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Reduced To Ash

Chapter Text

“Holy shit, we’re traveling in style, now!”

Maranel Thrask smiled wryly as the spaceport security agent, Technician Rymes, scanned her ident card and handed her a datapad and stylus.

“It’s better than an improvised berth on the Black Talon, I grant you that,” Mara agreed.

“You’ll grant me that?” Vette turned from the control room’s viewport, her blue lekku fairly vibrating with excitement, purple eyes wide. She shifted her pack on her shoulders and her voice sharpened to a sarcastic approximation of a Kaasi accent. “How magnanimous of you, my lord.”

Rymes stiffened, his disapproval radiating out through the Force.

“Something the matter, Technician?” Mara asked as she traded the signed datapad for her ident card.

“Ah, no, my lord.” He ducked his head. “Please forgive my unwanted attention to your s-“

“I do hope you were going to say ‘sister’.”

What little color remained in the man’s face fled until Mara thought he would collapse from lack of blood flowing to his brain.

“S-sister? My lord?”

“Indeed.” Mara slipped her arm through Vette’s, smiling broadly, her red skin a bright contrast against Vette’s blue. “Vette is my adopted sister, and I would hate for you to blunder into insulting a Sith noblewoman’s family.”

“No of course, my lord. Thank you.”

“Have you anything else for me to sign to complete the transfer of custodianship?” Rymes twitched his head back and forth. “Wonderful. Run along.”

The man scrambled to do as bid, walking to the lift as fast as decorum would allow, Mara and Vette’s laughter following him.

“Alright,” Mara gasped, steadying herself against a console and grabbing her rucksack. “Let’s get a look at it.”

Vette broke away from her, scampering toward the entry ramp. Mara paused, eyes roaming over the Fury-class Interceptor’s sleek, triangular wings bristling with laser cannons that, in the correct hands, could shoot a huttball off the hull of a capital ship without leaving so much as a burn behind. Indeed, with the right crew, the Fury was more agile than any starfighter and could stand toe-to-toe with anything short of a dreadnaught.

A fact Vette was quickly working out on her own as Mara cleared the entry hatch, boots clicking on the sleek metal floor.

“Have you seen the hyperdrive on this thing?”

“So long as it’s present, I’m happy.”

Vette poked her head out of the engine room. “Very funny.” She frowned. “How are you not more excited? We have a ship.”

“I’m custodian of a ship granted to me by my master,” Mara corrected. “Baras can take it back whenever it strikes his fancy.”

“He’d have to catch us first,” Vette countered, “which would be difficult because, I don’t know if I mentioned, this hyperdrive is incredible.”

Mara smiled, allowing some of Vette’s enthusiasm to infect her.

“So you’ve said. Does it meet with your approval?”

“My approval? Of course, what kind of-“ Vette marched up to her, hands on her hips, and shoved Mara through the hatch that led to the flight deck. Consoles lined the walls and clustered around a pilot’s seat and a navigator’s seat. Between those crew stations and slightly elevated, a huge captain’s chair loomed. The massive rounded viewport showed the grey interior of the landing bay framed by the points of the Fury’s wings. Vette’s impatient gesture took in the entire room, and by extension, the ship itself. “Do you know how amazing this ship is?”

“It’s an impressive piece of military hardware,” Mara said with a sigh, reciting from memory what she learned at the Academy, “designed by Grand Moff Rycus Kilran in-“

“Seriously?”

“It’s a ship, Vette. My mother used an interceptor. My aunt Dzafir uses one. They don’t even belong to us.”

“Well excuse me, Your Sithiness, not all of us have an entire fleet of ships at our fingertips.”

Vette’s tone remained light, but her sense swirled with too many emotions for simple banter. Mara frowned, belatedly realizing the callousness of the comment. Vette’s brief period in Imperial slavery effectively stripped her of every possession and credit she’d had when captured on Korriban. Even though Mara granted her freedom as soon as she could it would take some time for Vette to save enough of her salary to call something like a ship hers.

