The doors to the bridge of the Leviathan swished open.
As one, the minds of the command crew went still and quiet with fear. True fear, not mixed with respect or awe or admiration or the desperate need to prove themselves—only terror, freezing and frozen. It was an effect only the Force could produce, filling the room like a heatless flame.
“Lord on deck,” someone managed to whisper, his voice strangled. It might as well have been a thunderclap. It was still supremely unnecessary.
At the head of the bridge, stained red like blood and fury and a raw howling wound, Alek turned.
(Alek would not have done this.)
(Alek had been trustworthy.)
Revan lifted a hand to the cord that still stretched between them, bond and binding, and closed her fingers around it like a vise. His rage stoppered against them, a formless surging thing that burned like plasma fire and begged her nerves to sear. She ignored it without flinching.
“Explain,” she said. Her voice was a distorted hiss, weighted with a will as deep and cold as the Void.
He wanted to look at her, staring into the eyes behind her visor, and say no. The urge fumed in him. He fought it—he fought to say it—and broke, a fragment of a centimeter from having the requisite nerve. “You have the report,” he growled instead. Almost as much of a challenge.
“Karath’s report,” she agreed, without so much as a change in tone. The bond cracked with ice under her fingers. “Telos would not surrender, so you burned it to the ground. How very final.” She suddenly pulled, and Alek came forwards despite himself, his anger wrapping her hand in phantom fire. “How very wasteful,” she whispered, meeting it with her own. “Did you think I’d be impressed?”
“Mm.” There was a glint of the old Alek in his expression, his aura—a sharp impassive note, bittersweet, before he pulled back into himself and left her in her own freezing cold. “I did not,” he said, “think about it one way or the other.”
You’re still a shit liar, Alek. You always have been. Some mostly-abandoned part of her wanted to grin, to reach up and rub her knuckles on his head like she was ruffling his nonexistent hair—as if they were still friends. As if this was something she had the power to forgive.
“Malak,” she said, almost mildly. “This is still a military operation. Do you see yourself as an exception to that?”
(If she sent his crew away, if she took him quietly into her arms, if she let her voice break and asked for an explanation instead of demanding it—would it matter at all? Was there actually anything there left to save?)
(It didn’t matter. She knew saving the galaxy would mean burning everything she loved.)
She turned anyway, regarding the crew and captain as if she’d noticed them for the first time. “Out,” she snapped. “This is no longer your business.”
They scrambled to obey. Revan let them, watching Alek with a still and steady gaze, taking in every little detail of his expression, his posture, his stance. She rarely needed to study him so closely; she could read his body like an open text, well enough to very nearly guess his thoughts. But something in him had gone strange now. Like fast venom, like necrosis, where there should have been a slow and inexorable burn.
Soon they were alone. She sighed, quietly, letting some minute bit of tension slip out of her shoulders, and raised a hand to cup her mask. It disengaged obediently at a flicker of her will, every clasp clicking off at once. And she looked at him, again, with eyes that glowed like distant stars.
(They were—she had once confided in him, with a horrible laugh—actually quite pretty. Contrary to popular belief, she had no qualms about meeting her own gaze in the mirror; it was seeing his that had stung, once, when things like that still had a bite.)
The silence cracked him. His gaze dropped, and then his head and shoulders—spiteful, self-resenting, he tried to turn it into a kneel—
Revan caught him first, two fingers hooked under his chin. “Alek,” she said, quietly. The name was an anchor, a weapon, a scalpel. She could have slit both their throats with it.
“I am entirely aware,” he hissed, “of what you’re going to say.”
“That we needed those resources, those personnel, all the untrained and untrainable. That you could take the weakest of our old Order and make them into something powerful, and they would thank you for it.” His hands closed around her wrists—the intimacy of habit, long drained of reassurance. “Or am I wrong… ‘my lord?’”
“You know that you aren’t,” she said. “Though I will also note that you undermined my authority with Karath, besides.” And then, unable to resist: “They would, Alek.”
“Revan—” He looked up at her, so helplessly angry, his grip tightening until his knuckles were white. “When are you finally going to realize that the Jedi won’t come around?”
There was a brief silence.
“Alek,” said Revan, with the bemused patience of someone speaking to a child, “I declared myself Dark Lord of the Sith, corrupted half the order, and have received and inducted no fewer than twelve of their number since this phase of the war began. Not to mention the kidnapped padawans. And we threw an inhabited space station into a planetary capital last week, which I think they’d be rather down on.” She stepped back from him, pulling her wrists from his grip in a surge of will. They came free neatly, as if she’d barely had to tug. “Please explain where I have been burning insufficient numbers of bridges.”
“You know full well what I’m talking about,” Alek snapped, bringing the rage up so fiercely around him that it almost drowned his desperation. Almost. “You talk about pragmatism. You talk about resourcefulness. Admit it, Revan, for once in your damned life. You wanted Telos because it was theirs.”
“I wanted Telos because it was useful,” she said. “Emphasis on ‘was,’ Alek, thank you.”
“Then why,” he growled, “won’t you use my name now?”
