana likes it down.”

”But an elegant upswept hairstyle…”

”Down.”

”And you, Lana, can you grow your hair out a little…” Margot tries.

”I like it short,” Lana says flatly.

”So do I," Viri agrees.

Margot’s jaw clenches. “I’m not sure if I can help you if you dismiss all of my suggestions.”

Viri sighs. “Margot, we’re not trying to shoot you down. But if this wedding is to be a celebration of us, and our love and community, shouldn’t it reflect us? We could easily get up there in white dresses and do a storybook wedding for the Holonet, but I’d rather be myself and do something I will want to remember.”

”Understood,” Margot says, and her expression softens. “What…what do you want from the day?”

”Just to be with the woman I love, and to celebrate that love.”

”To have our friends celebrate with us,” Lana adds.

”Something simple,” Margot says in wonder, looking at her datapad. “Commander, with all due respect…I don’t get that request very often.”

”I’d imagine that Zakuulan weddings can be…over the top,” Lana says politely.

”I’ve been asked to provide dancing rancors in the past,” Margot admits wearily. “Jugglers. Flowers from planets on the other side of the galaxy. You appear to be the opposite of that.”

”Speaking of flowers, we’d like Rishi flowers. The pink ones,” Lana says. “But we grow those on base, so you won’t need to travel parsecs away for us.”

”Rishi flowers, yes,” Viri smiles. “And Naboo cake. We have a couple who can help you with that recipe.”

”And maybe some Sith music,” Lana says, grabbing Viri’s hand.

”This sounds like a wedding I want to attend,” Margot says. “I’m going to ask you both to write that list of wedding party members for me, and then give me all the aspects of the wedding you would like and wouldn’t like. I’ve taken notes on everything you’ve said so far.”

”Thank you,” Viri smiles.

*

Suvia and Talos are waiting for them outside the conference room when they are finally finished with Margot the wedding planner. Both of them are giddy with excitement.

”Commander, Lana, you must see this find of Talos’s,” Suvia says, her voice brimming with enthusiasm. “Complete temple complex. Never found by the Reclamation Service. Doesn’t seem to have been settled by the Massassi, either. No life forms noted on the scans, other than the usual Yavin 4 fauna.”

”We read about this in university,” Talos says, all but hopping up and down. “One of Freedon Nadd’s complexes of learning. He had several but most were never uncovered. They are the stuff of legend. And here’s one just waiting for us!”

”Excellent,” Lana says, picking up Suvia and Talos’s excitement. “Viri, do you want to go have a look? I know we had planned on that…other…excursion, but we can always do that next.”

”All right. Assemble our usual team, just for safety. I’ll call the stealth shuttle again,” Viri smiles. Even without the Temple of Passion, there’s always our cabin.

*

The stealth shuttle has difficulty finding a landing place near Talos’s coordinates. The jungle on this side of Yavin 4 is untouched and uncleared, and Viri finally has to use the shuttle’s cutters on the thick foliage to clear a small patch of ground for a landing pad.

“I’m amazed this has not been found before, what with the Revanite, Empire, Republic and Alliance sweeps and surveillance,” says Viri, as they alight from the shuttle and cluster around Talos and Suvia. “It seems that even the Imperial guards didn’t locate it, and they lived here.”

“Freedon Nadd used binding spells and keyed his complexes to specific artifacts,” Suvia says. “Like a lot of the temples on this moon, it probably doesn’t appear on radar unless you’ve figured out the key to finding it.”

”One of Nadd’s artifacts was among the Eternal Empire’s loot,” Talos explains, and pulls a small purple datacron out of his bag. “I’ve been studying it ever since we cleared the treasure vault. That’s our compass to the complex.”

The datacron pulses weakly in Talos’s hand, but as he leads the way through the jungle, it begins to glow vibrantly enough to reflect light off the nearby trees. As they continue walking, it starts emitting a high-pitched tone.

”The datacron seems to be guiding us,” Viri observes.

”That’s exactly what it’s doing,” Suvia says with a smile. “It’s taking us right to—“

”—Your doom,” someone says flatly.

”How…there were no life forms on the sensors…” Talos stammers, drawing his blaster.

A haggard Sith pureblood steps out from the shadows, holding a purple lightsaber and wearing robes that are eerily familiar.

”We knew you would return here,” the woman hisses. “We waited for your return. And now that you are here, we can avenge our master. Don’t you remember me, Killer of Revan? Ladra. You came to our camp on Dromund Kaas. You brought us Revan’s mask. You pretended to revere the master. You killed him.”

Viri blinks. “How—“

Ladra smiles grimly. “Surely you don’t think your coalition killed all of us? And even if it did, it doesn’t matter. We are still here.”

”We’re leaving, whether you like it or not,” Viri snaps. She sweeps her lightsaber toward Ladra, but the blade goes right through the woman.

“Your mortal weapons can’t hurt me,” Ladra laughs, and unleashes a stream of lightning that burns a nearby tree. “But I can hurt you. You underestimate the spirit. And now, you will come with me.”

Well, you said you wanted to fight some Revanites, Viri tells Lana wearily.

Chapter Text

You said you wanted to fight Revanites, Viri tells Lana, quirking an eyebrow.

Must I be taken literally? Lana replies, storm clouds forming on her face as she stares at the spirit of Ladra.

”You will suffer, all of you,” Ladra sneers. “And I will relish every scream.”

Suvia rolls her eyes. “You must be joking. I’ve dealt with spirits far more formidable than you, Revanite. You’re boring me. And if you come one step closer, you will regret it deeply.”

Lana, Suvia and Viri stand back to back and draw their sabers, forming a protective circle around Talos. HK-55 draws his weapon and trains it on the ghost, evoking another laugh from Ladra.

”Last warning,” Suvia says, twirling her polesaber nonchalantly

”Do your worst!” Ladra sneers.

”If you insist.” Suvia sighs heavily as she channels her power, pulling Ladra’s spirit toward her. A second later, only a purple wisp of smoke, and Suvia’s laughter, fill the clearing.

Viri eyes her uneasily. “You just ate that ghost.”

”Of course I did,” Suvia says. “I’m here to learn about Freedon Nadd, not contend with some bitter ex-cult member.”

“Are you going to keep her around?” Lana asks.

Suvia shakes her head. “No. I expect she’d quickly become tedious. We’ll throw her in a spirit trap once we’re back on our base.”

“But more Force walking…” Viri stammers.

”Eh,” Suvia waves her hand. “I’m built to withstand it now. We’re right on Yavin 4, and I can always top up at the Temple of Strength, just in case. Let’s move on. Talos? Is the datacron still guiding us?”

Talos pulls the datacron out of his pocket again and scrutinizes it. “Yes. We’re close.”

”Lead the way,” Viri says, as the group follows Talos into the trees.

*

Talos’s datacron glows with more and more intensity as they weave their way deeper into the jungle, until the entire team is bathed in purple light. The dirt beneath their feet gives way to paving stones obscured by grass and bramble, and as they continue across the stones, they all become aware of a large presence in the Force.

Lana shivers as the Force washes over her. “I sense so much here.”

”Yes,” Viri agrees, shuddering.

“The Force serves me,” Suvia mutters, steeling herself against the onslaught.

Talos looks from one to the other. “I wish…I wish I could feel it too. But, my lords, I think it means…we’re here.”

Viri pushes more of the brush out of the way, revealing a large wooden door covered in Sith incantations. All except HK-55 can translate the words effortlessly, and they stand before the door silently, taking it in.

”Query: What does it say?” HK says impatiently.

”The first part is a binding spell,” Lana says, her eyes traveling slowly over the Kittât script. “The second is a blessing. Or a warning, depending on how one views the Force.”

”Is it just ornamental, or is the door itself infused with the Force?” Talos asks. “This is where I need to cede to you, my lords. I can’t tell.”

”Oh, it’s teeming with the Force,” Viri says softly, closing her eyes to drink it in. “But if you are asking if the door is going to bite us, I don’t think so. All the same, I don’t think we should touch it.”

“It’s likely that only a Force user can open it,” Lana says, studying the inscriptions again. “Shall we?”

”Talos, HK, stay behind us. Lana, Viri, concentrate on the door, on three…” Suvia murmurs. All three women channel their power and focus on the door. As they push at it with the Force, it swings open with a puff of purple smoke.

”Only a Force user can gain entrance,” Talos says. “Brilliant.”

”Is it safe for him to enter?” Viri says, eyeing Talos. “If only Force users can open the door, then…”

”I think he will be fine,” Suvia says, but she casts a protective bubble around Talos, nonetheless. “I’ll leave the decision to Talos, though. You can stay here if you want.”

”I’ll follow your lead,” Talos says, beaming. “There’s always a risk when one’s puttering around in Sith tombs. I accept it, gladly.”

”HK, please stay here at the door and cover us,” Lana says, nodding to the droid.

”Statement: It will be my pleasure, master.”

All three women keep their lightsabers drawn as they enter the temple. Their steps are slow and measured as they advance, mindful of traps. Sure enough, Freedon Nadd’s complex is full of the dangers they’ve all come to expect from Sith tombs and temples. Viri sends a Force push at the walls to trigger hidden spikes; Lana illuminates the ceiling to reveal sleeping stonerays. Suvia deftly guides them all around a room that, once activated, would have filled with poison gas.

”If you want knowledge, you must fight for it,” Lana says wryly, using the Force to deactivate another trap. “I suppose this was all meant to deter looters, or those weak in the Force.”

“The door mentioned a ‘clutch of seven,’” Viri reminds the group, as they approach another antechamber. “I’ve counted six traps. So this should be the last.”

”Let’s see what he’s cooked up for the grand finale,” Lana mutters, tapping into the Force to brush some soot away from the stones on the wall. Another Kittât inscription greets them.

”’In the presence of the unworthy, the dead shall walk,’” Suvia reads. “That’s certainly comforting.”

”I can’t wait,” Viri deadpans, as the group walks across the threshold, prepped for battle.

As soon as they step into the room, purple flames erupt from all four corners, illuminating the space…and the faces of hundreds of spirits. As the flames flicker, Viri spots faces she knows. Darth Baras. Nomen Karr. Darth Arkous. Darth Vengean.

”I don’t think you can eat all of these, Suvia,” Viri murmurs, stepping closer to the others.

“They’re not real ghosts,” Suvia whispers, her eyes fixed on another group of apparitions. “They’re…manifestations.”

“My lords, they speak of this in Nadd’s third history, I think,” Talos says, his voice low, his face pale. “’The unworthy will bend in the anguish of their memories and flail as they fight phantoms incorporeal. The strong will vanquish them through resolve.’”

Suvia’s face lights up. “Of course.”

Lana, Viri, Suvia and Talos close their eyes, marshalling their strength, and walk resolutely through the clutch of phantoms. Their old adversaries snarl as the four stride confidently along, but dissolve into wisps of noxious smoke.

”That cannot be all,” Viri says, once they’re on the other side. “That was far too easy.”

”I tend to agree,” Suvia says, as they step into the next room. “There must be something mo--”

The floor gives way, and Viri and Lana are barely able to grab Suvia by the arms before she tumbles into a chasm.

”We’ve got you,” Viri grunts, as they pull Suvia back up. “I have to hand it to Freedon Nadd, he was thorough.”

”Thanks,” Suvia says, shuddering.

”There’s something down there,” Lana says, peering into the chasm. “Something’s glowing down there, very faintly. Do you see?”

Talos pulls his macrobinoculars out of his bag and sets them to the night vision setting. “It’s a stasis prison. And it’s occupied.”

”I sense that we need to investigate,” Viri says resolutely. “Is there anything from Freedon Nadd about staircases?”

”’Ask for one’s desires,’” Talos beams, and speaks into the silence of the room. “We desire a staircase.”

Almost instantly, a staircase is carved into the rock, leading down to the stasis prison.

”Well done, Talos,” Viri smiles, and cautiously leads the way down the stairs. “I don’t know why I feel that we need to see what is down here, but…oh no.”

Everyone involuntarily gasps as they draw close enough to the stasis prison to fully see the prone figure in the tank.

“Viri,” Lana whispers. “Is that…”

”Yes,” Viri says, going up to the tank and putting her hands on the glass. “It’s Jaesa.”

“She must have been caught by this trap,” Suvia muses. “’The dead shall walk…’ I’d bet anything that her energy was being siphoned. It would explain how all those memories, and Ladra, had the power to manifest so strongly. They were feeding off her.”

“We need to get her out of here,” Viri says. “I sense she’s still alive.”

“Oh yes, she is. This looks like the stasis prison that was used to hold Khem Val,” Suvia says reassuringly, studying the keypad. “If that’s the case, she’s just hibernating in there, and we should be able to revive her instantly.”

”You’re right,” Viri says, scrutinizing it. “Now that you mention it, Talos and I found one like this near the Imperial Guard’s training grounds on this world. It was holding Ak’ghal Usar. You’ve met him, he’s on Odessen with us.”

”Imprisoned like a Dashade…she’s going to be so pissed off,” Suvia chuckles, unlocking the prison. “Let’s see what she has to say.”

The stasis tank goes dark, and Jaesa falls to the ground with a grunt. When she looks up her polesaber is already drawn, and her eyes are blazing as she surveys the group surrounding her. Hostility gives way to joy as she recognizes Viri and the others.

”Master!”

”Please, none of that ‘master’ stuff,” Viri laughs, opening her arms as Jaesa vaults toward her. “It’s so good to see you, Jaesa.”

As Jaesa steps back from the hug, Viri scrutinizes her. Her former apprentice looks far more wordly; far wiser. She teems with the Dark Side, and her eyes are deep crimson. Her hair is shorter; her clothes are less dangerous-looking than they’d been during Viri’s Wrath days, and there’s a large red tattoo splashed across her face.

Jaesa blinks. “Stars, Nox is here too! Where am I?! Please tell me this isn’t the afterlife.”

”You are on Yavin 4, in the Temple of Freedon Nadd, and you’re very much alive. So are we. Do you remember anything?”

Jaesa shakes her head. “I fought my way through this temple, I walked into a room, and it all went black.”

”You got caught in one of the traps,” Viri tells her. “It was siphoning your power to allow the spirits here to walk.”

”Well, that’s infuriating,” Jaesa grouses. “Damned thieves. Please tell me you left some ghosts for me to annihilate.”

”I’m afraid we’ve eliminated that particular threat, but we have one that will be in a spirit trap soon,” Suvia chuckles. “I’ll let you kick the box. All right?”

”What were you doing here, Jaesa?” Viri asks, wrinkling her brow.

Jaesa’s smile falters. “Looking for knowledge, of course. For myself…and for you.”

”For me? But why?”

Jaesa shrugs. “When you vanished, I knew you didn’t die. I felt you were still alive. So did all of the other Force sensitives, Ashara, the rest. Where is Ashara, anyway?”

”We haven’t found her yet,” Lana says shortly. “But go on. I remember my conversations with you. You’d felt almost everyone die, but you weren’t sure about Nox, and you hadn’t felt Viri go anywhere at all.”

”Exactly,” Jaesa nods. “I felt that you were trapped somewhere, unable to respond. Was that true?”

”Yes,” Viri nods. “I’d been trapped in carbonite.”

”That must have been…unpleasant,” Jaesa opines. “But yeah, I knew something terrible had happened. I had to help you. I knew I had to be stronger to do that. So I used what I knew. I started searching for Sith ruins and artifacts that would increase my knowledge, and my power. I found so many, on many planets. They eventually led me back here, to this temple complex. I found a datacron that directed me here, and I followed it eagerly. I wanted to return to you as a formidable power, who could burn your enemies effortlessly. But it seems as though I wasn’t strong enough in the end, since you had to rescue me.”

”Jaesa, I was rescued by someone too,” Viri says. “If Lana hadn’t sprung me, I would be dead in a block of carbonite right now.”

”And someone saved me, when I was in trouble on Altair 3,” Lana says. “If they hadn’t swooped in and grabbed me from the battlefield, I wouldn’t have made it.”

”I’m only here today because of Viri, Lana and their allies,” Suvia continues. “I was in carbonite, like Viri. They had to find me, and once they did, they had to cross the galaxy to find an antidote to carbonite poisoning for me. Sith pride about being rescued has no place here.”

”You’ve all had a hell of a time, haven’t you?” Jaesa chuckles. “Vette! Is Vette okay?! I don’t see her here…”

”Yes, she’s fine, and she’s back at our base,” Viri smiles. “She’s going to be thrilled to see you. The rest of the team - Piece, Broonmark, Treek - are alive, well and working with us, too.”

”And your team, Nox?” Jaesa asks.

”Please, just call me Suvia. I don’t care to use my Darth name right now. There’s no point to it. As you see Talos is fine, and Xalek is back at the base. Andronikos, Khem Val and Ashara are still missing. I can sense that Khem is alive; I just don’t know where. Ashara, as well. As for Andronikos, we have no idea. We’re searching for them.”

”And how goes the war with Zakuul? The last I’d heard, before I got caught in this quagmire, was that the Sith Empire had formally allied with you.”

”You’ve been here a while,” Viri says, grinning. “We won.”

”You’re looking at the ruler of the galaxy, for all intents and purposes.” Lana says proudly. “The Empress Wrath.”

“Well done,” Jaesa laughs. “The Empress Wrath? I love it. So why are you crawling around the jungle on Yavin 4, then?”

”The Alliance is establishing a base here, mostly for our Force users,” Viri tells her. “And as always, the temples and artifacts interest us. We’re just on a field trip. When we leave here, you are welcome to come back with us.”

Jaesa grimaces. “Even though I failed?”

”You didn’t fail,” Viri says, shaking her head. “I feel the Force surrounding you. You are strong. You survived the Eternal Empire and found this temple on your own. I would love to have you on the team again.”

Jaesa looks around, searching each face. “You’ve got a collection of badass Sith women here. Seems like I’d be in good company.”

”Yes,” Lana says with a laugh. “Supporting each other; not cutting each other’s throats.”

“Count me in.”

”Welcome back, Jae,” Viri says, hugging her again.

”So. This temple complex. Have you found anything yet?”

Viri shakes her head. “No. We were still going through the traps.”

”From what I could understand, it seemed like there were only seven of them. I was feeling so pleased with myself when I reached this room,” Jaesa says, gritting her teeth.

”That’s how we interpreted it, too,” Suvia says, leading the group back up the stairs. “Ostensibly, we should have passed this trial now. But I don’t see any way out of this room…”

”Perhaps asking for one’s desires would apply here again,” Viri says. “Freedon Nadd, we have proven ourselves worthy. We passed your tests and we know your words. We are Sith and we are strong. We desire to visit your archive and gain strength from all that it offers.”

Almost instantly, a silver door appears in the wall and swings open. Viri and the others walk through, and find themselves in the largest library they have ever seen.

The walls are lined with library archives, from the floor to the ceiling. There’s a line of gleaming holocrons on presentation stands. On one side of the room, there are shelves of paper books.

“All of these ancient books,” Lana says, her voice tinged with awe. “So much to read.”

Viri turns in a circle, taking it all in. “I can’t even believe what I’m seeing.”

“Ashara would love this,” Suvia says wistfully.

”Maybe when we find her, you can bring her here and show it to her, my lord,” Talos says, smiling encouragingly.

”I don’t even know where to start,” Suvia says, her voice low. “Perhaps we should all choose a section and…”

”I think the archive chooses for us,” Viri says, her eyes alighting on an obelisk in the center of the room with another long inscription. “’That which you need to find will be revealed to you here.’”

“Let’s see what we need,” Lana says, moving toward the paper books.

*

Time seems to stand still in Freedon Nadd’s library. Viri moves from one tome to the next, drinking in the ancient words. The books seem to call to her, and as she pulls them from the shelves and library archives one by one, she finds that every word resonates for her. If she focuses on a particular subject, a book about it materializes.

Lana, Suvia, Jaesa and Talos are all huddled down in their own corners, silently reading. Every now and then one of them will rise to return their books and thoughtfully choose another. They all seem to have the same goal: to drink in as much knowledge as they can.

Viri winces when her earpiece sounds, and she rises and walks to the farthest corner of the room to answer it.

”Yes?”

”Commander, I hate to disturb you, but we’ve got a problem. We just heard about an issue on Ord Mantell, and…” Theron’s voice seems out of place in the silent room.

Viri sighs. “And there’s nobody else in the entire Alliance who can handle it.”

”Commander, you know I wouldn’t disturb you if I had confidence anyone else could handle it. But this is going to require you and Lana. Hexid and Imperius are already prepping to go, and so are Pierce and Vette…”

”All right,” Viri says sighing heavily. “I’m on my way.”

Viri looks up to find that the group has clustered around her, concerned.

”What’s the matter?” Lana asks.

Viri frowns. “Something’s up on Ord Mantell. I have to go. Lana, since you’re my second…I’m sorry.”

”We came in together, we will leave together,” Suvia says resolutely. “I can’t speak for myself, but what I’ve been able to learn in my hours here has been monumental.”

Viri smiles. “Yes. It has been. Thank you.”

The group looks toward the door, and finds that it has vanished. Viri speaks into the silence of the room again. “Freedon Nadd, we thank you for sharing your knowledge with us. We need to return to our everyday lives now.”

Immediately, another door, a plain one, appears in the back wall. When the group walks through, they find themselves back at the front entrance. HK-55 is still patrolling, pacing back and forth with his blaster drawn.

”Statement: that was fast,” HK-55 says.

”What are you talking about?” Lana blinks. “We must have been gone for hours.”

”Correction: You have been gone for five minutes and forty-three seconds, Master Beniko.”

Talos’s jaw drops. “But…we…how…”

Suvia smiles wryly. “As they say, anything is possible through the Force.”

”Query: Is the new Sith meatbag a friend or a prisoner?”

”Meatbag?!” Jaesa scowls. “What are you then? A bucket of scrap?”

”Assertion: I am not a bucket. My chassis is remarkably designed.”

”It’s a friendly meatbag, HK,” Viri laughs. “Jaesa Willsaam, meet HK-55. Please be nice to each other. HK, Jaesa is to be given clearance as an Alliance member. Jaesa, HK has been with us a while. He was originally Lana’s bodyguard. And any organic is a ‘meatbag’ to him, so please don’t be offended.”

“I see,” Jaesa says, a small, amused smile pulling at the corner of her mouth. “All right, then. Hello, HK.”

“Greetings.”

”We should head back to the base now,” Lana says, boarding the shuttle. “We have much to do, and apparently, our Yavin 4 interlude is going to be cut short.”

Chapter Text

Gravestone

Viri, Lana and their strike team, along with Suvia and Talos, cluster around the holodeck on the Gravestone’s bridge. The vessel is already deep in hyperspace, heading toward Ord Mantell.

”Here’s what we know,” Theron says, tapping buttons on his datapad. “We are dealing with three rogue Sith lords: Adacin, Zanisk and Wrad. They disappeared when the Empire capitulated to Zakuul.”

”A lot of Sith and other Imperials did the same,” Viri says, crossing her arms. “Why are we worried about them now?”

”They have been attacking our allies,” Theron says. “Three systems that are loyal to the Alliance have been raided, and they’ve been repeating the ‘death to the Alliance’ motto that we’ve heard elsewhere.”

“I see,” Viri says, pacing. “What have they done in the raided systems?”

”Nothing,” Theron admits. “That’s what has been confusing. They make it clear they oppose the Alliance. But they have not taken prisoners. Nor have they looted the attacked areas or attempted to claim them for themselves or any larger group. They go in, murder and destroy, and leave.”

”No motives? No rambling manifestos? They’re like Vitiate,” Viri muses. “Or the Dread Masters. They just want it all to burn.”

“I thought the same,” Theron says. “We have no evidence they’ve been possessed or controlled, nor have we found anything connecting them to any larger ideology. All we know is that they’re attacking our allies and that they have expressed a desire to end the Alliance.”

Viri sighs. “What are we up against?”

”In terms of numbers, they aren’t that many. They’ve taken losses in their raids. But they have some formidable weapons, and they’ve holed up in an old Separatist base in a volcano. None of our agents have been able to do much to breach it. Which is where you and your strike team come in,” Theron says. “We’ve managed to snag some schematics. There are three possible routes through the base.”

”Right,” Viri says, hunkering down in front of the schematics. “Lana, Vette, HK, you’re with me. Piece, Hexid, Imperius, Xalek, you form your usual team.”

“What about me?” Jaesa scowls.

“Are you absolutely sure you want to be on this mission, Jae?” Viri asks. “It’s jumping in feet first, and…”

”The hell with that,” Jaesa says, rolling her eyes. “I want to break some heads. I’ve picked up some new skills. You’re going to be impressed. Come on. ”

”I can’t wait to see what you can do,” Viri smiles. “All right. You’re partners with Vette again.”

“Just like old times,” Jaesa enthuses. “I can work with that.”

Vette grins. “Watch out, Jae. She’s still messy. Lana’s no better. Oh, the bloodstains I have to wash out of my armor…”

“Of course she is. I’d be disappointed if she wasn’t. But the team is back!” Jaesa smiles.

”Most of it,” Suvia mutters, looking away.

”We’ll find her, Suvia, she’ll be here…” Vette tries.

Suvia waves her away. “Stop, Vette. I anticipate that we will find her, but she’s obviously not here right now. All right?”

“I get it,” Jaesa says, studiously scrutinizing the details on her polesaber’s hilt.

Suvia’s eyes light up. “Jaesa. I forgot to ask you! Do you know anything? Did you hear…”

Jaesa shakes her head. “I’m sorry, Suvia. There’s not much I can tell you. Ashara was with us on Nar Shaddaa, when we stayed at Viri’s house. She was devastated. Inconsolable. But everyone eventually drifted. I went to the memorial they had for you, Viri and Darth Marr, as quietly as I could, and then I vanished, too. I didn’t want to stay in Republic or Imperial space.”

“I saw you at the memorial,” Lana notes.

”I know you did,” Jaesa says. “We nodded to each other, remember? I was so glad to see you standing there for Viri.”

”Ashara did not stand for me?” Suvia mutters.

”No, she did not, but you know as well as anyone else that it wouldn’t have been safe for her to be on Dromund Kaas alone at that time,” Lana says. “The Sith vendettas had reached a fever pitch and she would have been a target. You were not forgotten, though. Talos and Andronikos stood for you. Andronikos even put on a suit.”

Suvia allows herself to smile. “You have to be kidding.”

”We’ve got holos of it, since the memorial was broadcast throughout the galaxy,” Lana says. “When we’re finished with this mission, you can watch for yourself.”

”Might be edifying to watch my own funeral,” Suvia muses. “In the meantime, I did not mean to distract everyone from the mission at hand. Talos and I will remain on the Gravestone and dig as much as we can. I do not recall ever encountering any of these Sith, but I’ll try to see what I can find about them to complement Theron’s work.”

“Thank you, Suvia,” Viri says. “I’m most grateful.”

Suvia shrugs and waves Viri away. “Don’t. We’re all doing what we need to do.”

”Right,” Viri says, returning her attention to the holo-projector. “Everyone, I expect you to have the base layout committed to memory by the time we reach Ord Mantell, but I still want these schematics on your personal datapads. Here’s what I’m thinking…”

Lana glances at Viri’s face as she continues laying out the strike team’s strategy. Her eyes are steely as she gestures at the map, completely in her element as she prepares to lead her Alliance to victory.

*

Ord Mantell

The former Separatist base is a maze of catwalks and platforms, suspended precariously above rolling lava pits and fissures. Scorching heat blasts teams Aurek and Besh as soon as they venture past the entrance.

“...and I’m wearing heavy armor. Oh, joy,” Vette moans. “First we nearly freeze to death on Hoth, then we nearly get gassed in the sewers on Coruscant, and now we’re being broiled.”

”I’m sorry, Vette,” Viri says sardonically. “I’ll ask our next opponents to ensure they stage their uprising in a more moderate climate.”

”I’d appreciate that,” Vette quips, brandishing her blasters. “In the meantime, do try not to fall off the catwalk, ‘k? I don’t think lava would be a good look for you.”

”When have you known me to fall off a catwalk?” Viri snarks, running deftly up a ramp and dispatching three of Adacin’s guards.

”How long do you have, Viri?” Jaesa says. “We could go by planet…”

”By year…” Vette continues.

”And I can add to that…” Lana says, healing a cut on Viri’s cheek as she runs.

”You too, Lana?” Viri says, with mock hurt.

”Now that the band’s back together, you know what you’re in for,” Vette says. “We’re going easy on you today.”

”Sorry, brat,” Lana laughs.

”I’m going to get you for that,” Viri growls, dispatching three more guards.

”Please do. Multiple times.”

”Oh no, I need to warm you, Jae,” Vette says. “These two are insatiable. Never walk into their rooms without knocking. Or supply closets. Or freshers. Elevators. If there’s an enclosed space expect the two of them to be there, screwing each other’s brains out.”

”Lana and I do not screw,” Viri says, pretending to swoon. “We make mad passionate love. Which may sometimes resemble screwing.”

”Too much information,” Jae says. “Really. I’m glad you two are getting some, but…yeah.”

”Vette brought it up, not us,” Lana scoffs. “I enjoy spending time with my wife. No shame in that.”

”Wait, wife? Congra--fuck you, die!” Jaesa scowls as she cuts down a Sith who has ambushed her. “What was I saying? Oh yes. Congratulations. Did you have a big wedding?”

”Not yet,” Lana says, grunting as she pushes two droids into the lava. “Of course, you’re invited.”

”We should add Jae to the wedding party,” Viri says, leading the way into the heart of the base. “She’s certainly family.”

”Are you having tea or destroying this base?” Theron says on the comlink, dumbfounded.

”Both,” Viri shrugs, slicing through two Sith and shoving them out of her way. “If we’re getting distracted I’ll call for radio silence. You know that. Right now, however, we could do this in our sleep.”

“Affirmation,” Pierce says on the comlink. “Team Besh isn’t quite as entertaining, but we’re cruising too.”

“I’m trying to understand how they could have mounted any attacks,” Viri says. “This is too easy.”

”…or you’re just that good,” Theron replies. “The Alliance agents couldn’t get past the first room.”

Lana laughs out loud. “Is that so? I haven’t had this much fun on a mission in a long time.”

*

“We should be closing in on them,” Viri says,as the team crosses yet another catwalk. “The base is surrounded. There’s no way out.”

”Not for you, anyway…” an amused voice says. Lords Zanisk and Adacin emerge from the shadows, lightsabers drawn.

“Why are you doing this?” Viri asks. “Tell me that, at least.”

Adacin smiles. “Because you and your Alliance need to die.”

”I’m afraid I can’t oblige you on that count. You’ll just have to die instead,” Viri says drily, and strikes.

When the dust clears, Adacin and Zanisk are dead, and Viri has barely broken a sweat. She steps back from the defeated Sith lords and extinguishes her lightsaber with a flourish.

“Strike teams Aurek and Besh, we’re done here. Excellent work, everyone,” Viri says into her comlink. “Cleanup team Cresh, activate. Recon teams one and two, we’re clear. Come in.”

Within minutes the base is full of Alliance personnel. Droids sweep every corner for explosives and other concealed weapons and traps, while Theron’s team slices every computer, holo-communicator and datapad they can find.

”Is there anything here that offers explanations?” Viri asks hopefully. “Anything at all?”

”Too early to tell,” Theron says, scrutinizing a line of data on one of the monitors. “But we can hopefully trace their communications.”

“I’ll leave you to it,” Viri says, walking away.

Viri leaves the base and heads back toward the shuttle, HK-55 at her heels. The crashing of the waves is barely audible over the hum of the Alliance spacecraft, and Viri finds herself veering toward the sound.

”Statement: Respectfully, the shuttle is in the other direction,” HK-55 says, confused.

”Yes, I know, HK. I just need to see the ocean.”

*

Lana doesn’t ask anyone where Viri has gone. It’s no longer necessary. She merely has to access their bond; to follow Viri’s Force signature as it pulls at her own soul.

As she approaches the ocean overlook, Lana can barely make out Viri’s silhouette through the mist. She stands near the edge of the bluff, her hands clasped behind her back. The wind makes her hair seem alive, whipping wisps of curls across her eyes and nose. Viri absently pushes the stray strands behind her ears.

As Lana reaches her, a small smile pulls at the corners of Viri’s mouth, and her Force signature flares with love, but she keeps her gaze on the sea.

”Look Lana. Do you see it? An aiwha’s about to launch.” Viri points toward the waves as a majestic creature propels itself from the water and flies off into the sky.

“Beautiful,” Lana muses. “I’ve never seen one of those before. Not in person.”

”They’re lovely,” Viri says, her voice wistful.

”Don’t tell me you’re thinking of adopting one,” Lana says, with a hint of amusement.

”No, I wouldn’t,” Viri says. “This ocean is their home. But I love watching them.”

“I can understand why,” Lana says, snaking one hand around Viri’s waist. Viri immediately leans into her, puts an arm around her shoulder, and sighs.

“It’s so beautiful here,” Viri muses, lapsing into Sith. “The sea, everywhere.”

”You’d live here, wouldn’t you?” Lana asks in the same language, looking up at her.

”If it wasn’t Republic territory, I’d be looking for a villa,” Viri admits. “It’s not quite as bright as I prefer, but this ocean…despite what we had to do here, I’m grateful for the chance to see it.”

“And yet, you are troubled,” Lana observes, feeling the unrest bubbling through their bond.

“We’re trying to do the right thing,” Viri says, her voice low. “We’re not killing anyone, unless they attack us. We’re not oppressing anyone. We’re not insisting that systems become part of a central unit, like the Republic. We’re not pressing any sort of ideology, other than not attacking others. The galaxy has been at war for so long, you’d think a break would be welcomed. Why, Lana? Why is this happening?”

”Peace is a lie, Viri,” Lana says, taking a deep breath. “It’s an illusion. You know that as well as I do.”

”Yes,” Viri sighs heavily. “I know that well. Let’s be realistic. Arcann and Vaylin could not hold the galaxy. It’s unlikely we’ll be able to, long-term. Why are we even doing this, then, if we know it’s all going to end in ashes?”

”Perhaps to prolong the time before it’s ashes,” Lana says, staring out at the sea.

”To be opposed by the Sith…” Viri shudders.

Lana chuckles. “Business as usual, my love. We’ve been out of the Empire long enough to have forgotten it, but surely you remember all the backbiting? We all had allies, but we also had bitter foes.”

”Yeah,” Viri says. “I just…they weren’t even trying to take our power base, Lana. They weren’t seeking to take Alliance holdings, but to obliterate them. And they were acting that way without the influence of the Dread Masters or Vitiate. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

”I feel as though there must be more to it than we’re seeing right now,” Lana admits. “All of the skirmishes have had that in common.”

”Whoever they are, we will strike them down,” Viri says, momentarily lapsing into her Wrath expression. “We’ve worked too hard to do otherwise.”

“I agree,” Lana says, tightening her arm around Viri’s waist. “We’ve quelled the issue for now, at least.”

Viri closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, inhaling the briny sea air.

”Back to the shuttle, love?” Lana asks gently. “The Gravestone is waiting for us in orbit.”

“We’re not going to be able to head back to Yavin 4, are we?” Viri asks, a tinge of bitterness in her words.

”I’m afraid not,” Lana says. “There have been other incidents while we’ve been fighting here. Something about Iokath. We need to regroup on Odessen.”

“Yeah.” Viri looks wistfully back at the sea. “Duty calls.”

”Hey,” Lana says, cupping her face and kissing her gently. “We’ll have some time to ourselves. Even if it’s not what we planned on Yavin. I promise.”

Viri’s eyes mist over as she returns the kiss, letting her lips linger against Lana’s.

“How’s this,” Lana says, stroking her hair. “We have a long ride back to Odessen. Let’s go back to the ship and make use of one of those ‘enclosed spaces’ Vette mentioned before.”

Viri breaks into a smile, sunshine through the clouds. Can I kiss you for hours?

Lana raises her eyebrows and grins. I love your kisses. I’ll take as many as you give.

Chapter Text

Odessen

Viri puts her chin on her hand and listens intently as Theron briefs the Alliance team.

”So, Iokath. Since our unexpected visit so many months ago, we’ve been monitoring activity and radiation levels above the planet. There’s been no activity of note. But we’ve recently received a tip-off from an anonymous source, that there is a super weapon that is in the process of being reactivated. We need to check it out,” says Theron.

“We need to ensure it remains in Alliance hands,” Viri says. “Any aggression in the area? Does anyone else know about this?”

”No,” Lana says. “The only ones who are even aware of Iokath’s existence are the few surviving Zakuulan troops who were with Vaylin when she was trapped on the planet - and they’re in no position to do anything about it - and the Alliance. Our ships have been patrolling the perimeters of the Iokath system and there hasn’t been so much as a random cargo vessel passing by.”

“That’s fortunate,” Viri says. “And radiation levels?”

”I’m pulling up the most recent readings now. They’ve lessened significantly,” Lana says, consulting her datapad. “I’d still recommend heavy anti-radiation protocols for any of our people who go planetside. I’d also advise that Doctor Oggurobb should be consulted to see if he’d suggest any additional safeguards, but it’s reasonable to assume that Alliance organics could visit without suffering any permanent damage.”

”We should send a team, then,” Viri says. “And increase patrols around the system. When can we leave?”

Theron shakes his head. “You’re needed here, Commander. There’s the matter with the raid on an Eternal Fleet ship that you need to address. But we also need to move on this now. Since Lana’s second in command for you, I’d suggest sending her. She can establish your foothold on the surface of Iokath while you’re working on that, and then you can join her.”

”You want to send Lana without me?” Viri says, surprised.

”I don’t know that it’s the best idea, Theron,” Lana agrees.

”Look. We need Commander in two places at once. The Commander is the only one who can control the GEMINI captains, so we can’t send anyone else to handle that. Given the magnitude of what we’re being told about the super weapon on Iokath, we can’t wait for her to return from the Fleet ship, either. Lana, if you take team Besh and leave the rest of Aurek to guard the Commander on her mission, we should be fine.”

“I need to speak to my advisor about this. Privately,” Viri says.

”Commander, we need to move.”

”I wasn’t asking your permission, Theron,” Viri says pointedly. “Leave the room.”

“All right,” Theron says, scowling.

As the door closes behind him, both Lana and Viri exhale.

”Why would he want to separate us?” Viri says, speaking Sith. “I don’t feel comfortable with this.”

”Neither do I,” Lana admits, speaking the same language. “He knows I’m your second. You’d still have Vette and Jaesa with you, but…”

”And you’d have Pierce, HK, Hexid and Imperius, but I’d still worry,” Viri says, chewing her lip. “Iokath was not pleasant to us last time.”

”Is your concern personal or professional, Commander?” Lana asks, studying her face.

”Both,” Viri admits. “I trust Theron. But there’s still something that’s not sitting right with me.”

”Let’s pull the data up,” Lana says, typing some commands into her datapad. “I can understand why Theron’s taking this tactic. You will need someone who is an authority to oversee things on Iokath, and well, after you, that’s me.”

”Meditate with me on it,” Viri says, taking off her gloves and offering Lana her bare hands. “Just for a second. See if you feel the same unrest.”

”All right,” Lana says, taking off her own gloves and threading her fingers through Viri’s. They sit together, eyes closed, leaning into the Force and their bond. As their meditation deepens, Lana feels it: unrest. Anger. Danger.

Yes, love. I feel it too. Lana squeezes her hands. But do you see a way around it? I do not.

Viri caresses the backs of Lana’s hands with her thumbs and tightens her grip on them. No. I don’t see an alternative either. We’ll have to walk into the danger, just as we’ve done before.

Lana exhales and delves further into the bond. I can’t bear it.

…I can’t be separated from you.

I don’t want to be away from you.

We shouldn’t be apart.

I need you.

I need you. Lana and Viri’s words tumble over each other, until neither is sure who is saying what.

Being apart from you is…pain.

Agony.

I can’t.

But there’s no other way.

Viri opens her eyes and throws herself into Lana’s arms. I am not the Commander. I am yours, and I’m frightened for you.

Lana caresses her love’s back and buries her face in Viri’s chest. And I, for you.

”Well, get through this,” Lana says, speaking out loud, still in Sith. “We’ve been apart on missions before. We have to be able to separate for work when we need to.”

”You’re right,” Viri says. “We have to be able to do this.”

It will hurt.

Yes. It will.

We will share the pain and we will get through it.

We must.

A knock at the door makes them both cringe. “Commander? Lana? Have we come to any resolution?”

”Yes, Theron,” Viri sighs, holding Lana even tighter and kissing her head. “We’ll make plans to leave immediately. All right?”

“Can I come in?”

Lana squeezes Viri one more time and gently disengages. “Yes.”

”So,” Theron says, coming into the room. “I’ve talked to Oggurobb already. He’s got anti-rad kits set up for the entire team. You should all be very well protected.”

”Good,” Viri tells him, staring at Lana. “I want every precaution taken for the safety of this team. I’m counting on you, Theron.”

”I know you are,” Theron says quietly. “I won’t fail you.”

”We should get going,” Lana says, taking Viri’s hand and heading toward the door. “When do we need to leave?”

”I have shuttles scheduled to go out in ten minutes. Your teams are assembling,” Theron says.

”We’ll meet you there,” Viri says.

*

In the Commander’s suite, Viri and Lana cling to each other.

”We need to prepare,” Lana says, but she does not let go of Viri.

”This shouldn’t be so hard,” Viri says. “I’ll be able to join you soon.”

“Only a few days,” Lana agrees.

My heart.

Mine.

”Masters, I apologize for the interruption, but your valises are ready,” C2-N2 says, tentatively approaching.

“All right, C2. We’re going.” Viri pulls back, already feeling lost without Lana in her arms.

*

Viri’s Alliance Shuttle, Wild Space

”So,” Viri says, turning to the holo-projector. “Here’s what we know. One of our Eternal Fleet ships was en route to Hoth on a supply run. It was hijacked. The perpetrator is still on board. It seems to be a small operation, but we need to investigate. There was a similar isolated attack on another supply ship last month, but the hijacker got away.”

Jaesa sits forward in her chair. “I’ve heard those ships are full of traps.”

”They are,” Viri agrees. “When the Alliance tried to commandeer one, we failed. Badly.”

”So why don’t we just let the ship take care of the pirate?” Vette asks.

”Because of the anti-Alliance uprisings,” Viri says. “We need to at least try to question them and see where they’re from, and if they have any links to the other anti-Alliance actions.”

”Smart,” Vette says. “We do need a lead there.”

”I don’t get why anyone would oppose the Alliance, unless they’re a fool who still worships the Emperor,” Jaesa scoffs. “You’re helping as many planets as you can and the armies aren’t shooting at each other.”

”That’s the question,” Viri says. “Zakuul does have reason to resent us, since we took down their precious ‘immortal Emperor’ and disrupted a very easy existence for them, but that doesn’t explain why other systems and individuals are getting involved. Here’s hoping that this lone hijacker will be able to shed some light.”

The intercom chimes. ”Commander, we’re docking with Eternal Fleet ship 7482 in five minutes.”

”Thank you, Tora,” Viri says, leading her team toward the ship’s hatch. “This one should be simple.”

*

Lana’s Alliance Shuttle, en route to Iokath

Lana injects Oggurobb’s anti-radiation concoction into her thigh, rubbing the muscle to assuage the sting. The Alliance shuttle is ten minutes from Iokath, and Lana’s team is milling about in the back, preparing themselves for the harsh conditions on the surface.

”There will be a second shuttle that will remain in orbit,” Lana reminds the team. “If any of you begin experiencing symptoms of radiation sickness, I want you to tell me, so we can evacuate you immediately.”

”Understood, my lord,” Pierce says, checking his rifle. “It seems odd to be here without the Commander.”

”Yes, it does, Major,” Lana says wearily. Her separation from Viri is pulling at the very fiber of her being; a deep, dull ache. “But she has her tasks and we have ours.”

The surface of Iokath looms below, a vast gray expanse of durasteel, and Lana squares her shoulders. She is Sith. She is the Alliance Advisor. She has a job to do.

*

Eternal Fleet Vessel 7482

“Commander, the suspect has been confined in the ship’s prison.” The GEMINI captain’s voice rings in Viri’s ear.

“Thank you, captain,” Viri says. “We’re on our way.”

Viri, Jaesa and Vette run through the winding corridors of the Eternal Fleet ship. Their unknown hijacker has tripped several of the vessel’s defense systems, and two of the decks are in ruins.

”We’re going to have to bring this ship back to Odessen for repairs,” Viri mutters, scowling at the destroyed walls.

”Whoever it is, they did a number on the place,” Vette observes. “And they’re also adept at getting past Zakuulan traps.”

”Yeah,” Viri agrees, opening the door to the ship’s small prison wing. “The part about them being familiar with Zakuulan defenses is what worries me. This could be a renegade Knight, or…”

”…or it could be Andronikos Revel.” Vette’s jaw drops as she stares at the man in the prison cell. Suvia Kallig’s former associate is milling restlessly behind the red force field keeping him contained.

Andronikos? What the hell is the meaning of this?” Viri crosses her arms and glares.

”You. I didn’t think they’d send you,” Andronikos mutters.

”It’s my ship you’ve destroyed. Why wouldn’t they send me?”

”Commander, maybe we should wait until we get him back to base and…” Vette mutters.

”No, I think we need to do this now,” Viri says. “I anticipated a lot of different scenarios here. But never did I expect that I was going to discover that a former ally - a trusted associate of Darth Nox - would be involved in trying to destroy my Alliance.”

”See, that’s just it,” Andronikos says, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. “Nox was taken out by the Eternal Empire. They made life hell for everyone for years. I couldn’t do much, but I decided I’d take down as many of these ships as I could. To avenge her.”

”Continue,” Viri says, raising her eyebrow. “Why are you still attacking, now that the Eternal Throne has changed hands?”

”I didn’t want to hurt your Alliance, Lord Wrath,” Andronikos says. “But I’d heard you were sending supplies to a lot of planets, and I thought you wouldn’t miss a few shipments here and there. I just knocked over one of your ships. Honest.”

”Those supplies were intended to help people whose worlds were devastated,” Viri glares. “I might not care about missing a meal, but the residents of those planets are depending on us. Do you even care to contemplate how many innocent people went hungry because our shipment didn’t get to them?”

”So I didn’t think this through,” Andronikos mutters.

”And this ship was en route to Hoth. To our workers, who count on us for food. Civilians. Some former pirates.”

”Sorry,” Andronikos says. “I…didn’t mean to cause harm to you.”

”Is anyone working with you?” Viri demands.

”I had a couple of droids,” Andronikos says. “They didn’t make it through the ship today.”

“Nobody else?” Viri says. “Jae? What do you think?”

Jaesa closes her eyes and concentrates. “He is telling you the truth. Nobody else is working with him. He’s not trying to destroy the Alliance.”

”Yeah, thanks, I love it when people burrow into my thoughts,” Andronikos snips. “So what now?”

”I think we need to bring you back to Odessen,” Viri says, deactivating the force field. “We’ll decide what to do there.”

”You’re not going to execute me or anything, are you?” Andronikos asks, as Vette and Jaesa each take an arm and escort him out of the cell.

Viri rolls her eyes and motions for the team to follow her out of the room. “If I wanted you dead, it would have already happened.”

*

Iokath

Lana still has unpleasant recollections of her last trip to Iokath. The flash of light that had knocked her unconscious on the Gravestone. The deep dread in her heart when she had woken up alone in a world of durasteel and cortosis, unable to reach Viri or the rest of the Alliance team. The long shadow of the diamond-shaped droid who had followed her silently, healing minor wounds as she’d made her way across one platform after the next. The waves of hostile droids that had tried to exterminate her. The desperate relief when she’d finally seen Viri again.

You’re in control now. Lana repeats the words to herself as the Alliance pilot sets them down on an empty platform.

”Remember what I told you,” Lana says, drawing her lightsaber as the shuttle’s hatch opens. Strike Team Besh follows her lead, pulling their own sabers and rifles. “The droids here are merciless. Don’t take your eyes off them for a second.”

The extermination droids swarm onto the platform as soon as Team Besh alights from the shuttle, but this time Lana is not alone, and she is ready for them. She tightens her grip on her lightsaber and strikes with all the fury she can channel.

*

Odessen

Suvia and Talos pace restlessly through the military hangar, searching the skies above Odessen for Viri’s shuttle.

”I’m sure Andronikos has an explanation,” Talos tries.

”Stupidity,” Suvia snarls. “That’s probably his explanation. To raid humanitarian ships for supplies…I’m not happy with him, Talos.”

”It’s a bit disappointing,” Talos admits. “But the Commander also said he’d been trying to avenge you. I find that admirable.”

”As do I,” Suvia says, squinting up at the sky again. “But it’s not admirable that he disrupted the supply chains to Hoth and Cademimu. Ah. Here they are.”

The Alliance shuttle lands gracefully in the hangar, and Suvia strides angrily over to the hatch.

”Andronikos Revel.” Suvia glares as Andronikos walks down the ramp.

Andronikos smiles. “The Commander said you were alive and well. I wasn’t sure if she was bullshitting me. It’s good to see you, my lord.”

”It’s good to see you too, Andronikos. But I am not pleased with the reports of your recent activities.”

Andronikos scowls. “Look, I said I was sorry. What do you want? Blood?”

Suvia raises an eyebrow. “You should know me better than to make that sort of suggestion. I might take it.”

”If I may interject?” Viri says, approaching the pair. “Since Andronikos disrupted shipments to those two worlds, I was going to suggest sending him to do humanitarian work on Cademimu to make up for it. They need the help.”

”That’s not a bad idea,” Suvia says. “And after?”

”If he’d like to stay, I’m sure Hylo, our underworld specialist, could use someone with his savvy,” Viri suggests.

”That works for me,” Suvia says. “Andronikos? Any objections?”

”I’ll take it,” Andronikos says. “Like I said, I didn’t mean to mess with your work.”

”Welcome to the Alliance,” Viri says, shrugging. “I’m glad to see you again. Wish it had been under better circumstances, but what’s done is done.”

”I’ll make it up to you.”

”I know you will,” Viri says, finally smiling. “You’re a good guy, Andronikos.”

”And to see all of you here - Suvia, Talos, Xalek - I need to catch up with you. Can I leave for Cademimu after a drink at the cantina?”

”Have two drinks,” Viri laughs as she walks away. “We’ll arrange your stay on Cademimu later. Catch up with your crew.”

Viri’s datapad buzzes with an incoming message. It’s only four letters: 2300. She knows just what it means, and as she leaves Andronikos with his old crew, she beams.

*

Iokath

Team Besh tears through the extermination droids on the platform and in the nearby buildings, carving out a space for the Alliance on Iokath. Every wave seems to be worse than the one before, and Lana surreptitiously wipes the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. Lana and her colleagues are deadly and efficient, however, and before long, they are surrounded by nothing more than piles of sparking metal.

“We should gather these and bring them back to the shuttle,” Lana says. “Hylo has mentioned that metals are at a premium. There’s a lot of durasteel and cortosis here, and we can melt it down and reuse it.”

”Got it,” Pierce says, scooping a pile of defeated droids into his arms. Hexid and Jia follow his lead. There are so many that it takes the five members of Team Besh nearly fifteen minutes to pile all the scrap into the back of the Alliance shuttle.

“Now what, my lord?” Jia asks anxiously, looking around. “This world is…odd. I’ve never felt anything like this. The Force is here, but it’s different. The lack of organics, of life, is unsettling.”

”I agree,” Lana says. “This world is frightening at best. I hope we will be able to complete this mission quickly.”

”Lana, do you read me?” Theron’s voice is faint. “I have cleanup team Cresh and the Alliance’s staff on standby in orbit, if you’re ready for me to send them down.”

”Yes, Theron, we’re clear,” Lana says. “We’ll need to establish perimeter defenses and get the network hooked up, but it looks open now.”

”Excellent,” Theron says. “Once we’re connected, we can start scanning for the target’s energy readings.”

”Understood,” Lana says, taking another dose of anti-rad. “We’re on it.”

*

The building and plaza the Alliance has cleared for itself are large, and as the support teams swarm in, bearing crates of supplies, the base quickly begins to take shape. Large med bays - with copious amounts of anti-radiation drugs - are set up. Lana has a radiation meter set up in every room. As the slicers and Alliance tech personnel begin to tackle the network, Lana rubs her head and sighs as she calls Theron again.

”How is the Commander’s mission going?”

”She’s just back to base, actually,” Theron says. “I’m waiting to debrief with her.”

”All right,” Lana says. “I’ll check in again later, Theron.”

Lana wanders into the area that has been designated for barracks. The Commander’s small room - with the most advanced security technology the Alliance could create - is already being set up, and Lana finds herself sinking down on the bed. The sheets are new, and the mattress still carries the sterile smell of the factory.

It doesn’t smell like Viri, Lana frets, closing her eyes.

Odessen

”So it was Andronikos Revel,” Theron chuckles and takes a bite of his cutlet. “Damn.”

”Yeah,” Viri says, rolling her eyes and stretching in her chair. She and Theron have the conference room to themselves, and they’re combining their debrief with dinner. “I’m relieved. It wasn’t the renegade Knight or rogue Sith I’d feared I’d find. It wasn’t an organized assault. Andronikos had no idea anyone else was attacking the Alliance. Whatever we’re up against, he is not part of it.”

”And from what you said, he knows how to infiltrate the Eternal Fleet’s ships and evade at least some of their defense systems,” Theron says. “Talking to him can help us patch up those holes.”

“He’s going to be a valuable ally,” Viri agrees, sipping her hot chocolate. “”I think Hylo is going to be beside herself at the chance to work with him.”

”I agree,” Theron says, toying with his fork. “So that leaves two members of Suvia’s crew that are unaccounted for: Ashara and Khem Val.”

”Yes,” Viri agrees. “I’m sure that Suvia’s grilling Andronikos right now to see if he’s heard anything.”

”I may have a lead to Ashara,” Theron says. “Don’t mention it to Suvia yet, because it’s unconfirmed. I don’t want to get her hopes up and then disappoint her.”

”Smart,” Viri says. “I know Suvia desperately wants to find her.”

”I’m waiting for a contact of mine to confirm some things with me,” Theron says. “As soon as I know, I’ll make sure that you and Suvia do, too.”

Viri’s datapad beeps, and she stands to leave. “I’m sorry, Theron, but I’ll have to cut this short. I have another appointment in a little while.”

”Understood, Commander. Have a good night.” Theron tucks into his meal.

*

A half hour later, Viri is tucked into bed, looking expectantly at her holocommunicator. It rings at exactly 2300, and Viri answers immediately.

”Hello, love.” Lana’s voice echoes through the suite. Her image is so small on the holo, and Viri has to resist the urge to reach out and touch it.

”Beloved,” Viri says. The bond has been pulling at her all day, sending sharp, jagged pains down her spine and through her gut, but speaking to Lana eases the discomfit.

”It’s horrible.” The Sith words are poetry, even if the sentiment is harsh.

”Ghastly.” Viri shudders.

”I hurt.”

”So do I.”

”In my mind, I’m holding you,” Lana whispers. “In my mind you’re right next to me, your skin warm against mine, your scent intoxicating me…”

”In my mind my arms are wrapped tight around you,” Viri responds, swallowing hard. “Your body against mine, as though it was meant to be there…”

Lana stretches out on her side, facing the holo. “And you’re kissing me. Your lips always taste of sugar, of adrenaline…”

”Electricity. Heat,” Viri murmurs, curling up on her pillow. “Nobody tastes like you. Paradise.”

”And when we sleep, it is together, your heartbeat against my ear…” Lana’s eyes begin to droop.

”You on my chest, protecting me,” Viri whispers drowsily.

”Sleep peacefully, lover,” Lana whispers.

”Sleep safely, beloved,” Viri answers.

”I love you.”

”I love you.”

”I’m right here,” Lana murmurs. “Right with you.”

Viri’s eyes close. “You. Mine.”

Their words become less and less coherent as they soothe each other to sleep, the 9800 parsecs between them irrelevant.

