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From Ashes We Will Rise

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Arcann, hands joined in his back, was contemplating the forest spreading out of sight from one of the decks of the base.

Odessen.

Being here, on the very planet used by the Alliance as their Command Center in their former fight against him felt somewhat odd. Even more, knowing that he was not here as a conqueror or a prisoner, but had been welcomed by the Outlander herself as a new member of her Alliance. He had set foot on the planet just a couple of hours before. They had fled Zakuul together, and while he had helped her against the Knights and pledged his allegiance to her there, he was still not expecting to be free to roam around the base as anyone else.
 
Now, here he was, surrounded by dozens of people of all kinds who were not even trying to conceal their surprised and wary looks. Surrounded, but isolated just the same, as nobody did not dare approaching him. Which he understood and certainly appreciated as much. He, the former Emperor of Zakuul for the last six years, was anyway not really accustomed to proximity anymore.
 
He heard footsteps coming directly towards him, which was unexpected enough to make him turn around. The Outlander had traded the reinforced catsuit she had been wearing on Zakuul for a quite simple but formal black attire with geometrical silver accents. She was slightly smaller than him and thin, but he knew better than being fooled by her current inoffensive appearance. She was a fighter and a fierce one, he had had enough occasions to verify it at his own expense. The light of the declining sun made her pale grey skin glow strangely and contrast strongly with her dark outfit and the black tattooed lines finely traced on her face and hairless head. Six years before, she had been the first member of the Rattataki species that had crossed his path, and after having frozen her in carbonite and seized the throne, he had spent some of the long hours sitting there to do some research about her home world. 'Know your enemy', they said.
 
The members of her species were known to be strong and deadly warriors, thanks to the constant wars that had shaped their planet and killed the weak. He had to admit that she had been worthy of the descriptions he had read. She had represented a real challenge for him, greater than the other fighters he had to face anytime during the campaigns he had led in the past. He wondered how a member of the Rattataki, a population which had been mostly killed or enslaved during the insurrection of one of the Darth Lords nearly 50 years before, had become, first a Sith Lord herself, then the central figure of a galactic alliance.
 
"Were you shown your room? I suppose that it does not go by the same standards than what you are accustomed to, but we cannot offer more for the time being." Her voice was softer and more relaxed than the one she had ever used before addressing him, but still rather formal. She was his host here, and behaving as such, even if he could notice that she tried to be as welcoming as possible.
 
"And you shouldn't, thank you. I am no special guest here. Even though… yes, I confess that I will have to get used to a rather different life than the one I had before." He had in fact had a hard time imagining how he could live in the windowless tiny three-rooms quarters that he was now meant to share with his mother on the base. Nevertheless, he had no right to complain, as he was not treated worse than any other around. So he had instead decided to do exactly what he was doing now, spend as much time outside as possible. Considering the important amount of time he had spent inside during the last years, it would probably not be so bad to change his habits anyway.

Habits… That was a word he could in any case remove from his vocabulary for now. The number of changes he had to go through was overwhelming. And exhausting. From the moment he had gotten conscious on Voss, lost, convinced that his mother had died to save him, he had understood that his old life was gone.

He had lost everything. Reached the bottom. The throne was not his anymore, his flagship had been destroyed with part of his possessions, and the other part was on a planet where he could probably not set foot anymore without being hunted. He might have been able to go back to Vaylin but he was not even sure that she would have welcomed him as her brother and not as a foe. And it would have felt wrong anyway. He did not feel anymore this anger which had driven him so far. When he had woken up, the rush of memories of all he had done in the past months, of all he was, had made him feel sick.

The Outlander had offered him to join her on Voss already, but he had only seen the shadow of his father behind her shoulder. It did not make sense in any case. Why would she want him to follow her if not simply to throw him in a cell or execute him publicly. Disoriented, he had done the very thing he thought that he would never do in his life, he had fled. Arcann had boarded the shuttle he vaguely remembered as being the one which had brought them there and the ship had taken off, driving him away from that preposterous reality.

The shuttle had taken him to the encampment of dissident Knights, hidden deep in the Endless Swamp of Zakuul, while a fake trail meant to lose potential trackers lead them to Tython then Dantooine. The Knights had welcomed him with caution but had eventually understood what had happened. He had apparently been there before, with his mother. The fever he had suffered from had left him unconscious most of the time and clouded his moments of consciousness, he barely remembered anything between the destruction of his flagship and his awakening on Voss, but they had helped him fill the blanks. More than that, they had sworn to follow him wherever he would go.

He had decided his next move a few days later, after having learnt that his mother was still alive and the Alliance was taking care of her. His sister had sided with a droid and declared herself Empress. She had publicly claimed that she wanted him, Senya and the Outlander hunted and everything related to them burnt to the ground. He had understood the only meaningful choice that was laid before him and had faced it, knowingly putting his fate in the hands of the Outlander.

And there he was now, standing in front of her as a freshly recruited ally. Odds sometimes were more uncontrollable than he would ever admit. But he was determined to proudly face everything his new life would bring him.
 
"I hope that you will soon feel comfortable here." She looked around, obviously noticing the glances that people were shooting at them. "They will get used to you, eventually… It will take some time before people understand that you are different from the emperor we were fighting against."
 
"As it will take some time for me to understand how I can make amends and contribute to your fight."
 
The way she was looking at him made him uncomfortable. It felt like her light grey eyes were probing his soul, even though he knew she could most probably not reach into his mind. Knowing that his father was dwelling inside her head was another thing he felt uneasy with. He could sense her own strength and her imprint in the Force, but he could feel as well the faint trace of Valkorion's presence. He looked away and let his eyes linger on the treetops to avoid her glance.
 
"Is my father here?"
 
"Not now. Or at least, not talking to me. I do not know if he hears everything… And I understand that it might bother you. The best I can do is to inform you whenever he says something. However, he addressed you directly on Zakuul, didn't he? I wonder what wicked game he is playing..."
 
Arcann answered bitterly, "oh, not much more than calling me weak as he always has. But I will not let him get hold on me anymore. Now that my mother..."

She nodded slightly, then added in a very soft and caring voice, "Senya… It must be hard for you to see her in that coma. We are doing the best we can to take good care of her, but I guess that only time can help, now… I just want to assure you. We do care."

"I know. And I thank you for that." He did not really want to talk about his mother's condition. She had now been unconscious for several weeks. After all he had done, he was not sure that he was worth the effort, and the potential loss. Another thing he would have to live with.
 
The Outlander was looking at him again with a piercing look, as if trying to measure him. "Will you be able to leave aside the fact that you are a former emperor, as well as the fact that your father still lives inside my head and follow my lead whenever I need you to?"
 
The question took him by surprise as she had just voiced the same concern that was forming in his mind. Could he be sure that she could not read his thoughts after all?
 
"I…. Think so… Commander." The word still did not feel natural when he uttered it. He had called her Outlander for years, but that word seemed misplaced in the current situation. He was in a good position to know what chain of command was and how he was supposed to address her. He had pledged allegiance, she was his superior now, as strange as it felt for someone who had been at the highest level for the last six years.

Arcann hesitated a moment then formulated the question he had wanted to ask from the very moment she had accepted his allegiance. "Why did you decide to welcome me here?"
 
She remained silent for a while before answering, as if trying to choose the right words. "On Voss, I decided to trust your mother's judgment and give you the second chance she thought you deserved. Following that, there was no point in not giving you shelter here. I am not one who gives with one hand and withdraws with the other one. So now, you are a member of the Alliance. You will have access to the Command Room, act as an advisor in our campaign against your sister, fight on our side. But you will still have to earn our trust, this part is not a given."
 
"I understand, Commander. And I'll do my best to help." He was actually impressed. This woman spoke as a leader and he could understand why people followed and respected her. It was not their first talk, they had had opportunities to… exchange their views… when they were enemies, and he had already appreciated her charisma when she networked her message from Zakuul, but having her directly address to him as his new leader was a totally different thing. And while he wondered how much of that leadership was coming from his father, he decided to drive the thought away. "Give me any mission, I'll prove my loyalty to you."
 
Arcann was surprised by the genuine smile she addressed him following his words. "Very well, then. Welcome to Odessen." She nodded a goodbye and walked the way back to the main building, leaving him to his thoughts. It had been an uncomon day. And it was only the beginning of his new life…

Chapter Text

"Our spies on Zakuul informed us that--"

The first time Arcann stepped into the war room on the invitation of the Commander, a couple of days later, was a particularly awkward moment. Theron had started presenting the latest intelligence that they had received about the Eternal Empire and its new Empress when the man that had been their target for years had entered the underground area.

The new events were a major turn for the Alliance… Odessen used to be their hidden base, out of sight from the Eternal Emperor, the very same man who had now joined their fight. As per the Commander's request, he had been allocated quarters. Quarters, like any other member, not a cell or any place where his whereabouts would be limited. He was free to walk around, like anyone else, and the leader of the Alliance had decided, on top of it, to engage him immediately in their operations. If he was supposed to help defeating his sister, he had to be involved, she said.

His presence made Lana deeply uncomfortable. She had indeed sensed the change in him and had no reason to doubt his intentions so far. But there was still something, like a faint warning tickling the depths of her mind. She was determined to keep an eye on him and make sure that he would have no chance of disrupting their plans or hurting anyone. Especially the Commander. If he tried to hurt her, the woman who was risking their security as much as her own authority by accepting him among them, she would unleash every bit of wrath in herself to destroy him.

And she was apparently not the only one reacting to the former emperor's entry into the room. Theron had many reasons himself to mistrust the man, including strong personal ones. After all, that man had frozen the woman he loved in carbonite for five long years, and tried to kill her several times ever since. Lana knew that, while Theron, as an Alliance officer, respected the Commander's decision, he really had a hard time dealing with it personally. But he was a professional spy, trained at concealing emotions, and the only visible reaction she noticed when their new ally walked in was a slight tension in his jaw. And obviously the fact that he had suddenly stopped talking.

"Welcome, Arcann. Theron, please resume." The 'Outlander' - the name given to her by most of the people outside of the Alliance - on the other hand, was dealing with the situation as if the former emperor's presence was nothing new and not something to be worried about. Lana suspected that she was doing it totally on purpose, as an invitation for them to do the same as well as a way to make it easier for the newcomer. She would not reconsider her choice anyway, even though she knew that it was much disputed. They would all have to deal with it, even the most stubborn. In terms of stubbornness, she would always win anyway.

Her decision had indeed surprised many members of the Alliance. Nyx, the Commander, had received dozens of messages and holocalls from the very moment it had been known that the former tyrant was on his way to Odessen with her. She had taken note of them all but had remained unwavering. He would be a valuable asset and she was not intending to submitting to complains and criticism.

While Lana agreed that the man could be useful, she suspected that there was more to that choice than only taking the opportunity to seize more intelligence and more strike force. Nyx had mentioned a promise to Senya, but Lana knew her enough to wonder what else had finally convinced her. She had tried to prod her about it, but her long-term companion - and one of the very few people she considered as a friend- had not wished to say more.

Luckily, Koth had been on a mission with Vette and had not come back yet. She had heard him shout his disagreement over holocom, but at least they did not have to handle a fight when arriving at the base. Not that it would not happen later… Despite recent disagreements, she appreciated the man and had known him for quite a while now. He had gained her trust many times over, but she still had to acknowledge that following orders and exercising discipline and restraint were not his best qualities. Even though he had been in the zakuulan military forces, he had more of the temper of an anarchist than that of an obedient soldier.

Thinking of it, the whole Alliance that Lana had initially created was odd in a way, gathering people with so many different backgrounds and beliefs, all united in their will to save the galaxy from the oppression of the Eternal Throne. She was proud of this achievement, and convinced that she had done the right choice that day, a few months ago, when she had risked everything to free the one who would be their Commander from her carbonite prison. She was meant to lead the Alliance, Lana knew it in her core. And despite the fact that she did not agree with every single decision her friend made, Lana trusted her deeply. She would do the right choices, those that had to be done, whatever happened.

The two woman had known each other for a long time, now. Darth Nox's efficiency in field operations had been acknowledged years before and Lana had soon recognised in her a Sith that shared similarities with Darth Marr who she had always respected for his rationality. She was eager to act and had a fiery nature on the field, yet she was a subtly calculating individual in situations demanding it. Just what the Alliance needed… as long as Lana was there to handle the consequences of her friend's awful stubbornness and occasional sparks of anger.

Theron started talking again, drawing Lana away from her thoughts. Time to get back to work and focus on their objectives, first Vaylin, then Valkorion. None of these fights would be easy. The spies had discovered that Vaylin had left Zakuul with her personal shuttle and headed to an unknown destination. So far, none of them had been capable of discovering anything else of her whereabouts and it was pretty frustrating.

Losing trace of the Eternal Empress who had sworn to destroy them was worrying. Arcann was probably right when he had mentioned that she would strike them as soon as she could. The power that her father still had upon her through the Commander had infuriated her, and Vaylin was of the ill-tempered type. She would try to crush them, even if that meant killing millions in the process. Like brother, like sister, she thought. And like father too. A sweet little family. Even Senya who she thought to be trustworthy had somehow failed them when she had decided to escape with her son and try to save him. Hopefully that was for the best and the Commander's forgiveness would be rewarded. But I'll still keep an eye on him. Something… bothers me. And Lana trusted her feelings.

The meeting ended quickly and everyone left to go about other things on the base, while she lingered in the command room a bit longer, looking at intelligence briefs coming in. They had to stop Vaylin. Soon. Then it would have to be Valkorion's turn, before he got an even stronger hold on her friend. Lana was deeply concerned. She knew that the Commander's resistance to Valkorion's control was weakening, which meant that there would be a time when she might not be able to take her own decisions anymore and might even turn on them all. It had to stop. Vaylin, then Valkorion.

Chapter Text

Nathema it shall be, then. This would be where she would confront Vaylin again, on the very planet where she had become the monstrosity she was now. Very soon they would be on their way, Lana, Theron and herself.
 
Nyx had decided to take the remaining time off to clear her mind. That dream she had had, and her discussion with Valkorion in the early morning had shaken her. For the Alliance, it had allowed a real breakthrough. They knew were Vaylin was and could potentially stop her before it was too late. But for her, it was a nightmare taking shape. He was strengthening his hold on her. He said it, but she did not need any proof, she had felt it already. Beginning with her fight against Arcann on Asylum, when she had wanted to refuse using his powers and could not prevent it, killing hundreds against her will in the process. She knew it was coming, and Lana knew too. This very morning she had glimpsed her worried look when her friend had realised that there was only one way for her to know where the Empress was.
 
Lana… She had been right from the start of course, about the dangers of using Valkorion's powers. Sometimes she wondered if what Arcann had wanted to do to her, freeze her again in carbonite, was not the only solution after all. What would happen if Valkorion took a complete hold on her? Would he defeat his daughter and seize the throne again, forcing her into becoming the new Eternal Empress against her will? She would then simply be his new envelope. A mere meatbag as HK used to say.
 
She thought about her ascend among the Sith. How she had fought her way to the Dark Council. A throne would probably have been one of her dreams at that point. She had been hungry for more power, it had been her revenge. Against those who had enslaved her people, crushed them because of their former alliance with Darth Vich. She had not even been born when it happened, but her people kept the story alive and when they became of age, they all pledged to rise from the ashes again. She had, and had been ready for much more. But that was before. Before everything went out of control.
 
Her head hurt. Nyx was massaging her temples, trying to get some relief from the headache while walking towards her favourite place around the base, the ship docking port where her personal Fury was landed. She liked the place for its amazing view on the forest and the base. While it was very close to the main deck, it was still safe from the everlasting agitation. One could even hear birds sing despite the constant humming of the ships' engines. Moreover, almost nobody but her spent time there. Well… except that day apparently.
 
"It looks like my favourite place has a new tenant."
 
Arcann had visibly been lost in his own thoughts, sitting on the ground, and had not heard her arrival. He shook his head to pull himself together and jumped to his feet. "Sorry… I did not know. I found this place yesterday and liked it immediately, so…" He looked uneasy and ready to go to give her some space.
 
"No, stay, you were first. I don't own the place, anyway. I can go elsewhere."
 
She was nearly turning on her heels, but he smiled and answered with a shrug "Well, if I am the new tenant, then you are the closest to being the landlord. I cannot really dare making you leave."
 
Nyx burst out laughing. She had not been expecting such an amusing remark from someone she had mostly seen grim so far. "Hey, you can actually be funny!"
 
He replied with a shy half-smile. "I'm… trying to practice new skills. That might be useful someday. But I am still under training."
 
That made her grin again which, she noticed, was apparently helping with her headache. She showed a spot on the grassy ground, at a reasonable distance of where he had been sitting before. "May I?"
 
He nodded, and after a few seconds of hesitation while she was sitting down, he went back to his own spot and did the same. They remained silent for a while, looking at the main deck from the distance.
 
"How is Senya?" Nyx knew that he had spent a substantial time by her side, waiting patiently for her to wake up.
 
"Good. As much as she can be, I guess. Medics say that her body have recovered, but she is still… away." He shook his head, looking grim again and she immediately regretted asking him. The smile he had born on his face just a moment before had totally disappeared, replaced by a small wrinkle between his brows. What a shame… you look so different when you smile.
 
Silence settled down again on them, but Arcann looked restless, visibly wanting to mention something.
 
"My sister…. You must stop her," he finally said. "Her hate has reached a level that makes her too dangerous. She would destroy the entire galaxy to reach us if she had to."
 
He was trying to avoid looking at her while speaking. Nyx nodded nonetheless and answered with a soft voice. "Yes, we have to stop her." Vaylin was a tricky subject. Whatever was happening now, she was still his sister, his own blood. "How do you feel about it?"
 
He gave her a stern look. "About turning my back on her and siding with her enemy, you mean?"
 
He did not need to say more, the answer was crystal clear. While he knew that they had no choice, he was still a traitor to his own sister. She could only understand, trust was something she valued more than anything. She had been betrayed too often already.
 
Arcann continued in a whisper, nearly talking to himself alone. "It could all have been different. If we had understood earlier. If we had followed Senya. Thexan would still be alive, my sister would not be insane, and I…"
 
Nyx caught the mention of Arcann's twin and remembered what Senya had told her. "Your brother…"
 
"Yes. He has been dead for long now. And it was I who struck him down." His jaw tightened. The memory of it was visibly still immensely painful to him. "I killed him. And now I am trying to help you do the same to my sister."
 
It would have been hard arguing against that. Yes, they were planning to murder his only remaining sibling, one who had been the only trusted person standing by his side for the past six years. Nyx tried to find words to soothe him down. "You still have your mother."
 
"Do I? She has not been awake for weeks. And tell me, how will she feel when she will know what I did to my own brother?"
 
She hesitated, but there was no point hiding the truth. It might even help him, if he knew that it had not prevented her to save him. "She already knows. Vaylin told her on Asylum… and she told me right after that. But she still chose to believe that you could be saved. You will not lose her."
 
Her words seemed to unsettle him. "She knew, then. when Mother saved me I thought that Vaylin had lied to me about telling her. You knew too… And despite this you chose to let me live? I did not deserve than much compassion."
 
Nyx felt that they were connecting somehow. He had confessed a secret that had been well kept for years. She decided to be equally honest with him. "Arcann, there is something you might need to know. I…" She paused, wondering how to express her thoughts. She was not ashamed of the choices she had made. It was war, he was the enemy, and she was a Sith, not a Jedi. She had never been restrained by idealism of beautiful feelings and the idea of redemption for all. Yet, she did not want her words to create unnecessary tensions. "It has never been my intention to let you escape and reach Voss. I tried to shoot your shuttle. The only reason you and Senya lived is because I missed. I wanted you dead. You mother was in the way, but she was expendable. I only changed my mind later. And I am glad I did."
 
He seemed to ponder the situation for a while, nodding silently and finally addressed her with a wry smile. "One day, we should try counting how many times we attempted to kill each other."
 
She mirrored his smile and snickered. "Hopefully that time is over. I guess that we have at least wiped the slates clean, now… "
 
Nyx suddenly felt the sting in her brain that characterised the moments when Valkorion revealed himself. The luxurious colours of Odessen's landscape faded and while she did not bother looking at his ghostly shape, she distinctly heard him snort.
 
Pathetic. Your untimely compassion may be your doom. Vaylin soon will be stronger than ever and yet here you are, talking to a broken man not worth your attention... When my daughter will exert the full power of her rage on you, you will remember the face of your failure.
 
"Get OUT of my head!" she growled, teeth clenched. He had no right to interfere. Or to judge his own son that way. Broken. That part was true. But they knew who to blame for it after all. And believe me, I'll take real pleasure in undoing what you have done.
 
Nyx world went soon back to normal, but her head was hurting violently again and she put it in her hands with a moan.
 
Arcann looked worried. He had instinctively initiated a move towards her, as if he wanted give some comfort but had interrupted himself on his way. His hand remained suspended in mid-air for a while before he brought it back to his knees.
 
"My father… You almost made me forget that he still lives in your mind. I should be more cautious."
 
Something had been broken. The faint feeling of trust and mutual understanding that had flown between then for a short moment was gone, replaced by a constrained silence that neither of them was willing to interrupt.
 
Nyx' comlink rang, bringing relief to both of them. Neither of them would have to find an excuse to leave, the conversation was over.
 
"I should better go," she said, standing up and rapidly dusting her battle catsuit. "We are running out of time."
 
"You will make it."
 
"I hope…" She did. She had to succeed, otherwise…
 
Arcann stood up and took one step ahead to draw closer to her.
 
"Commander?"
 
"Yes?" He was looking at her without blinking, and as much as she wanted, Nyx felt incapable of shying away.
 
"I would have killed you without hesitation, six years ago, if I had been sure that it would be ending my father's existence forever. I still want him gone for good. But I want you to live. Be careful."
 
The message was for her as much as for his father. He was making his intentions clear, to both of them. She nodded briefly, looking away.
 
"Goodbye, Arcann."
 
"Goodbye Commander."

Chapter Text

They had left Odessen. The base and its surroundings had been badly damaged by Vaylin's attack, but reconstruction would have to wait. Now that the Empress was dead, the Eternal Fleet had reverted to its primal function - extermination - and Zakuul, Dromund Kaas and Coruscant were under attack. The Empire and the Republic would have to manage their own defenses, the Alliance was on its way to Zakuul to stop the fleet by seizing the Eternal Throne.
 
Most of the core members of the Alliance had embarked on the Gravestone, Arcann among them, by his mother's side. He had noticed that his presence was far from pleasing the ship's main pilot, Koth, and his crew. They all knew him - or… the former him, as he usually tried to qualify his time as an Emperor - too well. They had been part of his army, and he had had them hunted down by his mother Senya after their desertion. Thankfully, all ideas of revenge were tempered by the far more pressing matter that they had on their plate for the moment. But the blow would come in due course, he was almost certain.
 
The Commander was listening to the latest news of the battlefronts, provided alternately by Lana and Theron. He could not hear them from where he was standing, but judging by their faces, the news was not good. People were dying. Many of them. Reclaiming the empty throne was the only possible way to silence the fleet… If it was even possible.
 
The Eternal Throne. That place at the peak of the Spire was the most obvious symbol of his family's doom. His father had turned his back on them so many times in that room that he could not even remember. What he did remember, though, was how he had taken Thexan's life in that same place, failing the person that had been the closest to him. His brother, his best friend, his confidante, the calm and balanced counterpart to his troubled, restless soul. From the day of his death, he had never missed him as much as today and hoped that wherever he was, he would know that the countless years of madness were finally about to be over.
 
The briefing was apparently over, and the Commander was coming in his direction.
 
"Arcann. May I have a word with you?"
 
Senya nodded to them and left, leaving them alone. Over the Commander's shoulder, he could see Theron purse up his lips looking at them. He, too, had apparently something against him. Arcann had not noticed it so far but made a mental note to remain cautious regarding Theron too. And to find out if there were any specific reasons to his displeasure. He focused again on the Commander.
 
"Yes?"
 
"We barely had time to speak after the fight against your sister… How do you feel?"
 
'Good leaders care about their people.' That was what one of his former combat teachers said. Thexan cared, but he himself had never bothered to. He had considered it as a loss of time and an effort requiring unwanted and unnecessary emotional proximity. During his years as an Emperor, he had even decided that caring about anything was a weakness he had to strictly avoid. But she did care. He had been a warrior and a self-proclaimed emperor. She was a leader. No wonder that so many people had joined the Alliance.
 
He nodded. "I am good. It had to be done." He lied a bit, of course. The death of his own sister was not insignificant. And even less was the fact that he had clearly seen some of her essence being absorbed by the Commander. That was worrying him. But it would have to wait, they had more urgent things to deal with.
 
"Next step is the throne. Then we will get rid of your father and everything will be over for good. We will end this. Together."
 
Arcann froze, his eyes losing focus. She had caught his forearm on her last words. Just like Thexan and I always did. But she could not know. How could she possibly know? This gesture had always meant a lot for them. It was their silent promise to keep each other’s back. Until that day when his brother’s hand had gone loose…
 
The Commander was still talking but his pulse was ringing so loud in his ears that he did not really hear her anymore. He suddenly noticed that he had closed his own hand on her forearm in an instinctive response. The odd sensation of their arms being in contact made him realise that, besides his mother, no one had even touched him in years. He finally came back to his senses, drawn back to the present moment by a soft pressure of her fingers.
 
"…cann, will you be by my side?"
 
Yes. Yes, he would be by her side. That was where he was meant to be, wanted to be. A brother in arms. He licked his lips and nodded, tightening his grip on her arm.
 
"I will."

Chapter Text

A storm upon the galaxy
Whose eye is stained with tears.
A broken soul, a bleeding heart,
Has gone back to the Force
Corruption had stolen her grace,
The depths, they had devoured her.
A fate begat by father's blood
This path was laid before her.
Redemption borne by stranger's hands
A light upon the darkness.
An unexpected alliance,
The Maiden of Death has been unwrought.
Her wrath has drown throughout the black,
The gardens of death now she tends
Vengeance was her only ward
Now peacefully she walks
 
Senya's voice broke on the last words and she wiped tears from her cheeks with the back of her hands. Nearby, the party gathering the members of the alliance was in full swing, but she could not bear sharing the moment with them. Among other things, they were celebrating her daughter's death, and while she knew that there had been no other possible outcome, her heart was bleeding nonetheless. She had fled the cantina, seeking refuge on a bridge nearby from where she could contemplate the valley below. And breathe… she needed to breathe.
 
Vaylin was gone. She had already lost her years ago, but hopefulness had remained. After having succeeded in healing her son, she had foolishly dared to dream that her daughter could be saved too. If he could come back, why couldn't she? She had tried to offer her help each time they had faced each other, had tried to reach out to her and offer a hand to draw her out of the darkness. The same as she had done for Arcann. But if he had eventually clung to her hand, Vaylin had never wanted to. 
 
Thinking of her was almost unbearable. The burden of guilt was crushing Senya’s lungs, leaving no space for air. She had said once to the Outlander that she had to make peace with the choices she had made, but that day of self-forgiveness had not come yet. She was still haunted day and night with the visions of a little girl, scared of the dark, left alone in a gloomy room. Valkorion had built the room and locked Vaylin in, and she, Senya, had not tried hard enough to get her out.  
 
She should never have given up. Mothers should never abandon their children. Mothers had to fight with every fragment of themselves. And she had not fought enough. After years left alone in the dark, the child had fought back with the only ammunitions she had, her own hatred, her own rejection of those who left her alone, vulnerable, who did not help her when she needed to be. 
 
Vaylin had been damaged beyond hope. Senya had finally had to recognise it and make the only thing she could still do. Make sure it all stopped. Make sure people would stop dying. And make sure she would be freed. But she could not do it herself, it was beyond her strength. And she could not ask Arcann neither, he had already suffered more than his share. It had to be by someone else's hand… So she had selfishly relied on someone else, someone who could do it and would not fail, the Oulander. One day they both would have to talk about it, but it was still too early. 

So now there was no going back anymore, no other chance, no healing. Perhaps if they had had more time… Knowing that she had consciously asked someone to end her daughter's life, if not in these terms, would be her burden forever. But it has to be mine alone. She made the silent promise to make sure that neither Arcann nor the Oulander would have to share the weight. 
 
"It was a beautiful song, Mother…" 

"Oh…" Surprised by the sudden sound of Arcann's voice, Senya quickly dried her cheeks again before turning around and facing her son. She had not heard him come, but apparently he was not feeling like partying neither. "I wrote it for your sister…" 
 
He nodded, leaning on the railing to look at the canyon below. "I could say so. I guess that it is a good way to say goodbye… Circumstances did not really give us a chance." He sighed sadly. "You know, she was the only person by my side willingly when I was Emperor. And she always took care of me… in her own special way." 
 
Arcann paused, looking at the platform where his sister had been defeated in the distance. "It happened so fast… I do not even know what they have done with her body." 
 
"The Outlander offered to give it to us so that we could arrange proper funerals, but… I asked her to dispose of it herself, with dignity. I know she will. I do not think I could bear seeing Vaylin dead again. I… hope you agree?" 
 
"I do… I am sure that she will respect your wish. It seems like the kind of things she would do; take care of what needs to be done on behalf of others. Just like…" Arcann stopped abruptly, looking away. Senya could easily see that he had tensed. He was holding the railing so hard that the knuckles of his right hand had become white. 
 
"Just like Thexan... That is what you were about to say, weren't you?" She had tried to pronounce his twin's name with a calm voice but could not totally help prevent it shaking a little. They had never spoken about him since their reunion. Sooner or later they would have to. Now might be the time, then.  
 
Learning recently that Arcann had murdered his own brother had devastated her. She could barely believe it at first. They had been so close… Thexan had been the eldest by a few minutes and had always behaved as such, taking care of his younger, more instable brother, providing the love and understanding they both could not get from their father. She knew that Arcann had cherished his brother all the same. They had been so close that they looked more like the two halves of one single being.  
 
Senya did not understand what might have happened to reach that turn of events. She knew of her son's frustration about his father and the terrible effect it had had on him, the anger that had grown within him until it took over on him. But that wrath had been directed towards Valkorion, so why did Thexan die? 
 
Arcann broke the silence abruptly, spitting out the words as if they were burning him. "You should want me dead… For what I did to him." 
 
He looked torn appart by sadness. His shoulders had dropped and he was avoiding eye contact. He suddenly seemed more exposed than Senya had ever seen him and that look alarmed her. She was used to him displaying a confident and wilful stance, even when he was not feeling that sure of himself. It was something the twins had learned from the Knights. 'Never look weak. If you feel weak, appear even stronger.' That was how she had always known, even with the distance they had kept with her, that Arcann was the most vulnerable of her sons. Because he always tried to look stronger than his brother did.  
 
"No!" she said with a horrified look. She pushed on Arcann's left shoulder to force him to look at her. "Having to outlast two of my children is worse than anything I ever lived, Arcann. The best I can do is to accept that the death of your sister was the only possible solution. But it does not make it less painful…" Taking advantage of the fact that her son was now facing her, Senya put both her hands on his shoulders, pleading him. "I know what happened, but I do not know how, and even less why. Please, son, you must tell me… " 
 
He was looking at her, mouth opened but unable to utter a sound. It took a while for him to be able to even swallow but then the barrier broke and he told her everything, barely taking time to breathe as if it all needed to get out of him after all this time he had kept it inside.  
 
Korriban. The burns. The loss of his arm. The pain. The rage that had grown inside him. His will to sacrifice anything else that would need to be. The return to Zakuul. Offerings put before the feet of his father who had just turned his back on them again. Despite the sacrifices, despite his losses. The frustration. The anger. The single thought he could have at that moment. Defeating him. Defeating his father. The blow intended to strike him down. The fight with his brother who had pulled him away. The feeling of having been betrayed by his own twin. The debilitating wrath that had suddenly poisoned him, strangled him, drowned him... His strike. The glowing light of his lightsaber reflecting in his brother's surprised look. The panic when he fell. His hand getting limp. Thexan's silent death…  
 
Arcann had begun shaking, visibly overwhelmed by the flow of emotions he was suddenly letting out. His eyes had blurred and gone wide and Senya could say that he was fighting the urge to cry with all his strength. She did not feel that need and had let the tears flow again but had tightened her grip on her son's shoulders to help him go through his confession. When he finally stopped speaking and remained panting, she gently put her hands on both sides of his face, pulling him gently down so that she could put her forehead against his. They remained like this for a long moment, eyes closed, until his breath became almost normal again. 
 
You opened… at last… Oh son, how much you have suffered. How could I want you dead? I want you alive, genuinely alive. Happy. It is the only hope I can have for you. 
 
Arcann took his mother's hands and pulled them down from his face, keeping them in his own hands. "He was trying to protect me, not our father. But I understood it far too late. And after that, the only place I could hide was in the darkness. I had lost too much, I did not want to come back. And Father… only then did he start to see me. Until the arrival of the Outlander… and I nearly repeated the same mistake again." 
 
"I… understand now… But that was another you, different from who you are now. Now this time is all over…" She wiped her face again, chuckling at the thought that she had probably shed tears for a few years in a ridiculously short time. She was grateful that her son had finally spoken. The weight on her chest felt slightly lighter now. She noticed that he had regained some composure and hoped that he was feeling better as well. "Do you still miss him?"
 
"Always. I started missing him from the very moment I knew he was gone. And it never left me since then." He tried a half-smile. "I felt his presence all the time before, you know. Like if a part of him was permanently with me, keeping me whole. We even did not need to talk to know what the other wanted. And then, there was only a void instead, trying to swallow me down. The void is still there, even if I can handle it better. I know it will never go away…"
 
He stirred a little, easing tense muscles in his back. "But I start feeling differently, now. Other parts of me are filling in. I have you. I have a cause to fight for with the Alliance. And… the commander reminds me of him…"
 
She suddenly chuckled at the thought of Thexan face on the Outlander's body, totally out of place. "Mh, shaped quite differently, though, don't you think?"
 
To her surprise, he blushed, apparently flabbergasted. "I… I don't…"
 
Oh dear… Son, you will have to get used to it. Your mother likes bantering when she is in a lighter mood. And now I am feeling better. I'll preserve you a bit at first, I promise. But brace yourself, just in case.
 
She laughed, patting his shoulder gently. "Easy. I am not implying anything. I can understand why you see her this way. Only… It would be fairer to consider her as a person in her own right instead of a copy of your late brother." She smiled to him, tilting her head on one side, observing her son. "Will you grant your mother a wish, Arcann?"
 
He frowned, surprised by her request. "What kind of wish?"
 
"Just … Let me hold you in my arms. I have not done that for so long… And perhaps, hold me back if you feel like it."
 
After a moment of doubt, he opened his arms hesitantly to welcome his mother who immediately took the opportunity to hug him tenderly before he changed his mind. She rested her chin on his shoulders, eyes closed and sighed happily when she felt her son's arms close on her after a while and hug her back. "Now, that feels good, doesn't it?" she whispered, and she was almost sure that he had nodded imperceptibly.
 
It had been ten years. Ten years of estrangement and suffering. And those years had hopefully come to an end. There had been heavy casualties, hard choices, sacrifices, too many of them. But all had not been in vain, she had him back for good. A broken son, who still had a long path to tread to atone for what he had done and find peace, but there was hope. Senya pulled away from her son a little to face him.
 
"Promise me another thing, will you? Try to find a happy life, whatever it means for you."
 
He gave her a look so clueless that she had to restrain from laughing. "I… I can probably try…"
 
Mh. You have no idea what would make you happy so far.
I'd say, find yourself a nice girl, give me plenty of grandkids I can spoil so that you would make ME happy too. Now, if I tell you this, you might just run away screaming, so I will just shut my mouth.
Oh, I did not even think that you might like men instead. No grandchildren in that case, it would be a pity.
Or you could be a space pirate too. You already have the look. OH SENYA, that is totally unfair!
Oh well, I guess I'll do with whatever comes…
 
Senya's mind was racing again and her thoughts made her giggle irrepressibly, probably a side effect of her finally relaxing a bit. Her giggle transformed into an open laughter at the sight of her son's sudden grumpy face, convinced as he was that she was making fun of him. She finally calmed down and caught his good hand in hers.
 
"Forgive your mother, Arcann, it has all been a long journey. I am proud of the man you are becoming."

Chapter Text

Lana Beniko.
Commander's long-time companion. One of the few considered as friends. Has been Sith Intelligence Minister. Now leads operations. Wise, strong connection to the Force, might have visions? Looks formal and cold-blooded all the time, but apparently likes poetry and romance stories. Likes tea and bourbon in the evening.

Arcann was taking notes on his datapad in the common room of the quarters he shared with his mother. Senya had suggested that he should start getting to know people on the base, insisting on the fact that he should learn something personal about as many people as he could. He had agreed to try, it would not do him any bad at the very least. But getting along with people was not that easy for a formerly despised and secluded emperor. As much for him as for the others.

He had quickly realised that simply starting a conversation with some random people was something he had no idea how to deal with. Especially when half of those people still looked suspicious at his approach. So, he had begun with a mix of talks with the individuals he had been introduced to by the Commander. And some own observations. Writing notes on people was probably not what his mother had expected him to do but it would have to start somewhere and at least 'intelligence' reports were something he was used to deal with.

Lana was not an easy subject. She remained very formal most of the time. And very busy too. He had not learnt much more about her within this last week at the base than he had already known before. Of course, she had been very occupied with the newly born Eternal Alliance, the diplomatic tasks and the rebuilding of the base. He had been forced to ask others about her instead of asking directly. But, that would still count, wouldn't it?

The cantina's droid had mentioned the drink. It was apparently kind of a ritual for her. Sometimes she had it at the bar, but it was as well providing her with the goods so that she could have her drink in her quarters. The part about poetry and romances had been snitched by Vette, and he would never had given any credit to the information if he had not known his own mother and her contrasting personality. So apparently Lana did read and write poetry and romance stories. Vette claimed that the romantic poems where usually addressing a female love interest, but she had never dared trying to know more… yet. Nevertheless, she was quite proud of her finding. And speaking of her…

Vette. Real name Ce'na.
Talkative, gossipy, instantly friendly. Funny. Has been a slave, a pirate, even an assassin, which seems not to match with her. Companion to another Sith Lord before joining the Commander. Be careful with belongings: sneak thief, for fun only, but could be risky. Can be bribed with frosty treats.

Arcann wrote the lines, an amused smile stuck on his lips. Vette had been a surprise and a quite pleasant one. While almost everyone on the base tried to avoid him, she had been friendly from the start. It apparently helped that she had never been directly on his path during his emperor time. She did not hold any personal grudge against him and was therefore prompt to be forgiving. 'If the Commander's good, I'm good,' she had said with her almost childish voice.

She was one who spoke her mind easily. He mentally rectified immediately. She was one who spoke about anything easily. Without stopping. Until she was too thirsty to continue. The first time he had spent some time with her had left him a bit light-headed by the constant flow of speech she was capable of sustaining. And yes, she was probably someone who was not stopped by conventions or politeness and said whatever came to her mind. The poor girl must have gotten into trouble more than once, he thought. Even though refreshing, I am sure that I would never have tolerated that at the court.

Vette was probably too clumsy and spontaneous to be a good spy, but her naturally enthusiastic and relaxed demeanour was quite effective to gain people's trust. He had felt it too and realised that he had been himself more talkative than expected. She had asked questions about what being an emperor meant 'in real life' and the differences with the life they had on the base. There was not much to hide on that subject so nothing he had said could not be repeated. But he would have to remember, just in case, that the twi'lek was most probably not the right person to share secrets with if one did not want the whole base to know about them.

Especially as Vette apparently tried to draw conclusions on what people said, he had noticed. Arcann had attempted to know a bit more about the Commander, and that had resulted in very inquisitive looks accompanied by a little playful smile. He had stopped asking immediately. Thinking about the Commander made him automatically start a new line.

The Commander.

He technically already knew a lot about her, the intelligence reports he had gotten after having her sealed in carbonite were quite exhaustive about her origins and her ascension among the Sith. However, he still did not know much more than her recorded history.

The woman who accepted to give him another chance and welcome him in the Alliance was no typical Sith, or at least not how his father used to picture them - as ruthless and selfish individuals - or even any close to the various readings of the Sith Code and the Sith history he had gone through during some of the long hours spent in the throne room. She may have been close to it during their first encounter, six years before, and perhaps even later. But now, even her imprint in the Force had changed and while she was definitely as strong-minded as she had ever been, he could see that her commitment to the Alliance and the people there went probably much further than just following her own aspirations.

There was a lot about her that he wanted to understand. And not only out of curiosity, but because she had made the effort of taking interest in him, despite all that she already had to handle. In a way, he was not sure that she was getting as much personal attention than she should deserve. She was "The Commander", respected and obeyed as such. She had many allies, people following her willingly, but very few friends for what he had been able to glimpse. Not that different from what he had lived as an emperor in fact. The same loneliness and distance, even if that distance was not created by fear but pure respect. Frowning, he wrote two additional words on the same line.

(real name?)

That was certainly the most striking proof of the distance that existed between her and most of the people he had been able to discuss with. They did not know her real name and were even a bit surprised by his question, wondering why they should bother. Even his mother had to admit that she never really thought about asking. Lana apparently knew, but had retorted that it was none of his business. And there was probably another one who knew but he did not feel like asking him. Many questions remained open, and he had not even had opportunities to speak with her lately...

Her fight against Vaylin and then her inner battle with Valkorion had drained her strength. Senya and him had first witnessed it in the throne room and while she had done her best to hold out during all the events that had followed, parties included, she had suddenly blacked out in the operation room a couple of days later, scaring everyone who had been present that day. Word had come later that she mostly needed rest. It had been a relief for him. For now, there was unfortunately nothing more he could do for her and seeing her was not an option neither, Theron had made it clear.

Theron Shan.
Ex SIS spy. Good for gathering information, bad at planning operations. Makes a good team with Lana. The Commander's lover. Protective at the very least… Easily grumpy. Accepts my presence officially but mistrusts me. Apparently likes to have a drink at the cantina before sleep, not done much of that lately. Takes care of her, letting no one getting close these days…

Theron's relationship with the Commander was probably the biggest discovery he had made so far. And the one that has surprised him the most. Everybody apparently knew about it, yet they could barely be seen together, and he had never noticed clear marks of affection. There might have been a few times when he could have doubts, but nothing evident. He wondered why, but on the other hand did not consider himself as experienced enough in this area to know if it was right or wrong.

Arcann had at least discovered that Theron was of the protecting kind. When he had inquired about her health on the day after her fainting, the spy has looked at him calmly and answered that HE would take good care of her, making it manifest that his help would not be welcome at all. Did he still consider him as a potential threat for her? Theron and the Commander were apparently together already before her first encounter with Valkorion. Which meant that he, Arcann, had taken her from him during the five years he had put her in carbonite. He guessed that he would probably have been as reluctant and rancorous in his situation as Theron was. If he had ever loved anyone…

Arcann did not really feel compassion for Theron himself. But knowing that this relationship was another thing he had somehow stolen from the Commander was unsettling. Five years were a long time, and he supposed that she had been lucky that her lover had waited for her. Or was it something people in love necessarily did, staying faithful to each other no matter what? How could he know after all? It was not something he had ever experienced, and he wondered if he would ever be capable of such feelings. He stirred and sighed. For the moment setting this kind of questions aside would anyway be wiser. It was making him feel lonely and sad, and even longing a bit for those days when he did not really care about anything else than his personal objectives and daily issues. And he refused to regret anything from that time.

Starting a new paragraph, Arcann wrote down the next name before stretching a little and having a sip from the glass of cold tea brew he had brought back from the cantina.