“Is that seriously why you—because it was given to you by our fucking enemy,” she said, “that’s why.”
“You want to recruit the Corps. You think they’ll come to your hand as assassins and spies and specialists, pathetically grateful to the first person who actually thought they were good enough. Like there aren’t more Force sensitives to be found—ones without Jedi loyalties you yourself should be saying we don’t have time to break—or more agricultural worlds, or more planets positioned well on hyperlanes. You still think they’ll all come crawling back to us, up to the Council themselves. Somewhere in your head is still a starry-eyed kriffing padawan—”
“—who is screaming—”
“—who should be dead,” he said. “You say we need every resource, but we don’t need them. We never have.” He bared his teeth in an awful, mirthless grin. “Perhaps you should thank me, Revan. I have made sure that you don’t look—desperate.”
The ice came back, crawling through her skin. It had been hers, once, so wholly and absolutely. Now even she couldn’t be sure. Revan stepped forwards, feeling that high keen edge of fear, and in a single sudden move grabbed him by the front of his metal collar. “We are desperate,” she hissed. “And you just threw away a world we needed because you are so terrified someone will notice that you’ve convinced yourself they already have. Because you were projecting.”
He stared into her eyes, attempting a cool glower. “You sound like a Jedi.”
“Really?” She smiled brightly at him, too wide and too sharp, something horrible and broken glittering in her head. “Let’s fix that, then.”
Her right saber sprang to her left hand as she lunged into him, telekinetics giving her the force and leverage she needed to topple him with the hand at his throat. They didn’t go down gracefully. They had never, either of them, went down anything gracefully. He slammed into the floor with her not quite straddling his chest, trying to yank her sideways by her hood, swearing and shoving at her weapon arm with his other hand. She didn’t need hers to pin his wrists down, bringing gravity down around her like a cloak.
“Better?” she whispered, as quiet as a breath.
Inside him, the urge to fight visibly warred with the urge to banter. “Not really,” he said, the red rings in his eyes burning hotter.
“That’s what I thought you’d say.” Revan pressed the lit saber as close to his throat as she dared, letting him feel the heat of it. “But apparently,” she said, faux-cheerful, “this is how we’re doing this.” She leaned down, bringing her own face perilously near the blade, and stopped only just short of pouring will and Force into her voice. It was only her own anger at the betrayal that twisted it into something thin and soft and utterly deadly. “This will not happen again, Alek. Do you understand me? Whatever you thought you were doing, whatever you thought you were proving, it meant nothing. Your mission to Telos was an—unmitigated—failure. Do you understand me?”
“Void,” he said, choking down a laugh. “Void, Revan, you sound like you think I’m really your apprentice.” It was another flash of him seeming like himself, despite himself—pain, heartbreak, despair calling to her like an echoing wound. (A wound she had inflicted for the good of the galaxy, knowing she was already at fault for every single thing she couldn’t save.)
“You could stand,” she said, “to learn a few things.”
“And what do you intend to do to me if I don’t?” The laugh finally came out, his bitterness pouring into her without hesitation or end. “So we’re going to save the galaxy. All well and good. And after—do you really still think things can go back to normal for it? Will you hand Tol Cressa back the reins and go meekly to your own execution?” Alek’s gaze stayed on hers, his eyes barely blinking. “I am not satisfied with that,” he growled, “for either of us. Even for you. And I won’t go along with this doctrine of—gizka herding! Of grabbing up worlds as fast as possible and trusting that they’ll follow when they see the truth. Of knowing that we will never need to hold them when it’s over.” His expression twisted into a grin, hard and barren. “So are you going to kill me, O Dark Lord, or are you going to admit—for once in your entire damned life—that I’m right?”
“Those are not the only two options.” Even her tongue felt cold in her mouth, her earlier break in control dying seamlessly under her hand. “I am prosecuting this war for maximum success in the next one. Success that is not assured. Success that is so very far from assured.” The glow of the saber had burned a hard line into her vision, making it hard to see his face. “We could do everything right, Alek,” she said, naming her deepest and most terrible fear, “and still lose. We cannot afford to do anything wrong. And your mistake has been flagrant and willing.” Her voice didn’t waver. “Give me a reason to forgive you for it. One single reason. And that will be enough.”
“I’m not interested in begging, Revan.” He closed his eyes and leaned back against the ground. “Zap me and get it over with, if you really have to. We can put it on the long list of reasons we’re eventually going to kill each other.”
“No. This is, I think, more serious than a little bit of pain can remedy.” Her tone was almost gentle. “We’ve both endured so much of it.”
“I saw you fall out of a tree when you were six,” said Alek, bluntly. Even he seemed unsure why he’d said it, but he forged ahead anyway. “I have watched you sulk about every broken bone the healers let you endure as an object lesson, and watched as you instead taught yourself their skills, and watched you use it to keep a prisoner alive while we tested every fucking interrogation drug in the galaxy. I followed you to war. I followed you to hell. Am I to believe you’re going to cut off my hand?”
“No, Alek,” she whispered, reaching around to brace the back of his head. “I’m not going to cut off your hand.”