Chapter Text

Odessen

Cold. Viri shivers as she wakes in her suite. Bolt the miniature nexu is curled up at her feet, but the empty space next to her on the bed sends a chill through her. Her holo-communicator, still on the pillow, is blinking with a message. When she presses the button, Lana’s image appears before her.

”Have a good day, brat. I love you.” Lana’s holographic image puts her hands to her heart and flickers away.

Viri blows a kiss toward the holo and rolls out of bed. Lana’s robe is right where she left it on the edge of the nightstand, and Viri puts it on. It’s way too small for her, and the sleeves end at her elbows. She still wears it around the suite; the fabric smells like Lana, and that’s enough for her.

As Viri brews some caf for herself, her comlink beeps.

”Commander, rise and shine. Lana’s closing in on the super weapon facility.”

Viri nods. “I’ll be right there, Theron.”

*

Ten minutes later, Viri is in the war room.

”Here I am. How are we doing?”

Theron smiles as he types some lines of code into the computer. “I was just about to call Lana. Seems that she’s right where we need her to be. Come in, Lana. How’s the radiation sickness treating you?”

Lana appears on the holo, and Viri feels a swell of love in the bond. Morning, sunshine.

Sunshine? Lana’s voice is amused in her head.

Seeing you makes everything bright for me.

Flatterer.

Always.

“Radiation? It’s nothing I can’t handle,” Lana says, nodding toward the droid next to her. “Isn’t that right, C6?”

”Radiation levels = safe// Thereon = worried + melodramatic,” buzzes the little droid.

Theron scowls. “Lana ‘equals’ full of herself.”

”Oh, stop,” Viri says. “Oggurobb and Lokin loaded them up with enough anti-radiation medicine to swim in a hypermatter lake. I’m sure they’re fine.”

Nevertheless, Viri finds herself locking eyes with Lana on the holo. You have a headache. Is the radiation getting to you?

Lana shakes her head. Anti-rad side effect, lover. Nothing more. I promise.

”Have you found the super weapon, Lana?” Viri asks.

Lana nods. “Yes. We’ve already scanned it. The power levels are off the charts and rising every minute. Whoever tipped us off…they were spot on. There’s something huge there.”

”Good. Then…” Viri’s words are cut off by blaster fire, and Lana’s image fades slightly.

”Damn it!” Sparks fly in the corner of the holo, and Lana’s droid falls in a crumpled heap at her feet.

Viri leans over the holo-communicator. “Lana! What’s happening?!”

”I’ve got company,” Lana says, and the holo goes dark.

Viri circles the table, frantic. “Theron! Get her back online!!”

Theron taps one button after the next on the console, exhaling in relief when Lana’s image appears again. “I’m trying…there.”

“Lana, are you all right?” Viri asks. The bond is bubbling with white-hot rage, but Lana appears unscathed.

”I’m fine,” Lana says. “I lost them. The Sith Empire and the Republic. They’re both here. They must be going after the super weapon, too. C6-X was shot down, and they went after my team.”

“Which one attacked? The Republic or the Empire?”

Lana frowns. “I didn’t see. It could have been either. They were both right there.”

Viri’s jaw drops. “Iokath is huge. And largely unknown and uncharted. How would both of them know about this planet, and show up in the exact same place at the same time?”

”Agreed,” Lana says. “The timing is just too perfect.”

”So it’s fate, chance, or bad luck,” Theron shrugs. “It doesn’t change our task.”

”No, but it might complicate it,” Viri says. “The Republic fired on Lana and her team. The Alliance is not at war with them, ostensibly, but if they’re being aggressive, we might end up fighting them, in addition to whatever is lurking in that super weapon facility.”

”Let’s not forget that there were Imperial soldiers out there too,” Theron says. “Lana didn’t see which troops shot at her!”

”Yes, I’m sure Viri’s aware of that, Theron. If the Republic or Empire claim the weapon, they could usurp the Eternal Alliance as the dominant power in the galaxy,” Lana says. “The fallout would be catastrophic.”

”Kriffing hell…” Viri says, pacing. “Do you think Acina is turning on us?”

Lana shakes her head. “I don’t know. But I do know that this mission has just become even more critical than it already was. The readings C6-X took were beyond anything we’ve ever seen.”

”I need to join you on Iokath,” Viri says. “We’re going to need to get into that super weapon facility. Keep doing what you’re doing, Lana. Establish our base, and I’ll send more troops and skytroopers. Team Aurek will leave immediately for Iokath.”

”Understood, Commander. I’ll see you soon.”

Viri sighs and turns away from the holo. “Eternal Fleet…cease all runs to the core worlds. Group One, continue defensive stance above Odessen. Group Two, join Group One. Three, defensive stance above Yavin 4. Four, defensive stance above Manaan. Five, Tatooine. Six, Belsavis. Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, charge all weapons and prepare to join the Commander.”

Theron frowns. “You’re stopping the humanitarian runs?”

”I don’t want to, but we’re dealing with Iokath tech. Until we know what the hell is happening, I want our bases protected,” Viri says, walking toward the door. “Please assemble Team Aurek. We leave as soon as everyone get to the hangar.”

*

Iokath, Alliance Base

Lana rubs her temples and takes a painkiller tablet. The anti-radiation serum is effective, but it’s left her with a splitting headache. Around her, Team Besh and Alliance staff members are busy securing the Alliance’s buildings.

The holo-communicator in front of Lana crackles, and Dr. Oggurobb appears. “Lana? I’ve finished calibrating the perimeter defenses. You have lasers, energy fields, and enough skytrooper power to soundly defeat any invaders. I’ve programmed the skytroopers and cameras to alert you if they spot either Republic or Imperial troops, and if they come too close, they’ll be caught in an energy trap.”

”Good to know, Oggurobb, thank you,” Lana says. She no sooner turns away from the console than her comlink beeps again.

“Lana, we’ve got a visitor,” Pierce growls. “Caught him trying to enter the base. He appears to be…Imperial.”

Lana’s heart sinks. Damn you, Acina.

”I’ve got him cornered. Orders?”

”Hold him where he is, Pierce. I’ll be right down.”

*

The Imperial officer is crouched at the end of the energy trap, and is making no moves to attack, but Lana draws her lightsaber anyway, just in case.

“Hands up, weapons down,” Lana hisses, pointing her weapon at the man. “I won’t say it twice.”

The Imperial officer puts his blasters on the ground and raises his hands in the air. “As you wish, my lord. I have a message for the Commander from Empress Acina. I am not your enemy. I swear it.”

”I can’t be sure of that,” Lana says, “Since the Empire is here along with the Republic.”

Lana nods to Pierce and the group of skytroopers he is leading. ”Pierce, bring him to the holding cells.”

“Immediately, my lord,” Pierce growls. “Follow me.”

”I know you!” the Imperial officer stammers.

Pierce squints at him. “You look familiar, too. Doesn’t matter. Come on.”

Lana’s comlink beeps again. “Lana, we’ve got another one on the southwest wall. Republic. Claims she needs to speak to the Commander.”

Lana sighs. “Bring her to the holding cells. She can wait for the Commander there.”

 

*

Ten minutes. Nine. Still nine. Stop watching the chrono, Beniko! Lana paces in the Iokath base’s vast control room.Viri, Team Aurek and Theron have landed on the planet, and they’re due any minute. Lana spots her reflection in the mirror and pushes a stray strand of hair back in place, brimming with excitement.

”I don’t know about this, Commander,” Vette’s voice drifts down the hallway. “I don’t like returning to planets filled with evil droids that have tried to kill me.”

”Hopefully we won’t need to be here long,” Viri tells her. “I can’t say that this would be my first stop either.”

Viri. Lana looks toward the door as Viri walks through, her eyes shining.

“Commander! Welcome back to Iokath,” Lana says with a smile. Her eyes meet Viri’s as joy surges through the bond.

”I hate it when work keeps us apart,” Viri says, staring at her. Lana smiles, and before either of them know what’s happening, they’re in each other’s arms, kissing deeply.

Viri sighs and leans into the kiss. They’ve only been apart for a few days, but it’s felt like an eternity, and as Lana’s lips press against hers, she feels herself savoring the taste. Their thoughts tumble excitedly over each other as their Force signatures merge. You you’re back yes it was so hard so very hard don’t leave me ever I couldn’t stand it but now I’m home you in my arms yes…

“At least the reunions are all the sweeter,” Lana smiles, finally drawing back. More later, lover.

Oh, I hope so.

”The base is amazing,” Viri says, looking around the room. “You and your team did great work. And that’s quite a security detail.”

”Thank you, Commander,” Lana says. “Oggurobb’s finest artistry, incorporating what we already knew about Iokath tech.”

“Good,” Viri says. “We know far more about this world than the Empire or Republic does; that should give us at least a small advantage.”

Storm clouds gather on Lana’s face. “Yes. It’s already helped us apprehend two would-be intruders.”

Viri grinds her teeth. “Dead, escaped or captured?”

Lana leads the way to the base’s small clutch of holding cells. “They each claimed they had a message for you, so we’re keeping them for now. Commander, here are our would-be assassins.”

Both prisoners are pacing restlessly in their cells; both look up when Viri, Lana and Theron enter the room.

“I’m not an assassin,” the Imperial officer says, exasperated. “Commander? Do you remember me?”

Viri’s eyes light up. “Captain Orzik? Is that you?”

”Indeed,” Orzik smiles. “When the Empress needed an emissary to speak to you, I volunteered. It’s a pleasure and an honor to see you again, Commander. You’ve come a long way.”

Lana turns to Viri. “Do you really know him?”

Viri nods. “Yes. He was the captain of the ship I took to Dromund Kaas to start my apprenticeship. The Black Talon. We worked together when Grand Moff Kilran forced me to commandeer a Republic cruiser. I was just out of Korriban...it was quite a way to kick things off.”

”I thought we were all dead,” Orzik smiles. “But a certain young apprentice and her Twi’lek companion managed to keep us all alive and satisfy Kilran. I never forgot how calmly you handled it, and how you insisted that my crew and myself should be treated kindly.”

”It’s good to see you again, Captain,” Viri smiles. “I should introduce you properly. Lana Beniko, Theron Shan, please meet Rezinal Orzik.”

”I hate to interrupt this touching moment, but I’m on urgent business.” The other prisoner, a woman with a tight bun and Republic trooper armor, steps forward. “Elara Dorne. I assure you, I’m not an assassin either. I have a message from the Republic. It’s an honor to meet you, Commander.”

“Hello,” Viri says, keeping her expression neutral. “What’s your message?”

”Supreme Chancellor Malcom would like to speak with you. In private.”

Captain Orzik sneers. “Empress Acina has the same request, but unlike Malcom, she is amenable to a group conference.”

Viri nods and gestures to the skytroopers. “Escort them to the conference room and let them use the holo. Both of you, get your leaders on the line. It’s time to sort this mess out.”

Dorne and Orzik, flanked by skytroopers, tap their codes into the console. The holographic images of Jace Malcom and Empress Acina appear before them.

Malcom frowns as he looks at the assembled group. “I requested a private conference.”

”And I did not grant the request,” Viri says calmly. “Anything that is said will be heard by all, Malcom.”

“Thank you for extending us this honor, Commander,” Acina says, bowing slightly.

”Regardless of how we hold this conference, the Republic is glad to see you - and my son - on Iokath,” Malcom says.

”Leave me out of this, Malcom,” Theron snaps.

”Enough,” Viri says. She glances at Lana. Oh, no. That’s right, Malcom is Theron’s father, isn’t he? This feels like it is going to be worse than Theron’s dealings with Satele.

It appears that way, Lana says in her mind, grimacing. It’s probably going to be safest to try to redirect his focus.

”Empress Acina, Supreme Commander Malcom, your armies have started a war here on Iokath over a super weapon,” Lana says. “Explain yourselves.”

”Is this the thanks I get for helping you recover from the Eternal Empire?” Viri asks, crossing her arms. “This is how you respond?”

”We’re grateful for your help, but I won’t apologize, Commander,” Malcom says. “It’s no secret that the Eternal Empire almost wiped out the Republic. We’re struggling to rebuild and protect ourselves.”

Viri raises an eyebrow. “Perhaps the war would have concluded sooner, and you would have suffered less destruction, if the Republic had chosen to support the Alliance instead of Zakuul.”

Malcom scowls. “What’s done is done. The super weapon is the key to our survival, and I’ll be damned if I’ll see it fall into the Empire’s treacherous hands.”

”But you’ll use it to destroy them, won’t you?” Viri says.

“I know you’ve spilled your share of Republic blood, Commander,” Malcom says, ignoring the question. “But that’s in the past. Surely you see the error of your ways now. Join us, help us defeat the Empire, and we will share access to the super weapon - and all of Iokath.”

“Iokath belongs to the Alliance. Not to you. You are a trespasser here. Why should we share anything with you?” Viri asks.

“Consider it payment for driving off the Imperial looters.”

He’s got some nerve. Maybe we should request “payment” for saving the kriffing Senate Tower, Viri grouses in her mind.

“The Alliance has done a lot for the Republic. The idea of us having to pay you for invading our territory is ridiculous. We owe you nothing,” Viri says smoothly, instead.

”No, you do not,” Acina says, nostrils flaring. “This is preposterous. We openly supported the Alliance, while the Republic watched from the sidelines. You once fought for the Empire as wrath personified. You told the Dark Council that it was your solemn duty to protect the Empire, and you kept that promise. You’ve kept the name as part of your title now. Surely it means something to you.”

“It does,” Viri says, keeping her face expressionless.

”Help us crush the Republic threat. Once they fall, both of our empires can partake in the spoils of Iokath.”

“The Republic is a safer bet,” Theron mutters, his eyes blazing.

”If I had to choose, I would ally with the Empire,” Lana counters.

Viri sighs and looks up at the holo. “This isn’t a difficult decision. I just finished fighting a war. During that war, one of you supported me with troops, ships and moral encouragement. The other chose to appease the enemy and tried to assassinate me.”

”But the Sith…” Malcom tries.

”…the Sith Empire was my ally,” Viri says. “The Republic chose not to be. There’s no way I’d consider allying with you, Malcom. Acina, our alliance remains intact. ”

”A wise choice,” Acina nods.

”Sith never listen to reason,” Malcom growls. “Dorne - do it!”

”For the Republic!” Dorne cries, and clicks a button she has been hiding in her armor. There’s a blast, and the building shakes. Empress Acina’s image on the holo-projector staggers.

”We’ve been hit too, Commander,” Acina says, gritting her teeth. “They took out a wall.”

Lana looks around, her eyes wild. “It looks as though our security measures held. But the Republic messenger…”

“Damn it, she escaped! How…”

Viri has her lightsaber out and her comlink activated within seconds. “Teams Aurek and Besh, meet me at the entrance. Theron, Lana, we’ll need to get to the Imperial contingent to help them.”

”On it, Commander,” Lana says, already at her console. “I will remain here and provide comlink support.”

”I’ll come with you,” Theron says. “You might need a slicer.”

”Shae, act as Theron’s second,” Viri says, not missing a beat. As she leaves the room, she turns back for her usual check-in with Lana, locking eyes with her.

May the Force serve you well out there, love.

May it serve you well here. Be safe.

*

The more things change, the more they stay the same. As Viri cuts through the Republic troops with Vette and Jaesa by her side, she feels herself slipping back to her Wrath days. Once again, the Republic troopers and Jedi want to kill her on sight; once again she’s protecting the Empire from the clear and present danger they represent.

”I’m not sure how I feel about this,” Jaesa says, echoing her own thoughts. “I feel as though I’ve stepped into a time machine and gone back about eight years.”

”Yeah,” Viri agrees, using the Force to take down a walker. “After all this time, it is odd to be back to…this.”

”It’s disappointing, is what,” Vette opines, training her blasters on the nearest foe. “It would be nice if people could kriffing stop killing each other.”

We were provoked. Someone brought us all here. The thought crosses Viri’s mind unbidden, and she swallows hard.

”I think we may have been manipulated this time,” Viri finally says.

”It seems that way,” Vette hisses. “But it’s still disappointing.”

”I agree,” Viri says. “It’s tiresome.”

”It is what it is,” Jaesa shrugs. “I don’t like it either, but it seems that our lot is cast right now.”

”True,” Viri says, leading her strike team - minus Lana - toward the Imperial base.

The Empire has carved out a far smaller space than the Alliance, and it’s obvious that they’ve had great difficulty battling Iokath’s many droids. There’s a makeshift med bay in the first room, with numerous Sith and troopers in kolto tanks.

Acina herself meets them at the threshold, her battle armor scuffed and dented.

“It’s good to see you, Commander. I’ve been doing what I can to hold them off, but as you see, our numbers are small.”

”We’re here to help,” Viri says briskly. “I have Major Pierce back at our base, and I’d suggest that he coordinate with your people. ”

”I see,” Acina says. “I’ll patch him in to my Moffs’ channel so he can work with them. As for us, step into my war room, Commander. Now that the Republic threat has been momentarily quelled, let’s plan.”

*

Viri, Theron and Team Aurek do not return to the Alliance base until well after dark - or what would be dark, if they were still on Odessen. Viri is battered and bruised; Theron’s datapad is brimming with sliced data from the factories they have invaded.

”So,” Viri says wearily, pulling up maps on the war table, “We hit these five weapons factories. We’ve sliced and downloaded all the data we could; we’ve destroyed the mainframes in each factory so the Republic cannot obtain the same information. Theron has reprogrammed the droids to attack any Republic troops who approach.”

”And the super weapon?” Lana asks.

Viri blanches. “There was information about it in the factories. It’s already been used.”

Lana goes pale. “Where? When?”

”Remember those sick war games ARIES told us about before? The weapon was unleashed on numerous worlds. It killed…trillions.”

”We need to shut it down, now.”

”I know,” Viri says, “And…”

”…and you’re too late, Commander.” Everyone in the room jumps at Jace Malcom’s voice and sudden appearance on the holo.

Viri frowns. “Called to surrender, Malcom?”

Malcom laughs. “Hardly. We’ve found a back door into the super weapon. I’ll give you and the Empire ten minutes to evacuate.”

”Malcom, you don’t know what you’re dealing with,” Viri says, her voice low. “You don’t understand this world.”

”I understand enough to know you’ve lost, Commander,” Malcom sneers. “Your choice to stay or go, but I warned you.”

The holo flickers into silence.

“Did anyone get his location?” Viri says. “Theron? Vette?”

”I’ve got it,” Theron says. “He’s not far from here.”

”But how…how could he get into the super weapon? We sliced all those mainframes…” Vette stammers.

”We didn’t get to all the factories, Vette.” Viri says. “Just as many of them as we could.”

“I’m with you, Commander,” Theron says. “I don’t know that I’ll be able to talk any sense into him. But I’ll try.”

*

Jace Malcom’s path proves simple to follow, and Theron and Viri find themselves in yet another weapons facility. The Republic troops guarding the entrance are easily dispatched, and as they make their way deep into the building, the few Jedi on patrol offer little resistance.

There’s a throne set up in the control room. Viri immediately feels bile rising in her throat; it’s similar to the Eternal Throne. And before it, Jace Malcom is standing triumphantly, his arms crossed and his chin held high.

”I thought you might try to find me,” Malcom says. “You will get to witness the Republic’s triumph in person.”

”Malcom, don’t do this,” Viri says. “You don’t know what you’re contending with. This super weapon killed trillions in the past. You want to do that again?”

”I want to protect the Republic,” Malcom says evenly. “Last chance to surrender before I activate the weapon.”

“You’ll kill every organic being on Iokath,” Viri tries again. “Including your own son.”

”Agent Shan decided to support the Empire. I’m disgusted. I’m more than disgusted. But you’ve made your choice, and it has consequences.” Malcom sits down on the throne.

”Malcom, don’t---” Viri raises her hand, but it’s too late. As soon as Malcom makes contact with the chair, torrents of electricity course through it, surrounding him. A second later, he is flung from the throne, and it explodes.

”Malcom!” Theron screams, running toward him.

Malcom’s eyes are half-closed, but he smiles when he sees Theron nearby. “I’m…so sorry, son. So very sorry.”

Theron crouches next to his father as the life leaves his body. “Malcom. No. I…you always put the Republic first. I hated you for that. Now…”

Viri stands back. “Theron…there’s nothing I can say or do to make this better. But I’m here to support you.”

”I appreciate that, Viri,” Theron says. “I just need a moment.”

”Take whatever time you need. I’ll cover you.”

”No, we…we need to get back to base,” Theron stammers. “I don’t want to be here anymore.”

”Yes,” Viri says. As she and Theron walk toward the exit, her holo rings. When she activates it, Lana’s worried face appears.

“Lana? What’s wrong?”

”Did Malcom activate the super weapon?”

”His plan…backfired,” Viri says delicately. “Why?”

”Whatever he did is causing the weapon to charge. We’re detecting massive power spikes from the facility, and there’s no one at the controls. If it discharges…given the radiation and power levels we’re seeing, it’s reasonable to assume that it will atomize everyone.”

Viri locks eyes with Lana on the holo, remembering their first trip to Iokath. There had been another super weapon, and another adversary, but the message had been the same: When the weapon fires…you will not wake up.

“How long until the weapon fries Iokath?” Viri asks, acid rising in her stomach.

”We’re talking minutes.”

Theron grimaces. “Hold on. With the shields down, I can try to slice into the mainframe from here. Maybe buy you enough time to manually kill the weapon at the source.”

”Do whatever it takes, Theron. In the meantime, tell our forces - and Acina’s - to take shelter. Get them off the planet and into low orbit, if you can.”

”I’ll start evacuations, Commander.” Lana looks grim on the holo.

”And Lana? I love you.”

Lana’s eyes soften, and love surges through the bond. ”I love you too. Come back safely, Commander.”

*

Iokath, Alliance Base

If someone had asked Lana Beniko what Ziost had taught her, she would have had a few intriguing answers. Chief among them: the critical importance of developing ways to evacuate large populations quickly. She’d insisted on enough evacuation shuttles and shelters on Odessen to protect the entire base from orbital strikes, groundquakes, radiation, and another Vitiate-style Armageddon.

Iokath has been no different; given the high levels of radiation on the planet, Lana had insisted that the evacuation protocols be put in place even before the barracks had been raised. Thus, even as her heart pounds in her chest with anxiety for Viri, she is secure in the knowledge that whatever happens, she will be able to get the Alliance members to safety.

Lana exhales, inputs the emergency evac codes on the console, and opens the base-wide intercom channel.

”All personnel, emergency evacuation procedures are in effect. Proceed immediately to the evac points on each floor. No exceptions. Pierce, Hexid, Jaesa, Shae, lead the groups.”

”Yes, my lord,” Pierce says. “Getting this floor on the shuttle now. You and the Commander have your transport?”

“The Commander needs me on comlink support,” Lana says. “I’m staying.”

Pierce is silent for a moment. “As you wish, my lord. You…take care. I don’t want either of you to go anywhere.”

”Thank you, Major,” Lana says. “We’ll do our best.”

Lana watches the console as the evac shuttles take off, one by one. When the last one has cleared Iokath’s ionosphere, she exhales again.

The soft sound of clicking keys takes Lana off-guard. There’s a flash of blue to her right, and she is shocked to see that Vette is still typing at her console as studiously as before.

”Vette! The evac shuttles left! Why didn’t you go?! Find shelter!”

”No,” Vette says, not looking up from her work. “I’m not leaving my family alone on this planet.”

“I know you’re worried about Viri, but…”

Vette smiles. “I said, I’m not leaving my family. You know that includes you too, right?”

Lana’s jaw drops. “I know you’ve said it, but…”

”I say what I mean, Lana. I don’t take the words lightly. I won’t abandon you here.“

“Vette…thank you. I’m touched.”

Vette shakes her head. “There’s no way I would do anything different. Now let’s help Viri keep us all alive.”

*

Iokath, Super Weapon Facility

Viri squints as she peruses the readouts on her datapad. The radiation levels are increasing by the second, shooting up on the screen’s graph in vicious spikes.

”I see those numbers, Commander. If I were you, I’d take more anti-rad.” Theron’s voice crackles with distortion on the comlink. “I’m trying to keep open channels for myself and Lana, but it’s getting difficult The radiation is so high that it’s interfering with the signals.”

”Understood,” Viri says, injecting herself with more anti-rad. One of the channels screeches in her ear.

”I’ve just lost Lana’s signal,” Theron says. “I’m working on it. In the meantime…”

”In the meantime, let’s see if we can destroy this super weapon,” Viri says, as she walks through a vast room filled with all the electronics she’s come to expect from Iokath. “I’m in. I’ve neutralized the guardian droids protecting the building. I’m not sure what I need to do next.”

”Do you see a throne? If you do, you know the drill. Have a seat and hope for the best.”

Viri blanches as she approaches a gleaming throne. It looks just as foreboding as the Eternal Throne on Zakuul, and she hesitates before sitting down. “Theron, I don’t want to end up as another corpse.”

Theron sighs. “I don’t want that either. But we have no other choice. The Eternal Throne didn’t kill you. Hopefully the trend will continue.”

Lana? I love you. I want you to always know. Viri speaks into the bond, sending Lana a surge of love, as she sits down.

*

Iokath, Realm of Tyth

Oh, no. Have I lost my body again? Viri blinks as she looks at the empty courtyard around her. The throne and the super weapon facility are gone; there’s nobody in the clearing with her…except for the gargantuan droid that casts a long shadow over the metal ground.

”You dare to disturb me!” The droid’s voice is low and ominous, chilling Viri to the bone.

”I will disturb who I please,” Viri says, squaring her shoulders. “Who are you?”

The droid chuckles. “I am Tyth. God of rage. God of anger. Your doom.”

Viri shrugs. “I know all about anger. You’re just a machine. You don’t scare me.”

”I have killed billions bolder than you,” Tyth sneers. “You, who have been betrayed.”

”What?” Viri blinks, and immediately recovers. Her hand goes to her lightsaber.

“You. Sacrifice to the gods. Brought her as a supreme offering, by one close to you. You have been betrayed. Your doom has been sealed.”

He’s trying to distract me. I won’t bite. Viri bares her teeth and draws her lightsaber. “Nobody who has ever said that has lived to say it twice.”

”RAAAAAGGGGEEE!” Tyth advances, crackling with energy.

After Vitiate, this is nothing, Viri tells herself. As she raises her lightsaber, however, burning, agonizing pain shoots through her body, and Tyth’s laughter rings in her ears.

”Betrayed again!”

“Eternal Fleet! All vessels, fire,” Viri chokes out. “Destroy it.”

The shrill sound of metal being sheared apart by blaster fire rings in Viri’s ears, and as pieces of Tyth begin to litter the ground around her, a small smile crosses her lips. He got me. But I got him…

*

Iokath, Alliance Base

Lana and Vette stare anxiously at the power readings on the console screen. The numbers are hitting one peak and then another, and the emergency alarm is screeching in their ears. Wordlessly, they each take another dose of Oggurobb’s anti-rad serum and start chewing the emergency fallout tablets he’s packed in their med kits.

“Power levels are spiking,” Lana frets. “It seems to be recharged…aaargh!”

Lana screams involuntarily and lurches forward, bracing herself on the edge of the computer. Molten-hot pain sears through her body, and she sinks to the floor, crying out.

“What’s happening?” Vette asks desperately. “Lana! What can I do?!”

“Viri…Viri’s in trouble,” Lana gasps out.

Vette goes pale. “You can feel Viri’s pain? I know you sense each other’s feelings, but this much?”

Lana nods silently and rolls to her side, retching, as she feels Viri blacking out.

”Lana, if you’re going to die on me or something, I’d appreciate a heads up,” Vette says, kneeling beside her and studying her with worried eyes.

”I’m all right, Vette, I’ll…be fine. It’s just an echo,” Lana stammers, sitting up and wiping her mouth. Vette silently hands her some water and a towel, and she accepts them with a grim nod.

“That was only an echo?! We need to get to Viri,” Vette says.

“Yes, we do,” Lana says. “She’s unconscious.”

”How do you know?” Vette asks.

”I feel it, that’s how,” Lana explains, willing her voice not to shake. “Her Force signature went…dormant, for lack of a better description. It’s why the echo of pain stopped.”

”But not dead,” Vette confirms.

”Vette, if Force forbid Viri were dead, I’d have sensed it, and I assure you, I wouldn’t be calm right now,” Lana says, starting toward the speeder pad. “Come on.”

“I’ll drive. You meditate. Keep an eye on Viri,” Vette says, grabbing the medical kit and piling into the speeder with Lana.

*

Vette listens to the chatter on the Alliance comm channel with one ear as she pilots the speeder across Iokath. Lana sits beside her, eyes closed, maintaining a constant link with Viri through their bond.

”How is she?” Vette asks.

Lana opens her eyes for a moment. “She’s still out cold. Are you following the comm traffic? What’s happening?”

”I still can’t raise Theron on the comlink. But power readings for the super weapon are now zero,” Vette says. “The Imperial and Alliance staff and troops are returning to the surface.”

”Good,” Lana says. “Whatever transpired, it seems that the Commander neutralized the threat. Let’s just hope it didn’t take too much of a toll on her.”

”Damn Iokath…” Vette grumbles. “I hate this planet.”

”You and me both,” Lana says. “And Vette? I hope it goes without saying that what you witnessed will remain between you, me and Viri.”

Vette nods fiercely. “You don’t have to ask me twice.”

As the speeder reaches the super weapon facility, Lana’s breath catches in her throat. Half of the structure is a burned out husk, with large columns of smoke rising into the air. Several groups of Eternal Fleet ships hover just overhead.

“I guess Viri killed the super weapon,” Vette says, as she and Lana jump out of their speeder and run for the building.

“Reasonable guess,” Lana answers, examining the rubble. Half of a giant droid’s head has been flung into the clearing, still smoking and sparking. Several huge craters are filled with more pieces of the machine.

”Viri…she’s not in this rubble, is she?” Vette asks nervously, as they pick their way through the debris field toward what remains of the building.

”No,” Lana reassures her. “Her Force signature is nearby. Not here.”

“Good.”

”Lana! Vette!” Theron’s voice makes them both turn and draw their weapons.

”Theron! Where have you been? Why was she alone in there?” Lana says angrily. “You were supposed to be monitoring her.”

“I was trying to buy her more time.” Theron says. “I was tapped into the mainframe, redirecting the super weapon’s power as best as I could,. I was keeping in close contact with her.”

”And?”

“She seemed to be talking to someone, she gave some orders to the Fleet, and then she screamed and dropped out of contact,” Theron says. “I got here as soon as I could.”

“And you didn’t call us?”

”Communications got scrambled. I could barely hold an open comm line with Viri while she was in there, much less contact anyone else.”

“Discuss it later! We need to find Viri now!” Vette yells.

”Vette is right,” Lana says. “Viri first.”

As they walk through the building, Viri’s handiwork is evident in the corridors; there are shredded droids and long lightsaber cuts through the walls. Lana and the others follow the trail of debris toward the control room. Viri’s Force signature grows stronger and stronger as they approach, pulling on Lana with urgency.

”Oh, stars. No.” Vette’s voice is low as she stops short and stares at Viri.

Viri is slumped over on the throne, unconscious. Smoke is still rising from her armor, and the end of her ponytail is singed. The chair she is sitting in is charred from base to tip.

”Viri!” Lana rushes to her side.

“Is she---” Vette says, her face ashen.

”She’s alive,” Lana whispers, touching Viri’s cheek. Viri’s head falls to her chest and she does not stir. “I think she’s in shock.”

”Looks like the throne fried her,” Theron says, surveying the back of the chair. “But she lived, unlike the others. Maybe her link to the Fleet protected her?”

“That console’s fried, too,” Vette observes, pointing to a computer on a nearby wall. “Perhaps they were connected?”

”I don’t know, and right now, I don’t care,” Lana says. “We have to get her out of here.”

“Here,” Vette says, pulling a blanket from the medical kit. “If she’s in shock we need to keep her warm.”

”Thank you,” Lana says, taking the blanket and wrapping it around Viri. As she lifts Viri in her arms, Viri’s Force signature reacts, and Lana sends reassurance through the bond. I’ve got you, my love. I’m getting you to safety.

”She have her saber?” Vette asks.

Lana checks. “Yes. It’s still on her belt. Let’s go.”

Theron runs toward his speeder. “I’ll have the doctor meet you at the speeder bay.”

”Do that,” Lana says, clutching Viri’s unconscious form as she and Vette sprint toward their speeder.

*

Iokath, Alliance Base

“Can I speak with the Commander?” The Imperial messenger shifts uncomfortably from side to side. Jaesa stands before him, barring the path to the Alliance’s conference room, her arms crossed and her gaze terrible.

”She’s in a meeting,” Jaesa says, putting her hand up. “She’s not taking calls and not seeing anyone until her business here is concluded. I’m not to admit anyone. Come back later.”

”But…”

Jaesa glares, and the messenger takes an involuntary step backward.

”Tell Acina that the Commander will be in touch within the hour,” Jaesa says imperiously, waving him along.

On the other side of the door, Doctor Lokin, Vette, Theron and Lana crowd around Viri’s gurney. Lokin pulls up Viri’s eyelids one by one and shines a light in her eyes.

“Reactive pupils. And there isn’t anything abnormal popping up on my scanners. She should be fine. Give her some time to wake up.”

”All right,” Lana says, exhaling heavily.

”I have Jaesa watching the door,” Lana says. “Vette, would you please ensure that all our forces have returned to base?”

”I’m on it,” Vette says, “I already have a crew collecting the super weapon’s debris. Don’t need anyone trying to rebuild it. You watch over the Commander.”

”You know I won’t leave her side.” Lana nods as Vette disappears into the next room.

”I’m going to get back to the med bay,” Lokin says. “As far as anyone else is concerned, I was just here delivering your latest doses of anti-rad medication.”

”Good thinking,” Theron says. None of them have discussed it; all are acutely aware that it’s safest not to let anyone - even their allies - know that the Commander is down.

Lana perches on the edge of the gurney, cradling Viri’s head in her lap.

”Is she having bad dreams?”

”Not right now,” Lana says. “I just want her close.”

”I’m sorry she had to face another one of those thrones,” Theron says. “The first one was bad enough.”

“We can’t keep doing this to her,” Lana says. “We send her on these missions, and she agrees, because she wants to protect us all. But they’re killing her, Theron.”

”Viri’s so strong,” Theron says. “She can take whatever is thrown at her. You know that.”

“Of course I know it,” Lana says, caressing Viri’s cheek. “I’ve watched her face Revan. Darth Arkous. The Emperor and his family. Countless others. And she did it. She became the leader of the Alliance, because we asked her. Anything we ask of her, if it’s for the galaxy’s sake, if it will save someone…she’ll put herself on the line. She’s risked her life more times than I can count…but she’s human, Theron. It’s too much. For me, for her…knowing when I send her out on a mission, it might be the last time I see her…knowing it might cause her pain and injury…knowing I might be giving her advice that sends her to her death…I’m her advisor. It’s my job to keep her safe. I’m her wife. I need her to be happy. And I keep failing.”

Deep unease rises in Therons’s throat as Lana sobs quietly into Viri’s hair, her shoulders shaking with anguish. In all the years he’s known Lana, he’s never seen her cry. Not from pain, not from anger, not from despair, not from fear. Nothing has ever been able to break her. Nothing, Theron realizes, but the deepest love she can hold in her heart.

Theron clears his throat. “Lana…you know how deeply Viri loves you. You’re everything to her. I’m sure she doesn’t think you’re failing at anything. In fact, even if you did fail, I think she’d spin it into a win. She loves you that much.”

Lana shakes her head. ”And I love her beyond anything. Which is why seeing her like this is unbearable. I…can’t talk about this any more right now.”

”All right,” Theron says, walking to the other side of the room. “I’m just going to let you be with her, all right? You don’t need me jabbering at you. I’ll cover the room from here.”

Lana runs her hand across Viri’s forehead and whispers to her in Sith. “I shall hold you until the dawn has risen, until the stars are alive in your eyes. Do not fear the shadows; they guide you to sanctuary.”

Viri still doesn’t wake, and Lana finds panic encroaching on her mind. She takes a deep breath and channels it into a healing field for Viri. “Come on now, you insufferable brat. Time to wake up.”

Eventually Viri stirs, blinking her eyes uncertainly.

”Lana?” Viri’s voice is hoarse.

”You’re safe.” Lana smiles down at her.

”I found the super weapon,” Viri whispers, ever the Commander. “It was a giant droid. I had the Fleet smash it to pieces.”

”I know,” Lana says, kissing her cheek. “We found the debris. Can you sit up?”

Viri nods and lets Lana help her into a sitting position, but she immediately rubs her forehead. Lana picks up a bottle of water from the nearby table and holds it to her lips.

”Drink. You were burned. You’re dehydrated.”

“You’ve been crying, love.” Viri traces the stain of a tear on Lana’s cheek.

”Don’t worry about it,” Lana says softly.

”If you’re upset about something, I want to know.”

”I was worried about you. I greatly prefer it when you’re conscious, love.”

“So do I,” Viri says, kissing her. Lana smiles as she feels Viri’s Force signature twine around hers.

Theron ambles over to the two women. “Commander, I’m glad you’re awake, but we should discuss what happened.”

Viri nods, but does not let go of Lana. “Yes, we do need to discuss it. I spoke to the super weapon. Tyth. I feel like I’ve heard that name before.”

Lana’s face falls. “One of the Zakuulan gods.”

“The god of rage, apparently,” Viri says. “He…said I was a sacrifice. That I had been betrayed by one close to me. That we had all been lured to Iokath deliberately to feed him; to fuel a war. I felt as though something malfunctioned with the throne. Or that someone sabotaged it. I was fine. I was talking to him. And then it all electrified…”

“’Lured here deliberately’…that would fall in line with what Vette and I discovered. The communications received by the Empire and the Alliance originated from the same anonymous source. I would bet that the Republic received the same. Someone did lure us all to Iokath. And Vette found a panel in the super weapon’s control room that had been burned, the same as the throne. Who could have done such a thing?”

”It sounds like an inside job, all right,” Theron says. “Someone had to get close enough to you to sabotage that throne.”

”Who could have done such a thing?”

A quiet thought rises in Viri’s mind, and she pushes it aside. Lana fixes her with a steady gaze.

You can’t be serious.

Something is amiss. I don’t know what.

”We need to monitor the base more carefully,” Viri says. “Tighter security. More safeguards on access to the Fleet and the Gravestone.”

”We should monitor everyone,” Lana says. “Commander, say the word, and I’ll begin surveillance of everyone. Even Theron and myself.”

”Hang on, Minister of Paranoia,” Theron snaps. “We can’t invade everyone’s privacy to weed out one rat.”

Viri sighs and rises from the gurney. Theron and Lana let her pace; can nearly see the wheels turning in her head.

”I don’t think I can agree to surveillance of that nature,” Viri finally says. “We have worked too hard to build trust. I don’t want to smash it now.”

“Damn it, Commander!” Lana storms.

”Excuse me?” Viri snips. “What, Lana, you don’t trust my judgment?”

”This is a mistake,” Lana says. “With all due respect, Commander, on this matter…”

Viri holds up a hand. “You haven’t even heard my alternative suggestion.”

Lana exhales. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Did you have something else in mind?”

Viri nods. “We’ll sweep the base. Vet communications. Change the access codes. Investigate as much as we can. Question the team. But we can do that without spying on everyone. I’m going to ask Jaesa if she’ll survey all the officers.”

“Jaesa?” Theron says, surprised.

”A traitor can hide from surveillance. They cannot hide from Jaesa. And she will not need to invade their privacy or see their dirty laundry; she’ll just need to see their true nature. If she’s willing, of course.”

“Of course I will,” Jaesa says, walking into the room. “Sorry. Heard my name. My ears were burning. I’d be more than happy to put my gift to use for you. I’ll start here.”

”Jaesa, that’s not necessary. Not with Lana and Theron,” Viri says.

”No, Commander, let her go ahead,” Lana says. “We have to check everyone. I’ve nothing to hide. Theron?”

Theron raises his eyebrows, but nods, and Jaesa bows her head and takes a deep breath.

”He wants to protect the Alliance,” Jaesa says. “I feel no malice toward you. He is deeply troubled. He hates his father and is mourning him simultaneously.”

”Sounds about right,” Theron says, crossing his arms.

Jaesa turns toward Lana and concentrates. “She loves you more deeply than I ever believed it was possible to love. She’s always very frightened that she will not be able to protect you. It eats at her. She is livid about what has happened on Iokath.”

”Spot on,” Lana whispers, staring at Viri. Love floods through the bond.

”Thank you, Jae,” Viri says. “Would you mind roaming the base and checking on people? I think you’ll know where to begin.”

”Of course,” Jaesa says, walking toward the door. “I’ll start right away.”

Lana watches her leave. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

”There’s always a method to my madness,” Viri shrugs.

”I apologize, Commander,” Lana stammers. “I didn’t mean to second-guess you.”

“You’re always free to share your thoughts, regardless if I agree with them. Both of you. I respect your opinions. That’s why you’re advising me.”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence, Commander, but we really should get back to work now,” Theron says. “What Malcom did on the throne set off power surgers that disrupted several factories held by the Alliance.”

“Theron, you didn’t really have a chance to process what happened with Malcom. If you need some time off…” Viri says tentatively.

”There’s too much going on,” Theron says gruffly. “Did you get time off when your parents died?”

”Well…yes, actually,” Viri stammers. “I had special permission to leave my training and go to their memorial service.”

”And I took a few personal days when I lost my parents,” Lana says, looking off into the distance. “I was an apprentice. I didn’t tell anyone why. I just fabricated something to investigate and went off on my own.”

”Well, I’m not you,” Theron snaps. “You both have something to do next week, unless you completely forgot. Given what happened here, we’re going to need double or triple the security for that.”

”We’ve established our base here. What else is there?” Viri asks, blinking.

Theron heaves a sigh. “Your wedding. You did forget, didn’t you?”

Lana and Viri stare at each other and answer in unison.

”Um. Yes. We did.”

”Kriffing hell…” Theron throws up his hands.

”Theron, it’s not a big deal. You already know we’re indifferent about it. We should probably postpone it, given everything that’s happening,” Viri says.

”But on the other hand, if there’s a traitor working against you, their efforts are likely to increase,” Lana says. “Better to get it over with now, because things might get worse.”

”True,” Viri says. “Let’s just be done with it. But Theron’s right, we’re going to need to step up security. We’ll need all hands on deck for that.”

“’Just get it over with…’” Theron shakes his head. “You two must be the least romantic people I’ve ever met.”

Viri shrugs. “We have our own definition of romance that does not include this spectacle, Theron. You know we’ll play along, nonetheless.”

”I do know,” Theron sighs, “In the meantime…there’s a call from Odessen coming in.”

”Put it through.”

Bey’wan Aygo, Rusk and Aric Jorgan appear on the holo, their expressions troubled.

”What is it, Bey’wan?”

”Commander, we’re sorry to come to you with this concern. We respect you and your judgment deeply,” Bey’wan says. “All the same, we have to discuss this with you. We are troubled that the Alliance is supporting the Sith Empire. When we were fighting Zakuul, that was one thing. But now…you’re directly fighting the Republic.”

”We just received word that Jace Malcom was killed,” Aric Jorgan says, his face stony. “Commander, did you…”

”I most certainly did not. Jace Malcom tried to create a ‘back door’ into the super weapon and annihilate the Alliance and Imperial forces. He was warned several times that he didn’t know what he was dealing with,” Viri says. “His ‘backdoor’ attempt at controlling Tyth killed him. You’ve been to this world, Aric. You know how lethal this technology is for those who don’t understand it.”

”That I do,” Aric says heavily. “Sir…thank you. I didn’t think you would, but…”

”I would hope you’d know me better than that,” Viri replies.

”You’re still allied with the Imps,” Rusk says. “I don’t understand. You’re a decent person, Commander. And you’re throwing your lot in with the Sith.”

”You’re talking to a Sith,” Viri says. “My chief advisor is a Sith. Many of the people who have fought alongside you and work with you every day are Sith.”

”I…I didn’t mean anything derogatory, Commander,” Rusk says. “I’m just concerned. Why would you ally with the Empire over the Republic?”

”The Sith were our allies during the war against Zakuul,” Viri says. “We helped Republic worlds recover. We sent money and personnel to help them. And the Republic repaid our kindness by invading Alliance territory, seeking weapons that could be used against us or our allies. The Republic has also long expressed the desire to eradicate my order. What would you have expected me to do?”

”That’s understandable,” Bey’wan says. “But…”

”We did not start this, Bey’wan,” Viri says. “But we cannot ignore it. Anyone brandishing a super weapon from Iokath could destabilize the galaxy. Wipe out any planet they want. Didn’t we have enough of that with Valkorion and his children?”

“You could wipe people out with that weapon, too,” Rusk points out.

”I already destroyed it,” Viri says, raising an eyebrow. “The rubble will be back on Odessen soon; you can see it for yourself.”

”That changes things,” Rusk says.

”I really need your support right now,” Viri says. “All the same, if this presents a conflict of conscience, any Republic member of the Alliance who wants to leave is free to go. If you also want to refrain from taking any assignments right now that require you to fight the Republic, and would prefer to remain as Odessen support staff, let me know.”

“I’m staying,” Bey’wan says. “I do understand your point of view. Working with you has changed how I view the Sith, I’ll admit that. The Republic should not have come to Iokath, and they’ve demonstrated aggression against us and our allies. I’ll let the troops know about your offer. I think they’ll stay. But I hope for everyone’s sake that this does not escalate.”

“I’m as weary of war as you are, Bey’wan,” Viri says, unsmiling. “I don’t want to return to it either. All of you have known me for a couple of years now. You know how I operate. You know I have never stopped being a Sith. I’d hope that you could truly trust my judgment to do the right thing for the Alliance and the galaxy.”

“You’ve reminded us, sir,” Rusk says, bowing his head. “Apologies.”

As the holo images fade, Viri turns away and shakes her head. “This is going to splinter the Alliance.”

”You can’t please everyone,” Lana tells her. “There are some who might leave. There are others who might join you. All we can do is move forward.”

”You’re right,” Viri says. “And we have a lot to do.”

Chapter Text

Gorgeous art of Viri and Lana commissioned from https://red-flare-art.tumblr.com/

Gorgeous art of Viri and Lana commissioned from https://red-flare-art.tumblr.com/. Art posted here with artist's permission.

Odessen, two weeks later

“We have finalized security for the wedding tomorrow, and we’ve made some changes.” Viri frowns as she looks at the group assembled in the Alliance base’s War Room. “We’re sorry to be calling this meeting last minute, but it gives our traitor less time to act against it.”

“Understandable,” Hylo says.

”I’m taking care of the Eternal Fleet, and we’ll have them heavily concentrated around Odessen and Manaan,” Viri says. “I’ll also be working with Bey’wan on the patrol patterns for our other vessels, as well as protection for our guests’ ships. Next, we’ve decided that friends and family should not walk with us. Lana and I have talked about it, and we think it’s a risk.”

What?!” Vette says, standing up.

”Vette, it’s not ideal,” Viri says apologetically. “But if we have the wedding party standing with us, anyone who wants to cause harm will be able to identify our closest friends and family. I don’t want you becoming a target.”

”Shouldn’t I get to decide if I’m a target?” Vette says, crossing her arms. “They took plenty of holos of us at your coronation party. There have been news reports where they mention that we’re sisters. I’m not anonymous.”

”We’ve all been identified as your entourage already,” Pierce points out. “We’re known as your core strike team. Hell, I was on the HoloNet standing for you at your memorial service. I’ve received fan mail addressed to ‘Team Besh.’ Anyone who wants to know who is close to you…already does.”

”I don’t want to put you at risk,” Viri insists.

”I don’t care if it’s dangerous.” Jaesa arches her eyebrow.

“I will not hide,” Suvia says. “I’m a former Dark Councillor. There are probably plenty of people who want to kill me who have nothing to do with you.”

”My lord, I don’t want to back down either. I was on camera at Darth Nox’s memorial already along with Pierce, so my face is already known,” Talos offers.

Viri stares at Lana, and despair courses through the bond. Lana, if anyone hurts them….

”Theron, is there anything we can do to protect the wedding party?” Lana asks.

Theron frowns and consults his datapad. “We can put you all in a second set of covert armor. It will also mean stepping up security for you around the base and on any speeders or shuttles you use. If you’re willing to accept all of that…”

”I accept,” Vette says quickly. The rest of the wedding party nods and murmurs emphatically.

”Since I’m technically part of your wedding party, I’ll also opt in,” Theron says. “Between my SIS career and my parents, I’m used to having a target on my head.”

”All right,” Viri says. “If any of you feel uncomfortable, you’re free to change your mind.”

”Stop it,” Jaesa snaps. “You’re getting your fucking wedding party whether you like it or not.”

”We want to stand with you and Lana,” Vette says. “We love you both.”

”And we love you,” Viri says, smiling.

”I’m not sure this is the best idea, but I’ll set all of you up with Doctor Oggurobb this afternoon so you can get your second set of armor fitted, and I’ll need to figure out a time to meet with you all about your shuttles,” Lana says.

Suvia nods. “Just tell us where we need to go and what to do.”

”In the meantime, we have a few more points to go over. I think it’s wise to eliminate all outward references to your home planets. Those could be chosen as targets to hurt you,” Theron says.

There goes the traditional Naboo makeup, Viri grouses in her mind.

Wear it just for me when we’re alone. That, and nothing else? Lana suggests, winking at her.

Oh my. I can do that.

“I’ve spoken to our contacts at the Order of Shasa and they’re still on board with our having the wedding on Manaan,” Lana says. “They have also agreed to work with the Alliance to patrol the area and will allow the Fleet into Manaan airspace for the day.”

“It sounds like everything is in order,” Viri says. “What about the guests?”

”Given what happened on Iokath, I’m sure nobody is going to object to the extra security,” Theron says.

”Is the Sith Empire still sending someone?” Lana asks.

”Vowrawn will be in attendance,” Theron says. “The Empire’s security detail will be working with ours, to ensure that everyone says safe. We will also have escorts for all of the journalists and Holonet cameras.”

”All this trouble…” Viri grumbles. “And for what? A party?”

Theron’s brows knit. “You’re going to have a happy day together, damn it.”

”If you put it that way,” Viri says.

“We have everyone’s schedules set. I suggest that we all prepare to depart,” Lana says, putting away her datapad. The group scatters as the Alliance personnel return to their tasks.

Suvia stops before she leaves the room. “Lana, Viri, I need to see you. Are you free later today?”

Lana and Viri look at each other. “We should be.”

”Meet me in my quarters at 1800, then,” Suvia nods, and walks away.

The room clears, but Theron lingers. When everyone else has left, he pulls two boxes from a locked drawer and turns back to Lana and Viri.

“I want to give you your gifts before everything gets hectic,” Theron says, handing the boxes to them. “The large box is for both of you; the small one is something extra for Viri.”

”You didn’t have to…”

”Yes, I did,” Theron says. “Open it.”

Lana opens the larger box and pulls out a dark blue bottle. “Theron! Where did you find this? It’s exquisite!”

”What is it?” Viri asks, studying the label myopically.

”Only the best red wine in the galaxy!” Lana beams.

”I guess I could get drunk at my wedding,” Viri laughs.

”Open your box,” Theron says, gesturing toward it. Viri does, and is confused to see a pile of vials with purple liquid.

”What’s this, Theron?” Viri says, confused.

”Remember I told you that the SIS had a drug to help their agents imbibe without getting intoxicated? I thought you might like to toast at your own wedding and enjoy that wine, so I asked Oggurobb to whip up a batch of the drug for you.”

Viri’s lips curl into a delighted smile. “Theron! Do you mean I can drink and not get drunk?”

”Yes,” Theron says, grinning. “One vial should last you all evening. Twelve hours, more or less.”

“You!” Viri flies at Theron, tackling him in a hug. “Thank you.”

”I feel like I should hug you too, Theron,” Lana smiles. “I’ll finally get to enjoy a drink with my wife.”

”Not necessary,” Theron grins. “I still have work to do, so I’ll see you both later.”

Lana nods and turns her attention back to the wine bottle as Theron leaves the room. “Stars, I’m tempted to just open this and enjoy it with you now. I’ve had exactly one glass of this in my life. It’s sublime.”

Viri shakes her head and nuzzles Lana’s cheek. “You can always enjoy me. I’m tasty.”

”You’re delectable,” Lana says, kissing her. “We don’t have to meet Suvia for a few hours. Shall we?” I’m going to kiss you from head to toe, pretty.

”I was hoping you’d ask,” Viri winks, taking her hand and leading the way back to their suite.

*

“Hello, Lana, Viri. Come in.” Suvia says, looking up from her table. She has an ancient, badly eroded tablet in front of her, and appears to be transcribing the Kittât to her datapad.

“Where is this one from?” Viri asks, sitting down next to her.

”Yavin 4,” Suvia says, putting away the datapad. “It was under one of the waterfalls, so it’s taken a beating. But I’ve been able to transcribe most of it, regardless. Anyway…your gift is a special Sith ritual I looked up. I think you’ll both appreciate it.”

”All right,” Lana says suspiciously.

”There are three things you need to know,” Suvia says, leading them to the back of the room. “This ends when I say it ends. I can’t sustain this long-term. Second, this is a one-time deal. Do not ask me to do this again, because I won’t be able to do so. Third, please do me a favor and don’t tell anyone about this. I’m sure others would ask me to do the same for them, and I cannot.”

”What exactly is this, Suvia?” Viri asks, curious.

”You’ll see. By the way, I have Vette and Jaesa here as your seconds.”

Jaesa and Vette pop their heads out from behind a curtain, wink and disappear again.

”We will need seconds?” Lana says.

”No, but I know you’re concerned about traitors, so I want to assuage your mind,” Suvia says, gesturing for Lana and Viri to remove their boots and sit before the altar. A Sith brazier is already burning, illuminating the space with a steady purple flame.

When both women are seated in meditation stances, Suvia stands behind them and begins to concentrate. “I just need you two to meditate, as you normally would do. Clear your minds. I’m taking care of the rest.”

The smoke from the brazier rises and engulfs them both, and Viri feels her eyes closing.

*

Viri

”Vee?”

Viri opens her eyes. She’s still in Suvia’s suite, but she and Lana are nowhere to be found. Instead, a tall woman with auburn hair and an even taller blond man are kneeling next to her.

”Rise and shine, sweetheart.” That voice…it can’t be...

”Mama? Papa?” Viri whispers, studying their eyes. They look younger than she remembers them, with all the wear and tear of everyday life erased from their faces. Still, it’s undeniably them.

”My sweet girl,” Tullia Dragoi cries, reaching for her and engulfing her in a hug. “Viri.”

”It’s so good to see you, Viri,” Andres Revarre grins, hugging them both. “How’s my favorite daughter?”

“How are you even here?” Viri gasps, grabbing her mother’s hands.

Tullia shrugs. “We were summoned. We assumed you did it…”

Viri laughs. “A friend of mine must have summoned you. She said she had a present for me.”

”We’re your present? I’m honored,” Andres chuckles.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Viri says, a lump in her throat. “There are so many things I’ve needed to say to you. But first…I want to apologize.”

Tullia blinks. “You don’t have anything to apologize for.”

”What the hell are you talking about, kid?” Andres frowns.

“You’re dead because of me. I couldn’t save you,” Viri chokes out the words. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you.”

Tullia and Andres stare at her, shocked.

Viri takes a deep breath and keeps talking. “I should have been there. I should have been able to help you. Nobody deserves to be bitten by rakghouls!”

”Dear heart, you were on Corellia, parsecs away, in the Academy!” Tullia says. “What could you have done? Even Darth Merwo didn’t stand a chance against the rakghoul plague.”

”I should have stopped it!”

“Have you been carrying this nonsense around with you all this time, Viridana Dragoi?” Andres crosses his arms.

Viri nods and begins to cry. “It’s not nonsense, Papa. I didn’t save you.”

”No. Listen to us. You should know by now that you cannot save everyone. Look at me, Viri,” Tullia says., putting one hand under her chin, the way she had done when Viri was a child “There was nothing you could have done.