Koth Vortena.
Former captain in the Zakuulian army, deserter. Was hunted by Mother on my own orders. Holds legitimate grudge against me but apparently gets along with Mother, now. Friend with Lana, but as well quite impressed by her. Very close to his crew. Wrongly considers the Gravestone as his own ship. Still thinks that Valkorion was a great emperor, reductive vision…

When Senya had suggested that he tried to get to know a few people, she had warned him that Koth might want to get in touch with him in a different way. 'In the case of Koth… prepare to dodge,' she had said. That was no real surprise. Arcann knew the man's past and had caught the angry looks that he had cast him anytime their path crossed. All Koth needed was a proper opportunity to get at him and he had gotten one five days earlier.

Arcann had been trying to give a hand at handling supplies that had to be delivered to Zakuul. Still mourning their dead from the blind attack that his sister had ordered against him and the Commander during her Grand Festival, the population of Zakuul had been badly striked again when the fleet had started its destruction campaign. They needed food, medicines, and it felt right for him to try to help in this particular case. Unfortunately, Koth was the pilot in charge and getting the help from the former emperor had not been to his liking. As soon as he had noticed Arcann's presence, he had rushed straight in his direction, rolling up his sleeves in the clear intention of starting a fight.

'Finally caring for the people you made suffer?'

'I am just trying to help, like everyone else.' Arcann had put down the crates that he had been lifting with the Force and prepared a defensive stance, in case Koth really intended to start a brawl. 'Everyone is needed…'

'Well maybe getting the help of His Majesty Murderer of Millions is a bit too ironic for my tastes, then.' Koth had been clenching his fists and suddenly tried to deliver a blow, straight to the head. The former emperor had been expecting it and dodged without difficulty. His opponent was a trained soldier, but no Knight. His weapons of choice were blasters and rifles whereas Arcann was trained to close combat. He could win without difficulty, even more if he used the Force, but he did not want to fight.

He had to dodge a few more blows, under a flow of insults before he heard a woman's voice shouting in his back. A voice that made Koth freeze. When he turned around, he saw Lana taking large strides in their direction, a displeased look upon her face. 'What do you two think you are doing?'

Koth crossed his arms, pulling a face. 'I don't want him close to my ship!'

'It is not YOUR ship Vortena. Besides, we need everyone's help,' said Lana disapprovingly. 'I don't have time to handle childish squabbles.'

'Then make him help cleaning the toilets. I'm sure he'll be fine,' Koth insisted. Arcann was starting to get more tense. Despite his will to resist the urge to replicate, there were limits to what he agreed to swallow. But Lana had started to squint eyes, a smirk appearing on her face.

'No I actually have a better idea… You want a fight? Let's get a fight.' She was suddenly nodding approvingly, a satisfied smile stuck on her face. 'I will have Bowdar setting up a fighting pit so that we can all enjoy the entertainment. And in honour of our Commander, we will set it up Rattataki style.' She looked like she was imagining the scene. 'You know, their pits have sharp spikes all around and I heard that it was really giving some additional thrill to the fight. But…' she hissed between her teeth. 'you might want to be extra careful to evade Force Pushes. You know who you will be fighting...'

Koth tanned skin had turned a pale shade of beige and he definitely did not look as cocky as he did before. Arcann himself was still trying to understand if Lana was serious about it when the ex-captain surrendered reluctantly, apparently not finding the idea of risking his life for entertainment very appealing. Lana's intervention had calmed things down, and while both men tried to avoid each other as much as possible, it was quite certain that the idea of a fight would not re-emerge anytime soon.

Arcann closed the file he was working on and lay the datapad on the table. Enough with this, there was another thing he had decided to write today, he had postponed it long enough. A letter to the Commander. He would have talked to her face to face, but he did not know when this opportunity would come, so sending a letter was probably the best compromise.

He had not gone through this exercise for a very long time, though. All the correspondence he had to send as an emperor had always been handled by subordinates without him even noticing half of it. Diplomatic letters and courtliness were details he did not want to bother about, and while he had to approve one more important message from time to time, most of them had been invisible to him.

He was thirteen when he had written his very first and last letter himself. It was a love letter, addressed to a knight in training. She was sixteen, and he could still feel the sting of the humiliation he had suffered when she had read his ridiculous prose aloud in front of everyone in the training yard. He and his brother had later made sure to give her and her friends a good kick during the training session, but the experience had healed him from attempting such foolishness again.

There had only been a few exceptions later when he had had to compose messages on his own, mostly speeches. Ironically, it had always been linked to his fight against the Commander. And now he was again crossing boundaries he had set in a situation where she was involved.

He straightened a bit and started taping the table with the tip of his fingers, looking for a way to start the letter.

Valkorion is gone. Finally.
As hard as I try, I will never forget my father's cruelty. Those empty, dismissive eyes. His attempts to break me and my siblings, eroding kindness until there was nothing left but hatred and resentment. Only my brother Thexan found a way to cope… until my rage destroyed him.

He did not need to say much about Valkorion. She would know what one would feel when he put his eyes on them. And she had learnt enough on their family history to know how he had perverted them all. Besides, she had been close to be defeated by his father herself because she had refused to surrender. She had had her share. But he still felt the need to speak about them, his sister, and even more, the brother she had never met and who she reminded him yet so much.

When you saved me on Voss, I was struck by how much you reminded me of Thexan. You both have a gift for inspiring loyalty. It is a shame you two never met.

The similarities had struck him on Voss but even more afterwards. She was brave, bold, strong, yet wise and understanding. Yes, he was sure that Thexan would have liked her, as a friend, or as an ally. Loved her, even? Perhaps… He frowned at the picture of them side by side that had appeared in his mind and brushed the thought hastily away to focus on his writing again. If he did not concentrate, he would never finish it. Writing a letter was hard enough for him to wish being done with it as soon as possible. But he still did not want to rush that one.

Now Thexan, Valkorion, and Vaylin are all gone, but I am no longer alone. I have my mother, I have the Eternal Alliance…
And I have you.

Arcann sat back, looking at his last sentence perplexedly. Yes, that was exactly how he felt right now. And he wanted her to know how much her forgiveness had brought to his life, especially now that exhaustion and the weight of all she had to deal with had struck her down. She had to know that he felt grateful. So yes, in a sense he had her. Someone who, so far, had cared enough to give him another chance.

Yet, his words might be misunderstood, he had to change that sentence. Otherwise she might think that I… He felt confused and a bit too exposed to his tastes to the possibility that she might interpret his words differently. Arcann sat up straight and was about to hit the 'delete' button when Senya suddenly got in. He blenched and turned the datapad face down all of a sudden.

Wait, why am I acting awkwardly like this? He could even feel the heat of a slight blush on his cheeks. Nonsense.

"Oh hello, son. I was not expecting you to be here. I am just changing outfit before dinner. What have you been up to?"

She rushed into her room, out of sight but leaving the door open. He could hear her remove pieces of armour. Luckily she had apparently not noticed his confusion.

"I was… writing notes… on people. You know, the thing you suggested…"

And even lying now? What is wrong with simply mentioning my letter to the Commander? He was starting to get angry at himself for behaving just like a child caught doing stupid things.

Senya laughed and poked her head around the door. "By your look, I take it that you consider them as strictly classified. But you know, this is not exactly what I meant by getting to know people more. Get out of here!" She went out of her room, dressed in a white casual outfit more suitable for dinner than the zakuulian armour she was usually wearing by day. "And first, you could join me for dinner, will you?"

"Hum, yes… In a minute. I'll join you there."

She blew him a kiss, asking him not to wait too long and left, humming a joyful melody. Arcann waited a few seconds to make sure that she would not be coming back then swiftly took the datapad again. Yes, he had to change that sentence, definitely. Otherwise…

He brushed the screen with his fingers to activate it and froze, staring incredulously at the message that had just appeared in the centre of it.

Your message has been sent

Damn…

Chapter Text

No one on the left, no one on the right, go!

Getting swiftly out of a dully-lit corridor, Vette tiptoed to the door of Hylo's quarters and stuck her ear against the cold metal panel. Ah, good. From the noises she heard distinctively, the mirialan was having some good time with Gault. She would probably not roam around before long. One threat down. Checking again that there was nobody around, the twi'lek continued to the next dark corner, moving closer to her objective.

Vette was hungry. No. Starving. And when she was starving, it was a matter of emergency. Serious business. She usually kept sweets in her room but had run out. And the cantina was closed for the night. Bad, bad timing. She was sure that she would be capable of eating an entire bantha, and that she would be found half dead in her room if she waited any longer without eating anything. Not that she had no dinner. Shpe had, and a copious one. But a girl had to listen to her needs, right? And she could almost hear that citros snow cake they had for dessert still calling her.

But the way to the kitchen was a perilous one for someone who had been caught red handed stealing food already several times. Five precisely. Ah no, six. Which meant a 50% success rate. Could be better, but could be worse. And considering that Hylo had already threatened to throw her into the garbage compactor and that she was still alive, the score was not that bad so far.

Getting closer to the mechanical workshops, Vette heard footsteps coming her way and dived behind a pile of crates, hands on her mouth in an attempt to muffling the sound of her breath. She managed to remain completely motionless, but a low growling wail coming from below betrayed her suddenly. The twi'lek tried to bend in half to stop her stomach from complaining but heard the steps stopping.

"Hello? Anybody around?"

Arcann? What was Arcann doing, wandering around in the base in the middle of the night? He had a right to do so like everyone else, of course, but Vette had to stop her terribly curious nature from peeking out of her hiding place.

Stay still, don't breathe, stay still, don't breathe…

The steps resumed and she could hear the workshops door open and close. Relaxing a bit, she breathed a sigh of relief. He had not seen her. She would definitely need to know what he was planning to do there, though, and considered entering the workshop innocently, as if she had something to do there as well, in order to have a chance to spy on him. But another growl of her stomach dissuaded her. Eating was far more important for now, she could do the spying stuff on the way back to her room. Yes, that sounded like a plan. Straight to the kitchen. Down the corridor, then across the cantina, and then, destination reached. Easy peasy.

Hurrying out of the corridor, Vette sneaked rapidly through the closed cantina… and nearly fell, stumbling on a grunting shapeless mass lying on the floor. She managed not to scream, but gosh, it had been close this time! Finding balance again, the twi'lek noticed distinctive blue hair: Tora had probably been playing Drinking Sabacc all evening. The cleaning droids would kick her out as soon as they would come. Thinking of which, she should better be out before they arrived.

She hurried to the kitchen door. Just a few meters left and she would have reached destination. Cake! She could already feel her mouth watering at the idea of biting in one of those sweet savoury desserts. Yum!! Just a few more steps and...

The door opened suddenly and this time, Vette squealed out of surprise, making the person in front of her jump and spill some of the drink she was holding.

The silhouette that stood out in the low lighting of the deserted kitchen put what it was holding aside and started wiping its cloths with both hands. "Vette! Stars! You scared me!"

"Ho… Hullo Commander"

Don't let yourself be stopped. Target, focus on target. Get cake before she realises you're not supposed to sneak around…

Vette managed to go through the door and reach the fridge as the Commander backed off to get a towel. She rapidly scanned the content and spotted the dessert she was looking for, grabbed the whole plate of leftovers and took a big bite of cake, sighing eyes closed in full satisfaction. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, that was so good!

When she opened her eyes again, she could see that the Commander was looking at her, towel in one hand, an amused smile stuck on her face.

"Didn't Hylo threaten you of the worst torture if you were caught stealing food again?"

"On'y i' 'e knows…" she swallowed. "But you will not tell her, right? Urgh, I was so hungry!"

The grey-skinned woman put down the towel and grabbed her glass to take a sip, visibly enjoying the taste of her drink as well. "I don't know, shouldn't I?"

Ah no, pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease, Commander!! You can't do that to me!... Oh wait, but…

"M'a'en' you… Hum, aren't you supposed to be bedridden in your room? I heard Lana say…."

The Commander rolled her eyes and sighed.

Ha! Gotcha!

Vette adopted a conspiratorial face. "I don't say, you don't say. Deal?"

The woman chuckled. "Fine, Vette. Deal. Now come on, if we do not want to be caught, we should better retreat somewhere else. Let's get out, I need some fresh air."

Vette grabbed the last slice of cake and dumped the plate into the sink, following gladly. Phew! Now THAT had been close to be real troubles. But she had mastered it, ha ha!

They reached the main deck and chose a place where crates had been left for the night. They would shield them perfectly from sight.

"So you came all the way down from your room without being noticed? The base is definitely quieter now that the war against the Eternal Throne is over."

The twi'lek felt a hint of vexation. And what if she had improved her skills so much that she fooled everyone, hu? But her curious self took over immediately at the thought of who she had barely evaded.

"Oh I crossed Arcann's path, but he didn't see me. D'you know what he's doing in the mechanical workshop in the middle of the night?"

The Commander had a surprised look and shook her head. "No, no idea. I am not monitoring him, he has a right to go there freely like anybody else." She smirked. "But I am sure that you will find out, won't you? By the way, if you talk to him, tell him I thank him."

Aleeeeeeeeeeeeeert! Potential gossip incoming!

A red beacon started rotating wildly in Vette's head. She loved gossip. More than anything. And oh, this was such a bait!

"Hum, sure! What for?" She had tried not to look too interested, but by the way these words came out of her mouth, she had to admit that she had miserably failed that attempt.

The Commander burst out laughing. "Just thank you. He will know what for."

"And there you are, Nyx!" said a voice from behind the crates which then added in a lower tone, apparently talking to someone via comlink, "I found her, Theron. I will escort her back to your room."

Vette shook her head vigorously at the suspicious gaze that the Commander adressed her. No, she had nothing to do with this, she had not furtively called Lana. The woman stood up to face her friend while the twi'lek remained shielded.

"Nyx, do you realise that I had a frantic Theron wake me up in the middle of the night, telling me that you had disappeared from your room?"

Nyx sighed, visibly annoyed. "Oh come on, there was no reason to be concerned. It is not as if someone could come to my bedroom and kidnap me… here… on the base…"

"A bit more consideration, please," Lana scolded. "You scared him. And he is still having nightmares from your last disappearance six years ago. Besides, you are not supposed to be out of bed. Four days ago, we thought that we were losing you !"

Vette could not see anything from where she was concealing herself, but the Commander's voice made it clear that she was clearly irritated by her friend's admonition. "You will if I have to stay in my room any longer. I am dying there, feeling like an animal in cage!"

Lana's voice softened a bit. "The medical droid imposed a five-days’ rest, you know it. Twenty-four more hours or so to go then you can resume operations… with moderation. Please, Nyx, Take this seriously."

"You know I'm not good for moderation…"

"Which is why I have to patronize you…" The Sith's voice altered itself a little to a more amused tone. "Should I have someone guard your door day and night to make sure you don't sneak out like a teenage girl?"

Nyx chuckled and offered a taunting answer, "Do so and I exile you to Hutta…"

Ooooooooooooooooooooooooh, nasty! Vette had difficulties not to openly giggle.

"Lana, seriously, I survived worse… And I hate having too much time to think. It makes me want to do things I might regret." The Commander's voice had suddenly changed to somewhat sad. Obviously something she thought about was bothering her.

In reaction, Lana's voice switched immediately to that of a caring confidante and Vette could hear her move, probably getting closer to her friend. "Want to talk about it?"

"Yes…"

"Oh niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice! Girls' talk! I'm in!"

Under the impulsion of a sudden rush of irrepressible curiosity, Vette had shamelessly popped out of her hiding place to join Lana and the Commander. Both women looked at her so perplexedly that she realised almost immediately that she had done a poor choice.

"… or…. not…"

Nyx shook her head negatively. "No Vette… I am sorry. I need to speak with Lana… Alone."

"Well… so I guess I'd better resume my… turn of duty, Commander." Vette straightened up, faking the beginning of a military salute. "Everything looks calm here and I am sure that you can handle anything perfectly."

Waving to the other women with a contrite smile, the twi'lek took her leave, getting into the base again. Quickly forgetting about the discussion that would happen without her, Vette focused on her next objective for the night: finding out what Arcann was doing in the mechanical workshops. No need to be sneaky anymore, so she walked briskly straight to the place, working out a plan. She would enter the workshop and go to one of the workstations and…

Oh who cares... I'll go straight to him and ask questions. No need to do differently. And I even have a bait.

She hummed a few music notes, lining up a few dance steps. She was indeed quite proud of her idea. Activating the access console to open the workshop's door, she expired a big blow before putting on her most disarming smile and entered the room nonchalantly.

"Pam palam palalam… Oh, hello Arcann! I wasn't expecting to find you here!"

Mh… yes… quite convincing. You rock, girl!

Arcann looked like she had just interrupted a moment of deep meditation. The eyes he lifted on her were like veiled and he had to blink a few times to get them to focus on her. By day, he could still mainly be seen wearing one of his usual white attire, but he was now wearing simple linen shirt and trousers that gave him a far less formal look. He had been sitting on a bench, working on a piece of shiny golden metal that now remained on his knees.

"Hello Vette… Troubles sleeping?"

"Yes. Same for you apparently. What are you doing?" Vette approached to look at the piece that Arcann had moved to the working bench and couldn't resist brushing the tip of her fingers on the surface of it. "It's smooth… What is it?"

"A piece of armour. I was sanding it. Yes, it must be as smooth as possible, on the inside and outside."

"I didn't know you could do such a thing. Looks beautiful. Is it for you?"

"No, I was thinking of giving it to my mother. But it does not really matter. I mainly like the process of building it, it helps clearing my mind. It is close to meditating." He stood up and put his tools down, turning around to lean against the workbench. "Until I get disturbed by curious people…" he added, smiling.

"Oh, before I forget…" As if I could forget this… "I just saw the Commander, she says thank you."

Arcann looked a bit surprised at first, then nodded simply. But Vette was sure that she had seen the corners of his lips form a discreet smile for a second.

Aaaaaaaaaaah, come on! I need to know!

She pushed on her hands to sit on the table, leaving the armour piece between them. "You could at least tell me what she is thanking you for, you know. That would be politer for the messenger."

He chuckled. "She did not say?"

"Well, no… But I am sure that she was expecting you to tell me. You will, right? Right?" Vette was trying her best to control herself, but she was feeling more and more excited to the idea of getting a potentially juicy information.

He gave her an unequivocal gaze. She would not get what she wanted, unless she gave it an additional kick.

OK, plan B, place the bait, Vette!

"If you tell me… I can give you the name you were looking for…", she said, doing her best to be persuasive.

Arcann frowned. "Whose name?"

"The Commander's, idiot! I just heard Lana call her by her name. So I'd be willing to make a deal. I tell you her name, and you tell me what she thanks you for. What d'you think? Deal?"

"You know, I can ask her about her name myself…"

No no no no no! You are not going away with that! Definitely not!

"Oh I know, and you would leave me with no other choice than imagining everything she could want to thank you for. I am quite imaginative, I tell you…." She leaned closer to him as if to tell him a secret and whispered with a playful smile. "And I like to share my thoughts with others, you know…"

Arcann feigned a sigh. "Vette, you are terrible… Alright. We have a deal. What is her name, then?"

"Ah no, you pay first! I am not giving away the name until you tell me your little secret." Vette crossed her arms in an attempt to take a persuasive stance. She had to look firm, but was jubilating inside.

"A letter, I just sent her a simple letter."

"Oooooooooooooooh, what's in there?"

"Vette, do not try to fool me. I fulfilled my end of the bargain. I gave you what you wanted. Your turn, now."

But… but… but… NO! This is not doing it at all!

The twi'lek shot him an annoyed look. "Fine… Nyx, her name is Nyx…" She jumped from the table and walked slowly to the door. "A love letter, then… that's so cute!"

"What? No!"

Vette turned around, hands on her hips, giving him a defiant gaze. "As far as I'm concerned, if I don't know the content, it's a love letter."

Arcann looked puzzled. Her instinct had been good. Whenever the situation is desperate, shoot at someone's pride, it always works. And the former emperor was apparently sensitive to that specific subject, she would have to keep it in mind. He recovered quickly, though.

"What about strategic concerns?" he asked, tentatively.

"You didn't say you sent a report."

"I might have offered diplomatic advice..."

"Didn't say memo…"

"Or made a simple remark, perhaps," he offered, regaining total composure.

"No, didn't say note. You said letter. A letter is a letter, not a report, not a memo, not a note. A L.E.T.T.E.R, LETTER! Soooooooooooo? What's in there?" Vette was so proud of her trick that she nearly chanted the last sentences. The man had been an emperor and even though he was good at concealing it, she was sure that she had baffled him, at least for a little moment. It made her feel quite powerful in fact, and that felt good.

Arcann raised his hands in mock surrender. "Very well. I will satisfy your curiosity and tell you about the content of the letter I sent to Commander. In exchange, you will no longer... speculate. And we will never talk about this again. Do you agree on these terms?"

"Yep, I do!" Until you give me another subject to chew on…

"Perfect. So, it was a letter thanking her for what she has done for me until now. And pledging loyalty once again."

"Aaaaaaaaaaaaw, that's still cute. Mr. Emperor is a cutie pie deep inside."

"Vette… stop…"

Vette burst into laughter and backed to the door before he could still argue. She blew him a kiss before disappearing into the corridor, leaving once again a puzzled Arcann behind. This nighttime snack had been quite a satisfying adventure.

Chapter Text

Lana and Nyx reached the Commander's private apartments in silence. They had spent almost two hours talking since the moment Vette had left them on the main desk. But there was not much more to be said now.
 
The two women's friendship was peculiar. Neither of them was used to open up on personal matters and were keeping most of their respective lives private from each other. But there was trust between them, and the certitude that whenever there was something they had to discuss, they would find in the other an attentive listener.
 
Lana and Nyx were very much alike on some aspects. Cool-headed, calculating, capable of identifying and pulling the strings that would make them achieve their goals, they had a strong common ground from which they both took different directions on other parts of their respective personalities. Where Lana was usually calm and rational, Nyx tended to be more impulsive and instincts-driven. And where one was astonishingly attached to people for a sith, the other one very often had a hard time connecting with them. Nyx had always been action-oriented and at ease in positions of power, Lana preferred acting more discreetly. They were achieving good balance together, no wonder that the former Sith Intelligence Minister had chosen to give the lead of the Alliance to her former ally. One of them was marching on the front line, the other was working in the background, but they were both essential to the Eternal Alliance.
 
Their last discussion had not been an easy one. They had weighted pros and cons together, decided how to handle the potential outcomes of what Nyx was about to do. Cold-bloodedly. But they knew that while they evaluated the situation almost strategically, they were just hiding in plain sight that both of them felt bad about it.
 
Lana gently squeezed Nyx's upper arm and nodded before parting, leaving her friend alone in front of the door. Nyx watched her disappear at the next corner before turning around to face the entrance of the place she shared with Theron. Would he be asleep or waiting for her? Probably the latter, and in a sense, it was better that way. She breathed in and out slowly before activating the access monitor and entering her quarters.
 
"You are finally back…"
 
Awake, then. Nyx's eyes searched the dimly lit room in the direction of the voice and found Theron sitting on the floor, by the window, his back resting against the back of a seat he has brought there for that purpose. He was wearing nothing but boxer shorts, his usual in bed when they did not both end up naked and sweating. She was not surprised that he had chosen that precise spot to wait for her. He liked the sight that they had from the room. Officially her room. Their room since his arrival on Odessen and their reunion after five years being apart. Five long years for him, full of nightmares which were still sometimes waking him up in the middle of the night. Five years of nightmares for her as well, imprisoned and poisoned both by carbonite and the presence in her mind of the Eternal Emperor who had refused to die when she had slain him.
 
Almost seven years in total, then. The count seemed strange to her. She had been sleeping most of it. But she knew that he had remained true to her all that time. Seven years for him at least, then… People said about relationships that the number seven was cursed… Perhaps they were right.
 
Without uttering a word, Nyx went up the small set of stairs that separated the sleeping area from the more practical side of the room where a desk and a dining table were sitting. She sat down onto her side of the bed, hands resting on her knees, eyes fixing an imaginary spot on the floor in front of her.
 
"I want out…" she said finally with a soft voice, as if it could make her words more bearable.
 
"Out… of what?" His voice was equal in softness but contained that small flavour of concern that came when one felt a potential threat. Theron had stood up and had apparently been intending to join her in bed but had stopped his course, perceiving her tension. Instead, he decided to get around the bed and face her, his feet landing up right where Nyx was looking. As she could not avoid seeing him anymore, Nyx raised her head and met his gaze.
 
"Out of this… Us."
 
Theron remained silent for a while, returning her look with expressionless eyes, then took two steps backward to lean against the wall with a sigh. He had immediately crossed his arms on his chest, a posture she had seen him take so many times when he needed to collect his thoughts. "I… see…" were the only words he said in response, in a sombre but calm voice.
 
"I am sorry, Theron. You deserve better than that."
 
"Mh… If it's your only plea, I suggest you do better. It's not really convincing." He was faking banter, but a faint shakiness in his voice as well as the small rocking movement his body was doing against the wall were betraying him. The surrounding darkness could have concealed the little signs of a greater emotion, but Nyx knew him better than that. She had just dealt a hard blow, and he was trying to withstand it without flinching. Eventually, he decided to let his back slide down the wall to sit on the floor instead, without taking his eyes off hers.
 
"Alright…" he uttered in a sigh. "It had to end one day or another anyway, I guess. It's not as if I had not had time to imagine you gone for good a lot of times already. But I must admit that it still hurts… a little." There was no more shakiness in his voice, his training at concealing emotion had just kicked in. It would have been easy, and far more comfortable, to consider the discussion closed, but neither of them made a move. After a while, Theron continued, "Have you been thinking about this for long?"
 
Nyx sighed, now elbows planted on her knees, her joined hands supporting her chin. "No. But I should probably have… It… never really worked, didn't it?"
 
Theron chuckled ironically. "Well, I guess it worked for me at least…"
 
"Theron, I am--"
 
"… sorry. I know. You said it already. And I believe you truly are. But it will not really change the outcome of this, will it?" Theron's voice had gone back to normal, and his posture had relaxed a bit. This was one thing Nyx had always liked in him, his capability of calming his nerves easily, one thing that she had never been as good as him. He had always had a gift for soothing things down, and he was doing it again, even if he was not the one who had brought all this on them both. However, that it did not mean he was not hurt. She knew him well enough to see beyond appearances and know how he really felt. "So, I guess that… you lied to me when you told me you loved me, that day on the Gravestone?"
 
"I wanted to believe it." She paused and lifted an interrogative eyebrow. "Probably as much as you wanted to believe that you were fine with me sitting on that throne?"
 
He chuckled again cynically. "Ah, you caught that lie."
 
Nyx shrugged, straightening up a little. "Of course, I did. Have you forgotten who I am?"
 
He drew a wry smile. "Put two good liars together, let them talk, and you get interesting discussions." Theron rested his head against the wall, observing Nyx without a word. She breathed out slowly and let herself slide from the bed onto the floor to get to his level. If the talk was supposed to continue, then making the same choice he did seemed a good idea. They observed each other for a while silently. There was no hostility in that silence, only sadness, and an admission of failure both sides shared.
 
"Why did you come back to me, then? When I joined the Alliance?" he asked, softly. "When you did… I really thought we had a thing after all."
 
Nyx frowned, thinking. At that time, it had just seemed a logical thing. She had read his letter, she was back, he was there too… "I… had no reason not to…" she answered bluntly.
 
Theron winced. "Ow! That bites… So many feelings! You definitely know how to turn down boyfriends…" He shook his head, rolling his eyes. "Nyx! Haven't you been trained in diplomacy?"
 
Nyx made half a smile. "Sith diplomacy," she said, emphasizing on the first word. "But I thought that you would prefer bare truth…"
 
"That doesn't forbid you from making use of some empathy! Stars above! I knew it that it was not a good idea to fall in love with a Sith. One ends up getting the whole spectre of heat, from blazing passion to freezing cold."
 
That remark made Nyx pull a face. Yes, she was the one to blame, but she was definitely not feeling comfortable with the situation, nor emotionless. She almost missed the days when her own goals were the only things that mattered. Being entirely self-centred was much easier. Something had changed along the way. She did not really know why, or when, but the man in front of her had been part of the process, even if there had always been something missing. "I am not that cold-hearted, Theron. I have never been with you at least."
 
"Yeah, I know. I shouldn't have said that, it's just… I'm sorry, but I don't understand what I did… or didn't do."
 
"I cannot really say. There is something lacking somehow, I just cannot tell you what. I only have the feeling that it will not change, whatever we do."
 
"... Therefore it is better that we part ways now and both get our freedom back. I know the song. Might have used it myself a couple of times." He breathed in deeply. "So, let's be serious. Who is the new one, then?"
 
She gave him a look that made clear that she had not understood what he was speaking about.
 
Theron looked at her as if it something he considered an evidence had suddenly been proven wrong and asked more tentatively: "The new lucky boyfriend?"
 
"No one!" It was Nyx's time to be hurt. There were many things he could blame her for, but not that one. She had never considered honesty and righteousness to be mandatory with people she did not care about, she gladly left that to Jedi. And fair enough, he was not the one she imagined spending a, life with. It was not even an option she would consider with anyone. But it did not mean she did not respect him.
 
"Strange. I always knew that you might leave me someday. But I was convinced that it would be for someone else. You were with that pirate when we ended up together after all."
 
"Things were different with Andronikos. We always considered ourselves to be free to leave whenever we wanted. I never imagined it to be the case with you."
 
"Mh, glad I was wrong then… I guess… Yeah, I actually don't know if it makes me feel better or worse."
 
Nyx needed to move. That was what she usually did when she was not feeling comfortable with something. Move, walk, stretch, making tension get out of her through every moving part of her body. She stood up and walked to the nearby table, grabbing a bottle of water and two glasses. She filled both glasses and brought one back to Theron who accepted it with a faint smile. When she sat down again, her own glass in her hand, it was by his side.
 
"Theron… I still consider you as a valuable ally." She tilted her head on a side, looking at him interrogatively. "And.. a potential friend?"
 
He grunted. "We're both professionals, Nyx. We never mixed work and personal matters… I will not leave the Alliance just because you decided that I am not good at handling the position of being the Commander's very personal assistant… Mh, shouldn't have said that neither."
 
Nyx smirked. "Personal assistant… I should have asked you for caf more often…"
 
Theron smiled. "Yeah well, too late for you now I guess." He paused. "I never joined the Alliance in the first place with the hope that we would be together again. Or… yeah, perhaps my heart just missed a few beats when Lana told me that she got you back, but still…" He sipped from his glass, letting it then rest in both is hands. "As per the friend part… You will need to give me some time before it is alive and kicking, but I should be able to consider it."
 
Nyx smiled to him. Even if she had planned the eventuality of it with Lana, she had never really doubted that he would remain rational for what concerned their work together. But it was good to get confirmation. And she did not lie, she would still be glad to have him as a friend. She trusted him, and together with Lana, the three of them made quite a good team.
 
"So…" Theron put his glass on the floor and stood up, walking in the direction of the seat where he had left the cloths he wore the day before. "I guess that there's no reason for me to stay here anymore. I'll just… put some cloths on so that nobody needs to bear the sight of a half-naked man in the hallway and go."
 
Nyx stood up as well, moving in the direction of the door. "I will help you find a room."
 
"No, don't… I can handle it. Besides, I will not need a room for tonight."
 
He finished getting dressed and put his jacket on but remained barefoot, his boots under his arm, and joined his now ex-lover at the door. She noticed a movement of restraint as if he had been about to get close and kiss her out of habit. He nodded to her instead, more formally.
 
"I take my leave, Commander… If you need me, I'll be in the War Room."

Nyx nodded slightly in return and watched him get out of the room. She would probably not get any more sleep tonight neither.

Chapter Text

Five days. Five bloody days of not being allowed to do anything else than rest. One hundred and twenty hours, including the last night that had been a sleepless long one. Nyx could not bear it anymore.
 
The medical droid which had advised Lana about her treatment was lucky she had no idea of its registration number. If she was ever able to find out, she would throw it into the junk yard herself. Or use it as a training dummy. She liked the second option even better, in fact.
 
And if she had in her life another opportunity to become empress, she might consider it seriously. Just for the sake of becoming a tyrant and preventing to be forced to rest by her most trusted companions. Fine, she had blacked out. Arcann, Vaylin then Valkorion, it had been finally -slightly- too much to handle for her and she had crumbled into pieces as soon as the celebrations were over. And yes, she had needed twenty-six hours of continuous sleep before even being able to walk again without swaying dangerously. But after that, she had been perfectly fine! They should have let her out already three days ago at the very least!
 
Theron had already paid the price of her being allowed too much time to think. And this was another reason why she could not bear staying inactive another minute. She had made her choice and was still sure that she had taken the best decision, for both of them. But their break-up was the only thing she had been rehashing in the head within the last hours. This had to stop.
 
For now, the most urgent thing was to move. Do something which would require focusing her mind on every inch of her body in motion. A fight, she craved a fight. Desperately. And if she ended up in the medical bay again, she would make sure to be conscious enough not to let anyone decide that she needed more rest. They all feared that she would end up dead of exhaustion, but no one considered that she could definitely die of boredom instead.
 
Nyx grabbed her lightsaber and nearly punched the button that controlled the door of her room. Seeing that no one was out there to tell her to go back to rest was already quite a relief. After her last nighttime escapade, she had wondered if Lana would substantiate her threat and have someone guard her door to make sure she did not get out again. But there was no one to stop her while she started striding in the direction of the Force Enclave. There, she would try to find a valuable opponent for a sparring session. And if no one could satisfy her needs, she would go down into the woods and fight shade stalkers. One way or another, she would have her fight.
 
Nyx usually sparred with Lana, but they knew each other's style so well that it had almost become boring. Today, she definitely needed something else. Someone who could potentially have the upper-hand on her. Someone who would be fierce enough. As she approached the enclave, her idea was becoming more and more precise. She hoped that he would be there.

Reaching destination, she cracked a smile at the thought of how impatient she had grown to measure herself to him again and that smile widened when she noticed that, indeed, Arcann and Senya were training Force users from both sides as she had suggested a few days earlier. Learning from the zakuulian way of fighting would benefit all of them, improve their skills and give them different perspectives. Including her, as wielding a lightsaber had never been her biggest strength. But for now, it was something else she was longing for.
 
Senya was first to notice her. Instructing her students to follow her son's lead, she left the training area and walked in Nyx's direction.
 
"Good to see you back among us, Commander," she said with an inviting smile. Then, nodding in the direction of the students, “You are welcome to join training if you want."
 
Nyx shook her head, her mouth curving into a playful smile. "No. I want a fight. And I want him." Yes. Force powers set aside, she was certain that he was a better fighter than her and that she would probably take a few hard blows. But right now, she could not care less. "Him and no other."
 
For a moment it looked like Senya wanted to say something but realised that arguing would be a waste of time and effort. She returned to the mixed group of practicing Jedi, Sith and Knights, giving word to her son that he was awaited. He frowned but left them, grabbing an additional training sword along the way before joining Nyx.
 
"Commander?" He handed her the spare sword, looking at her sceptically. "Last time we fought each other--"
 
"We were enemies and one of us, if not both, would have been killed by the other if Scorpio had not decided to destroy your flagship first." She flashed him a predatory smile, taking a fighting stance. "Things are different now. But I want you to fight me again the same way."

Arcann looked at her incredulously for a few seconds then frowned. "No," he answered calmly with a firm voice, keeping his own sword low.

Nyx froze, surprised by his rejection. How dare he decline to fight her while she was asking for it? She scowled at him, feeling anger and frustration grow inside her. "You refuse to fight me?"

He stood his ground, sustaining her angry look without flinching. "I always fought you in the intention of killing an enemy. I have no intention to fight you that way anymore, Commander. Even if you ask for it."

She straightened up, abandoning the fighting stance as he visibly had no intention to mirror it. "Oh, so you think you might kill me, do you? How presumptuous."

"Yes, I think I could."

A corner of Arcann's lips drew into a smile but he still remained as perfectly immobile. Now he was visibly amused and Nyx felt vexed. She was not getting what she wanted. And furthermore, for once, she was the one reacting more impulsively than he did. But these five days of forced rest had clearly taken on her and she certainly did not feel like giving up.

"I agree to fight you, Commander. But only as a way to train you to zakuulian combat. And if it can make you feel less frustrated about it, I promise that I will train you as hard as I was trained."

His remark about frustration was a taunt, and a bold one considering his own personality, but Nyx decided that he would not have the pleasure to see her pursue in a direction that would just make her appear childish and reckless. Very well, if this was the way she could have her fight, she would agree to the terms.

"Very well", he said. "But not here, then. We need more space."

They went down to the woods, where they would be able to find a proper place, leaving Senya and the other fighters to their training. Nyx let him lead the way and decide where he wanted their sparring to take place. She had regained composure on the outside even if she was still itching for the fight internally. If she was good at something, that was it: control. She let her natural impulsiveness show and flow when there was no need for taming emotions, but she would not have risen among the Sith without mastering ways of channelling her impulses.

She recognized the place he chose but decided not to mention it. It would probably trigger a discussion and and they had already spent too much time on words instead of action. They would talk later. Arcann let her select a spot and positioned himself a few strides away from her, taking his fighting stance.

"There we are, Commander. Prepare to fight. Force powers allowed, nothing lethal. No choking, no lightning."

"Fearing of getting yourself grilled?" Nyx taunted playfully, mirroring his stance.

He shot her a quizzical smile. "Or you? You would not want to go directly back to the medical bay, would you?"

Nyx's nostrils flared but she did not answer. Both remained looking at each other for a time before Arcann eventually decided to start moving. The first blow he dealt was a far too obvious one to her right that Nyx dodged easily by taking a step backwards, parrying then the two next ones with ease. He was clearly holding back, did he think he could fool her?

"Ugh! What the bloody stars is that? This is not how you usually fight!"

"You need to warm up. And today I will only evaluate your skills."

Nyx rolled her eyes. "Don't treat me like a child. I am here to fight, I want a challenge, not something I can get with anyone at the Enclave!" she hissed impatiently.

"My training, my terms, Commander."

He was visibly in his element. Bold and proud. Far from the almost too humble man wanting to repay her for her compassion that he had been too many times for her tastes so far. She preferred this one by far, even if his resistance to her will was clearly starting to make her want revenge. Nyx decided to nudge him a little, to see if she could get something from it. After all, she knew that he too had a temper.

"Fine… Your terms. But let me say that I am nearly surprised by the nerve you have today. I was afraid that you lost it on Voss…"

He laughed. "I see clear in you, you are trying to wind me up."

"Oh, am I?" She smirked and walked away a little, turning her back to him. "You asked me once already but I did not give you a proper answer. Want to know the real reason why I decided to spare you there?" She turned around on her heels, flashing him a condescending smile. "Pity, I spared you out of mere pity."
 
She did not expect him to react so quickly and was caught off-guard when he charged her, hitting her with three quick blows she could not parry or dodge before stopping the fourth one right below her chin.

"And now, you would be dead. If you really want to provoke your opponent, be ready to protect yourself against the consequences."

Nyx winced, feeling heat and pain in all three locations he had hit. He had clearly not been holding back this time. She raised her head to meet his gaze. She could perceive no anger or irritation, only determination. He even bore the faint traces of a smile. She felt a sudden surge of excitement smiled back defiantly, the fight had finally started.

"More."

Arcann moved away, seemingly getting back to his previous location. But before he got there, he suddenly turned around and surprised her again with a somersault that made him touch down behind her back. She had no time to fully turn around before being struck just below her ribs, the pain sending her to her knees.

"Ow!"

"Too slow… I know you can do better. When are you planning to start fighting back?" The smug smile he bore made it evident. He was enjoying the moment and was eager for more.

"Oh, proud of yourself, are you?" Nyx growled, rubbing her waist with her left hand while straightening the grip on her right one around the hilt of her sword and getting back to her feet. She did not let him move back to his initial location and blew a succession of strikes, trying to reach the usually most vulnerable spots. He parried all, making her feel a rush of anger that she transferred into a Force push which sent him slamming into the dirt wall.

"Underestimating me, Arcann? Do not take me for weaker than I am. It would be a substantial mistake."

"I am not assuming anything, Commander. Just show me what you can do…"

They fought each other for the next twenty minutes, pausing to get back in place each time one of them was hit. They continued exchanging taunts at first, but became more silent as soon as their started being shorter on breath. Nyx found out early that fighting Arcann without using lethal powers was harder than she thought. He was an excellent close combat fighter, which she was definitely not. Especially now that he did not only let himself be driven by his anger like he did in the past and paid more attention to his moves. And while she could probably claim to master Force powers with more precision and subtlety than he did, finesse was of no use in the current situation. At first, she was able to use her powers to get an opening and deal a few blows, but he was a fast learner and she was not able to fool him for long. She was clearly no match to him when he was not too busy raging at Valkoryon. After a while, she had to become more defensive and it was becoming more difficult for her to even keep him at bay. She could feel that the way she had been drained by exhaustion was still taking a tool on her. But she would prefer getting beaten than surrendering. As long as there were only bruises and cracked ribs, she could heal herself anyway.

As it become evident that she could not even protect herself properly anymore, Arcann finally decided to stop the fight. "We are done…" he said, panting and dropping his training sword on the ground before offering her a hand to raise her to her feet.

"For today," she hastened to add, refusing the hand and getting up by herself. She already hated the idea of having somehow been humiliated by that fight, but would have to deal with it for now. She would probably have to suffer a few more frustrations before reaching the point she wanted to reach, that point when she would know his every move. And she would certainly not give up until the moment she would be there.

She hobbled to a nearby rock and sat down, trying to catch her breath.

His look was suddenly concerned. "Are you alright, Commander?"

"I am fine. Just a few bruises… and apparently I have not recovered as much as I thought."

"I apologise if it is not what you expected. You seemed… I thought--" He looked unsettled, as if he now wondered that he had gone too far.

Nyx frowned and shook her head. "I needed this fight. You gave me exactly what I wanted, Arcann, so stop apologising about it, it does not make sense." She straightened up and met his gaze, smiling. "Besides, I prefer when you are less sorry and obliged, even if that means I take a few harder blows."

She gave a look around. She had recognised the waterfall as soon as they had reached the place. "It is peculiar that you chose this place. Last time I have been here, I had a heated discussion with Valkorion."

What she was expecting - and had voluntarily avoided before - immediately happened. Arcann shifted to his more withdrawn self, tensing as soon as he heard his father's name.

"When?"

"Not long before I confronted you on your flagship. We had an argument. I wanted to know how to defeat you. He wanted me to become stronger and decided that the best way to do so was to remind me how failure and defeat taste… " She chuckled. "What he showed me... Indeed it was not really pleasant. And then he decided to leave."

"It worked." Arcann said quietly. "You were different the next time we met. Stronger." He had been looking at the scenery, as if he was expecting to see traces of his father there but had focused his attention on her again.

"Yes, but it was not his doing. Even though… I do not know how much he was involved in it."

"You are still keeping what happened a secret."

"Oh I will tell you. But not today, there are other things I want to discuss." Nyx took a more comfortable posture on the rock, nodding in the direction of another one to invite him to sit down. "I would like to start six years ago."

Arcann silently took place, his expression making it clear that he was trying to figure out how to voice something, so she waited patiently. When he finally spoke, he uttered each word carefully staring right into her eyes.

"Six years ago… There are many things I have done that year that had important repercussions. For more people than I can count. Sometimes I just wish that I could erase it all. If not totally, at least from my memory. But that would make me a coward. And as weak and unworthy my father always told me I was, I have never turned my back to consequences. I can, and will face them."

Nyx sustained his gaze quietly, half a smile painting itself on her face. "I know that you are no coward. Cowards do not come fearlessly in front of their enemy to make amend and pledge allegiance. They just flee whenever they have the opportunity." She paused. "You have already proven me several times that what your father said about you was wrong. Even when we were still enemies."