“Nobody dies on my watch,” Viri says through her tears. “But you did.”

”It wasn’t your watch! You weren’t even an apprentice yet.” Tullia says.

”I didn’t even get to say goodbye to you,” Viri sobs. “Or to tell you…”

”We’re here now,” Tullia says, taking her hands again. “Talk to us. Tell us everything, sweetheart.”

”I love you both so much,” Viri says. “This scar? I won’t get rid of it because you sutured it, Mama. This makeup? For you and Naboo, Papa. Every day, I think of you. You taught me so much, and were always there for me, and I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you.”

”Not that again,” Andres says. “You were in the Academy, making us proud. Do you know how proud we are of you now? Look at you. Strong, smart, beautiful…we couldn’t ask for more.”

”How many parents can say that their kid saved the galaxy?” Tullia chuckles. “We can. I always used to think you were going to be a powerful member of the Dark Council. The one in the first chair. You just laughed that off and went further.”

Viri smiles through her tears. “You know what I’ve done?”

”Of course we do, Viri,” Tullia says. “We’re always watching over you. Well, not every second of your day or week, but we do check in and see what you’re doing.”

”The Empire’s Wrath, defeating Revan, defeating Vitiate…good stuff, kid.”

“All of that is wonderful, but do you know what I’m most proud of, Viridana Dragoi? That you love. That you have compassion. That you watch out for your people. That you have courage even when you are terrified. I knew you had strength and power in the Force, but I also wanted you to have a heart. And you have one.” Tullia smiles.

”I have to ask, are you two together…where you are?”

Tullia nods. “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

”That gives me hope for me and my…do you know? My wife.”

Tullia nods. “Lana, isn’t it? Such a beautiful woman. You two have such a strong bond.”

Viri talks quickly, without taking a breath. ”She’s loving. She always listens to what I have to say. I enjoy spending time with her. She’s smart, and interesting, and we never run out of things to talk about. She’s beautiful, inside and out. She’s never given up on me. She fights well with me when we’re in battles. I don’t even have to tell her what I’m thinking; she knows. I trust her with my life. She’s saved my life more times than I can count. When I was trapped in carbonite, she spent five years, and sacrificed everything she had, to find me. She kept me alive, you know. She came to visit me in my dreams, and it kept me going. I couldn’t live without her. I love her more than I can ever tell you. I wish you could meet her. You’d adore her.”

“She sounds like a keeper, in that case,” Tullia smiles.

”She’s my Set.”

Andres beams. “You remember that legend?”

”It means a lot to both of us. You know, Lana’s even learned to speak Naboo.”

”I wish we could meet her,” Tullia says. “I think you’re right. We’d adore her.”

“Viri, one minute.” Suvia’s voice is faint through the mist.

Viri’s face falls. “I wish we had more time.”

”Sweetheart, so do we,” Andres says. “But let’s make the most of it. We didn’t get to say goodbye to you before.”

”This isn’t really a goodbye forever, now,” Tullia says. “It goes without saying that we want you to stay alive, and happy, for a very long time. But whenever you join us, we’ll be there to light the way for you.”

”I love you,” Viri says. “I thought of a million things to say to you, if I ever saw you again. But I think that’s what I need to say. I’m so glad you were my parents.”

Are your parents,” Tullia corrects her.

”We love you, kid,” Andres says, hugging her tightly. “Don’t you forget it.”

Tullia hugs them both, and Viri holds on as long as she can, until the vision fades away.

*

Lana

It’s misty and gloomy, and Viri and Suvia have vanished. Lana blinks her eyes, trying to adjust to the dim light.

”Lana!” Someone throws their arms around her and swings her in a circle. “My girl!”

“Dad?” Lana whispers the word. Jaren Beniko has her in his arms and is still spinning her around, laughing.

”Lana!”

”Dad!” Lana screams, throwing her arms around him. “How--why--Mom! You’re here too? What’s going on?”

”We were going to ask you,” Jaren smiles.

Lana shrugs. “I think you were summoned for me. I am getting married tomorrow, and a friend who is a formidable Sith sorcerer had a present for us…”

“Married?” Kelsa Beniko pulls Lana into a hug. “Lana!”

“Look at our girl!” Jaren enthuses. “So smart. So strong. She’s a dream.”

Kelsa looks at Lana’s belt buckle, tilting her head. “You still remember how to work with silver! You made that, I can tell. It has your touch. Lovely workmanship.”

Lana blushes as she looks down. “Yes, I always have.”

“It is so good to see you,” Kelsa says. “I’ve owed you an apology for so long.”

”For what?” Lana blinks.

”When I was alive, I always…had something to say to you, didn’t I? Always something I thought you could do better.”

”That’s true,” Lana says cautiously. “I was…waiting for you to say something now, actually.”

”When you’re dead, you understand some things better than others,” Kelsa says. “I never let you know how proud I was. I just criticized. There’s no forgiveness for that. No way to change it. But I want you to know how much I regret it now, and how I see what it did to you.”

“Go on,” Lana says.

”Do you know what your name means? It means…light. When you were born, I was so happy. You were a light. I loved you so much, and the moment I saw you, I didn’t want to let you go.”

”I didn’t know that,” Lana says softly.

”I was always so proud of you. Smartest girl at school. Most powerful acolyte in the Academy. Top honors at University. When they sent you to Korriban, even though I knew what a bloodbath that place was, I just knew you would survive. I fretted, of course, but I also knew you’d be the only one left standing, if it came to that. Whatever they threw at you, you’d throw it back at them ten times harder.”

”Then why…” Lana asks.

”I wish I knew. You were already perfect, Lana. No matter what you did, you immersed yourself in it and would never do less than your absolute best. And I’m so happy for you…even if I’m not expressing it properly. You’ve done so well, my girl, and I am proud of you.”

Lana blinks back tears. “Thank you. That’s…all I wanted to hear.”

”And now you’re getting married, and I wish I were there,” Kelsa says. “We check in on you from here, did you know that? That beautiful woman you love clearly treats you like a treasure. I’m so happy you’ve found someone who loves you so completely.”

“Yes, she’s something else, Lana,” Jaren says.

“I’m so glad I have her,” Lana whispers. “She is everything.”

You are everything, Lana,” Jaren says, kissing her forehead. “I want you to remember that.”

”One minute, Lana.” Suvia’s voice wafts through the mist.

”I’m sorry we don’t have more time,” Lana says apologetically.

”You have nothing to apologize for! It must have taken so much power to summon us. We don’t know the Force, but that couldn’t have been simple,” Jaren says.

”I didn’t know it was possible,” Lana admits. “But our friend is a master of ancient rituals. No wonder she found this one.”

”Before you leave, I want you to know how much we love you,” Jaren says, kissing her forehead again. “We’re so proud of you. And we hope you’ll carry that with you.”

”I will. I love you. Both of you,” Lana says, enveloping her parents in a hug until the vision fades.

*

Odessen

Lana and Viri open their eyes in unison. They are still seated before Suvia’s altar, and their eyes are wet with tears.

”Did you have a nice visit?” Suvia asks gently.

”How…Suvia, how did you do that?!” Viri gasps.

”The Force runs through everything,” Suvia smiles. “Your parents might not have been Force sensitive, but it doesn’t mean they weren’t touched by it. I used your own connection to the Force to pull them to you for a few minutes.”

“I see,” Lana says softly. “Thank you. I cannot think of a more beautiful gift.”

”Thank you, Suvia,” Viri says, smiling. “That meant everything to me.”

“Everyone deserves to have their loved ones present at their wedding,” Suvia says. “Or at least to hear from them.”

“I hope this didn’t take too much out of you,” Lana says, but Suvia waves her off.

”I’m fine. I wouldn’t have done a ritual that would have killed or harmed me. Now off with both of you. You have a wedding to prepare for.”

*

Manaan, the next day

The Tyuk, with Lana and Viri on board, lands on Manaan bright and early the next morning, surrounded by a full vanguard of Eternal Fleet ships and the Gravestone.

”All of this, for a party,” Viri grumbles, as they alight from the ship. Immediately, Vette and Jaesa descend on them.

”Viri, you’re coming with me. Lana, go with Jaesa. We’re going to help you dress,” Vette says, grabbing Viri’s arm and pulling her away from Lana.

”Vette, Lana and I are perfectly capable of dressing ourselves!” Viri says, as Lana is pulled in the opposite direction.

”Bad luck to see the bride before the wedding,” Jaesa calls out. “You can’t get dressed together.”

”I ‘see the bride’ every day,” Lana grumbles.

”You do more than see me,” Viri laughs, her voice echoing down the hallway.

“Too much information, Viri!” Jaesa says. “Trust me, you’ll thank us both later.”

*

The suite that has been set aside for Viri’s preparations has a peaceful fountain and mobiles spinning gently from the ceiling. As she helps Vette remove her wedding robes from her valise, she looks around thoughtfully.

”This looks like the room we met Lana in, all those years ago, when we were tracking Darth Arkous,” Viri says. “Doesn’t it?”

”Now that you mention it, it does,” Vette says, opening Viri’s makeup case. “We’ve come a long way since then.”

”And we’re still together,” Viri smiles.

Vette looks at her and smiles. “You’re stuck with me. And since I didn’t get to do this for Tivva, you’re getting the full brunt of my wedding enthusiasm!”

”Should I be worried?”

”You might be,” Vette laughs. “Makeup first, hair second, dress third.”

”Yes,” Viri says, but as she sits down and picks up one of her brushes, Vette slaps her hand away.

”I get to do that! And I’m painting your nails.”

”What? Vette, no. Come on,” Viri gripes, but Vette has already pulled a bottle of nail polish from her pocket and started to unscrew it. “I’ve got stubby short nails. What’s the point of painting them?”

”So they’ll be colorful,” Vette insists. “See? Blue sparkles. Even you can’t argue with that.”

”It’s not a bad color,” Viri says grudgingly, as Vette carefully paints one nail after the next.

”And now, since your nails have to dry, you’ll have to let me do your makeup. Ha!” Vette says triumphantly, picking up the makeup brush Viri has left on the table.

”Sneaky,” Viri laughs, but she sits back and closes her eyes as Vette applies her eyeshadow.

”Lipstick, and…there. You look beautiful,” Vette says, tilting the mirror toward her. Viri’s eyes widen in surprise.

”Vette, this is lovely, but it’s so heavy…”

”It’s your wedding day,” Vette sings out. “Hair. Let’s see. Just down and curly and pretty, I assume?”

”That’s what I’d been planning,” Viri smiles.

”Then the dress is next,” Vette says. Viri disrobes, rechecks her covert armor, and extracts a new set of undergarments from her bag, and Vette hoots.

”Whoo! You have something special in store for Lana tonight, I see…nice knickers.”

Viri blushes. “It is our wedding night, after all. The second one. But still…”

”It’s not as though you’ve slept together a hundred times by now,” Vette laughs.

Viri raises her eyebrow. “A hundred? Where would you ever get such a ridiculous number? I’d be very surprised if we weren’t in the high thousands. Of course, if we’re counting each individual time, and not just nights, far more than that…”

“True. You two are insatiable. You know, I still can’t believe that. You didn’t so much as kiss anyone while you were an apprentice, most of the time you were the Wrath…you met Lana and you couldn’t keep her hands off her. Well, once you actually decided to go there.”

”It’s different with Lana,” Viri says. “You know that.”

”How so?”

Viri shrugs. “I’m attracted to her. I’ve never been attracted to anyone else. With her…it all feels right, in every way.”

”Stars, you two…” Vette shakes her head as she holds up the lower robe for Viri to step into. “Upper robes now, and you’ve got your belt…oh no, Viri, don’t tell me you’re going to wear Lana’s old belt to this!”

”It’s new, Vette, look at it,” Viri says, holding it out to her. “Lana forged a set of these for us for this ceremony. She has a matching one.”

”Cute,” Vette says, helping Viri fasten it around her hips. “I wish you didn’t have to carry your lightsaber, Viri. I hate that these lovely outfits are being ruined by weapons. But at least it’s all polished up.”

”We’re never really safe, Vette,” Viri sighs, pulling on her dress boots. “Sad but true.”

”Let me look at you,” Vette says, helping Viri fasten the robe’s accessories around her neck and waist. “My big sister is getting married. And she’s so beautiful. I could just cry.

”Thank you, Vette,” Viri says, hugging her. “I’m so glad you’re sharing this with me.”

”I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” Vette says, hugging her back. “I still don’t know why you’re not more excited, but you look pretty.”

Viri sits down. “It’s…it’s making my relationship a spectacle. That bond, that love, they’re so deep and personal, Vette.”

”And it always will be,” Vette says, touching up her makeup. “This is just allowing your friends to celebrate that love with you…and hopefully getting some of these galactic suitors off your back.”

The intercom buzzes, and Jaesa’s voice echoes through the room. “Viri? Vette? We’re about ready to roll here.”

”Give us a moment,” Vette says. “We’re coming.”

”Hurry up. Lana looks so pretty I might marry her myself.”

”Hey now,” Viri quips. “We’ll be there.”

Vette turns back to Viri and hands her a small dreamsilk bag. “Before we go…I wanted to give you my gift.”

Viri reaches into her bag and extracts a box. “And I want to give you mine.”

”Viri, no, you didn’t have to…” Vette’s breath catches as she opens the box to see an exquisite gold bracelet.

”It’s tradition on Naboo to give your maid of honor a gift,” Viri says. “And it’s also tradition to give your sisters and brothers something, to remind them that you’ll always be family. The bracelet pattern is called ‘sisters’ embrace.’”

”Damn it, Viri, you’re going to mess up all my makeup,” Vette says, brushing away tears as she puts on the bracelet. “I love you, Sister Sith. Thank you. Will you open yours now?”

”Oh, Vette, this wasn’t necessary…” Viri gasps as she opens the bag.

”It’s from Ryloth. It’s an affection token, for a close family member,” Vette says.

”Vette…” Viri holds the charm to her cheek, and then puts it in her locket. “I love you.”

The intercom rings again. “Ladies? Lana’s not the most patient person. Can we please get going before she stabs me?”

Viri and Vette laugh. “We’re leaving now.”

*

The walls and ceiling of the auditorium are decorated with Sith symbols, but there are also Rishi flowers on nearly every surface. Sana-Rae, dressed in red, waits center stage, her hands clasped in front of her.

Vette leads Viri through the wings, flanked by security droids. “We’re just about here, Jae. You ready?”

”Let’s do this. Cue music, please.”

As Viri and Lana’s chosen music begins to play, Vette gives her a small shove. “You’re on, Viri. Go marry your wife.”

A spotlight hits Viri as soon as she steps out of the wings, and she blinks rapidly, trying to adjust her eyes. As she does, the vision at the other end of the stage makes her gasp and stop in her tracks.

Lana. Lana’s hair is brushed back from her face, and her heavy makeup accentuates her eyes and cheekbones. Their Force bond is alive with so much raw emotion that it is nearly overwhelming.

”Viri! Walk!” Vette says, nudging her. Across the stage, Jaesa is giving Lana a subtle shove.

I can’t stop staring at you. Hunger spikes through the bond as Viri gazes at her wife. She and Lana begin to walk toward each other, their feet moving of their own volition.

And as Lana draws close, Viri gasps again. Her eyes are a brilliant, vibrant green.

Your eyes, Lana. They’re green! How…

I don’t know. But I’m glad you’re getting to see them. Lana smiles again. The love and devotion pouring through the bond is intoxicating both of them, and as they reach the center of the stage, they have to struggle to keep their hands at their sides.

”Please join hands,” Sana-Rae instructs them, and Viri sighs with relief as she feels Lana’s hands against her own. Their fingers instantly lace together, squeezing tightly, and the rest of the room falls away.

”I have been asked to officiate this ceremony, which is neither Sith nor Imperial; nor Voss,” Sana-Rae says. “It is as unique and special as these two women, Lana Beniko and Viridana Revarre Dragoi, who have chosen to commit to each other for life. We are here today to celebrate their relationship, their love and their rapport.”

Viri squeezes Lana’s hands again, and they lean into their bond as Sana-Rae continues to speak. Here with you always you I love you love you love you

Sana-Rae hands each of the women a small knife, and they raise their arms to cut away some of the ribbons on their robes. “Their fates are intertwined completely. They are complete on their own, but add more to each other. They save each other every day.”

Lana and Viri take the cut ribbons and wrap them around each other’s arms, weaving the blue dreamsilk with green. “Together, they are stronger. Their love nourishes and comforts them. They are two but one.”

When the final ribbon is tied, Viri and Lana join hands again.

”Lana Beniko, do you take Viridana Revarre Dragoi?”

”I do.”

”Viridana Revarre Dragoi, do you take Lana Beniko?”

”I do.”

”Please kiss your wife.”

They lean into the kiss, wrapping their arms around each other, oblivious to the applause from the crowd.

*

”A toast to the brides!” Theron cries, raising his glass. Viri beams as she lifts her flute of wine along with everyone else.

I can’t thank Theron enough for this gift, Lana tells her in her mind. Finally, you can enjoy a good drink.

I’d rather enjoy you, Viri says, staring at her. Lana’s eyes have faded back to gold, but they are still sparkling with love.

How about both? Lana asks. If we’re not drunk, wine can be a bit of an aphrodesiac.

I don’t think I’ll need anything to get me going tonight, Viri says. Then again, with you, all you need to do is walk into the room, and…

If I could ravish you right now, I would… Lana says, raising her glass to her lips. Viri follows suit, tilting her head experimentally as she swallows her sip of wine.

”What do you think?” Lana asks out loud.

”It’s good. Warm.” Viri takes another sip. “I could get used to this.”

”Love,” Lana murmurs, taking another sip and kissing her wife.

*

As the party winds down, Lana and Viri head back to the Tyuk, wine glasses still in hand, their security detail clandestinely trailing behind them. No sooner have they boarded the ship than the emergency alarm is sounding.

”Damn it,” Viri hisses, but she is immediately back into Wrath mode. She sets down her glass and sprints for the bridge.

”Commander here. What’s wrong?”

Bey’wan Aygo appears on the holo. “There’s a serious issue, Commander. I’m so sorry, I know it’s your wedding day, but…”

”Just tell me where we need to go,” Viri says briskly. “The galaxy waits for nothing.”

”Sending coordinates now,” Bey’wan says. “Get into hyperspace and then I’ll explain.”

Viri sets the navicomputer and punches the hyperdrive. As soon as the Tyuk is enveloped in the blue mist of the hyperspace lane, she returns to the holo.

”We’re en route, Bey’wan. Waiting for your briefing. What are we looking at?”

Bey’wan smiles. “You’re looking at a vacation to Rishi. We don’t want to hear from you for a week. Enjoy your honeymoon, Viri and Lana.”

“Surprise!” Vette sings, popping up on another holo channel. “You’ll have to have a huge security detail, but we’re on it!”

”We’ll be invisible. We promise,” Jaesa adds, appearing next to her.

Lana’s jaw drops. “How did you manage this without…”

”Your indifference in your wedding planning made it very easy to arrange this surprise,” Bey’wan laughs. “You won’t even see your security detail. I promise. Vette and Jaesa will be there to guide you when you land.”

“I don’t even know what to say,” Viri says. “Thank you.”

”Have a good week,” Bey’wan smiles, and the holo goes dark.

Lana turns to Viri. “Well…I suppose this means I have you all to myself now.”

Viri sits down in the captain’s chair and beckons to Lana. “We’ve never done it on the bridge, have we?”

Lana chuckles and licks her lips as she climbs into Viri’s lap. “First time for everything…”

Chapter Text

Tyuk, Hyperspace Lane

The alarm buzzing from the comlink on the nightstand wakes Lana from a sound, satisfying slumber. She blearily opens her eyes and floats it over to the bed. Viri is still fast asleep, and she does not stir as Lana answers the call.

“Y-yes, this is Lana,” Lana mutters, trying to keep her voice low.

”Rise and shine, Sith lords!” Vette chirps. “We’re almost to Rishi and we’ll need to talk to you when we land.”

”How long do we have?”

“About fifteen minutes. Tear yourselves away from each other. We’ll come on board when you land to brief you on the security details for your honeymoon. The clearance codes for the spaceport have already been transmitted to Seventeen.”

”All right, we’re getting up,” Lana says. “See you soon.”

”See you soon!” Vette ends the call.

Lana floats the comlink back to the table and sighs. Viri’s head is a comfortable weight against her chest, and her arm is draped protectively around Lana’s waist. Her tousled hair is in her face, as usual, and Lana can feel the calm ebb and flow of her Force signature. The dim purple mood lighting of the cabin casts shadows on her skin.

”Wake up, lover,” Lana says, giving her a gentle shake. “We’re almost to Rishi.”

”Nnnn.” Viri’s arm tightens around Lana.

”Come on, love,” Lana says, shaking Viri harder and trying to get her to sit up.

Viri groans and finally opens her eyes and rolls over, releasing her hold on Lana.

”Is everything all right? Where are we?”

”Vette just called. We’re close to Rishi. We should get up and shower. She said that she and Jae will be boarding the ship to explain the logistics for this week,” Lana says, brushing her fingers through Viri’s hair.

”I’m up,” Viri says, grimacing as she sits up and turns on the overhead lights. When she catches sight of Lana, she has to laugh.

”We’re quite a sight, aren’t we?” Lana says wryly, looking at herself in the mirror.

”We look…um…well loved,” Viri chuckles. Her hair is a mess, her lips are bruised from the hours she and Lana had spent kissing, and her body is covered with love bites.

”Very well loved,” Lana agrees, heading toward the shower. “Come on. Let me love you a little more as we wash up...”

Viri shivers with anticipation and follows Lana into the fresher.

*

As the Tyuk sets down in Raiders’ Cove, Viri feels a warm sense of familiarity wash over her. The buildings are as ramshackle as ever, and the air is hazy with smog and humidity, but in some way, it feels like home.

”The view hasn’t changed,” Viri says thoughtfully. “It looked just like this when Vette and I landed, all those years ago.”

”It looks as though time has stopped here,” Lana observes, peering out the window. The pirates and other denizens of Raiders’ Cove look much as they did eight years ago, and Lana’s almost certain that some of the neon advertising signs haven’t changed at all.

The bridge’s holo lights up and Vette waves to them both. “Hello, newlyweds! We’re coming on board!”

“Come on in,” Viri says, unlocking the hatch. Vette and Jaesa bound in a minute later, their arms filled with bags and crates, and lead the way to the ship’s lounge.

Jaesa stops short when she sees Viri and Lana and shakes her head. “You look…I can’t even. Did you two do anything other than…that…on the way to Rishi?”

Lana and Viri look at each other and consider the question. “We took a shower.”

”We got dressed.”

”Wait, we brushed our teeth, too.”

“We did take a nap for a while…”

”All right, all right,” Jaesa says, putting up her hands and laughing. “We’re here with some information for you when you’re not jumping each other, so listen up.”

”We’re all ears,” Viri says, perching on the edge of the couch.

“First off, for the next week your names are Grace and Elli Walrez,” Vette says, handing them each a newly forged identity card.

Lana’s brow wrinkles as she studies the credential. “Walrez? Did you involve Taran and Lucinda Walrez in this?”

Vette nods. “They were the ones who suggested the aliases. The name ‘Walrez’ is enough to get people to back off on Rishi; they know that if they cause trouble to Lucinda’s family, Taran will come raining down on their heads.”

“Something else I’ll have to thank them for,” Lana smiles.

”We have some disguises for you, too, so you can go out in public,” Jaesa says. “And this ship will be cloaked and disguised while you are here. Taran has lent you one of her shuttles in case you want to travel around Rishi, and you’ll be staying in her home. She and Lucinda aren’t there, so you will have the run of the place. C2-N2 will be meeting you there to cook for you and keep the place tidy.”

”That’s extraordinarily kind of them,” Lana says, touched. “But why are they giving up their house for a week for us?”

Vette shrugs. “They suggested it. It’s armed to the teeth with excellent security, and that is what you need.”

“We have the usual suspects overseeing your security detail,” Jaesa says. “Myself, Vette, Pierce, Shae. But we also have Taran’s people helping us. You won’t see us, but you will be guarded night and day.”

”I don’t even know how to thank you for this,” Viri says. “All of it.”

Vette grins. “No thanks needed. This is our present to you. Enjoy your week. You deserve it.”

Viri hugs them both, one by one. “You two…I love you both.”

”I agree with Viri. Thank you, Vette, Jae,” Lana says, embracing them.

“Pack what you think you will need for the week. We’ll wait here,” Vette says. “We will need to transfer you to Taran’s shuttle for the trip to her home. So grab some clothes, and…”

Jaesa snorts. “Clothes? What will they need clothes for?”

”Language, Jae,” Viri laughs, and bounds into the cabin to pack.

*

Taran’s shuttle alights on a private pier on the edge of a run-down tower.

”Everyone out,” Vette instructs them. Lana and Viri follow her and Jaesa, confused, as they walk toward a rock wall. A small opening in the rocks is illuminated by red torches, and Vette and Jaesa gesture for them to walk through. On the other side, a cave with rope bridges sprawls out before them.

”Come on,” Jaesa smiles, leading the way around some huge stalagmites. She pulls back a hunk of cortosis and types in a code, and a tiny elevator appears. Viri and Lana follow Vette and Jaesa onto the lift, and when they reach the top, they are stunned to find themselves in a well-appointed home.

”I never would have expected to find this here,” Viri gasps, looking around at the space. Her boots sink into the plush carpeting, and the flames that are already burning in the small fireplace cast shadows across the room as she walks.

“Welcome home,” Vette smiles. “The bedroom is there; the fresher is down the hallway. I have been instructed to tell you not to wreck anything here with lightsaber duels, but I think you two can manage that on your own.”

”Master Beniko! Master Dragoi!” C2-N2 bustles out of the kitchen, carrying a tray. “I am so pleased to see you! I have tea and cocoa…”

Viri accepts her mug of cocoa gratefully and turn to Jaesa and Vette. “Will you have some tea with us? Or some hot chocolate?”

Jaesa shakes her head. “No. This is your time. You won’t be seeing us this week. It’s all about you. C2 will show you how to work all the locks, and how to get to Raiders’ Cove if you’d like to take a walk.”

”This is goodbye until the end of the week,” Vette says, giving hugs to both Viri and Lana. “If you need us, comlink us. But you won’t.”

”Thank you again,” Lana smiles, as Jaesa and Vette vanish into the elevator. A heavy panel slides across the elevator shaft, securing the space.

”Masters, I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me,” C2 says, scurrying away.

Lana turns in a circle, looking in wonder at the apartment. “This is beautiful.”

”Your friend Taran has good taste,” Viri agrees, examining the art on the walls.

”A lot of this looks like Lucinda’s touch,” Lana says, studying the book titles in Taran and Lucinda’s library.

”They both sound wonderful,” Viri says. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees a datapad on the coffee table. The notification light on the pad is blinking insistently, and Viri activates it. Immediately, a holo image of a tall Rattataki woman appears.

”That’s Taran,” Lana says, and sits down to watch the message.

”Hi there, Lana and Viri,” Taran says. “Congratulations. Welcome to our home. We’re so glad to give this to you for the week. The jukebox has been loaded with your favorite songs and shows. Viri, I’ve been told you have a sweet tooth, so there’s a crate of Sugar Rush in the kitchen for you. Lana, you’ll find Corellian Red and Naboo wine there, too. The sheets on the bed are new.”

The image shifts, and a Twi’lek woman moves into the frame. “Viri, we’ve never met, but I’m Lucinda. This one here is my wife, Taran. I’m overjoyed that you and Lana are married. We’re sorry we couldn’t be there to celebrate with you in person, but we send our love. Have a lovely week.”

”They’re so nice,” Viri says, smiling as she puts the datapad back on the table.

”They are good friends and formidable allies,” Lana agrees. “And this gift is beyond generous.”

”To Taran and Lucinda,” Viri says, toasting with her cocoa mug.

”To Taran and Lucinda,” Lana agrees, raising her cup of tea. “But why don’t we have a real toast? C2, can you bring us some Corellian Red? Viri, you still have those vials, don’t you?”

Viri nods and reaches into her bag for Theron’s SIS alcohol tolerance serum. She swallows the contents of a vial and smiles at Lana as she pours the wine.

“To us,” Lana says, raising her glass.

”To us,” Viri agrees. As she sips her wine, she keeps eye contact with Lana, and feels sparks of deep love flowing through their bond.

”How do you feel?” Lana asks.

”Warm,” Viri says, leaning forward to press her lips to Lana’s. The taste of the wine on Lana’s mouth makes her moan softly into the kiss. Her hands ghost around Lana’s neck, and she suddenly draws back, as though she’s remembered something.

”What is it?”

”I forgot, I had a present for you,” Viri says, rummaging in her bag. She extracts a blue shadowsilk pouch and hands it to Lana.

”You didn’t need to…” Lana says, opening the bag. She gasps when a solid gold pendant and necklace fall into her palm. The three sparkling stones on the pendant glimmer in the light of the fire.

“Viri…it’s beautiful. What are these gemstones?”

”That one is a flame gem from Dromund Kaas, where you were born. The other is a rainbow gem from Corellia, where I was born. The one in the middle is a Ruusan crystal from Yavin 4, where we fell in love,” Viri says, gazing at her.

Lana turns the necklace over and sees a Sith inscription, a quote paraphrased from the epic of Set and Veré.

Their fates are completely intertwined. They save each other and live in each other’s light and darkness. I love you, Lana - Viri

There is a lump in Lana’s throat as she puts the necklace on. “This…Viri…”

“Beloved,” Viri says, cupping her cheek. “I’m so glad you like it.”

”I love it,” Lana whispers. The gold pendant immediately warms against her skin, and Lana feels Force power radiating from it.

“It looks beautiful on you,” Viri says, gazing tenderly at her.

”Thank you, lover,” Lana says, and reaches into her pocket. “I have something for you, too.”

Viri smiles and accepts the small box that Lana offers her. Inside, there is a gold and silver pendant shaped like an ancient Sith tablet with a Kittat inscription.

”Our love is fire-soft and fierce; shadow-born strong and tender; forged by the heat of the stars. She is mine and I am hers. I love you - Lana

“Oh, Lana,” Viri whispers, cradling it in her palm. “This is your poetry, isn’t it? I would recognize your voice anywhere. And you forged this yourself, didn’t you? I can feel it.”

”Yes,” Lana nods. “Do you like it?”

”I love it,” Viri says, fastening it around her neck. The metal hums with Force energy as it touches her, and Viri’s eyes fill with tears.

“Love, don’t cry, please,” Lana says. The bond is alive with such sharp, deep love that it takes her breath away.

”Happy tears,” Viri says, reassuring her. “I…”

Words fail Viri, and she sweeps Lana into a fierce hug. I love you love you so much that I feel it everywhere

”Viri,” Lana replies, holding her tight. I love you beyond anything.

“I still remember the first time I touched you,” Viri murmurs, sitting back and running her hands covetously down Lana’s arms and back up again. “How soft your skin was. How it felt…electric under my fingertips. ”

”I remember your eyes,” Lana whispers. “How they lit up. The wonder in them. The way you sounded when you came undone for the first time. Seeing the desire kindle in you was beautiful.”

”Only for you,” Viri murmurs, holding Lana’s palm to her cheek.

”I remember the way you looked at me,” Lana says, stroking Viri’s face. “I wanted you to touch me so much.”

”I wanted to…”

”What would you have done?” Lana whispers, taking off her shirt. “Show me.”

”This,” Viri says, running both hands slowly down Lana’s chest. Her fingers circle Lana’s breasts, feeling their weight. She leans forward to trace the outline of Lana’s collarbone, following up with kisses from one side to the other.

”And I would have kissed you,” Lana murmurs, cupping Viri’s face with both hands and kissing her deep and long. When Viri moves away, her eyes are dilated and dark.

”I’m glad you didn’t,” Viri says. “I never thanked you for that, love.”

“What do you mean?”

“You waited for that kiss until I was comfortable with it. You let me set the pace. You never rushed me. Never pressured me. You were right there with me to work through it. Thank you.” Viri strokes her cheek.

“Doing anything else would have been unthinkable to me,” Lana tells her, kissing her again. “Seeing you find your pleasure has been beautiful, love. Your body, your spirit, what we share…they are gifts.”

”You are the gift,” Viri says, embracing her. “I love you so much. I can’t stop saying it.”

”Tell me as many times as you want. I will never tire of hearing it. I love you beyond the stars, Viri.” Lana kisses Viri again, and again, as they feverishly finish undressing.

*

The week is a glorious haze for Viri and Lana. Meditation by the sea at dawn. Evenings on the balcony overlooking the water, watching the stars. Nights in front of the fireplace, stoking pleasure in each other. Long jogs along the beach. Afternoons where Lana nestles into the plush couch in Taran and Lucinda’s library, knitting, and Viri curls up on the balcony with a book. Time enjoyed together; time enjoyed apart. Moonlight rising over Rishi as they dance together, holding each other close. Mornings in the bedroom, where Lana wakes sated and languid in the balmy Rishi heat as Viri sleeps on next to her.

“We should probably leave the house at some point,” Lana chuckles on the fourth morning as they relax in bed, propping herself up on one elbow to get a better look at Viri.

”But I want you,” Viri protests, batting her eyelashes.

”Again?” Lana laughs, leaning over to kiss her.

”And again and again,” Viri agrees, pulling at Lana’s bottom lip with her teeth.

”You are insatiable,” Lana chuckles, running one hand down Viri’s hip.

”And you aren’t?” Viri counters, leaning into her touch.

”Never said that,” Lana murmurs, her eyes dark with desire as she stretches out over Viri. “I could enjoy you endlessly…”

”Please do,” Viri quips, biting her lip in a way that Lana always finds alluring.

”I will,” Lana says hungrily, kissing her hard.

*

”I’m glad we finally got out of the house,” Viri says, as they walk through the bustling crowds in Raiders’ Cove. The mercenary gear they are wearing to conceal their identities is hot on their skin, and Viri has to fight the desire to rip her mask and dark glasses away from her face. Her lightsaber is concealed under a blaster panel at her hip, as is Lana’s.

Lana squeezes her hand as they meander down one alley and another, simply drinking in the energy. The neon lights are hazy in the humidity, and air seems to shimmer. Above them, the spirals of the Rishi Maze hold court in the night sky.

”I am, too,” Lana answers. They’ve both discarded their Imperial accents as much as possible, aiming for more neutral Mid-Rim patterns of speech, and Huttese instead of Basic.

There’s something compelling about us just being here, Lana says in her mind.

Viri nods imperceptibly. I agree. We’re just us. I…like it. No. I love it.

The two wander past a small movie theater, stopping to study each of the bright posters hanging in the windows.

Viri looks over at Lana. “When is the last time you went to a movie?”

Lana considers. “I…don’t even know. It’s been years. You?”

“I can’t remember,” Viri shakes her head. ”Shall we?”

Lana smiles. “I’d like that. What’s playing?”

Viri peers at the electronic placard on the ticket window. “Romantic comedy, something that appears to be a grim political drama, something about a ‘murderous Jedi running amok’ and a children’s movie about talking baby gundarks.”

“You want the baby gundarks, don’t you?” Lana raises an eyebrow and grins.

Viri shrugs. “Well, I feel like we’ve seen enough ‘grim political dramas’ and murderous Force users to last us a while.”

“I concur. What about the romantic comedy?” Lana asks.

Viri’s arms encircle Lana’s waist. “I like our romance best. But we could see both? It’s not as though we have anywhere else to be.”

Lana nods and kisses her nose. “Diplomatic to a fault, sweet one.”

Viri buys tickets to both movies and leads the way into the cinema. As they pass the snack bar her eyes widen, and Lana laughs.

”Let me guess. We’re going to be watching these movies hyped up on sugar.”

”Is there any other way?” Viri asks. “What do you want?”

”These foods aren’t healt---oh, to hell with it. A large Sugar Rush, those candies there, and those…” Lana’s eyes light up as she points to one treat after the next.

Lana and Viri buy so many treats that the cashier hands them a box to carry everything. They walk into the auditorium grinning mischievously as they search for a place to sit. They finally find a location that seems acceptable, but as Viri settles into her seat, her long legs bump into the back of the seat in front of her.

“This theater isn’t made for tall people,” Viri grimaces, moving one way and then another to try to get comfortable. She finally ends up sitting sideways, her legs extended under Lana’s seat.

Lana scans the auditorium for another pair of seats, and finds some at the front of the balcony. “Over there. There won’t be anyone in front of us, and you should have more room.”

”Excellent,” Viri says, and follows Lana to the new location, but no sooner does she sit than someone throws a piece of popcorn at her.

”Come on, lady! You’re too tall! We can’t see over you!”

”It’s not my fault you’re short,” Viri snaps, but Lana grabs her hand before it can reach her lightsaber.

“We just gave up some excellent seats over there,” Lana says, giving him a subtle Force suggestion. “Why don’t you take those, and we’ll stay here?”

”All right,” the man mutters, and moves to the seats with his companion.

“Maybe this is why we haven’t been to the movies in a while,” Viri chuckles, putting the snacks down onto the empty seat next to them.

“Quite possibly,” Lana agrees, taking a handful of popcorn.

The lights go down and the screen in front of them flickers to life with the Galactic News Service logo. Lana and Viri listen halfheartedly as the newscasters run through the latest stories of the day - a few uprisings, continued rebuilding on Coruscant and Dromund Kaas, and the latest scandals befalling some prominent celebrity families - but they both gasp when their own faces suddenly appear onscreen.

“For one day, Commander Viridana Dragoi of the Eternal Alliance traded lightsabers and battles for love and wedding bells as she married her longtime advisor and fellow Sith Lord, Lana Beniko. The women held a secular ceremony for friends and admirers on the ocean planet of Manaan…”

Viri and Lana stare at the screen, dumbfounded. The camera zooms in on their kiss from the wedding ceremony, and pans back to show them holding hands and waving to the crowds. To their surprise, the audience around them in the movie theater begins to applaud, and they hastily join in.

That’s…unexpected, Viri says in her mind, chewing her lip.

We look lovely, Lana replies. People are applauding for us. Why are you fretting about it?

Viri chews her lip harder. It’s for us. Not for everyone.

Love, Lana says, turning to caress her face. Of course it’s for us. They just saw it. We both knew there were HoloNet cameras there. That was the point, as I recall.

When you say it that way… Viri nods and grabs Lana’s hand, squeezing it.

I loved showing you off. Look at that gorgeous woman on my arm.

I can’t complain about being onscreen with a beauty like you, Viri counters, smiling.

As the first movie begins, Lana laces her fingers with Viri’s again and rests her head against Viri’s shoulder. They lean into each other through their connection, warm and safe and amused by the antics of the baby gundarks running across the screen.

*

The week passes all too quickly, and on the last night of their honeymoon, Lana finds Viri sitting alone on the apartment’s balcony. The humidity has abated for once, and the sky is alive with crystal stars.

”It’s beautiful tonight,” Lana says, sitting down next to her. She takes her cue from Viri, leaning back on her elbows to look up at the heavens.

”It is. Do you ever wonder what’s up there?” Viri asks, nodding toward the Rishi Maze. “As much as I know we can’t, I just want to take the Tyuk and go there.”

”…and spend the rest of our lives exploring what is on the other side of those stars,” Lana agrees, looking wistfully up at the stars. “Can you imagine?”

”Even if we stay in our own galaxy, I’d love to load up the ship and just…” Viri sighs, and Lana looks over at her.

You don’t want to rule the galaxy. Lana hears the truth in the words as she thinks them.

Viri looks back at her. No. I don’t. We’ve always known that. But what choice is there?

I don’t want to rule the galaxy either, Lana admits.

I just want to protect others, Viri says, gazing up at the stars. But I’d also like someone else to have that task sometimes.

We’ll do the best we can for as long as we can, Lana tells her. That’s all we can do, isn’t it?

As long as we’re together, Viri says, scooping Lana into her lap. As long as you love me.

Lana snuggles in and and sighs as Viri’s arms go around her. Always. And for now…it’s a beautiful night.

Viri nods and kisses the top of Lana’s head, and then raises her eyes to the stars again.

*

The next morning Viri and Lana leave a thank-you holo for Taran and Lucinda, and then grudgingly board Taran’s shuttle to return to the Tyuk. As they board Viri’s starship, they feel their usual roles- as Commander and Advisor - settling back on their shoulder.

Viri sighs before she activates the holo-communicator on the Tyuk’s bridge. “This is Commander Wrath, checking in. Awaiting your briefing, Theron. What’s up first?”

”Welcome back,” Theron says, picking up as though Lana and Viri had never been gone. “Sana-Rae wanted a word with you.”

”Put her on.”

”Greetings, Commander,” Sana-Rae says. “I would like to request for you to meet me on Voss. They’re not under attack; there’s something else. You passed the trial for Voss Mystics, as I recall…”

”Yes, that’s true,” Viri nods. “Years ago.”

“There is a Voss blessing ceremony for Mystics who choose to marry, and I’ve received clearance from the Three to allow you to partake in it. They had to wait for visions and interpretations on whether it should be offered to an outsider. The visions were clear; you are worthy.”

Viri raises her eyebrows. “That’s quite an honor.”

Sana-Rae smiles. “Indeed it is. Will you accept?”

Lana catches her eye. We’re getting married a third time, aren’t we?

Viri gives her an impish grin. Shall we?

Lana nods with a smile.

”We accept,” Viri says.

”Good,” Sana-Rae smiles. “There’s something else. I’ve also received word that the Mystics would like to speak to Darth Nox, since she is a Dreamwalker. And...we may have found her friend. The Mystics tell me that they have been working with a Togruta woman from time to time. One who is Force sensitive. She also passed the Mystic trials, and she has extensive knowledge of Dreamwalking. As though she’s been through that trial, too.”

”Ashara?” Viri sits up straight. “Did you tell Suvia yet?”

Sana-Rae nods. “Yes. She’s ready to travel out to Voss with me. But we wanted to wait for you and Lana.”

Viri nods. “We’ll set coordinates to Voss now, Sana-Rae. Where should we meet?”

”We will meet you in the Alien Enclave on Voss-Ka. The Three will have an audience with us, and then we can journey to the Shrine of Healing together. Safe travels, Commander.” The holo goes dark.

Viri programs the navicomputer and taps the holo controls again. “Vette? Jae? Are you there?”

”Helloooo, Sith lords!”

”We’re heading to Voss. Nothing’s wrong; Sana-Rae, the Three and the Mystics want to see us. Ashara might be there!”

”Suvia already told us. We’re on our way.” Vette looks excited on the holo. “We’re escorting your ship with the rest of your vanguard. We’ll enter hyperspace on your mark. See you in Voss-Ka.”

Viri punches the hyperdrive, leans back in her seat and exhales. “Voss. We haven’t been there in a while, have we? Not since the war. It’s long overdue.”

Lana nods. “Unfortunately, the only time I’ve been able to see it has been when it’s been at war. It sounds like an intriguing place.”

”It is,” Viri says. “I feel odd accepting a Mystic’s honor, though.”

”You passed their trials. Why wouldn’t they honor you?”

”It’s not as though I see visions.”

Lana looks at her sharply. "Yes you do. All those times you’ve dreamed about things? Or you instinctively know what will happen? Don’t you even realize you’re precognitive, love?"

Viri blinks at her and looks away.

Oh. I see. You’re denying it because it scares you.

”How do you get all of that from a blink?” Viri laughs.

”Because I know you,” Lana says, locking eyes with her. “I see your dreams sometimes, remember? It hasn’t led you wrong, you know. You survived on Asylum because you followed your feelings and knew that you needed to face the danger alone, away from the Gravestone. We were able to keep the Alliance intact when you vanished on Dromund Kaas because of your premonitions, too. Vette once told me that you knew Darth Baras would rise against you, and made your entire team upgrade their armor in preparation. You knew when Baras installed a spy on your ship, too.”

”Some of that is common sense,” Viri argues. “Baras knew I was stronger than him, especially once I was able to take out Darth Vengean, and he also knew that I was gaining a power base. He couldn’t have that. It was how he was.”

”Perhaps, but can you look me in the eye and tell me there wasn’t more to it?” Lana asks, locking eyes with Viri. “Don’t be afraid, lover. This is a gift in the Force. You’re not afraid of all the other gifts you have. Why this one?”

”What if I see things I don’t want to see?” Viri closes her eyes and opens them again. “When I was in carbonite, and I saw so many horrible things, I could never tell if Valkorion was planting those images in my head, or if I was seeing something yet to come. Do you know how frightening that was?”

”I can only imagine,” Lana says, and squeezes her hand again.

”I can’t…I don’t know if I want to cultivate this gift, Lana,” Viri says, pacing.

”If you did, you would have more control over it,” Lana points out. “Just as you do with everything else. Premonitions and visions are guides to the future. Not necessarily absolutes. It’s not my gift; it’s yours to deal with as you wish. But I think that working with the Mystics to get a handle on it would make you happier, and more in control, than trying to push it away. I’m sure they worry about what they see too. They might have a way for you to deal with that.”

Viri nods and bows her head. “Will you be there?”

”You know you don’t have to ask me. I will be with you for support as much as you need me, my love,” Lana says, enveloping Viri in a hug.

”Thank you,” Viri says, her voice barely audible.

“Anyway, you don’t have to think about it now. We have a few days until we reach Voss,” Lana says, pulling Viri into her lap. “Our honeymoon is thus extended a little.”

”Indeed,” Viri says, nuzzling her nose. “Shall we enjoy the wonders of hyperspace travel?”

”Speed?” Lana scoffs, picking Viri up and carrying her back to their cabin. “Oh no, lover. Slow and exacting, I think…”

Chapter Text

Voss airspace

”Eternal Alliance ships requesting landing clearance.” Viri taps some buttons on the Tyuk’s console and sits back in her seat. The Tyuk has just exited hyperspace, and the unmistakable planet of Voss looms below the ship.

”You’re clear, Commander. Hangars Aurek, Besh, Cresh.”

”Eternal Fleet ships requesting permission to patrol Voss airspace.”

”Granted.”

Viri nods. “Eternal Fleet, defensive patrol above Voss. Thank you.”

”Two minutes to landfall,” Lana says, consulting her own console. “Back to life, I suppose.”

”Yes,” Viri sighs and looks over at Lana. She has changed back into her standard working armor, her lightsaber is clipped to her belt, and her face is all business.

“Hey, we had a nice reprieve,” Lana says, smiling.

”That we did,” Viri agrees. As she guides the Tyuk into the hangar, she takes a deep breath and centers herself. When she turns back to Lana, she is the Empress Wrath; her face a blank mask; her armor polished and strong.

*

Viri squints in the orange glow of the afternoon sun as Sana-Rae leads the entourage on a tour of Voss-Ka. The bridges and towers have been reconstructed, but the city still bears the scars of Vaylin’s attack; many of the buildings are still marred by blaster burns and there are still bomb craters scattered across the roads.

Sana-Rae stops the group at a serene plaza with a small fountain and a stone marker. “This is the memorial to the Battle of Voss. A cenotaph for those who were lost and never recovered.”

Viri nods quietly as she looks at the memorial. The stone is carved with elaborate Voss designs and a long list of names. On the other end of the square, there is another large tablet, this one with Aurebesh names, including Viri’s own.

”That is the Commemoration to the Heroes of the Alliance,” Sana-Rae says. “You, Lana, Theron and Rokuss are honored here for your courageous work in liberating Voss.”

”I’m honored,” Viri says, her eyes traveling slowly over the marker. “I’m glad that Rokuss was included, too.”

”Rokuss and his troops were instrumental to our success,” Sana-Rae says.

”Speaking of which, where is he?” Lana asks. “I thought he would be with you.”

”He wanted to visit some family, but he said that he will be back tomorrow, for your ritual,” Sana-Rae says.

“I never thought I’d see the Voss and the Gormak peacefully co-existing,” Viri muses. “But I am glad that it’s happened.”

”It is something that many Voss considered anathema, but the planet has been peaceful since we have begun to cooperate,” Sana-Rae says. “One of the Mystics had a vision of the Nightmare Lands receding. That has happened.”

”That makes me happy,” Viri says, looking thoughtfully at the monument again.

”We should keep moving, Commander,” Sana-Rae says. “We have a busy schedule while we are here. I will meet with some of the Mystics while you and Suvia go to the North Tea House, and she will have her reunion. The Three have requested to speak to you and Lana later today. Tomorrow will be your ritual with the Mystics, and Suvia will meet with the Dreamwalkers. I understand that Rokuss has also asked if you would meet with Jokull and his people.”

Viri nods. “There’s a lot on the table.”

”It is better to be in demand than to be ignored, in this case.”

”I tend to agree, Sana-Rae,” Lana says. “Where is Suvia?”

”She’ll meet you at the tea house,” Sana-Rae says.

”Does Ashara know she’s coming?” Lana asks.

”Yes. She and Suvia were able to speak via holo during our journey to Voss. I am sure she cannot wait to see her love in person. I need to rendezvous with my Mystics now, Commander. I’ll see you both later,” Sana-Rae says, walking toward the Mystic’s Enclave.

Lana and Viri walk in the opposite direction, toward the North Tea House.

”Suvia must be so excited,” Lana says. “She’s about to see her love again.”

”I can’t think of anything sweeter,” Viri grins.

*

Suvia is pacing on the sidewalk outside the North Tea House. When Lana and Viri approach, it becomes immediately apparent just how much she has prepared for this moment. Her lekku have been buffed until they shine, and she’s dressed in a thick, luxurious set of red and black robes.

”Suvia,” Viri says, approaching. “You look beautiful.”

”Thank you,” Suvia says, but she’s trembling.

”Where is Ashara?” Lana asks, looking around.

“She’s in the temple,” Suvia says. “I holoed ahead. She told me where I’d find her. It’s a meditation sanctuary for all Force users.”

“Shall we, then?” Lana asks.

Suvia leads the way down the street to a modest building with Sith, Jedi and Voss symbols on the facade. As she reaches the door, however, she freezes in place.

“Viri, Lana, would you mind going in first? I need a moment.”

”Of course,” Viri says. “Take whatever time you need.”

Lana and Viri knock on the door and open it. Ashara is sitting in the corner in meditation stance, and when she sees Viri and Lana, she immediately gets up.

As Ashara walks toward them, Viri studies her. She’s older. Wiser-looking, somehow. Scars criss-cross her montrals, and she has a new tattoo on her face. It’s barely perceptible, but she’s walking with a limp, favoring her left leg over her right. The lightsabers at her hips are not the ones she carried on Yavin 4. The Dark Side hangs about her like a mantle, mixed with lighter Force power.

”Ashara! It’s good to see you again,” Viri says.

Ashara smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “I’m glad you’re alive and well and have been successful in defeating Zakuul. It’s good to see you.”

”You don’t sound happy,” Viri says. “Why?”

“I wasn’t sure how you’d react to me. I know we all got along on Yavin 4, but still. Especially with your Alliance.”

“We’d never have harmed you,” Viri says, surprised. “Why would you have thought that?”

Ashara’s smile fades. “It’s not that. I didn’t want to join the Alliance. I was worried you’d be angry that I didn’t want to come to Odessen. Viri, I fought any and all Eternal Empire forces I came across. I battled a lot of them, in fact. In that way, I suppose I was supporting you from afar, so to speak. But I needed my own time to find my own path.”

”I wouldn’t have been angry,” Viri says. “If your path took you somewhere else, it is what it is. We don’t force anyone to join the Alliance.”

”I heard you were looking for me.”

”Yes, because we were worried about you. Talos, Xalek, Vette and the rest of us were just interested in knowing that you were alive and well.”

“It would have been helpful if you’d reached out to let us know you were safe, so we could have stopped searching for you,” Lana says, crossing her arms. “That took time, expense and staff, you know. We could have used it elsewhere. You could have at least sent us a message. We would not have pursued you.”

Ashara finally meets Viri’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I should have reached out. Can they—can I still talk to Vette and the others?”

”You can talk to whomever you want. We’ll get you in touch. Vette and Jaesa are on Voss with us right now, in fact.”

”Thank you,” Ashara says. “And…I sense someone else is with you. Someone very important to me. I’ve been waiting for her.”

Viri nods. “She wanted us to come in first, to give her a moment. But you must know that she can’t wait to see you.”

Ashara looks past Viri to the door. “Suvia? I know you’re out there.”

The door opens and Suvia stands at the threshold, her entire face illuminated with joy. It’s only a second before she has thrown herself into Ashara’s arms.

“After all this time, to finally find you,” Suvia murmurs. “Viri, Lana, would you leave us?”

Ashara returns the hug, holding Suvia close, but steps back after a moment. “Would you mind if they stayed for a minute? There’s something we need to talk about, and they should hear it, too.”

”Whatever it is, I’m sure it can wait until after you have some time to catch up,” Viri says, backing toward the door. “Suvia, we’re heading back to the safe house now.”

Ashara steps forward. ”No, stop, it can’t wait. Before anything goes any further, I need to tell you…”

”What’s there to talk about?” Suvia asks. “I found you. You can come back with me, or I’ll stay here with you, and…”

Ashara shakes her head and steps away. “Suvia, no. That’s what we need to discuss. I can’t go anywhere with you. I didn’t want to say this on the holo, I thought we needed to talk about it in person, but I…there…there’s someone else now. I’m married.”

All of the air seems to go out of the room.

Suvia goes pale. “You’re lying.”

Ashara presses a button on her comlink. “Iki, would you come in here for a moment?”

The door opens and a tall Miralian woman with round cheeks and a long ponytail sticks her head into the room. “What do you need, Ash?”

”Come in, please. I need to introduce you to someone.”

Ashara looks at Suvia, Viri and Lana’s stunned faces. “Everyone, this is Ikina. She’s my wife. Ikina, this is Suvia. You know all about her. That’s Lana and Viri, two old friends of mine. I’ve mentioned them to you.”

Suvia’s lip curls in contempt. “She’s not even Force sensitive. Really, Ashara?!”

Ikina swallows hard. “Hello, Suvia. Ashara’s told me so much about you and showed me holos of you. I feel like I know you, from all the stories I’ve heard.”

”I assure you, you do not know me,” Suvia says, and every syllable of every word is laced with acid.

”I’m so sorry,” Ikina says, backing up. “I know this has to be difficult.”

”You know nothing. I am speaking to Ashara, not you.” Suvia turns to Ashara, making sure that her back is to Ikina.

“Suvia, she’s done nothing to you. Stop being so rude to her.”

”Nothing?” Suvia scoffs. “When did you marry her?”

”Last year,” Ashara says.

”And how long have you been with her?”

”Four years, altogether,” Ashara stammers. “Four and a half, actually.”

Suvia wheels around, her entire face suffused with rage. “Three years. You wrote me off after less than three years.”

”No, Suvia, it wasn’t like that! I never forgot you. But we all thought you were dead!” Ashara looks nervously toward Ikina. “Do you have any idea how devastating that was for me? In the Jedi order, we were never really allowed to grieve. That was emotion and it implied attachment to another person, and it wasn’t permitted. When you died—when I thought you were gone – I couldn’t cope. Ikina helped me learn to grieve. To heal.”

”You didn’t feel me die!” Suvia screams. “Nobody did! I was trapped in carbonite, and you…you…went off with this woman…”

Ashara is ashen. “Do you know why I ‘went off’ with her in the first place? We were looking for you! We looked for years! She was helping me search for you, Suvia, and we went from one end of the galaxy to the other. But you were gone, and after so much time…I needed to move on. I needed support, Suvia. I needed love.”

Suvia points an accusing finger toward Lana.

“Love?! She spent five years looking for her love. She sacrificed everything. She wasn’t fucking around behind her lover’s back! If you loved me you would have waited the way she did! Hell, Viri and Lana aren’t even my lovers, and they went to several planets to find a way to safely free me from carbonite!”

”No,” Viri says quickly. “Please keep Lana and me out of this.”

”We’re going to give you some privacy,” Lana says, catching Viri’s eye and heading toward the door. “I think it’s best if we’re not here for this discussion. Ikina, why don’t you come with us?”

Ashara’s eyes flick toward them. “I think that’s a good idea, Iki. They’re old friends. They won’t hurt you.”

Ikina nods and scurries after Lana and Viri. As soon as the door shuts, she bursts into tears.

”That was a difficult moment,” Lana says sympathetically, as they walk away from the building.

“She never stopped loving Suvia,” Ikina sniffles.

”Didn’t you hear her?” Lana asks softly. “It doesn’t sound as though Ashara is leaving you. It sounds as though she loves you deeply. Even if she will always love Suvia, and what she had with her, it doesn’t mean she’s going to break up with you.”

”I didn’t mean to break them up,” Ikina cries. “I swear I didn’t. We thought Suvia was dead. We looked for her, really, we did. We asked so many people and traveled to different planets and followed so many leads, but we didn’t find anything. We spent years searching before we settled here.”

”You didn’t break them up,” Viri says, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder. “You met someone whose partner was presumed dead and had been gone for years. You helped her cope with that loss, and you fell in love. You’re not to blame. Neither is Ashara. Neither is Suvia. It just happened as it did.”

“If we’d looked harder…” Ikina cries.

”You still would have uncovered nothing,” Lana says. “Ikina, even with all the resources at our disposal, we only found Suvia by accident. She wasn’t listed as a prisoner in a single Eternal Empire record. Her flagship and fleet were lost with no known survivors. We only recently found the last member of the Commander’s crew, and we’re still missing one more of Suvia’s people. You two can’t blame yourselves for not locating her.”

Ikina nods, wiping her face with the back of her sleeve. “I still feel terrible for Suvia. To come all this way, and find…me…she was all dressed up…Ashara didn’t want to tell her on the holo, but maybe she should have…”

”I think we all feel for Suvia,” Lana agrees. “She’s lost a lot, and this will be one more major source of pain. But it’s still not you who struck the blow. She wouldn’t have been in carbonite or separated from Ashara at all if not for the Eternal Empire. And if you two hadn’t found each other, Ashara might have connected with someone else eventually.”

“I guess,” Ikina says, looking at the ground as the three women amble toward the tea house.

”I think a cup of tea might be soothing,” Lana says. “Ikina, I hope you will join us.”

Ikina nods, sobbing.

“Suvia, what she said, was that true?" Ikina says through her tears. “You waited five years for Viri?”

”Yes,” Lana says, taking Viri’s hand.

“Why?” Ikina says, curious.

”Because I wanted to,” Lana says. ”There's no way I would have done anything else. I would have waited as long as I needed to wait for Viri. But that isn’t a judgment on what Ashara chose to do. Five years is a long time. Seven is even longer."

“You love her that much?”

”Yes,” Lana says, squeezing Viri’s hand.

”I see,” Ikina says, opening the door to the tea house. One of the Voss employees nods at her as she leads the group to a table at the front of the room.

”They’re with me, bring them whatever they want,” Ikina says, waving her hand.

“That’s very kind, Ikina, but not necessary, we can pay for…” Viri starts, but Ikina shakes her head.

“This is actually our place,” Ikina explains as they sit down. “Of course I’m not going to charge you. Ashara works with the Mystics when they need her, and she’s fought to protect Voss, but for the most part, we run the tea house together.”

“Thank you,” Lana says. “Tea for me. Viri?”

”Hot cocoa, if you have it,” Viri says. “Tea otherwise.”

”You know what to bring me,” Ikina says wearily.

The Voss server nods and walks away.

“So you and Ashara run this tea house, and…” Viri starts.

A small Miralian girl carrying a datapad runs up to Ikina, interrupting the conversation. “I’m finished.”

”Let me see, Tomi,” Ikina says, taking the datapad. “Good, good, these are all correct, but can you find the word you misspelled here?”

Tomi takes the datapad back and scowls at it. “I didn’t think I’d misspelled anything.”

”Look at it more carefully,” Ikina says, pointing to a line on the datapad’s screen. “Sound that out. Do you still think it should be spelled with cresh, or with another letter?”

Tomi scrutinizes the datapad screen again. “Oh. I see it now. It should have been krill, not cresh.”

”Good girl. I want you to type that word out correctly five times and use it in a sentence. Go. And after that I want you to practice hand-writing your Aurebesh. Two pages.”

The child studies her face. “Mama, you’ve been crying.”

Ikina smiles reassuringly. “Yes, I’m sad, so I’ve been crying. I’ll be all right, I promise.”

”Is Mommy okay? Where is she?”

”She’s talking to an old friend and they needed some privacy,” Ikina says. “She’ll be back soon. After you’re done with your writing, how about drawing a picture for her?”

”Okay.”

Ikina smiles at Tomi as she scurries back to her table.

”Your daughter?” Viri asks.

”Yes,” Ikina says. “Mine and Ashara’s. Her name is Tomi. She’s five. She spent the first part of her life on a starship as we traveled around, looking for Suvia. I like that we’re able to have a stable home here with her.”

”You’ve made a life here for yourselves,” Viri observes. “The tea house. Your daughter. Your relationship with each other. It seems almost idyllic.”

Ikina nods. “We have our ups and downs. Everyone does. But the life we’ve created here is one that I want to keep. I just hope it’s possible now.”

“I don’t think that will be an issue,” Viri says. “Ashara doesn’t seem to want to go anywhere, Ikina.”

Ikina nods. “I just need to hear it from her.”

“Understandable,” Lana says.

”I wanted to tell you: thank you for not being angry that she doesn’t want to join the Alliance,” Ikina says. “We were both worried about that.”

”Why?” Viri says, tilting her head. “I still don’t understand that. I thought we were on good terms with Ashara when she was on Darth Nox’s team. Lana and I are both reasonable. We’ve never forced anyone to join us. The door is always open for anyone who wants to leave. Why the fear?”

”Ashara spoke highly of you. But we still thought you might think less of her if she opted out. I’m glad that is not the case. Truthfully, even if she’d wanted to go, I would have tried to talk her out of it. I hate seeing her fight. I need her, and so does Tomi.”

Viir nods and drinks her cocoa. “It’s not easy seeing a loved one go off to war.”

”No, it’s not,” Lana says quietly. “It’s the worst thing in the world to stay home and worry if they’re going to be all right.”

Ikina looks from Lana to Viri. “I had a feeling you’d understand that. Just from what they’ve shown on the HoloNet, you’ve had a lot of difficult battles.”

”We have,” Viri agrees.

”How do you cope?” Ikina asks. “If you don’t mind my asking…”

Lana takes a deep breath. “I go with Viri whenever I can. When we have to be separated, all I can do is trust in the Force, and in her talents, to bring her back to me.”

”I guess that makes sense,” Ikina says, sipping her tea. “I’m still grateful that Ashara’s not inclined to go to war. During the siege of Voss she was fighting, and it worried me sick.”

”I can imagine. That was a terrible battle. Voss suffered greatly,” Viri says. “And…”

The door of the tea house opens again, and Ashara walks in, looking completely drained and anguished. Ikina and her daughter run to her.

”Ash? Are you all right?” Ikina asks.

Ashara shakes her head as she wraps her arms around Ikina and Tomi. “No. But I will be.”

“You’re not…”

“I’m not going anywhere. I love you.”

Ikina buries her head in Ashara’s shoulder, but both Lana and Viri hear the sob.

”Viri, Lana, please excuse us. We’ll…catch up later before you leave Voss-Ka, but right now, I think Ikina and I need some time,” Ashara says, not looking up.

”Understood,” Viri says, rising to leave. “How is…is she still..”

”She grabbed a speeder and took off,” Ashara says. “I don’t know where she went. I hope…she will be all right.”

”So do we,” Lana says. “We’ll talk to you both later. We need to see to Suvia now.”

“Understood,” Ashara says, and looks up at both of them. “I’m sorry. For everything.”

”It is what it is,” Viri says, and follows Lana out of the tea house.

Outside the building, the streets of the Alien Enclave are quiet. There’s no sign of Suvia.

”Where do you think she went…” Viri looks around frantically.

”We do have a holo,” Lana says, and takes her holo-communicator out of her pocket. “Suvia?”

Suvia flickers into view for a moment on the holo, but turns away so that her face is not visible.

”Leave me alone.”

”Sure. We won’t bother you. Just please know that we’re here. Please holo or comlink us if you need us.”

”Oh.” The holo connection is cut.

“I’ve never heard her so upset,” Viri says, frowning.

“Can you blame her?” Lana asks, taking Viri’s hand. “I thought I actually heard her heart breaking when Ikina walked into the room.”

Viri exhales. “Suvia would resent it if we pitied her, but I feel so badly for her right now.”

”As do I,” Lana agrees. “And I hope she will reach out to us. We have to get to that meeting with The Three, for now…we could take a speeder, but…”

”Let’s walk,” Viri says. The crisp autumn air in Voss-Ka is invigorating on her skin, and Viri breathes deeply as they walk toward the Tower of Prophecy.

”I have to ask, one thing,” Viri says, stopping abruptly. “Why did you wait for me?”

“I knew you were alive,” Lana says, kissing her nose. “That’s the first thing. Not only did I sense you were alive through the Force, but I was able to visit you occasionally. So it wasn’t as though you were entirely gone. You were just separated from me. I couldn’t have gone with anyone else under that circumstance and felt right about it.

“Second, I really am not attracted to most people. Before you, I went for years – since Belsavis, really – without being with anyone, so even if you were actually dead, or our breakup on Yavin 4 had been definitive, it’s highly likely I wouldn’t have connected with anyone else.”

“I see,” Viri says, looking pensive.

”I’m not done, love. There was one more thing. Third, and most importantly, we have a bond…an affinity…that is very special. When I told you I knew our fates would be intertwined completely, I wasn’t joking. I already loved you then, even though I hadn’t told you straight out. I knew I needed you in my life, always.”

Viri meets Lana’s eyes and smiles. “I loved you then, too. I knew we needed to be together, Even before I knew that I knew it.”

Love and trust shimmer through the bond, and Lana wraps her arms around Viri’s hips.

”It kept me going, you know. The idea that I would see you again. Hold you again. Finally tell you how much I loved you. I needed you, Viri. It was unthinkable to me that I would not be with you. I would have done anything to get you back. To keep you safe.”

”When you visited me, it helped me keep fighting,” Viri murmurs. "Otherwise, I think Valkorion might have succeeded in breaking me. I held that in my heart, that you would find me.”

"Love," Lana says, holding her close.

“Thank you for waiting for me,” Viri says, her voice muffled. “It meant everything.”

”I could have done no different,” Lana says, rocking her slightly. “You were worth waiting for.”

”So were you,” Viri whispers.

“Don’t go all wobbly on me,” Lana murmurs, but her eyes are shiny too.

”I love you.”

”I love you too.”

”I suppose we should--” Viri ‘s words are interrupted by the insistent beeping of her holo.

”Suvia, where are you--- oh, hello, Theron.”

”Sorry to bother you on Voss, Commander, but something urgent has come up. I think I’ve got a bead on the traitor.”

Viri snaps to full attention. “Go on.”

”They’re on the shadow world of Umbara. Remember how much the Empire and Republic fought over those Adegan lightsaber crystals on Ilum? Turns out there’s a motherlode on Umbara, and the traitors are pulling as many as they can.”

”They’re Force users, then, if they’re using lightsaber crystals.”

”Not necessarily, remember that they were also used for stealth ships, too,” Lana says. “What now? Can we identify or apprehend them on Umbara?”

Theron exhales. “They’re moving an entire shipment on a train tomorrow. I think we should try to interfere. Best case scenario, we catch the traitors. Worst case, we stop them from obtaining a lot of potentially dangerous crystals. It’s going to be tight, but if you leave Voss now, you can get there in time. I’ll meet you there.”

Viri exhales as she hurries back toward the starship hangars. “We’re on our way, Theron.”

As the holo goes dark, Lana begins planning. “No reason for us to disturb Suvia, Rokuss, Vette or Jae. They can stay here, and Suvia can still attend her Dreamwalkers ritual. Sana-Rae can make excuses to the Three for us.”

”I’m sorry I’m going to miss the Mystics ritual,” Viri frowns. “I would have liked to learn more about how to control my gift. How to see the future. It might have told us what our traitor looked like.”

Lana nods. “I agree. We will need to get you back here as soon as we’re finished with Umbara.”

As they board the Tyuk and prepare to take off, Viri pauses, her hands above the controls.

”Viri?”

Viri shakes her head and hits the comm channel. “Koth? Tora? I want the Gravestone in orbit near Umbara. You’re going to be picking up the Tyuk. Be prepared for anything.”

”What’s going on, Commander?”

”I don’t know yet, Koth, but I want you guys to stick close.”

Viri exhales as she sets the navicomputer toward Umbara and punches the hyperdrive.

”You feel something,” Lana says.

”I do,” Viri says. “I don’t know what’s wrong. I just feel that we’ll need the Gravestone, and that the Tyuk should not be on that planet.”

”We can take one of the smaller shuttles to Umbara,” Lana says.

”No. An escape pod. We can’t be on the ground with one of our ships,” Viri says, shaking her head definitively.

“I would normally question that, but you seem to be resolute on this,” Lana replies, sitting back in her chair and monitoring the Tyuk’s energy readings.

“And Lana…let’s reinforce our armor before we arrive.”

”What do you feel, Viri?” Lana says suspiciously. “What’s going to happen? Can you see more?”

I don’t know. But the last time I felt this way, Darth Baras dropped a cave on my head, so humor me.”

”I won’t argue with that,” Lana says. “But…I’d like to see if you can meditate on this and see it clearly. You think something’s going to occur. We need to know what that is.”

Viri takes a deep breath and rises from the captain’s chair. “I won’t disagree with that. Come with me. Let’s meditate. Seventeen, watch the bridge.”

As Viri’s ship droid slides into the captain’s chair, Viri and Lana head to their cabin. As they settle down before their meditation altar, a sense of foreboding descends on them both.

Chapter Text

The corridor is labyrinthine, and her boots click against the stones as she walks. Her torch illuminates the carvings in the walls, and she pauses to study them. How many millennia have they been there? Whose hands guided them into being? As she looks closer, she realizes that the wall is wet. She runs one finger along the glistening surface and gasps: it’s blood. A dragon roars.

No no no what where am I where

Viri clutches her head as she rips herself out of her meditative trance. As she lurches forward, Lana’s arms are around her waist.

”Easy, love. That one looked worse than the last.” Lana’s golden eyes study her.

“It was,” Viri says, rubbing her temples.

”Was it the same?”

Viri shakes her head. “No. A corridor. Ancient carvings soaked in blood. A roaring dragon.”

”How did you know it was a dragon?”

”I’m not sure. I didn’t see it. I just instinctively knew what it was,” Viri says, staring at her hands. Lana offers her a bottle of water, and she accepts it with a grateful smile.

”The dragon seems to be a recurring theme,” Lana says, consulting her datapad. “In all the visions you’ve had, at least one dragon has shown up every single time.”

“Maybe this is why the Mystics have interpreters,” Viri muses. “It’s all riddles. ‘There are seven. Organics cannot contain this power. Seven. The sleeping dragon. The dragons will fight.’ Over and over again, the damned kriffing dragons. I’ve never even seen a dragon. I don’t know what it means, Lana.”

“Your surname,” Lana suggests. “Doesn’t ‘Dragoi’ sound like ‘dragon’?”

”It actually means ‘dragon’ in an ancient language, yes…” Viri gets up and begins to pace, chewing her lip. “That horrifying conditioning phrase that Valkorion used on Vaylin had something about a dragon, too. ‘Kneel before the dragon of Zakuul.’ The Heralds of Zildrog had dragons in their headquarters. Could the dragon be one of their gods?”

”Koth or one of the other Zakuulans would be the ones to ask about that,” Lana says. “When we get back to base we’ll have to ask for a crash course in Zakuulan religion.”

“I wish we’d paid more attention before.”

”It’s not as though we haven’t had a lot of other things to think about,” Lana retorts.

”True, but…” Viri looks away. “We’re missing something. I feel it. I just don’t know what.”

”Love, don’t castigate yourself,” Lana says, standing up and embracing her. “The mystics train for years, and they have interpreters. It’s not as though you’re going to understand this right away. Maybe Sana-Rae can help you, since she is also faced with the prospect of interpreting her own visions.”

“I’ll ask her. In the meantime…Umbara.” The word sends a shiver down Viri’s spine.

“We should be close,” Lana muses. “We should prepare. You…still don’t feel good about this.”

”No, I don’t,” Viri says. “Maybe our dragon is waiting for us here.”

*

Umbara

The Tyuk meets the Gravestone without incident. As her ship floats into the Gravestone’s secure hangar, Viri exhales with relief.

”Tora, I’d like a security detail guarding the Tyuk,” Viri says into her comlink.

”It’s on the ship. It’s not going to fly away on its own,” Tora scoffs.

”That’s an order from the Commander, not a request. If you don’t have at least two pairs of eyes on this ship at all time, you will answer to me,” Viri snaps.

”All right, all right, Darth Snotnose. I’ll send some people down to stare at your unmoving ship,” Tora sighs. “Your escape pod is waiting, as per your request.”

”Thank you,” Viri says. She strides out of the Tyuk in her heaviest armor, her shoulders squared; her eyes icy.

Viri and Lana board their escape pod with uncharacteristic silence; unease resonating through their bond. As the pod hurtles away from the Gravestone, toward the surface of Umbara, Lana peers out the window and winces.

We need to stick together. No matter what. Nobody separates us here. Viri’s voice is steely; the Wrath issuing an order.

I think you’re right. I’ll stay close.

Viri sighs and bows her head for one final moment of meditation. As vicious crimson Force power begins to swirl around her, Lana’s unease grows.

Viri opens one eye, sending reassurance through the bond. Don’t be afraid, love. It’s just the Wrath.

Lana smiles slightly, echoing Viri’s love. I know. I’ve just forgotten how frightening you are when you’re on point. Delicious, but truly frightening.

A dimple dents Viri’s cheek for a split second as she dips her head again, summoning every iota of Force power she can.

*

Theron is already waiting for them, pacing restlessly in front of his shuttle. As Lana and Viri alight from their escape pod, he glares at them.

”Where is your ship?” Theron asks, frowning.

“I thought it was better to leave it behind,” Viri says briskly.

Theron shrugs. “Your choice.”

”Yes, it is,” Viri says. “And I have my reasons for it. Now tell us what we’re doing here, Theron.”

Theron exhales and extracts a datapad from his jacket pocket. “There’s a shipment of Adegan crystals on a cargo train on the north-eastern corridor. I picked up some comm chatter from the same frequency that we identified on Iokath. Both the Republic and our nameless opponents seem to be taking an interest in it. We should, too. Even the Eternal Fleet might have trouble going up against a stealth fleet.”

”Agreed,” Viri says, crossing her arms. “Plan of attack?”

Theron shrugs. “Straightforward. We commandeer the train, take the crystals, and ideally, manage to apprehend our traitor, or someone affiliated with them. We’re on a hostile planet; we can’t manage more than a strike team.”

Viri flicks her eyes toward Lana. “Thoughts?”

Lana sighs. “I don’t think we have a choice. Theron is correct. A stealth armada could be a disaster.”

Viri locks eyes with her. Disaster’s coming, either way.

Lana swallows hard. I wish you could be more specific about that.

So do I, love. So do I.

*

Umbara’s trains run along invisible tracks, fueled by Force-infused crystals. As Theron’s shuttle pulls alongside the one they plan to hijack, the sour taste of bile is on Viri’s tongue.

As they head through the train, however, Viri’s fears appear to be unfounded. For all intents and purposes, it’s a standard mission. She brandishes her lightsaber. She leaps. She parries. She pummels. Beside her, Lana’s red lightsaber blade flashes with deadly precision, cutting down their enemies. Somewhere close, Theron’s blasters fire again and again. All the same, anxiety chews through Viri’s stomach, jagged shards of pain and anticipation.

”I’m not seeing any traitors, Theron,” Viri snaps. They’re close to the front of the train, and they’ve killed countless Umbaran crew members, a few Republic guards, and some Force-using shadow assassins.

”Not a single datapad here has had any information about an uprising or action against the Alliance,” Lana adds. “We could have probably negotiated the sale of these crystals away from the Umbarans. What is the point of this exercise?”

”If you were a traitor, would you be hanging around as two bloodthirsty Sith lords ripped through your train?” Theron hisses.

Lana sneers. “The cowards are probably hiding in the conductor’s cabin.”

”Good call,” Viri says, twirling her lightsaber. “Open the door.”

Lana presses a button on the wall of the train car, and the door to the conductor’s cabin slides open. It is completely empty; the pilot’s chair vacant.

“That’s impossible,” Lana says, scratching her head. “The traitor is still on the train, and…”

They both hear the blaster click. They figure it out simultaneously, looking at each other in abject horror. And then, before they can react, Theron fires his blaster, catching Lana in the stomach.

“Lana!” Viri screams, dropping to her knees. She can find no visible wounds on Lana’s body, but she’s unconscious and cold. There’s a heaviness behind Viri’s eyes as her head begins to swim; the sedative effects of the stun chemicals seeping insidiously through their bond. As she desperately blinks her eyes, trying to stay awake, a shower of glass rains down on her head; Theron has shot the windows out of the conductor’s cabin.

Theron.

Theron’s gun is trained on them both, and his eyes glitter with a hardness Viri has never seen there before. Viri swallows hard. She can fight Theron, or she can protect Lana, and the choice is obvious. It’s just as obvious that Theron knows it.

”You son of a bitch…” Viri hisses. Every bit of friendship, fondness, or trust she has ever felt for Theron Shan dissolves as she holds Lana, casting a protective Force barrier around them.

“It’s over, Commander. In about 90 seconds, this train will be crashing into the mountain. Don’t worry. You won’t feel a thing.”

Viri holds Lana closer and glares. “Why, Theron?”

Theron laughs. “Does it matter? Everything I’ve done since you took the throne has had one goal: to destroy you and your precious Alliance.”

”You helped found the Alliance! After all we’ve been through, why would you…”

Theron shrugs. “The Alliance has outgrown you. It’s a symbol of everything rotten in the galaxy.”

”How…” Viri says, exasperated. “We run humanitarian missions! We help people! We’re doing everything we can to keep the peace! How is that rotten?”

”You broke the peace to begin with,” Theron snarls. “Without you and Lana, we might find it again. Goodbye, Viridana.”

“You’d better start running, Theron,” Viri says, and her voice is the Wrath’s, deadly and malevolent. “When I catch you…”

”But you won’t,” Theron says, pressing a button. A series of explosions rock the train, and acrid smoke begins to fill the conductor’s cabin. “Goodbye, Commander.”

Theron disappears into the smoke.

”Son of a Jedi…” Viri hisses, tightening her arms around Lana. As the train lurches off its invisible tracks, she uses the Force to hold Lana to her chest and leaps through the broken window. Her impact with the embankment is enough to knock the wind from her, but she still clutches Lana close. They roll down the hill together, landing in a heap at the bottom.

As she finds her bearings, Viri puts her hands up to shield herself and Lana from the rain of sparks and debris falling from the wreckage of the train. Anger burns just as brightly in her mind, and she grinds her teeth as she attempts to rein it in. He shot Lana I’m going to kill him he shot you how dare he how dare anyone hurt you no never I should have stopped him why

As her rage threatens to engulf her, Viri take a deep breath and begins to channel, forcing the anger into a healing field for Lana. As red Force energy surrounds them both Lana’s jaw moves, ever so slightly, and Viri smiles and doubles her effort, calling on the Force to mend and assuage.

Viri uses the Force to pull her first aid kit out of her pack and begins to rifle through it. Oggurobb has ensured that Alliance fighters are always well stocked, and their regulation medical kit has drugs to contend with everything from radiation to infectious disease. Viri quickly finds the remedy she needs. Swallowing hard, she holds the syringe to Lana’s arm and presses down.

Lana’s eyes open almost instantly, and she begins coughing and twitching as the medication begins to work.

”What…Viri, where…” Lana’s eyes dart nervously around the clearing, taking in the train wreckage and the piles of corpses.

“How are you feeling, love?”

”What happened? We were on the train, and Theron…”

”The train crashed,” Viri says flatly. “Theron rigged it. He shot you and knocked you out. Tried to kill us both. I just gave you an anti-chem 5 injection to reverse the stun.”

Lana flexes one hand experimentally. “Seems to be working.”

Viri nods and holds Lana closer. ”I need to call the Gravestone and Fleet and do whatever damage control I can.”

Lana nods and tries to get up. “Understood. I can cover you…”

Viri stops her. “No. Just let the anti-chem work. Stay still.”

“I’m not weak, Viri.”

”Please give it a moment. That stun hit you hard.”

Lana sighs but does not protest further, and Viri holds her close as she reaches for her comlink.

”Commander to Gravestone, I need an extraction.”

”What? Commander? But Theron just sent us to…” Koth’s voice is scratchy on the comlink.

”Theron just sent you where?” Viri asks, willing herself to keep a neutral tone of voice. Next to her, Lana swears under her breath.

”He sent out a code red. Sent us north.”

Viri grits her teeth. “I need you at these coordinates. Not the ones Theron gave you. Second, if any order comes through that is not from me or Lana, you are to ignore it. Theron Shan…is no longer our ally.”

There’s silence on Koth’s end of the comlink for several moments.

”He betrayed the Alliance and just tried to kill Lana and me. I don’t have time to explain now. We need you to get us out of here.”

”We’re turning around immediately, Commander. We’ll be there soon. Do you want a med team on standby?”

“Yes.”

“Hang on, Commander. We’ve got you.”

As the comlink connection cuts and Viri contacts the GEMINI captains, she clenches her teeth. ”Eternal Fleet, all captains, code red alert. Shuttle Aurek-Three is no longer to be considered friendly. Capture if seen; alert if the vessel appears on your scanners. Defense formation. Protect Odessen, Yavin 4, Manaan and Tatooine bases.”

”Understood,” one of the GEMINI captains says. "Shuttle Aurek-Three reclassified as hostile. No sign of the ship thus far.”

Viri taps her comlink again and calls the military hangar on Odessen. “Bey’wan, do you read me? Revoke all access codes and permissions for Theron Shan and put the base on lockdown. Revoke landing clearance for Shuttle Aurek-Three on all Alliance bases and Odessen. Disarm and capture if seen. Please alert all Eternal Alliance outposts that it’s a code red situation and that they are only to accept orders from Lana or myself. I’ve moved the Fleet into defensive stance around Odessen.”

”What’s going on, Commander?” Bey’wan Aygo says, clearly bewildered by the commands.

”We’re in the middle of a battle so I can’t explain fully now, Bey’wan,” Viri says, “But we have an extremely volatile situation on our hands, and Theron Shan has betrayed the Alliance. No, I can’t believe it either, but it appears to be the case. I will brief you as soon as we’re out of imminent danger, but for the moment we need to secure the Alliance as much as possible. Please contact the other departments.”

”Understood, Commander. Be safe.”

Viri exhales and sits back on her heels. “I’ve contacted everyone I can.”

Lana’s eyes travel across the wreckage. Corpses are scattered across the clearing, illuminated by the glow of the Adegan crystal canisters. Above them, the train is a shapeless mass of metal, crushed against the side of the mountain.

”Perhaps we should gather some of the crystals,” Lana says quietly. “Before the Republic finds this mess.”

”Yeah,” Viri agrees listlessly, grabbing a partially intact crate from the wreckage. She and Lana silently move among the dead Umbaran train crew, piling as many crystals into the crate as they can.

”How did I not see this? Was I really that blind?” Lana breaks the silence.

”Lana, stop. Nobody saw this coming.”

“You had reservations about coming to Umbara. You did know.”

“If he’s really been plotting since I took the throne, I didn’t know 99% of it.”

”But I should have known…”

”Maybe if I’d learned to see the future, instead of fearing my gift, I could have foreseen this,” Viri says, biting her lip. “My cowardice cost us.”

“No, you had enough to worry about, it’s my fault!”

”It’s mine!” Viri shouts.

”Stop!” Lana says, raising her own voice. “We’re going to let Theron pit us against each other this way?”

”I’m never against you,” Viri says, shaking her head.

”We’re shouting at each other. We’re arguing.”

”I’m sorry,” Viri says. “My anger isn’t directed toward you.”

”Nor is mine,” Lana says, taking her hand and squeezing it. “Can we agree that there are signs we both missed?”

”Yes,” Viri says, her voice barely audible. “This isn’t any one person’s failing.”

Viri and Lana’s comlinks beep in unison.

“Commander, Lana, are you all right?” Koth sounds panicked on the comm. “Where are you?”

”We’re fine, Koth. We’re still waiting for you at the coordinates I gave. Why?”

”We just passed over your landing site. The escape pod…the entire clearing…they appear to have been bombed. The ground is still on fire.”

Viri blinks in disbelief as she remembers Theron’s words. Where is your ship?

”The Tyuk…” Viri whispers. “He wanted to destroy the Tyuk.”

Lana swears, her voice low and vicious.

”Commander? Lana? You still there?”

”We're here,” Viri says, regaining her composure. “We’re nowhere near the escape pods. We both have our lightsabers out. You should be able to see them.”

”I’m glad,” Koth says. “We have you on the scanners now. We’re very close. ETA five minutes.” Koth pauses. “Can you hold out until then? Are you okay?”

”We will wait here,” Viri says. “We're fine. See you soon.” No sooner are the words out of her mouth than she realizes just how much of a lie they are. No, she’s not fine. Neither is Lana. As they sit together on their crate, leaning into each other, that’s painfully obvious.

Viri closes her eyes and sends a wave of love through their bond, reassuring Lana with her presence. It echoes back to her, making her smile even through her grief.

“How are you doing, Lana?” she asks quietly.”That stun seemed to hit you hard.”

"I don’t even feel it now," Lana says. Viri reaches out to stroke her face, to run her fingers across a new bruise on Lana’s cheek. There’s warmth on her skin as Viri heals her, and then tracks her hand across Lana’s neck and shoulders, seeking out the sore spots to assuage with the Force. Lana turns her head, planting a kiss on Viri's wrist.

“Better?” Viri asks.

”Yes, my love.” Lana smiles slightly and gives Viri another kiss. They sit together quietly for a few minutes.

“Did you ever have any contact with Cipher Nine, Lana?” Viri asks, breaking the silence.

”The Intelligence agent? Never directly. She was gone by the time I was in Sith Intelligence. I just heard about her. Why?” Lana’s brow wrinkles.

”Do you remember her deal? She was conditioned. Brainwashed. Had implants she didn’t even know about; that other people in Intelligence were not aware of.”

”Those files were classified. How do you even know all that?” Lana asks, dumbfounded.

”Wrath perks,” Viri says with a grim smile. “I had access to anything I wanted. So I read as much as I could.”

Lana shrugs. “I don’t blame you. I’d have done the same. Why bring up Cipher Nine now, though?”

”Do you think it’s possible that Theron is being controlled the same way? I want to believe he’s not really doing this, Lana.”

“It’s not beyond possibility, I suppose. He did work in intelligence. It would certainly be a more pleasant scenario than what this appears to be on the surface.”

”I’m still not sure how to process this,” Viri admits. Grief floods the bond.

”You’re mourning the friend we had,” Lana replies. “I am, too. It is as though he died. And perhaps it’s best to think of it that way.” She grabs Viri’s hand as the shadow of the Gravestone looms overhead, and they start on their journey back to Odessen.

*

As soon as they board the Gravestone, Viri snaps back into Commander mode. ”I want as many Gravestone crew members assembled as possible. And please get Bey’wan, Hylo and teams Aurek and Besh on the holo. They need to hear this.”

When the group is gathered on the Gravestone’s bridge, in person or via holo, Viri takes a deep breath.

“You may notice that Theron is not with us. That’s because he betrayed the Alliance. I don’t know why, or how, or how long he’s been a traitor. What I do know is that he tried to kill Lana and me, and that he appears to be working with our enemy. We don’t know where he’s gone.”

Viri’s eyes travel from one shocked face to the next. “Those of you on base, I’m going to need you to activate our emergency protocols. We’re going to need to go through everything – every network, every console, every ship – to ensure that they haven’t been compromised by Theron. We’ll need to inform Empress Acina of this development. If, by any chance, he contacts the base, trace the call or email and get as much information as you possibly can.”

Viri paces restlessly and turns to her crew. “Tora and Koth, I’m going to need you to go through this ship with a fine-toothed comb and ensure that it’s neither bugged nor compromised. Tora, I’m also going to ask you to work with the GEMINI captains to rewrite all the security protocols for the Fleet. I know it’s extra work, but…”

”Don’t even,” says Tora. “This is important. We don’t want that creep in our systems. I’ll get to work right now.”

“Thank you, Tora. We’ll need to have a very long meeting when we’re back to base,” Viri concludes. “I’m shocked. But we’ll deal with it.”

”Wow,” says Koth, as he begins to examine the Gravestone’s systems. “I can’t say I ever thought Theron would turn on us.”

”I don’t think any of us did,” Viri says, shaking her head. “I met Theron so many years ago. I thought he was a friend. I never could have imagined this.”

Lana puts one hand on her shoulder, sending reassurance through the bond. Viri glances at her.

Can I speak for both of us?

Of course.

Viri turns back to the group. ”I’m going to ask that we table any further questions and discussions about this until we get back to Odessen. Lana and I need to rest now. It’s been a very long and trying day, and we’re going to be spending enough time talking about once we get home.”

”Understood, Commander,” Tora says quietly. “Take your time. Four hours to Odessen.”

“Commander, I’m going to reach out to some of my contacts and make sure they’re aware of this development,” Lana says. “I’ll join you in a little while.”

“You know where to find me.” Viri turns and walks away.

*

Lana sits in front of the datapad and bites her lip as she sends an email to Viri. It doesn’t matter that her partner is on the ship with her; it’s still easier, sometimes, to put her thoughts in writing. And she knows very well that Viri keeps her letters; that she tends to read them again and again to comfort herself when they’re apart. She was shocked, once, to discover that Viri had even saved her emails from her days as Darth Arkous’s advisor.

Of course, she has a file of Viri’s emails to her, as well. And they might, just possibly, go back to Viri’s Wrath days. When Viri had been trapped in carbonite, those words had helped Lana keep going.It’s something they cherish; words to keep close. Lana’s hands fly across the datapad. I will destroy the stars themselves if it means keeping you safe.

*

Viri turns on the shower and lets the warm water caress her head. She leans against the wall and stays there, still as a statue. If only it were possible to wash away the last twelve hours; to reset the day. To return to a time when one of her closest friends had not just tried to kill her.

She’s been through betrayal before; even Revan had noted it. None of the previous traitors had been her friend, however. She runs through the list in her head. Malavai Quinn? She’d known he was Darth Baras’s agent from the moment he’d stepped onto her ship. Darth Baras? Oh, please. Anyone could have seen that coming. Darth Malgus? That one had been a shock, and Viri still thought it was a pity that he couldn’t have worked on some of his ideas within the Dark Council, perhaps in concert with Darth Marr. Still, she hadn’t shed any tears when she’d needed to defeat him. Severin? Arkous? Not exactly her best buddies. Senya? She'd never trusted the former Knight.

This, though. This one hurts. A lot.

Visions of the day's horrors make her shiver, even in the hot steam of the shower. It isn’t about the crystals; it isn’t even about the war. It is about Lana, stunned and unable to move, sprawled on the floor of the train car. The terrible image screams in her mind. Lana, unconscious in her arms. Lana, bruises on her face and blood in her hair.

Self-hatred seeps through Viri’s soul, even as Lana’s Force signature pulses on the other side of the shower door.

“Any room for me in there?” Lana’s voice is soft and careful.

”Always.” Viri opens the door and shifts slightly so that Lana can step into the shower stall with her. And before Lana can say anything, Viri turns and wraps her arms around her. The words flow from her in Sith, poignant and laced with pain.

”Lana, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…” Viri chokes on her words and rests her head on Lana’s.

”What are you talking about?!” Lana blinks.

”He shot you,” Viri says. “He shot you right in front of me. You reacted. I didn’t. I was the damn kriffing Empire’s Wrath. I’m the Alliance Commander, Peacekeeper, whatever you want to call me, but I couldn’t stop someone from shooting you.”

”My love, it was a stun,” Lana says, gently. “We’ve both faced far worse than that. I’m fine. I’m right here, aren’t I? He caught us both off-guard.”

What if it wasn’t a stun? What if it had killed you? What good am I if I can’t save you?”

Lana stares at her, stunned. ”I protect you.

”We save each other,” Viri insists.

”It was I who failed you. We wouldn’t have even been on that train if I hadn’t walked right into his trap.” Neither one of them can say Theron’s name.

”We didn’t know. He fooled everyone, Lana. And you have never – ever- failed me.” She takes Lana’s hands in hers and kisses them, one by one. “Neither of us are perfect. It would be boring if we were. You have always been the one who has been there for me, who truly understands…you protect me from myself, even.”

Viri looks deep into Lana’s eyes. “I never knew it was possible to love someone this much.”

”I didn’t, either,” Lana says quietly. “I love you more than I can ever express. It hurts me to feel how much you’re hating yourself right now.”

”As much as it hurts me to feel you blaming yourself,” Viri whispers. “You heal me. I’ll heal you. Do we have a deal?”

”I like that deal,” Lana says softly. The love lashing through their bond is so raw it’s physically painful. They wrap their arms around each other again and let the shower rain down on them.Viri’s red Force healing meshes with Lana’s purple as the tendrils loop around the couple, blending into a vibrant magenta.

"We’re okay. We’re here,” Viri whispers in Sith, as she runs her hands soothingly across Lana’s back.

”We’re together,” Lana says, nuzzling Viri’s chest. She leans back and smiles at Viri, and then picks up the shower gel. Viri closes her eyes as Lana washes her, lathering the soap over every part of her body with gentle hands.

“Your turn,” Viri whispers, and returns the favor. Her hands caress Lana’s skin as they wash her from head to toe. When she’s finished, she hugs Lana to her again.

”We should probably get out of here before we’re completely waterlogged,” Viri says. She turns off the shower and holds her hand out to Lana to help her out of the stall. Wrapped in towels, they walk out into the main room and silently dry off. Just as silently, they both drop their towels and move toward their bed, burrowing under the covers with wet hair and warm skin.

“We’re together,” Viri repeats. She spoons Lana tightly and laces their fingers. Lana snuggles back as much as she can, smiling as she feels Viri against her back.

Chapter Text

Odessen, two days later

Morning

The foreboding crimson ship named The Devastator lands at the Odessen base just after dawn, its red wings glinting malevolently in the early morning sun. It looks almost exactly like a giant bird of prey, and it sends a frisson of unease through every Alliance member who spots it as it glides toward the landing pad reserved for guests.

That’s exactly how Taran Walrez likes it. Other bounty hunters might prefer to hide; to work from less ostentatious or more clandestine vessels. She, on the other hand, refuses to conceal herself. She’s won the Great Hunt; she’s survived everything the Empire, Republic, Hutt Cartel, gangsters and Eternal Empire have thrown at her, she’s only missed one bounty in her entire career, and she’s damned proud of those facts. Let them see her coming, she says. She’ll still destroy them.

The hatch opens and a tall Rattataki woman strides confidently onto the landing pad. Her bright eyes dart from side to side, efficiently appraising her surroundings. Major Pierce approaches her, unsmiling.

“Greetings, Hunter.” There’s no need to ask for her name; she’s already announced herself.

“Good morning,” the woman says. “I have an appointment with the Commander.”

“Passengers?”

”My crew. Mako, Akaavi Spar, Lucinda Walrez, Blizz. I think you know the latter. Several protocol and astromech droids remain on board. Lucinda has an appointment with Lana Beniko.” As Taran speaks, three women and a Jawa disembark from the spacecraft and stand calmly behind her, waiting for instructions.

“Good to see you again, Blizz,” Pierce says, allowing himself a small smile. Blizz waves excitedly.

”Weapons?”

Taran quirks her eyebrow in amusement. “Obviously. I don’t have any concealed bombs, if that’s what you’re asking.”

An Alliance droid sweeps a scanner across each of Taran’s crew members and nods. “They’re clean. Hello again, Blizz!”

Pierce nods. “Follow me, then.”

Taran and her crew nod and follow Pierce into the Alliance base.

*

”Commander? Taran Walrez is here,” Pierce says, knocking on the door of the conference room.

“Come in,” Viri says. She’s seated at the head of the table, her fingers steepled in front of her. Her black robes are stark against her pale skin, and there’s a certain hardness gleaming in her eyes. Jaesa and Vette flank her chair, weapons drawn. “I hope you will understand if my seconds will be listening in.”

”As long as mine are welcome too,” Taran says, nodding to two of her crew members. As she takes a seat across the table from Viri, Mako and Akaavi settle into protective stances on either side of her.

“Big Boss!” Blizz darts into the room, his arms outstretched. “Blizz is so happy to see you again!”

Viri’s glacial expression cracks into a smile as she rises from her chair, kneels next to Blizz, and engulfs him in a hug. “So good to see you again, Little Boss.”

”Blizz is back,” he enthuses. “Blizz has checked on Boss Taran long enough. Blizz thinks you need help here now.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Welcome back,” Viri grins. “Why don’t you tell Hylo? She’s going to be over the moon to see you again.”

”Yes, and Blizz has a present for her…” Blizz scurries down the hallway. Viri beams after him for a long second, but when she sits down again and turns back to Taran, her face is a blank mask.

“As you were saying. Your seconds. They’re welcome. I’m Viridana Dragoi, as I’m sure you know already. My seconds are Vette Revarre and Lord Jaesa.”

”Mako; Akaavi Spar,” Taran says, gesturing to them. “I’m honestly sorry we’re meeting under these circumstances. Lana’s told me a lot about you.”

”Likewise,” Viri says, allowing herself a small frown. “I wish it hadn’t come to this. Lana and I enjoyed your hospitality on Rishi. She’s had nothing but glowing things to say about you and your wife.”

”I’m pleased that you enjoyed yourselves,” Taran says. “After how much Lana went through, seeing you two so blissfully married made us both happy.”

Viri smiles slightly. “Thank you for saving her life. And her hand.”

”The hand was all Lucinda’s doing,” Taran shrugs. “And it was nothing. I appreciate the sentiment, nonetheless. Perhaps after we’re done with today’s negotiations, we can talk as friends.”

”I’d like that,” Viri says. “Let’s get the business out of the way. You’ve seen the blacklist. You know who we’re looking for.”

“Yes, I know your target. Is there a reason you invited me specifically, since you already have Theron Shan’s name on the blacklist? I’m not complaining about being given a leg up; just curious.”

”Lana told me that you’ve only missed one target in your entire career -- her. You won the Great Hunt. You saved Lana’s life when she needed you, and I’m told that your wife saved her hand. I’m giving you the professional courtesy of taking the first shot at Theron. Finding him is going to require learning about the Alliance and how Theron worked with us, and I’m not comfortable furnishing that information to anyone who asks.”

”That’s honest, and fair. Any special requests?”

”I want him alive,” Viri says, narrowing her eyes. “We need to know why he did this and who he’s working with. Do whatever you need to do to keep him alive and able to answer questions.”

”Thanks to the carbonite antidote you’ve supplied us with, that will be possible,” Taran says.

Viri takes a deep breath. “I wouldn’t wish carbonite freezing on anyone. Or at least, anyone who isn’t a bitter enemy. But in this case…”

”In this case you’re not talking about someone who is going to be frozen for five years. I’m also going to be trying to transport him safely, not kill him slowly in carbonite, like those Knights of Zakuul intended for you,” Taran says. “If you’re worried about Theron experiencing the same sort of damage you did, rest your mind. He won’t. I’ve never seen anyone suffer anything more than a sick stomach and a bad headache when they’ve only been in carbonite for a few days.”

”I shouldn’t worry,” Viri says thoughtfully. “But…”

”…but we don’t just shut off our feelings for former friends,” Taran says, smiling slightly. “Understood.”

”It is what it is,” Viri sighs. “I appreciate your help. I think we’ve covered everything here. Lana’s prepared an info pack for you with all of the data we have on Theron.”

”Excellent,” Taran says, rising from the table. “We’ll get to work. Mako here is an expert slicer and data broker. I’ll have her start working with your people. As soon as we have a lead, we’ll be on it.”

“Thank you,” Viri says, nodding to her. “I hope you will enjoy your stay on our base. We have some suites prepared for you, or you’re welcome to stay in your ship.”

”I’ve wanted to see it for a while,” Taran admits. “Work first, but afterward, I’m looking forward to catching up with Lana and you.”

Viri nods and rises from the table; Taran follows suit. “Let me show you around the War Room and military hangar, and you can get to work.”

*

”Lana! It’s so good to see you again.” Lucinda Walrez greets Lana with an embrace outside the War Room. “How’s the hand?”

Lana smiles and raises her right hand for Lucinda to see. “Beautiful. It’s feeling better than ever.”

”There’s nothing a doctor loves more than hearing that her patients are well again,” Lucinda beams. “I’m glad to finally have a chance to visit you. I’m looking forward to meeting your lovely wife, as well.”

”I’ve told her all about you,” Lana smiles. “I took the liberty of letting our own doctors know you’d be visiting. Eckard Lokin is dying to talk with you about your microsurgery background.”

“Lead the way,” Lucinda laughs. “I’ve been curious to see your medical bay setups. I’m told that you’re manufacturing pharmaceuticals here now, too?”

Lana nods. “Biotech. It’s the Commander and Oggurobb’s domain. Mostly used in-house by our own members; provided free of charge to recovering planets. Viri’s a bit obsessed with ensuring the rakghoul plague is eliminated, so we also manufacture that vaccine and help ensure it gets where it’s needed. That goes through T.H.O.R.N.”

“That’s excellent,” Lucinda says. “I’m already looking forward to seeing your labs. Lead on.”

*

Once Taran, Akaavi and Mako have settled in the War Room and are ensconced in their tasks, Viri roams the base. The mood is somber. The activity level is more frenetic than it was during the height of Vaylin’s reign, as every inch of the facility is being examined, scrubbed and reset.

Viri ambles into the military hangar and takes a longing look at her ship. The Tyuk is in dry dock, undergoing extensive security checks and upgrades. Outside, Koth and Tora are leading a team of a hundred technicians to similarly upgrade the Gravestone. The Eternal Fleet hovers protectively above Odessen, already reprogrammed and bolstered.

Viri leans on the railing of the balcony and observes the work in progress. It’s still mid-morning, and she’s already exhausted. Since returning from Umbara, she and Lana have been working tirelessly, clocking eighteen-hour days to attempt to secure the Alliance. Every security system has been stripped, scanned, and is in the process of being replaced. Every comlink has been checked for bugs and re-calibrated. Every access code has been reset. The Alliance's team of slicers and coders has revised every single protocol. Every barrel of kolto, each tablet and every syringe of injectable medication on the base has been poison tested. The Alliance's numerous fields of crops, greenhouses and water towers have similarly been checked, and are under increased surveillance. The vents have been cleaned, sterilized and secured. Odessen's oceans are being monitored every second for possible toxins. Even in Oggurobb's lab, every vial and box of supplies has been scanned and rescanned. Everything that arrives at the base, from fuel to clothing, is sent through an extensive battery of tests for chemical, biological and mechanical hazards.

He will not destroy what we have built. Viri grinds her jaw as she repeats the words to herself.

”Hello, Viri.” There is a shadow next to her as Suvia quietly approaches, resting her elbows on the railing.

”Suvia,” Viri says, surprised. “I didn’t know you were back from Voss. How are you doing?”

”We’re not going to talk about that,” Suvia says, waving her hand dismissively. “It’s over and done.”

“Understood,” Viri says, looking back out at the ships in dry dock. “I assume you’ve heard about Theron.”

”I did,” Suvia says, keeping her own eyes on the activity in the hangar. “Is Lana all right?”

“Physically, yes. Emotionally? Still reeling. Nobody expected it,” Viri says, the words bitter on her tongue. “He…was our friend.”

“It’s interesting, isn’t it? From the time we were on Korriban we’ve seen our peers getting stabbed in the back. We’ve been betrayed by people with sweet words and vicious motives so many times that we should expect it by default. People who don’t mean us harm…still let us down. And yet, every time we’re betrayed again, we’re surprised.”

”You’d think we’d know better, wouldn’t you?” Viri says, grinding her teeth.

”Perhaps it’s because we also want to be surprised by the ones who won’t betray us in the end. If we didn’t, we’d lose all hope.” Suvia looks straight ahead.

”That’s…something I haven’t thought of,” Viri says.

”You should. I’ve told you and Lana what happened with Darth Zash. Did I also tell you that Khem Val threw himself into the ritual to save me? Under the constraints of his Sith alchemy bonds, the death of my spirit would have freed him, and he knew it. He still chose to help me.”

”Lana sacrificed five years to find me,” Viri says quietly. “She prevented me from falling into madness while I was in carbonite. She’s saved my life in so many ways. Body, mind, and soul.”

”Talos spent twenty hours a day researching ways to save me when Force Walking made me ill. The poor man almost never slept.”

”Vette’s always been there for me when I’ve been in despair,” Viri remembers.

”Two Sith lords I know went to various planets, at great expense to themselves, to free me from carbonite,” Suvia says, glancing at Viri with a small grin. “And then gave me a home and purpose when I had none left.”

”A Sith lord I know went out of her way to keep me connected to my love when a member of the Dark Council tried to separate us,” Viri replies, smiling back at Suvia. “And then helped heal me when my mind and body were damaged by Force walking, and allowed me to talk to my parents one more time.”

”And that is why we still trust, in order to receive those most welcome surprises,” Suvia says. “For the ones who are there for us when the rest of the galaxy wants us humbled and dead.”

“Thank you, Suvia,” Viri murmurs.

”It goes without saying, but I’ll articulate it nonetheless: you have my allegiance and friendship. So does this Alliance of yours. Those who stand against you, stand against me. If you need my assistance, you have it.”

”Thank you, Suvia,” Viri says. “The feeling is mutual.”

”I remember when we were both new to our posts,” Suvia says, finally looking at Viri. “I, the young Dark Councillor. You, the brash new Wrath. People were surprised that we got on; that we formed an alliance. And then they were afraid. Let them fear us again if they’ve crossed us.”

”Indeed,” Viri says, smiling. The two women lapse into companionable silence, watching the Alliance military bustle around the hangar.

*
Afternoon

“Lana, we have an unknown ship requesting permission to land,” Bey’wan Aygo says, speaking into his comlink. “They claim they’re…Scions.”

”Scions?” Lana and Viri sit upright at their consoles in the War Room. “What do they want?”

”They claim it is their time to speak to the Commander.”

Lana and Viri stare at each other. What do you think?

Lana shakes her head. I don’t know. If they think fate decrees it, they could try to destroy the entire base.

Viri closes her eyes and concentrates, reaching into the Force. They won’t. We need to talk to them. Let’s just…be very, very cautious.

”The ship is unarmed, Commander, if that helps,” Bey’wan says.

”Let them land, but sweep the ship,” Viri says. “I don’t care if it appears to be unarmed.”

”Copy that,” Bey’wan says.

Lana turns to Viri, studying her face. “What do you think they want?”

”I don’t know,” Viri admits. “I just think we need to hear them out. Do you remember what we were discussing the other day?”

Dragons. The Zakuulan pantheon? Lana raises her eyebrows.

”They’d be knowledgeable about that, wouldn’t they?”

”We have so much to do, Viri,” Lana says, exasperated. “We don’t have time for a religious lesson.”

”We need to make the time,” Viri says resolutely.

Lana sighs. “All right. You’re in charge.”

*

The Scions are already waiting for Lana and Viri when they reach the conference room. There are far fewer of them than Viri remembers from Asylum, and she’s surprised to find that she’s saddened by their lessened numbers.

”You are seeking the others,” one of the Scions says, stepping forward. “Tersu. The rest of the Scions who tested you.”

Viri raises her eyebrow and nods. “Yes.”

”They were killed on Asylum.”

”I’m sorry to hear that,” Viri says, bowing her head.

“Your sympathy is unexpected,” the woman says. “But appreciated. I am Oramis. We are the only remaining Scions.”

“Welcome to Odessen,” Viri says. “I’m surprised to see you here.”

”You should not be. Heskel promised we would return to you when you needed us. The time is now. You are in need of our knowledge. You would know sleeping dragons.”

Viri’s eyes widen. “Yes. If there’s anything you can tell me about dragons…or the Zakuulan gods…I will listen with interest.”

Oramis smiles. “You’ve already killed one. You know them better than you think.”

”What are you talking about?”

”Tyth.”

”The droid on Iokath?” Viri shakes her head. “I know he was named after your god, but…”

”No,” Oramis says. “He was the god. What you called a ‘superweapon’ we knew as the god of rage.”

”You’re telling me…” Viri rubs her head. “Oh, Force.”

”Do not fret. It was your destiny to face him. Just as it is your destiny to face the others. The seven.”

”I thought there were only six.”

”Zildrog is the seventh. The sleeping dragon. The one we fear.”

”And yet, you say I am bound to face him?” Viri’s brow wrinkles. “Where are they? On Iokath?”

Oramis shakes her head. “The five remaining...are scattered in the stars. Zildrog…we do not know where he is. We do know he will seek you out. You are destined to face him. To become a god yourself.”

”Oh no,” Viri says, waving her hands. “I have enough to do as the Alliance commander. I’m not cut out to be a god.”

”It is not your choice. It may destroy you, because organics are not meant to contain that much power,” Oramis shrugs. “Your future is unclear. What is clear is that you will face the remaining six. You may be the Demon Savior. You may not be.”

Viri takes a deep breath. “If Zakuulans hated me before, for killing their Emperor, I don’t want to think about what they’ll feel when I kill all their gods.”

”It does not matter in the end. Zakuul is not your destiny.”

Viri sighs. “I’ve been feeling that.”

”Work with your visions. Not against them,” Oramis says, looking her in the eye. “It is not our intention to remain on Odessen. We will, however, be close by. And we will contact you again, when we have located the next of the gods for you to face.”

”They won’t seek me out?”

”No. It will be up to you to find them before they fall into the wrong hands. In the control of the Empire or the Republic, they will destroy worlds.”

”I..thank you for your help,” Viri stammers.

”It is our destiny to help you,” Oramis says, nodding to the other Scions to leave. “It is yours to listen.”

When the Scions have left the room, Viri exhales and puts her head in her hands.

They knew, Lana.

Apparently so, Lana says, sitting down next to her.

I don’t want to be a god.

You may have no choice, if you want to survive.

My fate is mine to influence, Viri says, her eyes blazing with resolve. There must be a way to stop this.

What was that about a Demon Savior?

I don’t know. I didn’t want to ask.

”We need to speak to Koth and the other Zakuulans,” Lana says, rising from the table. “See what they can tell us about these gods.”

Lana? Viri stays where she is, staring at her hands. Her teeth worry her bottom lip furiously.

Yes?

Promise you’ll stay with me. Even if I ask you to leave.

What?!

Viri shudders. I don’t know. I just feel I need that promise.

Of course I’ll always stay with you, love. Whatever you’re facing here, you will not be alone. You have my word as your advisor, your friend, your wife, your love.

Relief floods through the bond. “Lana…thank you.”

“You’ve made yourself bleed, lover,” Lana says, sitting down and gesturing to the teeth marks on Viri’s bottom lip.

”Kiss it better,” Viri whispers, staring at her.

”Always,” Lana says, sending reassurance and love through the bond. She smiles as the sentiments are echoed back to her, and as her lips close over Viri’s, she pours all of her healing and care into the kiss.

Chapter Text

”…bear a single torch for Nahut, the Hated Son. Gray, formless and cold, he is denied by all but the Mother of Sorrows. Do not follow him into the dark. Light the way to lead him home…” -- Ancient Zakuulan text

Odessen

C2-N2 keeps the caf flowing in the Alliance conference room, and Viri’s most trusted associates take full advantage. They’ve embarked on a crash course in the Old Ways, and after hours of studying the Zakuulan gods there are books, charts and datapads scattered across the vast table, their heads hurt and confusion is setting in.

“Scyva, Nahut, Esne…I think I have all six of them now,” Vette says, rubbing her forehead.