Arcann screw his face into an ironic smile. "You still pitied me enough to spare me. Until today I probably had hopes that pity was not a feeling I inspired." He looked away, gritting his teeth. "Not so long ago it would have angered me to an intolerable level."

"Except that it was a lie," she said, waiting for him to make eye contact again before continuing. "I just wanted to provoke you enough to make you fight for real. I am not used to pity people, Arcann. And certainly even less someone like you. I had other reasons."

He frowned but he still looked visibly relieved. "Then what? What was it that made you do it?"

She took her time to breathe in and out slowly. The conversation they were about to have might be long and intense. There were so many things she was certain that he did not know. And many others she wanted to make sure that he understood. If there was one single value she considered essential among allies, it was trust. And to be durable, it had to be built through shared knowledge and understanding.

Sith were in fact known for not cultivating or praising trust, especially Sith that were involved in politics. Trust was a weakness. Alliances were always temporary, meant to last only as long as betrayal did not bring bigger benefits. Nyx knew that game, she had played it for many years. She had been betrayed and had betrayed in return, used people when odds required it, killed them when necessary or simply easier. And she was good at it. However, the last years had made her perspectives change.

When she had left for the Sith Academy at the age of eighteen, her people, her clan, had put their trust in her. That day, she had promised to find a way to free them from slavery. And many years later, after her rise to the Dark Council, she had been able to buy every single one of them out of their condition. It had cost her a great price and she still owed favours to several lords who had been more reluctant to part from their belongings. But she had realised that whatever time it had taken, they had never stopped trusting the fact that she would indeed keep her promise.

It was strange that the Sith Lord she had become, the one who had discarded so many promises and broken so many oaths for her own sake, had not forgotten that vow. But it was enshrined in her blood. Regardless of how the sith precepts had molded her, that part of her remained untouched. Her clan -whether it was her rattataki clan, her former crew or now the Eternal Alliance- meant more to her than personal gain. And anyone trying to prey on it had -and would- always encounter her wrath and experience a fierce backlash.

The unusual momentary alliances made with the Republic represented by Theron and his mother during the hunt for Revan and the Emperor had been another step towards that change. Both sides had worked together despite their disagreements and she had found in Theron and Lana more than allies. If her former relationship with Theron was the one which might seem the most peculiar, it was in fact the one she had with Lana that had triggered the biggest changes. Lana who had broken into one of the most guarded strongholds to get her back and trust her with the leadership of an alliance she had created.

Sparing Arcann, choosing to allow him to join them and now trying to build trust between them was a move a lot did not understand or agree with. A step too far for many. And a risk, she could not deny it. But she had reasons. And what she wanted from him required mutual trust.

Nyx focused again on Arcann. It was time to share with him what she knew about Vitiate.

"Arcann, how much do you know of who your father really was?"

He sighed with irritation, his face showing traces of disdain. "My father… His Glorious Majesty Valkorion, Slayer of Izax, Immortal Master, Protector and Emperor of Zakuul," he recited mechanically. "And apparently much more than that from the little I heard from you and your people later on."

"You did not understand a word of what Darth Marr said that day, did you?" she continued patiently.

He shook his head negatively. This was no surprise. He had ignored as much about the Sith Emperor than they had about Valkorion and the Eternal Empire.

"Marr and I were hunting our Emperor, the Sith Emperor. We were not expecting to find you and your people in our way. We actually did not even know about Zakuul…"

"But my brother and I had been ravaging sith planets and outposts earlier that year. You could not have ignored that. You were one of the lords of the sith highest authority, weren't you?"

She shot him a surprised look. "You knew that?"

"I learnt about it while you were… sleeping. I had to know who you were, so I sent people out for intelligence."

Nyx chuckled. "You might know more about me than I do about you then. But for what is left of that past, it might not prove very useful now. Yes, Marr and I knew about the mysterious twins plunging Korriban and other planets into a bloodbath. However, our objective was far more critical for us. We had to leave the battles on Korriban to other hands."

"You are telling me that my father's disproportionate ego was justified?" he growled.

"I am telling you that your father was an extremely powerful being who had lived for more than a thousand years and has been the Sith Emperor for centuries. And if you wish, I offer to tell you all I know about him."

Arcann breathed deeply, like bracing himself for a bad moment, then nodded. "I am listening."

Nyx started unfolding all she knew about Vitiate, the fifteen centuries old entity who had inhabited Valkorion, sorting out legends from recorded events, theories from proven facts. The Emperor had always maintained a lot of mystery around himself and had probably even destroyed a lot of the information that had existed. There were periods on which they even were totally blind, but she was able to give Arcann more insight on who his father had been.

He listened carefully without interrupting, hands joined under his chin, staring blankly at the ground. Sometimes she could see him frown or tilt his head on the side incredulously. As she finished her story with what she had witnessed herself, the way Vitiate was reborn on Yavin 4 and how he had consumed Ziost, Arcann looked properly bewildered as if all he thought that he knew had crumbled to pieces.

"This was who Darth Marr and I were looking for. We needed to stop him and his plans to consume the galaxy," she finished calmly.

"And you are sure that this was who my father was?"

"Yes, unmistakably. We could feel him from afar." She chuckled to bring some levity. "And… my personal much closer experience confirmed it."

Arcann seemed disturbed by her apparent ease about the situation. "How can you talk about this so lightly?"

She smiled. "Because it is over and he is gone. I do not feel his presence anymore. I do not have to keep on fighting constantly to make sure he does not tighten his grasp on me. I am free. Being able to reclaim myself totally is a good reason to feel lighter." She paused. "Perhaps you should consider your situation in that perspective as well."

"It does not change a single thing of what I have done."

"No it does not. And I would expect that you do not use your father as an excuse. But I have witnessed his leverage on you nonetheless. It would have been hard to ignore his influence on your doings."

Nyx was moving forward with caution. She was convinced that Arcann would be relatively easy to manipulate if she had wanted to. He was still in a state of uncertainty, having to reconsider most of what had been his life and adapt to a new one, surrounded by former enemies, half of them at least still only barely tolerating him. It was not enviable, and it required a strong will to stay and deal with it, even if she was almost sure that he did not realise it himself. For that strength alone, she did not wanted to simply manipulate him to whatever suited her, even if she had the power to do so. What she had in mind required him to regain his strength, his full potential, a will of his own. She needed him to heal and that was an entirely different process and one she was not really familiar with. She would have to go step by step and rely on her experience in politics to transpose it to more personal interactions.

Nyx usually avoided personal involvement, keeping her distance from people. Mostly because she could not do otherwise. She never really felt empathetic, perhaps a result of her ever calculating mind. Lana, Theron, and some of her former crew were exceptions, people she was closer to, and there were a handful of others. But not many. It was perhaps because of their recent common history, or because of that uncommon situation of trying to evolve from enemies to allies, but for once she wanted to try reaching out and helping. Quite a peculiar instinct towards someone who tried to kill me so many times, she thought. But I cannot even feel grudge anymore. Not now that Valkorion is gone…

"My mother… she said that he had not always been like this." Arcann seemed to still be trying hard to sort out everything she had revealed.

"How old exactly are you Arcann? Thirty?"

"Thirty-one. Thexan and I were born eight years before the Treaty of Coruscant."

"Mh, amusing," she said. " And that would set your birth in the middle of the Great Galactic War, then. At a time when the Mandalorians and the Republic won over the Empire. I told you about the Emperor's absences. But that period was a time when he was known to be among the Sith." Nyx continued, narrowing her eyes while thinking. "Vitiate had many bodies… Voices, as he called them. But when he was less present, these bodies still had a life on their own. There is a possibility that the real Valkorion was somehow more present during that time."

"You mean, that I was fathered by one man and raised by another…"

"I only say that it is a possibility Arcann. It could explain the change. But no one will ever know." She did not want to allow too many hopes. Indeed there was a possibility, but nobody really knew the extend of the power of the Emperor. "It could as well have been a trick. Of all the Sith, Vitiate had probably the most impressive skills at manipulating people."

He looked at her with sudden wariness. "You just said that as if you admired him."

"I do not. But I could have in different circumstances… I am far from being the kind and compassionate woman you seem to think I am, you finally need to realise that. I would never have had a seat at the Dark Council without knowing how to put people out of my way… or make them pave the road for me. If there is one thing you should always keep in mind, is to remain careful around Sith, especially those who are still alive after many years playing the political game… Even if less powerful, we are made from the same material the Emperor was."

"The people here trust you, and you are not failing them," Arcann said.

"I might have changed… But you should still take my advice seriously."

"I might not, Commander. Or not about you. Mistrusting you after… it would seem misplaced."

She noticed with some amusement that he had carefully avoided speaking about compassion again. But it was probably what he meant. She shrugged, smiling ironically. "At least you can consider yourself warned. But yes, I too would like us to build enough mutual trust to work together."

He nodded, an almost gentle smile painting on his face. "I think I would like it… I hope to prove myself worthy of it. I will. I guess that you already know that I tend to be stubborn…" He frowned and his face grew serious again while he got down from the rock to look at the nearby waterfall, hands joins in the back. "Beyond reason, in fact. I spent so much time seeking approval and recognition from a father who never considered me worth attention… Even when he offered you his powers, the only thing I saw was that a complete stranger was stripping me of my well-deserved rights." He turned around to face her. "And you did not even want them! How did you dare? I hated you for that. For having the opportunity to get what I had desired for so long and thinking yourself so much above it all that you refused."

"I do not blame you for hating me before. It made sense, somehow," she answered. "Now you have a better understanding of it all. I should perhaps have tried to explain it all earlier."

Arcann shook his head vigorously. "I would not have listened. I only saw my father in you, his ghost along your side. And the unbearable insult that it all represented." He paused for a moment, looking skeptical. "But… if he was so powerful. How did you defeat him? I know that he is gone, I cannot feel him anymore. And I witnessed your power. But…"

"I did not defeat him alone, Arcann." She said, emphasising on every word. "Haven't you understood this yet? Without you, Senya and even Vaylin, Valkorion would be reigning on the Eternal Throne once again and probably putting the last touch to his plan to consume the galaxy. And if Valkorion had not been defeated, I would now be where he tried to lock me in, trapped in the depth of my own mind. There are many past mistakes that you might want to fix now, and other things you took from me, but you can consider that you have already repaid me for sparing your life."

He gave her a startled look. "I… I had not seen it that way until now."

"I might have won eventually." She continued softly "If not that day, perhaps another one, who knows? Or perhaps he would have destroyed me completely after that fight. I will never be sure. But I think that I might not have made it back without the intervention of the three of you."

She realised that it had been difficult for her to acknowledge that before him. She was not really used to admitting weaknesses and need for help, especially in front of one who still remained a stranger and who she could so far only count as an ally, not a friend. Even though she was satisfied with the way things were evolving, her survival instinct was pressing her to stop unveiling such things and go back to her more usual distant self. And the tiredness that was slowly taking hold on her and reminding her bitterly about the reason she had been put to rest did certainly not help.

"Let's go back to the base, Arcann. I need some rest…"

"Yes, of course. But…allow me one last question, please… I want to know. If you did not spare me out of pity, will you tell me at last why you did it?"

Nyx chuckled. He was indeed stubborn. "Because it was the most perfect way to tell your father to go get screwed." The remark made Arcann laugh and she waited a bit before adding: "And because I needed to know, just in case, if it was possible to cure someone who had lost control over the dark side…"

Her last words made his laughter fade. She immediately decided to start making her way back to the base to avoid giving him a chance to discuss it further. They talked about mundane things on the way back, both visibly wanting to leave Valkorion behind, and reached the main deck where they would part ways.

"Shall we have another session tomorrow?" she asked.

He raised an interrogative eyebrow. "Already? Are you sure?"

She laughed. "Arcann, if you think you finally defeated me for real, you might need to reconsider. I can bear a lot more hits before crying for mercy."

He smiled playfully. "I do not know why, but I have my doubts that you ever cried for mercy once in your life."

Nyx smirked. "Never. Have you?"

"Not my style."

"Uh-huh, I thought so… See you tomorrow, Arcann."

Chapter Text

"Mother? Moooootheeeeer? Wake up Mother, you are missing the party."
 
The floor… cold and hard against her face…
Where was she?
And where was the voice coming from?
 
"Moooootheeeeeer? Don't be shy, Mother. Join us! Come see our happy family reunited again."
 
She opened her eyes.
That floor… that light… That door in the distance…
The throne room.
It did not make any sense…
 
"Mother… Don't make us wait. You always make us wait. Why do you do that to us?"
 
She wanted to move but it felt so hard to make her body obey to her will…
But that voice cooing in her back…
She had to see her…
 
Clenching her teeth, Senya found the strength to move her hands close to her head and push.
The strain left her panting but she was able to sit on her hip, trying to catch her breath.
 
"Oh Mother, why does it take you so long? Why does it always take you so long? Don't you want to be with us?"
 
"Vaylin…"
 
"Sometimes I wonder, Mother… Did you even want us?"
 
"Vaylin wait, I…"
 
Senya managed to shift to her knees, trembling from the efforts it took for her to solicit her muscles.
Slowly, carefully, she crawled to turn around and face the throne, where the voice was coming from.
 
"Aaaaaah. What a good obedient mother. Finally. Look at us now…."
 
Raising her eyes, she uttered a sob at the scene.
They were all there…
 
Valkorion was sitting on the throne, one of the twins on each of his sides. Thexan was wearing his usual black robes, Arcann had the same white attire he still wore. But Arcann's mask and shoulder plates were back and his visible eye was glowing with fiery anger. The scene was perfectly still, as if time had been frozen.
 
Vaylin was the only other person moving. She was pacing in front of the throne, a wicked smile on her face. As soon as she saw that Senya was looking at them, she chortled and moved to Thexan, brushing his cheek with her finger.
 
"Tell me Mother, which one of them did you love the most?" She turned around him, wrapping an arm casually around his shoulders. "Did you prefer the calm and measured Thexan? The one who would have done anything for his brother and was rewarded for it with a deadly blow… Tell me, how did you feel deep inside when I told you it was Arcann who murdered his brother?"
 
"He… he did not mean to. We talked… He is longing for him so much…"
 
The weight pressing on her body was nearly unbearable and Senya could only stay prostrated, looking at the scene in front of her. Seeing them all like this was tearing her heart in pieces.
 
Thexan was such a handsome young man when he had died. She realised that at the time of his death, she had already been away for years and had only seen him on the boards that had been placed around the Spire and holos broadcasted to announce and mourn his death. Her first born. In this quality, he was promised to a bright future, supposed to inherit from his father and become the new Emperor. She knew now that it would never have happened. Valkorion had no intention to die of course, he would have outlived them all. But his status had always given Thexan something his brother had never had.
 
He had always been the first one people were looking at. The first one they made sure that they took good care of. Because he was the heir. But he had always done his best to include Arcann in all he did and share anything he had. She even suspected that their habit of exchanging their clothes when they were younger had not only been a prank but a way for Thexan to allow Arcann to get some of the attention he was receiving. His brother was more than a simple sibling, he was his second half, and with their affinity to the Force, their bond had even been stronger. They felt each other, they could talk without pronouncing a word and martial training had made them a formidable team.
 
Of course, time passing by, Thexan had as well shown a more accommodating nature than his brother who was more often sulky and hot-tempered. He had therefore been even more appreciated and his popularity had grown, partly to the detriment of his brother. Senya had already left by the time her sons had become men, but she had always done her best to know what was going on for them, through news brought by Knights she was still in contact with, gossip, even sometimes tabloids. Too bad if her sources were not always the most trustworthy, at least she got glimpses of their lives.
 
The events that where the easiest to know about were the parties that were organised and which gathered the finest members of Zakuul's high society. Her boys seemed to enjoy them and each appearance generated more gossips and prognostics about potential love stories or more outrageous revelations to come. They had been seen with countless pretty girls, sometimes boys, very rarely the same twice in a row. Even though Senya had never understood why, she knew that Valkorion had always made sure his sons did not get attached to any Knight. Had he managed to block any attempt for them to get attached to anyone else? She did not even know…
 
But there was one thing she was sure of. She had loved both of them differently, but could never dissociate them in her mind and decide a preference.
 
Vaylin's laughter got her out of her thoughts. She had planted a kiss on her motionless brother's cheek before striding towards Arcann. Putting a hand on his shoulder, she addressed him in an almost theatrical way.
 
"Oh brother. My poor lunatic brother. So full of anger and resentment. You have never been good enough…"
 
Senya felt her heart shrink at these words. Never feeling good enough had been her second son's bane. Even if it had never been his brother's intention, Arcann had always been somehow in his shadow. And their differences had not helped. Thexan natural calm allowed him to be a quicker learner than his brother. And even if Arcann's obstinacy allowed him often to finally surpass Thexan's skills, it was usually too late and rewards had already been granted. He had never been jealous of his older brother, but had suffered nonetheless.
 
She knew that she had naturally tried to protect her second son more, even if she should not have. And after her first failure with Vaylin, realising who he had become six years earlier had almost been the end of her. He so desperately needed to be someone that it had made him a monster. Seeing him again the way he was, with his face half covered by that dreadful mask inflicted her a suffering that left her nearly breathless.
 
Senya mustered her strength and objected strongly. "He is! Arcann is good person. And he will prove himself to be worthy."
 
Vaylin burst out laughing. "Oh and worthy for what? He has already lost everything. He is nothing. Just good enough to be the pawn of a new master." She placed herself behind her brother and put her chin on his shoulder, wrapping an arm around his waist. "Tell me Mother, are you really so naive that you cannot foresee what a Sith could do of him? You saved him from the darkness just to throw him in the hands of one who can model him into a monster again. Will you let her make him do everything she wants, Mother?" Vaylin tilted her head on the side so that it touched Arcann's. "Oh poor brother, what a sad destiny you have…"
 
"No! Things are not going that way, Vaylin. The Commander is not like your father was. And Arcann… he will not follow anyone blindly anymore."
 
"Why are you so sure, Mother? Are you certain that you can trust a Sith and let your only remaining son serve her? Sith cannot be trusted…"
 
Senya could not deny that her daughter was right. She was not sure, and would never be. She even had felt doubt instil in her guts already more than once. Despite the surprising compassion that she had exercised towards her son, the Commander remained someone capable of deciding about the death of other people without flinching if the objective required it. But despite the Sith reputation to place their own interests above anything else, and despite the decisions that she had sometimes taken that Senya disagreed with, the Commander had always kept her promises so far.
 
And Arcann apparently appreciated her too. He had come back from their sparring exercise a bit shaken by the discussion that had followed but visibly relieved too. And there was that tiny change that she did not know if she had imagined or not. As if he was smiling more frankly than she had seen him do lately. She was used to see the corners of his mouth go up without the smile reaching his eyes, but this time it had. Briefly, faintly, but it had given her hope.
 
Senya shook her head, looking straight into Vaylin's eyes to mark her disagreement. "I trust her… I do not always agree, but I do trust her."
 
Vaylin huffed with frustration, leaving her brother's side to get closer to her father. She looked at him with disdain then turned an angry look to her mother, leaving her falsely playful attitude aside.
 
"I do not know which one of you was the worst… Him, for tormenting me for years, or you for leaving me behind. Would you be able to tell which one of you wrecked me the most?"
 
Senya gasped, the weight that she had felt from the beginning was trying to crush her again, leaving almost no space for air in her lungs. And she knew that weight had a name. Guilt. She uttered a whimpering noise, fighting the tears raising in her throat.
 
"Vaylin, I tried… I wanted… You did not…"
 
Vaylin's eyes flashed with a wicked look. "Tell me, how does it feel to see me after having helped killing me? How does it feel to have to look me in the eyes and know that you turned your back on me and did not even turn around when I was not a threat anymore to simply look at me?"
 
Senya burst into tears, finally giving way to her emotions. She felt so helpless, so ashamed…
 
"I could not look at you… I could not lose my only daughter again… I loved you so much…"
 
Vaylin blinked several times and suddenly glanced at her mother with a softened expression, as if her last words had had the effect of soothing her down. She kept looking at her mother while the scene blurred.
 
"It is not too late…" was the last thing Senya heard.
 
She woke up disoriented and panting, desperately reaching for air. A nightmare… It had only been a nightmare. She had done many of them lately but this one was so vivid… She began sobbing irrepressibly, curling into a ball under her blanket. She had to make it stop. She had to go. Vaylin deserved it.
 
 
______________________________________________
 
Oggurobb's lab looked deserted when the shadow sneaked into it. Even if the Hutt often stayed late, the man knew that nobody would be around in the dead of the night. It was the right moment for him to come, considering that what he had to do needed to remain a secret.
 
He was a bit scared, but pushed ahead by even stronger emotions. Anger, frustration…
 
For the Alliance, he was a no-name soldier coming from a no-name world. He had been welcomed here like many others willing to fight against Emperor Arcann. Erroll had lost his whole family in the bombings of his planet ordered by the Throne and operated by Vaylin and that was why he had joined them. To get revenge. To make sure the Emperor would pay. It was what many of them wanted, and the Commander had just brushed these hopes aside four weeks earlier.
 
She had accepted Arcann into their ranks…
 
If only she had spared him to use him as an asset against his sister while letting him rot in an insalubrious cell, he could have understood. But no. The bastard was roaming free. And he had even been seen talking with the Commander in an almost friendly manner that very day. That made Erroll and his friends sick. They felt betrayed. Deeply, terribly, betrayed. She had promised that she would stop Arcann's deeds, but that had to include ending his life as well, right? That was what they had been willing to understand from her words, and now that she had welcomed him as an ally, they had seen how deceived they had been.
 
So he and a little group of other refugees had decided to take hold of their destiny. If she would not strike, they would. They would finish the work that she had left undone, whatever the cost. There had already been two unsuccessful attempts but he had been appointed for the third one and this one would work. It had to. He felt so nervous about it that he could probably not bear having to try another time. At first they had only targeted Arcann, but the more they thought about it, the less they cared if she or any of the other people close to her were injured at the same time. They were all supporting this in a way, they could pay as much as he would.
 
Erroll chose the workbench that was the most concealed from the door if anyone unexpectedly happened to enter, took out a glowing rod from his bag and lit it. That would be enough for him to start working. He was a droid engineer in his past life and had been working in Oggurobb's team since his arrival, which granted him unlimited access to the lab as well as a good knowledge of what was available there. A few days before, he had noticed an old droid that had been tossed away in a pile of junk. It looked almost operational. Its memory seemed to have been wiped out and it was lacking a power supply, but that was nothing he could not solve easily.
 
That droid was a key element of his plan. There were so many of them walking around the base permanently that it would remain unnoticed until the moment he could remotely activate the charge that he would place inside it and provoke an explosion that would solve their problem. The being they despised the most in the entire galaxy would be dead. Once and for all.
 
Erroll placed the droid on the workbench and started unscrewing plates of its chest. When done, he cautiously took a case out of his bag. The explosive device had been elaborated by another member of the team thanks to tools and products stolen around the base. It was a mix of wires, connected to two cylindrical containers. Diodes producing dots of faint light completed the device: the remote control.
 
"Mh… I'd be careful with this if I were you."
 
The female voice make him jump so high he nearly dropped the bomb. In a panic, he searched the darkness for its origin. He was so sure he was alone! Who was it? And how did she come in? Stars above, he was screwed! Someone knew!
 
"My my, someone here lacks self-control. Isn't it a bomb you're holding? Looks like it. I'd suggest you put it down before it falls from your sweaty hands."
 
Erroll's blood froze when he finally got a better view of the woman who was now moving towards him. Bald head, grey skin, dark tattoos on the face… Stars, was it…? No. Not the Commander. That one was smaller and thinner. Firebrand. His pulse slowed down a little and he was able to put his device down with shaky hands but he still felt horrified. And panicked. And screwed. And …. What am I going to do?
 
"That's it. Good boy. Now you breathe, ok? In and out and so on, you know the drill. Fuck, playing with a bomb and not even able to hold his shit. Terrorists are fucking amateurs nowadays."
 
The woman approached the workbench and bent to have a look at the explosive device, moving her head around it without touching it.
 
"Uh-hu… Quite a sloppy job but it might explode alright. That is, if there is no short-circuit at the wrong moment. Wires are too close, see. A little too much shaking and it will go boom in a sec." She straightened up and glanced at him again. "But you didn't build it, right? You don't look to have the guts for such a work."
 
The engineer's throat felt dry, his tongue numb. His mouth had remained opened from the moment she had revealed her presence. He tried to utter a sound but nothing came.
 
"Yeah, you didn't. Hey man, relax. I know I scared you like shit, but try to not piss in your pants. I don't like it. It's messy and it smells." Firebrand moved away from the table to get closer to the wall, leaning against it, arms crossed on her chest. "Why don't we have a little talk, you and me?"
 
"It's… none of your business," Erroll finally managed to pronounce. "Go away… please." That was not even sounding convincing. There was not supposed to be anyone in the lab. He was not ready to be exposed like that. He was just an engineer after all, not… not… Realising that he was not even able to stand his ground and make her leave, he cursed himself for the coward he was deep inside.
 
"Naaaaaa. I don't feel like it. You know, at first I thought that I was screwed 'cause I'm not supposed to be here and you were coming to work late. But I don't think that you are doing overtime for your boss now, are you? So, what is it you want to blow out? Or perhaps… who?"
 
"Just… go away," Erroll pleaded once again. "I… I won't say I saw you here, you keep this for yourself and we're even."
 
"Na. Still don't feel like it. I'm not sure I should let you play with your little toy and risk hurting yourself, you know. That shit is dangerous. By rule of thumb, I'd say it can blow the entire lab. Planning for mass murder, then?"
 
The engineer gasped. Really?? But… but the lab was huge! The man who had prepared the bomb had said that he knew what he was doing and that the charge would be enough for an area of one square meter or so. Enough to kill people close to the droid but not much more. And she said that it could blow out an entire room? But that was way too much! He wanted to get revenge, not to murder innocent people at the same time!
 
Clearly shaken by that revelation, Erroll took a few steps backwards briskly as if trying to put distance between him and the bomb, hands held in front of him as if to protect himself from it.
 
"I… I… I just wanted to…" he started mumbling. "I do not want to… I have no intention… The Emperor must…"
 
"Oh, alright, I see now. Nothing fundamentally original, then. It's nearly disappointing. First try?"
 
"What??" The man was baffled by the question asked so casually. "No, we…"
 
"Ah, there's a 'we', then."
 
The engineer cursed himself again. He should keep his mouth shut. Firebrand was known throughout the base for being the origin of many terrorist attacks on Zakuul, which could potentially put her on their side. But she was still working directly with the Commander now. It was hard do know where she stood in terms of personal opinion now.
 
"Yeah and… You know, you can stop calling him Emperor. He is not ruling over fucking anything right now."
 
 Erroll growled, finally finding more composure at the mention of the man who had killed his whole family.
 
"I do not care what he should be called. He destroyed my life. I will make him pay for that."
 
"Oh sure, and become a mass murder just like him. Is it worth it?"
 
He opened his eyes in shock. "No, you cannot say that! He killed millions! I--"
 
"Thirty or millions. It does not make so much difference in the end, it is still mass murder of innocent people. Usually guys tend to pretend that size does NOT matter, you know." Firebrand pushed herself away from the wall and got closer to him. As small and thin as she looked, he still felt rather intimidated. "I won't tell you it's not fun. I've killed many and enjoyed it. But I have the guts. You don't. Think about it. Now excuse me, I have a friend waiting over there."
 
Without waiting any agreement from him, she walked nonchalantly to the dark area or the room she had come from, welcomed by growls and hisses that made her chuckle. Erroll suddenly understood who the friend she was talking about was. Or more adequately, what…
 
"Yeeeeees, that's my big boy. Mama is coming back to you now. You missed me, oh yes, I can see that you missed me."
 
Squinting, he could distinguish Firebrand. She was energetically petting the hybrid baby sleen that was Oggurobb's latest genetic experiment. The creature was apparently happy that she was back from the happy snorts and slurping noises it made. Erroll retched with disgust, looking away. He turned around and looked at the workbench, thinking about what he had been willing to do. No. She was right. He was not ready for this. Not for killing more than one. He could not look at himself in a mirror after that. They would have to find another way.
 
The engineer stepped closer to the table and started packing his tools. He looked at the bomb for a long time before extending his arms to grab it.
 
"No no, leave it there. I'll handle it," said the voice from the dark corner.
 
That was more than welcome. He did not even want to know what she would be doing with it. He was good as long as he did not carry it with him anymore. Silently, without even looking back, Erroll left the lab, promising himself to never become like the man he hated so bad.
______________________________________________
 
Theron sighed and massaged his temples, disconnecting his implants from the information network to get some momentary relief. The way it all fell silent whenever he did that always made him feel uncomfortable. He was so used to the constant flow of information in the background that he almost associated its absence to being dead. That was the reason why he had always hated planets devoid of network connections.
 
But tonight, he needed to switch it off a moment. He had had far too much caf and had not slept as much as his usual standard - which was already too low, as the medical droid kept reminding him whenever he had to go through routine check ups. His head was hurting as if a full dozen of banthas had been battling as many dewbacks in a tiny prison cell.
 
Theron closed his eyes for a time. He had spent the last forty-eight hours working nearly permanently. He did not know if keeping being busy would help soothing him on the long term but at least it definitely allowed him to keep his mind focused on something else than his last discussion with Nyx. If he was perfectly honest, he was not really surprised it had happened, but it hurt nonetheless. He did not really plan to be attached to her this way but he had to admit that he had fallen deeper than he thought. And than he should have, considering that he knew from the start that Sith were by far not the most reliable candidates for being lifelong companions. But Nyx was who she was and he had been caught off-guard before even noticing.
 
Yeah, but it had come to an end and mulling over it would not change the situation. So he should rather use his unexpectedly additional available time on executing useful tasks. He had been monitoring the recent uprisings that had broken out on various planets. Now that the main objective of the Alliance had been attained and no more obvious tyrant was around, it was seen in many places as a new threat. And he could perfectly understand why. With the Eternal Fleet at hand, and even if she had so far decided not to seize the throne, the Commander could start playing the merciless Empress anytime. And knowing she was a Sith…The question was: would she? Theron had a quite precise opinion about it.
 
The second thing that was bothering people was the presence in their ranks of the former emperor. He could understand that too. With his absence of sensitivity to the Force, he was unable to perceive anything of the change the Force users had been acknowledging, but yes, he had to admit that Arcann was probably not the same as he was before when he had joined them on Zakuul. However, even if he had changed, it was still the man responsible for the loss of an incredible amount of lives, including the family and friends of many members of the Alliance. There had already been several assassination attempts that Lana or him had been able to nip in the bud. And a whole bunch of peculiar accidents too, that luckily had not caused important injuries. There would be more. Nyx's decision was certainly neither the safest nor the most understandable she had ever taken. Sometimes he wondered if the carbonite had not taken a toll on her common sense. But he would know better than to question her judgment. He chuckled at the thought that it was pointless anyhow: she was embodied stubbornness.
 
The silence of his implants had already become unbearable, particularly because it allowed too many unwanted thoughts to wander into his mind. Too bad if his head still ached, he could not remain disconnected. Grabbing a new cup of caf, Theron switched them on briskly and started listening again to the continuous flow of communications his network intercepted. There was something hypnotising in the way information unfolded into his head and, despite the caf, he started dozing after a while. But something kept tickling his subconscious, a pattern, words that would remain unnoticed in another context but that seemed misplaced.
 
Theron shook his head to clear his thoughts and focus again, listening with more attention.
 
"Well… That is interesting."

Chapter Text

"Any casualties?"

"No. A member of Hylo's crew has a broken leg, others a few bruises… Oh yes, Koth's pride has been severely damaged by the fact that he was pushed out of the way by Arcann himself."

Nyx chuckled at Lana's welcomed touch of humour. The zakuulian was indeed probably quite unhappy, to say the least. The former emperor was the person he would be the less pleased to be obliged to, followed closely by the same man's mother. She would have paid for getting a single glimpse on his face when he had realised who had protected him from being crushed by the 1.5 ton crate that had fell that morning in the military hangar.

A broken cable. It could have been considered an accident if there had not been other cases within the last month. At first, the incidents had not seemed related but after the first two events, they had started looking at them more closely and found traces of sabotage, some well crafted, some others far more clumsy. And that was not a good sign, because it indicated that they were facing not only one but several people, potentially not even coordinated.

"How many so far, Lana?"

"Five. And Hylo, Oggurobb and Aygo have all reported missing material that could apparently serve in the construction of explosive devices."

Nyx frowned. That meant more attempts to be expected. "Says who?"

"Kaliyo Djannis. With her terrorist background, I took the liberty of showing her the list to know if it something made sense."

Ah Firebrand. Obviously she would be at a good position to know how to build artisanal bombs. After all, she had spent the last years in a personal guerrilla against zakuulian society. Which made her as well a good candidate for having a responsibility in the current events. "Could she be involved?"

"She could. It is legitimate to consider her as not the most reliable member of the Alliance."

Nyx nodded. They already had had hints of the insubordination she was capable of, indeed. "Send for her, please. I want to confront her directly."

"Yes, Commander."

Lana's very formal answer made Nyx smile. The war room was empty except for the two of them, the title was therefore not necessary, but Lana always switched to it naturally when they were working. It was her way to make a clear distinction between the moments when they were friends, and those when there was a clear chain of command in place with one of them being the leader of the Alliance and the other, one of her subordinates. The fact that Nyx considered Lana as her equal and had never used that many formalities herself - only calling her 'Lord Beniko' when being openly ironic - did not change anything to the well-acquired habit.

While Lana processed her request, Nyx looked around, wondering where Theron was working from. He had asked to be excused for today's morning briefing, giving as a pretext that he had a lead requiring all his attention. A case he would talk about later if relevant. She suspected that even if it might be true, he tried as well his best to avoid her as much as possible. But she trusted him. He was a professional. If there was something they had to know, he would brief them. Better let him do his job and get to terms with the new situation as well.

She had another burning subject to deal with anyway. These incidents had to stop before they became an open threat for the Alliance, before everybody noticed what was now obvious for her. These were not mere sabotage against them, they had not been disturbing the course of operations enough to be useful in that matter. No, these were assassination attempts always targeting the same person. Only one was always nearby. Arcann.

Nyx had to admit that it should not really be a surprise. She had witnessed the vehemence with which some of her people had opposed her choice to accept his allegiance and bring him to Odessen. And she could understand their point, but had considered that they would eventually get used to it. She had heard them, but not listened. Now the Alliance was paying the price of her having forced a very unpopular choice upon them all.

She would probably not have had this kind of issues in the Empire. Deference and submission were common traits within the imperial instances, mostly obtained out of fear or thanks to promises of a higher position. Decisions were seldom questioned or challenged, people knew all too well that misplaced resistance was often synonym to a short future. She had never had an army, but had had to play the game herself like any other, bringing just as much insubordination and manipulation to the play to serve her needs. Such was the way of the Sith Empire, at least before it was crushed down by Valkorion's sons.

Leading the Alliance was a different experience. She could not expect the same obedience a Sith Lord would have counted on. But she had not really counted on it, only failed to realise that this was not the kind of decision that she could take all by herself and impose without creating ripples.

"I made a mistake," she muttered. "He should not be here, or at least not free."

Lana left the console she had been typing on and moved in front of Nyx. "I must say that I have been myself surprised by your choice that day. But I always supported it anyway. I trusted that you had rational reasons to make that decision, even if they were hard to grasp at first. And just the announcement of that alliance was a priceless and well served hard blow to Vaylin."

"It was the only one that made sense, purely rationally. Why let Senya save him and then not take the opportunity of having him work for us?"

Lana's sudden chortle made Nyx frown. "Have I said something funny?"

"Sort of. You usually insist on how rational something was when you used your instincts instead on the very moment and found a good reason for it afterwards."

Nyx rolled her eyes. Either she was getting bad at the political game or her friend knew her far too well. Yes, it had obviously been her guts speaking, and for once, leading her in quite a wrong direction considering the events that they were now left with. A wrong move for the Alliance leader, yet she selfishly did not regret it at all.

Nyx looked at her counterpart questioningly. "Do you realise the amount of strength and determination it must have represented to join me there, look me straight in the eyes and state that he wanted to join us? He could have just disappeared after Voss, we were too busy to chase him, but he came back to offer his help. I could have stuck my lightsaber right through his neck when he knelt, but he still did it without fear…"

Lana raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Are you telling me that he somehow managed to impress you?"

"Enough to make me wonder what he was really made of, I suppose…" Nyx answered, a half-smile on her face. "Ironic, isn't it? I found him definitely pathetic before Voss. No matter how powerful he was, he was mostly a grown up man with a childish attitude and absolutely no control over the dark side. He just deserved to die for that only, if not for all the other things he had done. But that day made me… curious."

"Yeah, well, speaking about curious, I'd like to know why the fuck I am requested to come here on my rest day, and why I have even been threatened if I did not come!"

Interrupted in their discussion, both Sith turned their gaze to the direction of the voice to see a moody Kaliyo Djannis enter the room, followed closely by C2-N2.

"Master, when she stated that she did not want to cooperate and follow me, I took the liberty to explain to Miss Djannis that cutting the hot water provided to her refresher might be a necessary measure I would have to apply."

"Good morning Kaliyo," said Nyx, repressing a smile at the evocation of the 'terrible' threat the woman had had to endure. "I was not aware that you had been assigned specific rest days." That was of course not the way operations were organised on the base. Auxiliaries had specific schedules but none of the members likely to be needed for special operations had any.

"Well, since it was probably due to negligence, I set one myself. And since today is my rest day, can I go? I was planning to have an early lunch."

That was Kaliyo Djannis, or the so-called Firebrand as most people knew her on the base. Irreverent, impertinent and definitely not keen to submit to anyone's request, without arguing. But she had proven to be as well one of the best elements on infiltration operations and was definitely skilled with explosive. Which made her as much a good advisor in their current case than a potential perfect culprit. Nyx decided to call for the first one and see what would happen. She held out a datapad to her.

"Here are the results of the analysis of an incident that happened in the military hangar this early morning. Do you see anything interesting?"

Kaliyo took the datapad with a displeased sigh and had a look at the report. "Yep. Most of the cable was cut clean at a point which should not be neither damaged by extended use not under particular tension. This is not an accident, you have a saboteur on the base."

Nyx looked at her interrogatively. "Any idea of who it could be?"

"Oh, now I see why I'm here… Well no, I've not made friends with all the terrorists in the galaxy. But I can tell you this one knows the job. Not like the one I stopped two nights ago."

Lana straightened immediately her eyes leaving the screen of the datapad she had been reading so far. "Excuse me?"

Kaliyo immediately took the opportunity to show off. A hand on her hip, she shot a taunting look to Lana. "Yeah, looks like you need more people to work on securing the base. I stopped someone the other day. It was a stupid thing anyway, he would not have had the guts to handle the death of several people."

"A name," Lana asked, glowering at her.

"Don't even know it. And won't say more. He did not do it after all. And in my opinion, he will think twice before trying his chance again on mister ex mighty emperor."

Nyx and Lana exchanged a silent sidelong glance. That somehow confirmed their assumptions on the most plausible target of the other attempts. "And… where is that bomb now?"

"In my quarters. I kept it safe for a better use."

Lana sighed. "I'll have someone escort you back and dispose of it…"

"Hey it's mine now!"

"Do not push the odds too far, Firebrand…" Kaliyo shot a disapproving look to both Sith but did not insist. A few seconds later, Admiral Aygo and one of his soldiers were ready to accompany her back to her quarters, leaving Nyx and Lana alone in the war room.

"So… What do you want to do, Commander?"

Nyx took some time before answering, thinking about the best course of action. She could not back off and change her decision as it would represent a blatant threat to her authority. And she would not let anyone cast doubts on her ability to make the right choices, nor would she let anyone attack her self-assurance. Besides… Despite the fact that she was in the best position to hold grudge against him, she had started to appreciate who Arcann was, now that he had been stripped of his uncontrolled madness and obsession over his father. In fact, she found that he was… a decent man? To be honest, probably a bit more than that. The time she had spent with him so far was, against all odds, rather pleasant.

She raised her eyes to meet Lana's, her decision taken. "Set a mandatory briefing time this afternoon for everyone on the base, coupled with an open channel to all of our inhabited ships and people on operations. I will talk to them…"

______________________________________________

All Alliance members present on the base had gathered in the military hangar. Conversation were buzzing among various groups of people, rumours and hypothesis spreading wildly on the reason why they had been convened. Speeches were no common events on Odessen. Most of them had only seen three, two if Senator Saresh's unfruitful attempt to seize command of the Alliance was set aside.

Vette had joined Senya and her son at the back of the crowd, greeting them as cheerfuly as she always was. From where they stood, they could see Hylo and Gaunt both leaning arms crossed against the railing of the nearby ramp. Firebrand had apparently made friends with some of Koth's team. From the exchange of handshake, they had most probably been placing bet on the reason of today's gathering, and based on her smug smile, she seemed quite confident with her own bet.

Koth himself had shot a dark look to Arcann while passing by to join his crew just a while ago. And he was not the only one. While most of the Force users seemed to have gotten along with Arcann's arrival, probably thanks to their capability to sense the change in him, and helped by the fact that he was now training them, it was not the case of many others who still showed their disapproval even though open animosity was prevented. However, the former emperor was working hard in trying to earn his place among us and it was starting to pay off. While Vette was certainly the most friendly of them all, other people, mostly workers he had helped with duties linked to the delivery of emergency goods to planets having suffered from his or his sister's bombings, could stay around him without flinching and had even started greeting him spontaneously. Things were evolving. Slowly, but steadily.

When the Commander entered the hangar followed by Lana and Theron, all faces turned progressively towards the plateform overhanging the main deck. Theron took position in a corner where he could oversee the crowd below while Lana reached the other side, tapping on her datapad to open a holo channel and soon delivering a sign to Nyx who had been patiently waiting. Conversations faded as she stepped forward to address the audience. After a few seconds of silence spent looking at the crowd, she started speaking with a strong and clear voice.

We all joined the Alliance for a reason. The galaxy was at war and the forces we had put our faith in had failed. The Empire and the Republic had been silenced, but we wanted to keep fighting. And indeed we fought many battles. And we won a lot of them. We have all contributed to write an important part of the history of the galaxy.

Whispers of approbation rose. Yes, that was what had motivated many of them. When Zakuul had brought the Empire and the Republic to their knees, forcing them to sign a treaty that made them incapable of challenging the new dominant power in the galaxy, a lot of people had lost faith. As soon as the word had spread that an Alliance welcoming anyone had been created to fight back, it had instilled new hope in many hearts. People had gathered aboard ships departing for Odessen, leaving their life behind them to try making a difference. From the moment of their arrival, everyone had found a way to contribute to the war effort, whether it was on the field or simply making sure that things were running smoothly on the base. There were so many tasks needing to be taken care of…

Over time, the face of the oppression changed. And rather unexpected people joined the fight. Many of us joined with blood of former battles on our hands, but the past did not matter, only what we could make of the future. I know that some hands are dirtier than others, but in spite of it, the same chance has been granted to every single one of us, a chance to make a difference by serving the purpose of the Alliance.

Obvious glances were shot towards Arcann who straightened his back, Senya putting a gentle hand on his right shoulder. Indeed some hands were dirtier. Having killed millions did not really compare to any other crime… And while many other members who might not be proud of their past could blend in the crowd, his face was known by everyone on the base. He might blend in eventually, but it would take months, or years… It had only been a few weeks and the shadow of his past actions was still cast upon then all, even though some people, like the Commander, seemed to find the strength to turn the page more easily than others.