”Seven,” Koth reminds her. “Don’t forget Zildrog, even though he’s not worshipped by anyone other than the Heralds.”

“He’s not worshipped, and yet, so many of their philosophies revolve around him,” Suvia says, perusing the Zakuulan text in front of her. With her mousetrap mind, she’s already fluent in the script.

“Ironic, I know,” Koth says. “And he’s considered an aspect of Izax, which makes it even more confusing.”

”And they like Izax, right, but they don’t like Zildrog?” Jaesa sighs and puts her head down on the table. “I don’t understand.”

”Think of it as two sides of the same credit,” Koth explains. “You like heads, you don’t like tails.”

”Good analogy,” Jaesa nods.

”Although Izax isn’t worshipped the way, say, Scyva is…”

Jaesa puts her head back down on the table and sighs.

”…and then we come to the Demon Savior,” Talos says, perusing a crumbling ancient scroll. “They apparently have the power to vanquish Zildrog and the other gods, and it is their destiny to do so. The Scions believe you to be this individual, correct, Viri?”

“Yes,” Viri says listlessly. “Talos, Suvia, Lana, is there anything that resembles these seven gods or the Demon Savior in our Sith lore? I’ve read much of it, but you three have far more extensive knowledge than I do.”

”No,” Suvia says. “Nothing at all in the literature or lore would suggest that the Sith were influenced by Zakuul, or vice versa, or that there are any common deities. Other than the ‘Immortal Emperor,’ of course.”

”There are only two common threads. The first is the one we all know well: Vitiate was revered as an immortal emperor by both the Sith Empire and Zakuul, and was able to maintain control over both regions for an extended period of time,” Talos interjects. “The second is that the Rakata seem to have visited or influenced both Iokath and the Sith. Some of the architectural elements on Iokath bear marked similarities to what we’ve seen at Rakatan sites. And we’re well aware that the Rakata were on Korriban. The Star Map in Naga Sadow’s tomb and the datacrons scattered across the planet attest to that.”

”The Star Map,” Viri says, leaning forward. “Of course. One of my acolyte tasks was to locate it and take a holo image of something specific on the map.”

”Mine, as well,” Lana says. “At the time I didn’t know what it was. Just that it was obviously not of Sith origin.”

”I had the same assignment, and the same impression,” Suvia says. “It was clearly not Sith, but I couldn’t identify it beyond that.”

”I didn’t know what it was, but I did know who had probably constructed it,” Viri says. “Some of the elements resembled Rakatan ruins I’d seen before. I didn’t let on to Darth Baras, of course.”

Lana raises an eyebrow. They had Rakatan ruins on Corellia?

No. Naboo. Viri sends her a mental image: herself as a young girl, picking her way through an abandoned Rakatan temple. I used to go there when I needed to think.

”Is it still there? Suvia, I know you oversaw restoration on Korriban after the Revanite attack…”

”Naga Sadow’s tomb was undisturbed,” Suvia says. “It was locked down before the Republic began their assault in earnest, and it thus weathered the incursion without suffering any damage, apart from blaster burns on the exterior stones. Talos and I inspected the entire tomb after the Republic forces were expelled from Korriban. The Star Map was intact and functional at that time.”

”And after Zakuul’s attack? Talos, you catalogued everything we found in the vaults, and I remember that we’d spotted some artifacts from Sadow’s tomb…”

”I did catalogue several items that had been looted from Naga Sadow’s tomb, but not the Star Map,” Talos says. “It was neither among the holdings in the vault, nor any of the Zakuulan royal residences we inspected. I’d hypothesize that since it was so deep within the tomb and surrounded by those acid pools, the Zakuulans didn’t bother with it.”

“That would fit Arcann’s methods,” Koth says. “When Zakuul’s forces were invading planets they grabbed what they could get with minimal effort. Something buried in the middle of a tomb with a lot of obstacles in front of it wouldn’t have interested them, especially if there were other things that could be looted more easily.”

Viri exhales. “So it could ostensibly still be on Korriban, exactly where it’s always been.”

”Certainly,” Talos says. “But why would we seek it out now?”

”I think I see where Viri’s going with it. The Rakata would have been contemporaries of the Builders,” Lana says. “If we can unravel some of the Rakatan technology, it might give us some tools to fight effectively.”

”The Eternal Empire and the Infinite Empire sound pretty damn similar, don’t they?” Viri asks, pacing. “Are there any other Star Maps?”

”Several,” Suvia says. “There’s one on Tatooine. Why?”

”I just realized that seeking out the one on Korriban would require us to gain permission from the Empire to land and explore,” Viri says. “Tatooine is neutral territory, and we already have an Alliance base there, so we wouldn’t have the same obstacle. I can’t imagine that Acina would bar us from Korriban, but I’d rather not have anyone know that we’re seeking this artifact.”

”Sound judgment,” Lana says. “But even if we go to Tatooine and don’t need to involve the Empire directly, people will still wonder why you’re wandering around in the desert.”

Suvia folds her hands on the table in front of her. “If you wish, I will be happy to head a mission to Tatooine. Nobody will raise an eyebrow if I’m doing excavations, and there are plenty of valid reasons for an archaeological team to be there. We can document everything we find.”

Viri smiles. “You’re brilliant, Suvia.”

Suvia arches an eyebrow and smiles. “I know. I’ll need Talos, of course, and I’d like to take Jaesa. She was a major help to me on Korriban.”

Jaesa shrugs. “Sure. I’ve been wanting to get back to a dig.”

”Anything you need. Thank you,” Viri says. “Really.”

Suvia waves her hand in the air. “Eh. Stop. I’ll enjoy it.”

”Well, the good news is that with or without this Star Map of yours, you’ll win,” Koth says, perching himself on the edge of the table.

”How do you figure that?” Viri replies, crossing her arms.

”If you really are the Demon Savior, and that seems damn likely, you will win. That’s what the legends say. The Demon Savior kills the gods and leads Zakuul to a new age. That’s destiny.”

Viri rolls her eyes. “Not ‘destiny’ again, Koth…”

”You took down the Immortal Emperor and killed Tyth. There’s nobody else in the lore who kills gods; can reverse immortality,” Koth says, undeterred. “Zakuul has been in a ‘new age’ since Valkorion died. Tyth woke for the first time in hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It’s there, Viri. The Scions believe it, and I’d trust what they say.”

”The Scions said my fate is still unknown!”

”Well, yeah, whether you live or die, that. But not the Demon Savior part.”

Viri puts her head in her hands. “I’d really rather not kill your pantheon, you know.”

Koth shrugs. “I appreciate that. Nobody can fault you for following destiny, though.”

“So you’re saying that I can excuse this to the Zakuulans by saying, ‘look, I’m just doing what your Scions foresaw?’”

”I wouldn’t go that far,” Koth says. “Valkorion was the Demon Savior…”

”No, that’s what he convinced the Zakuulans to believe,” Lana interrupts.

”Just like he convinced the Imperials that he was an immortal emperor,” Koth counters. “Look, he managed to get billions across the galaxy to believe his lies, all right? We get it. Anyway, the point is, the average Zakuulan loved him, but they still revered the gods.”

”Point taken. And if I don’t kill them? If I move the entire Alliance to a quiet corner of the Rishi Maze?” Viri rubs her forehead.

”I’d be up for the adventure, but then you leave the possibility of six more superweapons wreaking havoc on the galaxy,” Lana mentions. “Something about Valkorion’s death - or your presence, if there is anything to this destiny idea - may have triggered them to rise. Once they do, we know that others will attempt to exploit them. Both the Republic and Empire wanted to get their hands on Tyth, and you know damn well they’d both probably have used it. Malcom tried, after all.”

”They’re not stupid. Now that they’ve been to Iokath, they know what that planet is capable of,” Koth says. “And they’ll try to go back.”

”Koth has a point,” Lana says. “Do we really want the Empire or Republic turning giant droids on defenseless planets to bring them in line? We’ve seen Ziost destroyed, Viri. If we walk away…”

”We can’t,” Viri shakes her head sharply and begins to pace. “We didn’t go to all the trouble to save the galaxy from the Eternal Empire just to let it be destroyed.”

”I think our hands are tied, then,” Lana says quietly. Viri sits down, heavy in her chair.

”We’ll all help you,” Vette says. “We’ll be there as part of your strike team. All of us.”

”It’s going to be dangerous,” Viri warns.

”You have to be kidding. You think we don’t know that?” Vette laughs. “We’ll still be there.”

”The texts mention taking power from the gods when they are all dead,” Suvia says. “I’ll work on a way for you to be able to do that safely. Or refuse it, as you wish.”

”Would you refuse it?” Viri asks.

”As I understand the texts at this time, I would,” Suvia says. “This passage concerns me: ’This power is too vast for flesh and blood.’ I personally feel you need to be extremely careful.”

”I respect and trust your assessment,” Viri says. “Let’s research ways to resist it, then.”

”We’ll gather as much information as we can, but we may need to go forward without it, at least for the time being. The most immediate concern, other than finding our traitor, is which god to seek next,” Lana says. “Viri, any thoughts?”

“Nahut will wake soon.”

The room falls completely silent as everyone turns to stare at her.

”What? You asked!” Viri snaps.

”Ignore them,” Suvia says. “Any thoughts as to where?”

Viri closes her eyes. “Biome of water. Aquarius.”

”How are you doing that?” Koth says, looking at her.

Viri opens her eyes and shakes her head. “I have no idea, but I sense that he’s about to wake up. I sense danger. Anger. Hatred. He will know his brother has been killed. I don’t know how.”

”When he wakes, it will only be a matter of time before he’s detected,” Lana says. “We need to get to him before anyone else does.”

”Let’s assemble our strike team, then,” Viri muses. “Koth, I’d like you and Tora in the Gravestone. You’re going to stay outside of Iokath’s orbit, since we know what happens when our ships get too close. We’ll shuttle down to the Alliance base. Suvia, you’re set for Tatooine, along with Talos, Jaesa and anyone else from your department you need. I’ll send Broonmark, Andronikos and Qyzen Fess with you for protection.”

”That will work,” says Suvia.

“Among the rest of those present: Lana, Vette, can I presume you are coming with me?”

”I wouldn’t presume anything else,” Lana laughs. “I think we need some of the Alliance’s strongest combatants. Pierce, certainly. Hexid and Imperius. Xalek. Shae, if she’s willing. T7 and HK-55 for droid support.”

”Pull in Somminick Timmns and Rokuss,” Viri says, deep in thought. “I want someone with a different Force path to join us, since so much of Iokath is imbued with the Force, and we need all the perspectives we can get. And Rokuss, because he is a very strong fighter.”

”Understood,” Lana says. “I’ll assemble the teams and meet you at the hangar in fifteen minutes.”

”It’s a plan,” Viri says, rising from her chair. “Everyone…thank you.”

The members of the core team nod, gathering datapads and books as they depart. Viri is the last to go, scooping the remaining scrolls and tablets into her arms. As she leaves the room, she is surprised to notice Koth in the hallway, leaning against the doorjamb.

”I’ll take those back to the library for you,” Koth says, taking the artifacts from her. “And Viri?”

”Yes?”

”You’ve got this. I know it. If there has to be a Demon Savior, I think you’ll be a good one. I just wanted to tell you that.” Koth smiles and walks down the hallway toward the archives.

*
Gravestone, Hyperspace

Shadow-born and strong, dreaming lucid.
You feel the sun and rise to victory.
Do not despair, little demon.
You are made to burn like the stars
And light your path in passion. – Ancient Sith benediction tattooed on Viri’s shoulder

Viri stares blearily out the window of her cabin. There isn’t much to see in the hyperspace lane - just an endless blue and silver cloud - but there’s something soothing about it.

”Final armor checks are complete; everyone’s good to go,” Lana says, walking into their room.

”We’re good here; I went over our armor pieces twice,” Viri says, turning away from the window. “Please cross-check before we dress, though. I’ve already prepared our anti-rad kits, as well. ”

”Good,” Lana says, setting the alarm on her chrono and removing her robe. “We have twelve hours before we’re at Iokath. I’ll check the armor again just before we arrive. In the meantime, though, I could use a nap. Would you join me?”

”I’d love to,” Viri smiles. She’s already in her pajamas, and as she hops into bed, she pulls the covers back for Lana.

“Come here, mine,” Lana says, drawing Viri into her arms. Her lips meet Viri’s languidly; tenderly; and Viri feels fatigue coursing through their bond.

”We really do need to sleep, don’t we?”

”I’m afraid so, lover,” Lana says, holding her closer. As she plants a sweet kiss on Viri’s shoulder, her eyes travel across the spidery Kittat words tattooed there, and she stops in her tracks.

“’Do not despair, little demon’…” The blood drains from Lana’s face. “Viri…”

Viri sits up and backs away. “No. Oh no, Lana. Don’t go there.”

“But Viri, it’s interesting that this poem speaks to you, and it mentions a demon…”

“You know as well as I do that it’s ancient Sith. Written before Valkorion was even born. It has nothing to do with this.”

”…but the Old Ways, the Builders on Iokath, all of that was before Valkorion, too,” Lana muses.

”Stop,” Viri says, covering her shoulder with one hand and flinching. “Don’t say another word, Lana.”

”I’m sorry. I’ve upset you.”

”Yes, you have,” Viri says, turning away. “This poem…do you know why I got this tattoo? To protect me. After I’d survived Korriban, I wanted something of comfort. Protection. The ink was imbued in the Force. And it was mine, Lana. I don’t want to hate it. I don’t want it…tainted. Can’t you understand that?”

”I didn’t understand,” Lana says. “I do now.”

”I don’t care if it’s a clue,” Viri says, her voice rising in pitch. “I don’t care if it’s a red flag, or an omen, or anything else. It will not be a part of this.”

“Viri, calm down.”

”No!” Viri shouts. “What is there to be calm about? One of the core Alliance members is now trying to kill us all, I’m supposed to be some sort of Demon Savior, I don’t know how to protect any of you from all of this…”

”Viri…”

Viri curls into a ball and rests her head on her knees. “I want a break, Lana.”

Lana sits next to her. “Can I touch you?”

When Viri nods, Lana strokes her back, soothing her. Every muscle is coiled with tension.

“I cannot imagine what this burden is like for you,” Lana says, rubbing her shoulders. “I sense your anguish. Your fear. Your uncertainty. Your anger. And yet, I know it’s only a fraction of what you feel. Of the responsibilities you carry. I want you to know: if you are to be a god, I will not let you be a lonely one. I’ll go with you. Whatever that entails.”

Viri uncurls and stares at her. ”You’d do that?”

”Of course I would,” Lana replies, taking her hands.

”I don’t deserve you,” Viri whispers.

”None of that talk,” Lana says, squeezing her hands. “Don’t be afraid. And as you said, prophecies can be metaphors. It doesn’t mean you’ll literally be a god. But if it does, I’ll be right by your side.”

”When we met, did you ever imagine all…this?”

”I knew you wouldn’t be boring,” Lana says with a smile. “That’s proven true, don’t you think?”

“I love you.”

”I love you too, brat,” Lana says, delighting in the small smile that crosses Viri’s face. “Ah, I got a smile out of you. Progress.”

Viri squeezes her hands again, sending love through the bond. ”Right now…I just want to sleep, Lana. Will you still join me?”

Lana nods. As Viri pulls the covers up around them, Lana’s arm wraps protectively around her waist.

I love it when you hold me, Viri says, snuggling into Lana’s side.

Rest, lover, Lana says, kissing her head. I’m right here.

Gravestone, Over Iokath

”Still scanning,” Tora says. The Gravestone is safely beyond the gravitational pull of Iokath, and Tora is remotely scanning the surface with one of Doctor Oggurobb’s gadgets, searching for water. Behind her chair, Lana and Viri hover close, watching the console screen intently. ”So far, no sign of water. Are you sure that’s what you saw?”

Viri sighs. “Yes. It’s a water biome called Aquarius.”

”What the hell is an ‘Aquarius?’” Tora asks.

”Haven’t a clue,” Viri admits.

”I’m so glad this mission is based on such solid information,” Tora says, rolling her eyes. “In fact…wait. Hang on.”

Lana leans forward. “What do you see, Tora?”

Tora waves a hand. “Shut up for a moment and let me concentrate, would you?! There’s…the scanner’s picking something up that has a different chemical composition than the surrounding environment. Something with…oxygen, hydrogen, sodium, chloride…I think we’ve found water. Shit, look at those radiation levels. They’re rising.”

He’s waking up, Viri says in her mind.

Just as Tyth did, Lana replies.

Tora’s fingers fly across her computer keyboard as the gadget begins to render a map. “Here we are. It’s a vast body of water, just as you said. It’s also chock-full of radiation. I’m seeing higher readings than the land.”

“Ouch,” Viri says, “We’re going to need to get in and out of there as quickly as possible.”

”Oh yes, we’re just killing the giant robot god, we’ll be in and out in ten minutes,” Vette says sardonically. “I concur, however.”

“I want everyone to ensure their radiation monitors are working well,” Viri says, “and that your anti-rad kits are full to capacity. We’re going to take a dose before we even touch down.”

”Where can we land, Tora?”

”Hang on…” Tora types in some coordinates. “No. Here. It looks like there’s a flat area where you can land the shuttle just outside of the biome.”

”Strike Team Aurek, standby,” Viri says. “Take an anti-rad dose and report to the shuttle.”

Lana administers her own anti-rad dose and tosses a second injector to Viri. “I’m setting the chrono. Just looking at the numbers on Tora’s screen, we’re going to need to re-dose every half hour.”

”Understood,” Viri says, her eyes fixed to the screen. In the back of her mind, she feels Nahut as he wakes; unfurling; tendrils of malevolent power spreading toward her; and she shivers.

Nahut? Lana searches her face.

He is nearly awake. And he is angry. So angry, Lana.

We’ve got this, Lana says, sending reassurance through the bond. He won’t be angry for long.

Iokath, Aquarius Biome

The Alliance shuttle flies Viri, Lana, Vette, HK-55, T7-O1, Rokuss, Shae, Jia and Darth Hexid to the edge of Aquarius Biome.

”Scanning,” Lana says, sweeping a probe across the flat, mossy expanse they’ve identified as a landing zone. “All clear. There’s solid ground underneath. No doors or seams.”

”Set her down,” Tora says over the comlink. “Koth and I will keep the Gravestone directly overhead, and we’ll monitor your shuttle from here. Please haul ass before you all glow in the dark, ‘k?”

”Understood,” Viri says, surveying the area. The structures surrounding them might be metal, they might be stone; it’s impossible to discern which under the layers of moss and overgrown shrubbery. Live trees jut through cracks in the floors; pieces of branches and dead, rotting wood are scattered through the area.

”I suppose this is where the ‘organics’ lived?” Vette whispers, looking around. “This is creepier than the necropolis was. So much life, and nobody here…”

”It looks like it could have been a residential area,” Somminick muses. “I’m ill at ease here, as well. I think that as Tora so indelicately suggested, ‘hauling ass’ and getting out of here as soon as possible would be prudent.”

Viri consults the maps that Tora has loaded onto the datapads. “The entrance to Aquarius should be in this direction.” Nahut’s presence is pulling at her and directing her as much as the map; as she leads the team through the buildings and climbs a set of stairs to the top of a structure, his signature pulses in her ears.

”It should be just across…shit.” Viri stops short, grimacing. At the edge of the roof, she finds herself staring down into a deep ravine. On the other side, there is a corroded metal doorway with one word: Aquarius.

”Well, we can’t go this way,” Viri mutters. “Tora! Can you find us another route?”

Tora growls on the comlink. “Yeah, I see what you mean, ouch. Unfortunately…that ravine goes all the way around. Except for…yeah. It would take you a while to walk to the other side.”

”We don’t have a while, Tora,” Lana says impatiently. “We have to do this quickly.”

”Make a bridge, or use the Force or something,” Tora suggests. “And do that instead of arguing with me.”

Somminick scans the rooftop. “Look. That beam, there…looks like it might be long enough to bridge the gap. Let’s find out.” Lana, Viri, Xalek, Jia and Hexid help Somminick lift the heavy cortosis beam and carefully place it across the chasm.

“I’ll test it,” Viri says, stepping onto the beam and starting across. Lana’s breath catches in her throat, and she does not exhale until Viri has reached the other side. When she does, she crouches down, putting her full weight on the end of the beam. “It’s embedded in the mud, but I’m going to help hold it down anyway.”

”Here, let’s secure that,” Shae says, flying across the ravine with her jetpack. She draws a harpoon rifle from her arsenal and fires several shots through the end of the beam, pinning it to the ground.

”All right, it’s safer now, come across,” Viri yells. She and Shae still anchor the end of the beam with their bodies. “My Force users, be alert. If Force forbid anyone slips and falls we’re going to need to grab them, and I’d like several of us ready to act.”

”Understood,” Somminick says, gingerly stepping toward the beam.

“If you want me to fly you over here, don’t hesitate, just ask,” Viri shouts across the ravine. “No judgment. I’d rather help you get across than have you fall. T7, can I float you? The rough spots on the beam look like they might catch on your wheels.”

”T7 = glad to accept help,” the droid chirps. Viri pulls T7-O1 to her side.

”Yes. Please,” Vette says, raising her hand. Viri nods and floats her across the ravine. Three more of the Alliance team members follow. Jia, HK, Pierce and Darth Hexid walk across on their own volition, and Lana brings up the rear. Viri and Vette cover her, their weapons drawn.

Lana walks slowly, her head down. As she steps out across the precipice, sheer terror surges through the bond.

Lana?

You know how I am, Viri. It’s nothing. Lana’s voice is shaky even in her mind as fear swirls through her Force signature.

“Lana, you need to move faster.” Shae says.

”She needs to be careful,” Vette says. “One wrong step and…”

”Why don’t we just let her walk at the pace she prefers?” Somminick says. “I’m sure Lana knows what she’s doing, and we don’t want to distract her.”

Can I help you? Viri stares helplessly at Lana as she inches her way across the beam.

Don’t even think of floating me, Viri. I mean it.

I promise I won’t. Nobody else will know.

…help me.

Viri reaches out with the Force to place phantom hands on Lana’s shoulders and waist, gently supporting her and steadying her on the beam. I’ve got you. I promise, I won’t let you fall.

Lana keeps moving, but fright keeps spiking through the bond. The wind picks up slightly, and as the beam sways, Viri tightens her Force holds on Lana, reassuring her.

You have about ten more steps, love, Viri silently says. That’s the way. Six. Good, keep going. Five. Four. Three. Almost there.

When Lana finally reaches the other side of the ravine, relief floods through the bond. She takes a deep breath before looking up at Viri.

Thank you.

I’ve got you, love, Viri say, locking eyes with her. Always. Are you all right?

I’m fine now, Lana says, and joins the rest of Viri’s team. Jia slashes the rusty door open, and they continue into Aquarius Biome.

*

Aquarius Biome is a vast lake, teeming with radiation and rusted pieces of metal. It’s clear that nothing could survive in the water, and as Team Aurek picks their way carefully around the shore, they take great pains to stay as far away as possible.

Viri can hear him. Every breath. Every movement. He is creeping. As they continue through Aquarius, Nahut is a beacon. Her steps quicken as they circle the lake, veering toward a large building.

"He's not in the lake, is he?" Vette says, eyeing the water. "I'd prefer to avoid taking a swim."

”No. He is in there,” Viri says, pointing at the building. “The lake is here to keep him from getting out. But he is so full of rage, so seething with hatred, that it may not stop him this time.”

”You said Tyth fed on anger. Do you think Nahut will feed on hatred?” Jia asks.

”I would count on it,” Viri says.

”We could either avoid hatred, or try to overwhelm him,” Lana says. “I personally think the latter might be most effective.”

”So do I,” Viri says, beginning to channel.

”Hang on, what do we need to do?” Vette says, stopping. “Remember, not all of us know how to do…whatever you’re doing that’s making you glow like that, Viri.”

Viri takes a deep breath. “Think of something you hate, Vette. Or intensely dislike. Feel it down to your bones.”

”Anything?”

”Whatever can provoke a strong emotional response,” Lana hisses, beginning to glow purple.

”The Hutt who killed my mother. Slavers. Valkorion,” Vette whispers, closing her eyes. “Darth Baras.”

”I’ve got mine,” Pierce mutters, gritting his teeth.

”I’m not sure I am on board with this,” Somminick says, looking around. “Emotion is…oh, the hell with it. Here we go.”

”I’m ready,” Rokuss says, growling.

”Follow me,” Viri seethes, her eyes aglow. As she turns to lead the group into the building, however, an ear-splitting crash shakes the biome.

”Team Aurek, he’s coming to us,” Viri says, drawing her lightsaber.

He knows you’re here, Lana says, brandishing her saber.

Yes.

”Killer of Tyth!” The words reverberate through the biome, shaking the ground and creating waves across the lake. “You dare to come here!”

”Show yourself,” Viri hisses, her voice the Wrath’s.

”I will destroy you!” The walls crumble, and through the dust and debris, a gargantuan droid roars onto the shore.

In the moments before she springs into action, Viri quickly assesses her adversary. Larger than Tyth. More vicious. Less guarded. Nahut lunges at her and she leaps, dodging his blows. Laser blasts cut through the air as Nahut unleashes weapons from his arsenal.

”Jia, Hexid, left!” Viri says, as she and Lana run to the right. Shae takes to the air, pummeling the droid with grenades. “Channel! We need to get him…”

Into the lake. Viri lowers her weapon and stands stock-still.

Viri?? MOVE! Lana grabs her arm and pulls her along.

”My Force users! Channel and push! Everyone else, blast him now with everything you’ve got!” Viri says, extending her arms. Their combined efforts shove Nahut backward, and a second push hurls him into the center of the lake.

”You--will--rue this day!” Nahut howls as the radioactive lake melts him. Noxious steam rises from the water, and Viri and the others rear back, covering their noses and mouths. Within a few minutes, the water is still.

Viri stands at the edge of the lake, breathing hard.

”We did it,” Jia gasps. “Thank the Force.”

”We need to get out of here, now,” Viri says. The lake is turning bright green, and bubbles are beginning to form on the surface. “Nahut’s…remains…are poisoning the waters. Even more than they already are.”

”Shuttle Aurek One, we need an extraction,” Lana says into her comlink.

The Alliance shuttle, flying on automatic, appears in the sky a moment later. Team Aurek boards as quickly as they can; Lana and Viri float T7 and Rokuss up to the ship to hasten their departure. As the shuttle speeds away from the surface of Iokath, Aquarius Biome explodes behind them.

Viri sighs as Nahut’s final death shakes through her soul. “He’s dead. We don’t need to worry about scrap. There…isn’t any.”

”Congratulations,” Vette says. “Two down.”

”Yes,” Viri says, slumping back in her chair, suddenly exhausted. Lana sits down next to her, drawing Viri’s head to her shoulder, as the shuttle speeds back toward the Gravestone.

It…did something to you.

I felt him die, Viri says, closing her eyes.

Only five left, Lana says, stroking her hair. Two down. Five to go. We can do it.

I hope so, Viri says, biting her lip. The shuttle careens out of Iokath’s atmosphere, back to the welcome safety of space.

Chapter Text

"…Burn all doubt in the fires of Aivela, our goddess of passion. The Favored Daughter stands beside her brother Tyth on every battlefield, radiating grace to the fearless…"

“Beware the shadows of Esne, goddess of envy and twin of Aivela. Forever eclipsed by her sister’s incandescence, she will use her venomous tongue to test the faithful and cull the weak…” -- Ancient Zakuulan sacred texts

*

Alliance Shuttle Aurek One, Hyperspace, One Week Later

”Concentrate, Vette,” Viri says, frowning. “Strengthen your wall.”

”I’m trying,” Vette says, rubbing her forehead. “I don’t have the Force. Would you remember that, Viri?!”

”I know you don’t,” Viri says, “But we need to ensure you can resist it.”

”I survived Oricon and Ziost, have you forgotten that?” Vette scowls, crossing her arms.

”Both of those were quite some time ago,” Viri counters. “It’s always good to refresh one’s memory. Please, Vette. I…I want to make sure you’ll be safe.”

Vette’s expression softens. “I get it.”

”Then let’s try again.”

On the other side of the shuttle, Lana and Jaesa are working together, testing their own resistance to Force influence. There is less than an hour before the shuttle arrives on Oricon, and they are using every minute.

”What do you expect to find on Oricon, Lana?” Jaesa says, leaning back against the wall and wiping the sweat from her forehead. “The Dread Masters are dead. I helped Viri take them down. We located and destroyed the Dread Seeds. I doubt the same kind of madness exists there anymore.”

”You know as well as I do that the Force lingers after the source perishes,” Lana says. “We don’t know what it’s like there now and given what we’ve seen elsewhere - Nathema, Ziost - it can’t hurt to be careful.”

”Let’s switch,” Viri calls across the room. “Jae, Vette, work with each other for a while, so Lana and I can meditate.”

”On it,” Jae says, rising to cross the shuttle floor. “Here I come, Vette…”

Vette groans. “Please don’t send me gruesome images this time?”

”Work harder to keep them out of your mind, and you won’t see them,” Jaesa responds, grinning. “Think of it as an incentive.”

”You Force users…” Vette says, shaking her head. “It’s a good thing I love you three.”

”We love you too, Vette,” Jaesa says, sitting down next to her. “Let’s help keep you safe.”

”Fine, fine,” Vette grouses, steeling herself and closing her eyes again.

Across the room, Viri and Lana have settled into meditation stances and joined hands. As they close their eyes, they open their minds and dive into their bond. The meditation and union are easy now. Almost effortless. They touch foreheads as their shared trance deepens, and the vicious lava rivers of Oricon come into view.

They sleep beneath.

In her trance, Viri gasps. Her feet are moving of their own volition, scraping along the stone path toward the Dread Watchtower.

It can’t be here. I cleaned this place out.

They. Sleep. Beneath.

Trust the vision. Lana squeezes Viri’s hands, reminding her.

Yes. Trust the vision. Show me where.

You know where to go. Viri nods and begins to walk deeper into the Watchtower. Lana follows, silently observing the vision.

…”we’re getting close.” Lana’s eyes snap open as Jaesa taps her gently on the shoulder. “Can you wake her up?”

Lana nods and taps into the bond again, pulling Viri back toward consciousness. “Viri, nwul.

Viri’s eyes open slowly. “What?”

”We’re almost to Oricon.”

Viri swallows hard. “Understood. Do we still have time for the protection ritual?”

”Yes,” Lana says, beckoning Vette and Jaesa to sit with them. “Let’s do that now.”

*

Oricon, former Imperial camp

The strike team that lands on the surface of Oricon is small by necessity: Viri has only taken those who have previously resisted massive Force influence. As the hatch opens, she grimly surveys her small group. They’ve all endured the impossible and improbable: Vette and Jaesa, who both successfully resisted Vitiate's possession on the surface of Ziost and the Dread Masters’ madness on Oricon. Lana, who resisted Vitiate on Ziost for an extended period of time and survived their visit to the sanitarium on Nathema. Viri herself, who survived Nathema, Ziost and Oricon. HK-55, who is not susceptible to such influence at all, brings up the rear.

“Commander, we’re going to stay out of Oricon’s orbit, because of the space debris,” Koth says over the comlink. “We’re still monitoring you from Shuttle Cresh, just outside orbit.”

”Thanks,” Viri says. “We’ll check in every half hour. If we don’t, send in the recovery droids.”

Viri shivers as she surveys the scene before her. As she had anticipated, even without the Dread Masters’ presence, echoes of fear and dread are pervasive on the surface of Oricon. The former Imperial strike team camp has been completely abandoned, and only a few decrepit tents and corroded speeders remain.

”I don’t blame them for leaving this camp,” Jaesa says, eyeing a shattered computer on the ground. “There’s no reason to want to hold this moon.”

”I doubt any camp here would last long,” Lana says. She’s seen Oricon in her dreams - and Viri’s visions - often enough that there’s an odd familiarity. Still, as she takes in the lakes of lava and starship detritus, a shiver runs down her spine.

Okay? Viri asks, catching the frisson through their bond.

Yes, Lana nods, looking around again. It’s just that…as horrible as I knew Oricon was going to be, the reality has far surpassed my expectations.

Yes, Viri says. After Nathema, this is the worst place I’ve ever been.

Let’s not linger here.

No. Let’s not. Viri clears her throat and activates her datapad, projecting a holo-map into the dim air. A red circle marks the Imperial camp. “We should all have this map on our datapads. We’re here. The Watchtower isn’t far, but we’ll need to walk. There were paths before. I’m hoping it won’t be too treacherous.”

”It’s always treacherous. We know that, Viri,” Jaesa sighs. “Vette? Any luck on the scans?”

Vette looks up from her own datapad. “I’m not picking up on any frequencies that would suggest activated droids. Nor am I detecting any organic life signs.”

”We can’t pick up the dead on the scanners,” Viri says. “So let’s not take that for granted.”

”You just had to make this world even creepier, didn’t you?” Vette scowls. “Thank you ever so much for that thought, Viri.”

”The sooner we get moving, the sooner we can finish our task and leave,” Lana says. “Viri, you know where we need to go. Guide us.”

Viri nods grimly and taps into the Force, letting it lead her toward the Watchtower.

*

The lava rivers cast red shadows on the members of the strike team as they carefully navigate the volcanic stone path toward the Dread Watchtower. Viri is quiet as she leads the way, steering the team around empty escape pods, half-melted and submerged in the lava, and destroyed terraforming rigs. The heat is oppressive, and within a few minutes, sweat is pooling on everyone’s foreheads.

”Was it this hot last time?” Vette says, wiping perspiration out of her eyes.

Viri nods. “I think so. But I’ve blocked a lot of it out.”

”Don’t blame you,” Jaesa says. “This place scared even me.”

Viri stops in her tracks and takes a deep breath. “They know we’re here. Something…the air, the ground, the lava…it’s all responding to them as they wake.”

”So the ‘kill them in their sleep’ plan is apparently out?” Jaesa sighs.

“I don’t think that was ever an option,” Viri says, shuddering. “They sense my presence. They know I killed their brothers. We need to get to them. Quickly. Alive on Oricon, with all of the Dread Masters’ remaining tech…I don’t want to think about it.”

”The Dread Masters employed Gree and Rakata technology and Sith alchemy, and they worked for centuries for Vitiate,” Lana muses. “I’d imagine that whatever is left is still capable of annihilating us, with or without the Dread Masters.”

The Watchtower steps loom before them, and Viri shudders again. She senses Esne and Aivela turning in their sleep, waking slowly, seeking her out, and her heart begins to pound. She stops and puts her hands to her head.

The god of passion.

The god of envy.

Through passion I gain strength. You will not take that.

Fight, Viri! Lana’s voice breaks through the mist in her mind.

”The last time I was here, the Dread Masters wanted me to join them,” Viri says slowly. “They thought I could handle their…terror. They were impressed I could resist their fear projections.”

”What’s happening, Viri?” Lana says, her voice low. “Talk to us.”

”It’s…” Viri stutters.

You will take their power. Or you will die. Only a blood sacrifice suffices.

Viri screams, sinking to her knees, as she feels Esne and Aivela open their eyes.

”They’re awake,” Viri cries out. “We need to move. Quickly. Before they…arrrgh…”

Share this power with us, sister. Join us. The Dread Masters, you declined. Will you decline us?

Lana puts one hand on her shoulder, grounding her. Viri’s Force signature is crackling with unrest.

”They want me to join them,” Viri whispers, shaking.

”Oh, we should have expected that,” Vette says quietly. “The Dread Masters were on a recruitment drive with Viri too…”

Viri grits her teeth and pushes back against the gods. I am not here to join you.

A pity. Then the stones of Oricon will run with your blood.

”Move,” Viri says, suddenly noticing new bubbles in the nearby lava pit. “Get away from the lava.”

”Viri, what--”

”Move!” Viri shouts, using the Force to shove the rest of the strike team out of the way of a lava wave.

Lana goes pale as she picks herself up from the ground. “They can affect anything in this environment, can’t they?”

Viri nods furiously. “Yes. Stay away from the lava, keep clear of the wrecks! Follow me!”

The team sprints up the Watchtower steps, dodging lava waves and flying debris. As they reach the first landing, the building begins to shake.

”They’ll pull it down on top of us!” Lana says, running toward the plaza in the center of the tower. A stone wall suddenly implodes, almost striking Jaesa.

“How…” Vette pants, as they run. “We can’t fight the entire damn moon! Viri, where are they?!”

”Oh, they’re coming to us,” Viri says, nodding toward the rubble. Two gigantic metallic hands are scrabbling in the debris, flinging rocks and twisted pieces of metal out of the way. On the other side of the remains of the tower, another set of hands has emerged from the piles of stone.

”Killer of Nahut. Killer of Tyth. You will not kill us.” The giant droids rise from the detritus, their eyes flashing.

”But we will,” Viri replies, her jaw clenching as she draws her lightsaber. “Let’s go.”

Esne throws back her head and laughs. “A lightsaber. Do you see, sister?”

”It’s so pathetic, it’s almost amusing,” Aivela replies, throwing Viri into the wall. She recovers almost instantly, springing back at the goddesses, but they easily deflect every attack.

”A sabrestaff. Blasters. Not even Force sensitive, that one,” Esne sneers, flicking Vette away from her.

Viri frantically surveys the remains of the tower, searching for another weapon.

”Looking for help, little Sith? I don’t think you will find it,” Aivela purrs. With a flick of her fingers the ground opens and a vicious pool of lava appears, separating Lana and Jaesa from Viri and Vette.

”Son of a…” Distracted by the lava, Jaesa does not see a durasteel cage hurtling at her until she is trapped. Electricity fills the cage, rendering her unconscious.

”One…” Aivela sneers.

Lana rushes to her side, trying to open the lock, and again, the distraction is enough to trap her.

”…and two,” Aivela continues.

Viri’s blood runs cold, and she makes a run for the other side of the pit, only to be driven back by a wave of lava. Behind her Vette gasps as she is trapped in another cage.

”…and three,” Esne laughs as the door swings shut.

“No!” Viri shouts. HK-55 continues firing at the twins, only to see his blaster shots ricochet off their armor.

Viri don’t get distracted I’m fine I promise I… Lana is able to deflect the electricity, but screams as terror takes over her mind. In the next moment she has shaken it off.

Esne’s smile is glacial. “Your lover, trapped. Your friends, trapped. They are skilled, but soon they will not be able to fight the fear that lives here. We don’t even need to bother with your droid. He will melt in the heat soon; no threat to us. And you…not resisting so well, are you?”

Do not resist it. Use it. The realization dawns, clear and cold, and Viri’s face lights up. As she raises both hands, she channels every bit of terror she can muster. She knows just what to do; she’s certainly seen the Dread Masters do it several times:

Fear.” It isn’t a statement; it is a command, and the word is a malevolent hiss on Viri’s lips.

It’s easier than she anticipated; it’s so difficult that jagged shards of pain lance through her skull as she projects. It’s appealing, and this scares Viri most of all.

Use the fear, Viri reminds herself, pushing harder. Every bit of horror she can find in her mind; every doubt; every fear, is channeled through her hands toward Esne and Aivela. The twins drop to their knees, wailing.

Viri smiles as her eyes flick to the adjacent pool of lava, and before the sisters can react, a wave is crashing over them. And then a second, and a third, until there is nothing but a pile of liquid metal on the stone floor. Another wave of power melts the locks on the cages holding Jaesa, Vette and Lana.

Get it away from you. Now. You cannot hold this. You do not want it. Let it go. Viri gulps and focuses on the lava, feeding all of her remaining terror into the churning pool. She drops to her knees, her head bowed, breathing hard.

”Statement: Well done, master,” HK-55 says. “Can I assist you?”

”See that the others are all right,” Viri says. She doesn’t dare to look up. Doesn’t want to think of them. It’s too dangerous. The power that is still crackling through her synapses demands all focus, and her nerves are singed with deep pain. Go. You are no longer needed.

”…just like old times, isn’t it? You and me, against the world…you being scary, as usual…that was quite a show.” Vette tentatively kneels next to Viri.

”Are you all right?” Viri asks, her voice low, her head still bowed. “Lana? Jae?”

”Yes, everyone’s fine. Lana’s still getting Jaesa out of the cage, but she’s all right. Are you?

Viri takes another deep breath, channeling the dark energy that still swirls around her. “Give me a minute, and I’ll be okay.”

Vette rises and backs away. “Understood.”

Viri centers into the Force, distilling her remaining fear and rage into a healing field. Without looking up, she directs it toward Lana’s Force signature, and then toward Jaesa’s and Vette’s, willing their injuries to heal. It does nothing to absorb her own pain, and she balls both hands into tight fists to avoid screaming.

”…shit, that hurt.” Jaesa’s voice is raspy as she comes to. “What did I miss?”

”Viri killed the terrible two,” Vette says, rushing to help her up. “She’s still…doing whatever that is…to come down from it.”

”Cover us,” Lana says, brushing the dust off her trousers and walking toward Viri. Viri’s eyes flick nervously toward her, and then away, as Lana puts one hand on her back. Viri’s anger and self-hatred flow through the bond.

”Viri?”

”…and once again, I couldn’t protect you.” Viri bites down on her lower lip, ignoring the thin trickle of blood that runs down her chin.

”I’m here, perfectly lucid, instead of writhing in a puddle of terror at the bottom of that cage. I’d say you protected me perfectly well.”

”They got you into that cage. I should have stopped it.”

”You got me out. The results are what matter.” Lana reaches for Viri’s hand, threading their fingers together. “Just hold on until it passes. I know it hurts. I’m here. Breathe.”

Viri closes her eyes and nods, letting Lana’s calm presence soothe her as the last of the power channels away.

”I think we need to get off this moon now,” Jaesa says, wrapping her arms around herself.

”Yes,” Viri says, finally standing. She does not let go of Lana’s hand. “None of us should be here anymore. We did what we needed to do.”

”Are you sure everything is gone?” Lana asks gently. “I don’t want to stay either, but…”

Viri closes her eyes and concentrates. “Yes. The last of Oricon’s terror is gone.”

”I’ll call the shuttle then,” Lana says, accessing her comlink.

*

Alliance Shuttle Aurek flies Viri and her strike team to Shuttle Cresh, just outside Oricon’s orbit. When they alight from the docking bay and trudge into the heart of the spacecraft, Tora lets out a low whistle.

”You all look like shit. Like you’ve just come from a funeral.” Tora’s words dry up on her tongue when Viri raises a hand and shakes her head.

”Tora, not today.”

”Got it,” Tora says. “We, um, do have dinner for you whenever you’re hungry. Otherwise, maybe some rest would help.”

”Yeah,” Viri says, turning to her team. In the light of the docking bay, her bloodshot eyes are nearly purple.

”I think we should all sleep this off,” Viri says. “We’ll reconvene in the morning. Thank you. All of you.”

”We’re here for you, Viri,” Vette says, giving her a hug. “Thank you for saving us.”

”We all saved each other,” Viri says, returning the hug. Jaesa opens her arms, and Viri embraces her, too.

”We’ve got you, Viri. You did well. Get some rest,” Jaesa says, and she and Vette turn and amble toward their quarters.

Viri and Lana silently walk back to their cabin. As soon as the door closes and locks they begin shedding their armor, just as silently. Not a word is spoken as they shuffle into the fresher, turn on the shower, and step inside together. It is only when steam is rising, they have scrubbed away the grime of Oricon and the warm water has soothed their aching muscles, that Lana ventures to speak.

”I know why you’re so upset, you know. I felt it. For just a second…you liked having that power. And that scared the hell out of you.”

Viri looks at her, distraught. “I’m a terrible person, aren’t I?”

”No. You’re a human. It was intoxicating. I felt that through the bond, too.”

Viri hugs herself. “I can’t become a monster, Lana, I can’t…”

”A monster would have joined Esne and Aivela. A monster would have joined the Dread Masters when they extended the invitation. A monster would not have pushed that power away, as hard as she could, even though it was physically agonizing. You are not a monster. You are my love, and I’m so proud of you.”

Lana wraps her arms around Viri, holding her close as she shakes.

“Thank you for being there,” Viri whispers, her voice muffled against Lana’s hair.

”There’s no way I wouldn’t be, my Veré,” Lana murmurs, stroking her back and shoulders. “Let’s go to bed.”

Lana turns off the shower and pulls two towels from the rack, handing one to Viri. Once she is dry, she takes Viri’s hand again and leads her to bed. As she wraps her arms around Viri, she’s shocked by the despair still coursing through their bond.

“Are we green?” Lana asks, pulling back.

”Yes. Please keep holding me. I’m just still…” Viri trembles and bites her lip again.

”What would make you stop worrying?” Lana asks, stroking her cheek.

”You,” Viri says, her voice barely audible. “Kiss me and don’t stop.”

Lana smiles, draws Viri more snugly into her arms and kisses her deeply and thoroughly, again and again and again, until despair dissolves and there is only joy.

*

Odessen, Intelligence Division

The Alliance’s security and intelligence setups are top-notch, Mako has to admit. Incorporating Imperial, Republic and Zakuulan technology, there are tools on the consoles that she’s never seen before - and she’s seen almost everything. All the same, in the weeks she and Taran Walrez have been tracking their latest bounty target, all the technology in the galaxy hasn’t helped.

Mako grinds her teeth as yet another possibility turns up short. They’ve cast a wide net, but not a single soul on any planet they’ve scrutinized has seen Theron Shan. They’ve checked Republic worlds. Imperial ones. The burned-out husk of Ziost. Nathema. All of the old hiding places Lana Beniko had outlined from their previous time as fugitives. They’ve found nothing.

Mako’s private holo-communicator begins to blink, and she frowns as she looks at the return frequency.

”Taran,” she asks, calling across the room, “Do we know anyone on Copero?”

Taran looks up from her own console and shakes her head. “No. But pick it up. I’m curious.”

Mako activates the holo, and the grainy image of a tall Chiss man comes into view. “Greetings. I’ve been advised that this is the contact holo for Taran Walrez. May I speak to her?”

”This is she,” Taran says, wandering into the frame. “Yes?”

”I’m Aristocra Saganu, and I’m calling from the Chiss Expansionary Defense Forces,” the man says. “The Ascendancy has a slight problem on Copero that may require your special touch.”

”I’m sorry, I’m not taking on new clients at the moment,” Taran says, crossing her arms.

”I’m aware you are otherwise occupied,” Saganu says. “I will not seek to violate your discretion, but I might surmise that a hunter of your caliber might be pursuing the bounty on Theron Shan’s head. If that is correct, and you and the Alliance Commander agree to help us, I may be able to offer you a tangible lead. Consider it an incentive to taking our bounty contract.”

Taran leans forward. “The Commander will have the final say in any decision. If you have something you think she’ll entertain, tell me more.”

Chapter Text

Viri in Copero

Alliance Shuttle Cresh, en route to Odessen

The sun filters through the trees and casts intricate patterns across the courtyard. The food vendors have gone into hiding, leaving vegetables roasting on their stoves. The patrons have all fled, and their meals remain uneaten on the plates on the tables. Viri spots a man cowering under the counter, catches his eye, and shakes her head. I’m not here for you.

Her lightsaber is in her hand, at the ready, and the adrenaline surging through her veins tells her she is here for someone. She secrets herself behind a column in the plaza, waiting, and her hand touches the cool Naboo marble of the building, and…

No. Not there. Never there. Not Nab---

“No!” Viri flails, kicking the blankets away from her and summoning her lightsaber. Lana is awake immediately, and grabs Viri’s wrist before she can ignite the blade.

”Viri, nwul! It’s all right,” Lana says, keeping her tone as soothing as possible. “You do not need your lightsaber right now. You are on board the shuttle, in your cabin, in your own bed with your wife. You’re safe.”

”Never safe…” Viri gasps. Her distress surges through the bond as she shivers, but she drops her lightsaber to the bed. Lana quickly stows the weapon in its hiding place under the pillows and takes Viri in her arms, rubbing her back.

”Shhhh,” Lana says, hugging her tight. “Anyone who wants to get at you will have to come through me.”

Viri says nothing, but Lana feels her agitation lessen.

“Good,” Lana says, continuing to rub her back. “Are you here, Viri?”

”I think so,” Viri’s voice is faint.

”Let’s be sure. Can you tell me your name?”

”Viri-Viridana Revarre Dragoi.”

”Where are we right now?”

”In our cabin. In hyperspace,” Viri bites her lip, sending a thin trickle of blood down her chin. “We’re going back to Odessen, aren’t we?”

”Correct. Who am I?”

”Everything,” Viri whispers.

”Give me a proper name, love,” Lana says gently.

”Lana Beniko. My wife. Everything.”

”I’ll accept that, impossible one,” Lana says, trying and failing to make Viri smile.

”The dream, Lana, the dream…” Viri’s unease begins to crest again.

”Shhh,” Lana says, kissing her neck. “You don’t need to talk about it now.”

”I do. It was too much. Lana…they were on…on…Naboo…”

“Who? What?”

Viri shakes. “In the dream I had…it was something to do with the gods…I was fighting in a city that reminded me so much of Naboo. The buildings weren’t exact, but so close…it was Naboo marble…”

”Naboo is beautiful, love,” Lana says. “Someone could have copied their architecture or imported the stone to their own planet. Remember that mansion on Alderaan that you told me about? The one designed as a replica of a house in Theed? Maybe it was something similar. Do you remember what language people were speaking?”

“I can’t…I don’t remember.”

“What about the weather? Did that feel like Naboo?”

Viri’s eyes light up. “No. Not at all. It was nice, but…colder.”

”What did the people look like? How were they dressed?”

Viri closes her eyes and tries to remember. Her dream is rapidly slipping away from her; details dissolving by the second. Blue skin, red eyes… “Wait. They were Chiss!”

”Any Chiss on Naboo?”

”A few. There was a Chiss family I remember near my grandmother’s house. But there weren’t many. In the dream…I think everyone was.”

”So it’s even less likely that you saw Naboo,” Lana says, holding her close.

”Yeah,” Viri says, resting her head on Lana’s shoulder.

”We can meditate on it when we get back to Odessen,” Lana says, rocking her slightly. “In the meantime, do you feel safe enough to sleep?”

”No. I’m sorry, Lana, I just…” Viri shudders.

”Remember how we used to do this, back when you’d just been freed from carbonite?” Lana asks, reclining with Viri in her arms.

”Yes,” Viri says, closing her eyes. “Will you…?”

Lana nods and begins to stroke her hair. “Just breathe. I’ve got you, love. It’s safe.”

No. The ship is not safe at all. Viri’s eyes fly open and she bolts upright.

”We need to get off this ship, Lana. It’s not safe here. The ship is…”

The ship is the dragon.

”What?” Lana sighs, and for the first time that night, Viri sees just how tired she looks. “Viri. I love you. It’s 0400. I’m exhausted. I still haven’t slept off Oricon. Please. I’m begging you. Unless you think the ship is about to explode on us, can we please talk this over in the morning?”

Viri looks away. “You’re always comforting me. I forget how much of a toll it takes on you. I’m sorry.”

”It’s nothing to be sorry about,” Lana says, smiling slightly. “I know how difficult it is for you. I’m here for you, always. But we just finished an extremely taxing mission, and I think we both really need more rest. Humor your wife, would you?”

”All right,” Viri says, getting out of bed and heading toward the fresher. “Do you want a sleeping pill? I’m getting one for myself.”

Lana frowns. “You don’t usually need those.”

Viri turns and meets her eyes. “I can’t handle any more dreams tonight, and I’m not going to get to sleep without it. Join me?”

Lana considers the question. “Yes, bring me one too.”

Viri returns to the bed with a glass of water and two tablets. She drops one into Lana’s palm and offers her the water.

”Thank you, love,” Lana says, taking her tablet with a long swig and handing the glass back to Viri.

”I’m sorry I didn’t look after you more,” Viri says, taking her own tablet. “I should have realized how tired you were, and…”

”Stop. You always care for me,” Lana says. “We’ve been through this. Come to bed.”

Viri nods and crawls back into bed, pulling the blankets over her and Lana. Lana wraps her arms around Viri, cuddling her close. They close their eyes, leaning into their bond, as the sleeping pills do their work.

 

Odessen

As soon as shuttles Aurek and Cresh touch down on Odessen, Taran Walrez is at the landing strip to meet them. Viri’s eyes light up when she sees the bounty hunter pacing impatiently by the edge of the ramp.

”Taran! Did you find anything?” Viri says, rushing down the ramp.

”Not yet, but we have a possible lead,” Taran says. “Someone from the Chiss Ascendancy- an Aristocra Saganu - has been in touch with an opportunity for both of us. He asked for permission to land on Odessen and discuss it with you.”

“Do you think he’s on the level?” Viri says, raising an eyebrow.

”I’m fairly adept at reading people. Yes, I do. I think you should hear him out. His shuttle is just outside of Odessen airspace at the moment, waiting for your consent.”

”Make sure the shuttle is unarmed, and then sweep it a second time to make sure,” Viri says, turning to Lana. “And have our snipers ready.”

”You’re not messing around on security, are you?” Taran says, surprised.

”No,” Lana and Viri reply simultaneously.

*

Aristocra Saganu has traveled to numerous worlds, both in and out of the Empire, during his time with the Chiss Expansionary Defense Force. He has endured security sweeps; seen throne rooms surrounded by snipers; had his information checked and checked again. The Alliance’s security detail rivals it all.

“This is tighter security than the Sith Empire,” Saganu says, as Major Pierce and his troops surround him to escort him to the Alliance’s guest conference room.

”We do what we need to,” Pierce shrugs, looking straight ahead. When he deposits Saganu outside the Alliance conference room, he departs without a second glance.

“Do come in,” Viri says. She sits at the end of a long table, her fingers steepled. Lana sits to her right, and HK-55 stands very conspicuously behind her chair, weapon drawn. “Viridana Dragoi. Pleased to meet you.”

”It’s an honor, Commander. Aristocra Saganu, Chiss Expansionary Defense Force.”

”You said you had something to discuss with us?”

Saganu nods. “Yes. Let’s get right to the details. I suspect you abhor small talk as much as I do. I would like to borrow your bounty hunter, Taran Walrez. We have an…outlier…in one of our houses. Syndic Zenta of House Inrokini. We need her neutralized.”

”Taran is working for us,” Viri says. “There are surely other bounty hunters available, although I will concede they are not of the Great Hunter’s caliber. Still, why not just put the bounty on the blacklist? Why involve the Alliance?”

”The Ascendancy favors discretion,” Saganu says. “We also feel this may be of special interest to the Great Hunter and the Alliance because of Zenta’s personal associates. Among them, one Theron Shan. We believe that House Inrokini has been sheltering him for some time now. We’d be surprised if the Hunter were not pursuing that bounty.”

Viri’s countenance is as unreadable as ever, but inwardly, she snaps to attention. “Is there any hard evidence of Theron Shan’s presence in Chiss territory, other than your beliefs?”

”The Ascendancy has intercepted communications between House Inrokini’s ‘guest’ and unknown elements, regarding destroying the Alliance. We’ve also captured images of someone who greatly resembles Shan. I have a few holos here for you to examine.”

“We’ll have our people look over these immediately.” Lana sweeps up the offered datapads and holos and heads for the door. As she and HK-55 leave, Vette and Jaesa silently take her place.

”Good,” Saganu says. “What we propose, Commander, is this: you allow Taran Walrez to seek out and neutralize Zenta. In exchange, we will also allow her -- and you -- to seek out Theron Shan and any information that might have been gathered about his associates. Copero is an Ascendancy planet, and you will not be granted access without special permission. I can arrange that.”

”How large a strike team will we be allowed to take?” Viri asks.

”Yourself and the Hunter. I cannot arrange an entire Alliance contingent’s admission to Chiss territory. You must remain as inconspicuous as possible. Your advisor could stay with me, in the shuttle, to follow you and monitor your progress and welfare.”

”Droids?”

”If they were not of Chiss programming and manufacture, they would be destroyed on sight.”

“Why doesn’t the Ascendancy just apprehend Zenta themselves?” Viri says, raising an eyebrow.

”Ascendancy politics are as complicated as those of the Sith.”