Kaliyo was another one collecting sidelong glances. Even though she was clearly second to the former emperor in terms of threat, she had been terrorising Zakuul long enough to be considered part of the most wanted criminals by those who used to live there. But she seemed to take it easy, shrugging nonchalantly to those who dared looking at her.

I am impressed by how people coming from so different places and cultures could work together. How, despite of our differences, we have been able to fight side by side for a common goal. That, has always been our strength.

Humans and aliens. Soldiers of both the Empire and the Republic. Sith, Jedi, Knights of Zakuul. Smugglers and former law enforcement officials. All united under the same banner. The base was indeed a colourful mix of individuals comparing easily with cosmopolitan planets such as Nar Shaada. A lot of members had discovered species they had not even heard about when setting foot on Odessen. And even among humans, which remained a majority, tens of origins could be found.

The Commander marked a pause. A few groups had started complimenting and high fiving each others quietly, a proof that bonds that went beyond duty had formed. Fighting side by side was a strong vector of trust and friendship and they all recently had to give their best to help and protect each other when Vaylin had attacked the planet. The Alliance was definitely more than the gathering of single individuals, there was a strong sense of belonging keeping them together. However, when Nyx began to speak again, it was to deliver a less pleasing message.

But recently, something changed. Silent voices have risen, unusual and unnatural accidents have happened. Some within our ranks have started fighting us from the inside. I understand. Difficult choices that are made seldom please everyone. And one of those choices has been made, denying some of us of the revenge they were aspiring to.

The mention of accidents caused a surprised and confused hubbub among the crowd associated with a sudden feeling of unease. While the Commander had not pronounced the word 'sabotage', everyone had understood that it was what she implied, and most had not expected it to be the subject of the speech. Yes, there had been a few accidents, but most of them had not assisted to any of them and considered these as part of the events that might happen naturally. Acknowledging them an intentional cause profoundly changed their meaning and the threat they represented.

The Commander had to raise her hands to require silence before continuing. Theron and Lana remained imperturbable, their looks scanning the faces below as if looking for anything unusual.

I do respect thirst for revenge. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. This is one of the values I have been raised with. But I have no respect for cowards. For those who work in our backs to undermine our strength. And I will not let that happen. I will not allow anyone try and exercise justice from the shadows and stand anonymously against any member of the Alliance.

"Shit… It's you she's talking about here, isn't she?" whispered Vette who had gotten closer to Arcann. "You were the target. You said you were there several times… Looks like you have a friend having your back, buddy."

Arcann shushed Vette with a silent move of his hand, not taking his eyes off the Commander. He looked rather tense and exhaled slowly, his hands joining again in his back in his distinctive usual serious stance. Senya glanced at him interrogatively but did not comment, they would have time to discuss the subject later. She turned her attention back to the platform, focusing again on the speaker.

Joining our fight has never been a synonym of a life-time commitment. Everyone can someday make the choice to leave. If our fight is not yours anymore, you are free to go anywhere you see fit. You can even decide to start fighting us from the outside. War is war… The destiny of winners is to be challenged until they fall and we are ready to fight. But no one will be allowed to fight us silently from within and we will not suffer any other cowardly hidden threat.

Inspiring during the first part of her speech, Nyx's voice had moved to a more determined tone that was close to being threatening. She was making sure that everyone marked her words and that every single one of them understood that she would stop at nothing to make the incidents cease.

Her face, glance, stance, everything in her gave the same message. Those who had never had the opportunity to see her displeased got a good opportunity to remember that their Commander was no mere high-ranking military officer but a Sith, and that even though they could all acknowledge that she was of the rational type and not inclined to cruelty, she still remained someone who would never hesitate using strength and radical means if she considered that they were a necessary response.

Events will not be investigated further. The perpetrators will get a second chance to be true to the Alliance again. Today I offer people who do not recognise themselves in our goals anymore to step forward and make their will known. Those who want to leave will be able to do so without any consequences. Those who want to confront me for the decisions I took will be heard. But those who remain silent despite their disagreement will be allowed no other option than getting to terms with choices made.

A second chance… That was probably one of those things that were so unusual coming from a Sith. During her time as the leader of the Alliance, the Commander had applied that rule several times while recruiting. No matter if the past had opposed them, those willing to join her were given an opportunity to prove their value and their commitment. It was however rather unusual that she offered pardon that way. Those who were close to her knew that taking advantage of the trust that had been granted was most probably the worst insult to her face. Renouncing to take action on the incidents had certainly not been an easy choice.

Theron and Lana seemed briefly surprised. They might not have had full visibility on her plans before her speech. However they quickly resumed to the more neutral expression they had born from the beginning. Both of them knew that Nyx hardly changed her decisions when they were set and in any case had decided to trust her already long ago. They knew as well what was usually associated to a second chance and were bracing themselves for her next words and the reactions that they might generate.

If you want to speak your mind and stand against decisions made in the past, this is your one chance. Make your request right now or come to me privately until midnight. Those who do not take this opportunity but are caught red-handed later trying to weaken us from the inside will be treated with the inclemency they deserve. Sentence will be death.

There it was, what those who knew her enough were expecting. There was a second chance, but never a third. The Commander could be magnanimous once, but she would never allow being betrayed a second time without unleashing her rage. Trust was granted in a limited amount and without naivety, and those who burnt what they had been allocated were to suffer the consequences.

Theron and Lana straightened up, looking at the audience, joined on the front of the platform by the Admiral Aygo, all of them getting ready for the reactions. Nyx gave them a quick look and waited for them to return a nod before continuing.

Who want to be heard, speak!

At first, there was silence. An unsual and heavy one, as if all attending the speech were suddenly holding their breaths. But soon after, a small group of men and women stepped out of the crowd, all wearing armours as if ready for battle. Not many remained permanently ready to leave, but wearing an armour was part of their rules. Mandalorians. One of them made a step further to address the Commander.

"Al'verde! Mhi copaanir gra'tuar kyr'am Torian."

Nyx frowned and turned to Theron who leant forward to whisper her a few words then she turned her attention back to the fighter.

"Torian fought like all Mandalorians, bravely, and knowing that death might come one day. But I know that your code of honour requires opportunities of taking revenge for his death. State your request."

"One designated champion of our clan must be allowed to fight the champion chosen by the remaining family of Torian's murderer," the spoksman said.

"I will fight your champion to cleanse the honour of our family."

The strong female voice that had risen from the crowd was Senya's. Judging by Arcann's astounded face, she had voluntarily anticipated the fact that her son would most probably be wanting to be the one having to fight. "Vaylin was my daughter, I will bear the consequences of her actions."

Nyx nodded to Senya who had raised her eyes to her before turning her attention again to the mandalorian. From the corner of the eye, she had clearly seen that Arcann would have wanted to draw her attention to silently protest and suspected that he wanted her to stop his mother. But she decided not to give him the attention. Senya had made a choice that had to be respected, there was no reason for her to refuse.

"Your challenge has been accepted. You will name a champion and come to me to arrange the fight."

"Vor entye, Al'verde."

The group stepped back into the crowd who had started whispering again, breaking the silence that had hung above them moments before. A middle-aged couple then stepped shyly out of the audience to request permission to leave the Alliance to go back to their home planet. As the permission was granted to them, it motivated a few others to claim the same.

The atmosphere was relaxing a bit when an angry-looking man wearing the characteristic jumpsuit of the people responsible for the base maintenance drew himself away from the hands of peers who were apparently trying to hold him back.

"Commander! I demand that the mass murderer you invited here is put into a cell and ends his days rotting there! You know who I am talking about!" he said aggressively, gesturing clearly towards Arcann.

Nyx had been waiting for someone to dare stand out and finally make that claim openly. She made eye contact with Arcann as soon as she heard it, intimating him the clear order not to attempt to respond himself. He sustained her gaze disapprovingly for a while but finally nodded imperceptibly, giving in reluctantly to her command before turning a reassuring look to his mother who had tensed as well.

Lana tapped rapidly on her datapad before whispering informations to Nyx who then took a few steps on the platform in the direction of the worker.

"This is not happening, Bradan Ellmid. I hear your call, but former emperor Arcann has not given me reasons to doubt his allegiance to the Alliance since his pledge to serve it. That is the very principle of second chance."

"But he does not deserve that second chance! You have no right to make this choice while millions have been killed! He is a murderer!" the man screamed, looking at the people surrounding him to try and rally them. While some might have been agreeing, they still did not seem inclined to stand out as he did, preferring not to even meet his gaze.

Nyx remained calm but assertive when she answered him once again. "I hear you… You will be accompanied to a meeting room where we can talk about it quietly. Then you will be free to choose from the options given to you." She then addressed the audience once more while two of Aygo's men - unarmed, she had set that as a condition - showed the way to the plaintiff. "Does anyone else want to speak their mind now?"

As no one else decided to make themselves known, the audience was soon thanked and dismissed by Lana while the Commander disappeared towards the meeting room. The visible part of the day was done, but for her, it was far from over…

______________________________________________

Arcann was not pleased, to say the least. After the speech that the Commander had given in the hangar, he had spent an hour in a heated discussion with his mother, trying to convince her to let him fight the Mandalorian. He could not bear the idea of her taking responsibility for his sister's deeds and get hurt or potentially even die in the doing. Not for what Vaylin had done. Letting him handle it made much more sense.

Senya had categorically refused to come to her senses, arguing that she was a fighter as much as he was and did not fear the challenge put upon her. She had said that she was the right person for that and he did not need to take everything upon his own shoulders, that they could both carry the load. But he did not want her to do so, as he did not want the Commander to act the way she had. He was responsible of what was happening on the base. If he had not been there, there would not be accidents. He was the one who should be facing all this and both Senya and the Commander had no right to force him to do otherwise.

In the face of his mother's determination not to change her mind, he had decided to try another way and ask the Alliance leader to intercede on his behalf. Oh, he knew that it would be hard. He had already understood that if he considered himself stubborn, she was probably a good match to him in that matter. And in any case, he wanted to confront her too about the speech she had just given and the results of it. But the door of the meeting room had remained closed. She had refused to let him in, letting her intendant droid notify him that she was busy. Three times already.

It was just past midnight, the deadline that she had given to people wanting to face her to make their opinion known. He had no idea of how many had come. Was her unavailability justified or had she just been pushing him away on purpose? He was pacing again in front of the door, waiting for the droid to answer his fourth request and it was taking longer this time. Was it a good sign? The door finally opened, revealing Lana who made way for him to enter. The sight of her made him feel slightly frustrated, he had hoped to see the Commander alone. As much as he was slowly getting at ease with her, his interactions with the other Sith had remained rather formal so far.

He went straight in, striding towards the back of the room where the other woman was standing, turning her back to him, busy pouring a dark red liquid into wine glasses. Her voice seemed amused when she addressed him but he could not see her face.

"Arcann…If you come to confess about the incidents, you are slightly too late. But I guess that if you wanted to attempt on your own life, there would be much easier ways to do so." She turned around with two glasses in her hands and indeed, she bore a slightly mocking smile, one he had already seen several times. Taking a few steps in his direction, she held out one of the glasses she was carrying towards him, handing the other one to Lana who had moved to his side. "Lana and I were planning to have a glass of alderaanian wine to end the day on a good note. Care to join us?"

Arcann frowned and huffed but took the glass she offered. This woman could be so rattling! It was like she was blowing cold, mocking him and inviting him in a friendly manner all at the same time. How was he supposed to sort this out? At least when they were still enemies, things were easy to understand. She was aggressive, taunting, relentless… And now she could still sometimes be some of all that mixed with a friendliness and a patience towards him that contrasted vividly and left him confused. Whether it was on purpose or not, that simple gesture had at least substantially decreased his irritation, leaving him rather uncertain of how to move next.

She turned around again to grab her own glass and raised it, followed by Lana and him, "to a long day that is nearly over." Nyx sipped her wine and sighed delightfully. "I imagine that you would like to have news from the man you have seen earlier… He will leave Odessen, but we had a fruitful discussion and he finally understood my point."

"You should have let me handle it," he growled, satisfied of being finally able to state his point after several hours of waiting.

She gave him a surprised look. "Why?"

"Because these incidents are targeting me. They have nothing to do with you. I do not need you to protect me. I do not want you to protect me" he answered, looking at her sharply and insisting on the very last sentence.

"I am not protecting you," she answered in the very same way. "Assassination attempts, whoever they target, are directly threatening my authority. And unless you want to challenge it as well, you have no say in this."

She said the last sentence in a mix of assertiveness and nonchalance that left him first wordless and made Lana snort discreetly. She had been observing their exchange silently, barely repressing a smile as she watched their egos clashing. Apparently, she was enjoying it quite a lot.

Enjoying it, he was not. All his years as an Emperor, he had made sure that no one else than himself had a chance to decide of his fate. He had even hunted and killed as many Scions as possible to make sure that nobody even considered fate as something uncontrollable. And yet she was doing exactly the same thing his father used to do: trying to impose on him something he was not willing to accept.

His body language must have shown some of his thinking because he immediately sensed Lana and the Commander straighten up and observe him more closely. Realising it, he forced himself to calm down. She might be a Sith - and she had warned him not so long ago about them - she was not his father. He was not intending to engage in a conflict against her. Not again.

"I am not challenging you, Commander! But you cannot simply decide to handle things your way when others are concerned."

"Yes I can. And I did. I made a decision that is turning against me, I handle it."

Arcann let out a frustrated sigh. By no means was she changing her mind, he could see it already. He could still try to convince her but he had to choose his battles. This one was most probably lost. "Were there others?" he only added.

"A few, but we dealt with each case."

The Commander moved to the big table sitting in the middle of the room to lean against it. She absorbed in the contemplation of the dark liquid swirling in her glass while she was turning it, imposing naturally a moment of silence. Arcann broke it tentatively after a few seconds.

"I can leave. And find other ways to help."

She raised her head briskly, as if she was shocked by his suggestion. "And show them that they were right and that they can defy my authority anytime they want? Certainly not. You are free to go if you do not feel that you belong to the Alliance, but now is not really a good time."

"But I am bringing you issues that you would not have if I was not here. And that slow down your work."

"You are. I will not deny it." She shrugged and smirked to Lana. "And Lord Beniko loves me for that."

"Well, allow me praise you for your admirable way of handling the situation today, My Lord," answered Lana sarcastically mirroring the usual imperial deference and roughing out a bow, making the Commander utter a laughter.

"In any case, there is no way backward, only forward." Nyx straightened up and took a few steps in his direction, leaving less than one meter between them when she stopped. "You know Arcann, you made sure to point out that you are a better fighter than I am, but you should not try to challenge me on diplomacy and negotiations, I do not think that you would be a match."

"I guess that I have to grant you a point here," sighed Arcann with an ironic smile. All he had always needed to know in diplomacy was how to be stronger and more determined than his opponent. The treaties he had made the Republic and the Empire sign had been easily imposed as they had no other choice if they wanted to survive. He had not really needed to develop finer skills in that area as long as strength worked. From the various talks he had assisted to, her moves were far more subtle and he even wondered sometimes to what extent she used the same skills when talking to him, how much of it was calculated. It did not really suit him, but by joining the Alliance, he had as well accepted not to be the one in command and he still needed time to see how to adjust and find the best way to contribute.

As she took a step backward, then in the direction of the bottle to pour some more wine in her glass, offering some to the others at the same time - an offer that Lana declined - , he took the opportunity to state the other request that had brought him there. "About my mother… I want to take her place in the duel. She should not be the one fighting." Nyx put down the bottle and turned around slowly to face him. "No. She made her decision and has as many rights to fight for the honour of your family as you do. But I do not think that you should be concerned for her. Lana?"

"Yes, Commander," answered Lana. "The Mandalorians have chosen their man and agree with your terms, even though they complained that it went against their traditions. But as they respect your authority on the territory of Odessen, they will abide by your rules." She then put her empty glass on the table and straightened up. "Now if you excuse me, I have a meeting at dawn and I could do with a few hours of sleep. Good night."

Nyx nodded a silent approval and watched her leave before choosing a chair to sit down, soon followed by Arcann. "You understand? I forbade them their traditional duel to death, there is no need for other dead people, we already had to mourn too many. They agreed with first blood. Your mother is safe."

Arcann let an ironic huff go through his nose. "It looks like you are doing it again. Taking care of things for us… Do you realise how frustrating this is?"

She shrugged. "Blame it on an everlasting need to control things, if you need… But I consider it as one of the two main things I am supposed to do as the Commander of the Alliance. Fight in the front row and take care of my people."

He had to concede that the people around seemed to appreciate that aspect. But he found it disturbing, considering how his father had always pictured the Sith, as selfish individuals, incapable of working as a whole for the good of their empire. He set the thought momentarily aside and continued: "There is another thing I need to ask for my mother… She had been having nightmares lately, about my sister. She does not want to bother you with this request but I think that it would be helpful if she could somehow… go where her remains are? If there is such a place…"

Nyx smiled gently, nodding. "There is such a place. I was expecting the request to come sooner or later. I can bring her there. Tomorrow?"

Arcann nodded. "I will let her know. Thank you, Commander. I…" He frowned. It was a good moment to get an opportunity to know more about her, but he was not entirely sure how he could formulate what he wanted to say. "This is most certainly not how I imagined that a Sith would handle things… Taking care of their people the way you do."

Nyx chuckled. "Do not even dare mentioning the word…"

Arcann shook his head with half a smile, knowing exactly what she meant. "I will not, I promise. But I still would like to understand… If you consent, of course."

She nodded. "I can at least try. But any answer I could give you here might not help you understand the Sith as a whole. We all have our own story."

He smiled. "I will do with yours as a first step, then. Valkorion… He taught us things about your kind. But I have difficulties seeing them in what you let me know of you."

"I was not raised a Sith from the beginning, only became one quite late. That might ben part of the answer."

"You were born a slave…"

His remark made her laugh. She already knew that he had made researches about her, but not the extent of it. Well, he knew about this at least, but not much more of what her life had been before the Sith Academy and the first records of her. "Yes. I was born a slave, on Korriban. My parents were at the service of an officer who was based there with his family. A Major, if I remember well. I was sold to a Lieutenant Colonel later on… My clan was one those Darth Vich had brought back from Rattatak to Dromund Kaas and used to take power in the Empire. Many were killed when he failed, but some were enslaved. It was almost two generations before my birth, but the story of our disgrace is know by all of us."

Relaxing into her chair and turning it a little to better face him, Nyx started telling him about the Rattataki, how strong the sense of belonging to the clan was, even though they were spread at the service of many different military officials and lords or working on construction sites. They were allowed to gather only a few times a year, especially for the rituals of coming of age and for funerals, but their bonds remained strong. She had gotten her tattoos during her own coming of age and swore to one day break her chains, like all of them did. And in contrary to most of the others she had, when her sensitivity to the Force had been noticed. The day she had left for the Academy, she had swore that she would one day find a way to free them.

It was only the first step of her way up. "They have noticed soon that despite my origins, I was better skilled in manipulation and cunning than in fighting. You see, Rattataki's reputation for being bloodthirsty beasts is well spead… and somehow deserved. But…" she grinned, "I happen to have a brain and know how to use it. So I made my way into the political spheres."

Arcann listened silently. She was a good storyteller, not so surprisingly, knowing her talents at speaking to crowds. It was evident that she had many years of practice in that field. She had worked her way up through a mix of obedience to her masters and hidden insubordination, promises kept and broken, alliances and betrayals. She had killed when needed, spared when more useful. "When you have the nerves, politics is a challenging but rather entertaining game… Move a pawn, sacrifice another one, reaching a position of power is like a big chess game, isn't it?"

He huffed, a bit surprised. "Is that how you see it? A game?"

"Until the Emperor came into the play, yes, that was how I saw it. Things changed afterwards. And me, you, your siblings, we all ended up being pawns in his great scheme…" Nyx paused, tilting her head on the side, thinking. "Well, that might be the answer to your question… I have been trained to focus on my own power, my own ascension, and I did. But there has always been people I did not want to involve in the big game. My clan, my crew, my people. Those who chose to entrust me with their lives the way my clan had done. I think that the part of me who promised them that I would free them never got corrupted by my Sith training. I always made sure I remembered."

"What happened to your clan, then?" asked Arcann, leaning forward. She cracked a smile, a triumphant one as if she considered it a victory over her peers. "Not long after accessing to the Dark Council, I freed them. All of them. It cost me an immense amount of money and some favours." Her smile moved to something more ironic and she made a falsely contrite wince. "But I believe that most of the Lords I still owed something to might have unfortunately died or fled during your conquest of our worlds. I will not miss them."

Despite the Commander's amusement, Arcann pulled a grim face at the evocation of his campaign against the Sith. She was not there, but there might have been some of her clan on Korriban or Dromund Kaas when they had attacked, which meant that they might have been caught in the wave of destruction he and his brother had led. And while he had so far not seen those battles as anything else than what it had been - a war between two opposed forces fighting for their power over the galaxy - the idea of having destroyed something she held dear made him feel unusually uneasy. Was it what she had mentioned after their first sparring session when she had said that there were things he had taken from her?

Getting closer to a former enemy came with unpleasant consequences, it was making everything more personal, too personal perhaps. Because if the warrior and the emperor had never cared about anything else than the objective of all actions undertaken, the man who had woken up from his years-long sleep on Voss apparently did. Sometimes, he felt like walking on eggshells and it was unusual for him. And definitely uncomfortable. That was probably one thing he did not really get along well with what the Voss healing had brought upon him: the fact of not being able to bury anything he felt and thought under the veil of anger, frustration and resentment that kept him going before. He somehow had to face parts of himself that he did not handle well, one of them being that he now cared about what others felt. And he did not really know how he was supposed to handle it, especially related to someone whose values and reactions he did not fully understand yet. Who she was, the true balance in that mix of a rational and even-tempered leader, impulsive and passionate Sith and… whoever she was as a woman, he did not really know. And it made him feel uncomfortable. This was not something he could tackle easily by using any of the martial or strategical skills he knew, or the superficial manners of the court he had been trained to thanks to years of formal meetings and parties.

But sometimes, the best way to continue was to stop thinking and step forward. He braced himself and asked bluntly. "Did they survive our raids?"

She surprisingly did not expect the question which made her straighten and frown. "Most did. They were free. A lot of them had gone back to Rattatak already and those who had willingly remained at my service on Dromund Kaas were able to hide long enough." She breathed in and out quietly before continuing. "Listen. If you really want to know, I lost part of my crew. Not during your raids but when we were attacked by your fleet later on. I know that they survived and we could find track of some of them who are now here. However, there are others that we could not find… But… War is war. It is ruthless and dirty. There is nothing from what happened that I would not have done myself. The Empire fell, but it only meant that we were not powerful enough to sustain your power. If we were not able to protect what was ours, we deserved to lose. And now you fell and the Empire is rising again, as it always has. It is an eternal circle…"

So that was how she saw it. Through the eye of the leader, the warrior. Emotionless despite the losses. Or at least that was the face she displayed and he was not capable of seeing through it to know if it was true. However, she was apparently far from done. She looked straight into his eyes with that piercing light gray look of hers. "But what you did to these worlds when you were looking for me to destroy your father, that was as useless as it was stupid and childish. Unworthy of a powerful ruler and the most ridiculous move for the conqueror you were. You let yourself be lead by a force that was far stronger than you and that you did not control. I can deal with the consequences as these are worlds of the Alliance, but in your willingness to amend for your past actions, you might want to consider this as a starting point."

Useless. Stupid. Childish. Unworthy. Ridiculous. Each word hit Arcann like a a slap in his face, leaving him speechless at first but quickly igniting rather unpleasant feelings. Again she was reminding him of his father. She was using the same words he had spoken for many years, with the same kind of cold tone in her voice. He could not allow her to do that, he would… But as if she had sensed his sudden tension, she then did something he was not expecting. She stood up and moved to the side of his chair to put a hand on his right shoulder, and when he raised his eyes to meet her gaze, the look he saw had nothing from the cold and detached one his father had always cast upon him. Instead, her face bore a rather encouraging smile. "I believe that you still have it in you to go through this and succeed, Arcann. Show me that I am not mistaken."

He nodded almost imperceptibly, wondering how she could be so similar to his father and yet so different. And as her hand left his shoulder, he stood up to follow her. She had already stepped toward the door, notifying him this way that the discussion was over. As he went past her and through the door, he paused and turned around to face her. She tilted her head and shot him an interrogative look, waiting for him to speak his mind.

"Just… My mother is right, you are rather full of surprises."

She answered with one of these amused smiles of hers. "Well, that makes two of us, then…"

Chapter Text

Lana was striding briskly in the direction of the Logistics area. She had gotten word that the Commander was on the leave with Senya and her son and silently cursed herself for having apparently left Nyx and Arcann too early the night before to know what was going on. This departure was definitely not planned and she had just received information on a situation that required immediate reaction. And considering the nature of the mission and the foes they would encounter, she needed the Commander with her on the field.

Lord Adacin and Lord Zanisk were two powerful Sith. From the various sources of her researches, she had concluded that they had been missing since the beginning of Arcann's Eternal Empire conquest seven years earlier. They had probably preferred to go into hiding during the initial chaos initiated by the Emperor's attacks on Dromund Kaas and had remained low profile until then. The reason why they had now started attacking the Alliance on their own instead of rallying the Sith Empire once again was a mystery. They could not be in possession of a power big enough to match the Eternal Fleet, could they? Whatever way she was trying to think about it, absolutely nothing in their behaviour made sense. There had been no warning, no claim, no threat of any kind, the Alliance had not even noticed them until recently when they had started attacking the nearby systems. And even if Theron had tried to dig into the information he could gather about them, he had certified that he was not able to find anything valuable. Which was exactly the reason why they had to go see by themselves, and Lana did not want to risk sending a not sufficiently experienced or powerful team to Ord Mantell without having any clue of what they might encounter there.

Theron could have been a good partner for a stealthy operation, but Lana had excluded that option as soon as she had seen the deep dark stains laying under his eyes and the nervous twitch of his hands while he was explaining the situation to her. The spy had been barely sleeping a couple of hours once in a while within the last two weeks and was under the clear influence of all the caf' that he was constantly swallowing to stay awake. If that was the result of having been turned away by Nyx, that man would have known better than engaging in a romantic relationship first and foremost, especially with a Sith. Lana appreciated Theron for more than his competences but was hardly able to find sympathy for such a destructive behaviour, especially for something as… trivial… as a break up. Oh, she definitely liked romances, even though that was one of her well - she hoped - kept little secrets but had always been insensitive to stories of rejected lovers so desperate that they ended up in the most disgusting states of wretched and useless existence until their saviour came to bring them up to their feet. Willpower was key. And she was rather surprised to see the spy in such a condition which did not match with the determination he had always shown so far. Unless there was something else that she had not seen…

Her pace slowed down a little while her brain started trying to recollect and assemble all the memories she had of the last few weeks. The war against the Eternal Empire was over but they had been kept busy by the reconstruction work needed on several highly impacted planets, including Zakuul and Odessen and the basic needs of their citizens. Loads of supplies had transited through the Alliance base to be dispatched to the appropriate locations. Managing this had been taking most of her time while Nyx had spent a considerable amount of hers - excluding her weeks of forced recovery - in negotiations and diplomacy. She and Theron had quickly been aware of uprisings happening in various parts of the galaxy that had declared their affiliation to the Eternal Alliance, but until now they had managed to contain the events by sending standard forces to the various places to calm things down, following up with negotiations led by the Commander. As far as she knew, none of these insurrections seemed evidently related to each other, but Theron had emitted the wish to look for a pattern. Did he find a link? Would he follow a lead without filling her in? Considering her and Nyx's reactions the last time he had done such a thing, she found it highly unlikely… or totally senseless at the very least. Still… did he?

Lana's finally caught sight of the group she was looking for and decided to come back to these thoughts later on. For now, she had to make them postpone the trip they had planned and brief the Commander on the situation on Ord Mantell. Whatever reason they had for leaving the base today, it was certainly less urgent than her operation.

Glancing briefly away from the map they were staring at, Nyx was first to notice her incoming, soon followed by both Tirall and all three were looking at her interrogatively while she closed the distance between them.

" Commander. I am sorry to counteract your plans, but I need your help on an urgent matter. As your present operation does not seem to be on the Alliance schedule, may I inquire you to postpone and follow me for a short briefing?"

This might have sounded a bit too formal, but she had noticed that she could not help reacting that way when the former emperor was around. Even though Arcann was slowly trying to blend in, which was a daunting task considering his past, she still remembered the feeling of warning that had struck her from the moment Nyx had decided to allow him to join the Alliance. She had never mentioned it to her friend, and had to admit that she had even recently started to doubt her intuition on the subject, but had decided to remain careful.

The surprise and concern in Nyx's look were obvious - Lana never overstated her needs - but Senya's disappointment was even more noticeable. Whatever plan they had in mind, it apparently mattered a great deal to her. The former Knight of Zakuul nevertheless marked her consent when the Commander gave her a quick glance. Her past had acclimated her to operational priorities and she knew better than getting in the way of an urgent mission.

"Alright Lana…" said Nyx, focusing her attention on her again and stepping back from the console to allow her access to the controls. "Let me know what we are facing this time."

The Sith quickly took the lead and brought them all through the operation briefing. It did not really matter that the Commander was the only one she needed, both other Force user might have valuable suggestions and they were part of the limited core that had an almost - she was well aware that both Theron and her reserved themselves a right to decide otherwise - open access to operational information. They all listened very carefully, asking a few precisions from time to time but there were many questions to which she could not provide proper answer, which was exactly why they had to go see by themselves.

"If I may…"

Arcann had remained rather discrete until then, mostly listening, but he took the opportunity to step in as soon as Lana was done with her explanations.

"Commander, I may be able to give the necessary support to Lana on this operation. This way, you would be able to proceed with your initial plans for the day while not leaving this matter unattended."

Senya immediately stepped forward to dissuade her son. "Son, we can postpone…"

He shook his head, addressing her a reassuring smile. "No, Mother. You both go visit my sister's last resting place. You need this more than I do. I am sure that you will be able to lead me there another time."

Nyx remained silent, observing both of them with interest as Arcann was convincing his mother to stick to their plan while he would provide help on Alliance urgent matters. He finally turned around to face her: "If you allow me… I am intending to make sure that you get no reason to doubt my total dedication to the Alliance."

Lana could have smiled at the formal way - rather different from the night before when he was restless and frustrated - that Arcann had been using to speak to the Alliance leader if she had not been so surprised by the suggestion. The idea of having the former emperor as a partner on a mission had not even crossed her mind once. Somehow, it was still part of the prospects that she could not fully imagine becoming real one day. Yet, a quick look at Nyx confirmed what she had immediately worried about: her friend was considering the idea seriously. Worse, the almost unnoticeable beginning of a smile twisting the corner of her lips barely left any doubt: she liked it. Lana knew that the fact that she wanted so strongly to object to that perspective herself was exactly why Nyx liked the idea so much. And, as always, there would not be any way to talk her out of it.

"I find the idea interesting. Don't you think, Lana?"

"I will follow your call if you find the situation appropriate, Commander…" she answered, seeing Nyx's mischievous smile broaden immediately. They would have to talk later, but it was neither the time, nor the place for it. Not in front of Arcann and his mother. "So be it, then. We will get ready immediately. May the Force serve you well on your journey."

Lana turned around in the direction of the military hangar where a shuttle was ready for departure, leaving it to Arcann to follow her. She had no other choice than to accept his presence, he might even be well suited for the mission, but it did not make her feel more comfortable about it. And despite him voluntarily engaging in the operation, the former emperor did not seem particularly more at ease.

Taking off was handled without superfluous interactions and they remained silent long after the moment when the on-board autopilot had superseded to manoeuvres requiring human handling, Lana in the pilot's seat, immersing herself in the latest reports that she had downloaded while Arcann looked absent-mindedly at the constant stream of information appearing on the navigation screen from the copilot's.

"Partnering with me on this operation is something you would have preferred to avoid…" Arcann's words broke the silence. They were spoken quietly, not as a question but as an acknowledgment.

Lana raised her eyes from her datapad and nodded. There was no point in playing a game of make-believe with him. "The Commander took a decision. My agreement in the matter is not mandatory."

"You still would have chosen anyone else but me if you had been given the opportunity..."

Lana sighed. Of course he was right, it was not even necessary to state the obvious. And if he was looking for some sort of reassurance from her, he would not get any. She did not believe in the use of false acceptance and preferred using blunt honesty when circumstances allowed it. Furthermore, she saw absolutely no reason to spare him. "Your conclusions are relevant, but pointless all the same. What prevails is the success of our task."

"To make things perfectly clear, I was not expecting you to appreciate my help. Nor am I trying to become valuable to you against your will. I did it for my mother, so that she and the Commander could leave as intended." He uttered the words so factually, almost humbly, that it finally drew Lana's full attention. I did it for my mother… He was not looking for acceptance from her, nor was he frustrated not to get any. He had put himself in her way for the sake of someone else, someone he cared for, and did not expect anything in return. Suddenly she realised how different he looked from the man they had fought when they were still enemies. That man filled with so much hatred and devoured by a jealousy so strong that even Nyx and her, although Sith, could not comprehend how he had not totally drowned into pure madness yet.

Lana's sensitivity to the Force had always been praised by her mentors and she knew that she sensed much more subtleties and variations than many others did. She did not know many that were that talented and even less who knew how to properly use that gift. It had probably been one of the numerous things that had led the Commander and her to being as close as they were. Nyx did not sense the Force as well as she did, but she was capable of wielding it with a formidable precision which sometimes Lana was the only one to perceive. It had even become a game between them, and a way for her friend to send her almost unnoticeable warnings.

But she did not need any bit of that sensitivity to feel the changes that had occurred in Arcann's imprint in the Force after the Voss' ritual. It was as clear as a beacon shining in the middle of the deepest night. The distinct taint of darkness that used to surround him had disappeared, leaving him more balanced, neither turned to the Light Side, nor the Dark one. That was the distinct signature of the zakuulian Force users, that particular way of using an indiscriminate Force Power that they had learnt from Vitiate, the Sith Emperor. A knowledge that he had considered his own kind too unworthy to be taught about and that he had reserved to his new Empire, the one he was foreseeing to be the greatest power in the galaxy, the one the Alliance had brought down.

Lana suddenly remembered her friend's word from the day before, the fact that she was curious to see what Arcann was truly made of and she actually began to understand. For years, she had concentrated on strategic and tactical matters, considering people mostly as assets with strengths and weaknesses that could be applied to specific situations or taken advantage from. Nyx's approach had always been more instinctive, she liked to try "reading" people as she sometimes said, and if the former emperor was a book, then entire chapters had been recently ripped off his binding and replaced with empty pages. How these pages would get written, and how much already was, was certainly likely to attract the curiosity of someone who had been deeply immersed in the manipulations schemes of Sith politics. Was Nyx trying to influence the way he was changing? Trying to get some influence on him? Or simply observing how things would evolve naturally? Lana realised that she did not really know what she should expect from her. She could be full of surprises… But once evidence abruptly struck her and made her snicker.

"Did I say something amusing?"

Lana shook her head and turned to him plainly, eventually deciding to take a step ahead an allow a real discussion to replace the tense exchanges they had had until then. "Nothing in particular. I just understood that the Commander is testing me on this mission."

Arcann frowned, surprised. "I would have rather expected you to say that she wants you to test me."

She chuckled. "Oh, things are seldom so simple with her. It most probably goes both ways."

"But you are visibly friends. Why would she want to challenge you?"

"I would suppose that she is trying to make me consider that you can become a valuable ally," she said calmly. "But whether or not she decides to consider you as such, I reserve my own opinion."

Her words hung in the air like a threat and she could see Arcann's jaw tighten as he was taking the hit. He was apparently not unsensitive to the remark. "I will not blame you for doing so after all I have done," he said, sounding slightly glummer than he was before. "But the Commander is safe with me."

"Oh I am sure that you are clever enough not to bite the hand that feeds, but it does not mean that I can fully trust you." That was harsh, and Lana knew it perfectly. But she remained an adept of factual statements when it came to be working with potential associates that had not yet proved that they were trustworthy. She had interacted the same way with Theron in the beginning of their collaboration and considered that it was part of a natural process, whether her interlocutor liked it or not was of little importance.

And Arcann evidently did not appreciate. She could see his pride resurface and his nostrils flare, even though he remained composed. He stood up and moved behind his seat to rest his hands on the back of it, inhaling slowly. "Despite what you might think, I am a man of honour," he said, looking her in the eyes with determination. "And I consider the Commander to be much more than simply the hand that feeds. She gave me a new chance when she did not need to. I am intending to be worthy of that choice… Even though I still do not understand why she did it."

Lana returned his look with the same neutral and factual demeanour she had used so far. "That makes two of us. But that is how she is. Surprising, even for who knows her well."

"And you do not support her decision," he concluded blatantly.

"I do not know. Yet." Lana stood up from her seat to face him more easily and emphasise her words. "Whatever happens, you might want to remember one single thing. Any attempt to hurt her would have heavy consequences." She had uttered her last words slowly, as if to make sure that they remained engraved in his memory.

"I would not have expected it otherwise," he answered the same way.

"Very well, we at least agree on that point." She turned around and activated a holomap of Ord Mantell on the terminal. "Now, the mission. Shall we?"

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"Get down!"

Lana only had a fraction of a second to process and execute the order before Arcann threw his lightsaber straight in the direction of where her head previously was. The rale that followed informed her that it had hit its target, who had probably been preparing to shoot her in the back.

The fight was hectic. They were finally confronting the two powerful Sith who ran the secret base that they had infiltrated, but those two had been joined by many partisans and she and her partner on this mission had to constantly watch out for new opponents reaching the platform. Fighting them all left an unpleasant taste in Lana's mouth. She was opposing her own kind, members of the empire she had sworn to protect years before. All those who were gathered here had deserted, but hadn't she done the same before them when she had decided to go rogue and created the Alliance?

A moment later, Arcann had pulled his lightsaber back with the Force and turned on his heels to parry a blow that had been dangerously close to slice his spine in half. Leaving the former emperor to his brutal fight against Lord Zanisk, Lana screened the surroundings to look for his lover, Lord Adacin. While equally powerful to him in the Force, her smaller and more delicate stature made her an easier opponent in a lightsaber fight. Spotting her a few meters behind Zanisk in a posture of intense concentration, Lana rapidly buckled the hilt of her weapon to her belt and rushed around her fighting partner, hands held out in front of her. Sparks formed on the tip of her fingers and transformed into rays of lightning leaping towards her sith opponent as soon as Lana gave them the necessary mental impulsion. A couple of seconds and she was on her, lightsaber back in her hand, striking with a volley of rapid blows and forcing Adacin to step backwards. Lightsabers crushed loudly, echoing the sound of the other fight that was happening in Lana's back.

Although absorbed in her own fight, the sith was conscious that the duel opposing both male Force users was a violent one. Earlier, as soon as their presence has been noticed and they had to fight to move forward into the base, she had seen the brutal power that Arcann could exert against his foes. A raw, almost untamed energy that he used to crush his enemies down or send them crashing against the walls as if they were mere rag dolls. Lana had suddenly understood why Nyx had been forced to rely on Valkorion's powers several times despite her profound disgust for the Sith Emperor who inhabited her. Simply standing her ground facing him must have been a difficult task and her mastery of precision in the use of the Force would have not been of any help. She had finally learnt how to weaken him enough to leave him for dead in his flagship but had never defeated him in single combat. The former emperor's power was, if not subtle at all, indeed impressive, and she was almost certain that she had yet only seen a portion it compared to the wrath he had deployed against the Commander.

But Zanisk was a powerful warrior and not yet bending under the blows raging against him and Lana forced her full attention to focus again on her own opponent. She needed to finish this fight quickly to maximise their chances of success. They could not afford to let weariness slow down their moves of they risked to be quickly overpowered. She needed to see an opening, a split second of carelessness that would allow her to put Adacin off balance. Lana concentrated more intensively on the Force surrounding the female fighter, letting her senses look for that small flicker of energy that would indicate a temporary slack, one which she could use at her own advantage. She found it eventually after a few other blows and took the opportunity, destabilising the Sith Lord with a stronger hit which sent her rolling on the floor with a cry of surprise.

Changing her grip on the hilt of her lightsaber, Lana braced herself for the deadly final blow she was about to give and dived upon the other woman, planting her weapon with both hands right in the middle of her chest. Eyes closed to avoid looking at the agonising fighter, she heard her gasp a shaky last breath and felt her body go limp. She had never hesitated to kill whenever needed, but it did not mean that she liked it, and finishing off another Sith definitely even less. Betraying and eliminating former allies had been part of sith customs for centuries, a lord should only rely on oneself, but Lana was among those who strongly believed that it was the biggest flaw of the Sith Empire and the most critical one that prevented it from growing the way it would have deserved. It was probably even the vulnerability which had allowed the Eternal Empire to strike so hard and push so deep into their territories.

"May the Force welcome you," she whispered, taking a few seconds to catch her breath, fighting the feeling of waste that tried to embrace her. There was no time for regrets, no time for assumptions about the way things could have been different, only here and now, and a fight that they might lose if she was not back on her feet immediately to second Arcann and deal with the incoming troopers she could hear approaching. He would have to deal with the other Sith alone, but she could at least keep him safe from the troopers.

Lana pulled herself together again and leapt in the direction of the closest blaster noises, striking the trooper down with a single blow before rushing to the next. Again, again and again she struck their enemies down, as quickly as she could. Already shaken by her fight against Lord Adacin, she felt exhaustion starting to take a toll on her but knew that she had no other choice than to keep fighting as long as Arcann needed to defeat the other Lord.

A fading scream of distress and the panicked retreat of a soldier she was about to fight was what made her realise that the fight was over. She turned around to find Arcann panting, looking down from the edge of the platform. Zanisk had fallen and there was no chance for him to make it out alive. They were done, they had won. Struggling to catch her own breath, she approached slowly and they both stood there silently for a while, staring into the void below them.

"Are you hurt?" she asked without taking her eyes off the darkness.

"A few burns, nothing major… You?"

"I will be fine..." She lifted her head and started slowly turning around. "Let's provide access to the central computer to Theron and we will be done here. I want to leave this place."

______________________________________________

Silence again. Lana would have pretended that it was because of weariness but the truth was that her mind was going full speed through all the recent events and was trying to decide how she felt about them.

After the last fight, they had quickly reached the nearest terminal connected to the central computer and sliced into it to allow access from the outside. They had then made their way to the shuttle as soon as they had gotten confirmation that Theron had started downloading the available data and sent troops to take hold of the base. No unnecessary word had broken the silence since then.

Lana struggled with mixed feelings and the paradox of the current circumstances. She just happened to knock out a force made of dissident members of the empire that she had served for so many years. And if that was not disturbing enough, she had done so with the assistance of a man she had spent years fighting against, a man that she had put everything she had in her, and taken enormous risks, to crush down, and who was now… an ally? However she approached the situation, she could not see the slightest reason for doubting his honesty or perceive unspoken intentions, pragmatism demanded that she gave him at least the benefit of the doubt, and yet, she found it hard to admit.

That man had been fathered by Vitiate, who had reigned on the Sith for centuries, who had been her emperor for almost as long as she had been a Sith herself, an entity that they had feared and revered as a god. Lana had dedicated her life to the Empire, and despite its obvious flaws, she had always wanted to believe in its strength and its legitimacy to be, one day, the greatest power ever known in the galaxy. Yes, Sith were ruthless and considered that only the strongest, most talented, individuals had a right to live, but wasn't it simply mimicking the laws of nature? She deeply respected the core values that had forged them and made them rise. Vitiate had been the architect of the Empire she knew, he had dictated its policies, the actions to be taken, created its most powerful political instances. He had been the Empire. And all this to decide someday that none of them were still worth living, that they - and he apparently did not include himself in that "they"- had failed and were not worth his attention anymore. He had abandoned them. Tried to annihilate them. Betrayed them.

Arcann had no direct responsibility in that of course, but he had still been bred and raised by the very same man and the very idea of agreeing to trust him in spite of that was simply unthinkable for her. Not when she was well aware of where he came from… or what he had done. He would certainly not like that statement but for her he was the exact logical continuation of what his father had finally happened to be: a self-obsessed individual focused only on his own objectives. But she was beginning to feel doubts… Was? Or had been? Nyx seemed to believe that he had changed, enough to become potentially trustworthy, and she was usually right about people… Still…

Lana cleared her throat and finally forced herself to speak her mind. "I… did not think that we would fight side by side one day…" she was finally able to utter. Well, that would have to do as a beginning.

Arcann had been performing maintenance checks on his cyberarm and raised his head, glancing at her with a slightly amused look. "Neither did I, I can tell you as much."

She gestured towards his arm. "I read reports mentioning that you got this on Korriban… A Sith?"

"A bomb…" he answered calmly, shaking his head softly. "But I tend to consider that I owe this to my father instead. Or, if I want to be perfectly honest with myself, to the man I had become under his influence."

"Was it…" Lana hesitated. It was probably a good moment to know more, about him, his father… There were so many things that she could not grasp. So many questions that had remained unanswered. "Did you attack us on behalf of your father? Had he given you the order to destroy us?"

"Not really." His gaze left Lana's eyes, losing focus. "The campaign was my idea. Thexan… My brother and I were to show the supremacy of Zakuul, my father's supremacy, to the entire galaxy. But Father…" Arcann inhaled deeply and met her gaze again, a faint ironic smile on his lips. "Whatever we did, we were never worthy enough for his attention. Thexan was convinced that it was his way to love us, that he only wanted to make us stronger. My brother had found a way to bear it but I never could."

Lana nodded pensively. "He betrayed you as much as he betrayed us. We worshiped him almost as if he was a god, but I think that the only thing that mattered was his plans to become immortal. I do not think that anyone, or anything, was worthy enough for him anyway. He was ready to sacrifice the whole galaxy for his own sake…"

"For a time, I thought that she was. That he was genuinely considering her to be his rightful heir and had given her enough power to claim the throne when he had died. That is why I put them both in carbonite. I could not take any chances and have him back."

"And she ended up dying slowly in your private collection during five long years…" Lana concluded in reproach. While it immediately made Arcann's jaw tighten, he sustained her gaze nevertheless.

"The poisoning was unintentional. We did not take all the necessary precautions before freezing her, we were in a haste." He paused, lowering his head and frowning, pondering about his next words. "I am not proud of it, but she would have probably remained there at least until my own death if someone had not come for her."

"If I had not come for her…" said Lana, surprised that he had not made the connection yet.

Arcann snickered. "Oh… that was you, then. It makes sense… And the shuttle?"

"Koth"

"Of course…" He seemed surprisingly suddenly quite amused. "I cannot pretend that we delivered on our usual standards that day. You caught us off guard and my sister would have killed the entire division of Knights responsible for the security of that building if I had not held her back."

"Oh, how magnanimous…." she answered, rolling her eyes.

"I'm sorry…" he said, scowling and suddenly visibly ashamed of having found the situation funny. "You took great risks to get her back."

Lana nodded in agreement. "I needed her for the Alliance. I could not do it all alone." Yes, before deciding to break into one of Zakuul's best guarded buildings, she had weighted all the options she had. But no matter how she analysed it, she always came to the very same conclusion. Both her head and her gusts told her the same thing and for once, she had decided to take greater risks than reason would usually allow. The situation justified it. "It had to be her."

"Because she was more powerful?"

She shook her head in negation. "Because she was someone I trusted. And because from all the other Sith Lords I knew, only Darth Marr and her had dared standing against our Emperor. So if there was a new power in the galaxy that neither the Republic not the Empire could overcome, then the Alliance needed someone bold enough to try anyway."

He chuckled at the last words. "Bold… or stubborn enough."

Lana burst out laughing. "Oh, you noticed it too. Yes… or stubborn enough." She shrugged. "But it worked. Nyx… em… the Commander never considered that failure could be an option. I do not think that I ever saw her give up until her break-up with Theron."

"Oh, they…."

"Yes."

"Oh…" Arcann did not seem to know how to react at the news, as if he was pondering if he was supposed to say something or not. She found it almost entertaining at first, and a good example of how far he was from being at ease with basic social interactions but eventually decided to put him out of misery.

"You and I come from rich and powerful families. It might have been different for you but despite the harshness of my training as a Sith, I knew that I could always count on my parents and their connections to fall back on my feet if needed. Or at least until the moment when I was declared a traitor to the Empire." She paused. That was when the whirlwind that had swallowed them all for years had started. It seemed so long ago now. "The Commander rose among the Sith in a different situation, her people counted on her. She brought them hope that even slaves can break their chains. Which is in a way a rather good illustration of the Sith Code itself, I believe."

Lana nodded softly, as if for herself only. There was much more to her relationship with Nyx, many other aspects that had built their mutual trust, but she did not feel comfortable sharing them with a man who was, after all, still almost a complete stranger, even though her friend had decided to grant him with a new chance. Her last words had seemed to send him deep into his thoughts anyway. He remained silent for a while, a frown set on his face.

"I understand… I once had that feeling of complete trust and esteem for someone. My brother was the only one I knew I could count on unconditionally. I should have known better than to destroy it all in a moment of blind wrath. It is something worth protecting." He raised his eyes to meet hers and looked at her with a look both hopeful and a bit disillusioned.

"I intend to make my best to become trustworthy to her, and to you. I just…" He hesitated. "I just hope that I can fully be trusted. But if anything went wrong, I know that you will do the right choice."

Lana would probably never admit that she was truly touched by the mix of pain and determination that appeared on his face at that moment and his way to imply that he expected her to kill him if needed. But it was certainly the moment when she decided to put the trust she had in her friend to good use and try giving him a chance. If Nyx believed in him, why wouldn't she try to do the same? Her friend's opinion on people had been proven right most of the time after all. She nodded gravely, inhaled deeply and went for it before letting her everlasting caution decide otherwise.

"I… cannot promise anything. But I'll try to trust you more."

Arcann's smiled and gave her a look that bore a mix of gratefulness and resolution. "I'll give you more reasons to do so."

Chapter Text

"I won."

Arcann's imposing stature was towering the Commander who lied on the floor. This had been the final fight of the fifth sparring session that they had been able to plan. He had imposed the learning pace, first some theory, then practical application of zakuulian fighting techniques and then, finally, a moment of "free" fighting. Free, as long as neither of them used any potentially lethal Force skill. While it was obvious that she had had a good training in wielding swords and lightsabers, it was clear that she had not put so much of her skills to good use lately, preferring the usage of the Force instead.

The Commander was of course no easy opponent, but remained mostly defensive and Arcann dominated the fights nonetheless. He had undoubtedly no intention to be overly brutal with her, but that was the deal they had made. He had offered to train her the way he had been trained himself and she had made him promise that he would not restrain from treating her the hard way. She hated the very idea of being spared, of being considered weak, she preferred spitting blood to the shame of knowing that anyone might have been condescending. And that was exactly why he stood above her disarmed body, the tip of his training sword placed right below her chin.

The angry look that Nyx was shooting at him changed to a defying one, a smug and somewhat mischievous smile slowly stirring up the corners of her lips. "I would not be so sure…" she uttered mockingly, sustaining his gaze.

The moment after, he felt a little nudge on his groin that made him immediately lower his eyes. The sword that he had made her drop from her right hand was there, in her left one, idly stopped in an upward movement just a few millimetres from his crotch. The sight of it made him jump a whole meter backward, cursing, and immediately regretting having reacted so instinctively.

The Commander burst out laughing. "Men are so protective of their precious belongings. Predictable." She dropped the weapon on the floor and stood up, dusting her cloths, a satisfied smile still lingering on her lips. "Didn't I warn you to not underestimate me?"

Arcann growled, throwing his own sword on the floor, close to hers. "This is a rather unconventional move… Is it the style that you learnt at the Sith Academy?"

Nyx chuckled again. "My masters are probably screaming their frustration from their grave right now, blaming me for my terrible lack of style. Even though I am certain that no Sith would ever hesitate to use such a treacherous move when circumstances require it. No, this is called dirty fighting." Noticing the shadows of incomprehension in his eyes, she added: "Pit fighting. Most of my opponents were male and usually stronger than I was, I had to learn how to handle things… differently."

"Pit? You fought in the pit?"

Looking startled, he sat down heavily onto one of the nearby rocks, soon joined by the Commander. From their very first session following her recovery, they had kept the habit of taking a moment after training to get to know each other better. He did not know if she felt the same, but he really appreciated these brief instants of quiet exchanges, away from the constant buzzing of the base. So far she had shown a certain talent for forcing him to think about the way he wanted to move forward, criticising his past actions as much as his mentions of wanting to find redemption. She mocked and comforted, could move from being incredibly patient to properly annoyed with a single word from him. Yet she did not seem to be a fickle person, he just… had not found the key, had not yet understood what was driving her, and every single time that he had attempted to ask her directly, she had eluded the question, shrugging with a mysterious smile. Arcann had soon understood that she would not be giving any answer and that he would have to learn the hard way.

"Yes. I fought in the pit. It has been my ticket to the Sith Academy, when it became obvious that I was not only using standard weapon skills to defeat my adversaries. Slaves were pure assets, but a Force sensitive slave was something else." Smiling, she tilted her head on the side. "And now you know how I started making my way to the Dark Council."

"Making you way? Haven't you been discovered out of pure luck?"

She laughed again, as if he had said the most absurd thing in the galaxy. "Luck? For someone who openly despised the mere notion of fate, you surprise me. Being sensitive to the Force might have been pure luck, but luck is nothing if you don't learn how to get the most out of it." Nyx shrugged with an amused smile and raised her head, eyes closed to enjoy the sun. The day was quite hot, but after several days of rain, the rays of sunshine which went through the foliage of the massive trees surrounding their training spot were more than welcome. Mimicking her, Arcann shifted position to face the sun. "How long have you been a pit fighter?"

She answered without any hesitation. "Sixty-seven weeks and as many times in the arena. I counted. I lost most of my fights at first, but I never got injured to the point that I could not fight the week after, even though I spent my recovery days working in the mines."

The Commander seemed in a really good mood. He asked a few questions and she was soon describing memories of some of her fights with lively gestures, her eyes lit by pride and passion. They were usually pairs, fighting side by side, helping each other. Other slaves of various species, more than Arcann had ever seen before ravaging the Core Worlds… What struck him was the way she precisely remembered the audience and could say what she had done in the presence of specific people. He soon realised that, along her path, she had barely left anything uncalculated. She had had to catch the attention of the right people, intriguing them enough without risking being disqualified because of her unusual skills, until the right ones were there and she could risk it all. It had eventually driven her where she wanted. To the Academy. To be a Sith. And to the most important of all: freedom.

"How often have you been narrowly dodging the pikes?" he asked, remembering that day when he and Koth had almost had a fight in the hangar.

"Pikes?" She suddenly looked puzzled and he explained how he had learnt about them from Lana, how she had menaced to throw him and the pilot in a pit surrounded my pikes to honour their Commander's heritage. He saw her smile widen and she eventually burst into laughter again.

"Oh stars. Lana is priceless. She does not look like it but she really has a unique sense of humour. You seriously believed her?" He frowned, slightly ashamed of having been so credulous, and it made her laugh even more openly. "No, there were no pikes. Ever. But I suspect that the reason is not that it would be too barbaric but rather to avoid losing too many fighters and make fights far too short. Ah, really, good one, I definitely have to praise her creativity."
 
______________________________________________
 
Arcann entered the refresher, a smile still lingering on his lips. He may feel terribly sweaty and dirty, and there might have been a few moments when his pride was hurt, but that sparring session, and the moment right after it, had still been definitely satisfying. He had to concede that knowing a bit more about the Commander's history was comforting. It was a step closer to truly belonging to the Alliance, to truly be trusted. And it had been enjoyable and amusing as well, which was not the kind of feeling he so often experienced. He stepped in the shower and sighed of content when warm water started flowing on his head and shoulders.

She was unusual. Elusive. Intriguing. And fierce. He let his train of thought go free, suddenly caught himself wondering if she was fierce in all situations and… froze, struck by surprise. Several seconds passed before he was able to acknowledge what had just happened. He had not felt it for years, but he still could recognise the feeling that had been unexpectedly igniting his lower abdomen. Desire…

He slumped against the wall, his joyful mood gone in a split second. Of all the feelings he had for the Commander, loyalty, respect, and what may be premises of a growing friendship, Arcann did not expect to find desire along the way as well. He sighed deeply and uttered a curse in zakuulian in a low growl, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Of course it did not come entirely out of nowhere. The Commander - Nyx, but even though he knew her name, thinking of her otherwise than by her title still seemed… improper - was not one of these women who leave one dazzled by their beauty. Her grey skin and bald head made her look odd, at least to human standards, and while her features were harmonious, the tribal tattoos she bore made her global appearance rather uncommon. But it was not how she looked. It was how she was. The confident way she stood that would have made any woman of the zakuulian nobilty green with envy. Her lethal grace when she moved and fought. That piercing grey gaze that looked like it went straight into one's soul. That smug and amused smile that so often lingered on her lips. And the willpower that literally irradiated from her… He had come to appreciate all of that, admire all of that. She was strong, bold, self-assured and would bow to no one. The perfect opposite of all the women that had crossed his path during his years on the throne. Except Vaylin of course… but his sister did not really count, did she?

When he had become the Emperor, Arcann had underestimated the side effects of his new status. With his father and brother gone, he had suddenly drawn the attention of many members of the court seeking favours and it had been easy to find someone to keep his bed warm every single night and to tend to any desire he might have had. Too easy…

He had indulged in that rather unexpected situation at first, had had more lovers that he could really remember. To be honest, he had even never really cared to remember… The beginnings had been overwhelming. Zakuul was still crying the death of his brother, magnificent funerals had to be organised for his father despite the fact that he was bitterly aware that he was still there, somehow, in that Outlander who had so arrogantly shown him that there were people who dared resist his father… Unlike anyone on Zakuul. Unlike even him. And there had been the inexhaustible flow of counsellors requiring his approval on any sort of mundane things he did not care about, the propaganda to be spread about the emperor's murderer, the constant visits of noble families pledging allegiance. Many arms had been willing to welcome him, many legs had spread, most of them probably in hopes of catching his attention for a longer while and eventually become his consort, or claim favours for a seed that he might have accidentally planted. But he had soon grown more and more frustrated by the manners of all those who orbited around him. Their devotion, their docility, the false praises and fake moans of pleasure when he could literally, physically, feel the fear that strangled them. None of them really wanted to be with him. They were there because he was the Emperor and had the power to give them what they wished for…

He had slowly lost interest, and the urges of his body had gradually faded and eventually died.

These were not the only things that had started to fade years before. He had not really noticed it at first but his senses had all taken a toll when he had started wandering into the dark side. Grief, anger and resentment covered everything else like a thick layer of uncleanable dust. Even the finest food he could get from the empire's kitchens had been almost tasteless and his world had taken slightly greyish tones. But colours on Odessen had become brighter again and he could sometimes smell the rain coming from afar. Even the very common food that was served in the cantina developed flavours that he had not tasted in years. His senses had come back, then, and apparently with them other feelings he thought long forgotten.

Desire… He could have welcomed it as a good sign if it had not been for her. He did not want it to get in the way of the relationship that was slowly building up between them, that feeling of trust and mutual understanding that was settling in and that he truly appreciated. Desiring her could make it all more difficult, working with her, sparring with her, fighting by her side. And seeking satiation would be the most absurd and inappropriate idea he could ever have. He was not foolish enough to miss the colossal gap that stood between compassion and what he was suddenly irresistibly wishing for.

Arcann uttered another sigh of frustration and pushed the shower mixer to the right with an angered movement of his hand. He then flipped and put both hands against the wall, leaning on them, palm open to sustain his weight. He remained still a long time, panting under the freezing cold stream of water hitting his neck and back. If he focused enough on the good aspects of their relationship and let friendship take place, his attraction for her would diminish. It was a question of time and patience and he would have to find both. They would fight side by side like he and his brother did in the past and he was sure that he would find great satisfaction in it. Probably far more than what he might get by simply letting his urges drive him and complicate everything. He would not again let feelings make him lose control and do things he would regret. That time was over. It was simply not worth the risk of losing all she was giving him.

No. Not worth it.

No.

Chapter Text

Iokath… She hated the place. It felt like walking on an empty shell. Not quite like Nathema, but close. This planet had not been stripped from the Force, she could feel it around. But there was something artificial in it, an unnatural stillness. Still, like everything around. Like the hundreds of kilometres of cold, hard, metal surrounding them. There used to be life, here. While entirely artificial, the so-called planet had been the home of a species of scientists and engineers, but they had all been long dead, along with the biomes that they had created.

The memories of the first time they came to this place in the middle of their war against the Eternal Empire sent shivers down her spine and her nostrils flared, assaulted by the aggressive yet almost unnoticeable smell of static electricity. Iokath was too clean, too still, too… dead. And Scorpio was there, somewhere, which was like the cherry on the cake making this place even more unwelcoming and dangerous. The fleet had gone suddenly silent when they approached the planet. Was the IA behind it?

Nyx did not hold anything at all against artificial structures. After the Academy on Korriban, she had spent most of her life in her Fury-class interceptor - the "Blazing Queen" as her captain had insisted calling her - and after the destruction of her estate on Dromund Kaas during the war against the Eternal Empire, the only private flat that she still owned was located on Nar Shaddaa, surrounded by a city that grew out of sight in every possible direction. There was as well Odessen's base which, while surrounded by the planet's wild forest, was still made of a combination of synthetic and metallic alloys. But the Fury had a crew, and Nar Shaddaa and Odessen were constantly buzzing with life. Nothing in common with this forsaken place.

Not forsaken enough, though. She could sense life around, countless lives. More than should have ever been there. The Alliance should have been alone and yet, both the Sith Empire and the Republic forces had been setting camps around strategic areas on the planet. They were getting ready for battle… A battle that could probably not be avoided. The question that remained was how the Alliance would position itself.

The superweapon that lay hidden on Iokath was powerful. More powerful than anything they have ever encountered, if Lana was right. Possibly more than the Eternal Fleet. It was easy to see why both the Empire and the Republic wanted it so desperately. They had terribly suffered or the years of oppression that Valkorion and his heirs had brought upon them and Vaylin's last destructive frenzy had left them in extensive chaos. The Alliance had suffered as well, but the Gravestone and the Fleet represented a guarantee of safety that the other could only dream about.

Nyx sighed. She was growing impatient at the behaviour of the two people in front of her, both trying hard to belittle the other side but making themselves ridiculous by doing so. Captain Elara Dorne from the Republic and Major Quinn from the Sith Empire, sent to initiate discussions with her and obviously bring the Alliance to their party's side against the other one.

"Whenever you will be done with your annoying displays of pretentiousness, perhaps we can proceed and set up this call?"

"Yes, Commander."

Silenced by her cynical remark, they executed themselves and opened the lines. Soon, two blueish silhouettes appeared on top of the communication table in front of them. A woman, clad in a highly technological and partially armoured version of Sith robes, and an imposing man wearing a padded uniform. Empress Acina and Supreme Commander Jace Malcom, the leaders of each opposing factions. She knew Acina rather well, they had been sitting side by side in the Dark Council. Malcom, well, she knew about him through another source, one that the Supreme Commander was unhappy about, to say the least.

"Thank you for extending the Empire this Honour, Commander." The Empress had spoken first, a classic way of trying to take the lead on the discussion. Acina was an experienced politician while her counterpart was more skilled in commanding troops. She knew it and would be doing her best to surpass him during the negotiations.

"The Republic is glad to see you, and my son, on Iokath." greeted Commander Malcom.

"Keep me out of this, Malcom." Theron's displeased answer had been immediate. He had been dreading the confrontation from the moment they had set foot on the planet. Nyx had always been impressed by how different they looked. Theron did not look like he had inherited anything of the massive stature and rather rough features of the Supreme Commander. He did not share his unconditional dedication to the Republic either, and while Theron and his father had had a good relationship for a while, this had changed drastically when he had decided to join the Alliance… an Alliance lead by a Sith. Malcom had never been able to accept his son's choice, he despised the Empire far too much for that, and Nyx was almost sure that her former lover had never dared mentioning their relationship to his dad. She could have found their quarrel almost funny in other circumstances, but now was not the appropriate moment.

"Enough," she interrupted firmly. Lana immediately took the opportunity to step in. "Supreme Commander Malcom, Empress Acina… Your armies have started a war over a superweapon of immeasurable power."

"On a planet that has been claimed by the Alliance," Nyx added. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't turn the Eternal Fleet on you both." The Empire, the Republic and the Alliance had had a common enemy for a while and had kept reasonable distance from each other after the eradication of the Eternal Empire. Now that the external threat was gone, the conflict that had been going on for centuries was resuming. Except that this time there was a new third party involved. A party that had the firepower to crush each of them separately but still had to take position in the political and strategical schemes. This was no time to play nice.

Malcom's holo silhouette remained imperturbable. "I can explain but I won't apologize."

"This ought to be rich…" Acina's exasperation was almost palpable, which was quite surprising from her and a potential sign of unexpected weakness on the Empire's side. One to be kept in mind…

"It's no secret that the Eternal Empire nearly wiped out the Republic," he continued. "We're struggling to rebuild and protect ourselves. The superweapon on Iokath is the key to the Republic survival, and I'll be damned if I'm going to watch it fall into the Empire's treacherous hands."

"I didn't come here to be insulted!"

Nyx frowned. Malcom was being openly aggressive and Acina particularly on edge. The negotiations might end shortly if it continued escalating that way, which would unequivocally lead to a chaos none of them would benefit from. Of all the potential outcomes, this one was definitely the worst, including for the Alliance whose forces were left without the support from the deactivated fleet. "Choose your next words carefully Malcom," she spat menacingly.

The Supreme Commander chose to go straight to the point. "I know you've spilled your share of Republic blood, but that's in the past. Join forces with the Republic. Help us defeat the Empire and we'll share access to the superweapon and all of Iokath."

She crossed her arms, looking at him dubiously. This was a bold move from him considering her past and her current connections. She might have worked with the Republic in the past, but it was a long time ago and from what she knew about him, he had always been against the compromises lead by Grand Master Satele Shan. "The Empire is already my ally. Why should I break the bond to side with you?"

"Acina tried to steal the superweapon out from under your nose. In my book, that's ground to dissolve your partnership."

"He has a point…" whispered Theron between his teeth. And indeed he had. The Empire was as guilty of trying to double-cross her than the Republic was. Or so it seemed.

"This is absurd," claimed Acina with an outraged voice. "We acted to stop the Republic from raining destruction on our heads. Yours too, Commander."

Nyx cracked a sarcastic smile at this assertion. Yes, of course, Acina had been trying to protect the Alliance, what were they thinking about? She was no fool and the Sith woman perfectly knew about it, but that was how politics worked, it was an elaborated dance of false pretense and scarcely hidden threats. She let the Empress continue, curious of the pleas she would try to use to convince her of her good will. "You once sat beside me on the Dark Council. Now you can return to your roots. Help us crush the Republic threat. Once they fall, our empires can both partake in the spoils of Iokath."

Nyx took a step backward and turned her back to the communication table, flashing a quick glance to her advisors who turned around and got closer to her. Theron fiddled quickly with his implants. "Three… two… one… aaaand silence shield activated. Five minutes of cosy privacy, just the three of us."

"Commander, we're already allied with the Empire," Lana advocated. "If we turn against them now, what message does that send to the rest of our followers?"

Theron rolled his eyes to her, visibly appalled. "It tells them we don't honour agreements with traitors. She trespassed on Iokath without your permission."

Nyx inhaled profoundly, looking at an invisible point located in front of her. "What are our chances if we choose not to side with anyone?"

"Very low," Lana answered. "Iokath is extremely dangerous. As strong as we are, we won't survive a week if we're fighting both armies for control of the world. Besides, the Alliance is running low on resources, we are barely in a better state than the others."

She was right of course. They would probably be able to stand up easily against one single foe, but not two enemies of that size and power simultaneously. Willing or not, they would be forced to side with one of them and a choice had to be made.

Theron sighed, pinching the base of his nose and shaking his head. He shot a quick look to the table and the two visitors standing on its side before leaning closer to the Commander. "Listen, I'm not a really great supporter of my father, but the Republic might be the right choice. Acina just tried to shamelessly betray you. You cannot let this be unpunished."

Lana glared at him. "He's no better. I bet that he will betray you as soon as he can. We cannot trust him more than we trust the Empress. Remember, Commander… when fighting two enemies, keep the most dangerous-- "

Nyx grinned. Lana remembered her Tactics lessons well and had just reached the same conclusion that had imposed itself inside her mind. She finished the sentence in a dreamy voice "-- the closest." She inhaled deeply and painted a confident smile on her face while turning on her heels.

"We will ally with the Sith Empire."
______________________________________________

The moments immediately following the Commander's decision had been a complete mess. The Republic Captain had managed to escape, thanks to the smoke grenade she had launched in the middle of them. It had visibly been planned in advance and the device had remained miraculously unnoticed until she used it.

They had renounced to go after her. The Republic had just launched an attack and there were more pressing matters. The Empire and the Alliance had to regroup their forces if they wanted better chances to resist. Even more urgent, they had to find the superweapon first, or there was a high risk that Malcom would use it against them both. Lana had remained alongside Acina, both for coordination, research and surveillance purposes, though she seemed rather uncomfortable about it for an unknown reason. The Empress had proven to be reliable against the Eternal Empire, but Nyx perfectly knew that alliances could be very ephemeral among the Sith. They had to stay alert, find the superweapon before Malcom.

Her visit of the weapon factory with Theron had been a more unpleasant surprise than expected. From the information retrieved, the weapon was even more dangerous than they thought. If activated, it would kill them all, and the data regarding its previous uses were horrifying, even for her. Even the blind foolish strikes that Arcann had blown to planets supporting the Alliance looked like child play compared to the weapon's past deeds.

Over ten trillion lives had gone, just for testing sake. Ten trillion lives… Malcom had to be stopped, Acina kept in the dark and the weapon… Nyx was conflicted. The superweapon was a good asset to be kept up the Alliance's sleeve but she could not be sure that they had enough firepower to keep it safe while managing other potential conflicts. And there was SCORPIO. The IA was still dwelling around and could not be trusted with such a weapon within easy reach. Whether it could be useful or not, it had to be destroyed, the risk of backfire was too high. Now, how to destroy it was another story, they still had no clue regarding its location…

And as if they had not already enough on their plate, Lana had discovered that the three factions had most probably gotten intel about the weapon from the same source, which meant that someone - or something - had deliberately wanted them to clash over it. But why? Who wanted to start a war of galactic proportions? The purpose was so unclear that it could be anyone. No one could be fully trusted.

Theron was suddenly distracted from their muffled discussion, raising a hand to his implants. "Incoming call…"

Nyx turned to the holocom nearby just in time to see the blueish silhouette of the Republic leader appear again. "Supreme Commander Malcom, have you called to surrender?" she sneered at him.

"Not quite. Consider this a friendly warning. My engineers have discovered a back door into the superweapon. Once they've gained access, we will turn the weapon against you and win this war for the Republic."

She huffed disdainfully. "You're bluffing. There's no way you bypassed the defences so quickly."

"Denial won't save you…"

His apparent smugness was too much for Theron who stepped forward, flailing his arms towards the image of his father. "This isn't a game, Malcom," he yelled. "If you activate that weapon, thousands will die."

But the warning looked useless and the soldier did not even flicker at his son's anger. He had to be stopped but Nyx could still praise his determination. No wonder that he had climbed that high in the Republic hierarchy, the man was a mountain that could not be shaken unless the quake was of gigantic proportions. "But I'll save millions of Republic lives from your Eternal Fleet. I thought you'd do the same, but I see I was wrong."

Theron gasped at his father's foul slur and replied aggressively. "I dedicated my life to the fight for peace. And when you bowed to the Eternal Empire, I decided to fight back. That's why I joined the Alliance!"

"And your idealistic war nearly destroyed the Republic."

"You have no right to imply that--"

"Goodbye Agent Shan."

"Dammit, Malcom!"

The silhouette disappeared, leaving the former SIS spy staring in emptiness. He was shaking, submerged by an anger and a frustration of proportions that he rarely displayed. Nyx waited a bit for him to regain some countenance, wondering if this episode had definitely distanced him from his beloved Republic. Even though he was dedicated to the Alliance, he had still kept ties of sentimental sort with his former faction. He saw some good in it that she was incapable of grasping, which had resulted in several heated discussions between them. For her, the Republic was no better than the Sith Empire and only pretending to work for a greater good. Their methods might be milder sometimes, but corruption crept among their politicians and even though she might respect some of them, most Jedi were hiding taint under the disguise of a Code most of them did not even follow completely. Malcom had just proven to be a good example of the real face of the Republic's commanding elites. He would go to any extent to reach his goal. Lives did not matter, he was gladly trading them for extended power. There was as much darkness in him than in the people he despised, as much taint, barely hidden behind a varnish of heroic intentions. At least the Sith did not lie and embraced their nature fully. And did not always take the worst decisions.

"Do not let him break you, he is not worth it. We need you with your mind clear," she said in a voice that sounded far colder than she expected it to be. Her train of thoughts had rubbed on her temper and stimulated her disdain for the Supreme Commander, but Theron was not the one who should have to suffer the consequences.

"Yeah, thanks for the comforting words, Commander," he mumbled sarcastically. "We'd better get going before he decides to begin the party without us."
______________________________________________

Nyx opened her eyes and moaned. Why was her head hurting like that? Why was everything aching so much? She felt as if thousand needles had been stuck in any possible part of her body. What the bloody stars had happened?

All of a sudden, everything came back. Malcom was dead. He had tried to wield a power that was greater than him and succumbed to it before the eyes of his son. Theron was shocked and would probably need some time to recover. She had left him a few minutes, tried some comforting words, but the distance between them did not make it easy. They were not lovers anymore, and not yet friends, like stuck in the troubled waters in-between. He would recover, but he would have to do it on his own, or find other supports, which she knew he would not. Theron had always confessed that he was not good at relationships after all, even friendly ones.

The Supreme Commander's attempt to control the superweapon had awoken… something. Something that they had tried to stop. It had been like a weird nightmare. The weapon was talking, a gigantic robot claiming to be a god, one of six, calling for the destruction of them all. Rage. It embodied rage. A rage blindly directed towards any living being around. She could almost feel it getting fuelled by it and on the verge to explode. But they had stopped it. Scorpio had found a vulnerability allowing the Eternal Fleet to reactivate itself and stop the machine before it was too late.

Pain. She had felt the pain as if she had been there and shot by the fleet herself. But she was not, she was in the throne. The throne had done something to her that had caused the pain. It had not been used for such a long time that it might have been malfunctioning, or… No. The machine had said something. That someone had betrayed them. Someone full or rage. Someone wanting them all dead. The throne had been sabotaged and there was a traitor among them.

Nyx tried to sit up, her head spinning, creating a sudden turmoil around her.

"Commander. Don't worry, you're safe."

"Lana, I… I found the superweapon. It was… a giant droid."

"I know, you've been talking in your sleep." She sat on the berth, a worried expression on her face. "How are you feeling?"

Nyx frowned, still trying to regain balance and focus. Whatever had happened on that throne had been bad, she could still feel its influence lingering in her limbs, poisoning her. "I… don't know. It feels like this thing tried to kill me. Someone tried." She raised her eyes and met Lana's concerned gaze with an incredulous look. "We have been betrayed… The weapon. It does not make sense, but it knew it all. It said that I had been lured there to be offered as a sacrifice. By someone in my shadow. Someone close. Someone I trusted."

"Then my assumptions were right," whispered Lana. "And if it is someone close, it is even worse than I expected."

"But who?"

"Yeah, the bad news is that at that point, it could be anyone," said a male voice approaching. "Acina, Scorpio, a pissed off Koth, a former emperor craving for a new throne…" Theron finished to step closer under the annoyed glare of both Sith. "What? Tell me I'm wrong. Stars, it could even be Lana. Or me!"

She answered with an incredulous frown. "You would not… You both know very well that consequences would apply to you too." And they would. After the recent events and her speech to the Alliance members, she could not make exception for any of them . And would probably not even want to. If they betrayed her trust, if any of them was involved in such a treason, her reaction would be devastating.

"Yeah well," Theron shrugged in return. "Trust might be overrated these days. We'd better be extra careful with the people around."

Nyx sighed painfully and extracted herself from the berth just in time to see Acina stepping closer.

"Ah, Nox my dear, you woke up. Are you ready to go back to fight?"

"Last time I checked, I was not your personal warlord, Acina. I will be going back whenever I see fit," Nyx answered in a cold voice. The Empress might want her out but it was not up to her and she, instead, was more willing to have a little talk. The Alliance army was fighting anyway and with the death of the Supreme Commander, the Republic forces were now far more disorganised.

"Oh, but you and Marr have always been so eager to go to the frontline that I thought that you would already long for the battlefield," the Sith woman pouted.

Marr… Recalling him, Nyx felt a sudden impulse of pure anger. She had appreciated Darth Marr. Respected him deeply. She had shared his vision of the Empire. Of its deepest flaws, of what needed to be done. Before they got caught by Arcann on behalf of his father, she had had great hope for a new beginning for the Sith Empire as soon as they had, together, eliminated Vitiate. But things had not come to pass as intended. Marr was dead, and even though he might still be there somewhere, everything had taken another turn.

"Unlike others, we chose to face danger instead of hiding in the shadows," she answered, barely hiding the disgust in her voice. Acina was of course directly targeted by the remark. While Darth Marr, Nyx and many others after them had gone to battle, she had kept her distance and patiently waited for the conflict to settle down. That was how she had gained her throne, by waiting until there were barely any other Darth alive. She had probably been rather surprised when Nyx, Darth Nox as she knew her, had reappeared against all odds, and with an army of her own.

"Oh but there had to be people staying behind who sacrificed themselves to take care of the boring mundane things while you had fun at war," answered Acina with a fake complaining voice.

"Of course," Nyx sneered. "I cannot even imagine what the Empire would now be if you had not been so selfless."

"Ashes, my dear. Piles of ashes…"

They had reached the bay window overlooking the main camp that was now shared by imperial and alliance troops. An extensive range of weapons and devices had been deployed in a very short amount of time to eliminate the republican threat and flashes of light could be seen further away where the fights were still raging. Both Nyx and Acina stopped, facing the window, looking in the distance.

"It looks like someone has tried to betray me and wanted me to die trying to stop the superweapon. But that could not be you of course. You would not do such a thing to your most trusted ally."

"Of course not. This would be preposterous."

Of course not. A total nonsense considering the Sith usual ways… Nyx was almost amused by Acina's forcedly outraged voice. She, or any of her subordinate acting on her behalf, was a potential culprit as much as any other.

"Absolutely. As absurd as you fearing the fact that I might want to take your throne while you are still weakened," she answered sarcastically. "You would not let such a fear drive your decisions to seize a deadly weapon without informing us, would you?"

"I may have wondered why you did not take the Eternal Throne and declared yourself an Empress, Commander. But I am pained that you think so poorly of me," Acina whinged. "We had to act quickly, but needless to say that you would have been informed as soon as circumstances allowed it." Whether or not it was right, Nyx did not expect her to admit having tried to double-cross an ally anyway. No leader would, the Sith Empress even less.

She turned around to face the other woman, displaying a smile contradicted by the coldness of her gaze. "I am glad to hear you say so. I would not want to be forced to threaten you if anything of the like should happen again. I am afraid that common roots do not absolve from everything and I must admit that I am not particularly fond of the idea of having wasted my time ridding the galaxy from three consecutive threats, only to have someone else shred it to pieces."

"Oh but you have not wasted your time, my dear," the woman cooed. "Look on the bright side. You made plenty of new friends. Speaking of which, how is our former emperor doing?"

Nyx snickered. She was expecting Acina to ask about Arcann sooner or later. The message that she had sent as soon as she had heard that he had been accepted in the Alliance transpired of barely contained curiosity. "Good, I expect. Shall I bring him your regards? Or perhaps warmer thoughts?" To be honest, she was fairly curious herself about the intel they had gotten long ago that the Empress had put more efforts in getting a truce from the Emperor than the simple signature of a treaty.

Acina laughed softly. "Ah, the rumours. People are always so creative when it comes to imagine what can happen between a man and a woman behind closed doors. Polite formalities will do, Commander." She paused, observing the camp below for a while and troops getting ready for another raid, then added: "You may have a powerful new friend, but many voices have raised to question why you did not bring him to justice. In your search for a traitor, you might want to start there…"

Nyx huffed impatiently. "Oh please. Leave the pretty words to the Republic politicians, Acina. You and many others want revenge, not justice. You would not have cared any second about so-called justice if the Sith Empire had not been impacted."

The Empress shrugged idly. "Sometimes the limit between justice and revenge is very thin indeed. But you probably have a good explanation of why you did not exert either."

"Let me ask you a question. What difference is there between Arcann and you, me, or deceased Commander Malcom? What has he done that the Sith Empire or the Republic has not been doing for centuries? Killing innocent people?" The Commander raised an arm towards the flashing horizon, meeting the other woman's gaze with a piercing glance. "This is war. Innocent people die every single day. Thousands. Millions. Billions. You were attempting to get in control of a weapon capable of such a destruction. I do believe that it drastically reduces your right to question my decisions to keep a powerful ally by my side."

Of course there was more to it. But the Empress did not need to know about her curiosity towards him, or the fact that she had come to appreciate Arcann. The less she knew, the better it was.

"I see that you are adamant that your decision is final. You may be right, but it earned you many enemies." She sighed. "It is sad. The Empire would have gladly welcomed you in its ranks again, if only you were more reasonable."

Nyx smiled and turned again to face the window, crossing her arms before her. "I am being reasonable. Sooner or later, the Sith Empire is doomed, Acina. It will destroy itself from the inside."

"Arh, nonsense. I find your lack of faith disturbing."

"We will see…"
______________________________________________

It was over… For now. Troops would have to remain on Iokath and continue fighting aside from the Empire but the more specialised members of the Alliance forces were heading back to Odessen. Nyx had managed to arrange a cosy space in the confined rear compartment of the shuttle they were on, leaving Theron and Lana in the cockpit.

"Hey…" She raised her head to see her friend slipping in with what seemed to be two cups of tea. "Theron is dozing in the cockpit. Mind if I join you?"

"Be my guest…"

Lana handed her one of the cups and sat by her side. She remained silent a moment, blowing dreamily on the hot beverage. After a while, she leaned back, inhaling profoundly.

"She has not always been like this, you know…"

"Who?"

"Acina… Back in the days, she would have always favoured alliances, even though she would very rigorous about the terms of such agreements. But now… I am not sure anymore."

Nyx frowned. Acina and her had been on the Dark Council together, but from the scarce interactions they had had, she would not have been capable of knowing such things. "You knew her personally?"

Lana hesitated. "We… had a relationship for a while. I used to love her."

"Love…"

Lana chuckled sadly. "As absurd as it seems, yes."

Nyx shot a truly surprised look at her friend. She had indeed looked a bit uncomfortable during their whole stay on Iokath. And now, she recalled an additional unusual stiffness in her friend's manners on that day they had met with the Empress on Dromund Kaas, several months before. But she would not have guess what her behaviour had been hiding.

"Still feeling something?"

Lana huffed. "No… But her doing as if I was a perfect stranger still hurts a bit. When I started looking for you, she warned me that she would consider me as good as dead if I was leaving the Empire. I bet that she kept her promise."

Both women became silent again. There was not much to say after all and neither of them would complain about the course of events. Choices were made, and all choices had consequences. Lana had made her own consciously and mourning the past was useless.

"And Koth? You never told me anything, but--"

Lana interrupted her with her hand raised. "Whatever existed between Koth and me died the day he flew away with the Gravestone. He might have come back, I will never forgive him. I am even surprised that you offered him a second chance."

"He is an excellent pilot… and he has been so close from being executed that he will never dare betray us again. He knows that the odds will not smile to him a second time. Besides, he still has feelings for you, and a debt. Debts make people loyal."

Lana sighed. "Let's hope you're right…"

"Yes… and we still have a traitor to find."

Chapter Text

"We are done…"

Arcann let the training sword slowly slip from his hand to the ground, sighing heavily. They had been following their regular training programme again: theory, zakuulian fighting movements… they had now been doing their first round of free fighting but he was not really in the mood to continue.

Things had been a bit awkward since their return from Iokath. Arcann had been informed of what had happened there and their suspicions that there was a traitor among them. He did not know who had spoken but the word had spread on the base that someone had betrayed the Commander and he had started to feel accusing looks weigh on his neck almost immediately. He was the ideal culprit, of course, why else would he have joined the Alliance and gotten close to their leader after all?

It had not been easy to stand tall during the weeks following his arrival on Odessen but things had substantially improved within the month and a half of his presence on the base. Vette, his mother and the Commander were obviously still the only three people he could consider being close to or… relatively close, for what concerned the Commander. But he had had more and more exchanges with other members of the Alliance. First and foremost the Sith and Jedi he has continued training with Senya in the Enclave, but others as well. Much to the discontent of Koth, he was getting rather well along with the man's crew now, even if they had all been very cautious and suspicious at the beginning. He had been given another chance.

And it felt good. Good to rebuild himself a life. Good to be part of something instead of being the one leading, the one everyone kept distance with, whether it was out of respect or out of fear. He had retrospectively realised that he felt far better this way than when he was in commands. Obtaining the throne, being the Emperor… if there was one single thing his father had told him that was true, it was this one: he had never really had the ambition to rule, had never really wanted the throne. He had just wanted to prove that he could be better than him, greater than him, that he could force this approval that Valkorion did not wish to give. But now he knew that all he wanted was to move forward and do whatever was needed. Working for the Alliance, fighting for her, would be his redemption. It would never absolve him, his conscience would still have to deal with all the mistakes he had done, all the harm he had caused, but didn't the Commander say that there was only a way forward? The past weeks had brought many small improvements to his life and had given him hope that the wounds - his and the ones he had inflicted - might mend someday.

But that was before Iokath. Before the shadow that had been cast upon them by an unknown traitor. Before the return of the suspicious looks, of the whispers in his back. He had felt the difference almost immediately. Even those who had relaxed and become friendlier in his presence were again more tense and tried to avoid him whenever they could.

And if it was not enough, there was her… From that damned day two weeks earlier when he had started desiring her, he had needed to fight the want to look for her presence, and at the same time do his best to continue being with her as if nothing had changed. He hated it, this impression of not being fully in control of what he felt. It brought him back to a past he wanted gone. He hated it even more because it had not been long before he had realised that his feelings went beyond sexual attraction, that he did not want her only that way…

Sometimes he almost hated her again. And Lana. And his Mother. And the whole Alliance. For having changed the course of the events, diverted him from the path of destruction he had set in front of him. His own destruction. He should have died, like the Scions had predicted. It could even have been from the hand of his own sister, he had been expecting it as much as from anyone else. Or from the Commander's, if only she had struck before he had come back to his senses. He would not have felt a thing. He had buried sadness in the depth of his heart with the death of his brother, together with the joyful memories and anything that looked like love, or care, or attachment. Only anger had prevailed, and envy, both muffling anything else in a comfortable cloud of numbness. A cloud that he could not drown into anymore.