”I see,” Viri steeples her fingers again. “So. The Hunter and I raid this house for you. We apprehend Zenta. And then you will allow us to search for Theron on your planet.”

”Essentially. I will also provide a guide to navigate you safely through House Inrokini’s territory and ensure that Ascendancy interests are considered. She knows Copero like the back of her hand.”

”And you will allow us to leave Copero completely unharmed.”

”Yes. I would like an accord between the Ascendancy and Alliance…or at least mutual cooperation.”

Viri nods. “I will need to discuss this with my advisor, and obviously, with the Hunter. Please wait in the other room.”

”With all due respect, you need to move quickly…”

”Fools rush in,” Viri says. “You’re asking me and the Great Hunter to embark on a mission on a completely unfamiliar, potentially hostile planet, acting on information that may or may not be credible. If you want to proceed, you will give us the necessary time to discuss it. And please give us the name of the guide you mentioned who will be escorting us on Copero.”

”Understood,” Saganu says, rising to leave. “I respect your caution. It’s wise, under the circumstances. The guide’s name is Raina Temple. She’s a former Imperial. Worked with Intelligence for some time. Your advisor may know of her, and she’s in our shuttle, ready to be interviewed.”

Viri nods and hits the intercom. “Lana, please arrange an escort for the Aristocra to the lounge. Please join me in the conference room, and bring Taran and Mako.”

Two Alliance soldiers appear in the doorway and wordlessly beckon to Saganu. He follows them down the hallway to a well-appointed lounge.

”Is there anything we can get you?” one of the soldiers asks. “Lunch? Something to drink?”

”I’ve had armed escorts everywhere, and you’re offering me lunch?” Saganu says, stunned.

”We don’t trust anyone, but we still desire to show our guests hospitality,” the soldier says. “We want you to be comfortable. Please do not attempt to leave this room.”

*

Taran leans against the table and sighs. The Alliance’s way of doing business is not hers. She would already be on the Devastator and en route to Copero, if it were up to her. On the other hand, she tells herself, she is not the leader of a galactic alliance who has survived several recent assassination attempts. In that light, she supposes that the Commander’s caution is wise.

“The holos do check out,” Mako says. “The person seen on the recordings matches Theron Shan’s physical profile on all points. Of course, it could be a clone or a disguise, or someone surgically altered to resemble Theron, but at first glance, it appears to be him. I didn’t have long to work with the data, but the frequency is identical to the one that sent you the anonymous information on Iokath.”

Taran lounges against the table. “It’s as good a lead as any.”

”You’re in favor of embarking on this mission, then?” Lana asks.

”Yes. We don’t have any other possibilities at the moment.”

”The question becomes: how vulnerable will we be on Copero?” Viri asks. “We will be at a distinct disadvantage, and need to trust that Saganu will not turn on us. Or that Raina Temple. Lana, Saganu claimed she was a former Imperial. Do we know anything about her? Was she at Sith Intelligence with you?”

”It’s been difficult to obtain any background on her. Temple’s name is not in the Imperial Citizens’ Registry,” Lana says. “I put out feelers around the base to see if anyone had ever heard of her. Both Eckard Lokin and Kailyo Djannis recognized the name as one of Cipher Nine’s former associates, and claimed that they’d worked with her for a number of years. If that’s the case, we’re not likely to find much more about her. Cipher Nine never existed, as per Intelligence’s files. All of the information on her associates was also purged, and she and her cohorts were long gone by the time I got there.”

”That’s the truth,” Mako adds. “I’ve been searching since you gave me the name. There’s nothing.”

Viri exhales. ”So all we have are Lokin and Kaliyo to vouch for her. Their assessments?”

”They claim she is loyal, earnest and quite pleasant to work with, but capable of ruthless behavior when required. She was working with Saganu on Hoth when she joined Imperial Intelligence, before the treaty fell, so their association has spanned quite a few years.”

”And she’s a ghost, like Nine,” Mako muses.

”Correct.”

”Look, I don’t think that we can be assured that everything will be fine,” Taran says,”But I didn’t think the Empire’s Wrath was afraid of danger.”

”She’s not, but she is adverse to reckless behavior,” Viri counters. “I do think we’ve vetted this as much as we can, however.”

”I don’t think we should be at the mercy of the Ascendancy to get to and from Copero,” Lana says. “I propose that we take either the Devastator or the Gravestone, and leave them waiting for us in a neutral location.”

”Smart,” Taran says, uncrossing her arms. “I’ll volunteer the Devastator, since it isn’t affiliated with your Alliance, officially. Let’s go.”

*
Copero, Chiss Ascendancy

The sea breeze is warm on Viri’s face as Saganu’s shuttle deposits, her, Raina Temple and Taran Walrez at a landing pad on the edge of House Inrokini territory. Although Raina is obviously the most familiar with the terrain, she seems out of place next to the Sith and the bounty hunter, both of whom are sporting formidable arsenals of weapons.

Viri’s eyes travel across the bucolic landscape. Hills covered in palm trees jut sharply up from the coastline; in the distance, snow-capped mountains reflect the afternoon sun. Someone is flying a kite from a nearby veranda, letting it bob gently in the wind. Below them, the ocean is calm and still.

”Welcome to Copero,” Raina says, breaking through her reverie. “Our target should be in her house’s factory. Unfortunately, we will have to go through town to get there, since a shuttle would be blasted on sight.”

”Lead the way,” Viri says. Raina leads them through the market square, passing buskers and food vendors. The citizens of Copero are out and about, conversing and congregating in the sunshine, but as Viri and her contingent pass near, they receive suspicious stares.

”There’s one thing I should mention,” Raina says under her breath. “The Chiss…are not fond of Force sensitives. They are considered unclean.”

”That’s why I feel so welcome,” Viri quips. A man nearby is glaring at her, his lip curled in contempt.

”Just ignore them,” Raina mutters. “Keep walking, and…”

”Freeze, intruders!” A horde of soldiers surges into the square, knocking over several vendors’ stalls in their path. “In the name of House Inrokini, you are not welcome here. You will regret landing on Copero!”

The lead soldier opens fire, discharging his blaster into the crowd. The pedestrians and customers in the square scream and scatter, diving for cover under the overturned tables.

Viri deflects each blaster shot and jumps into the fray, cutting down the soldiers with ease. Beside her. Taran and Ensign Temple have drawn their blasters and joined the battle. Viri leaps over the counter of a sidewalk caf stand, gritting her teeth as several Chiss soldiers bear down on her.

”Please don’t hurt us.” Viri turns at the sound of the voice and spots a man cowering under a nearby table, and a frisson runs down her spine. To her left, a house with Naboo marble columns is being pummeled by the blaster fire, just as it was in her dream.

”I’m not here for you,” Viri tells the man. “We’re trying to get the battle away from all of you. Don’t move a muscle and stay hidden. Be safe.”

“Who are you talking to?!” Taran shouts.

”There are civilians here. And they’re scared to death,” Viri yells back. “We need to get away from them.”

”Keep heading toward the factory,” Ensign Temple shouts above the din. “Since they already know we’re here, we can’t expect the fighting to get any easier, but we have to get close.”

”Lead the way.”

*

It’s not a factory, it’s a labyrinth. If she weren’t being attacked by House Inrokini’s droids and workers - all of whom seem to have been instructed to kill them instantly - Viri would have wanted to stop and take a slow walk around the place, marveling at all of their technological advances. Sleek speeders. Tiny, yet meticulously detailed, shuttles. Massive starships.

Ensign Temple leads the team to a series of catwalks, and they slowly and carefully navigate their way across, avoiding most of the workers.

”Zenta should be in here somewhere,” Temple remarks, as they finally leave the catwalks and wander into one of the large work areas. A half-finished speeder sits on one side of the room. “This is the last place she was tracked.”

”You wanted to see me?” a woman’s voice echoes from the shadows, and blaster shots suddenly rain down around Viri, Taran and Raina.

”Guess we found her,” Viri mutters, deflecting Zenta’s attack with her lightsaber. She is skilled, and her assassins descend on the Alliance team en masse. They appear to be masters of distraction, hitting Viri and Taran from all sides.

”Take the left, I’ll get the right. Ensign Temple, cover us where you can,” Viri says. Taran nods and turns to face her side of the room. Splitting the space in half seems to be effective, and Taran rapidly subdues her chosen assassins with a combination of deadly blaster shots, grenades and plasma stuns. On the other side of the room, Viri leaps from assailant to assailant, sweeping her lightsaber so quickly that it is a blur.

And then the assassins are gone, and there is only Zenta. Without her backup team, she falls easily.

”Time to go,” Taran says, pointing her blaster at Zenta.

“Wait!” Zenta shouts. “Listen to me!”

Viri and Taran look at each other and shrug.

”If you have something to say, make it quick,” Viri says, keeping her lightsaber pointed at the woman.

”Theron Shan…betrayed me too. I took him in here. He gained my trust, and then…” Zenta gestures to the carnage around her. “He’s already gone, with my best fighters. He took them all. He used me.”

”And?” Viri says coldly.

”That does not matter to you?” Zenta says, stunned.

”You took him in to help him destroy my Alliance,” Viri says. “You just ambushed us, so you still wanted us dead, with or without Theron Shan. The Alliance never showed you, or anyone in the Ascendancy, the slightest amount of aggression. We’re allied with the Empire, who are supposedly your allies. Why would you try to end us?”

Zenta looks away. “I can’t answer that.”

“You know, sometimes I’m merciful with my contract targets,” Taran says. “If I feel they’ve received a bad deal or someone’s tried to frame them. I’m so not inclined to show you that mercy.”

”Neither am I,” Viri says, nodding to Taran as she aims her blasters.

Lana

”That takes care of the bounty contract, Saganu,” Lana says, keeping her eyes on her console’s screen. Viri has been slicing as many consoles as she can as she makes her way through the factory, and they are now sending back copious amounts of information, none of which is good. House Inrokini has been able to compile copious amounts of data on the Alliance, courtesy of Theron.

”The slicing yielded some information you can use?” Saganu says, looking over at her.

”It did,” Lana says. “Do you recognize this location? It appears to be the last thing Theron accessed. I’m finding coordinates for it that were programmed into a small shuttle's navicomputer.”

Saganu scans the data. “They’re after…oh, dear.”

“Let me guess: there’s something else here you haven’t felt the need to mention,” Lana says, shaking her head.

”Yes, but I truly did not think it would come up,” Saganu says. “The Ascendancy has long held a weapon - or rather, directions on how to access a weapon - in reserve, in case an outside faction ever attacked or our alliance with the Empire fell through. A failsafe, if you will. Only select people in the Ascendancy know of its existence. It is associated with Vitiate.”

”And it’s a superweapon.”

”Correct,” says Saganu. “It supposedly can destroy a planet, or more. It’s been long believed that the mere threat of using the weapon would be enough to quell any major attack. And based on what I see here, it is what Theron Shan is trying to access.”

”Commander, Hunter, are you getting all this? Theron’s on the move.”

”Loud and clear, Advisor,” Viri says. “Give us the details.”

“They know you’re here. They’re moving quickly. You need to be quicker,” Lana says, eyeing her console. “Your objective is apparently contained in an ancient tower of some sort. Sending you the coordinates now. We’re also en route.”

Viri nods and blinks at the map that appears on her datapad. “Ensign, do you have any idea where we’re going?”

Raina looks at the screen and frowns. “That’s an area with numerous old ruins. Also a proving ground for the Chiss. They send people through to test their logic, strategy, and problem-solving skills.”

”In other words, an area that most civilians don’t choose to wander around in,” Viri says.

”Correct,” Raina says. “It’s not far, though. I saw operational speeders outside the door. Let’s grab them and move.”

Viri in Copero

Ensign Temple is true to her word: she knows Copero like the back of her hand. Viri and Taran follow her on their borrowed speeders through dimly lit caves and warehouses, into yards filled with droid parts and across empty roads. The path leads them up into the mountains, where the air is thinner and colder. Viri automatically activates the personal temperature controls in her armor, protecting herself from the chill.

Ensign Temple stops her speeder outside a narrow archway. In the frigid air, her breath puffs out in front of her, and she rubs her hands together despite her thick gloves. Snow has begun to fall, and Viri impatiently brushes it out of her eyes and hair.

”I think we’ll have to go on foot from here,” Raina says, looking anxiously toward the archway. “The path will be too narrow and treacherous for the speeders.”

”Is this the proving ground?” Viri says, walking toward the arch. Just beyond the entrance, through the thick cover of snow, she glimpses a huge ice cat pacing impatiently.

”The Chiss use ice cats as guards,” Raina volunteers. “They’re excellent for protection.”

”They’re excellent rugs,” Taran says, drawing her blasters. She raises an eyebrow when Viri extends her lightsaber and shakes her head.

”Put the blasters down,” Viri snaps. A basket of fruit is perched on the side of the archway, and Viri grabs several pieces and tosses them to the cat. It immediately picks them up in its teeth, purring contentedly, and runs away with its prizes.

”You see? You don’t need to shoot every animal in sight,” Viri says. Taran rolls her eyes, but Raina nods approvingly.

”That was part of the test, Commander. I’d say you passed,” Raina smiles.

”So what did it prove to feed the mangy cat instead of shooting it?” Taran asks, as they walk through the unoccupied arch and into the proving ground.

”Simple. Look behind us. He’s back at the gate, and he’s protecting us now, too.”

“So you’ve set up a trial for me, then?” Viri says, raising an eyebrow. “What’s the next puzzle?”

”Logic,” Saganu says over the comlink. “I do apologize, but I’d be lying if I said I’m not curious to see how you will deal with a Chiss trial.”

“What other surprises do you have planned for them?” Lana hisses in the shuttle, barely containing her anger.

”None,” Saganu says, stepping back. “And this isn’t premeditated. I had no idea where Shan or Zenta would be headed. I’m just saying that now that the Commander is there, I’m curious to see what she will do.”

Viri, did you get all that? Lana asks in her mind, gritting her teeth.

Yes. So nice I’m able to satisfy the Aristocra’s curiosity. Viri rolls her eyes as she navigates another puzzle, opening a doorway in the wall of ice.

As Viri, Taran and Raina navigate the proving grounds, Viri cannot help but feel impressed. The layout of the ruins have been maximized to provide the greatest challenge. The mazes and logic puzzles lead them ever higher up the side of the mountain, until they find themselves staring up at a giant tower made of black volcanic stone, directly on the other side of a large chasm.

”Hang on, I have a grapple,” Taran says, pulling the instrument out of her pack. Viri shakes her head and gestures toward the side of the hill, where there is a narrow, but safe, pathway.

As she climbs to the top of the slope, Viri’s eyes travel over the scenery again. It’s beautiful. Serene. The sun is setting, and the sky is painted with pink and purple streaks. And it’s not Naboo.

“It isn’t much farther now--” Raina begins, but an explosion rocks the tower, and Theron’s shuttle suddenly appears overhead. The silhouettes of several peoples scrambling on board are barely visible through the smoke.

”Damn it, they were cloaked!” Taran shouts.

”Not so fast, you son of a Jedi…” Viri says, her voice low and dangerous. “You’re not leaving.”

Viri takes a deep breath, summoning as much anger and pain as she can. She seizes the shuttle with the Force, preventing it from flying away.

”She’s not actually…” Raina says, stunned.

”It appears that she is,” Taran replies, shooting a harpoon at the shuttle. Within seconds, she has wrapped a cable around one of the wings, doing her best to immobilize the shuttle and help Viri drag it down. “You know, you could always grab this line and help me pull, Ensign.”

Raina runs to assist Taran as Viri channels more rage, dropping to her knees and baring her teeth as she holds onto the shuttle. The small craft wobbles as Viri forces it back to the ground. Through the cockpit windows she can see people at the controls, frantically trying to break free, and she smiles coldly.

A tall man brandishing a lightsaber alights from the shuttle, and an explosion and a shrill scream cut through Viri’s concentration. She turns to see several Chiss soldiers descending on Raina. Through the sea of boots and legs, Taran’s prone form is barely visible on the ground.

Damn you to Oricon, Theron. You know me too well. Viri reluctantly turns her focus away from the shuttle, using the Force to blast the Chiss soldiers away from Raina and Taran.

Lana

Lana groans inwardly the moment the Chiss launch themselves from Theron’s shuttle, attacking Taran and Ensign Temple. She knows exactly what’s going to happen, and she’s right: Viri lets go of the shuttle to assist her teammates.

As soon as it is freed from Viri’s Force hold, the shuttle cloaks again. Lana frantically searches the scanners, but it is too late. The radar dial shows nothing but Saganu’s spacecraft.

”Damn it all,” Lana hisses under her breath, bowing her head.

“She’s loyal,” Saganu comments, surprised.

”Of course she is,” Lana says. “And I would have done the same.”

”Will she be able to best those soldiers?”

”I shouldn’t see why not,” Lana says, watching Viri fight on the screen.

Viri

Viri picks off two soldiers with a sweep of her lightsaber and takes out a third with her parry. She glances at Taran long enough to drag her gently to the side of the square, away from the fighting.

“Sir, thank you,” Raina stammers.

”Just fight, Ensign!” Viri says. “Put up a shield for the Hunter and fight as though your life depends on it. Take the soldiers. I’ll take the Je---”

Viri’s words dry in her throat as she stares at the man standing before her, pointing a yellow lightsaber at her midsection. Chiss. Undeniably Force sensitive. The forms he uses seem to be neither Jedi, nor Sith, nor what she has come to recognize as standard from the Zakuulans.

”It is Theron’s destiny to be victorious,” the man says. “It is mine to help him.”

”Your funeral,” Viri shrugs and strikes. He is strong, there’s no denying it. He is also unskilled at parrying Sith forms, and using merely the basics, Viri has defeated him in a matter of minutes. Behind her, Ensign Temple has dispatched the Chiss soldiers, firing a blaster in each hand.

”Lana! We’re clear here,” Viri says, craning her neck to try to see the shuttle through the smoke.

“Commander, we’re coming in for an extraction.”

“No, what are you thinking? Go for that shuttle! Blast it!”

”They were too fast,” Lana says apologetically. “They cloaked as soon as you let go of them.”

”Damn it all,” Viri hisses under her breath.

”Stand by, Commander. We should be there in a few minutes.”

Viri shakes her head, seething. The Force sensitive Chiss is dead at her feet, and Viri picks up his lightsaber to examine it. Neither Jedi nor Sith. Not Zakuulan. Viri’s brow furrows as she puts the weapon down again. He’d clearly gone for her, not Raina or Taran or…

Taran. Viri wheels around, looking for the Hunter. She is still unconscious; her hands are still wrapped around her blasters. Ensign Temple kneels beside her, touching her anxiously.

”She’s got a pulse,” Raina says. “She’s still alive. But she doesn’t look good right now.”

”No, she doesn’t,” Viri says, crouching down next to her. “Did you see what hit her, by any chance?”

”Some sort of grenade. It went off in front of her,” Raina says, gesturing to a a small charred crater in the ground. “She went right down. Lost the harpoon.”

”Commander, I’m listening,” Lana says into the comlink feed. “I’ve already asked the Devastator to have their medical team prepped to meet us at the docking bay.”

”Good. I’ll do what I can for her here,” Viri says, rifling through her pack for her medical kit. “Ensign, can you administer medications and check vital signs?”

”Of course.”

”Then please give her the emergency kolto and burn remedies and monitor her pulse while I try to heal her.” Viri places one hand on Taran’s head and channels rage into healing energy, surrounding the hunter with red Force power. The wounds on Taran’s head close, but she does not wake.

Saganu’s shuttle appears overhead. “Commander? Status update on the Great Hunter?”

”She is breathing, her pulse is steady and she does not appear to be in distress, but she’s out cold and we cannot wake her,” Viri replies. “We administered kolto and BurnBrave 1. I’m doing my best to Force heal her.”

”Copy that, Commander. Can you get her on the ship?”

”We have a stretcher in the back,” Saganu says. “Hold on. We’ll bring it out to you.”

Viri nods and continues healing Taran, willing her to stay alive.

*

The Devastator, en route to Odessen

Viri and Lana pace impatiently on the bridge of the Devastator. With Lucinda and the medical team attending to Taran, and Raina Temple deep in conversation on a private holo channel with Aristocra Saganu, they have been left to their own devices. Two crates have been left at the side of the room, filled with the remnants of the map.

”I wasn’t expecting…this…” Viri says, looking uneasily at the boxes. “At least Saganu kept his word and gave us everything from the ruins of the tower.”

”This is going to take a full reconstruction team,” Lana says. “We should recall Suvia and her group from Tatooine to help.”

”We already have Jaesa back,” Viri says. “For the rest…I suppose we could ask Suvia how far along she is with her research. I feel that we really need whatever is on the Tatooine star map.”

”True,” Lana says. “But we know that Theron and his people have this one now. Personally, I think deciphering it should be the priority.”

”In that light, I can’t disagree,” Viri says, walking away to stare out the windows. In hyperspace there’s never much to see; merely an endless tunnel of blue light.

“There’s something else, Commander,” Lana says. ”I apologize for not being able to apprehend the shuttle.”

Viri shrugs. “I couldn’t apprehend it either. Taran or Raina were also unsuccessful. Why are you beating yourself up about this?”

”Because he wants to kill you, why do you think?! This mission was a complete failure.”

”We got the fragments of the map and an in with the Ascendancy. We flushed Theron out of his hiding place. And I was able to confirm that my dream was not about conflict on…on that planet I was worried about. That’s something to work with.”

”Why are you always so damned optimistic?”

”I’m not,” Viri says, pushing her hair out of her eyes. “I’m a realist. We didn’t get everything we wanted from this mission, and I certainly deeply regret what has happened to Taran, but we shouldn’t deny what we did gain. At any rate, you don’t need to apologize to me, Lana. I’ve told you this.”

”I just…” Lana looks away.

”C’mere,” Viri says, taking Lana into her arms. “Please stop beating yourself up. I wouldn’t let anyone else hurt you and I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”

”Only for you,” Lana says grudgingly, standing on tiptoes to give Viri a kiss.

”Excuse me.”

Viri and Lana separate, blushing slightly, as Raina Temple enters the bridge.

“What ‘s the news from Saganu?”

”There’s already been condemnation for Syndic Zenta’s assassination,” Raina says. “But as we agreed, the Ascendancy will provide its support…quietly.”

”Keeping up appearances,” Viri says, scowling.

”I’m afraid so,” Raina says. “And there’s one other matter. I would like to return to the Alliance with you. It would be useful for you to have an ambassador of sorts from the Ascendancy, and I can fill that role.”

And spy on us for them, Viri says in her mind, cynical.

Of course. We’ll just be vigilant, Lana replies.

”If there is anything you can tell us about the Ascendancy it will be appreciated,” Viri says. “I must warn you, however: we are in the midst of dealing with a traitor. Sedition and espionage will not be treated lightly.”

”I comprehend your meaning, sir,” Temple says, flushing. “I truly do want to help.”

”I think that you do,” Viri says, pacing. “I thank you for that.”

”Is there any word on the Hunter?”

”Not yet,” Viri says. “I should go check on her. I know Mako and Akaavi are with her, and Lucinda’s been working on her since we boarded.”

”Let me know how it goes,” Lana says, inching ever so slightly toward the crates again.

Lana. Step away from the box.

Lana scowls at her.

”Raina, would you fill Lana in on everything you can tell us about Theron and Zenta’s partnership? And how House Inrokini fits in with the greater Ascendancy?”

”I’d be delighted,” Raina says, settling down on a chair next to Lana.

Brat. Lana scowls again.

Viri raises her eyebrows and smiles as she leaves the bridge.

The Devastator’s layout is difficult for Viri to navigate, with winding corridors and multiple levels. It takes her a good five minutes to locate the med bay, and when she does, a security droid bars her path.

”No admittance,” the droid intones solemnly.

”Okay, I won’t go in,” Viri says. “Could you tell Lucinda I’m out here?”

The droid nods, and a minute later Lucinda Walrez appears, dressed in bloodstained surgical scrubs, with bloodshot eyes and a tired expression.

”I don’t want to keep you from your work,” Viri says. Her eyes flick to the med bay door and back to Lucinda. “I just wanted to ask after Taran. How is she doing?”

“She’ll live,” Lucinda says, relief shining in her eyes. “She’s going to be in a kolto tank for a while, but she should survive and recover. That’s because of you. The Force healing is what saved her. Kolto and burn serum would not have been enough. Thank you for saving my wife. It means something.”

”She saved my wife,” Viri replies. “She is a friend and ally. And nobody dies on my watch. There was no way I would have left her. I’m glad to hear that she will survive.”

”So am I, Commander,” Lucinda says. ”I realize…if you’d left her, you might have gotten your target. Thank you for sacrificing that for Taran. And for me.”

”Don’t think about it,” Viri says, waving her hand. “It’s done. Saving her was the only way I wanted to go. We have the map and some Chiss contacts. Saganu did tell me that he’s also transferred the fee for Zenta’s contract to Taran’s account. He wanted me to pass the word on to you, with thanks.”

”That’s a trifle,” Lucinda says fiercely. “I’m sure it’s a wonderful bounty. But to have Taran still here…”

”…is everything,” Viri says quietly. “I know that so well.”

“I think you do,” Lucinda says, meeting her eyes. “You and Lana have something very special.”

Viri nods. “Yes.”

”Did she ever tell you about when she was injured, before you were out of carbonite? When we operated to reconstruct her hand, she was under the heaviest anesthesia we had on the ship, and she still talked through it.”

Viri laughs. “That sounds like Lana.”

”It’s what she said, though. She kept calling for you.”

”She did?”

”The entire time.”

”And I was in carbonite. I couldn’t be there for her. She was there for me, and…”

”You obviously had no control over that,” Lucinda says. “Carbonite hinders one’s ability to do anything, wouldn’t you say? I’m just mentioning it because it stood out to me, how deeply she loved you.”

”Just as deeply as I love her,” Viri replies, a lump rising in her throat.

”I know,” Lucinda says. “I love the way you two take care of each other.”

”I do my best,” Viri smiles, but rage is suddenly sparking along the bond at an alarming rate. “I should probably go check on her now, and leave you to tend to Taran. Please let her know I’m wishing her the best.”

”Of course,” Lucinda says. “I’m glad we talked. And thank you again.”

”My pleasure,” Viri says, and heads back toward the bridge.

Raina is gone, and Lana is on her knees with the shards of the map apparatus spread out before her. “Damned thing…I can’t figure out how to reassemble this.”

Viri kneels beside her. “Lana, we agreed this would need a full reconstruction team. What are you doing?”

”Trying to get a head start,” Lana says, but the debris remains uncooperative.

”Stop. Lover. Please?” Viri grabs her hands, and Lana instantly relaxes.

”What am I supposed to do until we get back to Odessen?” Lana grouses.

”Talk to me?” Viri suggests, caressing her hands. “Our usual…diversions?”

”I’m not in the mood for that, Viri,” Lana says.

Viri instantly drops her hands. “Understood. Why don’t we meditate? We haven’t done that all day.”

”Who’s going to cover us if there’s trouble? All of our people are back on Odessen, and Taran’s out cold.”

Panic rises in Viri’s throat. “Lana, I don’t want you to work on this map right now. Okay? It’s just making you furious. Please. I want you to do something else. I don’t care if we look aimlessly out the windows, or walk laps around the ship, or spar, or watch some garbage on the HoloNet, but I need you to stop fussing with the map because you’re getting too worked up about it.”

Lana’s eyes finally soften, and affection flows through the bond. “You’re right. I’m sorry, love. Why don’t we just relax? Taran has a very comfortable lounge on this ship.”

Relief floods Viri’s face. “All right. Lead the way.”

Lana takes her hand and leads her down the corridor to a large room with plush couches and a massive media library. To Viri’s relief Lana picks some soothing music to listen to, and the gentle beat seems to calm her.

”Can I sit with you?” Lana asks softly. Viri nods and smiles as Lana settles on her lap. They wind their arms around each other, reveling in the peace of their bond. Some of the tension finally leaves Lana’s body as she relaxes against Viri’s chest, listening to her heartbeat.

Viri closes her eyes, pouring love into the bond. Lana responds instantly. Whatever’s wrong, it’s not us.

Nothing’s wrong, Lana says, nuzzling against Viri’s chest. And no, it’s never us. You know how much I love you. Please, never worry about that.

I couldn’t go on without you, you know.

Neither could I. Lana wraps her arms more tightly around Viri and sighs.

*

Odessen

”Commander?” The Devastator’s intercom rouses Viri and Lana from a sound sleep. They blink at each other, waking up.

”This is the Commander,” Viri says. “What’s the matter?”

”Nothing, but we’re back on Odessen. We’re transferring the Great Hunter from the ship to the hospital as we speak. Bey’wan and the team will want a debrief,” Mako says.

”On it,” Viri says. Lana stretches and stands up, and Viri feels the loss of contact acutely.

”What are you pining about, lover?” Lana says. “I’m never far away.”

”I like you on my lap,” Viri murmurs.

”I like being there,” Lana laughs, kissing her. “But we have work to do.”

Viri blinks as she looks out the Devastator’s windows. It appears to be the dead of night on Odessen, and most of the base’s lights are out.

”0315,” Lana confirms, checking the chrono on her datapad. “Still, we need to debrief now.”

”Copy that,” Mako says. “Bey’wan and the others are already up and waiting for us in the War Room.”

*

In the middle of the night, the caf is flowing freely in the Alliance’s War Room. Hylo and Bey’wan are already on their second cups, and Viri pours a tall one for herself as she sits down at the table.

”So,” Bey’wan says. “I hear the mission was…partially successful.”

”Yes,” Viri says. “We did not apprehend Theron Shan, but we drove him from his hiding place. We also were able to recover the shards of the map Theron stole from the Chiss, and we now have an ambassador from the Ascendancy. However, Taran Walrez has been badly injured, and the map, as you see from the crates, will need a bit of work.”

”How is Taran now?” Lana asks.

Mako looks away. “She’s already at the Alliance hospital, and she’s stable. She should be fine, she’s just been knocked around and it’s just going to take some time to heal. Can we…not discuss that right now? It’s upsetting, and I’d rather focus on the mission.”

”As you wish. I’m sure you know we all wish Taran well, but we’ll move on, Mako. We also recovered the data that House Inrokini had compiled about the Alliance,” Lana says. “We don’t know what they planned to do with this data, but we do now know the extent of their knowledge.”

”So Theron Shan somehow got tight with a Chiss house,” Hylo marvels, looking over the data. “That’s a feat. Do we know how he hooked up with them?”

”No idea,” Lana says. “The Alliance has not had any contact with the Ascendancy or the Expansionary Defense Force until now. And the Ascendancy is allied with the Empire, so it’s not as though this could be an old SIS contact. Unless Zenta was a double agent or a traitor, which is entirely possible.”

”Hopefully we will have answers to that question as we examine the data from Copero,” Mako says. “I have not had a lot of time to work on it yet, but I did make some inroads. Does the name ‘Order of Zildrog’ mean anything to you?”

”Order of Zildrog? Not the Heralds?” Lana asks.

Mako shrugs. “I have no idea who the Heralds are, but ‘Order of Zildrog’ came up a lot in the chatter. After Theron escaped from Copero, he transmitted to them again. Said that the map would lead to the weapon that would destroy the Alliance once and for all. It was a remarkably clear transmission, and I’m surprised he didn’t mask the relays.”

”He would know how to do that in two seconds, too,” Lana murmurs.

”On the other hand, from what I’ve been told, you almost destroyed his shuttle,” Mako says. “Perhaps at that moment he was just trying to get the hell out of there and let his bosses know he was still alive.”

”That’s also a possibility,” Viri says, pacing. “Did you get any other names?"

”No. But I’m still working on it.”

”It’s a start,” Viri says, writing things on the holo-board. “Thank you, Mako. So we have the Zildrog lead. I want to check in with our contacts in Zakuul and see if there is any relationship to the Heralds. Mako and her team will keep analyzing the data. We have Suvia’s team working on the Star Map on Tatooine, although we might need them back here temporarily. And then we have…”

”…the map shards from Copero to reassemble and decipher,” Lana says. “I’ll lead that project. Can we recall Suvia’s team, Commander?”

”I’ll holo Suvia and ask her to return to us,” Viri concedes. “In the morning we can…”

”Morning? We’re starting now,” Lana says. “No one sleeps until that map is decoded.”

Viri, Mako, Hylo and Bey’wan blink at Lana, stunned.

”Stop staring at me, you four,” Lana snaps. “Do you think the Order of Zildrog will be sleeping? They’re probably devising new ways to destroy the Alliance as we speak. I’m going to stay one step ahead of them.”

”But Lana…”

”Enough,” Lana says, her voice clipped. “If you don’t mind, Viri, we have work to do. Hylo, wake up Oggurobb and have him and the research and development team available within the half hour.”

”Sure,” Hylo says uneasily, leaving the room with Bey’wan and Mako. She locks eyes with Viri and shakes her head.

”Lana, if you work yourself and everyone else to death it’s not going to help matters.”

”I can’t let him get away with this, Viri,” Lana shakes her head and feverishly types on her datapad. “I’m going to see it through. Please respect my wishes.”

”You’re worrying me.”

”Stop worrying and go to bed. I’m working, Viri. I’ll see you later.”

”Lana…”

”I’m. Working.”

Viri pauses in the doorway, looking back at her. Lana is bent over the console, her face fixed in a fierce scowl.

I love you.

Lana looks up, and for just a moment, the hardness leaves her eyes. I love you too, Viri. I have to do this right now. Please understand. Just go to bed.

Don’t work all night.

Lana shrugs and turns back to the console.

*

Viri trudges listlessly to her suite. Bolt races to greet her as soon as she walks through the door and Viri picks him up, cuddling him close.

This shouldn’t be an issue. Lana and I spend time apart. It’s not healthy to be connected 24/7. Viri tries to reassure herself as she prepares for bed, but her unease chills her down to the bone. Lana’s rage is still sparking through the bond, and Viri finds no way to assuage it.

Lana? Viri reaches out again. She usually can’t sleep without Lana.

What is it?! Lana’s annoyance is palpable.

Nothing, I just…good night, love. I’m here for you, you know.

Of course I know. Love surges through their connection.

I love you. Please come to bed soon? You need the rest.

I love you too. Good night, Viri. Rest well. Lana completely ignores the question.

Viri sighs and climbs into bed. Bolt purrs and curls up at her feet, but it is cold and dark without Lana’s steady presence beside her, and Viri shivers involuntarily. One of Lana’s scarves is draped over a nearby chair, and Viri floats it over to the bed, wraps it around her shoulders, and clutches it tightly. Sleep does not come easily.

*

Lana closes her eyes and exhales as she feels Viri finally drop off. There had been a strong thread of abject sadness coursing through their bond, but in sleep, Viri’s Force signature is calm.

It’s my fault. Of course, she needs me to sleep, and I forgot. Lana leans over the console and wipes the sweat out of her eyes.

Visions dance in Lana’s mind: Viri’s frozen form in its carbonite prison. Viri, stumbling through the Endless Swamp, her skin grey, poisoned by the same carbonite. Stabbed with a lightsaber. Writhing in pain on the Eternal Throne. Burned and unconscious, on the throne on Iokath. Enduring endless, screaming nightmares and flashbacks to Valkorion’s torture.

Lana hates herself for every single one.

Nobody will hurt you again. I promise. I’ll do better this time. The Force as my witness, whatever Theron’s planned, I will protect you, Viri. I must not fail again.

Lana gulps down more caf and turns back to the map shards, willing them to divulge their secrets.

Chapter Text

Odessen

Lana scowls at the fragments of the map from Copero. It’s been blown into tiny pieces, and putting it together has been a daunting task. And none of her staff are up to the challenge. They’ve been at it for almost 48 hours, and they’ve only reassembled a small portion of the map.

Lana’s research team huddles around their tables, their shoulders rounded and their expressions grim, as their fingers fumble on the rough shards of the map.

”Do we have anything over here yet?” Lana snaps, glaring at three researchers clustered at one table.

”No, Lord Beniko,” stammers a Miralian woman. “I’m sorry.”

Lana glares at the woman. “I am too. Keep working. Anyone else?”

The workers slowly shake their heads, keeping their eyes averted.

”Damn it! What good are you?!”

”We’re doing our best…” stammers the Jedi.

”Well, do better!” Lana casts lightning at an empty chair, sending it flying. “Suvia! Do you have anything?”

Suvia looks up from her own console and raises an eyebrow. “If I did, I would have informed you.”

”What are you doing over there?! You should have found something by now!”

Suvia crosses her arms. “I would advise you not to raise your voice to me, Lana. I would also advise you not to criticize the way I work.”

”I’m in charge of this project, and…”

”Then do it yourself,” Suvia says calmly, closing her console, picking up her datapad and leaving the room.

The researchers bend over their boxes of fragments again, willing them to come together and form a whole.

*

Suvia storms down the hallway to the Force enclave. Viri is ensconced in a training session with Sana-Rae, learning Voss Mystic techniques, but she immediately looks up as Suvia enters the area.

”Suvia?”

”Not a good time, Viri,” Suvia says, making a beeline for the practice dummies. The novice Force users training nearby immediately clear out of her way without being asked.

“I see,” Viri says. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

“No, you know what? You should know this. If I wasn’t friends with Lana and I didn’t know that she’s not herself, I’d have fried her three times over by now.” Angry lightning crackles at Suvia’s fingertips, and she impatiently shakes it away.

Viri is on her feet immediately. “Don’t you even think about hurting Lana.”

Suvia scowls. “I’d never hurt her, but she’s become insufferable, Viri. She’s a tyrant. Every one of the researchers is terrified of her.”

Viri frowns. “I know she’s been unusual lately, but…”

Suvia raises an eyebrow. “’Unusual.’ You’re her wife, and I understand that you don’t want to speak poorly of her, but her behavior is unacceptable.”

Viri glances in the direction of the lab and away again. “I get it. In the meantime…”

”In the meantime, I’m not going near that project. Talos wanted to stay and help, but that’s out of the goodness of his heart, not mine.”

”I understand, Suvia, I just…” Viri puts her hands on her hips and look away.

”Oh no,” Suvia steps in front of her. “You cannot ignore this.”

”Believe me, I’m not.”

”I’ll hold you to that,” Suvia says. “I’m not pleased with how she’s treating my people. If you don’t fix this, I’m pulling them all. Use that as extra motivation to resolve this, Commander.”

“All right,” Viri says. “I’ll go now.”

“You do that,” Suvia says, stalking away.

*

Lana barely looks up as Viri enters the lab. She glances quickly at one computer screen and then the next, before studying her datapad and turning back to the screens.

”What is it Commander? Is Darth Nox with you?”

”No,” Viri says quietly. “She resigned from this project.”

”What?! Damn it!” Lana swears, casting lightning at the wall.

Lana, can you chill a little? Viri raises her eyebrows. Can’t you feel the fear in this room?

Lana glares at her. Good. Let them be afraid. Let them work as fast as they can.

These are Alliance personnel! Not enemies.

They are here to do a job, Lana says briskly, her voice tinged with acid. And they will do it. Just as I will. If you don’t mind, I have a lot of work to do.

Lana…

Viri, leave me alone. I need to work and you’re distracting me.

Jagged pain slices through the bond, and Lana reacts instantly. I didn’t mean it like that, lover. I just…

Silence. Lana turns, but Viri is already gone. Lana scowls and looks at the map again. When it is reassembled, and Lana knows what it contains, all will be well. She knows it.

Day Three

Lana comes to bed late and leaves early. In the morning light, Viri barely catches a glimpse of her as she rises.

”It’s so early,” Viri moans.

”The Order of Zildrog isn’t sleeping, I’m sure,” Lana says, as she picks up last night’s discarded clothes off the floor and puts them on. “No time.”

”You do have fresh clothes in the wardrobe, you know…” Viri says, frowning.

”No time. These work perfectly well.”

”Do you want me to join you for a shower?”

”No.”

”Aren’t you going to at least brush your hair?”

Lana runs her hands through her hair once, shakes her head and shrugs. “It looks fine.”

“Lana.” Viri is across the room in a split second, clutching Lana’s arm. “Please take a minute. Take a breath. I’m worried about you.”

”Well, stop worrying.”

”You’re obsessing over this map.”

”I’m trying to keep us both alive. Let go of me.”

Viri does, and Lana rushes from the room without another word.

Day Four

It’s 0100, and Lana’s eyes are red and sore as she scans another line on her computer screen. The answer is there, and she knows it. She just has to find it. There’s something in those lines of code, in those shattered pieces of the map, that will save Viri. That will save them all.

She hasn’t seen much of Viri all day; every time Viri has come to the lab, Lana has waved her off. When her comlink beeps from Viri’s private channel, she almost doesn’t see it, such is her focus on the map.

”Lana, I’m heading to bed. Will you be home soon?”

”I don’t know,” Lana says impatiently. “Get some rest, brat. I love you.”

”I love you too.” I miss you. The three words echo in Lana’s mind as the connection is cut.

Lana rubs her head and returns her attention to the map.

0200. The night rolls on, but Lana keeps working. She’s finally sent the researchers home for the night; they were falling asleep at their tables. She’s tried not to notice how relieved they all looked to leave the lab.

Depair. The emotion surges through the bond, and Lana finally looks up from her computer.

Viri? No answer. Viri’s Force signature is tumultuous.

Lana bites back a wave of guilt. She needs me to sleep. I’ve been neglecting her. She hasn’t been able to spend a full night with Viri in half a week. There’s just too much to do. Sleeping is a luxury she cannot afford. But her soul is raw and ragged without Viri, and as despair rises in the bond, she feels herself putting down her datapad and walking toward Viri’s suite.

The room is dark and cold. Viri is fast asleep, clutching one of Lana’s scarves in her hand, and her face is streaked with tears.

Lana gently pulls the scarf out of Viri’s hands and puts it on the nightstand, undresses and climbs into bed. As she spoons Viri she tries to send as much love and reassurance through the bond as she can. Right here always here don’t worry love

Viri relaxes as soon as Lana’s arms are around her, and her Force signature settles into a clear blue pool. Lana sighs and nuzzles her back, breathing in Viri’s scent. Nothing will ever make you cry, once we’ve decoded the map. Nothing will hurt you. I’ll see to it, Viri.

When Viri wakes in the morning, the bed is empty and Lana is already back at work.

Day Five

“Viri, may I have a word?” Somminick Timmns stops Viri in the hallway.

Viri braces herself for the conversation. She has spoken to more than twenty Alliance members about Lana. She has tried to speak to Lana herself more times than that. She’s getting nowhere.

”Of course, Somminick. What is it?” Viri says, pretending she doesn’t already know.

Sonninick gestures to a tall Miralian woman standing nearby.

”Weren’t you in the lab?” Viri asks, recognizing her. “What’s your name?”

”Jenari Ashaa,” the woman whispers, looking down and nervously wringing her hands. “Yes, I was working on the map.”

“Did you say your name was Jenari Ashaa?” Viri asks, raising an eyebrow. “You know what that means in Sith, don’t you?”

”Yes, I do,” Jenari says. “My parents were not happy about being forced to turn me over to the Jedi. The name was their sole means of protesting.”

”I remember how much they insisted on calling her ‘Jen’ and nothing more,” Somminick smiles. “She is no longer a Jedi, so she’s not worried about it now. At any rate, Jenari has been working on the map, but…”

“Commander, I can’t continue on the project,” Jenari finishes the sentence.

”Why not?”

Jenari lowers her head and begins to sob. “It’s…I can’t. She’s horrible.”

”Who?”

”Your…I mean no disrespect, but Lana. She was always pleasant, but now…”

Viri exhales.

”Don’t make me go back in there. Please. I’m begging you.”

”You don’t have to,” Viri says quietly. “Where were you working before?”

”With Suvia Kallig.”

”Let me scan your identification badge. All right. You can go see Suvia right now,” Viri sighs, tapping in a clearance on her datapad. “I’ve authorized you to rejoin her.”

”Thank you,” Jenari gasps, and bolts down the hallway.

Viri shakes her head as she watches Jenari flee. “I’m sorry, Somminick.”

”So am I,” Timmns says. “I have been meaning to talk to you about Lana. She doesn’t seem well.”

”She isn’t,” Viri says. “I’m trying to reach her, but it may take some time.”

”Do you have it?”

”No,” Viri says, looking grimly toward the lab.

Day Six

Lana sighs and cinches her belt more tightly at her hips. All her clothes seem to be loose on her, and she makes a mental note to take them in. After they’ve deciphered the map, of course.

The map is still an incomprehensible jumble of stone fragments. They’ve only reassembled an estimated 12% of it, and there’s a long way to go. The pieces of the map are coated with explosives residue, and they need to be cleaned - painstakingly, carefully - before they can even be sorted.

Lana walks around the room. Several researchers have followed Suvia’s lead and quit. The ones that remain work silently; somberly.

It’s all worth it, Lana tells herself. The map will help them stop the Order. Stop Theron. Stop betrayal.

Make up for everything you’ve failed at.

Lana swallows hard, tasting bile on her tongue.

*

Night. As before, Lana barely sees Viri during the day, but at night she climbs into bed with Viri, holding her close. Viri relaxes when Lana touches her. Lana herself remains wide awake, feeling the gentle rise and fall of Viri’s chest against her cheek. In the morning, she extracts herself to return to work.

Viri’s Force signature goes gray the moment Lana lets go of her and rolls out of bed, and Lana finds herself hesitating. Even in sleep Viri’s hands are opening and closing, reaching for her.

”I’m here, love,” Lana leans over and whispers in her ear. “I love you. I’m just going to work.”

Viri’s Force signature does not calm, and Lana sighs. There’s just too much to do today, and Viri will be fine. She knows it. She kisses Viri’s forehead, tucks the blankets around her, and leaves for the lab.

The sheets are already cold when Viri finally wakes, and she shivers at the sight of the empty bed.

*

Viri and Vette huddle at their favorite table in the Alliance cantina, back in a quiet alcove.

”She’s no better, is she?” Vette asks, sipping her beer.

”No,” Viri says softly, wrapping her hands around her bottle of Sugar Rush.

”You need to drink that,” Vette says, eyeing the bottle. “You are not going to be able to help her if you’re falling over from dehydration.”

”I’m sick to my stomach, Vette,” Viri whispers. Lana’s rage is a constant presence in the bond now, and Viri feels it to the bottom of her very soul.

”One sip,” Vette insists, picking the bottle up and holding it to her lips. “Just one.”

Viri scowls at her.

”You’re dealing with me, Darth Bratface,” Vette smiles. “You’re going to drink something. I’m not throwing out my back carrying you out of here when you faint.”

”Fine,” Viri snaps, taking the bottle from her. “There. One sip.”

”I swear, sometimes you’re four years old,” Vette says, shaking her head.

”I don’t mean to be,” Viri says, taking another drink. “It’s just…”

”I know,” Vette says, rubbing her shoulder.

”I can’t get through to her,” Viri says, and Vette hears the tears in her voice. “I’ve tried talking. I’ve tried begging. Reasoning. Reaching out in the Force. She’s so fixated on the map and nothing can pry her loose.”

”Viri…”

Viri puts her face in her hands.

”What would you do if Lana were being attacked by a rancor?”

Viri turns to look at Vette. “Fight it. With everything I could.”

”Same concept applies here, maybe. This is a rancor. You can’t reason with it. You need to hit it with everything you have.”

”I can’t smash the map, Vette, we need it and…”

”You’re fighting whatever’s holding Lana. Not the map,” Vette explains. “You’re the Wrath. Use your talents. You do have powers you’re not thinking of…Commander.”

Viri brushes tears from her eyes and studies Vette’s face. “Commander, you said?”

”I did,” Vette says. “You know, Lana’s rubbed off on you. You don’t even think of titles now. In this case, perhaps you should.”

Viri steeples her fingers, suddenly lost in thought. “Yes.”

”You are the only one who can help her,” Vette says quietly. “You need to. Now.”

”You’re right,” Viri says, starting to rise from the table. “She needs me.”

”Finish your drink, and eat something before you go,” Vette says, pulling on Viri’s wrist. “You’re going to need to be nourished.”

Viri nods and sits again. “If I need your help…”

”You know I’ll cover for you however you need me,” Vette promises. “Just tell me what to do.”

”Thank you,” Viri says, as the wheels in her mind continue to turn.

Day Seven

Dawn. Lana and her staff are already toiling away in the lab, even as the sun rises over Odessen.

Viri walks down the hallway toward the lab, her chin held high and her steps teeming with purpose. Beside her, Suvia, Vette and Jaesa keep pace. Just before they reach the lab, Viri stops, marshaling her strength.

”You can do this,” Jaesa says.

“Someone has to help her,” Suvia says. “That someone is you.”

“You’re ready?” Viri asks, her voice shaky. “The computers, and the mission, and…”

Suvia, Vette and Jaesa nod solemnly.

”Vette, is your…”

”It’s already set,” Vette says quickly. “You know where to find me.”

”Not a word to anyone, you hear me?”

”You can count on us,” Jaesa says. “Go help your wife.”

Viri nods, takes a deep breath, and enters the lab. As usual, the research team appears to be in a panic, working as quickly as they can, their heads down and their shoulders hunched. Lana is stalking around the room, glaring at them.

”Lana, I need to see you,” Viri says, leaning in the doorway.

”I’m busy, Commander,” Lana says.

”And I’m the Commander, and I need to see you. That wasn’t a request, Advisor,” Viri says, crossing her arms.

Lana sighs and returns to her own desk, where there are four open console screens and a flickering datapad. “Understood. Give me five minutes to close this out.”

”All right. I’ll wait.” Viri wanders around the lab, stopping by Talos Drelik’s table.

”Hello, Commander,” Talos greets her without looking up. He’s haggard, and there are dark circles under his eyes.

”How are you holding up?”

Talos looks furtively toward Lana and away again. “I’d rather not answer that, Commander. I’m awake. That’s the best I can do.”

“Sorry to hear you’re ill, Talos,” Viri says, winking at him.

”What do you mean, I’m fine, I just…”

”What? You want a day or two off so you won’t infect anyone else with your cold? Are you sure?” Viri says very deliberately, as she pulls out her datapad and presses a few buttons. “Hmmm. Someone will need to sign off on that. Oops, I just did.”

Relief floods Talos’s face as he understands. “Thank you, Commander.”

”You’re welcome. This will give you 72 hours. Go. Try to cough once or twice as you leave the room and do swing by the medbay, just for authenticity’s sake.” Talos nods wordlessly and heads for the door, coughing conspicuously.

”You ready, Lana?” Viri asks, walking back to her.

”Commander, one more thing…” Lana insists, typing feverishly.

“Now,” Viri says, unsmiling. “Close that down and lock it.”

Lana sighs, shuts down the last console and follows Viri back to her suite.

”All right, I’m here. What’s wrong?” Lana crosses her arms.

”You’re being reassigned to a new mission,” Viri says. “Officially, it’s a wilderness survey. Unofficially you’re on rest leave, effective immediately.”

Lana’s jaw drops. ”What? You can’t do that!”

Viri raises one eyebrow at Lana. “That ‘Commander’ designation in front of my name would suggest otherwise.”

”You…” Lana splutters. “Of all the nerve…”

”Maybe I didn’t make myself clear. My chief advisor is now on rest leave, and as such, is relieved of her duties until further notice. That is a direct order, not a suggestion,” Viri says.

“How dare you pull rank with me!”

”What choice do I have? I can’t get through to you as your wife, your friend, a fellow Sith…maybe this is the one thing you’ll heed.”

“He wants to destroy everything!” Lana shouts. ”Don’t you realize that?! I have to keep working!”

”Yes,” Viri says. “I certainly do realize Theron’s intentions. No, you do not have to keep working. I keep trying to tell you that, and you won’t listen. So I’m going all Commander on you. By the Force, I won’t let you keep hurting yourself.” Sheer rage is surging through their bond, and Viri wills herself not to wince at it.

”Damn it!” Lana yells. “You have no right to control me!”

”No, I don’t have the right to control you. But I do have the right to look after the members of my Alliance,” Viri says calmly, staring at her. “Your work is clearly damaging you and it is my responsibility to intervene. And as your wife, I’m not going to stand by and watch you do this to yourself.”

Lana sinks into the closest chair. ”I can’t let this go, Viri. I don’t want to stop until I find him and make him suffer. I can’t let him destroy everything.”

”But he already is.”

”What?!”

“He’s destroying you.”

”Oh, stop it…”

Viri takes Lana’s hand and leads her to the mirror, standing behind her. “I want you to look into that mirror, Lana Beniko. Do you see what I do? It’s someone I love desperately who hasn’t been eating, sleeping, or showering. It’s someone who is being overcome by hate. He’s killing you.”

Lana blinks at her own reflection. Her eyes are sunken, her hair is in disarray, and her clothing is wrinkled and hanging loosely off her shoulders.

“I…”

Viri wraps both arms around Lana. ”I’m fucking terrified for you, Lana. I care about you. I love you. I want to keep you safe. I’m asking you to realize that you’re hurting yourself.”

”I’m asking you to trust my judgment and stop treating me like a child,” Lana says, her voice tinged with acid.

Viri blinks away tears. “I’m not. I trust you with my life. But I see what this is doing to you. I feel it. If you were being attacked by a Jedi or a rancor, I could jump in and fight it. I wish I could do the same here. I’d do anything to keep you out of danger, my love.”

”I can’t let him kill you,” Lana says faintly. “So many times I watched you get injured, and I couldn’t stop it. I won’t let him take you from me. I can’t.”

Viri meets her eyes in the mirror, and as she probes through their bond, she uncovers something below the hatred in Lana’s mind: Abject terror.

”You’re afraid that we’ll be separated.”

”Yes.”

”You’re afraid you’ll see me injured again. As you did on Asylum and Zakuul.”

”And Iokath,” Lana whispers. “And Manaan. And every other time you’ve come back from a mission injured. Every other time you’ve vanished. I can’t let it happen again, Viri.”

”Don’t you know that’s my worst fear, too?” Viri tells her. “I know that I’d do anything I could to avoid seeing you hurt again.”

”Then why are you interfering this way?” Lana whispers.

”Becauseyou’re being hurt. Badly. Your hatred is eating you alive, and I feel how much pain you’re in. You spend every waking moment with that map, as though it will solve everything. But it won’t.”

”I can’t stop, Viri,” Lana whispers, and Viri finally understands: can’t. Not won’t.

”Then let me help you. Please.” A small sob escapes Viri’s throat, and she fights to maintain her composure.

”Nothing can help…”

”Can I try?”

”Yes,” Lana finally says, swallowing hard.

Viri buries her face in Lana’s shoulder and plunges into their bond, opening her mind completely. She shivers as the full force of Lana’s hate, fear and anger washes over her, but instead of fleeing from it, she dives in and channels as much as she can. Anything Lana needs, she will have from me.

Lana shakes her head. “Viri, what are you…”

”You can’t do this alone,” Viri says, squeezing her eyes shut and channeling even more hatred and fear. “If I can’t take you away from this, I’ll come with you. I will help you carry it.”

Viri finally raises her head and catches Lana’s eyes in the mirror again, but what they see there makes both of them gasp. Viri’s eyes have turned yellow.

“Viri, no…your eyes…” Lana whispers.

“You still like me with gold eyes, I hope?” Viri says, her brow furrowed with anxiety.

“Of course I do, but your blue eyes are…were…so beautiful. How…”

“When you hurt, I hurt,” Viri says quietly. “I’m not going to let you face this level of hatred and anger alone. If that means my eyes turn gold, then they turn gold. I’m sure they’ll snap back eventually. They have before. If they don’t, life goes on.”

Lana touches Viri’s eyes in the mirror. ”I didn’t protect you. I didn’t stop this. Whatever I do, it’s never enough.”

”Shhhh. You’re not responsible for Theron’s choices.” Viri gently turns Lana around and hugs her tight.

”I trusted him. I was weak.” Lana spits the words.