And he disgusted himself as much. For wanting to hate them all again. For not being able to handle mundane feelings that anyone else probably could. For all the breaches, all the flaws, for having lowered the shield that had protected him. For having unrealistic wants, needs that went beyond his reach. And for wanting to flee back in time to make it all stop. He had to go through this, face this. He was no coward. He refused to be a coward. If only he could find peace…

Luckily, no one seemed to suspect his internal conflicts, even the Commander. She did not seem to have noticed it so far, and her new concerns most probably helped. She still came and got trained, but part of her mind was elsewhere and since Iokath, she had always cut the discussions short. He was almost sure that he was high on her list of potential traitors, how could he not be? It all made sense.

And there was something off with her training too. Something that kept bugging him and strengthened his conviction that he was right about the reasons of her distance. He had noticed it during their previous session and had retrospectively been able to trace the same pattern to every single time that they had trained together. Realising it had been a slap in the face, one that had hurt more than any other suspicious look he had had to bear. But he understood. Yes, he understood.

Nyx pulled him out of his thoughts. She seemed disappointed and surprised, perhaps even a bit concerned, but he was probably fancying that part. "So soon? But it has only been one fight. Surely we can do more…"

He inhaled slowly, his back turned to her, and remained silent for a while, staring at the ground. He wondered if he should mention his observations, confront her… Would she even admit? But it had bothered him long enough. He had to know…

Straightening up, Arcann turned around to face her. "Commander, I must ask…"

She sighed, seeming almost relieved that he brought his concerns up. "Go on. It is obvious that something has been disturbing you the whole time, today."

She noticed, then. He was more an open book than he thought. Which might mean that she could be aware of more things than he thought after all. He had to be more careful regarding the display of his other feelings. "Do you…" He swallowed, gritting his teeth. "Since we started training, you have always remained mostly on the defensive side. You learn the attacking moves, perform them perfectly, and when we come to free fight, you do not use them anymore. This is not your usual way of fighting. Even that time when you were recovering you were far more offensive that you are now." He had started pacing nervously in front of her, dreading her answer when he would come to the conclusions. The very idea of having her confirm his concerns made him almost sick. "Are you… are you trying to learn how to protect yourself from me?"

Nyx remained silent, her face suddenly bearing a genuine expression of surprise. She stayed still then blinked a few times and sighed, gesturing towards one of the rocks.

"Sit."

That was it, then. If she wanted him to sit, it was probably because what she had to say would be painful. Painful for him, but strictly logical. And if she confirmed what he thought, she was still within her rights to do so. Arcann slowly sat down, staring at the ground and bracing himself for her next words.

"No. Look at me." She had sat down on the same rock and spoken in a very calm but firm voice that made him raise his head and meet her gaze. "I have never been scared of you, even when we were enemies. I am not starting to be now." She paused, as if waiting for him to have time to properly process her words, then smiled. "If I want to give you the task of shielding me in battle, I need to understand how you fight, to see how we can complement each other."

"Shield you… You want me to shield you." He looked at her incredulously, suddenly taken aback that he might have drawn so many hasty and erroneous conclusions. "Then… you do not think that I am the traitor that you are looking for."

Nyx chuckled, an amused half smile then remaining on her face. "No, I do not think that you are. I know that you were on the front line when we found the throne and I doubt that you had any opportunity to sabotage it."

"But I could have arranged something," he defended, not wanting to take her words for granted too fast.

She shrugged, nodding slightly. "Yes, you could have. Like anyone else. Lana would certainly disapprove my carelessness, but from all the people we should suspect, I do not think that you would betray me. I could, but I choose not to. I cannot afford to suspect everyone, I need allies I can count on, even if it bears a risk."

From the heated discussion that he had witnessed between her, Lana and Theron, Arcann knew that she was already taking a risk in refusing to put a surveillance system in place. Lana was trying to convince her to spy on everyone on the base, that it was their best chance to find the traitor. Theron was surprisingly against it, he would not have expected a professional spy to be so reluctant at the idea. But Nyx had refused, for political reasons she said. She did not want to compromise the trust and commitment her allies put in the Alliance, such an action would weaken the balance that kept them all together. Certainly not the safest choice, whether it was wise or not still remained to be proven.

"You should not discard people from the list of potential culprits so hazardously." he mumbled. "I am a former enemy and—"

"Are you trying to convince me not to trust you?" she answered, cracking an amused half-smile.

"Trust…" Breaking eye contact, he stared at the ground again, trying to define if he had really heard the word. She trusted him? The Commander of the Alliance he had fought against, the one he had tried to kill so many times, trusted him now? It was surely something he had hoped for, that one day she would consider him trustworthy, but he had always expected that it would take many months, or even years… And yet, she had just implied that she did trust him. The idea drew a shy and sad smile from him and he turned his look back to her. "I am not even sure that I can trust my own self on the long term."

"Ah, you talked with Sana-Rae," she said without the slightest surprise in her voice.

And indeed, he had. It was a subject that he had almost wanted to avoid at first. His mother wanted to consider him saved, and so did he, but was he really? She had been very cryptic about what may or may not be, but the Voss had confirmed that there was no guarantee, that it could all happen again. They had brought him back from the verge of death and from darkness, cleansed him, but what they did would not prevent the same thing from happening again. It might be a long process, but it could occur, and since he had already fallen once…

"Have you already found solutions?"

Arcann snickered. Over time, he had noticed how she acted towards him whenever his past actions or his potential future were in question. She was merciless when pointing the flaws, terribly critical when he stated his views on the way he wanted to move forward, questioning his potential choices so much that he sometimes ended up more clueless than he was before their discussions. But she never offered ready-made solutions. He had finally understood that she wanted him to find them by himself, that she did not want to interfere more than she already did.

It was something he definitely appreciated in her, the way she pushed him forward without pointing the exact direction for him. Even if he had been a prince, he had been raised to obey to the Emperor first and foremost, like any Knight of Zakuul. He could bet that her Sith training had been in the same style, that she had had to follow her master's will. Yet, she proceeded differently.

He had even discovered a face of her that he did not know when Xalek and Ashara had opened up on their Sith training by her side. They portrayed her as much different from what he knew of her, more focused on making them bend to her will, even though they could not deny that she had never let them down in return. Ashara appreciated the change, Xalek had remained more reserved, but neither of them could explain it.

He could feel her gaze on him. Her head slightly tilted on the side, she was patiently waiting for an answer. He shook his head negatively. "Not really. But I know that I need to get more in control than I have been in the past."

Arcann still had vivid memories of the day his brother had died. That day, he had felt what it meant to be overwhelmed with anger to a point that all possibilities of holding it subsided, felt like he was a mere external spectator of his own doings. It was the first time but not the last, his obsession toward his father had done the rest. Even though he had still been the master of most of his actions, his judgment had many been clouded by his feelings. He did not want to allow that anymore. He needed control, he needed restraint.

"I can help you explore ways to handle your emotions."

"The Sith way…"

"Not quite. I can teach you how to tame them. Then it will be your call to choose if you want to repress them or use them to your liking. To see which way seems to fit you." She laughed lightly. "You are lucky somehow. Most Force sensitive do not have a chance to choose the direction they will turn to. Or decide not to choose at all."

"You did not?"

Nyx shrugged indifferently. "No. Being a Sith or a Jedi does not really depend on one's beliefs most of the time. Be born in the Empire and you will be trained to be a Sith, in the Republic and you will become a Jedi. Though the odds have given me a choice, now. I may not wield the Force as I did in the past and not turn exclusively to the Dark Side anymore, but the Sith code is still the one I choose, with my own rules."

"Passion setting you free?" He shot her an ironic smile. "It might have worked for you, it did not for me. I did not feel free at all."

"Because you let yourself be bound again by a Force enslaving you to do its will. This is not how it should be. You are supposed to be in commands." She rolled her eyes with an annoyed look. "Well, unless you are a Jedi convinced that the will of the Force is the one deciding. But that is another thing, and they too learn to control emotions anyway. The difference is what they do with them. We use them to fuel us, they muffle them to find peace."

He chuckled briefly. "You have to admit that peace is a rather appealing notion, though."

Nyx shrugged again sceptically. "Except if you do not think that peace really exists…"

"You don't?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I do not think that I ever met anyone who was so detached that they were not after anything for themselves. And as soon as there is something you want, I do not believe that you can really find peace."

"You could, as long as you accept not to act on that want and decide willingly that it is out of your reach, couldn't you? Isn't it what Jedi teach?"

She laughed wholeheartedly and, pushing on her arms, jumped back to the ground. "Not that many things are out of reach for who is patient and stretches their arm long enough," she answered, grinning back at him. "Enough with all the philosophical nonsense now," she said mockingly, grabbing both training swords and offering him one. "Would you like to try meditating with me? We will use your moves to make it easier in the beginning so that you can better focus on emotions."

Getting back to his feet, Arcann tried to push away the confusion that had caught him at her last words. Knowingly or not, this woman had a knack for touching exactly the cord that made him doubt his choices. How did she even do that? And why did she always have to shake his convictions? He strengthened his grip on the sword, determined not to let himself distract for the time being and simply nodded, getting ready in front of her, leaving enough distance between them to move.

She smiled, lowering her head. "Now close your eyes and follow my lead."
______________________________________________

Humming with the muffled music that came out of his datapad, Arcann slid the tip of his finger slowly on the curved edge of the armour piece. He had chosen a Valachord Concerto, a rather experimental one that helped him concentrate. He smiled when his thumb confirmed that no asperity remained. The piece was perfect and ready to be engraved.

He still had to finalise the design and configurate the laser but he had already found what he needed in the archives: the Sith Code written in Ancient Sith. Arcann was planning to ornate some of the pieces like this one in the zakuulian way, finely inscribing the code the along the border in a repeating pattern.

Along the past few weeks, his night-time work had been a privileged moment for him to put his thoughts together in the relative quietness that surrounded the base in the middle of the night. He did not sleep much, never had, but some days were worse than others and working on the armour had been many times his only way to keep ideas, concerns and questions from circling relentlessly in his head. The Commander had triggered most of them, one way or another. It had started with things she said, questions she asked. She usually did not expect any answer from him, she used questions as eye-openers, ways to force him to position himself. He knew that she did not even want to know about his final choices, only seemed to care that he actually made them.

In a sense, she had been present on his mind every time he had worked on the armour, even before he had started to actually think about her. Therefore, even if he had initially destined it to be a gift for his mother, he had now decided otherwise. He strongly believed that the intentions and thoughts someone put in the craft of an object determined its essence. This armour was meant to be hers. A token of his will to protect her in exchange of the new perspectives she was giving him.

He felt peaceful tonight. Meditating with her, focusing on her voice and letting movements flow slowly, one after the other, had offered some unexpected peace. He knew that it would not last long, that there would have more efforts needed, more setbacks, more frustration, but he wanted to cherish the memory of a moment out of time. And somehow, he wanted to believe in her words, that with patience and dedication, anything became someday reachable.

There would be moments of doubt and disbelief, perhaps even a time when he would realise that he had been wrong to trust the odds. But not today. Today he allowed himself hope.

Chapter Text

Nyx did not come aboard the ships of the Eternal Fleet very often, leaving its operations to others, Aygo mostly, and asking only to be kept updated every now and then on anything relevant. Which meant almost nothing that needed her attention most of the time. Even though she had learnt how to pilot a shuttle, she knew absolutely nothing about handling a fleet and did not even want to know more. That was the reason why the Alliance had officers and specialists, she had already enough on her own plate to insist on controlling everything.

Today's matter was not that important per se, but she had agreed to follow Lana's request anyway, mostly out of curiosity to be honest. The fleet had been raided several times within the past few months. Her advisor had been monitoring the events and had even found trace of other occurrences far before the moment when the ships had become the property of the Alliance. The exactions seemed perpetrated randomly on a hit-and-run mode by a small team under the cover of the delivery of supplies needed by the very limited living crew. The fact that the gigantic swarm of warships had been apparently already plundered and sabotaged by outsiders for years had been considered as a detail merely worthy of attention. Though weapons and supplies were stolen each time and some damages done, their impact was so minor that the saboteurs were not even hunted down. Setting hunting parties would be a loss of resources that the Alliance could currently not afford. However, the Gemini captain of this specific ship had been able to capture one of the culprits and eliminate the others and Hylo, who had been aboard the ship for a discrete encounter with one of her underworld contacts, had taken over and started interrogating him.

Only one out of the five assailants had survived the Gemini captain's counterattack, and the Commander would now discover what that Klyn Draysson, the only remaining survivor, looked like and decide what to do with him. Walking towards the cell, she started reading the intel transmitted by her underworld specialist. The human man was in his late fourties, dark-skinned, heavily tattooed, and seemed to be the pilot and apparently leader of the diseased small group. She was almost expecting to bump into Koth's older brother or cousin, especially as Hylo's side note mentioned a foul temper as well and the associated language.

She started hearing loud angry voices coming from the end of the aisle while skimming through the report on her datapad and instinctively started pricking up her ears to the talk. The male voice's accent was one from the Core Worlds, Republic side for sure, she would even say correlian and that raspy voice… She came to a stop, suddenly stunned by the prospect of who the owner of that voice could be, feeling her heart racing. Could that be? After all these months of unsuccessful searches?

She covered the remaining distance to the cell with a few rapid strides and soon discovered Hylo and their mysterious captive in the midst of a heated argument.

"Keep your stinking paws off me. I'm not in a talking mood," spat the man, flailing his arms toward the green-skinned woman.

"The tough guy act won't work on me," answered the unimpressed Mirialan, arms crossed on her chest. The woman had of course seen so many wannabe bad guys in her life that she did not even flinch at their threats.

"Oh yeah? Well let me talk to the son of a Hutt in charge and you'll see how tough I really am."

Barely repressing the growing smile that invited itself on her face, Nyx chose that moment to step into the cell, containing the urge to simply run towards the man who was turning his back at her. Remaining as composed as she could, she entered.

"You are looking at her," she said with an amused voice which made the man freeze and slowly turn around.

The expression he bore on his face was a mix of disbelief and shock. He remained in awe for a while, staring at her from head to toe. "Thought I'd seen enough ghosts to last a lifetime. But this…" he mumbled finally.

Nyx could not hide her smile any longer. "I never thought that I would be so happy to see my fleet's assailant."

"Your fleet? Trust me. I'm as surprised as you," he added, eyes wide open. "Last I heard, the eternal fleet belonged to some psycho empress determined to take over the galaxy. Killed a lot of good people. Almost killed me. So I fought back and made a stack of credits on the side."

"So, Mister…" She quickly looked at her datapad before returning to him. "Draysson. I suggest that you track down the people who provided you with your lousy intel, because they clearly missed a few updates. The ships have been property of the Eternal Alliance for several months, now."

"Alliance? You're the Alliance? Stars, if I had known the fleet was under new management and I'd happen to meet the Alliance leader, I would have brought flowers."

She snickered and turned to the Mirialan who had been observing them eyebrows raised, her face showing clearly her lack of understanding. "I can handle it from now, Hylo."

"You sure?"

Nyx nodded and dismissed the woman who left the cell. She then walked slowly towards the man who stood in the confined space, a smug smile slowly appearing on his face.

"Andronikos Revel…" she smirked, stopping within close range. "It has been a long time."

"Hey Sith," he answered in his low seductive voice, seizing both her shoulders with his callous hands. "Was starting to think I'd never find you."

She raised a quizzical eyebrow to this remark. The last time they had been together was more than seven years ago when she had ordered him to abandon her on Marr's flagship and return to Imperial space. And then, there had been this message from him waiting for her to read it for five long years. Yes, he had said that he would look for her, but she did not think that he would still do. "You were looking for me?"

"Yeah. I lied. I didn't hijack all those eternal fleet ships for the credits," he confessed, taking a step back and starting to stride around the cell. "First thought you dead and spent a few months drinking to forget the loss. Then I heard the Eternal Fleet hauled you away and I spent the remaining six years looking for you." At the sight of her amused smile, he immediately tried to justify himself clumsily, which made her smile even wider. "Don't get me wrong, I like the credits, but you and I had a nice setup, didn't we? Best job I ever had. And no one steals my favourite Sith girl from me like that and remains unpunished. So, I had to give it a try at least."

"And now that I caught you red-handed ransacking my property?"

He did not let himself being unsettled by the allusions that he might be in trouble and only shrugged casually. "Hum… Considering that you are the Alliance's boss, see if you need another pilot, maybe?"

She chuckled, crossing her arms on her chest. "Are you trying to turn your arrest into a job application?" she retorted.

Andronikos laughed frankly. "Well, freedom, action and inimitable extra benefits… if you're still offering the same conditions, I'd be willing to consider." The man's smug expression however immediately moved to a more serious one. "What do you say, Sith? Are we a team again?"

"The conditions might be a little different, and you will need to work for free. But the Alliance will provide everything needed to make you comfortable." She walked closer to him again and rested the palms of both her hands on his chest, raising her head to meet the pirate's gaze. While she had not seen him for a very long time, being close to him still felt natural. Nik was the man who knew her the best after all and she was not one to be shy considering all the things they had lived together for years. "We have a lot of catching up to do, and the extra benefits are not automatically granted," she continued with a wicked smile, knowing exactly what type of benefits he was talking about. "But I think that the Alliance could do with another member. And my crew was not the same without its pilot…"

A satisfied smile returned to his face and Nyx could soon feel his hands coming to rest on her hips. "Course it wasn't, I'm the best there is," he answered in a low voice, lowering his head a little. "Now, I'd say we have a deal to close."

He was claiming her mouth the moment after. A bold move but not a surprising one considering their past, and Nyx had to concede that her own behaviour had certainly not been discouraging that prospect. Leaning into his embrace, she sighed of content and parted her lips, allowing his teasing tongue to meet hers and deepen the kiss. It might have been a long time, it still all felt simply natural no matter how many years they had lived apart.

She closed her eyes. His taste made memories rush back into her mind. Memories of the years they had spent together on her journey to the Dark Council which had come to an unexpected end the day Marr and she had encountered the Eternal Fleet for the first time and been brought before Valkorion by his son. Andronikos had been her pilot until then and so much more than that… He had been the dearest of her very few close friends and a long-time occasional lover. A bit against the odds considering how it had all started.

When she had first met the man, she had not appreciated the cocky and proud way he talked to her. He lacked the respect she was expecting him to have for a Sith and was acting as an equal to her, which she profoundly considered inappropriate. She was young and still in her early apprenticeship with Darth Zash. Being respected was something she had not known before leaving Korriban on her missions. She had quickly discovered how much people feared the Sith outside of the Academy and had instantly liked the feeling. Not being among those who had to bow down to others, being the one who was feared, had been thrilling, almost intoxicating for her younger self. But that man did not give in. That man considered himself as worthy as she was. And she had had to tolerate it. Their first months on the ship had seen many violent arguments. But the pirate had rapidly proven himself much more reliable and trustworthy than she expected initially. He never lied, always made his intentions clear and kept the promises he made. Many times he had showed a commitment that was not only far above her minimum requirements but had put him in danger more than once. She had begun appreciating him truly. Then over time, appreciation had grown to attachment and they had become a real close-knit team, and friends just as close.

The physical part had come later on. She had never really considered him as a potential partner. The man was almost twice her age back then and though he was physically attractive, she had always regarded this kind of possibility as an open door to unwanted mess. But a few drinks and the frustration of not having spent enough time in a proper location where they could indulge themselves separately had done the rest one night and ended up in a particularly steamy encounter. And damn… he was good at it, all of it. That night would probably remain etched in her memory once and for all.

The morning after, instead of calling it a mistake, they had simply decided to set rules to their relationship and had both gladly stuck to them until then. There were strong feelings binding them together, feelings of unwavering friendship and undeniable lust for each other. But none even approaching the idea of love or sentimental commitment and both had always been free to have other partners, a path that each of them had followed once in a while. Within the months prior to her disappearance, Nyx had distanced herself from Nik a little to dive exclusively into her relationship with Theron, but Andronikos has always remained a close friend.

She broke the kiss after a moment of indulging their reunion and chuckled softly. "Enjoy the welcome kiss old man, any other member of the Alliance trying their fate this way would have felt the bite of my sabre in their guts."

"Yeah, but I am not just anyone," he replied, giving her a snotty smile and a wink that made her laugh and plant a friendly kiss on his rough cheek.

"I am glad to have you back, Nik," she whispered, hugging him briefly. And stars she was. After months of fruitless search and years apart, her dearest friend was finally back to her side.
______________________________________________

"And all this is yours? Well, girl, looks like you didn't lose that much after all." he noticed, looking around the military hangar approvingly.

They had landed on Odessen a few minutes before and she was showing him around the ever-busy base. In the shuttle heading towards the planet, they had concisely shared what had happened to each of them within the past seven years, agreeing to keep the details for later. He knew about the Alliance of course, and that mysterious Outlander who had been able to bring Emperor Arcann down. The death of the 'Psycho Empress', as he called her, by the hand of the same Outlander had been confirmed as well on the Holonet but as the fleet was still there, even though quiet, many people still wondered if it had really happened or if she had only lost a round and was regaining her strength.

Seven years before, Nik had not yet activated the hyperdrive when he had seen Marr's ship suddenly put itself to motion towards the Eternal Fleet. He had immediately understood that this was the end of them and that they had decided to charge to take down as many as they could before dying. He could not believe it and had looked at the scene with a feeling of numbed disbelief, seeing the flagship explode and light the darkness with bolts of fire. The pilot had needed to force himself to wake up and move on in order to keep his promise of warning the Empire but had let himself drown into the comfortable dizziness of perpetual drunkenness as soon as the message had been delivered and made it last for weeks. Then he had seen the destruction the Empire, the suffering, more death than he had ever seen before… Despite the Fury being grounded, he had managed to organise the escape of many of her people, requisitioning shuttles whenever needed - not all the time in a peaceful way, he confessed - to bring them to safer planets outside the Core. That was the moment when he had heard that she might not be dead and had started plundering the fleet as well. But after all these years, he had almost lost hope that his intel had been right.

He had not even been able to connect this mysterious Outlander escaped from Zakuul with his Sith friend. Her face was not known outside the usual official authorities and any types of rumours roamed among the masses. The Outlander might be a man or a woman, sometimes a Jedi or a former hero of the Republic, other times their Imperial counterparts. Any species and origins had been evoked and he had not really cared to follow that trail. The stories that he had heard were so ridiculous sometimes that he had even doubted more than once that the Outlander and the Alliance ever existed. If only he had known, he would have come quicker…

Nyx laughed at her friend's comment. "I have been appointed to be their leader, not their master. I am not sure that the statement that I own the place would be appreciated by all."

"Ah come on. Where's my crazy power-thirsty Sith gone? You weren't known for your sharing nature back then."

"I guess that she grew up a bit, and probably under very bad influence," she answered with an amused smile. "A more measured attitude seemed more appropriate to gather all these people here. Let's call it a more refined political positioning. But nothing would have happened without Lana."

"Oh, Blondie's around, I should have guessed… Still so uptight?"

"Nik…" she answered with a disapproving look while the corner of her mouth rose up almost imperceptibly, barely concealing her amusement. She could not really blame him for his appreciation. Lana had always been of the formal type in public, which gave her a cold and condescending demeanour. Only those who were better acquainted with her, which probably meant only a handful of people at best, knew about her surprising dark humour and the true affection she had for the people she cared the most about. For all the others, she was at best only an authoritarian officer, but Nyx had heard worse qualifiers used for her.

She still had vivid memories of the first time when Andronikos and Lana had met, many years before. For a brief moment, she had wondered which one of them would draw their weapon first. The confrontation of the imperial rigor with the easy-going and loose nature of her pirate friend always made sparks. Since his desertion from the army of the Republic, he had taken a habit of refusing any type of made-up authority based on hierarchies of some sorts, his loyalty and respect had to be earned. Lana had quickly had to reconsider her way of interacting with him, but luckily her diplomatic qualities had smoothed their interactions and Nyx knew that despite Nik's seemingly mocking remark, he nevertheless had come to appreciate her.

Not so surprisingly, Theron and Andronikos had had a hard time to get along as well. Theron had never been particularly good at interacting with people, not even at understanding the benefits of having those interactions if there was no clear and relatively immediate benefits to have them. She suspected it to be, consciously or not, a sort of defence mechanism coming from years under cover, or even from his earlier past. Nevertheless, he lacked the vision of long-term strategic positioning she had as a politician and that Nik perfectly perceived as well in his line of 'business'. "Nobody is useless until they are dead," the pirate used to say. And she could not agree more… with a small personal twist. Even dead people sometimes became unexpectedly useful…

"Yes. She is here, as one of my closest advisors and closest friends, now." She came to a stop and turned around to face him. "She is the one who rescued me from Zakuul. So you have to admit at least that she has been more efficient than you, old man," she said to tease him.

The chain reaction that her words provoked was an almost unseen occurrence on the base. Nik frowned and grabbed her around the waist to pull her against him, stirring up an immediate response from the people around who drew their weapons reactively. The next moment, she was held tightly against his chest and circled by a crowd holding him at gunpoint. She could remember only one time when she had seen the people around draw their weapon and aim at someone else on the base: the moment when Arcann had jumped out of the shuttle on the day of his arrival on Odessen.

"Stop calling me old man or I will show you right in front of your troops what I am still capable of," he whispered in her ear, totally unimpressed by the surrounding menace.

She smirked and gestured the assistance to lower their weapons. "I am not sure that you would last long enough to constitute a real threat to my well-being," she answered, leaving it to him to understand whatever he wanted from her provocative remark. "Now come, I have something else to show you," she said, pulling away as soon as he loosened his grip.

Turning on her heels, she moved towards the access to the outdoor ship docking port and called the lift, conscious that the recent outburst had drawn the attention of at least half of the people present in the hangar at that time, and nodded reassuringly towards a few soldiers whose looks were silently asking her if they had to intervene. When the doors opened, she let her friend go in first and selected the right level, watching the activity go back to normal while the lift's doors closed.

"You got my baby back!" Nik exclaimed as soon as the doors reopened, giving them a good view on the access bridge and the distinctive Fury-class Imperial Interceptor that stood on the headland right in front of them.

Nyx chuckled, a smile showing on her face at her friend's delighted outburst. "I remind you that this lady is mine, not yours. But yes, I got her back. She was in a bad shape but our engineers have done a great work."

"You fly her?"

"Sometimes… not very often in fact. I am rarely leaving on my own and most of the Alliance's smaller operations are made with the Gravestone." She showed the imposing ship docked in another distant area of the base, only his indistinct shape visible from there, and briefly explained its origins and promised to make Andronikos meet with the pilot who had the same sense of ownership towards the ancient ship than her friend had towards hers. "But I am glad to have her, even though she's becoming a bit dusty."

"Just say the word and I'll have her engines roar and make her reach the stars in no time."

She laughed wholeheartedly, pointing out that this was the kind of promises he had probably made to actual women countless times, which made her earn a wicked look and a sly smile. "And you know that I do not only promise. I deliver," he answered. She shook her head, rolling eyes and pretending despair. The man had definitely not changed a bit… And was still exactly the way she liked him.

Her comlink beeped, signalling an incoming call. Bey'wan Aygo had made himself available for the newcomer and was ready to meet him. They headed back to the base where Nyx left her pilot friend getting auditioned by the head of military operations. The Bothan supervised the dispatch of all the troops that could be linked to armed operations and had agreed to personally ensure Nik's integration to the Alliance after the usual evaluation of his potential useful skills. Andronikos would then receive quarters and be briefed on anything he needed to know as a new member of the Alliance.

In the course of months and years and the numerous people who had joined them, the integration process had become a well-known routine for many officers. Another aspect she never really took care of. Nevertheless, she made sure to confirm that her friend was a top-notch pilot before leaving the men together to head to the War Room, promising to join him for dinner and a drink if time allowed it.
______________________________________________

"Yeah, that's a decent one," he noted with appreciation, licking his lips to enjoy some more of the taste of the fine amber-coloured correlian whiskey he had been served.

"Do not be so picky, Nik. I remember that it is your favourite."

"Yeah yeah, fine. Just trying to find something to complain about."

"I would have expected something regarding your quarters. We cannot provide much comfort, or at least not until we build some additional structures…"

Nik sighed, looking as the thick liquid spiralling in the glass he was motioning. "Know what? Seen far worse these years. I won't complain as long as I have a bed in a private room, even that small." He put the glass on the table and leaned back into the couch they were sharing in the cantina, grinning innocently. "And if I am too unsatisfied, I'll sneak into your room and indulge myself. I'm sure that you have a spacious one with a double bed."

"I do." She confirmed, smiling. "Commander's privilege, I guess."

"Commander…" He raised an almost imploring eyebrow. "Is this really the way I'm supposed to call you now?"

Nyx laughed briefly. "Yes, Nik. In public at least." Raising an eyebrow interrogatively, she added: "Unless you want to continue using 'My Lord'?"

"Oh c'mon. You know I always hated that."

"And I never really appreciated all your 'babe' and 'girl' habits, which makes us even I suppose…" She had become serious this time, leaning towards him to make sure he listened to her properly. "Nik, this is not us, a ship and a small crew anymore. There are many more people involved. And half the base is already talking about the newcomer who just came in and calls their Commander 'his girl', obviously imagining many potential reasons for this little 'title'."

Andronikos sighed heavily, raising his hands in front of him in surrender. "Ah, fine… This is a lot less funny than what we had in the past but yeah, ok, understood Commander," he concluded, rolling his eyes while over-pronouncing the last word.

She nodded and smiled, putting discretely a hand on his left knee and squeezing it gently, soon feeling his fingers slip between hers and his hand cover her own. They remained silent for a time, not even looking at each other and absentmindedly brushing their fingers together.

Nyx would probably never truly admit it, but she had missed him more than she would have expected. From their very first night together, they had always had a very ambiguous relationship. Close friends and lovers, or perhaps closer to incestuous brother and sister. She did not really understand how that smug and sometimes insufferable man had been the only one she had ever fully let her guard down with. But mission after mission and then throughout every step of her way towards the Dark Council, he had almost always been there and she might not have made it that far without him.

She had been one of these countless arrogant self-centred Sith when she had met him. But he had never been impressed. Of course it had made her mad at first, who did he think he was? However, his lack of fear when he looked into her eyes to tell her frankly to go get lost as he had done countless times was probably the very thing that had made their relationship grow the way it had. Nik might be an unreliable pirate for many, he was a model of honesty with those he trusted and appreciated. He never hid his thoughts and expected her to do the same, which had sometimes led them to rather colourful arguments. 'Sparks times' as they used to call them.

Along her way up the Sith hierarchy, Andronikos had as well been an anchor point of some sort, one who had kept her from forgetting the difference between the position she was determined to obtain and who she was. If she had been spending so much time mastering control in her wielding of the Force, it might well be thanks to him and his outspoken warnings as soon as she was on the verge of losing herself. Getting him back was good. Soothing. Comforting.

She felt his hand leave hers and his body straighten, his attention suddenly drawn away.

"Hey, Shan!"

Leaving Nyx behind, Nik moved around the table and left the booth they were sharing to go meet Theron who had just entered the base's cantina. She felt a bit relieved to see that he seemed slightly less tired than he looked only a few days earlier, even though his features still bore marks of concern. Lana had finally forced him to take some more resting time and even though her friend was certain that he still cheated and remained connected to information feeds during his resting time, he had slept more lately. They still had no concrete hint about the traitor in their ranks but at least the spy had been forced to concentrate on that specific issue and had apparently put aside the other subjects he had been working on.

He had still looked lost in his trail of thoughts, or perhaps in one of the feeds provided by his implants, when he had entered the cantina and the pirate's outburst had caught him off-guard, but he had quickly composed himself enough to answer her friend's cordial salute, even though he remained more reserved than Andronikos was towards him. Their interactions had always been somewhat awkward, Theron feeling embarrassed by the kind of relationship Nyx had had with her long-time friend while neither her or Nik did see it as an issue.

The men discussed in a friendly manner for a while, most probably updating each other on their respective situation. The pilot had been looking forward to meet again with the former crew mates and missions' partners that had now joined the alliance and seemed visibly delighted. While she was observing them, he gestured a few times in her direction, seemingly inviting Theron to join them but the latter finally shook his head and declined the invitation. They parted with a good handshake but Andronikos seemed more than suspicious when he came back to the booth and let himself slouch onto the couch.

"Ooookay. Care to update me here? Where do you both stand now?"

"I put an end to our relationship several weeks ago."

"Oh, so you were back together after your little carbonite holiday," he said, leaning closer.

"Yes. Or at least we tried," she concluded, only there meeting his gaze with a look that ordered him silently to drop the subject, which of course she was sure that he would not.

"Yeah… Looks like one tried more than the other, hu?" he only added, shooting her a sidelong glance. "So, who's taking care of you now?"

"I do not need anyone to do that, Nik. I am strong enough to take care of my own self."

"Oh yeah. I know the Big Bad Sith doesn't need anyone. But what about you?" he insisted, tapping gently on her sternum with his index finger and seeming not convinced at all. "I remember a girl who sometimes crawled into my bed in the middle of the night because it was all too much and she needed a hug."

"A presence. I needed a soothing presence. Occasionally," she corrected in a low voice, tensing at the memories of her moments of weakness and distress. Nik knew many things about her that no other did, and as a consequence, he questioned as well much more. As glad as she was of having him around again, she knew that she would have to deal with his usual scepticism. He had always pretended himself to be self-centred and devoid of empathy, but he definitely wasn't. Much to her annoyance sometimes as he did not take this kind of affirmation easily for granted.

"Hu-hu. Whatever," he answered, making sure that she knew that he was not buying it. "At least now I can keep an eye on you again. Which is not that unpleasant anyway," he concluded with a playful smirk.

"Ah, you will never change," she replied with a little snicker, relieved that he did not insist on the former subject.

"No babe, I won't. Making me change is far beyond your reach."

She chuckled again and turned her head absent-mindedly to look at the crowd that was slowly getting denser. The sun had set already a while ago and, appart from those who were appointed to a night shift, most of the people on the base had finished their day and had time to enjoy some time off. While some preferred remaining outside or joining their quarters, the cantina remained the main meeting point and source of entertainment and the place had even sometimes hosted concerts recently. Even if she had not had time to do more than quickly passing by, she still remembered the wild atmosphere of the 'Black Sabacc' venue surprisingly organised by Aygo, a few weeks before. While the time of battles was far from over, it was good to see Odessen be a place of rather normal life sometimes.

Reaching the bar area, her gaze suddenly met with Arcann's. He had been there for a while already. She had seen him out of the corner of her eye and was even pretty sure that he had been looking at her from time to time. Nyx felt bad for him. She still remembered his first weeks on the base when he made the effort of coming to the cantina knowing at best that he would drink alone but might as well have to suffer hostile glares from the other patrons. The situation had strongly improved up to their latest intervention on Iokath and he had made a few acquaintances if not friends, but now that everyone knew that there was a traitor among them, he had become again someone people did not really want to be close with.

If Nik had not been there, she would not have missed their daily training and would probably have hanged out a bit with him too. Unlike the others, she had no doubt that he was not behind the sabotage which had been put in place to harm her. She had actually really started trusting and appreciating him. The man was clever and sharp and hid a subtle sense of humour that she had begun to discover when he had started relaxing a bit around her. Despite their common history, he was definitely someone she liked spending time with. He was now light years away from the enemy she had fought and sometimes she even almost forgot that he had been the Eternal Emperor.

She was not the sort of person who took it on herself to make other people comfortable. At first, it was curiosity that had motivated her wish to invest some time in getting to know him. She wanted to see by herself who he really was, especially now that his judgment and personality were not influenced by his lack of control over the dark side anymore. She had been surprised by the man she had discovered. He still had to find some sort of stability and deal with the full awareness of who he had been but he had made progress. She had worried a few times that he might be too damaged to take charge of himself. In that case, he would not have brought anything valuable to the Alliance and she would have sent him away with his mother. But he had proven her wrong and moved forward steadily, which she could only value.

Arcann was harder on himself that she thought necessary. But she knew that she had a far more cold-hearted perception of the damages of war than many others. War was dirty and so were his past actions but she had a lot of blood on her hands too and so did many around them. She was far less tolerant about the lack of judgment and gross mistakes he had done in his latest months as an emperor, but was conscious that his obsession about his father living inside her had been the source of this madness. That part was gone when Valkorion had been eliminated once and for all, clearing his mind and allowing outstanding thinking skills to resurface.

She could not deny that she somehow saw a counterpart in him. He was powerful in the Force, perhaps even more that she was though she could still pretend to have a finer control over it than he did. He had seen war, battlefields, known the taste of blood. And he had been a leader, not only confined into his throne room but as well on the frontline. In a way, they were very similar and she had not met that many people she had seen that way. Marr might had been one and she had considered him a mentor of some sort. The situation with Arcann was different. So far, she had tried to guide him slightly to get him back on track, but he may then become someone she wanted to keep by her side…

A blue shape moving around his head shook her out of her reverie and briefly caught her gaze, she then smiled neutrally back to him before looking away, seeing him do the same simultaneously. That blue shape was Vette, the twi'lek that had survived Vaylin's attack on Odessen when she had chosen to favour her rescue over Torian's, so convinced that she had been that he too would manage to make it through. She was a nice girl, easy-going just as Nik, and had been the very first person on the base who had not seen Arcann as a monster. Nyx had seen them together several times already, she knew that they had become friends, but seeing her leaning on him and whisper in his ear the way she just did had made her feel a sudden pang of discomfort… or was it disappointment? She could not really make sense of it. Even though they were closer than she expected, it was not hers to choose who he could… be with? Were they together? Well, if it was the case then she should be glad for him that he had found someone who could support him on the way to full recovery, not just irrationally react as if she had just been deprived from something. No. Good. That was a good thing.

"OK, so who's that?" she heard, realising that she had probably been silent and distracted for a while. She inhaled deeply and forced herself into the present time again.

"Hum, who?"

"That guy you've been looking at and who was staring back at you?"

"Oh a… friend." She had never stated it this way but yes, that was probably what they had become. Friends. She snickered pensively and raised her eyes to meet Nik's gaze. "And actually, he was the fleet's previous owner. Well, just before his sister took over."

"What??" Andronikos had managed to keep a measured voice but his tone reflected his shock perfectly. "No shit! That's the guy who hauled you and he is having a casual drink on your base? You nuts or what??"

She put a comforting hand on his forearm, ready to strengthen her grip if he suddenly wanted to stand up and react unexpectedly. "My crazy Sith part might not be that far away after all… Hush, let me explain…"

She briefed him on the missing parts that she had set aside when concentrating on the main events in her earlier explanations. The destruction of Arcann's flagship, Senya's escape with her son, the ritual on Voss… When she was finally done with her story, he was still looking at her gaping in complete bewilderment.

"Damn, girl, he still froze you in carbonite for five bloody years. That man should be rotting in a cell at best!"

"It is more complicated than that, Nik. The man is different now, I chose to give him a second chance. And… I think that I like him."

He sighed, rolling wide open eyes. "Like… like how?"

She gave him a stern glare and answered dryly: "Like appreciate. Don't be stupid."

"Oh my… yeah babe, you're still crazy, no doubt about it…"
______________________________________________

"Wanshom?"

Arcann found himself suddenly staring at a plate containing an already half eaten chokolate-coated cake that was held by a blue hand. He had been wandering in his thoughts for a while, anything that came to his mind, as long as it kept him away from the awkward feeling he was trying to withhold. He shook his head to put his ideas back into place and his gaze followed the arm that was holding to plate to finally meet two violet eyes. "I beg you pardon?"

"Humf" Vette held a finger up, asking him to wait and swallowed loudly before licking her lips.

"Do you want some? Looked like you needed some comfort…"

He broke eye contact again to stare into the void. "No, I am fine, thank you."

"Nah, you're not."

"I am. Thank you for your concern."

All of a sudden, he felt her lean against his back, her arms coming to rest on his shoulders from behind. A lekku brushed the right side of his face while she put her chin on her forearm.

"You've been staring." she cooed with an amused voice.

"I do not know what you are talking about."

Vette approached her mouth closer to his ear and whispered. "Mh, let me describe the scene for you… Two o'clock, grey skin, nice legs if you ask me, and currently laughing with a dark-skinned man who's clearly flirting with her."

Arcann repressed a sigh. Yes, he might have been staring. A bit. He was trying not to as each glimpse awoke in his guts a mix of anger and sadness that he wanted to go away. He had no right for feeling this way. She was not his. She would probably never be. He was being foolish and overly emotional about what he saw and this feeling had to go, he had to make it die away. She said that he should learn how to tame and use his emotions, feed on them, but this, this had to disappear.

"You're jealous…" Vette whispered, giggling softly. "I might have been right after all. You have a little crush, don't you?"

Arcann could not help looking again and saw Nyx observing him from the couch where she had been drinking and talking with the newcomer. She was frowning quizzically, her head tilted on the side, but immediately changed her expression to a neutral smile when their gazes met. He tried to smile neutrally in return then turned his bar stool a few degrees in the opposite direction to both break eye contact and force Vette to move from his back. His friend knew that he was not used to such familiarity but it was as if she voluntarily trespassed into his comfort zone as often as she could.

The twilek pushed her plate again in front of him on the bar. "Go on, help yourself, and be quick otherwise I might eat it all. Chokolate is good stuff against heartbreaks."

"I am not having a so-called 'crush', Vette," he tried to defend himself. "And I would appreciate that you do not persist in thinking so."

"Oh, sure, so you were only concerned of her well-being since this guy is a stranger, right? Just checking that she's safe, hu?"

Of course she would not stop, what was he hoping for? He liked her very much, but when Vette had something stuck in her head and was not satisfied with the answers she got, she would gladly continue chewing on the bone. And unfortunately, she was rather perceptive and gifted with empathy. Lying to her was not easy and usually, the best he could get away with was half truths.

"I… I do not like him. The way he addresses her is terribly disrespectful. Did you hear him? She is not some random girl in a bar, she… She is the Commander of the whole Eternal Alliance!"

And yet that man had dared calling her 'babe' and Arcann had heard him refer to her as 'his girl' a few times in her absence, making of course most of the men around chuckle. He did not know what infuriated him the most, the man's disrespect, the evidently possessive words he used for her or the fact that Nyx had barely reacted with a disapproving look when he had done so. Gods! How could this man appear suddenly out of nowhere and call her his… whatever else than Commander? And that had nothing to do with… with…

"Ah yep, I did," Vette said before engulfing a giant spoonful of cake into her mouth. "Humf… Well considering that Ashara told me that the Commander and this guy used to… hum, let me recall her words… yes, 'have recurring sexual encounters' back in the days, looks like he wouldn't be against resuming the good ol' kinky stuff."

Arcann paled a little. "I.. I… I didn't need to hear that."

"Nay, you don't want to hear that. Stings, hu?"

"No."

Stars! Arcann put his hands into his lap to hide them as he realised that he was both clenching them tightly into firsts. Though they were cut short, he could clearly feel the bite of his fingernails in the palm of his right hand. Yes, it stung, it bloody stung, more than it ever should. So why could she simply not leave him alone and let him go over it and silence it all?

"Yeeeeeeah, it stings. Why don't you protect your hunting territory and tell her?"

"I am not on a hunt and there is nothing to say. Now please, stop prodding my patience."

"Urgh! Guys can be so damn dumb!" Vette rolled her eyes and sighed heavily. "Okay, Mr. Grumpy Face. So I'd rather find you a treat to cheer you up before you become as grim as Skadge. What's your poison?"

"My… what?" Arcann looked at his twilek friend questioningly. Poison?

"Yeah. The one thing you always liked to stuff your mouth with when you were a kid, you know. Something that makes you feel good."