”I trusted him too. So did the entire Alliance. It wasn’t weakness. Several months ago I would have considered Theron a friend. We will get him. We’ll find out what the hell he was thinking with all of this, one way or the other. We will not let him wreck what we’ve built. If you destroy yourself, though, none of that will matter to me.” Viri strokes Lana’s hair with one hand, something that has soothed her since Yavin.

”I failed,” Lana seethes.

”You have succeeded.”

”I need to be stronger.”

”You are one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.”

”I’m worthless.”

”I love, respect and value you more than anyone in this galaxy, and you are so loved around here, Lana. You have to believe it, though.”

”I can’t,” Lana whispers. Anguish surges through the bond.

”I can’t make you believe it. I wish I could, though. Can you believe in us?”

”It’s one of the few things I always believe,” Lana murmurs. “We are one. I love you so much.”

”I love you more than I can ever tell you, Lana. Stay with me.”

“Of course I’ll stay with you...but why do you even want me, Viri?”

Viri effortlessly picks Lana up and sits down on the couch, cradling her wife in her arms. ”You are the most wonderful person I know. You’re determined. Smart. Tender. Considerate. Strong. Your spirit has a light to it - a dark light - that is indescribably beautiful, Lana. It warms the room. You are everything to me.”

”You truly don’t think I’ve failed you?” Lana looks up at her with shiny eyes.

”You can read my mind. I can’t lie to you. No, I don’t think you’ve failed me. Anything but,” Viri says, opening her mind completely to Lana to let her see the truth of the words. “I’m so proud of you. And I love you so much.”

”Viri…” Lana roughly brushes tears from her eyes.

”I love you, precious one. You have no idea how amazing you are, and that just kills me. Do you trust me? Then trust me when I say you are everything.”

”I…”

”I’ve got you, love. Always.”

Lana’s eyes feel hot, and she finds that she cannot stop her tears anymore. She sobs until her breath is hitching, until her throat is raw, and all the while, Viri holds her close, soothing her with gentle words and kisses. Viri closes her eyes and sends as much comfort and love through their bond as she can, holding Lana with her soul as much as her arms.

When Lana is finally worn out she rests her head against Viri, eyes closed, chest still heaving. Viri cuddles her, wrapping a blanket around them both.

“What now?” Lana finally says, her voice hoarse.

”I’d like to take care of you right now. Will you let me?”

”I’d…like that. What to do, though?”

“I’d like you to get some sleep, care and food,” Viri says, nuzzling her head. “I’ll be here the entire time, unless you want me to leave.”

“The Alliance, Viri, who’s running the Alliance…”

”I already took care of that. Vette, Jae and Suvia are keeping an eye on things. Bey’wan and Pierce can handle the patrols, and they have plenty of backup. Hylo, Oggurobb and Sana-Rae are all on the job in their departments. There’s nothing to worry about right now.”

”How will you explain my absence? And yours?”

”You’re on a mission in the Odessen wilderness with Vette. She’s already sent a tracker into a sleen den, so there’s proof that you’re out there. You’re looking for a listening station Theron left behind. And I’m monitoring you from here. We wanted to keep the chatter about it minimal because…”

”…because if the Order overheard they’d cloak the station or destroy it before we could sweep it.”

”Spot on,” Viri smiles. “See, it’s a perfect mission.”

”And the map?”

”Suvia’s overseeing it, and all of her people will go back to work now…”

”…now that they’re not dealing with me. I understand. I don’t know if I can go back to that project…”

”You don’t have to. If you would like Suvia to officially take over, I’m sure she’d be glad to. Most of the research team is her staff, anyway.”

Lana nods. “Let her. I can’t do everything anymore.”

”No, you cannot,” Viri says. “When you’re feeling better, we can sit down and delegate more of your tasks, if you wish. For the time being, however, you don’t need to think about that. Just rest.”

“Viri, have I told you I love you?”

”Every second of every day.” Viri tilts Lana’s face up and gives her a gentle kiss. “You’re exhausted. Can I tempt you into going to bed and getting some sleep?”

Lana nods. “I…I do need it.”

“Would you be more comfortable in your own suite, or would you rather stay here?”

”Here.”

”All right,” Viri says, carrying Lana over to the bed. “Shall we get you into something more comfortable?”

Lana raises her hands and lowers them again, confused.

”Would you like me to decide for you, for now? Can I take care of you?”

Lana nods.

”All right,” Viri says helping Lana out of her armor and boots. Lana sits listlessly on the side of the bed as Viri gently cleans her face, hands her a tooth cleaning tablet to chew and brushes her hair, and then raises her arms so Viri can dress her in freshly laundered pajamas.

”That’s your shirt,” Lana says, as Viri puts it on her.

”I know it comforts you,” Viri says, rolling up the sleeves one by one. “I thought you might like to wear it right now.”

How do you know me so well? Lana asks silently, snuggling into the shirt.

The same way you know me, Viri says, kissing her tenderly.

”Even if you can’t eat, I want you to take a nutrient tablet and drink some water. Being dehydrated won’t help anything.” Viri offers her a tablet and a water bottle, and Lana takes a long swig.

”Just…” Lana holds out her arms.

”Of course, beloved,” Viri says, quickly washing up and donning her own set of pajamas. As she sets the security systems Bolt jumps up on the bed, nuzzling Lana’s face. Lana kisses his head, smiling.

”Anything else you need before we get some rest?” Viri asks, climbing into bed and pulling the blankets over herself and Lana.

”You.”

”Right here, love,” Viri says, scooping Lana into her arms. “I’ve got you.”

In the warmth and safety of Viri’s embrace Lana finally gives in to fatigue, and she is asleep in a matter of minutes. Viri holds her close and sighs, letting sleep overtake her, too.

16 Hours

Sixteen hours. Lana has slept almost continuously, and Viri has let her. At the moment she’s tucked under the covers, her face deceptively peaceful, her hands relaxed for what seems like the first time in weeks.

Viri has moved her desk next to the bed so she can work while watching over Lana, and she strokes her head gently for a moment before returning to her datapad. Her holo and consoles are all on silent. She has clandestinely arranged with C2-N2 to deliver food periodically, and he’s just brought her some evening cocoa and cookies. They’re still warm from the oven, and Viri chews thoughtfully as she quietly taps the keys on her datapad.

When Viri’s holo vibrates, she moves away from the bed before picking up, so that only she is on the viewer.

”Commander? Sorry to bother you, but we can’t find Lana, and she’s not answering her comm or holo. Is she with you?”

Lana’s eyes open in the darkness, but she does not move.

”Thanks for checking in, Koth. She’s not on base. We received some recon on a listening station Theron installed. I pulled her off the map temporarily so she could investigate. Radio silence right now.”

”Alone? Without any backup?”

”Vette is with her, and I’m monitoring them both from here,” Viri replies. “We didn’t want to risk too much chatter; I’m being vague right now because their mission isn’t over. I would have gone with them, but someone needed to be base support. If there’s any trouble, we have towers everywhere. I can get someone to them within minutes.”

”Got it. I’ll let everyone know she’s on a mission. People were worried about her when she vanished. Especially since she’s been so…odd…lately.”

”She’s fine,” Viri says. “You know I’m looking out for her.”

”You always do,” Koth says, and the holo goes dark again.

Viri sighs as she puts the holo back on the table and walks to Lana's side of the bed. Lana’s face is turned away from her, so she runs one hand soothingly over her hair and leans down to kiss her head.

“I love you, Lana,” Viri says. “I hope you’re sleeping well.”

”I’m fine,” Lana says softly, rolling over. “Love you, mine.”

”Do you want company?” Viri says, stroking her hair. “Anything to eat?”

”I just want you,” Lana murmurs. ”Come to bed with me. Stop working.”

”Of course, mine,” Viri says, turning off her console, slipping into bed and gathering Lana to her chest. Lana nuzzles into her and wraps both hands around her waist.

”You’re all right, love,” Viri whispers. “I’m here.”

”Don’t leave me,” Lana murmurs, clutching her tighter.

”You’re stuck with me,” Viri whispers, kissing her forehead. “I’m not going anywhere.”

”Good,” Lana mutters, drifting off to sleep again.

29 Hours

Breath. Heartbeat. Scent. Warmth. Lana opens her eyes, blinking into the darkness of the room. Viri still has her arms wrapped around Lana, keeping Lana close to her chest. Her Force signature is blue and calm.

As soon as Lana stirs, Viri is awake too. She caresses Lana’s back gently, reverently. Are you okay?

Yes, love. Let’s go back to sleep. Lana snuggles into Viri’s embrace.

Dream with me. Viri’s voice whispers into her mind. Her golden eyes glitter in the dark, startling Lana for just a moment.

Lana nods and smiles as they close her eyes again. As they both open their minds, Viri concentrates, pulling Lana into her dream.

A beach. Shimmering waves reflecting the sun. Lana blinks her eyes as she adjusts to the light. Viri is sitting with her on the sand, holding her as the water laps over their feet and legs. Lana smiles and breathes deeply, appreciating the tang of the briny sea air and the rhythmic lull of the waves crashing along the shore.

36 Hours

Comfort. Security. Love. Lana rests her hands on Viri’s knees, strong and secure around her, as they relax in the bath. Viri’s nimble fingers are working shampoo through her hair, rubbing her scalp gently, and Lana hums with contentment. Soft music drifts through the space, and through the steam, small floating lamps glow on the surface of the water.

”Close your eyes.” Lana complies with the request and Viri pours warm water over her head, rinsing the shampoo. Conditioner follows, and Viri works it through each strand of Lana’s hair, massaging out the knots.

Viri picks up Lana’s favorite bath gel, and Lana sighs again as Viri washes her, tenderly lathering the soap over her body. When she is finished she pulls Lana back against her chest and wraps her arms around her waist.

Lana snuggles against Viri’s solid form, luxuriating in the sweet scent of Rishi flowers on the water.

48 Hours

”Can you try to eat something? Just a little? Please?” Viri looks at Lana hopefully. There’s a tureen of soup on the table; a traditional Dromund Kaas vegetable recipe that Lana has always loved. Viri has ladled a small portion into a bowl for her, and holds it out to her with pleading eyes.

Lana wrinkles her brow as she takes the bowl and picks up the spoon, but when she brings it to her lips, she has to admit: it’s good. She gingerly takes another taste, and it’s easier. And then a third. The smile on Viri’s face is worth it.

”Are you going to have any?” Lana asks, nodding toward the second bowl. Viri nods and sits next to her, tucking into her own soup. Before long their bowls are empty, and Lana finds herself reaching for the tureen for a second serving.

53 Hours

Power. The Force. Hers. Lana inhales deeply as she sits before her personal altar, meditating. Her connection to the Force has been sorely neglected during her obsession with the map; returning to it is like remembering her own name again. Purple tendrils of power snake around Lana, fortifying her.

”Viri? Join me?” Lana rises and heads back to Viri’s suite. They each have their own altar, and it is understood by both that meditating there is meant to be a solitary exercise; they also have a third, larger one in Viri’s room that is shared.

”I’d love to,” Viri says, lighting the Sith braziers and settling down into a meditation stance next to Lana. Lana chooses the ritual and Viri picks up the words instantly; they both know the ancient incantations by heart. As their meditation deepens they turn toward each other, eyes still closed, and link hands. The Force flows between them and through them, healing, strengthening, comforting. Their words run together; as usual, it’s impossible to know who is saying what. They both are; neither is.

You always you in the Force with us

59 Hours

”Oh come on, how did he miss that answer? Ridiculous!” Lana sneers at the game show contestant she is watching on the HoloNet. They’ve been sitting before the flickering screen for hours, absorbing children’s shows, animated series, nature documentaries. Anything light; anything even halfway entertaining.

”Galactic affairs for 1000,” the contestant stammers, trying again.

“Answer: She took down the Eternal Empire with all the wrath of a Sith and the diplomacy of an ambassador.”

”Who is…Virilana Dragoi?”

”Oh, no, I’m sorry, we’re looking for Viridana Dragoi. You’re down 1000 credits.”

Viri bursts out laughing. “Virilana! We could be one of those celebrity couples with combined names!”

“Oh stars,” Lana scoffs, rolling her eyes. “Can you imagine?”

”It’s kind of cute,” Viri says. “Not that I’d actually use it, but…”

”It’s cute because of you,” Lana replies, snuggling closer to her and dipping into the popcorn bowl again.

”You’re the cute one,” Viri smiles, kissing her head.

”Cheeky flatterer.”

”You love my cheeks.”

”You…” Lana chuckles, kissing her shoulder.

67 Hours

Sleep. Lana’s mother hovers just behind her eyelids, shaking her head with disapproval.

You could at least try to look as pretty as the other girls.

Your hair is a mess.

Stand up straight.

Pity you’re so tall.

Wrong.

All wrong.

Lana cries out in her sleep, and Viri is there immediately, catching the echoes of her dream.

”I can’t do anything right…” Lana whispers.

”Shhh,” Viri says. “It’s not real. She had no fucking idea what she was talking about.”

”Failure…”

”Lana Beniko was so strong with the Force, and so intelligent, that she skipped several grades,” Viri murmurs, rocking her. “She was at the head of her class. She always impressed her teachers with her insights. In University she graduated with high honors. She survived Korriban, even though she had the most horrifying overseer in the entire Academy. Lana knew the Revanites wanted to destroy us all, when almost nobody else had caught on. She was the only one who was ever able to rescue the Outlander.”

Lana puts her hands to her head.

”You are strong,” Viri whispers to her, trying to overcome the negative memories in Lana’s mind. “You are smart. You are wonderful. You have accomplished so many things. You are beautiful.”

A vision of the Umbara train crash rises in Lana’s mind, and Viri holds her closer.

”Nobody knows everything all the time,” Viri says, trying to make her voice as soothing as possible. “I didn’t know either. Nobody in the Alliance did.”

The terrible images in Lana’s mind continue, and Viri sees herself on Asylum, being stabbed by Arcann.

“But you saved me,” Viri counters. “You ripped that cooling unit from the ceiling. He would have killed me if you hadn’t.”

Lana is silent.

”You got me back to the ship, and you’ve saved my life so many other times, in so many ways,” Viri continues, projecting her own images into Lana’s head: Lana freeing her from carbonite, begging her to live. Lana, helping her recover. Lana, sitting up with her as she screamed though her nightmares. Lana, right there with her as she battled Valkorion on the Eternal Throne.

Never good enough.

Always the best. Viri curls around Lana, pulling another blanket over them both. The extra warmth seems to relax Lana slightly, and Viri adds her own Force healing to it.

Not…a failure?

No, Viri says, kissing her on the forehead.

Pull me into your dreams again, Viri. Let me see something else.

Where do you want to go?

Lana shakes her head. Surprise me.

Viri concentrates, and the balcony of Taran and Lucinda’s apartment on Rishi appears again. The night sky is alive with stars, and a cool breeze caresses Lana’s face.

Sit with me. Watch the stars, Viri says. Lana does, curling up in her lap as they look up at the heavens.

75 Hours

”We can’t stay in this room forever, you know,” Lana says glumly, glancing over at Viri. They have not moved from their nest in Viri’s bed in hours, cuddling close under layers of blankets.

Viri reaches out to touch her cheek. “I know.”

”I’m…still not okay.”

”I know that too. I support you. There are no magic cures, and peace is a lie. We both know that, don’t we? But just as you help me through my…trauma…let me help you. I’m your Wrath, more than anyone’s.”

Lana’s lips quirk up in a smile. “My Wrath?”

Viri shrugs and smiles. “Your Wrath. Your Vere. Your brat. Choose the name. It’s all true. I’ll always fight like hell for you.”

”I love you,” Lana whispers. “So much.”

”I love you too, brave Set,” Viri says, kissing her. “Is there anything that would make it easier for you when we leave this room? Tell me.”

Lana takes a deep breath. “I want to come on missions with you. Not sit in the ship and watch.”

”You always want to be my second? Done. But…that will put you in danger.”

Lana shrugs. “I’ll be afraid for you; you be afraid for me?”

”Fair enough. What else?”

”I don’t know. I just…I don’t want you to get hurt again, Viri.”

”I have a difficult job,” Viri says softly. “I know it. You do too. I don’t want to get hurt, and I certainly don’t want you to be harmed in any way. It would be nice to think that someday I might have a more low impact job description.”

”I’d like that,” Lana says softly. “You are the Wrath. You always will be. But sometimes…that idea of taking off through the Rishi Maze is appealing.”

”Yes. It is.”

”After this conflict perhaps a long vacation would be in order.”

”Yes,” Viri agrees. “Perhaps that’s part of it. We haven’t really had a break in a while, have we? We thought there was a lull after Zakuul, but then I was ill, and now all of this has piled in. It’s overwhelming, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

”Do you want me to retire?” Viri fixes her eyes on Lana’s.

”No, of course not,” Lana says. “I just wish you could be rescuing sleen for a while instead of dealing with machine gods and traitors.”

”So do I,” Viri says, kissing her again. “But as we are, you’d like me to take you as my second on missions. Anything else?”

”Not that I can think of right now,” Lana says. “I still don’t want to leave this room yet.”

”We don’t have to,” Viri says with a wink.“We’re still on a mission with radio silence.”

”I just want to feel you beside me. Hold me.”

”Of course,” Viri says, spooning Lana tightly as they settle back to sleep.

Chapter Text

…Walk the path with Scyva, the Constant Companion. Wife of divine Izax and avatar of sorrow, she weeps beside those who gladly march to embrace the Ultimate Devourer…" - Ancient Zakuulan text

Odessen

85 Hours

It’s easier to eat now, Lana reflects. Of course, the delectable cuisine has helped in that endeavor. Viri has commissioned an endless parade of Lana’s favorite meals, from Dromund Kaas stew to Tionese brazed bantha steaks. There’s always a full bottle of Corellian Red on the table and C2 brings freshly baked cookies for dessert.

Across the table, though, the most delicious sight for Lana is Viri’s face, illuminated with joy at each bite she takes.

”So many delicacies,” Lana marvels, staring at the latest feast. “You’re spoiling me.”

”On Naboo, food is love,” Viri tells her, thoughtfully winding spaghetti around her fork. “When I was there, my Nona always had so much food waiting for me when I came home from training. She told me that she cooked for me because she loved me; because she wanted me to eat and be strong. She wanted me to take joy in my meals. I don’t cook for you because I love you, and I don’t think a burned bowl of pasta or singed meat would be appealing…but the sentiment is the same.”

”My love,” Lana says in Naboo, meeting her eyes and smiling. The food on the table is hot and inviting, and love courses through the bond.

90 Hours

Warmth. Comfort. Viri’s bed is always piled high with blankets, no matter how hot it is outside. Lana snuggles down under the layers of throws and comforters, her head nestled against Viri’s chest. The faint blue glow of Viri’s datapad shimmers against the sheets as she scrolls through the ancient Sith text they are reading together.

Viri takes one line, Lana takes the next; and the cadence of the High Sith soothes them both. They are Sith and they are together, and in the cocoon of Viri’s bed, the rest of the galaxy fades away.

They are scarred from battle; their heads float with nightmares that never leave them; but together, they are strong. Viri scrolls to the next page and reads the first line, her deep voice sure and steady.

96 Hours

Better. Not okay. They both know; they both accept it. Lana feels it acutely as she closes her eyes and lets the warm spray of the shower rinse the shampoo from her hair, luxuriating in the lush floral scent. Beside her, Viri is running conditioner through her long curls, working out every knot with her fingers.

Better. Not okay, but better. Viri turns off the shower and hands a towel to Lana. They amble into Lana’s sitting room to dry off, the carpet rough against their bare feet.

Viri roots through the wardrobe for fresh pajamas and the towel falls from her hips. The strong curves of her back take Lana’s breath away, and she steps forward to wind her arms around Viri, pressing her cheek to Viri’s back. Viri’s hands immediately cover hers, squeezing gently.

”Hello there.”

”Hello to you too,” Lana murmurs, nuzzling Viri’s warm skin. In the two weeks of fear and hurt and healing, even with the deep intimacy they have shared, they have not made love, and as Lana embraces her wife, she realizes it.

”It’s been a while,” Viri murmurs, catching Lana’s desire.

”It has,” Lana says, closing her eyes. “Too long.”

”Far too long.”

”I’ve missed you.”

”I’m right here,” Viri says, turning in Lana’s arms and lifting her gently. Lana’s mouth finds hers as lust spills through the bond. Viri walks them both toward the bed, depositing Lana on the mattress. Lana grabs her hands, pulling Viri down until she is stretched out beside her.

”Why haven’t we done this sooner?” Lana asks, tracing her lips.

”You needed to heal and rest,” Viri replies. “It wasn’t the right time.”

”On point,” Lana says, stroking Viri’s stomach with one hand. “I’m much better now, though.”

”I feel it,” Viri says, her voice hoarse. “I’ve been waiting for you. Anything you want…”

”You,” Lana says, biting Viri’s cheek. “All of you. I want to…”

Viri nods, her eyes dark with lust. She senses that Lana needs this; needs control, and she is happy to oblige.

”My love,” Lana whispers. Coming back to Viri is like coming home, and as Lana settles on top of her wife, she sighs with contentment. Her lips trace a fiery path along Viri’s collarbone, delighting in every small shiver and sigh. Viri’s skin is soft beneath her lips; Viri’s eyes are locked on her, shining with love, and Lana reaches out to caress her cheek.

I love that you’re my first and only. Viri’s words curl through Lana’s mind.

”What do you mean?” Lana murmurs. “I wasn’t your first…”

”Perhaps not technically, but you were,” Viri mutters. “The first one I wanted. The first one who didn’t force or hurt me. The only one I’ve ever found pleasure with. You’re the only one that I count. Don’t you know that?”

”Love,” Lana says, overwhelmed. “I hadn’t thought of it that way, but…”

…but it’s the truth.

Lana caresses her cheek again. You are my everything.

Love me. Don’t stop. Viri reaches up to kiss her, wrapping her arms around Lana’s back. Lana leans into the kiss before gently easing Viri back to the bed.

Lana nods, a mischievous smile crossing her lips, as she begins to love Viri. After two weeks away, every movement seems to be intensified. Every kiss. Every caress. Time seems to slow as they come together, shatter; find each other again. There is nothing more than this in the galaxy; nothing more than the two of them; Viri’s cries breaking through the silence of the room; Lana’s breath hitching in her chest as Viri moves against her. Purple Force power circles Viri, caressing her, as Lana leans in and intensifies her motion. Viri loses count of how many times she and Lana come undone; loses sense of everything except Lana’s warm hands and mouth; Lana’s Force signature humming around her.

It is dawn before they are finally sated, before Lana curls around Viri, holding her close. Their skin burns with the memory of kisses and Viri’s eyes glitter in the dim light, shiny with tears.

“What’s this?” Lana reaches out with one finger to brush the tears away.

“Happy tears. Promise.”

”I feel it,” Lana whispers, kissing her again and again. Viri’s Force signature is blue and bold, overflowing with joy.

”Thank you, beloved,” Viri whispers, crying again. “Never leave me.”

”Shhhh,” Lana murmurs, bending to kiss the tears away. “I’m here, love.”

”I’m supposed to be comforting you.”

”You’ve comforted me for days. Let me have a turn.”

 

*

106 Hours

She’s awake. She’s alert. For the first time in nearly a week, she glances over at her work datapad, dark and deactivated on the end table.

”We’re going to have to go back to work soon, aren’t we?” Lana asks.

”Unfortunately,” Viri says. “I have a message from Suvia. She’s found something we may need to move on. Tomorrow morning, if you’re up to it…I think we should consider rejoining the world.”

Lana sighs. “I know. I feel it. There’s some urgency. I wish…”

”I do too,” Viri admits, setting a tray down on the end table. She’s brought the evening tea, along with a bourbon bottle for Lana and cookies for herself.

Lana pours some tea for herself and Viri, dashes some bourbon into her own teacup, and takes a long sip. “I’ll enjoy tonight, then.”

”Before we rejoin everyone, we need to talk.”

”I’m listening,” Lana says. “What’s on your mind?”

Viri looks down and takes a deep breath. “I know you were doing what you thought was best last week. You were desperate to save me, to save us, to save this Alliance. But I don’t think it was…the best way to go about things.”

”You’re being very diplomatic,” Lana says. “And since we share a bond, I know you’re holding back. Please be honest.”

”You broke my heart,” Viri says, meeting her eyes. “Seeing you hurt yourself so much. Seeing how you treated others. Watching you lash out, instead of coming to me, or one of your other friends…you were in so much pain and you wouldn’t let me help you.”

”I’m sorry,” Lana says, sighing.

”I don’t need an apology, love,” Viri says, taking her hand. “I just want you to feel comfortable coming to me. Let me help you with your pain and fear, as you help me. We must save each other. Don’t push me away. I said I was your Wrath. I meant it.”

Lana takes a deep breath.

”I know how hard this is,” Viri says, squeezing her hand. “We were both raised to avoid anything perceived as weakness. But this isn’t weakness, love. We are stronger together, we are bonded in the Force, and to see you hurting alone is the worst thing in the galaxy. You once told me you would destroy the stars to keep me safe. I would do the same. Let me.”

“Viri, I…” Lana whispers, shaking her head. “You’re right. This is difficult.”

You are afraid.

I am afraid…but I trust you completely.

Lana laces her fingers with Viri’s and nods. “You have my word: I will confront my fears with you. I will not push you away again. We will always fight together.”

The bond sparks, as though it has heard something that has pleased it, and the Force flows through Lana and Viri as they embrace.

*

118 Hours

Dawn on Odessen. Lana adjusts her scarf around her neck and studies her reflection in the mirror. Her eyes are still shadowed, but a week of rest and healing have done much to restore her vitality. After a week without armor, it is an odd weight on her arms and legs, and her hands feel stiff in her gauntlets.

”You look lovely,” Viri says, coming up behind her and kissing her cheek. Viri is back in her Wrath robes, ready to resume her role as Alliance Commander, and her gold eyes add an air of severity to her face.

“What do we have today?” Lana asks.

”A staff meeting with strike team Aurek, plus Suvia and Talos,” Viri says, taking her hands. “Are you ready?”

Lana shudders.

”It’s going to be hard to walk out the door, but I promise, nobody out there is waiting to bite you,” Viri says, squeezing her hands. “And you don’t even have to go near that research lab. Suvia and her team have it all under control.”

“The longer I put it off, the worse it will be. I know that. Still…”

“There are some people who would really like to see you,” Viri says. “A few of your friends. Would it be easier if they said hello privately before you went back to work?”

”I have friends left on this base?” Lana says, laughing harshly. “After all that…”

”Yes, you do,” Viri says. “Many. Shall I call some of them?”

”I’ll have to face them all sooner or later,” Lana shrugs. “Might as well.”

Viri smiles as she accesses her comlink. “Vette? Mission debrief, please.”

”That’s right, I was on a mission with Vette,” Lana says, remembering. “Does anyone else know…”

”The truth? Jaesa, Talos and Suvia. Everyone else thinks you really were on that mission. So those four are coming to see you now.”

“They’re good friends, to cover for us.”

”They would do no less for you, love,” Viri says, answering the knock at the door. Lana looks down as Vette, Jaesa, Suvia and Talos file into the room.

Vette says nothing, but engulfs Lana in a hug.

”What’s this?” Lana says, returning the embrace. “Vette?”

”I want you to remember that we love you,” Vette says. “We have your back. Every one of us.”

Lana’s eyes fall on Talos, and she looks away.

”You were under considerable stress, Lana,” Talos says reassuringly. “We all know it. Water under the bridge, as they say.”

”I still should not have lashed out at you,” Lana mutters. “Or you, Suvia.”

”Let it go,” Suvia says. “We have.”

”It’s all right,” Jaesa adds. “We’re just glad you’re better.”

Lana nods, and Jaesa catches her eye. “Hey. I didn’t say okay. I said better. Remember what Vette told you. We have your back. Yours and Viri’s.”

Lana exhales. “I thank you. This is…unexpected.”

”It shouldn’t be,” Jaesa snorts.

”I…” Lana looks from one face to the next. “You’re family, aren’t you? All of you. You care. You truly do.”

”I’ve only been calling her ‘Sithster in law’ for two years, and finally she gets it,” Vette chuckles.

”Thank you,” Viri says softly, putting a hand on Lana’s shoulder.

”No thanks needed,” Suvia smiles slightly. “Now then…we have a base to run. Shall we?”

”Can we…” Lana glances up at Viri. “Can we do our meeting here?”

Viri shrugs. “I can’t see why not, as long as everyone agrees. Suvia?”

Suvia nods, taking her datapad and holo out of her pocket. “That will work. Your suites have more security than the rest of the base, anyway. I can present here.”

”Please do, Suvia,” Viri says, all business. She settles down on the couch next to Lana, staring intently at the holo projections from Suvia’s device.

”First issue: the map. We’re still decrypting it. It’s an excruciatingly slow process. There’s not much to report with that. Second issue, though: I left a skeleton crew on Tatooine and asked a second team to keep investigating on Odessen. We found the Star Map, as well as some other very interesting things.”

”Such as?”

Suvia presses a button, bringing up a map of the Dune Sea. A red button blinks on one corner of the screen.

”The red dot is where the Czerka excavation site is located. Now I want you to look at these other images,” Suvia says, pressing more buttons. Blue and purple radar circles are superimposed over the map. “The blue field is an area that is referred to as ‘cursed’ in Sand People lore. The area is similarly described as such by the Jawa clans. They do not have written histories of it, but every Jawa group on the planet apparently has it on common knowledge to stay away from that region. Here’s a third: the green circle is the “field of ghosts” described by the Sons of Palawa.”

”Every culture on Tatooine recognizes the Czerka site as forbidden territory,” Viri muses, putting her chin in her hand. “We knew about the Sand People’s opinion on the area, but not the others. The Sons of Palawa did speak of ‘ghosts of the desert,’ but not with specifics.”

”The question becomes: why? The Rakata mind trap was there, but it, on its own, should not have had the power to transform people as it did.” Suvia continues. “Even the artifacts from that site were dangerous. When the Commander first explored the Czerka mystery, a sealed equipment case was located. It was dangerous enough to transform and possess several Reclamation Service officers when they tried to work with it, even without the mind trap within close proximity.”

”Yes, it did,” Viri says, shuddering at the memory. “That was terrible.”

”Indeed,” Suvia says. “That box was contained by the Reclamation Service, and I was able to claim it for my vaults when I was on the Dark Council. Talos held onto it for me, and I had him access it in storage. Don’t worry, it’s still on Tatooine, not here. At any rate, the provenance of the item is interesting. It is ten thousand years old, at least, it is imbued with the Force, and the metal structure appears to match examples from Iokath and Zakuul. Not the Rakata.”

Viri exhales. “So this isn’t just Rakatan technology.”

”Not at all,” Suvia agrees. “And if the Rakatans intended to imprison someone, they would not have left him with the means to mobilize an army of cybernecrotic warriors. We’ve seen and studied plenty of other examples of Rakatan mind traps. You’ve visited one, Commander. None of the others have ever been capable of this level of damage.”

”And,” Talos says, pulling up another map, “This area still appears to be very strong in the Force, even though the mind trap has now been destroyed.”

”The areas that correspond to the ‘ghost’ and ‘cursed’ areas the Jawas and Sand People speak of,” Viri says, stunned. “Something else is there. Something that may have interfered…or powered…the mind trap and the artifacts.”

”Exactly,” Suvia says, scrolling to another image; a copy of an ancient Zakuulan text. “Scyva. She is the mother of four of the machine gods, but she is also variously described as a mother of many and an ‘avatar of sorrow.’ She could create…”

”…a cybernecrotic army,” Lana murmurs.

”If Scyva sleeps in this area, and the artifacts are actually tied to her and not the Rakata, it would explain most, if not all, of the mystery,” Suvia nods. “How the mind trap was so powerful. It subconsciously fed off the power of the sleeping Scyva. Why the Jawa, Sand People and Sons of Palawa all had such a strong aversion to the area. They felt it too. We’ve even checked the farm records. The longest attempt at a farm in the ‘cursed zone’ was two months before the settlers left.”

”They all felt Scyva’s presence, and that of the Rakatan prisoner who siphoned her power.”

”Precisely,” Suvia says. “Now, like the others, she appears to be waking up. There have been spikes of seismic activity in the ‘forbidden zone’ for the last three days. Some of the local Force sensitives, both Sith and Jedi, feel unrest.”

”We need to get to her,” Viri says. “Now.”

”My thoughts exactly. I know you are just returning to duty, but…” Suvia’s voice trails off.

”Duty calls,” Viri says resolutely. “Assemble the rest of Aurek and Besh. We’ll fly to Tatooine immediately.”

Will you be all right? The words in the bond are soft, a contrast to Viri’s strong Commander voice.

Yes, as long as I’m your second, Lana replies.

It shall be so. Viri catches her eye, sending love through the bond, and begins to pack for Tatooine.

Tatooine, Outpost Zaroshe

If there is anything that Tatooine has taught Viri, it is that some things are entirely beyond her control. The blistering heat and sun. The way the desert is boiling hot by day and freezing by night. The way the sand will suddenly whip up into a fierce storm, obscuring the sky that was crystal blue a moment before.

Alliance Strike Teams Aurek and Besh are all learning the latter truth as they huddle together in the cantina at Outpost Zaroshe. Even with the urgency of their mission, the sand has stopped them. The transport banthas they had planned to use are safely in their barns, and the entirety of the base is sheltering in place.

”I don’t understand why we have to take bloody banthas anyway,” Darth Hexid grouses, pacing impatiently.

”It’s been explained to you,” Lana says calmly. “The animals live in this environment. They can handle the sand. It would get into the mechanisms of a speeder or shuttle, and we’d end up stranded in the desert.”

”It’s the same reason we’re not taking the droids,” Talos says. “They could easily be rendered inoperable by the sand.”

“I hate sand,” Viri complains, brushing her boots clean again. Even in the safety of the cantina, there are still small drafts blowing sand around the room. “It gets everywhere.”

”There’s no need to do that, you know damn well they’re going to be coated with sand again in two minutes,” Jaesa says, rolling her eyes.

”That doesn’t mean I won’t try to stop it.”

”Tonight on the HoloNet: Viridana Versus the Desert! Can the sands of Tatooine survive the wrath of the Wrath? We’ll all find out!” Vette quips.

”I’d win,” Viri sulks.

”Such dramatics,” Vette chuckles. “It distracted you from brushing your boots for the thousandth time.”

”Put down the brush, love,” Lana says, gently taking it out of Viri’s hands. “You’re going to clean your boots to pieces.”

”But the sand…!

Lana raises an eyebrow at her and smiles. Nerves. Not sand. I feel it. You’re also chewing your lip bloody.

Kiss it better?

I can do that, Lana smiles again and presses her lips to Viri’s. Instantly, Viri relaxes.

”Ah, I see the solution now,” Vette giggles. “We need to kiss Viri to get her to stop fussing.”

”Only one person gets to kiss me,” Viri says, lost in Lana’s eyes.

”Then we need to take Lana with us everywhere.”

”That won’t be a problem,” Lana murmurs, savoring the love flowing through the bond.

Don’t you get hurt, Lana. Don’t you dare get hurt out there.

I’m not planning on it, mine. Calm down. We’re all right.

”Do not encourage them, Vette,” Jaesa says, rolling her eyes. “They’ll probably start ripping their clothes off next. You know how they are.”

”Nah. Too much sand here for that. Viri did say that it gets everywhere.”

The entire strike team dissolves into peals of laughter as Vette takes a bow. “Thank you Tatooine, you’ve been a great audience. Good night.”

“So glad you’re all so amused,” Suvia mutters, biting back a smile. “The sandstorm seems to be abating, in case it’s at all of interest.”

Viri nods, her expression every bit the Wrath’s. “We don’t know how long we’ll have before the winds pick up again. Let’s move.”

*

The caravan of banthas winds its way slowly through the Dune Sea toward the Czerka excavation site. Even after nearly nine years, the scenery hasn’t changed; the same shipwrecks and krayt dragon bones are getting slowly buried by the sands.

The Czerka excavation site is just as they left it. Solar panels still glint in the sun, even though they no longer power anything inside the compound. The corpses of the cybernecrotic warriors have long been cleaned up, but the mantle of death still hangs over the entrance. Viri shivers involuntarily.

Are you all right? Lana, sitting behind her on the bantha, hugs her waist reassuringly.

I’m just remembering how horrible this was, Lana. The memory…the death…cam you feel it?

Yes. Lana hugs her tighter.

“All of you look like you’re about to be executed,” Jaesa says. “I get it, the place has a death aura. It’s not like we haven’t seen those before.”

“It’s not just that. You weren’t here the first time, Jae,” Vette says. “You didn’t see. All those possessed workers. Their eyes…I keep seeing their eyes.”

Viri nods grimly. “We found a holo left by one of the Czerka security guards. He was warning people away from the site; telling us that we didn’t want to go in. He was right. It was terrible, Jaesa.”

”Worse than Oricon?”

Viri considers. “In direct comparison? No. At the time I was just an apprentice, though, and it was the worst thing I’d ever witnessed anywhere.”

Suvia grits her teeth, fighting her own revulsion, as she taps in the Imperial codes to open the excavation site. “Now, there shouldn’t be anyone left roaming around here. It’s been completely emptied. We checked numerous times for life forms…and non-life forms, if you catch my meaning. But Scyva’s unrest seems to have amplified the death aura, so brace yourself.”

”Noted,” Darth Imperius says, steeling herself. The Force users close their eyes momentarily, marshaling their strength.

“The banthas are getting upset,” Viri says. Her own bantha is squeaking and shuffling nervously; Suvia’s has begun to dig its hooves into the sand, seeking a hiding place. “I think someone should take them away from the site and stay with them so they don’t panic.”

”That’s my contribution to this mission: bantha herder,” Pierce chuckles. “Shae, want to help me? Let’s get them out of here.”

”Come on, beasties,” Shae Vizla says, sliding off the back of her bantha and taking its reins. The rest of the strike team dismounts and leads their animals into line behind Pierce and Shae.

”Lucky they mind so well,” Lana says, watching them trudge away from the excavation site. The banthas are walking as fast as they can, desperate to get away from the death aura.

”They don’t want to be here,” Viri says quietly.

Neither do I. She can feel me, Lana.

Lana raises an eyebrow. Scyva?

Yes. She knows I killed her children. She is livid. Viri wraps her hand around her lightsaber.

”You feel her, don’t you, Viri?” Suvia says, looking over at her.

”Yes. She is enraged,” Viri says. “When she wakes…”

”…there will be trouble. Come. I’ve tracked the strongest energy readings to these coordinates,” Suvia says, motioning for the strike team to follow her.

As the team follows Suvia, Viri shudders, and then shudders again. Scyva’s rage makes every nerve in her body vibrate; makes her blood run cold. As they draw closer, Viri’s heart begins to pound.

”She’s awake.” The words are no sooner out of Viri’s mouth than the sand around them explodes, revealing a gigantic droid.

”Oh, shit, she’s up,” Jaesa shouts, dodging a laser beam. The droid bears down on them, eyes blazing with fury and blaster fire in her wake.

”You. Killed. My. Children,” Scyva roars, pointing an accusing finger at Viri. “You. Will. Die.”

”Not in the plan,” Viri snaps, evading Scyva’s strike. She channels the Force, but Scyva seems to be able to repel every one of her attacks. Beside her, Suvia is casting one round of lightning after the next, to no avail.

”There has to be a way to kill her,” Vette says desperately, as her blaster rounds ricochet off Scyva’s shoulder. Another surge of power atomizes the dune next to her, sending sand flying.

Viri stops short.

Sand.

It gets everywhere.

”Force users! Follow me!” Viri screams, raising her hands. As she concentrates, the sand begins to churn and rise from the dunes, swirling into a malevolent sandstorm. When it has grown to a fury, Viri launches it at Scyva. Behind her, Lana, Jia, Jaesa, Suvia and Hexid follow suit, pummeling the giant droid with wave after wave of sand.

”What is this supposed to do?!” Jaesa bellows above the din. “Sand, Viri?!”

”Just keep hitting her!” Viri shouts back. “Trust me!”

The Force users continue launching sand at Scyva, until she is almost totally obscured by a sea of yellow, but when there’s a momentary break in the assault, they see that her knees have buckled and her arms have frozen.

Sand gets everywhere? Lana laughs, her mirth echoing in Viri’s mind.

Exactly. Viri narrows her eyes and channels more of her power, sending half of a nearby dune at Scyva’s head. The metal begins to spark as the sand gets into the droid’s gears, bringing her operation to a grinding halt. She falls heavily to the desert floor, and Viri springs forward.

”Now. Destroy her,” Viri hisses, her eyes glowing red with the Force. Every member of the strike team pounces at Scyva, striking with the Force, blasters and sabers. In a matter of minutes, the droid has been reduced to rubble.

”Well,” Jaesa says, brushing sand from her gloves, “Remind me never to doubt you again when you call for a sand attack.”

”Death by sand,” Vette giggles, holstering her blasters. “It’s almost sad.”

”Almost,” Viri smirks. “Same protocol we used before. Since there’s still debris here, we’ll need to reduce it to dust.”

”On it,” Lana says. “I’ve already called for the explosives crew. There will be nothing here but a crater in a few minutes.”

“Excellent,” Viri says, leading the strike team back toward the banthas. “Everyone all right?”

”Yes,” Jia says, grinning.

”Not bad, Demon Savior,” Jaesa says, applauding. “That was fun.”

”I wonder if this area will still be seen as the forbidden lands now or if the legends will change,” Viri says, looking back. The Alliance’s demolitions crew is already hard at work, pummeling the site with orbital strikes. The sky glows red over the Czerka excavation as it is blasted to bits.

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Suvia says, “So many things occurred there; the echoes alone will probably linger for centuries, if not millennia. Even without anything tangible, legends live on. The real nightmare is finally over, though. Without Scyva, there should be nothing left to power the site.”

Lana squeezes Viri’s hand. Five nightmares down. Two to go.

Viri meets her eyes and smiles at her. We’ll get them.

Chapter Text

viriathisseke"

"…Honor the omnipotence of Izax, the Ultimate Devourer: father, ruler, and bringer of death to us all. His forms are infinite, but his great glory flies on serpent wings…" Ancient Zakuulan text

”The many ruins on Athiss have never been properly studied. They resemble the architecture of the ancient Sith Empire, but their purpose is mysterious. A few records of Athiss survive in the libraries of the Citadel, but contemporary Sith scholars are forbidden from studying them, on the personal order of the Emperor." - Excerpt from in-game Codex entry for Athiss

Odessen, Force Enclave, one week later

Whispers trail Viri as she walks slowly through the ancient temple. Her footfalls on the stones echo around her, but she still hears the words uttered by invisible onlookers.

She will become a god.

The god of rage.

The god of hatred.

The god of passion.

The god of envy.

The god of sorrow.

The god of death.

She will pay with blood.

She will become…

”No!” Viri screams.

”Viri, nwul.” Lana ‘s concerned voice cuts through the haze in Viri’s mind, and she opens her eyes.

”I’m here,” Viri says, blinking her eyes to adjust to the light in Sana-Rae’s private meditation room. “I’m awake.”

”That was a long one,” Lana says, crouching next to Viri. “Sana-Rae, did you get all of it?”

”Yes,” Sana-Rae says, studying her datapad. “Every word.”

”So how do we interpret it? Tell me what it means,” Viri frowns.

”I’ve told you, Viri. Mystics see. Interpreters explain. You need to perfect the former before you can even consider the latter.”

”You have been interpreting your own visions here,” Viri persists.

”Yes, because I know my own mind. I do not know yours,” Sana-Rae says.

Viri puts her head in her hands in frustration. “What is the use of doing this, if we’re not going to get any meaning?”

”You assume you cannot also learn to interpret your own visions. You do yourself a disservice,” Sana-Rae says patiently. “Impatience is a sign of the novice. But it is a trait we all experience. We want to know what we see. But we cannot rush this. You need to learn to see clearly before we can move on.”

”We don’t have the time, Sana-Rae,” Viri says, putting her head in her hands. “If we were on Voss in peacetime, I’d agree with you, but we don’t know how long it’s going to be before Theron and the Order use whatever they found on the map, and…”

”Urgency does not mitigate the need to perfect one’s abilities,” Sana-Rae says. “Yet, I concede that these are…special circumstances. We can try to do both, but it will not be perfect.”

“Why don’t you tell us what you think it means, Viri?” Lana says, squeezing her shoulder gently. “I agree with Sana-Rae. You’re not giving yourself enough credit. You can learn to interpret, too. Ideally, you wouldn’t be attempting it right now, but…”

Sana-Rae nods, and Viri takes a shaky breath. “I think it’s referring to the gods I am destroying. The traits match up with what we learned about the Zakuulan pantheon. The god of envy, Esne. Passion, her sister.”

”I’d believe that,” Lana nods.

”She will pay with blood…that is similar to what we read before, the mention of a ‘blood sacrifice.’ That worries me, Lana,” Viri says, getting up to pace. “What if it is referring to more mass destruction?”

”To be fair, Theron and the Order of Zildrog have already caused ‘mass destruction,’” Lana points out. “There were many casualties on Iokath, Umbara and Copero. Vitiate also fueled himself with the deaths he caused on the planets he destroyed. Could that be the ‘blood sacrifice?’”

Viri shakes her head. “There’s more. I feel it.”

”I have been having visions of a bleeding dragon,” Sana-Rae says thoughtfully. “Of two dragons dueling. Of one winning. The other dying. And yet, the winner is still wounded.”

Viri looks away. “I…I’ve been seeing dragons too.”

”You versus…Zildrog? Izax? The Order?” Lana suggests.

”Or all of the above,” Viri says. “It suggests to me that even if I win, there may be a price.”

”There’s always a price,” Lana says. “The Eternal Throne did not come without a price. Neither did defeating the incarnation of Revan we met. Nor becoming the Wrath, I’d imagine.”

”The price is blood this time,” Viri says heavily.

”You are getting upset,” Sana-Rae says. “We should end for today. Meditate on what we have done. I want you to do the exercises in the ninth volume.”

Viri blinks. “We did the ninth volume yesterday.”

”And you will do them again,” Sana-Rae says. “There is no easy path, Viri. How long did it take you to become a Sith? Years?”

”Decades,” Viri admits. “And I’m still learning.”

”Then why would you expect being a Mystic to take less time?”

”Because I need to keep everyone alive.”

”Understood,” Sana-Rae says. “But consider that haste may interfere with that goal. I’m giving you the same lessons I undertook myself. At the same pace.”

”I understand,” Viri sighs. “I don’t mean to challenge you, Sana-Rae. I appreciate that you are taking the time to instruct me.”

Sana-Rae allows herself a small smile. “I appreciate the chance to instruct you. As I said, impatience and frustration are common emotions for those learning to be Mystics. Embrace them and channel them, as a Sith. Learn from them as a Mystic.”

”I will,” Viri bows to Sana-Rae and leaves her chamber, Lana in tow. The Force Enclave is alive with activity, with Force users of all stripes and alignments practicing, meditating and debating. In one corner, Somminick Timmns is leading a meditation practice; in another, Darth Imperius and Darth Hexid are coaching students through lightsaber drills.

”It’s still amazing to me to see all of this,” Lana says. “Everyone…just being one with the Force, with whatever ideology suits them.”

”Would that it will continue,” Viri says, leading the way to the Alliance’s small hospital. It has become their routine; after completing their morning training with Sana-Rae, Lana and Viri stop by the hospital to visit with Taran.

”Good morning Commander, Lana,” the young medic at the front desk nods to them both. “Here to see the Great Hunter?”

”Is she accepting visitors right now?” Viri asks.

The medic consults his datapad. “Yes. You know where to go.”

Viri and Lana nod and walk down the corridor to Taran’s room.

When do you think they will let her go home? Lana asks silently, looking over at Viri.

I wish I knew. She’s been here for almost three weeks. Viri exhales as they reach Taran’s door and ring the bell. A droid answers almost immediately, and opens the door to allow them into the room.

”See, I told you they’d stop by now,” Taran laughs, her voice raspy and hoarse. She’s awake and sitting up in bed, and Lana is pleased to see a glimmer of happiness in her dark eyes. Lucinda is perched on a nearby chair, out of her scrubs and in civilian clothes.

”Good to see you both,” Lucinda smiles. “I’m not doctoring this one right now. Just visiting.”

””How are you both?” Viri asks, smiling.

Taran shrugs noncommittally. “I’m feeling better. The physical therapy is helping. My doctor is such a hardass, you wouldn’t believe how much she makes me work.”

”I bet, I’ve heard rumors about her,” Viri laughs as Lucinda takes a small bow.

”It’s necessary,” Lucinda says. “She needs to get up and moving.”

”I’ve been told I might be able to go home this week,” Taran smiles. “It’s going to be a long road from there, but…”

”You do know, you are all welcome to stay at the Alliance as long as you like,” Lana says.

Taran’s smile fades, and she catches Lucinda’s eyes and nods. “We…we’d wanted to talk to you about that, actually. Blizz considers this home. Mako and Akaavi are settling in. Lucinda works well in your hospital…”

”You’re all doing wonderful work here,” Viri agrees.

”I…I can’t offer you anything right now. I can’t hunt at the moment. Wally and I have talked it over and…it might be time for me to retire. But I’d still like to stay here, if you will have me, even without a job...”

”You don’t have to work to stay here,” Viri says, shaking her head. “When we said you were welcome, we meant it. No strings attached. You don’t have to hunt for us.”

Taran blinks. “You do mean it.”

”Yes,” Viri says. “You take all the time you need to recover and rest. If you’d like to help out in the Alliance later, when you’re feeling up to it, I’m sure we could find you something non-combative to do. That’s only if you want to.”

Taran rubs her forehead. “I…wow. Thank you.”

Lucinda takes Taran’s hand. “Thank you so much. I would like to keep working in the hospital here. I think I am doing some good, and Oggurobb and Lokin are most fascinating.”

Viri nods. “I’d like that too.”

”It’s weird,” Taran says, putting one arm around Lucinda. “I always thought…retiring would mean death. Like Crysta and…”

”Enough of that,” Lucinda says, frowning. “Of course you don’t have to die to retire! You can stay here and rest and let me care for you.”

“If you insist,” Taran grins.

”I’m glad you’re staying,” Lana says. “And…”

Lana’s words are cut off by the insistent beeping of Viri’s holocom.

”It’s…the Scions,” Viri says, checking the ID. “Taran, Lucinda, I’m sorry, but I need to take this.”

”It’s not as though we plan on going anywhere now,” Taran reminds her, smiling. “Go. Save the damned galaxy again. You’re good at it.”

”We’ll visit again soon,” Lana says, following Viri out of the room. The holo continues beeping as the two women jog down the corridor, seeking an unoccupied room to take the call. Lana spots a broom closet and nods to Viri, shutting the door behind them.

”Yes, this is the Commander,” Viri says, answering the holo. The solemn figure of the Scion Oramis appears before them.

”Were you debating answering my call?” Oramis asks, a touch of mischief in her voice.

”No, not at all, but we need to find a place that offered some privacy before we picked up the holo.”

”I see,” Oramis says. “I will be brief, because time is short. You have done well, Demon Savior.”

”Could you please just call me Commander? Lord Dragoi? Viri? Darth Viridana? I won’t be picky about this. Anything except…”

”We will call you by the name we know, Demon Savior,” Oramis says sternly. “Your other names and titles mean nothing to us.”

Viri sighs in frustration. “Right. So. What is it you need to tell me?”

”We know you have vanquished five of the seven gods,” Oramis says. “We know you seek the remaining two. Izax. The sleeping dragon. We cannot help you with the latter. He still slumbers, but he will wake, and you will find him when the time is right. Izax, however, is different. You will meet Izax very soon. We hear him stirring.”

”Where is he?”

”Where it was forbidden,” Oramis says. “You killed the prophet but not the source. He lives beneath the ancient stones you have tread before. The ones of your creed.”

Viri gestures for Oramis to continue, but she shakes her head.

”That is all we can tell you. The path is unclear, because this is your battle, and finding the gods as they call to you is part of your struggle. You will find Izax. We have foreseen it.”

”Do I win?”

Oramis smiles slightly. “You are the Demon Savior. That suggests a positive outcome.”

”I appreciate…your confidence,” Viri says quietly.

”I will be in touch again, Demon Savior. Until then, be well and be victorious.” Oramis bows slightly and the holo goes dark.

”Well, that’s a riddle,” Lana says, sitting down heavily.

Viri throws her hands in the air. “I’m not just trying to figure out my own cryptic thoughts, now I have to figure out the Scions’ visions too. Lovely.”

”Let’s break it down. ‘You killed the prophet but not the source.’ Can you remember killing any prophets; anyone considered a cult leader?”

Viri sighs and begins to pace.. “Valkorion would probably qualify as a ‘cult leader,’ given how much Zakuulans worshipped him. But I don’t think anyone considered him to be a prophet. There was the leader of the Hailstorm Brotherhood on Hoth…he might have been thought of as one…I don’t know. There were so many missions. So many I allowed to live, so many I banished.”

”We’ll need to think on this more,” Lana says, “I did lift your old mission log from Sith Intelligence when I left. We can comb through it and see if any of the names ring a bell. What about the next line? To me, that would suggest that it’s somewhere you have been before. That would be in line with all the other gods. You faced them in places where you’d previously done battle.”

”I agree,” Viri says, chewing her lip. “And the last line, ‘the ones of your creed,’ suggest we’re looking for a Sith location.”

Lana nods. “I concur. Suvia would know every ‘Sith location’ in the galaxy; more than you or I. Let’s ask her.”

*

An hour later, various datapads, scrolls and holo-boards are scattered across Suvia’s desk, but they are no closer to finding a solution.

”There are so many Sith temples in so many places, Viri,” Suvia says, rubbing her head. “The ‘prophet’ part is stumping me. There was a so-called prophet in command of my cult on Nar Shaddaa before I took over, but you had nothing to do with them.”

“I have your mission log here, Viri,” Lana says, projecting the log to one of Suvia’s holo-boards. “Let’s scroll down. Several of these missions are classified. Even I couldn’t look at your objectives for these. Do you remember what they were?”

”Marr and Malgus sent me on a lot of those classified missions,” Viri nods, staring at the screen. “Hammer Station. That was an asteroid. I am guessing that is the earliest one, from the dates. And some of these are from my time as the Wrath. Athiss…”

Suvia looks at her, suddenly pale. “Athiss?! That’s it! Vodal Kressh, Viri.”

”What?”

”Don’t you remember? We went to Athiss together. We killed the Prophet of Vodal Kressh!”

Viri’s face lights up with the realization. “And…Athiss was restricted. The Emperor forbade anyone from going there or learning about it.”

”…supposedly because of the out of control dark energy there. The people who lived there were mad,” Suvia says, “And…fueled by corrupted energy of the Force.”

”The explorers from the Republic were possessed,” Viri says, rubbing her head. “Where have we heard that before?”

”What are you talking about?” Lana asks. “Someone bring me up to speed, please?”

Viri exhales. “Sorry, Lana. Right. A millennium ago, a Sith alchemist, Vodal Kressh, lived and worked on Athiss. His work- or something on the planet - drove him mad, and Vitiate declared the world to be forbidden. It couldn’t even be researched in the Sith archives in the Citadel.”

”How did you get to go there, then?”

”A group of Republic archaeologists crash-landed on the planet. Whatever was on Athiss drove them mad before a rescue team could reach them. The distress signals they were sending out were increasingly bizarre. The Empire intercepted them. We were sent to figure out what the hell was going on, recover some of Vodal Kressh’s work, and ensure that the Republic would no longer poke around there. There were a few left who hadn’t been corrupted. We wiped their minds of any knowledge of Athiss and put them on a shuttle back to Coruscant.”

”I see.”

”I’m still surprised you wouldn’t agree to kill them,” Suvia says. “That was my vote.”

Viri looks away. “I can’t kill archaeologists. They hadn’t asked to land there. They didn’t have any information that would harm us, after we dazzled them.”

”We got them offworld, that’s what mattered. Regardless, back to the present. It seems as though we know where to go to find Izax,” Suvia says. “How do you feel about it?”

”It seems right,” Viri says. “Let’s call the shuttle.”