Arcann frowned. Was there such a thing? In the last two decades he had probably not indulged in any food the way she described. The Empire's kitchens usually served very elaborated dishes but nothing he could associate with joy and comfort, nothing he truly enjoyed eating. But he remembered that there had been something, earlier, when they were still a family. "I hum…" he answered tentatively. "There were pies my mother used to bake when we were young. I loved the smell…" The memory made him smile a little. "She always had to chide us because we could barely wait for them to cool down and would have burnt our tongues eating them up when they were still too hot, but then she used to let us eat them with our fingers…"

He recalled the laughter, sitting on the floor with their plates, smeared faces and sticky fingers, his brother and him making fun of their baby sister's terribly messy way of eating... These had been rare purely joyful moments when nobody around was imposing them to train, or learn, or watch their manners. Yes, if there was one thing he had enjoyed eating, that was the one... Arcann raised his eyes on Vette, granting her with half a smile. "The closest you find here would be cloudberry pie…"

Vette uttered a delighted giggle and yelled to the bar-droid. "Hey, Teefour, bring a slice of cloudberry pie to my friend here. With a huge amount of whipped cream!" And with a big grin stuck on her face, she turned around again to face him. "Now, Big Boy. Let's work on your case."

Chapter Text

"Lana, report."

Nyx entered the War Room striding briskly, immediately followed by Arcann. They had been training together when the news interrupted them. A message had been intercepted and the Alliance had a lead they could potentially track.

"Good, we are all here now," answered a visibly impatient Lana. Theron and Senya were already present and waiting, and all of them gathered around the main terminal where a holo of Zakuul suddenly appeared. "We intercepted and decrypted a coded message that was obviously addressed to our traitor. The bad news is that we were unable to find the recipient on our end but we will continue searching. The good is that we could track it down to a very precise location. On Zakuul." The Sith typed a few commands and zoomed on a specific part of the planet where a precise spot got illuminated, its precise coordinates appearing on top of it.

"The southern part of the Endless Swamps," Arcann uttered, reacting immediately, Senya nodding in confirmation.

"Any known structures there?"

"No Commander. Nothing but inhospitable soggy ground and savage beasts," the former knight added. "Whoever sent that message chose to deliberately send it from the most profound depths of nowhere."

"The content of the message does not give us much to chew on. It was heavily encrypted, but our algorithms were able to translate it into something understandable." With a few more manipulations, Lana slightly reduced the size of Zakuul's map and a few words appeared aside from it in front of their eyes.

Prove your allegiance. Initiate part 3.

"Is this all we got?" Nyx appeared to be clearly frustrated. She had expected them to get more than a few words and a location in an empty swamp. "How comes that we cannot find the recipient?"

"They know we are listening," Theron said, stepping in. "The message was simply delivered with the bulk of the communications addressed to the Alliance. The traitor must have known where to get it from and would have erased it afterwards. Lana has probably been quicker than them this time."

"Which means as well that they have extended access to the in and out communications of the Alliance." Lana sighed. "And we do not even know to what extent. Dammit!"

In other circumstances, it would have been funny to hear Lana use the expression of frustration that was so clearly Theron's signature, but no one even took note of it. The situation was critical. They were realising the level of their blindness to a threat that impacted them all as no one expected the Commander to be the sole target.

The awareness that there was a traitor among their ranks was creating trust issues that undermined the core operations of the Alliance. They had quickly realised how hard it was to avoid becoming suspicious as soon as something unusual happened or people were caught having private conversations. They knew so little that there could even be several traitors coordinating on Odessen right under their noses. It all created a climate of tension and it had become less infrequent to see people calling each other names without any real reason for it. The betrayal they were facing might not have concrete consequences so far, the indirect repercussions of it were as undeniable as unsustainable.

It might even be the worst aspect of it. Since the incident on Iokath almost one month earlier, nothing visible had happened that could be related to a traitor's attempt to destroy the Alliance. And nothing new could be found. The spontaneous response to that lack of visible activity was that there were necessarily events that were unfolding behind their backs that they were incapable to grasp. For people like Nyx and Lana who praised control, this was infuriating. Theron, for his part, seemed overly resigned while the other core members of the Alliance felt helpless. The situation was taking a toll on all of them.

Barely repressing a burst of anger, Nyx inhaled deeply, hitting the table with the palm of her hands. "I am going to Zakuul. Even if the transmission seems to come from the middle of nowhere, there must be a trail we can follow. If it is the only thing we have, we must at least act on it."

"I am coming with you," Arcann added immediately, making a few surprised eyebrows rise at his obvious determination. "I know this part of the swamps, it is not that far from the encampment where I was taken care of after Voss."

Nyx gave him a startled look, as much due to his unequivocal statement than to the revelation that he had just made, then shook her head. "I do not think that your presence on Zakuul will be particularly welcome."

"I do not think that they need to know. We should not announce our arrival if we want to keep the best chances on our side."

He had spoken again in a determined voice leaving little opportunity for discussion. The tone of someone used to lead and take decisions, one he had not really dared using until then in the War Room, usually offering advice and suggestions instead. And the gaze that Nyx met when she looked at him was as determined as his voice had been.

The corners of her lips curved up in a satisfied smile after a few silent seconds and she straightened up. "Very well. We are leaving in one hour with the Queen to remain anonymous. Lana, ask Andronikos to ready the ship, he will be our pilot."
______________________________________________

An hour later, Arcann climbed up the ramp of the Fury-class interceptor that would fly them to Zakuul. The ship - the "Blazing Queen" as he had just learnt it was called - had been moved to the main hangar to get prepared for departure. He had seen the ship, that was distinctively of imperial design, from the outside many times as it was docked on the headland facing the base that he had elected his favourite place in the area. The same place the Commander favoured, but they had not met there for a long time and he suspected that she had not been there alone for a while either.

It was the first time that he entered the ship, though, and he felt like a foreigner stepping inside her privacy. She had told him about the history of the ship one time, when they sat in its vicinity at night. It had been the place where she had spent most of her time for years and it was holding many memories. There was little to see of them as the common area appeared to be very neutrally decorated, but the simple fact of knowing that this had been her main home for a long period gave an aura of intimacy to the ship that was rather intimidating. The fact that the two other occupants would, on the contrary, be at ease in a familiar place did not help and he felt a little uncomfortable with the fact that he had no clear idea of the type of relationship they were currently having. For his own sake, he did not really want to experience seeing them intimate in any kind of way.

Arcann remembered the pilot's first day on the base and the way he had felt seeing how he behaved with her. From that day, Vette had been an insufferable nightmare. She tried to convince him to move on the Commander and even though he had denied any kind of personal interest, she had not wanted to believe him and had kept insisting that he should do something about it. Within the week that had followed, she had constantly raised the topic again and had even offered her services, which he had of course vehemently declined, instantly horrified by the out-of-control situation that he could easily picture out of it. The twi'lek had apparently taken her self-decided new mission very seriously and had become shamefully nosy. He knew for certain that she had spied on them to discover if they had resumed sleeping together because she had proudly come back to him to certify that they each slept in their own room, and while he had felt secretly relieved by the news, he had begged her to stop sticking her nose into this matter. He did not even want to imagine what would happen if the Commander noticed her little game and made her admit the reason of it. He was definitely not ready for having to confess his feelings to a probably very upset woman convinced that he mandated someone to spy on her.

Of course he had hoped to leave for Zakuul with her only. Not that he expected anything to happen but simply because he liked the way they interacted when they were alone, the way they became closer. Travelling the three of them would immediately feel more awkward, at least for him as he knew that in this situation he was the new and somewhat unnatural addition to a team formed long ago. He would try to make sure that his unease remained unnoticed, but he was painfully aware that his social skills were dramatically under-developed and that he would not be at his best, whatever he tried.

He was scanning the area and wondering where he was supposed to settle in when the door of what looked like a private cabin from the limited view he had through the door opened, Nyx stepping out of it.

"Welcome on board," she said, stretching an arm in the opposite direction of where he stood. He moved forward, following the indicated way and reached what appeared to be the crews quarters. "Just do not take the first one on the right or you might have troubles with Andronikos. It has always been his."

Arcann went to put the small bag he had packed on a berth located further at the back of the cabin, half relieved that the pilot would have to sleep in the same quarters even if he was not particularly looking forward to share the place with the man. They had shaken hands when Nyx had introduced them to each other a few days earlier but until then, the pilot had always pulled a face when he crossed his path.

Seeing that the Commander had not moved from the doorway, he refrained from sitting on the berth to test it and stepped back towards her, stopping at respectful distance.

"I am glad that you are coming," she said, smiling sincerely. "I am looking forward to seeing the results of our training."

"Thank you, Commander," he answered, giving her a slight formal nod. He did not want it to show, but he had been glad that she had agreed with his presence so naturally. And for her to, on top of that, looking forward to spending that time with him meant a lot to him, even if it was only for his fighting skills.

"Nyx… please," she retorted. "You do not need to stick to the title when we are alone or in trusted company. My friends don't."

Her words put a shy smile on his face which was a pale reflection of the joy he was suddenly feeling from hearing her calling him a friend. Biting his lower lip, he snickered and nodded gazing at her. "Nyx… I… I cannot promise that I will lose the habit easily but… I will certainly try."

"Hey hey, sorry to interrupt but there's a ship waiting for its pilot!"

They were both forced to take a step backward when Andronikos appeared in the common area and forced his way between them to go and throw his bag onto his berth. Turning around, he gave a straight look to Nyx, purposely ignoring Arcann. "So! Are we ready to take-off?"

"Ready when you are, Captain," she answered with a smile, amused by his blunt manners. Had he wanted to make sure that he was indeed wrecking a moment of closeness, he would not have acted differently. Addressing a quick apologetic look to Arcann who replied with a resigned shrug, she followed the pilot to the bridge where the three of them took a seat, fastening their harnesses while Andronikos prepared the ship for departure.

"Control, Fury-class interceptor code Aurek-Usk-One-One-Nine, requesting permission for take-off."

The answer came a few seconds later. "Control to Fury-class interceptor code Aurek-Usk-One-One-Nine, all clear, permission for take-off granted."

"Alright, baby. Time to go see the stars," Nik muttered affectionately to the ship, his hands busy on the pilot's commands.

The interceptor took off smoothly and left the hangar before heading towards the atmosphere. The sky that they could see from the cockpit quickly became a darker shade of blue then as dark as a night sky with stars flickering before their eyes. Andronikos soon started his countdown to hyperspace and the billiards of tiny dots around became rays of light.

"Alright, we're good for a few hours. You planning to stay off the radars?"

"Yes, you will activate the mode when we leave hyperspace," Nyx answered, unfastening her belt and leaving her seat. She moved close to the pilot and pointed on the holomap of the planet that he had in front of him. "Target the coordinates that have been entered in the navigation computer, they will give you a safe angle where we will remain unnoticed."

Arcann snorted and mumbled. "Now, this is how you did it… How many times have you been on Zakuul without my knowledge?" he asked, raising a quizzical, yet amused, eyebrow.

"A few times. But we often ended up being too noisy to remain discrete."

Some parts of the swamps were indeed sprinkled with the carcasses of countless Skytroopers that the Alliance had to fight. Lives had been lost as well, but the remains of those who had died had probably already been taken care of by the surrounding wild life. Zakuul's swamps were far from being a hospitable place. Nyx refocused on the pilot to continue her explanations.

"When we approach, you will have to find a place with solid ground, otherwise you will have to let us disembark without landing. There may be ruins nearby that you can use as a landing pad."

Andronikos frowned, visibly annoyed. "Expecting me to remain on board?"

"Yes, in case we must leave in a hurry."

He grumbled, crossing his arms on his chest, but did not insist. "You Force users are keeping all the fun."

"We will keep all the filth as well and trust me, no one should be looking forward to being covered in Iknayid's mucus."

She straightened up, rapidly checking the countdown of the estimated remaining time in hyperspace. "I am going to have some rest. And try to behave," she whispered into the pilot's ear before leaving.

The two men watched her go, Arcann refraining himself of following her footsteps too closely even if he did not particularly wanted to remain alone in the presence of the Commander's friend. He initiated a move towards the common room a silent minute later.

"Guess I don't need to warn you 'bout harming her…" the pilot said without even turning to face him.

He froze and sighed, closing his eyes in annoyance. No, he did not need to be warned. And despite the fact that he knew that the subject would come out often, he started to be tired of being warned, verbally or not, nearly every day. Even more than tired, in fact. Sick. Because even though almost everyone still seemed to believe that he remained a potential threat for their Commander, the very idea of her being harmed was starting to make his flesh crawl. But they would not understand and he was certainly not planning to say it.

Hearing the pilot's seat turn in his direction, Arcann raised his head and opened his eyes again, swallowing the urge to simply tell him to mind his own business. He was sure that the man considered her as part of the scope of his own business anyway…

"Indeed, you don't. I am regularly reminded of the painful consequences that any treacherous action from my part may have," he answered dryly, making efforts to keep a measured voice. "But you may want to check with Lana if there is an official waiting list where people can enrol and buy their turn for reminding me."

Nik frowned, taken aback by the second part of his answer, unsure if he had to take it as a mark of frustration or some kind of humour. Or perhaps a bit of both. He finally seemed to choose the latter and smirked.

"I'm being too protective?"

Arcann huffed and gave him a rather accusing look. "If you want to protect her, start by showing her respect in public. The Commander has enough on her plate already, she does not need to deal with gossip and loss of credibility on top of it." The pilot gave him an annoyed look but did not retaliate, which Arcann was relieved about as he did not really feel in the right mood to pursue the discussion. He yet had another point he wanted to make clear. "Believe it or not but I mean her no harm," he uttered. "At all," he then insisted, even though he thought that it did not really matter how hard he tried to be convincing. "And for the record, I am not intending to let anyone else hurt her either. " He remained silent a few seconds, wondering if he wanted to add something then shook his head, turning his back to the man to leave.

"That supposed to be a threat?" he heard in his back.

"A statement. As long as we both keep her best interests in mind," he answered, turning around slowly to face the other man again.

The two men stared at each other for a few seconds, measuring each other. Andronikos then leant back into his chair, raising his legs one by one to put his feet on the navigation board.

"You'd better be good at protecting her out there, 'cause I'll be holding you to your word."

"Trust me, I will keep her safe," Arcann guaranteed self-confidently, adding to it a slightly defying look. He then turned on his heels and continued his way to the common room. Walking past the door to the Commander's cabin reminded him about the earlier discussion that the other man had interrupted and the memory made him smile all the way to the crews quarter where he kneeled in front of his berth. Most of the Alliance members might remain suspicious about him, she did not. She had called him a friend and asked him to address her by her name, which he knew not that many people did. That alone made the strain of having to suffer being constantly mistrusted worth it. She did not doubt him, despite the fact that the people around her did not encourage her trust. They had been deadly enemies and now she expected him to shield her in combat. He concentrated on what it meant to him, on the warm feeling it brought inside his chest, and exhaled profoundly, slowly drifting into a meditative state.
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When the Blazing Queen left hyperspace a few hours later and offered a view on Zakuul's globe to its occupants, Arcann immediately felt his heart sink. He had seen the planet from space countless times, could almost draw every complex shape outlined by the lights on the surface with his eyes closed and yet he could barely recognise his home world.

Substantial portions of the former glistening shapes had disappeared, leaving space to darkness. Power cuts, due either to the damages dealt to the infrastructure by the fleet's blind attack following his sister's death or to the shortages in raw energy material due to the fall of the Eternal Empire which mostly depended on the world that they had been bleeding.

The extensive automation of the zakuulian's society which had been his father's pride was now his birthplace's bane and the entire planet depended on external help, from the Alliance mostly. Zakuul was once a place where life was easy. People were provided with the finest foods from the whole galaxy, were tended to by droids down to their most simple needs, and what had once been the most vibrant representation of the Emperor's might had now plunged them into chaos. Zakullian people did not know how to use their hands and the very idea of having to actually work seemed an absurd concept to most. Until Valkorion's death, they had experienced nothing else than a lazy decadent life punctuated by the latest gossips and, very rarely though, unexpected minor incidents. If he had not been trained as a warrior and had learnt from the knights, this would have been his life as well. The useless life of people only raised to praise a seemingly benevolent emperor, carefully maintained in a numb carelessness and convenient ignorance.

Now, even those willing to take hold of their lives had everything to learn. They had no idea how to repair, build, create or even solve basic problems. Arcann had kept an eye on the reports issued by the small groups dispatched in the Spire by the Alliance in order to understand his people's needs - his former people's needs, he corrected himself mentally - and had quickly grasped the extend of the issue. They were dying and lacked even the most basic knowledge to reverse the process. They starved and did not know how to grow food, got sick and had no medical knowledge… Izax! They did not even really realise that not making the effort of keeping the city clean, another thing that the droid had always handled for them without even being noticed, was indeed the reason for the pest infestations and diseases they complained about.

"We are doing our best, but we cannot put too many efforts on a single planet. It would not make sense, either strategically, or politically."

He had not heard the Commander approach and the sound of her quiet voice made him startle slightly. She put a hand on his right upper arm and he had to refrain himself from following an instinctive desire of reaching with his cyberarm and thread his cold fingers with her warm ones. That was not something friends did, did they? So as much as he wanted to do otherwise, he forced himself to ignore the hand and remain still, knowing with a certain relief that it would soon be gone.

"I know," he simply stated, turning his head towards her. "Now they have to learn how to take care of themselves and it will take a long time before they really can." He inhaled deeply, trying to let go of the unease that the sight of his planet had awaken in his guts. Too many memories… and above all, too many bad ones, but Zakuul was still his homeland… and it was in ruins.

Andronikos began his descent on the planet, following the route that would allow them to remain discrete. The Fury anyway had an embedded stealth module, the pilot had put it in place many years earlier and it was part of the elements which had survived the damages from which the ship had suffered. The journey from space to subatmospheric level should go smoothly and the remaining low-altitude flight would go under the radar anyway.

They were soon close enough to the ground to almost brush the top of the highest crooked trees scattered amongst the hundreds of ponds forming most of the Eternal Swamps. They had agreed that Nik would drop off both Force users at the intercepted communication's coordinates and then head for the location of the encampment where the former emperor had spent several weeks of hiding before joining the Alliance. Not much would probably remain of the infrastructure that had been in place, but there was at least enough hard ground suitable for landing from where Andronikos could await instructions.

Moments later, the ship, hovering above the ground, lowered its gangplank, letting Nyx and Arcann jump down onto a portion of soft but dry portion of land.

"Watch out down there, okay?" uttered a slightly metallic-sounding voice on the comlink while the Fury already moved away. "Seen a few nasty beasts around."

"We will manage, Nik," she answered, rolling her eyes slightly before looking around, her nose reacting instinctively to the foul smell of the stagnant water. The surroundings of their landing point seemed quiet, the presence of the ship, and the commotion it had caused, had probably scared off the wild fauna, which would offer them a welcomed window of tranquillity. What was worse, though, was that there was as well nothing else to be seen around even if they were only a few meters away of the transmission's coordinates.

Arcann and Nyx looked at each other, both immediately understanding the other's disappointment. He took out his datapad and moved forward, trying to find the exact location that they were looking for.

"Here…"

"Unsurprisingly useless…" she huffed with frustration. "I doubt that there is anything to be found here. You were right, we are truly in the middle of nowhere."

He crouched and began inspecting the ground around, moving weeds aside to examine the soil. "They must have installed a relay antenna, I see marks of where the legs have been. And the vegetation has been trampled on all around. But there is nothing left."

"I want to have a look around. See if we can find something."

Arcann nodded and straightened up, observing around briefly before moving towards a wider portion of land, screening the ground at his feet as he walked.

"There is a visible trail. It must have been more than one person, but not many. Two, three perhaps?"

Nyx looked at him, raising a quizzical eyebrow. "I did not expect you to have trailing skills…"

He chuckled and gave her a quick glance before crouching again to observe the surroundings. "Just the vital minimum. My siblings and I ran away and spent one entire month in the swamps when we were young. Though I suspect that we were not as alone as we thought and had some invisible help from knights watching us." He frowned and move slightly further, suddenly wincing and gesturing her to come closer.

While the smell of the swamps was already far from pleasant, the stench that caught her nostrils instantly gave her nausea. Placing a hand on her mouth and nose, Nyx approached nonetheless to have a look at what Arcann wanted to show.

"Carcasses. They are half eaten and have started to rot but look…" he moved one of the shapeless scaly flesh remains with the tip of his foot. "Blaster marks. They were attacked."

"And unfortunately for the beasts and us, they apparently won…" she answered in a sigh but suddenly stopped and frowned, her attention caught by something. "Hold on…"

She squatted in front of the remains and pulled with her gloved hand on a little shiny part that she had just noticed, uttering a disgusted groan when the piece emerged from the mass with a sucking sound.

Not wanting to stay any longer close to the source of the stench, she retreated quickly followed closely by Arcann. They both inhaled raucously as soon as they were sure that the smell would be more bearable.

"What have you found?"

"Not sure yet," she answered, crouching to clean her finding in the nearby pond then holding the small embossed metal part in front of her at eye level

"A snake?" Straightening up, she held out the piece to her companion. He took it, noticing that her look had slid down to his chest and the golden decorated piece that stood in the middle of his upper body armour.

He shook his head negatively. "Mine is Izax but this one is different. It looks more like a representation of Zildrog."

"Heralds?"

"I do not know. I do not recall them using any kind of symbol to identify themselves."

"At least it gives us something…" She activated the comlink located on her left wrist that allowed close range communication with the ship and its pilot. "Nik, do you copy? Send a communication to Odessen. I want Lana and Theron to start digging in their intel using Zildrog as a keyword. Ask them to keep an eye as well on anything else related to a snake of some sort. We will be heading your way soon."

"Aye, N… Commander," the altered pilot's voice answered. "Need a lift?"

"Not immediately. I will give you coordinates later. Commander out." Nyx turned her gaze to the direction of the animal remains then to Arcann. "The trail goes in the direction to your former encampment. We can try following it for a while before asking for retrieval."

They started walking, heading south-west in the rough direction of the camp, zigzaging to remain on dry ground. They progressed slowly and silently, ears and eyes open to any threat coming from the surrounding wild lifeas well as to any sign of the former presence of their mysterious opponents. The trail that they suspected to be theirs was soon lost when they reached a wide area that had probably been used as a temporary landing pad for a small shuttle. They had found no other element allowing them to better understand who they were dealing with, but they at least had one. Seeing that they would not be any more successful, Nyx quickly sent the coordinates to their current location to Andronikos so that he could retrieve them, ETA 5 minutes.

"We will have to…" she started, turning her attention back to her companion. She was interrupted by a loud high-pitched hiss resonating all around followed by many other lower ones coming from their back. Both Force users turned around simultaneously, Arcann reaching for his lightsaber and activating it in a single movement.

"Oh Hell…" Nyx sighed, less than happy with the sight of what was moving towards them. Dozens of iknayids of various sizes were slowly circling them and drawing closer. And from the louder hiss that they had just heard, they were led by a bigger one that still remained unseen but was certainly not very far. These disgusting arachnids were among the most dangerous beasts that could be found in the swamps, their long legs making them perfectly adapted to their environment and capable of running and jumping easily, not at all hindered by the stagnant water and spongy grounds. While the smaller ones could be defeated easily one by one, their number could make them deadly, especially as they seemed to be somehow able to carry out organised attacks. She had already had to fight many of them right after her extraction from Arcann's 'private collection' and while she was in much better shape now, she knew that the fight may remain a difficult one as they could easily become overwhelmed.

"It looks like a good moment to verify if training together paid off…" she said in a low voice, voluntarily leaving her lightsaber hilt hooked to her left hip.

Arcann did not answer but gave her a small nod, tightening his grip on the hilt of his weapon. A good moment for that indeed, and for proving his will and ability to protect her as well. The simple fact that she had not drawn her saber at all was a message on its own: she expected him to keep the beasts far enough for her to use only her Force powers and no physical weapon.

The loud shrill sounded again, this time in front of them and they could see the gigantic beast come out of the surrounding mist. The smaller iknayids answered it and, as if it had been a signal to start fighting, began rushing towards them.

The first ones coming on their right were not given any chance, Arcann's blade easily sliced three of them in a single blow while Nyx shocked a few more from behind him. He then swiftly jumped to the left and eliminated the closest ones while she sucked the life away from further ones. The fighters quickly found a pace and a way to work together, alternating sides, lightsaber moving quickly and crashing into closer enemies and Force powers reaching farther into groups of incoming beasts. The giant one had not moved yet, but its screams rang regularly, covering the noises of the fight, always closely followed by new waves of arachnids thrusting upon them. It was leading the attack of the troops but not getting involved, using the smaller beasts to tire them as a commanding officer would have used grunts, but its turn would come and it would take the confrontation to another level.

"Too many!" Arcann shouted. He eliminated the iknayids by two or three with each blow and kept moving and cutting continuously but he could see the endless flow approaching. Nyx's unfurling waves of lightning and swirling dark smoke defeated many others but increasing numbers were getting closer.

"Move back!" he heard and he reacted immediately, turning around and leaping to her side. From the corner of his eye, he could see the purple electric arcs rippling around her as she drew more and more from the Force, concentrating it inside her. When she stretched her arms out, following the move with her whole body, he could feel the blast of the powerful wave that she released in front of them, knocking the arachnids down in an impressive surge of power. He heard her inhale deeply as she straightened up again and extended her arms to her sides, generating a storm of lightning covering the entire ground in front of them. This discharge of power left her panting but they both knew that she only had bought them time for him to recover a bit. He could already see the beasts get back to their numerous feet. Much to his surprise, though, they began backing off but his feeling of relief was immediately forgotten when an angry hiss resonated again and the giant iknayid started moving.

The monster reared and fell back on its front legs with another loud shriek, making the ground shake under the impact. It then started to gallop and was on them in a split second. Both dodged the first attack of its razor-sharp legs and a second one forced Arcann to roll on the side. When he got back to his feet, he saw with horror that Nyx had been less lucky. She was standing too but held her side, wincing from the pain and he could see an ugly bruise darken rapidly on the side of her neck, but the quick glance she gave him contained a silent order not to bother. She would be fine and it was not the time to doubt about it.

He rushed to join her nonetheless, determined not to fail his promise to keep her safe. She managed to make the beast keep its distance but her powers seemed to bother it more than it was hurting it. "Their weak point is at the back of their skull!" he shouted when he reached her side. "One of us needs to get there."

She fixed the beast narrowing her eyes then gave a quick glance to her companion. "Jump. I help."

He nodded and braced himself, switching off his lightsaber. As the monster roared again, stretching its head forward, he ran and leapt in its direction, instantly feeling an extra-push upward coming from the Commander. Their joint efforts allowed him to land on the back of the monster's skull. In a single move he changed his grip on the hilt of his weapon to hold it downward, turned it back on and plunged its blade in the tender spot located at the back of the arachnid's head. The agonising shrill that the giant ikayid let out made their ears ring and Arcann had to hastily jump down from its neck, landing in a splash in the nearby pond, but the monstrosity eventually fell in a groundshaking crash.

"Drawing close! What the hell are you two doing down there?" a voice on the comlink said at last.

"It is about time! Hover above us and get the gangplank down!" Nyx answered. The giant beast was down, but she could see the swarm of smaller one getting closer again and had no intention to remain one more minute around.

The Fury finally reached their position a few seconds later and they were able to avoid another fight and climb aboard the ship. Manoeuvring to take some more distance with the ground, Nik got a better view on the area and let out a curse: "Bloody kriffing stars! You really thought that it was a good time for a hunt?"

"Well, we were more on the preys' side here. Get us to the camp, we are not going home today," she ordered, leaning with a sigh against the wall at the back of the bridge. Seeing the astonished look that Arcann, that had just passed the doorstep, gave her, Nyx then added: "I want to go to the Spire, see what we can find there about this snake."

He nodded and lent back against the facing wall, closing his eyes to let the tension wear away. They were both tired but she was safe and he had kept his promise and now, with the danger gone and adrenaline still flowing in his veins, he felt strangely joyful. Noticing that they had both fell silent, he raised his eyes and met her gaze. She was looking at him with a small smile painted on her face and when his eyes locked with hers, her smile grew brighter and he felt a matching one blossom on his own lips. She ended up uttering a happy laugh which made his own joy reach new heights.

"Not bad for a first real fight as a pair. I liked it," she confessed in a low voice, her eyes lit with excitement.

"I liked it as well," he answered smiling, his eyes still fixed on hers. He did not want this moment to stop, her eyes to move away from him. He knew that they would so he made sure to savour every second of this connection they had right at that moment and that was only theirs. It probably looked awkward from an external point of view, he was almost sure that they looked silly, grinning at each other without a word. But he could not care less. Even though in a very strange way, he had just made her happy and this small victory was the only thing that counted.
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A long howl broke the silence of the night that had fell on the swamps, answered by other ones in the distance. The beasts were not close to their location that had been anyway secured by an energy dome generated by the ship.

As expected, not much remained from the encampment where Arcann had spent time recovering after his escape from Voss. Not much more than a few remaining tents and some crates containing basic material, tools and armour pieces had been left behind and if the durasteel had protected the crates' content from the curiosity of the surrounding wild life, they could not say the same about the tents. It was still a rather good place to spend the night on the planet. The Fury would provide them the necessary accommodation for a good night sleep and Arcann had been able to convince his companions that grilled sleen meat would make a rather good evening meal, getting the benediction from the pilot as long as he was the one to go hunting for it. As much as he was frustrated by not having been part of the action, Andronikos did not particularly want to discover the zakuulian wild life and environment.

A delicious smell of roasted meat filled the air when Nyx went out of the ship after a well-deserved shower and a change of clothes. While Arcann was gone hunting, she had spent her time exchanging with Lana and Theron about the potential clue they had found and informed them of her intention to meet with the current zakuulian officials to try and find out more. On their side, they had already begun skimming through their intel in the hope to find hints leading them to the traitor. Without any luck so far.

"Smells good… It reminds me of a few other times when we hunted just for fun," she said to the man taking care of their meal in front of the fire.

"Yeah, just handling it while today's hunter's refreshing himself. But I remember. Good times indeed," Nik answered while turning the meat on its other side. "Done for the day?"

"Yes. I sent a message to the Spire informing them of our arrival tomorrow early morning. They should not suspect that we are actually here already. Not that it does really matter after all as long as they do not know that Arcann is with us."

"Going to hide him?"

"I am not sure yet, but I think that we should be able to handle it," she answered, getting down to sit cross-egged on the ground by the fire, across from Andronikos.

The hearth had been carefully organised to allow cooking on embers on one side while still providing them with fire on the other one and small blazing particles danced in the air above the flames in a mesmerising ballet. It was a quiet moment, one of the very few that Nyx had had an opportunity to live within the last months. Letting her mind wander, she wondered how long it had been since the last time she had felt truly satisfied by a fight, or anything in general. Ages. It had been ages and it all went back to that time when she was not even part of the Dark Council, when she, Nik and the small crew of the Blazing Queen were roaming the galaxy.

From the day when Lana had rescued her from carbonite, events had followed each other at a high pace. Even during the long period that they needed to build the Alliance's infrastructure on Odessen, she had been constantly solicited to convince more and more allies, help find solutions for getting supplies, keep watch on the Eternal Empire's moves. Her duties as Commander of the Alliance had swallowed her entire time and while she had voluntarily plunged herself in the role when her friend had offered it to her, she had to admit that it was taking a toll on her. Ambition had driven her and she was now the head of one of the three main factions in the galaxy. And potentially the most powerful at that very moment. Reigning on such a power had been an unexpected turn of events.

Facing the Emperor and thwarting his plans to absorb all life in the galaxy had been at first purely necessary. She had no intention to die and had acted accordingly. Even though the events of Yavin 4 had been taken as a proof that a collaboration between the Empire and the Republic could be sometimes achieved, she had been there mostly for herself after all, just making sure that what everybody feared about would not happen. There was no way to get better chances to remain alive.

Serving the Empire had always been a mean, not an end, even though it was the side she felt the closest to anyway, the side which at least did not hide their dirty manoeuvres behind beautiful ideals of freedom and peace. Both the Empire and the Republic had the ambition to be the greatest power in the galaxy, but at least one of them was honest about it. And that was an ambition that she considered to be perfectly valid and respectable, which is why the war initiated by the Eternal Empire was not something she had ever considered out of place. Arcann and his siblings had no less right than any other to try claiming the galaxy for their own after all. If they had the power to make their claim real, then there was no reason why they should not have victory. Deaths, even by millions, were only a consequence of war, and not a new one in any case.

The fact that they had considered her as their main enemy had made things personal and motivated her to take the lead of the Alliance that Lana had initiated. But her own survival, and that of the people who had put their trust in her and pledge their allegiance to her, had always been one of the main reasons for her to go ahead. Not an idealistic altruistic wish to protect the galaxy from harm, even though she gladly let people conveniently think that she was this hero that saved them all. If they only knew…

Now that the Eternal Empire had been taken down, things had changed and the Alliance had mostly worked on keeping and increasing the power it had acquired. Like any other faction would, after all, in a time of relative peace. Even though she was not bearing the title, that made her the perfect equivalent to Empress Acina or the new Republic's Chancellor. A position she had certainly wished for countless times. She was respected and feared and, with the Eternal Fleet and the Gravestone at hand, held a power that the other rulers of the galaxy did not have… And yet, she realised that it was this kind of quiet simple moments that she had been craving for and that had become so scarce. Moments she could simply try enjoying without thinking ahead about the next move that had to be done.

Oh, there was a next move, and then plenty of others. She could not allow herself to set the issue of the traitor aside more than for a brief period of time, but that fight against the iknayids had been rather satisfying… She felt contented in a way that she had not experienced for a long time. And to add to the odd situation, it was the man who had strongly contributed in keeping her away from simpler enjoyments that had today offered her such a fulfilling moment.

"Now, that's a smile I hadn't seen for a long time. Credit for your thoughts?"

Nik's voice brought her back to the present and she chuckled lightly. "I was thinking about today's fight. It felt surprisingly good and I enjoyed it more than I have enjoyed any other in a rather long time."

"Yeah. 'm still pissed that you had fun without me. Apparently you two had a bloody good time… If we turn a blind eye to the fact that you would have been shred to pieces had I arrived a few minutes later," he answered scornfully.

His apparent frustration made her laugh out loud. "Then I should not forget to humbly thank our wonderful pilot for his timely arrival which saved us from a horrible death," she declaimed mockingly, adding an elaborated bow to her words.

While her little taunt made him grumble, Andronikos could not help smiling at the sight of her being more joyful than she had been lately. "Alright, alright. Can concede that you've done a pretty good job out there. And he stuck to his word too."

Nyx gave him a quizzical look. "His word? What word?"

"Keeping you safe," he mumbled. "Yeah, I know, I know, Big Bad Sith does not need protection," he continued as soon as he saw her open her mouth to retort. "But I shouldn't be discouraging him to ensure it if he's willing, huh? Besides, I'll have to file a complaint for that bruise on your neck."

The sound of footsteps on the gangplank interrupted their discussion when Arcann came out of the ship, clean and wearing a new set of clothes. He too seemed relaxed and bore a small smile on his face. He joined them near the fire, circumventing it to position himself on Nyx's left side, crouching in front of the fire and looking around.

"It almost feels like I was here years ago. But it has only been a few months," he said in a low voice, only loud enough for her to hear.

"I know. I barely had time to breathe as well," she answered in the same tone. "So this is where you decided to join us."

He snickered sheepishly and nodded. "It was the only path that seemed to potentially lead somewhere. We had the same enemies, I had finally understood it. And the fact that you would deserve the throne more than I did." He chuckled in a slightly sad way. "And I could not see myself running away, I had to try, even though it ended up in a quick death by your hand. But I can now admit that it has probably been the hardest decision that I have ever made. Deciding to pledge myself to you and leave my fate in your hands… I had faced potential death many times before, but never without fighting."

"'I choose my own fate,'" Nyx whispered, turning her head to look at him. "I remember you saying that, yes."

"That was the best choice I ever made," he forced himself to confess, voluntarily not leaving time to his head to instruct him to back down. It took even more strength to continue sustaining her gaze after his words. But he did, feeling his pulse accelerate and cursing himself once again internally for seeking approval from her in a way that painfully reminded him of the countless times he had hoped for the same from his father. But she was different, he kept telling himself. Different. And she did not turn her back on him. Or had not yet, at least.

"I do not regret mine either."

He did not know if it was the way she had said those words or the reflexion of his own aspirations but at that very moment, all he could suddenly think about was leaning closer and kissing her. He wanted her to know how he felt. He had to, could not keep it for himself any longer. It was not the first time he had been taking chances after all, what did he risk? Rejection. Oh Scyva, she could reject him, laugh at him, push him away and he would have to suffer it helplessly. But… perhaps she would not, and in that case…

"Weeeeeeell I rather like campfire discussions, but usually everyone is allowed to participate. I don't know what you two are mumbling about but it would be nice to share if you don't mind."

Suddenly pulled away from the thoughts that had been churning around wildly in his head, Arcann went back to reality in a split second. Izax! The pilot! Andronikos had been there the entire time! Barely containing a gasp, he turned his gaze back to the fire, feeling a cold wave flow down his chest at the realisation that his intentions might have been visible. Certain that his sudden discomfort was as bright as day, he immediately went back to his feet and decided to take care of the meat. He could not even imagine looking at her immediately, he was too worried about what he could see on her face had she noticed anything.

Luckily for him, the meat was ready and gave him a good opportunity to draw the attention on something else than his recent awkward behaviour. It took a while before he was able not to avoid eye contact with her, but the meal helped and tensions eased as both his companions seemed to act normally. He was incapable of knowing if any of them had perceived anything, but decided that they probably had not, which was definitely for the best... At least until he had a moment to think straight again.

When, after the meal, the Commander reminded her intentions to head for the Spire the next morning, he expressed his doubts that he would be welcome there but quickly noticed that she had thought it through already and had a solution to provide. A rather odd one, but it would work.

Chapter Text

The morning was still young when Nyx got out of the ship and went straight to the remains of the tent where she knew that she would find Arcann. At dawn, the three of them had shared a quick and simple breakfast and had discussed the details of their visit to Zakuul's current officials. Andronikos had agreed to go his own way and hit a few cantinas so long as they would be staying in the Spire. He was relatively skilled at eavesdropping and was planning to chase the latest rumours in the places where people tend speak more easily. While he might not have been trained as a spy, his days as a pirate had taught him how to make people talk, with a glass or two and sometimes a few more charming skills involved. Arcann would however remain by Nyx's side, but he could not do it as his own self.
 
The political situation of Zakuul was currently unstable. A government was supposed to be elected within the next months but the process took some time and the people in place were for the moment only temporary. They had been chosen among some of the former advisors who had been in place during Arcann and Vaylin's time, mostly based on their knowledge of the city and its people more than on real political competences as they were meant, first and foremost, to be the main local contacts of the Alliance during the transitional initial period of reconstruction. Their choice had actually been one of the first decision Arcann had participated to regarding Zakuul. Even though his opinion had only been taken as one among many others and treated with the suspicion reserved to a former enemy, he had been requested to provide his analysis of each candidate's adequacy with the considerable task that would be theirs.
 
Most of these people knew him and Nyx was very well aware of the mixed feelings of the zakuulans for their former emperor. Most of the chosen officials would tolerate his presence thanks to the help he had provided in saving the city from the fleet's blind attack or simply because they had never been personally impacted by his most controversial decisions, but a lot of citizens gave him full accountability for many of their current woes nonetheless. Him, but her as well, as she had refused to hand him over to them for judgment and was as well still held responsible for the death of their beloved emperor Valkorion. Beloved… She could not help chuckling cynically at the idea of it, but understood that in their narrow perspective he had been that benevolent ruler for them, a highly praised benefactor. She did not really care changing that image so far anyway, narrow-minded people were a waste of her time, except when it was possible to manipulate them for a greater purpose, but the Alliance had already access to most of the valuable assets Zakuul possessed.
 
Until now, she had considered that the help provided by the Alliance for the reconstruction was enough to nip popular discontent in the bud or at least any tangible manifestation of it. But it looked like she might have been wrong and something was going on. Some people were ready to bite the hand that was feeding them even if the cost of it might be high. It still did not add up, though. Except for forces as powerful as the Republic or the Sith Empire, it was currently almost suicidal to attempt anything against the Alliance. A guerrilla would of course damage them and constrain them to fight one more threat and dilute their forces a bit more, but resistance would lose on the long term. Unless they had a more important plan that she did not grasp yet... What did their opponents have that made them confident that they could win against them and their fleet? Could the traitor be well positioned enough to damage them substantially from the inside? The simple idea of it was sending waves of concern and anger through her veins. She had warned all of her allies of the fate she reserved to anyone betraying her… Whoever they were, traitors would be punished by death. And a painful one.
 
Nyx reached the right side of the open infrastructure. She could see Arcann inside, his back turned to her and visibly lost in his own thoughts. Taking advantage of not having been noticed yet, she stopped and started observing him shamelessly, admiring his stature. He was already clad in half an armour, up to his waist, and was browsing through the chest pieces to find one that would fit on him. The undershirt that he was wearing covered his chest and arms and rose up to the middle of his neck but its fit did not leave so much to her imagination. His right arm and shoulder were those of one who had spent years training and fighting and she could note the attention that had been given to his artificial arm which perfectly mimicked his real one in shape. She could see the muscles of his back move under the thin stretch fabric and fleetingly caught herself wishing that she could have a peek at his chest as well. If she was perfectly honest with herself, she found him rather attractive. Despite the scars and the cyberarm. Or even thanks to them, perhaps, as they were only acknowledging his past as a warrior who had had to prove his valour in battle.
 
She had always despised nobles, and all the people who always made the comfortable choice of hiding behind others and using them to achieve their goals without ever facing danger themselves. Oh, using people was not an issue per se. Every leader - or anyone aspiring to be one - had to know how to cleverly use the people around them, openly or not. But to her it was not sufficient. She did not see value in those who were not strong enough to face their destiny alone if they had to. That disdain included several of her former peers in the Empire and was the reason why she had always felt more connected to Darth Marr who had never hesitated to get more closely involved in conflicts. For what concerned Arcann, he had been a prince and an emperor but first and foremost a fighter and a commander on the battlefield. That was where she thought that his strength mainly resided, where he was the most at ease, and probably an aspect that made him more appealing to her the more he came to terms with who he now was.

Appealing, yes. At the very least, she had to concede that she liked his presence by her side and the imprint that he had in the Force. Strong. And getting stronger again. It was far from comparable to the outpouring of hatred she had been confronted to during their last encounter as enemies, more serene, controlled, a quiet statement of his presence that had nothing to do with the raging expression of his former self. Confidence. That was it. And it was that confidence that had convinced her in an instant in the War Room to have him on this mission, she had not even hesitated one split second. On the contrary, she had liked seeing him impose his presence. A little more than she should have, perhaps. There were not many people that she considered an equal. He was one of them and that alone made him attractive to her…
 
Suddenly realising the direction in which her thoughts were wandering and the way her body resonated with them, she forced herself back to reality. Warning signs had lit up everywhere in her mind. Complications. Many of them. Regarding who she now was. And who he was. She had to focus on solving their traitor issue and that was the reason why they were there on Zakuul. A pang of anger at the idea of being betrayed helped sobering her up and she decided to make her presence known. He was almost done with the armour anyway and they had planned to leave as soon as possible. This was not a time for lingering in inappropriate thoughts.
 
"Have you found everything you need?"
 
He straightened his back and turned around slowly, the helmet he had just chosen in his hands. "Oh… I had not heard you come…"
 
"You seemed deeply focused indeed."
 