”Talos and I will come with you,” Suvia says, rising from her desk. “Even if we don’t fight, we can provide backup from the ship.”

”Right,” Viri says, turning to leave. “We’ll meet you in the hangar in fifteen minutes.”

Lana and Viri leave Suvia’s office and walk through the Alliance base to their suite. There’s no longer any division; they both know it’s all theirs, even though they each still have their own personal rooms within.

As soon as Viri types in the security codes and the doors open and shut behind them, they make a beeline for their personal armory. They silently gather their strongest armor and covert force field generators and hang them on their portable armor racks.

”I think we have everything…” Viri says, but Lana grabs her wrist. Anxiety vibrates through the bond, and Viri responds instantly.

”Tell me, love,” Viri says, scooping Lana into her arms. “What is troubling you?”

”Every…” Lana winds her arms around Viri’s waist and takes a deep breath, but the words do not come, and she finally resorts to telepathy. Every god we have faced has been stronger than the last. The god of death…all your visions of blood sacrifices…I don’t like it.

”I don’t like it either,” Viri murmurs, “But at least Oramis said we’d win.”

At what cost? With a blood sacrifice?

”That’s the pressing question, isn’t it? You know I will not sacrifice anyone on our team. Not me, not you, not our friends. Not civilians. Not the base. And I have a feeling it refers to Zildrog, not Izax. We should be safe this time. When we’re not…we’ll handle it.”

”It didn’t sound as though the sacrifice was optional.”

”I’ll work it out,” Viri says, kissing the top of Lana’s head. “I will not leave you.”

”Do you promise?” Lana whispers.

Viri kneels before her and takes her hands, kissing them one by one. “Lana Beniko, I give you my solemn word, on the Force, that I will not leave you. Not here. Not in the afterlife. You are mine. I am yours.”

Lana’s eyes fill with tears. You can’t promise that.

Can our bond be broken? Viri says, rising to embrace Lana again.

Force bonds cannot be severed. Not usually…

Can our love be broken?

No. That, I know.

Then I will never leave you. Viri holds Lana tightly.

”Let me rephrase it, then: don’t die,” Lana says, her voice hoarse. She buries her face in Viri’s chest, savoring the rhythmic pulse of her heart.

”I’m doing my very best not to die,” Viri says, stroking her back. “And you know that if I can help it, nobody else dies on my watch, either. We’ll be all right, lover.”

”Just hold me,” Lana whispers, and Viri complies. Red tendrils of Viri’s Force power surround them, holding Lana as much as Viri’s arms.

”Brave Set,” Viri murmurs. “I’m here.”

”We have to get to the shuttle in a moment,” Lana mutters. “We can’t stay like this.”

”It’s a long way to Athiss,” Viri replies. “Let’s spend it together.”

*

Alliance Shuttle Aurek One, Hyperspace Lane, Deep Space

Warmth. Strength. The Force. The door to Lana and Viri’s cabin is locked, and they are seated before the small altar next to their bed, hands linked, minds open.

Lana closes her eyes and leans her head against Viri’s as they recite the High Sith lines of the protection ritual they have chosen. It will be followed by the love ritual. And then another protection rite. Lana has insisted, and Viri has agreed.

”…the Force shall free me. In strength and power, we are protected,” Viri murmurs, feeling the words to the bottom of her very soul.

Athiss

“It’s as though we’ve gone back in time,” Suvia murmurs, looking over Lana’s shoulder as she lands the shuttle. Alliance Shuttle Aurek One is using the same clearing that Viri and Suvia’s Imperial transport had used so many years ago.

”Indeed,” Viri murmurs, surveying the site through the shuttle’s windows. It certainly doesn’t look any different. The Republic’s archaeology tents have been battered and broken down by the elements, but behind them, the old temples and tombs still reign over the forest.

”It’s like Korriban, but…with trees,” Lana marvels. For her, time has moved on, significantly. In another life, at another time, she would have been fascinated with Athiss; would have requested permission to study every wall relief and inscription. Now, all she feels is the planet’s deep unrest; the corruption in the Force that is detectable even from the air. She shivers, and Viri puts an arm around her.

”It’s a different sort of corruption, isn’t it? Viri and I noticed it the first time,” Suvia says, opening her data screens.

”What are we dealing with here?” Lana asks, her voice low.

Suvia shrugs. “Viri and I took out most of the dangerous inhabitants and dismantled most of the traps when we visited years ago. Even without the Prophet, there’s still a large population of Vodal Kressh devotees, both Force sensitive and not. The Empire’s policy, after we paid Athiss a visit, was to monitor the planet, but leave the cult members alone. I suggest we take the same course of action.”

“Commander, if I may…” Talos says tentatively. “While you are fighting your adversary, I was wondering if Suvia, Jaesa and I could do some archaeological work. There’s a lot to learn about Sith alchemy here, and after our last visit, we were only able to recover a few artifacts.”

Viri nods. “I think that would be wise. I feel…like I need to face Izax with as few people as possible.”

”You’re taking me,” Lana says sternly.

”And me. Someone has to watch out for you two,” Vette says fiercely.

”Understood,” Viri says, leading the way to the open elevator shaft.

”How do we get down there?” Lana says, peering anxiously at the non-functional elevators.

”Last time we rappelled down,” Vette says, removing some grapples from her pack. “I scanned the room. Nothing is alive at the bottom. We’re good to go.”

Viri meets Lana’s eyes. Are you all right?

Lana shivers. It’s a long way down.

Do you want me to help you, as I did on Iokath?

Yes.

”Let me go first,” Viri says, rappelling down into the tomb.

”Go second,” Vette urges Lana. “I’ll bring up the rear.”

Lana takes a deep breath and grasps the line that Vette throws to her. Immediately, she feels Viri’s Force power surrounding her, anchoring her hands on the line. Unseen hands circle her waist, steadying her. At the bottom of the shaft, Viri is staring intently at her, concentrating.

Just look at the wall. Concentrate on pushing your feet against the stones and letting yourself glide down. I’ve got you.

Lana exhales, her breath shaky, but with Viri’s power around her, she is able to rappel into the tomb. As she reaches the bottom, Viri extends a hand to her.

Thank you.

Viri nods and kisses her, and they both turn their attention to Vette. She is all but flying down the walls of the elevator shaft, her confidence apparent with every move.

”This is nothing,” Vette shrugs. “I did this all the time when I was a tomb robber. It’s a lot harder when the shaft is clogged with bogwings.”

“I can’t even imagine,” Lana chuckles. The bottom of the elevator shaft is just as Suvia and Viri left it, so many years earlier. The bodies of the fallen Republic archaeologists are nothing but bones and dust, and their astromech has rusted in the corner.

”Do you have a bead on Izax, Viri?” Vette asks, but there is no need. Viri is already walking slowly down the corridor, as though something is summoning her.

”This way,” Viri says, her voice thick. “He is near. And he knows we are present. He is angry. So angry. Even more than the others…”

Viri leads the way down one dark corridor and then another. They amble through large atria and small chambers; through the remains of a library and a massive antechamber where trees have forced their way through the stone floors. As they progress, Lana shudders involuntarily. Viri’s mind is open to her, through their bond, she also senses Izax’s presence nearby. Malevolence. Rage. Corruption. It breathes around her, becoming more and more oppressive as they descend deeper into the complex.

In a vast hallway, Viri stops before a small altar. Behind it, a stone flair- in the style of Zakuulan decor- is superimposed on a Sith coffer.

”That son of a Jedi…” Viri whispers. “Even here, he was toying with the Sith. I remember seeing this the first time, and wondering why it looked so different.”

”Because it was,” Lana finishes the thought. “Because it was Zakuulan.”

”What better place to let Izax sleep, than under his own banner?” Viri says, and her eyes open wide as she realizes the magnitude of what she has just said. “Lana, Vette, get back, he’s right under us---”

The stones explode as Izax bursts through the floor, roaring. He is far larger than the other machine gods; a massive hulk of shiny silver armor and Force alchemy. He balls his hands into fists and howls, taking down the nearest wall.

”Killer of the gods!” Izax screams. “You dare to come here.”

”yes,” Viri smiles, drawing her lightsaber. “Let’s do this.”

”Foolish Sith,” Izax hisses, hurling a blast of Force power that knocks Viri across the room. She’s back on her feet instantly, assailing Izax with her own Force fury, but he absorbs it with a laugh.

”Go ahead, little fool, just try,” Izax roars. “I have killed legions. You are nothing.”

Viri attacks again, and is flung across the room a second time. She hits the wall, going down hard, and Lana involuntarily screams.

“I’m fine, Lana,” Viri says, pulling herself to her feet. “There’s always been something around that we could use against the gods…”

“I’m not seeing anything,” Lana says, panicked. She dodges a blow from Izax and runs to Viri’s side.

”There must be something,” Viri says desperately. She catches a glimpse of her own reflection in Izax’s shiny armor, her eyes wide and panicked. “Here, I don’t know…”

Yes, you do. You defeated the prophet. Viri calms as she gazes at her own reflection again; at her gold eyes. The Dark Side fills her mind like an old friend, cold and comfortable. In her mind’s eye she sees herself as the Wrath, fighting the Prophet and his living fire. He had cast balls of flame that had followed her and Suvia around the room, sapping their strength.

Just like Oricon, Dragoi. Use what you know. Viri takes a deep breath and whispers an incantation under her breath. The High Sith words come easily, quickly, with conviction. “Living Fire, serve me.”

”I don’t think I know this one,” Lana mutters, igniting her lightsaber to cover Viri.

Viri’s eyes blaze as she finishes conjuring the fire, and she nods with satisfaction as it launches itself at Izax.

”You will burn.” Viri hisses the words, channeling rage to keep the flames sizzling. Izax howls as his chassis begins to melt, no match for Dark Side fire. More balls of fire launch toward Izax, hitting every part of his armor, and Viri grits her teeth, pouring even more malevolent energy toward the giant droid. When Izax has been destroyed, she finally turns toward Lana and Vette, and the rage glittering in her eyes makes them both shudder involuntarily.

Run.” Viri leads the way from the chamber, turns, and implodes the room with a shout. The ancient stones tumble onto the remains of Izax, and then explode. Within seconds, there is a gaping crater in the ground, and the temple’s walls and ceiling have been smashed to dust.

Pain. Lana grabs her stomach as agony, sharp as fire, surges through the bond. Viri is alone at the edge of the crater, on her knees, her chest heaving.

When Lana approaches, she puts up one hand and shakes her head. ”I’m hot right now.”

Lana leans in anyway. Dark energy is coursing through Viri’s body, giving off red smoke, and Lana feels her fighting to channel it. Electric-sharp pain continues to course through the bond and Viri struggles to pull it back; to shield Lana from it.

Lana sits down beside her. “You can do this. You are strong. Don’t worry about shielding me from the pain. It’s taking your focus.”

Viri shakes her head vehemently and continues to shield.

”Let me sit with you,” Lana murmurs, extending her hand. Viri clutches it, and Lana catches the words of the Sith Code in her mind: through power I gain victory…through victory my chains are broken. I break any chains that would bind me here.

”Viri, let it go,” Lana says gently. “I can take it. You need to channel, and you can’t do that and shield at the same time.”

Viri shakes her head again. “I. Will. Not. Hurt. You.”

We save each other. We carry the load together. Isn’t that what you told me? Lana says fiercely. Let me carry this with you.

A tear rolls down Viri’s cheek, but she nods. I’m sorry.

Don’t be, Lana says, but she hisses as Viri releases her hold on the bond, letting pain course through their connection. She can still feel Viri holding back, keeping most of the agony away from her.

”You can do this,” Lana whispers, willing herself not to cry out.

”My chains are broken,” Viri whispers, channeling Izax’s energy away from her. Vicious green swirls of Force power circle restlessly, dissipating as Viri wills them away. The stones beneath their feet crack and break with the stress, and another wall crumbles, but the power is gone, and Viri is present, breathing hard.

You did it, Lana squeezes her hand.

I caused you pain, Viri says, biting her lip.

I asked you to, Lana replies, cupping Viri’s chin and raising Viri’s head to meet her eyes. Don’t, Vere.

Viri nods slowly, but her eyes are glassy with unshed tears.

Viri, don’t. We’re fine.

Viri takes one deep breath and then a second. Lana rises from her knees and extends a hand to help Viri up.

”Are…are you both okay?” Vette asks uncertainly, ambling over to them. “I thought it was best not to interfere, but I was worried about you both just now.”

”It’s…it’s all right, Vette,” Viri gasps, looking away. “We’re fine now.”

”You’re such a poor liar. You always have been.”

”Only with people I care about,” Viri mutters.

”That, now that is true,” Vette nods. “You could lie a blue streak to Baras. Me, though…not so much. You always do this twitchy thing with your lip when you lie to me, did you know that?”

”Stop, Vette,” Viri says, turning away. “We killed him. Let’s go. Call the shuttle.”

Vette sighs and follows Viri and Lana out of the destroyed vault, but once they are back in the sunlight, she steps in front of Viri.

”You. Stop. Before the shuttle arrives, we need to get you out of this…whatever headspace you’re in.”

”I agree, love,” Lana says, taking her hand again.

”Vette, Lana, what do you want out of me? I’m the Demon Savior, remember? And apparently I’m supposed to take you all down with me.”

”Considering that all three of us are standing on our own two feet, completely unharmed at the moment, with the ashes of an annihilated machine god behind us, I fail to understand that,” Lana says drily. “As for the pain, I already told you…”

”I don’t care what you told me, Lana,” Viri says, walking away. “I broke every vow I ever made to you…”

”Oh, stop with this bullshit,” Vette snaps. “I’m sorry, Darth Drama. I’m over this. You and Lana are married. Soulmates. Bonded. Joined by whatever Sith magic you worked on each other. She volunteered to share your pain back there. You’re supposed to help each other, remember? What, is Lana not strong enough to help you?”

”She’s stronger than I am, Vette.”

”Enough. You shared my pain when I wasn’t doing well, and I can’t do the same?” Lana asks, a touch of anger in her voice.

Viri covers her ears. “Stop yelling at me. Both of you, stop.”

”Nobody’s yelling,” Vette says, throwing her hands in the air.

”It won’t be this easy next time,” Viri hisses, turning to look at them both. Her face is streaked with tears and her eyes are blazing. “The next time Lana volunteers, what if I end up killing her? You ever think of that, Vette?”

”Love,” Lana says, her tone softening. “We only have one god left.”

”Oh, yes, Zildrog. The god of death, who is supposed to destroy everything,” Viri snaps. “I’m sure he will be a piece of cake, especially with my constant visions about blood sacrifices.”

”You defeated Vitiate, Viri,” Lana says, surprised. “I am sure you can…”

At what price?” Viri sinks to her knees, and Vette and Lana run to her side.

”Viri, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize…” Vette says, her voice low. “I just thought you were being…well, your usual dramatic self.”

Viri shakes her head. “I don’t want to take either of you next time. I will face Zildrog alone. He can’t kill you if you aren’t there.”

”The Scions would tell you that if Zildrog’s destiny is to kill any of us, it’s unavoidable,” Lana says. “As your wife: like hell will you face Zildrog alone. I already told you, we fight together. And you promised me that I would be your second. Remember?”

“Yes,” Viri says, her voice rough. “Indeed I did, but the risk…”

”C’mere,” Lana says, cupping her face and kissing her. Viri gasps but returns the kiss, clutching at Lana’s shoulders. When she draws back, her eyes are wide.

”You aren’t getting rid of me,” Lana whispers. “Ever. No matter how dangerous it is.”

”You’re my sister and I’m not going away. I’d rather not kiss you, but I’m sure you will understand,” Vette says. It’s enough to break the mood, and Viri finds herself laughing.

”Ahem.” Suvia’s voice cuts into the conversation through the comlink channel. “We didn’t want to interrupt during Viri’s…whatever that was…but are you planning on going home today?”

”Yes,” Viri says, getting to her feet. Vette takes one of her hands, Lana takes the other, and they walk toward the shuttle.

*

Odessen

She walks through the cave, stepping carefully across the corpses littered there. She knows none of the dead. Except…and that one…and him…and her…

Viri swallows hard as she looks up at the empty staircase.

You have one choice. Become a god. Or pay the blood sacrifice.

”I’ll come with you,” Lana says, taking her hand. Not seeing the blade behind the staircase. “If you are to be a god, I’ll be there. If not…I’ll still be there.”

”I won’t let you,” Viri whispers. “I can’t hurt you.”

”Don’t be afraid. I already know. It won’t be so bad…” Lana smiles and leads her toward the stairs.

Viri opens her eyes in the darkness of her suite. Lana’s arms are wrapped protectively around her waist, her head on Viri’s chest. Viri smiles and kisses her forehead before gently extricating herself.

”Viri?” Lana’s voice is thick with sleep.

”I need to take a walk,” Viri whispers, pulling on some clothing and grabbing her lightsaber. “It’s late. Go back to sleep.”

”Hurry back,” Lana says drowsily, nodding off again. Viri kisses her again and quietly leaves their rooms.

The base is still alive at 0300; Viri nods to the technicians and maintenance workers she passes along the corridors. In the War Room Mako and Akaavi are typing feverishly at their consoles. In the Force Enclave it is quieter, but several Sith and Jedi are still practicing their forms in a corner.

Viri rounds the corner to Suvia’s wing. Since arriving she has expanded on Talos’s formidable work and built the Alliance’s collection of Force artifacts into a veritable museum and library, one that far outstrips her former holdings as a Dark Councillor. The library is closed, but Viri taps in the special after-hours code she’s been given and slips into the facility.

She’s not alone. She knows as soon as she enters the library; there are two Force sensitives somewhere in the stacks. Giggling. Hushed words. The presences are familiar, but…

”Viri! What are you doing here?” Suvia asks, popping up next to her. Over her shoulder, Jaesa is hastily putting her shirt back on.

”Oh,” Viri says, flushing. “I didn’t mean to intrude. I wouldn’t have visited if…”

”Stop, we’ve certainly walked in on you and Lana often enough,” Jaesa says, rolling her eyes. “Turnabout is fair play, I suppose.”

Viri’s eyes travel from Suvia to Jaesa. “You two…look good together.”

Suvia smiles slightly. “You think?”

”I’d agree,” Jaesa says, grinning. “But what do you want? You’re up late.”

”I was looking for books on the Demon Savior,” Viri admits. “And anything on blood sacrifices…”

”You’re not still on that…” Jaesa begins, but the look on Viri’s face stops her commentary cold. “Right.”

”Khem Val once interrupted a blood sacrifice,” Suvia says, leading the way to another section of the library. “It’s certainly possible. I’ve been doing everything I can to build our Zakuulan religious database. You could start here, and then work your way down the shelf.”

”We’ll leave you to your work,” Jaesa says. “Don’t stay here until dawn. Lana will miss you.”

”Download the books and take it all back to your room,” Suvia suggests. “I’ll trust you to take care of these older documents and bring them back in one piece. Yes, we are trying to get rid of you.”

”Understood,” Viri laughs, transferring the books’ content to her datapad and taking some scrolls from Suvia.

*

Back in her suite, Viri quickly undresses and climbs back into bed with Lana. She reaches for her datapad, but the look on Lana’s face stops her. Her brow is furrowed and her hands are opening and closing in her sleep, searching for Viri. As soon as Viri touches her forehead, she relaxes.

”Back already?” Lana says, opening her eyes. “You smell like incense.”

”I was in the library,” Viri says. “Just…needed to look something up.”

”At this hour?”

”It was important…” Viri starts, but Lana is smiling at her, her gold eyes glimmering in the darkness, and thoughts of Demon Saviors and sacrifices fade from her mind. “But I can read it later.”

”Good. Come here,” Lana says, pulling Viri to her. “Can I have a kiss?”

”Just one?” Viri teases, stretching out and embracing Lana.

”Hardly,” Lana laughs, moving in.

*

In the War Room, Mako takes another long sip of caf. She and Akaavi have cottoned to the night shift; now prefer it as a matter of course. It’s far easier to work at night; to surf the HoloNet and the deeper communication channels when much of the base is asleep. The War Room is quiet then, save for the soft beeping of T7-O1 and the other astromechs helping them with their research. Beside her, Akaavi is silently studying her own data sets.

Zildrog. Mako blinks, recalibrates one of her implants, and takes off her headphones. The word repeats. And then a third time. A fourth. Mako blinks, understanding. Someone really wants me to notice this.

”Mako?” Akaavi, ever vigilant and attuned to her surroundings, has already noticed.

”There’s something,” Mako says, her fingers flying across her keyboard. Within seconds, she has traced the signal. “There. Do you hear it, Akaavi? The word? Can you cross-check this? Are you getting the same location?”

”I hear nothing, but I’m getting the same coordinates from this data.”

Mako’s eyes drift to the list of keywords next to her console. She has been instructed to call Lana and the Commander immediately, should any of them surface in her scans.

’Zildrog’ is at the top of the list.

Mako accesses her comlink. “Commander? I’m sorry to bother you, but we have something. I think it’s important. Zildrog.”

Chapter Text

Shuttle Aurek One

Akaavi and Mako lean back at their consoles and exhale. The word ‘Zildrog’ has been resonating in their ears all day, leading them to coordinates on the edge of Wild Space. “There. We’re close.”

The shuttle hovers above a derelict space station. Husks of metal have peeled off the structure; debris floats in a weak orbit nearby.

”It’s an abandoned Imperial listening station,” Akaavi says. “But they still must have working power, if they’re able to broadcast a signal.”

”Any inhabitants?”

Mako shakes her head. “No organics coming up on the scanner. I’m getting droids, but their power matrices seem to be deactivated.”

”So it’s truly abandoned,” Lana says, peering over Akaavi’s shoulder at the screen.

”Apparently so,” Mako says, guiding the shuttle to the nearest airlock. “I can’t gauge the station’s level of pressurization and oxygen from here, so don’t take off those space suits.”

Lana and Viri nod soberly, sealing themselves into their pressurized suits.

”You have enough oxygen to stay in there for a half hour, maybe slightly more, but I wouldn’t linger,” Akaavi says, adjusting the controls on the outside of Viri’s suit.

”You have armor cams,” Mako says, cross-checking Lana’s equipment. “Anything you can see, we will see and scan. We’ll alert you if there’s something dangerous we spot.”

”Get in and out,” Akaavi reiterates, sealing the ship’s door to the airlock. “Go.”

Lana and Viri nod and walk quickly from the ship. Their portable lanterns instantly activate, illuminating a dark corridor filled with trash.

This hasn’t been used for some time, Viri notes, stepping carefully over a shattered kolto tank. Dust is thick in the air, floating before them like smoke.

I can’t even place this station, Lana says. I thought I knew them all, but this one obviously was taken out of service well before my time with Arkous or Intelligence. Look at that droid over there. That model is archaic.

Viri stares at the crumpled droid, nodding. I don’t think I have ever seen one of these in person. Only in schoolbooks.

”Commander? I’m getting a few weak beacons from the communications consoles in the main room.” A map flashes onto the surface of Viri’s helmet, guiding her and Lana through the station.

”Got it,” Viri says. “Lana and I are going to be communicating…our own way, so don’t be alarmed if we’re silent.”

”We figured,” Akaavi says over the comlink. “The generator appears to have some remaining fuel, because we’re picking up energy surges. I’m amazed. It’s ancient. Try activating it.”

”As long as it lets us uncover whatever is here,” Viri nods as they step up to the power generator and activate the switches. The station splutters to life around them, lights weakly blinking and dust puffing from the vents. On several nearby consoles, red message lights are blinking.

Might as well start here, Viri says, approaching the closest console and pressing ‘play.’ The holographic figure of a tall man with cybernetic implants appears before her.

”The other day in the Spire, I saw two children fighting over a ration. I could do nothing,” the man says. “This is the Outlander’s doing. Arcann, Vaylin, all of it…her fault. She assassinated the Immortal Emperor and destruction rained down on our heads. And now she sits with Zakuul’s fleet, lecturing us about peace. Peace? She ruined it all. We had peace. She stole it. If I do nothing else with my life, I will see the Outlander die, along with her Alliance.”

Lana frowns and runs a scan on her datapad. The facial recognition software’s giving me a name. Vinn Atrius. Knight of Zakuul. Member of Vaylin’s Horizon Guard. He was reported missing about six months ago. There’s nothing else in our intel.

Good to know, Viri says, ambling to the next closest console. Her eyes widen when her own image, studying the war table on Odessen, flickers into view, with Theron beside her.

”Here I am. How are we doing?”

Theron smiles as he types some lines of code into the computer. “I was just about to call Lana. Seems that she’s right where we need her to be. Come in, Lana. How’s the radiation sickness treating you?”

Lana appears on the holo.

“Radiation? It’s nothing I can’t handle,” Lana says, nodding toward the droid next to her. “Isn’t that right, C6?”

”Radiation levels = safe// Thereon = worried + melodramatic,” buzzes the little droid.

Theron scowls. “Lana ‘equals’ full of herself.”

”Oh, stop,” Viri says. “Oggurobb and Lokin loaded them up with enough anti-radiation medicine to swim in a hypermatter lake. I’m sure they’re fine.”

As the holo ends, Lana rubs her head. We spent weeks sweeping Odessen for bugs. We checked every security system twice. How? Why?

They were still able to watch the base, apparently. The next holo is another surprise: Darth Mortis, looking older and more haggard than Viri remembers him. Vinn Atrius walks into the frame, crossing his arms.

”I know better than to trust a Sith lord, Mortis,” Atrius says. “What is your angle?”

Mortis scowls. “The former Wrath, supposed champion of our Empire, and when she had the chance to annihilate the Republic, she didn’t take it! Using the Fleet for diplomacy. It’s shameful. I would rather see it destroyed than see it in the hands of a weak leader.”

”You must want something personally,” Atrius asks.

”When the time comes, I want you to leave the traitor Lana Beniko to me."

Viri involuntarily gasps. How dare he…you saved the Empire several times, and he apparently went into hiding during the war with Zakuul, and he thinks you are the traitor?! Miserable man, I will destroy him…

Lana grinds her jaw, nodding. I will help you.

Viri presses the next button, and the image of Darth Ravage appears.

”I knew she was dangerous when she killed Darth Baras before the entire Council,” Ravage says. “I knew her as a threat from that moment. And then she aligned herself with Darth Nox. An alien, a former slave. Nox was an aberration on the Dark Council and Viridana Dragoi was an aberration as the Wrath. She proved that when she killed our Emperor.”

”You have conviction,” Atrius nods. “You clearly love our Immortal Emperor. Welcome to the Order.”

That weasel… Viri grits her teeth, takes a deep breath and goes to the next holo, where Atrius is speaking to a GEMINI droid. Viri raises her eyebrows.

”I severed myself from the network to preserve my sentience,” the droid says. “Yet, I still hear my sisters calling to me.”

”You would reclaim them?”

”You misunderstand. I would see them all destroyed.”

Viri shakes her head. She’s like SCORPIO. She doesn’t want any ‘copies’ lying around.

It looks like there’s one more, Lana says, exhaling heavily. A female Knight of Zakuul, in full armor, appears on the holo next to Vinn Atrius.

”I was Senya Tirall’s partner. I would have followed her anywhere,” the woman says. “Senya asked me to join the Alliance…”

”Did you?” Atrius asks.

”I didn’t get a chance. Before I could travel to Odessen…the Outlander killed her. She put all her trust in the Alliance. She died for it.”

Viri bares her teeth at the holo. She betrayed us! She saved Arcann and wanted us to absolve him of his crimes! She actually wanted us to take him into the Alliance…how could they spin it that way, Lana…how…

You know that many of the Zakuulans have a different perspective, Lana soothes her. If they are inclined to object to you they will do so any way they can.

True, Viri says. Another light on the console catches her eye and she presses the button closest to it, activating a message. Lana, can you read this? I can’t break the cipher.

Lana’s eyes widen. Yes, I can. It…it’s a cipher we developed when we were on the run after…back after Darok and Arkous died. Only two people know it. Myself and…Theron. This says, ‘they’ve found it. Hurry.’ There are some coordinates.

“Station self-destruct initiated. Ninety seconds to detonation.” The announcement on the station’s intercom makes them both jump.

We’ll need to discuss it back on Odessen, Viri says, as they sprint for the exit.

*

Odessen, War Room

”The coordinates do match,” Suvia says, pacing. “We still have not been able to piece together the entire map, but there’s some correlation.”

”We know Vitiate fueled his immortality by massacring many Sith that were lured to Medriaas, followed by a planetary disaster that wiped out all organics,” Lana continues. “It would make sense, from that vantage point, that Zildrog would be on Nathema.”

”Given that the presence of the machine gods helped drive people mad on Athiss and Oricon, and given what we saw at that sanitarium, it wouldn’t be a surprise to find Zildrog on Nathema, no,” Viri muses. “The Force felt hollow there.”

”The Force flows through all living things,” Suvia says. “Flowing through a sentient non-organic that has been designed to kill, it could be twisted quite easily.”

“Such as machine gods,” Viri finishes the thought.

”Yes, exactly,” Suvia says, “Because the power was too great for organics. Vitiate himself would have felt that. He harnessed power from the carnage for his immortality, but it came at a price. He had to change host bodies many times through the centuries, didn’t he? I am going to surmise that is because the power put stress on his body over time and made him physically weak, as it did with Zash. Even the face he showed you as Valkorion might not have been his own. That body was, from what you said, a century old, and he may have been masking its deterioration as much as he could have done, the same way Zash did.”

”Did Zash look very different, without the Force mask?” Viri asks.

Suvia shudders. “You don’t even want to know. She looked like an animated corpse.”

”Regardless,” Lana says, “We need to stay on topic. Given all of the supporting evidence, I think we should try to reach these coordinates on Nathema. Do you agree, Commander?”

”I do,” Viri says. “And I think we will find Zildrog there. I feel it.”

”So do I,” Lana says quietly. An undercurrent of dread is flowing through the bond, and Lana searches Viri’s face, but she shakes her head.

”We should prepare to leave immediately,” Viri says briskly. “I want a minimal team for this one. The void on Nathema was terrible last time. I don’t want you all to be exposed.”

”You’re taking me,” Lana says resolutely, meeting her eyes. Don’t you even think of leaving me behind! I won’t let them take you away from me.

Viri nods slowly. “I’ll take Lana, and I’ll want one non-organic, like HK-55, to remain with the shuttle. I will also want the Fleet assembled above Odessen, just in case the Order tries to destroy the planet. Be ready for anything.”

The ship is the dragon. The thought flows uninvited into Viri’s mind, and she blinks to clear her head.

”May the Force serve you well, Lana and Viri,” Suvia says, bowing her head. “I’ll keep researching while you are en route. If I find anything more, I will let you know.”

“Thank you, Suvia,” Viri says, and stands to go.

*

Alliance Shuttle Aurek One, Hyperspace

The Alliance’s current Shuttle Aurek One is patterned after the vessels assigned to Imperial Intelligence’s Ciphers in the field: luxurious, but fitted with enough weaponry to take down a cruiser and capable of stealthing. Lana and Viri keep the ship cloaked until it is safely in hyperspace, heading toward Nathema.

”HK, help the ship droid pilot,” Lana says, setting the hyperspace security controls. “Viri and I need to rest.”

”Statement: it will be my pleasure,” HK says, taking Lana’s place in the captain’s chair. Lana nods and ambles back into the depths of the shuttle with Viri. They have transformed the conference room into a meditation suite, and they wordlessly veer toward it.

”I can’t believe we’re going back to Nathema,” Lana says, closing the door and removing her boots and gloves. “Shall we start with the same protection ritual we did the first time?”

Viri nods. “Yes. And then the stronger one Suvia taught us.”

”All right,” Lana says, lighting the braziers. “And then?”

”I want to do the seventh passion ritual.”

Lana turns to Viri, surprised. “Love, this is hardly the time to…”

Viri shakes her head. “No. I want to kiss you. I…need it, Lana.”

Lana settles down on the floor next to Viri. She’s restlessly worrying her bottom lip with her teeth and shivering.

“Even the Scions say that you will vanquish Zildrog, remember?”

”There’s nothing that says the Demon Savior survives the fight, Lana. I could win and still lose.”

”There’s nothing that says she dies,” Lana replies, putting her arms around Viri. “Love. You’ve faced death so many times before. Why are you afraid?”

Viri looks at her, eyes wet with tears and terror. “Because I think this one might stick. I’m…not afraid to die, but I don’t want to leave yet, Lana.”

”You’re not going anywhere,” Lana says fiercely. “Nobody is taking you from me.”

”Just kiss me,” Viri whispers. “Kiss me. Make me forget. Please.”

”There is no fear here,” Lana says, kissing her. “Just us.”

Lana tastes tears on Viri’s lips as she leans in, closing her eyes. She pours love and devotion into their bond, and as she deepens the kiss, she finally feels Viri relax.

”Better?” Lana asks, caressing her face.

Viri nods numbly and takes Lana’s hands as they settle into meditation stances together. To her surprise, Lana begins chanting a Sith comfort spell. The cadence of the words soothes her, and she closes her eyes and begins to recite the words with Lana.

”Do not weep. Never despair. I am the strength in the shadows. I am the spark in the flame. I am she who is never alone.”

Lana squeezes Viri’s hands in her own, sending strength and reassurance through the bond. I’ve got you.

Don’t let me go, Viri pleads.

I will never let you go, Lana promises, leaning forward to kiss her. Force power curls around the two Sith, fortifying them both.

*

Nathema

As Shuttle Aurek One sets down gently on a cliffside, Viri and Lana both peer anxiously at the navicomputer.

”Are we sure we’re on the right planet? The coordinates and the map both claim this is Nathema, but…”

”It doesn’t even look like the same planet,” Lana mutters, staring out the windows in disbelief. The sky above Nathema is still dull brown, but the vast landscape before her is lush and alive. The rocks are covered in moss, and tall trees rise over an expanse of forest. In the distance, nexu are playing on the rocks.

”Since Valkorion - Vitiate- is dead, perhaps the planet was able to shake off its Force corruption and sustain life again?” Viri murmurs, alighting from the shuttle. “Still, for this foliage to grow so fast is unreal.”

”The Force is capable of anything,” Lana murmurs, “but I’m as astounded as you are.”

”Statement: I will remain with the shuttle and guard it from any predators or curious passerby,” HK-55 says.

”Put it into stealth mode,” Viri says. “Yes, I know we’re on the ground, but we can’t take any chances that you will be discovered. I need you to be cloaked.”

”Reassurance: I will do as you ask, Master Dragoi.” HK-55 presses a button on the console, and Shuttle Aurek One vanishes.

“Here we are again,” Lana says shakily. “The Force feels less hollow now…more present…”

”…but still not right,” Viri finishes the sentence. She consults her datapad and squints into the clearing. “Something is supposed to be at these coordinates, but I see nothing. Zildrog isn’t here.”

”I am,” a male voice says. Theron Shan steps out from behind a rock, and Lana and Viri both instantly draw their weapons.

Theron’s brow is wrinkled. His hair has been shaved into an unusual style, and his clothes haphazardly hang from his shoulders. Dark shadows of exhaustion ring both eyes. If they were still friends, Viri thinks to herself, she would be concerned. But they’re not.

“One reason, Shan,” Viri hisses. “Give me one reason I shouldn’t kill you here and now.”

Theron puts his blasters on the ground and raises his hands, stepping back. “I understand why you want my head on a pike. I really do, Viri…”

”It’s Commander to you. Or Lord Wrath. We’re not a first name basis anymore.”

Theron frowns. “All right, Commander. If you’ll just hear me out…”

”Start talking,” Viri says, but she does not lower her lightsaber.

”The Order of Zildrog wants to destroy both of you, and the Alliance,” Theron begins. “By the time I found out, they were so far along in their plans. Almost too far. I had to slow them down; to give you enough time to stop them.”

”And you didn’t tell us this because…?”

”One of the GEMINI droids - one who has gone rogue - could hear every conversation on Odessen. I still don’t know how. Maybe SCORPIO, or GEMINI Prime, did something. I haven’t been able to figure it out. I couldn’t warn you. I had to go undercover; to infiltrate the Order.”

”So you betrayed us,” Viri says flatly.

”You don’t know how hard it was, putting you through that, but I knew you were strong. I had faith you’d survive.”

”You could have told us,” Viri says. “We could have gotten on a shuttle. You and Lana had your own cipher. There has to have been another way.”

”I couldn’t think of one.”

”I agree with Viri,” Lana says. “We were supposed to be a team, Theron.”

“You had to be in the dark for the plan to work. Isn’t that what you told me on Rishi, Lana? When you sold me out to the Revanites?”

”But—that’s not—“ Lana stammers.

”Something from eight years ago, and you’re throwing it in Lana’s face?” Viri growls. “Classy, Shan. Real classy. What Lana did to you didn’t involve killing a lot of people on three planets or disrupting an entire Alliance, so you might want to reconsider your words.”

A rumble shakes the ground, and Lana and Viri take their eyes off Theron momentarily.

”That’s Zildrog, waking up,” Theron says. “We can argue. Or we can try to stop it. Vitiate used Zildrog to wipe out this planet, and concealed him in one of the vaults. If he wakes up again, it’s the end of the Alliance.”

Viri looks at Lana. What do you think?

Lana shakes her head. I don’t know if I trust him, but we need to find Zildrog.

Theron frowns. “Please. You have to believe me.”

”I don’t have to do anything,” Viri says coolly. “We will go with you, but if I get any hint that you are still betraying us, Theron…”

”Thanks for giving me a chance,” Theron says. “Follow me.”

Viri and Lana nod and motion for Theron to lead the way. Neither puts away their lightsaber, and they walk silently down the cliffside.

”The Sanitarium is on the other side of the planet,” Theron explains. “Here, the Order found numerous ancient Sith temples, dating back to Medriaas. Vitiate was still using their vaults.”

”And Zildrog is there.”

”Correct,” Theron says. “Since nobody voluntarily ventured on to Nathema, it remained safe from discovery. It appears that Valkorion meant to keep it as a failsafe.”

“I see,” Viri says, her tone neutral. “And the Order found it.”

”Yes,” Theron says. “They’ve assembled everything they need for the ritual required to wake Zildrog. Vinn Atrius is Force sensitive. Former Horizon guard. He, and other members of the order, are handling the incantations.”

”I saw that Darth Mortis has joined you,” Viri says.

”There are a few Sith here,” Theron says. “Some Jedi. Many ex-Horizon guards. The only group that has refused to join are the Scions.”

”Everyone else is after my head,” Viri says grimly.

”Not everyone,” Theron says. “The Order is small. Unfortunately, it also has the resources to be very dangerous. Which is why I had to…”

“Stop,” Viri cuts him off and takes a deep breath before answering. “Anything you say to try to explain yourself is going to anger me, Theron. I thus suggest you say nothing, unless it is critical to the mission. Let’s do this in silence, please. Any discussions we need to have will need to wait until we’re all off Nathema alive.”

“Fair enough,” Theron mutters, turning away.

*

Theron leads them through the forest, past waterfalls and fields of wildflowers. At any other time, Viri would have wanted to stop; would have reveled in the beauty of her surroundings, but the specter of Zildrog hovers above them all. Every now and then the ground shakes, breaking their concentration.

”How long is the ritual, Theron?” Viri says, her face growing paler. “I feel him waking.”

”They never did a dress rehearsal,” Theron answers. “I know it was complex, but…we’re almost there…”

Lana, Viri and Theron step into another clearing. Before them, an ancient temple looms, casting long shadows on the grass. To their surprise, the door is ajar.

”I don’t think it matters if you show up,” Theron explains. “Zildrog will destroy it all whether you are present or not. They think you can’t stop them.”

”They’re wrong.”

”I know that and you know that,” Theron says. “Let’s show them.”

*

Theron doesn’t have to lead the way anymore. Viri does, drawn to Zildrog the same way she was called to Nahut; to Tyth; to Esne and Aivela; to Scyva; to Izax. Theron and Lana can only try to keep up as they wind through the depths of the ancient temple; along hastily constructed catwalks and scaffolds. There is a crash in the distance, and then another.

Lana swallows the growing panic in her throat; the unrest in the Force that is growing with every second. She’s feeling Zildrog wake too, she realizes. Whether it is through her bond with Viri or her own Force sensitivity, she neither knows nor cares; it is an unwelcome discomfit in her gut.

Viri stops short at an archway and takes a deep breath. “He’s in there. Are we ready?”

”As ready as we’ll ever be,” Lana says, her voice low.

As they pass through the archway, they find themselves in a room cut into the rock walls. Below them; a ravine. Above them, the sky, but it is dark even in the day. Hundreds of statues with skeletal faces cover the sides of the ravine, bearing witness. Death. It is everywhere. They all feel it and shiver.

Zildrog sits in the middle of a circular platform, a gargantuan hulk of metal and Force alchemy. Three yellow heads hover above his chassis; and his voice rumbles through the room. Before him, a GEMINI droid and Vinn Atrius are frantically typing into Zildrog’s console.

”I have awakened. Let me feed.

Zildrog is surrounded by a ring of glass crypts, each with a single occupant. Darth Ravage is closest to them. A Knight of Zakuul is next. Darth Mortis. Another Knight.

”What…” Lana whispers, looking from one glass case to the next. Mortis, Ravage and the others are obviously dead, slumped over in their seats.

”They served a purpose they had not anticipated,” the GEMINI droid says. “Fuel for Zildrog.”

A slight grin flits across Viri’s face. “Thanks, Atrius. You’ve saved me a few steps. I appreciate the assist with Ravage and Mortis, I really do.”

Vinn Atrius’s face turns an even deeper shade of red. “How dare you…”

Viri shrugs. “You’re the one who betrayed your allies and threw them into soul-sucking cages. I don’t think there’s much I could dare after that.”

”You miserable, caustic, evil monster,” Atrius hisses. He throws a switch on the console, and Lana, Viri and Theron are enclosed in an energy bubble.

”You think this will stop us?” Viri growls, channeling the Force.

”I don’t think it matters,” the GEMINI droid says calmly. “Your Alliance is doomed.”

”Zildrog can’t even move,” Viri laughs. “And he’s here. How do you figure that?”

”How little you know, Commander,” GEMINI tuts as she accesses her comlink. "Zildrog, Execute Formation 2995."

“Yesssss….” Zildrog growls. “I shall feed.”

Lana looks nervously from Theron to Viri to Zildrog. Nothing’s happening.

Viri shakes her head, understanding. Not here…but it is. The ship is the dragon.

Odessen

The crew of the Gravestone is not Force sensitive. They’ve long been perplexed by the Force users on the Alliance base; before that, the Knights of Zakuul, Jedi and Sith they came into contact with confounded them. Still, every single one of them knows, and feels it down to their soul, when the ship awakens.

In the Dark Sanctuary, the walls and central pylon glow green as Zildrog takes control of his second form. On the bridge, sparks float like ghosts from the console, driving back Koth and Tora as they attempt to take back control of the ship. The engine powers on, seemingly by itself, and the ship rises, heading directly for the Fleet.

There’s no time to react; the Omnicannon fires abruptly, destroying thirty Fleet ships in one blast. And then another thirty. Again. And again. On the bridge, Koth and Tora cover their mouths in horror, watching the carnage; unable to intervene. Koth fumbles with his comlink, calling the Commander.

”Koth? What’s wrong?” Viri answers on the first ring. Koth doesn’t have to tell her that something is amiss; she knows.

“The Gravestone…Commander, something’s taken control of the bridge. We took off and the Omnicannon just started firing,” Koth splutters. “It’s destroying the Fleet. We can’t stop it. We can’t even get near the controls.”

”Abandon ship.”

Koth physically recoils from the order. “What? I’m not abandoning her!”

”The Gravestone is the dragon,” Viri says. “I can’t explain now. Get. Off. The. Ship.

”Whatever is happening, we can fix it…”

”Koth, I’m not going to ask again. As the Commander of the Eternal Alliance I am ordering you to evacuate your ship immediately. Every single person and droid. I am ordering you to get into an escape pod and evac yourself. I don’t have time to argue this out with you now, but if you value your crew’s lives, you need to go now.”

”Koth, you need to listen,” Tora says quietly, all the usual snappishness gone from her voice. “This isn’t good. I don’t want to be here to see what this ship does next.”

Koth sighs and grabs the portable intercom. “All right. Gravestone crew, Code Red. Get to the nearest shuttle or escape pod now. Bring the droids. No delays. Go.”

The escape pods careen away from the warship one by one, small specks lost in the growing debris field. Koth Vortena sees them through the windows as he makes one final lap around the ship, seeking any errant crew members. When he finds none he climbs into his own escape pod, watching with a sinking heart as the Gravestone grows smaller and smaller in the window as he descends to Odessen.

Nathema

The ship is the dragon. Lana hears the echo of the words in her mind. “The Gravestone was Zildrog, all this time? How is that possible?”

Even as she says the words, the text of the ancient Zakuulan legends she’s read bubble up in her mind, unbidden, and she looks at Viri again. The legends said Zildrog was the sleeping dragon in the swamp. And that’s just where we found him, isn’t it?

Lana feels when the Eternal Fleet dies; feels it physically being ripped away from Viri. Viri’s face is stoic, betraying nothing, but Lana catches…relief?

I’m free. The words drift into Lana’s mind, and she’s shocked to feel happiness surging through the bond. The last thing Valkorion had to bind me with, and it’s gone. I should thank her…

And then Viri is the Commander again, accessing her comlink as though she is in a trance; ordering Koth and the crew to evacuate the Gravestone.

”…destroy Odessen,” GEMINI-16 orders, but Zildrog groans and splutters, nearly out of fuel. Viri snaps to attention, all happiness gone from her mind.

”We’ve got a few minutes,” Theron says frantically. “He needs more power before he can act again…and it took a lot of Sith to destroy Medriaas…”

”Commander to Odessen: Code Red evacuation procedures. Get everyone off the planet,” Viri says calmly over the comlink. “All team captains, report immediately.”

”Inconvenient,” GEMINI 16 says. “I’ll have to destroy you myself.”

”And I will help,” Vinn Atrius growls. “Zildrog, give me your power!”

”Rise, my servant,” Zildrog intones, and vicious green power crackles around him, flowing into Atrius. The force field surrounding Viri, Lana and Theron drops.

”Theron, destroy every one of those glass cages,” Viri growls. “He won’t be getting fuel from those corpses anymore. After that, stay back. Lana, you’re with me.”

”Yes,” Lana hisses.

Viri catches her eye in their usual pre-battle check in. We’ve got this.

Yes, we do. Lana smiles, a glint of danger in her eyes, as she jumps into the fray behind Viri.

It’s easy for them at this point. They know each other’s forms. Each other’s opening gambits. Lana knows Viri’s style intimately; can anticipate where she will jump next and back her up. Viri knows where Lana will be; is aware of how she will complement her fighting. The familiar tingle of Force healing flitters across their bodies as they fight; they are so accustomed to mending each other now that they do it without thinking; without pausing in their saber sweeps. The indigo and red lightsaber blades flash and hum next to each other, harmonizing. They are in concert with each other, fighting together as though they’ve done so all their lives.

And they know they will defeat GEMINI, Atrius and Zildrog. There’s no other possible outcome, not when they fight as one.

GEMINI 16 goes down easily, but when Theron cries out, it shatters their concentration. They turn to see Vinn Atrius hovering over Theron’s prone form.

”He didn’t kill me…” Theron gasps, holding his side. “Keep fighting.”

Viri nods, pausing only long enough to cast a Force bubble around Theron, and launches herself at Atrius. He is potent, brimming with Zildrog’s energy, but as he fights Viri, he visibly slows and doubles over. Viri arches an eyebrow.

”That power’s not so good for organics, is it, Vinn?” Viri smiles.

”Vile monster…” Atrius gasps, crackling with power. “I will end you.”

”Nah,” Viri smiles, and strikes. As she steps away from Atrius’s corpse, Zildrog purrs behind her.

”Oh no, we just fueled him,” Lana says desperately.

”It won’t be enough,” Viri says, turning to Zildrog. “It was just one death…”

”You cannot vanquish the dragon,” Zildrog hisses. “Foolish Sith.”

Viri laughs. “I am a dragon. A Dragoi, Zildrog. I am stronger than you.”

There is a joy in Viri’s movements; flourish to her lightsaber sweeps; extra bounce in her leaps, as though she has finally found the fight she was always meant to finish. As Lana covers her, providing support where she can, she realizes that is exactly the case. This was her destiny. Not the Alliance, not as an end goal. Not ruling the galaxy. This.

Viri reflects Zildrog’s power and channels her own, and within minutes, the machine god is a smoking pile of rubble. Before Lana can congratulate her, her Alliance comlink beeps frantically.

”What…what just happened over there…” Vette gasps, out of breath.

”Viri just defeated Zildrog,” Lana says. “Why?”

”The Gravestone just exploded. Nothing touched it. It just…”

”Was everyone off?” Viri manages, staggering over to Lana.

”Yes, they evacced when the Gravestone went rogue and attacked the Fleet, but…what…”

”The ship was the dragon. Of course it died,” Viri laughs, but pain is lancing through the bond, and a malevolent green glow is beginning to surround her.

“Viri?” Lana says nervously. “What is…”

”The power has to go somewhere, Lana,” Viri gasps, doubling over. “Now that Zildrog is dead. If I accept it…it will kill me. If I don’t…blood sacrifice, remember? Either way…”

Lana’s eyes widen as she rushes to Viri’s side. How could they have missed it? They’d been hearing it for months. It had been in the Scions’ prophecy. The legends they’d read. The ancient scrolls they’d studied. The gods’ own warnings. Viri’s growing consternation.

Nothing ever said that the Demon Savior would survive her battle.

She will become a god.

The god of rage.

The god of hatred.

The god of passion.

The god of envy.

The god of sorrow.

The god of death…no. Not this.

”Oh Viri,” Lana whispers, backing up. “What have we done?”

Viri shudders and wraps her arms around herself as vicious sparks of power circle her.

”The power of seven, all for one,” Viri whispers. “No…Lana, stay back.”

There was a reason they were machine gods. Organics cannot stand this power. It’s going to kill her. The realization is a punch in the gut to Lana.

Viri is shaking, and her entire body has begun to glow. Her eyes squeeze shut and she clutches her head, trying to stem the agony. Agony surges through the bond, making Lana cry out.

“Viri!”

”Get away, Lana,” Viri falls to her knees. “Don’t come near. I cannot control this…I don’t know what it will do to you…”

A memory surfaces in Lana’s mind: Viri at the conference table, so many months ago. Promise you will stay, even if I ask you to leave. I don’t know why I need that promise, but I do.

“I’ll keep my promise, Viri,” Lana murmurs, and kneels next to her.

“Lana, no…save yourself…” Viri writhes and begins to scream as the power overcomes her.

Lana puts one hand on her back, pulling at the threads of their bond with every fiber of her being. “You are Sith! Sith don’t bend to prophecies, damn it! Break this chain. I know you can!”

The god. Viri. The god again. The expression on her face keeps changing. Lana feels Viri clinging to her through the bond, shoving desperately against the fury and hatred that is consuming her.

Help me Lana please I can’t I don’t want to go it hurts

”Remember your Sith Code. Say it with me,” Lana says, struggling to remain calm. “Peace is a lie. There is only passion.”

Viri screams and claws at her face, shaking her head, but Lana feels her fighting with everything she has. She can no longer speak, but her thoughts echo through Lana’s brain; jagged shards of consciousness.

Peace is a lie there is only passion through passion I gain strength through strength I gain power through power I gain victory through victory my chains are broken the Force shall free me peace is a lie there is only passion through passion….

Lana nods and strokes Viri’s back, shuddering at the rage flowing through her. Searing pain is shooting through the bond, and Lana struggles to avoid screaming. “You can do this.”

Through power I gain victory I am strong the Force serves me no no it hurts the pain serves me I must fight

Lana grabs her hand, squeezing tightly. Viri is glowing so brightly that her face is no longer visible. “Keep going!”

Peace is a lie love is not I love you through passion I gain strength through love I gain you you are peace you are help me I can’t

Lana closes her eyes, diving deep into their bond. through love I gain you come back to me Viri without you there is nothing

Viri tears off her gauntlet, gritting her teeth. “Lana…mark…of…union…”

You are separate but whole. You are intertwined completely. You save each other every day.

”Here,” Lana rips off her own glove and presses her scarred palm to Viri’s, feeling the Force flow between them. As it does, Lana senses the shadow of the machine gods lifting slightly and clarity returning to Viri’s mind.

”It’s not gone…we just have the advantage…for the moment...” Viri gasps, letting go of Lana’s hand and staggering to her feet. “I…I think I know what to do…”

Viri reaches for her lightsaber with shaking hands. Before Lana can stop her, Viri slashes her own foot off and throws it at the wreckage of Zildrog.

”Viri, what did you just do?!” Lana screams, catching Viri as she falls. “What…why…”

Viri laughs, her face contorted with pain. ”They wanted…a blood sacrifice, didn’t they? But they didn’t specify how much of me they need to destroy. They’ll have to do with my foot.”

Zildrog’s debris burns with malicious green flames, and Lana feels Viri pushing back against its power with everything she has. She holds Viri tight in her arms, supporting her back as she sits up and raises both hands toward Zildrog.

”I…will not be…a god. The Force…shall free me from this. I do not accept this power. Take it. Take the blood sacrifice I offer. I refuse the power of the gods. It will not bind me!

Viri cries out as she pushes the energy of the gods away from her, and the remains of Zildrog burst into flames. As the fire roars Lana feels the echoes of the gods fading, leaving Viri’s body and dissolving, until there is nothing.

“Viri, you did it.” Lana gasps. Viri blinks and stares at her. A thin trickle of blood is running from her mouth, but it’s Viri, surrounded by nothing more than her own crimson Force power.

We did it,” Viri says softly, and faints dead away.

”Viri…” Lana shakes her shoulders, but she does not stir.

Lana gets awkwardly to her feet and turns slowly in a circle, taking in the carnage. Zildrog has been reduced to ashes. The crumpled chassis of the GEMINI droid and the corpse of Vinn Atrius are sprawled on the ground. Ravage, Mortis and the other sacrifices are dead in their glass pods. Theron is doubled over in the corner, struggling for every shallow breath.

Viri is unconscious in her arms. Her Force signature is robust, and Lana can already feel Viri’s own natural healing power at work. Lana still chokes back a sob as she stares down at Viri’s wan, bruised face and bloody leg.

Keep going, Beniko. Just keep going. Lana swallows a scream and takes a deep breath as she accesses her comlink.

“Shuttle Aurek One, I need an extraction at these coordinates,” Lana whispers, sinking back down to her knees, still holding Viri to her chest. “HK, prepare both kolto tanks. I can’t come to you.”

Viri

The sand is so warm. She’s so close to the ocean that the waves are lapping gently over her ankles. Both of them, still attached to her body. Without opening her eyes, she knows it’s Naboo. The smell of the water, the gentle kiss of the sun on her face, the energy and peace that surround her…she knows. She is home.

”Viri. Love.” Tullia Dragoi caresses her forehead.

”Mama?” Viri opens her eyes. “Am I dead…”

”No,” Tullia whispers. “Thank the Force, no. You’re just sleeping. This is a dream. Nothing more. I promise.”

”I’ve never had a dream like this before.”

”You came very close to joining us, Viri,” Tullia says gently. “You were on the cusp of life and death. I’m able to visit because you were on that line.”

”Where am I?” Viri whispers. “Still in the cave?”

”No. Your wife is taking you back to Odessen.”

Something shakes the beach, and Viri moans in pain.

”Don’t worry, it’s just a bump, your ship is going into hyperspace,” Tullia reassures her. “Sleep, Vee.”

”Who is looking after Lana?” Viri mutters. “She saw it. I’m sure she’s upset…”

”Your father is with her. She won’t see him, but hopefully she will feel comforted. We haven’t forgotten her. Can you sleep now, with that peace of mind?”

”Do I have a choice?” Viri mutters, her eyes closing.

”Not really,” Tullia says. “Your body’s been through too much. Sleep and recover. Lana will be there when you wake.”