He chuckled lightly. "I was rehearsing my role, trying to bring back memories of the way they acted and talked in official situations. I figured that it might be useful." He winced a little and continued. "I would rather remain totally silent, though. It may be risky if I speak."
 
Nyx nodded in agreement. "They may recognise your voice. We will try to avoid the situation. If you are ready, then we should head to the Spire," she added before turning on her heels. Her recent thoughts were still bugging her enough for her to want to cut the discussion short, she did not feel comfortable in his presence at this very moment and did not want to take any risk of it becoming visible.
 
"Nyx?"
 
She froze. It was the first time that he called her by her name except the day before when he had simply repeated it in the ship. By the sound of it, he had visibly been forcing himself not to use her title instead to meet her request but had a hard time changing his habits. It felt strange to her too, like bearing a feeling of unexpected closeness. She turned around and looked back at him quizzically, making sure that her face remained imperturbable.
 
He grabbed a long cylinder that was placed on a nearby crate and quickly strode towards her. "Here… Take this," he said in a low and almost solemn voice, handing it to her.
 
She looked down to the object that he was presenting her then gave him a surprised look. "Your lightsaber?"
 
He nodded, placing it in the hand that she had almost instinctively stretched out. "It could be another giveaway of who I am. Some people know it. It is safer if you keep it." One corner of his lips went up in an amused smile. "A trophy taken from a defeated enemy?"
 
Nyx chuckled lightly. He was voluntarily turning it into a joke but what he had just done was not a trivial choice for any fighter. Even though she barely used it, she still considered her own lightsaber as an extension of her own arm and her own will. She had crafted it and would only give it to someone else very reluctantly. While she had no clue of the process he went through to create his, she doubted that he considered it any differently. Yet he entrusted her with it instead of trying to find a way to hide it on him…
 
Slightly troubled, she had a second look at the weapon. It was substantially larger than hers and of a simpler design, made of a deep black material that looked like it almost absorbed light, encased in silvery parts that shone as if they had just been thoroughly polished. These were enhanced by curved abstract patterns that had been so lightly engraved that they remained unnoticed to the unmindful eye. The weight of it was as well substantially different from what she was used to. Heavier. A weapon requiring strength but which, by its conception, would increase the impact of each blow even more. It felt odd to have it in her hand. It was so deeply personal…
 
"You may want to give it back if we enter a serious fight. I am not really used to wielding spears anymore." His words broke the silence that had fallen upon them but he had spoken them in an incredibly soft tone, as if he had felt her unease and been making his best to nudge her gently out of her thoughts without startling her. Deliberately avoiding looking at him, she took a deep breath in and nodded, clipping the hilt to her belt, right behind her own.
 
"Fine. Shall we?" she uttered, taking a step back and finally daring to have a look at him. Turning on her heels, she just had time to see him nod and extend his arm to grab a nearby spear before heading back to the ship. She was relieved to go…
______________________________________________

The footsteps of the Commander and her armoured bodyguard resonated on the gangplank as they went out of their ship. Roughly fifty meters ahead, on the other side of the bridge reaching the landing pad, three silhouettes were silently waiting for them. Two of them were clad in the distinctive golden armour of the zakulaan knights, mirroring the one Arcann was wearing, the third one, a civilian, was wearing simple but visibly tailored garments proving that he belonged to the higher society.

"Commander. I hope that you had a good trip. I apologise for the lack of official welcoming party but your visit is rather unexpected," he proclaimed, bowing formally. "I see that you chose one of our natives to accompany you," he added, nodding to her companion. "Lieutenant…"

"I am more interested in answers than in unnecessarily formalities, I assure you," Nyx answered in a firm but affable way. "I have a few sensitive questions that need answers," she added, making sure that they kept on moving towards the building where they usually had meetings. Two hours before, the Blazing Queen had taken off from the Endless Swamp and followed the same corridor to leave plant than to land of it the day before, making therefore sure that the ship remained unnoticed once again. They had joined chosen coordinates that may have corresponded to a plausible hyperjump exit and had made their arrival known to the traffic controllers. The real identities of both Andronikos and Nyx had been provided while Arcann had been announced as Lieutenant Dralin Vale, an actual Knight who had joined the Alliance at the same time as him.

They followed their host, Arslan Uhdea, one of Arcann's former intendants when he was on the throne, to the new administration centre of the Spire. The building that had been home to Valkorion and his family and the symbol of their reign over the Eternal Empire has voluntarily been closed and left unused as the new politicians in place wanted to draw a line between themselves and the former power in place. Instead, they were now using a smaller building that had been once mostly used for entertainment purpose. The Alliance still had a direct access to the throne room, far above the atmosphere, but had agreed, in sign of good faith, to not wander in any other part of the main building without prior notification.

Even though the walkways on this level seemed to have been preserved by the Eternal Fleet's attach and be relatively well maintained, the difference with their state before the fall of Zakuul was unmistakable. None of the former ever busy droids, whether they were for security, cleaning or deliveries, could be seen around and the few citizens passing by had lost their lustre and the wanton thoughtlessness that they displayed in the past. The few glances given to their group were grim and resigned, the looks of people having to adapt to a reality that was not their own. Mentally, Nyx noted that they had now more in common with the population of the major metropolises of the galaxy, but for them who had never known anything else than their carefree life, it had to be a difficult change.

"How is the situation progressing?"

"We still rely mainly on food and other basic necessities delivered by the Alliance and try to establish trade agreements with nearby planets. But of course it is difficult to conduct cordial negotiations with worlds our former rulers plundered for centuries, and we do not have much to offer either."

Waking up from Valkorion's dream had indeed been hard for the zakuulian citizens and their representatives did not have an easy situation at hand. Most of them knew that the Alliance was at the origin of the emptiness of their treasury and even though Arcann had been able to gather new wealth before the end of his reign, they had not last long and had mostly been engulfed in his sister's destruction madness. Zakuul was left with nothing more than deficient infrastructures and missing funds.

The state of the planet had been in the centre of extensive discussions on Odessen, most of them purposely held without the presence of anyone having ties with Zakuul (neither Senya nor Arcann had been invited) in order to leave emotional considerations out of the scope. The former core of the Eternal Empire was not uninteresting. The technologies used to maintain the zakuulan society were advanced, and while they were as well available in other places of the galaxy, their access was not always easy, it was therefore tempting for the Alliance to simply take what they could as their defeated opponent was in no position to object. Dr Oggurobb was rather keen to apply that solution as everything left on place was a waste of resources that may end up in unwanted hands. And he was right, they could all easily imagine the interest that not only the Empire and the Republic but as well the Hutt Cartel or other organisations could take in such an easily available tech. As much as they were concerned, the zakuulans might be glad to sell whatever they had to the highest bidder as long as it helped them feed their population and since Nyx had chosen not to declare herself an Empress - a decision that she sometimes partly regretted - she could not claim the resources of the Eternal Empire as legitimately hers. The best solution that they had found was to claim part of the technology and help the planet survive and rebuild with the remainder, counting on the fact that they would remain in the Alliance and might someday constitute a valuable asset. Only time would tell if they were right, however the fact that communications with the traitor were coming from here was not a good sign.

"You must put efforts in producing goods locally, first and foremost. Are there enough trainees learning from our engineers?"

"Yes, we found many volunteers and entertain high hopes on this side. But learning takes time and it has only been a few months, now."

The distance to the representative's office gave opportunity for a few other common subjects that could be openly discussed. When they arrived at their destination, the Knights remained out of the meeting room but Nyx insisted to have her own companion joining inside, a request resulting in a surprised and rather offended look from her interlocutor as he sat behind his desk after having showed her a seat.

"I believe that logistics details is not the reason why you are paying us an unexpected visit, Commander. What brings you here today?"

"You are right," she answered calmly, choosing her words carefully. "We have heard of dissident voices in your population that may soon endanger the peaceful process of our collaboration. I thought that we would both benefit of making sure such a thing does not happen."

Uhdea raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Dissidents? Well, as you are aware, a substantial portion of the population does see the Alliance as the main cause of their current misery. This should not be a surprise to you."

"It is not. And it cannot be avoided. However, if these unhappy voices get organised and become a proper opposition force, it becomes a concern for you as much as for us," she continued. "Have you heard or seen any sign of gatherings that could be related to a rebellion?"

He shook his head. "No gathering, but it does not mean that they do not exist. We regularly see messages hastily painted on walls inciting people to unite and fight the oppressor. Some of the food distribution sites have to be more protected as well as they are regularly targeted by individuals wanting people to stop being dependant from the Alliance. However we do not have any proof of the existence of an organisation behind these events."

Addressing him a perplex nod, she took the small metal plate that they had discovered in the swamps the day before out of her belt pocket and placed it on the desk in from of him. "Does this sign mean anything to you?"

The human politician took the piece carefully between his fingers and started observing it. Like Arcann, he quickly concluded that it had to be a representation of Zildrog but could not say more. "I will require a few investigations on this," he said, pushing it back towards Nyx. "But the fact that you did not deliver our former Emperor to justice does most probably not elude you. By your actions, you are yourself fuelling anger and resentment."

"I already stated that this part was not negotiable. He surrendered to the Alliance and swore to serve it, it is therefore my right to use him as I see fit. He is powerful, and more useful to me as fighting soldier of the Alliance than rotting in a cell." she answered calmly, but her tone had grown colder, making it clear that the subject was not debatable. The man in front of her shook his head with a disappointed face.

"You may be forcing the odds dangerously too far, Commander. It is easy for people who only see this fact and the state of our current city to conclude that you adhere to the same murderous principles than our former ruler. Many families had members among the Scions, the Knights or the hunted citizens that were forced to exile for having dared expressing their doubts."

Nyx smiled casually, counterbalancing the growing harshness of the official with an equal detachment. "Is it your case, Counsellor? It may have been relevant to mention your personal grudges when the position was offered to you."

Uhdea answered bitterly, leaning over the desk to look her in the eye. "My family was luckily spared by such tragedy, but unlike others, I am rather sensitive to my people's concerns."

"You may then be glad to know that your former emperor is sensitive to that aspect too and is doing more for Zakuul that you may expect. He will not be turned in," she stated peremptorily.

"You are being a fool, Commander. And it may one day turn against you. It is a shame that neither our former Eternal Emperor's children nor you were able to show the same wisdom he had."

"You do not know what you are talking about," she answered sharply, hiding a sudden pang of anger behind a cynical chuckle.

Silent dropped upon them They remained silent for a while, Nyx standing her ground and refusing to be the first to break eye contact, her usual half-smile lingering on her lips. The zakuulan surrendered first and inhaled deeply, leaning against the back of his office chair and taking sudden interest in the Knight behind her.

"And you, Lieutenant. What do you think of the situation? As a former citizen of Zakuul, you must have an opinion about it."

She heard Arcann stiffen and gasp before answering in a voice that he had visibly tried to modulate. The sound of it, that very low and slightly raspy tone, was indeed distinctive… and known by anyone on the planet. And even if his former mask changed it substantially compared to how he sounded now, there still remained something recognisable. "I… trust the Commander's judgment… Sir."

The official frowned and tilted his head on the side, observing him. "Your name does not tell me anything. But your voice… Would you mind removing your helmet for me, Lieutenant?"

"I would rather stop diverting from our initial discussion, Counsellor. I do not believe that my bodyguard's face is relevant to the subject."

The Commander had tried to intervene but the man in front of her did not get distracted and stood up from his chair slowly, continuously looking at the armoured man in front of him. "That will take only a few seconds. May you please remove this helmet, Lieutenant?" he repeated.

Arcann did not comply but his increased nervousness was visible. Nyx raised from her seat slowly, placing herself voluntarily in Uhdea's line of sight to catch his attention and starting to speak as soon as she had it.

"Listen to me carefully. You just saw my companion's face and concluded that you were wrong. You do not know him and realise how absurd your request was. Now, you will gladly agree to my next request. After all, you must start working on your investigation immediately to make sure that you provide results."

She had pronounced every syllable slowly and very distinctly in a neutral but firm tone. Uhdea did not even blink once and looked as if he was drinking every word, mesmerised. As soon as she was done, she sat down again and he seemed to wake up from a brief moment of absence, his eyes drifting back to Arcann.

"Oh… I apologise for my request, Lieutenant. I was mistaken. Now, where were we?" he uttered, sitting down again behind his desk.

"I would not want to take too much of your time and delay your investigation. May I ask you a last favour before we leave? I would like to visit your former emperor's private apartments. When he froze me in carbonite seven years ago, he took from me something that I valued substantially and that I would like to retrieve. Something of no interest for Zakuul, of course. It appears from the information I recently got that it was hidden there and probably still is. But as you may want to have us escorted, which I perfectly understand, I would be grateful if you could call Indo Zal for that purpose."

The request of accessing Arcann's private apartements had emanated from him. He had hesitated long before asking on their way to the Spire and agreed that Nyx would only enquire it if the circumstances allowed it. He was the one who had something to retrieve. He had been rather elusive about it and she had made clear that it was rather unlikely that the possibility arose, but against all odds, it had eventually materialised.

The man seemed suddenly relieved and particularly keen to accept. Reaching towards his holocommunicator, he immediately complied. "Of course Commander. I will call him immediately."
______________________________________________

Zal knocked at the door a few moments later to take them to the apartments that were once the emperor's. He seemed glad to meet the Commander again as they had had no opportunity to meet after the grandiose festival that he had insisted on organising to celebrate the end of the Vaylin's reign over Zakuul and a strongly hoped for new era of peace. The former Magistrate of Revelry did obviously not keep his position after the end of the Eternal Empire, but had volunteered to put his organisational skills to good use and was now coordinating a substantial portion of the reconstruction operations.

He had been a decisive element in the Alliance's fight against Vaylin. Even though the operation that he had helped putting in place had been a failure, he had proven to be a valuable asset, which had been confirmed in his involvement in their takeover of the Eternal Throne to stop the fleet's destruction madness.

Nyx tended to appreciate him and respect his impressive adaptation skills. They had spent a rather considerable time talking during the celebrations following the Alliance's victory and, getting to know him better, she saw interesting similarities between his path of life and hers. Indo Zal had mastered the art of being the right person at the right place. He had perfected an opportunistic way of acting that made his always charming and affable behaviour a perfect display of what people needed him to be, more than of who he really was. A beautiful and well-polished mask that she was not dupe about. Wasn't it after all very similar to the game she played with many? She was conscious that he was as capable as she was of maintaining appearances if his loyalties to the Alliance were to change. The zakuulan was a man who needed to be kept under close watch. She knew it. And he knew that she did. But for now, she currently considered him as her most trustworthy contact on Zakuul.

They spent most of the way to the royal building discussing casually, followed by Arcann's silent armoured shape. Zal, used to focus on the "important" people, had not even really paid attention to the Commander's companion and Nyx wondered how her improvised bodyguard was dealing with all the things he heard without being able to react to them. Even though he had always known better than trying to make her change her mind and turn Arcann in for the sake of revenge, their escort did not mince his words about the damages that their former emperor and his sister had done to Zakuul and their people. His grudge was deeply personal and even though he had achieved one part of his plans of revenge when Vaylin had died, the man who had ordered the slaughter of the Scions, and consequently the death of his beloved sister, was still alive. And actually walking less than two meters behind him, without him knowing.

"I may want to apologise for the state in which you will find the former emperor's apartments, Commander," he stated in the lift that gave a direct access to the entire floor that had once been Arcann's private place. "Our late empress came here after having seen her brother pledge himself to you on the Holonet on her festival day. She sort of… calmed her nerves on his belongings. Most of the valuable objects that remained intact have been now used for trading purpose since the Alliance did not seem interested, but otherwise the place has remained in the same state she left it. Whatever you are looking for, I doubt that you can still find it there."

"We will know it very soon, won't we?"

The doors opened on a wide area that looked like it had been hit by a storm. The place, that had probably been lavishly decorated once, now only resembled a pricey battleground. Lumps of broken furniture were scattered everywhere, mixed with half burnt expensive rugs and curtains, and shards of what had obviously been rare and costly artefacts glimmered in the light cast by the remaining lighting sources. A lot of appliances had visibly been hit by electrical discharges and now only provided a flickering glow.

Nyx stepped inside the room and turned around to address their escort as soon as the lift closed its doors behind them. "Would you consider this place safe with the three of us inside it at this very moment, Indo?" she asked abruptly.

"As long as you trust your bodyguard, I would answer in the affirmative, Commander. If the former inhabitant had not put in place a surveillance system that I do not know about, of course," Zal answered, confirming with these words that he would keep whatever he would witness for himself.

"I valued my privacy," uttered the Knight stepping around the young man to move further into the room and removing his helmet.

An expression of shock and disbelief immediately started to show on Indo's face as soon as he recognised the face of the armoured man who had been walking with them all along. "Your… your Majesty. I did not know…" he managed to stammer out after a while, his gaze fixed on Arcann's face.

"There is no majesty here," the former emperor replied, putting down his helmet on a chest of drawers that seemed miraculously spared from Vaylin's wrath. Ignoring the other man's startled glance, he slowly looked around him, appraising the state of the place he once lived in. "My sister destructive impulses in all their splendour, even if it is in no way comparable to what she did to the city and other planets."

"Or to people," Nyx added in a falsely casual tone. "You may be interested in knowing that Indo's sister, who raised him in the absence of their late parents, was a Scion."

Arcann froze then slowly turned to face her. Behind him, she could hear Zal gasp at the mention of his sister but the man did not move. Her companion frowned, seeming undecided about how to deal with the information and she repressed a satisfied smile. That was exactly what she was interested in discovering: what he would do with the reminder of one of his questionable past decisions in front of someone who had suffered from it. She had no precise expectations but was certain that his behaviour would say a lot about him.

He exhaled deeply and turned around slowly in the other man's direction and this time she did not stop the smile that raised one corner of her mouth. In the second that his movement had taken, Arcann had straightened up and stood now in a confident stance in front of the other zakuulan, looking at him with determination.

"It will never be enough and will not make your sister come back, but you have my true apologies," he said in a firm but soft and deeply sincere tone that almost surprised her.

Zal swallowed, clutching his jaw to repress a sob and blinked a few times, visibly trying to hold back tears. After a moment sustaining the gaze of the one who had ordered his sister's death only because he did not believe in fate managed to speak in a shaky and accusing voice. "You are right. It will never be enough." He breathed in and out deeply and added. "Even though it is already more than expected."

Joining Arcann's side, Nyx decided to step in at that point to defuse the tension that had built around them. "Arcann has been very sensitive to the interest of Zakuul since he joined the Alliance. It will obviously not change the past, but I believe that you can consider it as a good sign that things have changed."

The zakuulan nodded gravely, briefly looking at her before turning his gaze back again towards his former ruler. "I thank you for the apologies… I guess," he said in a formal and edgy tone. "I prefer remaining here while you have a look around," he added, taking a few steps backward towards the lift and breaking eye contact with who he now knew was far from being only a nameless knight.

As she saw her companion turn around and start moving to another part of the floor, the Commander followed him, curious to see what he wanted to retrieve from there. He had mentioned a gift for his mother, but considering the current state of the place, she doubted that he would find what he was looking for. She followed his steps to what had probably been a bedroom from the massive bed that stood there. The imposing piece of furniture still remained intact but everything that could be destroyed had been shred to pieces.

The most striking fact was how empty the room looked. Apart from the bed and the door to something that looked like a refresher with an adjoining dressing room, a chest of drawers, a seat and a side table, there was nothing. No mirror, no artefact of any kind and above all, absolutely nothing that could have been considered personal belongings.

"Not much remaining…"

Arcann shook his head negatively. "To the exception of a few trophies that were displayed on the wall, nothing is missing. I emptied this room years ago, when I started feeling nothing other than hatred. You do not need much for yourself when you cannot feel attached to anything."

"Then why are we here?"

He addressed her a rather sad smile and moved towards the bed. "There was one exception. Something I could not bear looking at but could not cast away." He sat on the bed and put the palm or his right hand against the headboard, pushing gently, activating a mechanism that revealed a cache that had been so finely crafted that it remained otherwise invisible. Inserting his hands in the confined space, he cautiously took out a cylindric object wrapped in a piece of red silky fabric and put it on his knees, manipulating it slowly with apparent respect. The fabric soon revealed a black and silver hilt that Nyx immediately recognised to be similar to the one that now hung from her belt, aside to hers. She took a few steps closer to see it better.

"A spare one?"

He shook his head and raised his eyes, meeting her gaze. "My brother's."

"For Senya."

He nodded, turning his gaze back to the lightsaber and slowly wrapping it back into the shimmering cloth, handling it with infinite care. Nyx turned to look out of the window to give him a semblance of privacy, understanding that he was forcing himself to face memories that were probably his most painful ones. She absorbed herself in the contemplation of the incredible view. The apartments were high above the planet's atmosphere and offered the soothing sight of distant stars and nearby ships glimmering in the darkened sky and she chuckled ironically at the striking contrast between the spacious and brightly lit apartments and the confined quarters he was now allowed to live in. "Living on Odessen must be quite a change for you compared to a place like this."

"It is. But I would know better than to complain about it to someone I kept frozen in carbonite for five long years," he answered, putting the bundle on the damaged bed and joining her by the window.

"Oh I had a lot of space in my own haunted dreams. The major issue was of having to share them with your lovely father. He made a point of keeping me entertained but I did not find him very amiable."

As she did not even turn her look to him while speaking these words, Arcann absorbed himself in the contemplation of the stars as well. "I do not think that I would had ever borne the presence of my father in my own head," he muttered. "I can only imagine how awful it must have been to have him come and go and talk to you as he pleased."

"I heard and saw a lot of things I did not want to…" she answered, turning her head to face him. "But the worst part of it was to know that whatever thought I had, there was another being in my head that was aware of it. One I did not want to share with, but who I could not get rid of. I had experienced that before, but was not planning to repeat the experience unwillingly. I swear that my mind is now remaining my own, and my own alone. Believe me. Whatever happens, I am definitely done sharing."

He sighed, looking out of the window once more. He was not responsible for the fact that Valkorion had used her as a vessel, but he had definitely contributed to making it last. "I am still surprised that you could forgive me after all I did," he uttered, his voice bearing an obvious tint of shame.

"Forgive?" Surprised, Nyx turned to face him this time, raising a quizzical eyebrow. "I thought that you had understood by now that there was nothing I had to forgive. As unpleasant as it has been, I can only fully understand why you did it. In one single move you got rid of your father and the closest threat to your throne. Strategically, it would have been unwise to miss the opportunity. Do you think that I would have spared you in that situation?"

He chuckled and shook his head negatively. "Probably not... But my old self would have made you pay for it."

"And the new one?" she asked with an amused smile, crossing her arms on her chest. "If you were in my position, what would you have done if I had come to pledge myself to you?"

"I…"

His bewildered expression made her chuckle, which disconcerted him even more. But after a while thinking about it silently, he had to resign himself to confessing that he did not know.

"Well then, that may be something you want to know," she answered. "Who are you? What defines you? I know what defines me, and I may be closer than you think to who Emperor Arcann was. Or even not that far from who your father was."

He snorted and shook his head negatively. "No. There may be similarities sometimes in the way you think. But you have values that he did not have."

"Do I?" she asked, raising a quizzical eyebrow and addressing him an amused half-smile.

"Yes! You…" He frowned, trying to find the best arguments and started pacing inside the room. The fact that she dared comparing herself to Valkorion seemed to distress him as if this was a parallel that he could not accept considering. "You care about people. My father did not care. I did not care. You do."

Nyx shrugged. "I care about my people. Not so much about the others. I do not feel compassion for the weak or for people I do not know. That may be a difference with your father, yes. I have not lived long enough to consider only my own self in the equation. And compared to who you were… There are choices you made that I would not have made myself. But not because they were cruel, only because I did not find them clever enough. I never hid it from you. And I am not ashamed of myself. The question is, are you?"

Arcann stopped pacing and looked in the direction of the door, remembering about the other man who had escorted them and was still waiting for them in the other room. He gave her a look that was all together amused and incredulous. "Zal was a test, wasn't he? You put me to the test…"

She answered with a rather witty grin. "I did. I was curious how you would react. I have been curious from the beginning."

He snickered ironically. "Did I pass?"

She chuckled again and started making her way back to the entrance. "This is a question you must answer. Tell me when you know."
_____________________________________________

They had left Zakuul an hour before. Their ship was now heading its way towards Odessen and Arcann had taken the opportunity to isolate himself, pretending a slight headache. Lying on his berth, eyes closed, he felt the need to reflect quietly about these two days spent on Zakuul. Their expedition in the swamps, the fight, the appointment with Uhdea and the conversations that were held in his former apartments… even that moment around the fire that he had made so many efforts to keep out of his head until then.

Their most recent discussion came to his mind first - her persistent questions, her way of shaking his grounds to test their stability. She had been doing it since their first real discussions on Odessen and he was convinced that she was not done with it yet. Every time he took a step ahead, she pushed further and left him with more questions.

He was not used to questioning himself. All his life before the Alliance had been a series of certitudes. He had been raised as a prince and as a warrior, with codes, rules, conventions, techniques he simply had to learn and know. He had been taught to succeed, deliver, meet expectations, not challenge them. Challenging was not something people dared in the shadow of the Eternal Emperor Valkorion, and being one of his children did not change a thing, they were all there to serve, not ask.

His brother had coped with it, he had found his life enjoyable enough to set aside the downside of not having the freedom to choose his own fate. But he, Arcann, the unruly child, and later the more and more frustrated man, had never been able to. He had always wanted that freedom that was out of his reach, and that was the reason why his life has suddenly collapsed into chaos.

Killing his father had brought him the freedom he had longed for, but with it new burdens dragging him down. The pain of being his own brother's murderer, isolation, the need of proving that he could be a greater emperor than Valkorion had been and with every failure, every frustration, the anger taking a better hold on his heart. He had concluded years before that freedom was only a lie, a ghost that he had been meaninglessly pursuing.

Killing the Scions had been the desperate action of a fool struggling to get control on his own life. And he had of course miserably failed. Again. The Scions did not weave fate, they only saw it, but it had been so much easier to make them responsible for his pains.

It had been the same with the Outlander. Designating her as the latest excuse for his own failures had been so convenient. It had fuelled his hate, given him reasons to dig even deeper in the darkness and not face his own demons. Until he had been forced to do so…

Waking up had been hard. Realising how much he had remained a pawn of something greater than him had been harsh. How many times he had sat, staring blankly, wondering what he was supposed to do with all of that. How many times he had hesitated between fighting back or crawling into a space where he could be forgotten when she had forced him to face who he had been. He had never surrendered to his urges to hide, but he could not pretend he never wanted to. And she kept pushing him and never gave answers, never gave guidance, no rule, no code, no convention to be followed, only open questions, questions he was supposed to find answers to. But now he plainly realised that every single slap in the face he had received from her had not been meant to push him down like his father did. They had made him step further and make choices. Choices he was allowed to make freely, for once. She was not telling him how appraise his past but forcing him to do so. Nor was she directing his path towards the future but pushing him to think ahead.

It was overwhelming, confusing, suffocating and yet so thrilling, so intoxicating…

"I wish you were here, Thexan…" he whispered, touching the hilt lying by his side with his fingertips. "You would have deserved this so much too." He breathed profoundly, the memories of that evening by the fire coming back into his mind and sending flickers in his guts. "And I am sure that, unlike me, you would know what to do with her."

What to do… How he felt was not even a question anymore. He knew. But that was not enough… He had to find a way to tell her that being with her was one thing that he was intimately convinced that he wanted. But he was not sure that he was prepared to potentially face rejection. Or not even how to face acceptance and not screw up immediately. This was not a battle he knew how to win, not even one he knew how to get ready for.

It had felt so good to fight by her side. It had been even better to hear her say that she had liked it as well. In these moments he felt like she could consider him, but she was so slippery that he could not be sure. And this was something he had to be sure about. He could not fail. He did not want to fail. Not at that. Not with her. He did not know if he could endure it if she turned her back on him.

Arcann uttered a frustrated sigh, opening his eyes to stare at the ceiling and shaking his head. He remembered that very last fight on his flagship when he had told her that fear had been beaten out of him before he could walk. How wrong he was… He simply had not yet met something that had been meaningful enough to scare him. Now he had…

Chapter Text

"Are you sure that you three will be enough?"

"Are you doubting our skills, Arcann?" she retorted with an amused smile.

It was late. The last details of the next operation had just been set and Nyx and Arcann were walking together back to their respective quarters for a short night sleep. The traitor's trail was leading them to the shadow world of Umbara and they were determined not to let them escape. While Nyx, Theron and Lana would chase them aboard the high speed train that was supposed to serve as a meeting place for their foes, another group would be deployed to prevent the Republic to get hold of the precious crystals that constituted the only interest that the planet had for foreigners. These crystals were used in lightsabers but worrisome rumours mentioned that scientists had found a way to use their properties in the development of super weapons. In a time were the biggest forces in the galaxy still suffered from their losses against the Eternal Empire and the strict arms limitations that had been imposed on them later on, being the first to get hold of such weapons was the Sith Empire's and the Republic's main goal, a goal that the Alliance had to prevent from happening.

So far, chasing the traitor had led to nothing. Whoever was betraying them unquestionably knew how to cover their tracks. Umbara were their first sound lead and a welcomed one.

"No… Of course not," he retorted, slightly regretting how his question had come out. He would know better than doubting the firepower that the three of them could deploy together, but he could not help hating the idea of being in a totally different location.

"I need you to lead the other group. Lana could have done it, but with the energy that she put in finding the traitor, it is her right to be there when we get hold of them."

"I know… I will do according to your instructions, Commander," he answered, nodding formally. Consciously or not, he had started mimicking Lana's way of interacting with Nyx since their return from Zakuul, making a clear distinction between the moments when she held her position as the Commander of the Alliance and times when their interactions were less formal when he called her by her name. It had been a couple of weeks already and each time he pronounced her name still seemed hesitant, as if he was still uncertain of the appropriate way to behave in these moments.

They had slowed down and stopped in front of her quarters, Arcann's being located further down a nearby passage. Reaching out to the door's access panel, she turned around to face him and addressed him a warm smile. "Have a good night sleep. We will need to be fit tomorrow."

Arcann opened his mouth to bid her good night in return but his answer did not come out. The corridor was empty and the shroud of quietness that had fallen onto the base gave the place an aura of intimacy. He was familiar with the particular atmosphere of that time of the day as it was the one he favoured for working on the armour he was forging, but while it had usually a soothing effect on him he did not find the same peace in her presence. He felt painfully drawn by forces pushing him forward and others holding him back. Boldness and restraint. Want and doubt.

He inhaled profoundly and mustered his courage, knowing that he might not find another appropriate moment to speak to her before a while. This one was not worse than another, they were alone and the night was as peaceful as it could be prior to an operation, so…

"Nyx… Before we part, I would like to talk to you about something private," he uttered in a single breath before he could think otherwise.

Nyx raised a quizzical gaze upon him and tilted her head on the side slightly, pondering about his request, then seemed to reach a decision. "Come in, we can talk here." She turned around and reached to open the door of her private quarters, Arcann bracing himself in her back for the confession he wanted to make.

Bracing himself or at least desperately trying to. This was no usual battle, not one he could step into with his lightsaber in hand and use all his might to win. Winning had nothing to do with overpowering an opponent, defeating a foe. Neither his fighting nor negotiation skills would be of use. He could not leverage them in a situation where the only thing he could do was uncovering what he had kept hidden in the depths of his heart and helplessly hope for acceptation. Holding his breath unconsciously, he prepared to follow her into the room when the door opened when she suddenly froze.

"Theron?"

How the spy had gotten into to the room without crossing their path was a mystery. Of course, they had not rushed to her quarters after the latest Alliance meeting, but Theron must have headed there immediately after its end. The reason why he was now waiting there, sitting at the table that she sometimes used for a quick late dinner alone, was even more mysterious. He had seemed rather concerned in the War Room and looked even gloomier when he raised his eyes to meet the Commander's.

It only took Nyx a few seconds to turn a questioning gaze to Arcann but his decision had already been instinctively taken.

"I… It can wait for your return," he managed to mutter, his gaze fixed on the other man.

"Are you sure?"

His confusion must have been visible and a concerned frown was now painted on the woman's face but he shook his head vigorously, trying as much to convince her than himself.

"Yes," he confirmed hastily, already taking a step backward. "Yes, it's… not that important. We can talk when you come back. Good luck Commander."

Arcann had backed off and started to make his way to his quarters before Nyx could decide otherwise, leaving her puzzled. She watched him disappear around the corner wondering how she had to interpret what had just happened. While she had noticed that he had tended to avoid intruding in other people's interactions within his first weeks on the base and had therefore retreated from such situations more than once, that first period seemed to be over. Furthermore, he had never reacted in such a way with her until then, yet he had just fled before she was even able to suggest meeting later and simply did not look like the man she thought she started to know… Whatever he wanted to speak about, it had to be sensitive enough to make him hesitate more than usual…

The fact that she would not know anything about it before leaving for Umbara bothered her and she gave an accusing look to Theron while entering her quarters.

"Am I interrupting something?" he asked in a falsely innocent manner. "I don't remember you making your quarters a secondary meeting room open to anyone wanting to speak to you, I believe."

She felt her patience immediately grow thin and answered coldly. "Yes you are. And whatever it was, it is certainly none of your business, Theron. What are you doing here?"

"I too need to talk to you before we leave…"

While his voice was serious, his posture was particularly nonchalant, which was a good indication for those who knew him well that he was not feeling particularly at ease. Nyx sighed and pulled the chair on his right to sit down.

"What is the matter?"

Theron raised his eyes to meet her gaze again. He looked tired and worn. The dark circles under his eyes had grown worse than ever and Nyx wondered how he could still walk straight. He had been working day and night for so much time now, and nothing of what could be said to him seemed to convince him to slow down. Luckily the hunt would soon be over and hopefully they could all get more rest.

"We may finally find out tomorrow who the traitor is…"

"Yes," she answered. "But you do not look relieved. Isn't it what you have been working on for a while, now?"

He sighed deeply, as if he was letting go of a weight held far too long and crossed his arms on his chest. "Yeah, I have." The former spy remained silent for a while with a frown, like buried in his thoughts, then uttered his concern: "I was wondering… What if you find out that it was someone you trusted? What if you discover that it was… I don't know… Lana, or Arcann… or even me?"

Nyx huffed and shook her head in disbelief. "Would any of you three be dumb enough to do such a thing? I doubt it."

"Answer the question."

"Whoever it is, I already stated my rules," she retorted dryly, mimicking his posture. "The traitor dies and I will make no exception."

"Mh… I thought so, yeah. No second chance this time, hu?" he asked, raising an interrogative eyebrow but already knowing the answer.

"Not after remaining silent when being offered an opportunity for forgiveness already once."

Nyx was referring to the opportunity that she had given to anyone in the Alliance to make amend and confess their implication in any kind of treachery. Her terms had been clear, whoever did not step forward that day and was caught later on threatening the Alliance would not be given mercy. Once the conditions had been stated, all who were close to her knew that there was no turning back. She would not risk losing credibility by changing them afterwards or making granting special treatments. Whoever it would be, and whatever the cost, the rule would prevail. She might even deal with treacherous friends with more anger than she would with anyone else.

Theron had stood up and started pacing, nodding silently. Nyx turned around to observe him with curiosity and a bit of concern. He was definitely more nervous than his usual, as if the idea of finding the traitor was a source of distress rather than relief, which was barely explicable. But they were all tired, and the idea of potentially missing their target was probably what was bothering him so much.

"Yeah. Makes sense… After all, you're still a Sith," he finally uttered, nodding again.

His statement put a mocking smile on her face. "I do not recall you having a problem with it."

"I didn't… I mean, I don't. Didn't was referring to… well, you know." The spy had blushed a little and cleared his throat nervously, scratching the spot behind the left hear that was a typical sign of his embarrassment. But quickly regaining composure, he continued. "Anyway, I guess that the traitor should better be smart or else they are living their last hours."

"I am confident that we will be smarter than them," she answered with conviction. After all, Theron and Lana were unique in their ability to track down people and get the most sensitive information. The traitor had been skilful so far, but Nyx was certain that they would catch them on Umbara.

Theron did not seem to share the conviction. He winced a little and came closer to the table again to grab the back of a chair, leaning forward towards her. "Unless it is someone who already knows about our plans…" he said in a low secretive voice.

She frowned, asking circumspectly: "What are you trying to draw my attention to, Theron? You would not come in here to point willingly at yourself, that would be utterly ridiculous. So who is it? Who are you trying to accuse?"

He shook his head vehemently, letting go of the chair to make a few steps backward, looking at her. "No one. I'm just telling that you should count on yourself only, just in case. You may have been a little overconfident lately. Like… easily trusting that people will not go behind your back. Dammit, I cannot believe that I am telling you to remain careful."

She remained motionless, silently gazing at him but felt that anger slowly was spreading its wings inside her chest. If there was something that she did not tolerate, it was such kind of comments, especially when they were coming from someone who may not be the perfect example to follow either. And of course Theron, with his trust issues and tendency to work on his own was definitely not one she wanted to be lectured by.

"You know, you are not exactly blameless yourself, if we speak about going behind someone's back…" she answered sourly.

"Yeah, fine, I know. Well, shall I remind you Lana's numerous little tricks too, then?"

Her patience was growing thin again. And the more she felt it, the colder she was getting. Theron usually knew where to stop to avoid crossing the line, but his usual restrain seemed forgotten this time. "Am I supposed to give you both marks and see who wins?"

"Damn, Nyx! Just stop a minute and look at who you trust the most!" Theron had begun pacing again accompanied his words with sharp and angry movements. "A former Republic spy, a Sith with countless secret contacts and a deadly former enemy who became an ally not so long ago. Wouldn't it be common sense to remain a little cautious?"

She huffed and stood up as well, stepping towards the desk where a bottle of Corellian Whisky stood to pour herself a drink. "Of course. The picture would not be complete if you had not added Arcann to it. Are we done yet or are there any other people you want to talk about?"

"Oh, I'm glad to hear that there's absolutely no issue in entrusting a man who tried to kill you countless times with the most sensitive information about the Alliance as if he had been by your side for years. And with your life as well, now that you chose him to be your new fighting partner."

Nyx put the bottle down and slowly turned around, sipping from her glass and licking her lips before answering. She felt definitely angry now, even though she still contained her wrath. Her nostrils flaring, she addressed him a condescending smile. "Are you jealous, Theron Shan? Shall I remind you that we are not sharing a bed anymore?"

"Well, thanks for reminding me of our relationship. And for summarising it to having shared a bed. I will always be impressed by your sensitiveness. But I guess that, unlike others, I am not worth your consideration. You bloody Force users cannot even acknowledge that we, inferior beings, might have feelings."

"Don't you even dare projecting your mother issues upon me! You shagged with a Sith, not an all-loving, benevolent and sugar-coated Jedi, deal with it!"

Her last words and the furious way she barked them at him, smashing her glass down against the desk, made him freeze totally. Staring blankly into space, he blinked several times as if trying to wake up from a bad dream then shook his head, raising an aghast gaze upon her.

"You know what? I'm done with this. All I wanted was to… Oh stars! Don't ever tell me I didn't try…"

Theron quickly reached the door and stopped, his back turned on her. Eyes closed he sighed deeply and pushed on the command panel to open. As he stepped outside into the dimly lit hallway, leaving a panting Nyx alone inside the room, he shook his head once more and mumbled inaudibly.

"Maybe it's better this way…"
______________________________________________

Arcann had not gone to his quarters after he had left Nyx with Theron. His feet had moved him forward then right, but instead of stopping at the door leading to the area he still shared with his mother, they had lead him further down the hallway. He did not really remember the whole way down to the woods. He had obviously taken a lift and walked without even paying attention. And now, there he was, panting, standing in the middle of the place they usually used for their training sessions, surrounded by the golden yellow glow of his lightsaber lit in his hand and an agonising shade stalker shuddering in front of his feet and three more behind it.

He had not come there to fight, but when the beasts had attacked, he had released all his frustration into the most violent blows he could deliver. The monsters had not last long and he almost regretted it. There was still so much anger, so much pain that he had to get out of his heart…

Stepping around the closest animal, he moved to a spot left untouched by his former fight and forced himself to breathe profoundly before taking a defence stance. Slowly, he began to move in a complex succession of movements that he could let flow one after the other without even thinking. He knew the sequence by heart for he had done it countless times from the moment he had learnt it to keep anger, frustration or sadness at bay, and so often a mix of them all.

He was still a young child when his knight teacher had surprised him at night crushing utility droids with a wooden stick with as much strength as his little arms could provide. He had expected to be beaten for it, like so many times when he had done something that was forbidden or simply not to the tastes of his instructors, and remembered that the idea itself had not even bothered him. The day had been an awful one. He had trained hard and got hurt more than his little body should have suffered, but he had remained courageous and continued, again and again, drying his cheeks stained with dirt, sweat, blood and tears as many times as needed. But again, the man who overlooked their training, his father, had turned his back on them, refusing to give even the slightest glimpse of acknowledgement of the efforts that were done. Getting beaten once more at night did not change a thing, every single one of his limbs was already so painful that a little more would not make a difference.

But as a matter of fact, the knight had not beaten him as expected. Instead, he had brought him back to the training grounds and showed him how to let his emotions flow through his body to reach the stick and expel them with every move. They had kept it a secret, but night after night, he had learnt. Night after night… until his trainer had gotten caught and their encounters reported to his father. The knight had been taken away and Arcann had never seen him again, but he had continued alone, both because it helped him bear every passing day and in pure defiance.

He had not trained this way in his darkest years. He did not see the point in expelling his feelings anymore when they could fuel him instead. He had started cherishing pain too much to want it to go away. Pain was all he got after all, side by side with anger. But that day when he had followed her meditative routine with her had made it all come back and he had taken time in the silence of the night to find once more the sequence he had been taught.

It had helped soothing him down several times already, but tonight, it could not make him forget how much he hated himself for not being able to tell her about his feelings, for having backed off when he should not have. But what was he supposed to do? Insist that his matter was more important than Theron's? Wait for their discussion to end and try once more to talk to her afterwards? No. No need to find any kind of excuses, he had been a coward, and he hated himself for it. For fearing her answer so much that he could not even bravely seek it. For being scared of feeling something inside him die if she rejected him. Oh of course, it was utterly ridiculous, his life did not depend on her answer, he would not die of hearing her decline his attentions, but wasn't it even worse?

Arcann slashed in the air once again in a blow filled with rage and suffering. Why did he have to feel that way? Why couldn't he simply step forward or let go. He had been an Emperor, claimed planets, annihilated countless lives, taken a lot of them with his own hands and yet he had retreated when all he had to do was claiming her. He was a warrior after all, he had always fought whatever it had costed him, whatever the pain, surrendering had never been an option. But tonight, he felt stripped of any weapon he knew, powerless. Brute force was worth nothing in this fight, intimidation useless, fighting skills meaningless…

He slowed down and stopped after the last stance, letting go of his lightsaber and turning the palm of his hands upwards, both flesh and durasteel, to look at them. That was exactly how he felt… empty-handed. What could he give her that she could not get anywhere else after all? He had no Empire left, no wealth, no title, no power. All he could offer as a warrior was already pledged to her. He would not leave if she rejected him, he would remain loyal despite the pain.

All that remained to be given was himself, a broken man trying to rebuild himself and find a new path of life. There was only him, him and nothing else than promises of standing by her side and cherishing her whatever happened. But he was not even sure that he would know how to do that… Would he?

Alone in the woods of Odessen, in the middle of the night, Arcann allowed something to happen, something that had not happened for what seemed like an eternity. Raising his face to look at the stars, he let tears of helplessness run down his cheeks unrestrained.