“Forgive me,” she said softly, her eyes searching Vette’s face. “And you’re right, it is a fine ship.”

“Thank you, was that so hard?” Vette relaxed, a slight nod of her head acknowledging the deeper meaning behind Mara’s apology.

“I suppose not. Ships have never fascinated me the way they do you; they’re simply tools. Blades, on the other hand…” she patted the lightsaber hilt hanging from her belt.

“Okay, okay.” Vette held up her hands in mock surrender. “I watched you build that thing, remember? I know how close you two are.”

Mara chuckled and moved back through the hatch.

“The briefing package I requested came through a few minutes ago - shall I send a copy to you?”

Vette made a face. “How about you read up on our destination, and I’ll get going on a pre-flight check.”

“Deal.”

Vette returned to the flight deck, and Mara walked across the common area - a recreation space that could be turned over to combat operations in seconds - toward the commander’s quarters. Her quarters now, she supposed. She paused before a powered-down protocol droid. A moment’s hunting and she located its activation switch. It jerked upright, red eyes glowing.

“Greetings! I am protocol droid 2V-R8. I am programmed-“

“To service this ship and its crew, I presume?” Mara interrupted.

“Oh!” The droid seemed to shudder with fear. “Of course, master.”

Mara sighed. Factotum droids were a touchy lot, and tended to dip in performance when nervous.

“Wonderful,” she said, dropping her voice to the soothing tone she used on skittish tuk’ata pups. “I would like you to join my colleague, Vette, on the flight deck and prep the ship for flight. Once that’s done you may send me an inventory of the ship’s current stores.”

“Yes, master. Thank you, master!” If it were possible for a droid to sag with relief, Toovee would have done so. He shuffled toward the hatch and Mara continued on her way.

The interior of her quarters carried the functional luxury one came to expect from the Sith Order: the datastation, wardrobe and side tables were all an elegant durasteel design currently popular in Kaas City, the large bed dressed with linens that, while not necessarily what Mara would have chosen herself, were comparable in quality to what she had on her own bed at Chwûkûsk. She programmed the room’s lighting to an optimal level, dropped her rucksack on the bed, and activated her datastation.

A schematic of the Fury went into one quadrant of the screen, the rest devoted to unpacking the briefing Darth Baras had sent her, along with the files her own security prepared in the time it took her and Vette to gather their belongings and reach the spaceport.

Their destination was Balmorra, a hunk of rock notable only, so far as Mara could tell, for its arms factories and the fact that the Empire’s occupation of the planet seemed to drive the Republic to distraction. She set her master’s briefing to one side for the moment and pulled up the information gathered by Thrask security. She knew the gist of her mission already - Darth Baras’s briefing would include a dossier on her local contact and little else, she suspected.

The Thrask dossier, on the other hand, would include everything about the day-to-day operations of the local garrison that could be gleaned from afar. Mara’s experience as the head of a noble Sith house and as the daughter of an Imperial Navy officer taught her that wooing the local garrison commander would be invaluable to the success of her mission.

Though the Treaty of Coruscant had ended galactic hostilities and ceded Balmorra to the Empire, it seemed the local population missed that particular memorandum, and instead continued to harass Imperial forces. Thus far they were largely a nuisance, the report indicated, but an alarmingly tenacious one. The garrison, headquartered in the capital city of Sobrik and led by a Colonel Marinos, frequently encountered temporary supply shortages; delivery timetables seemed to be just a week or so too long to keep up with demand.

She had just begun a procurement list when the call chime on her door sounded.

“Woah,” Vette said after Mara called an entrance. “Nice digs. I hope crew quarters are at least half this nice. Anyway,” her attention shifted back to Mara and she sat on the edge of the bed, “The droid and I hit a snag in our launch prep.”

“And that would be?”

“Oh, only the complete lack of fuel, power, and, I can only assume, supplies. We’re running on reserve power at the moment.”

Mara blinked.

“Baras set us up with a completely unsupplied ship.”

“Looks like, yeah.”

She sighed; her master certainly was one for trial by fire, not that this particular inconvenience was in the same league as some of the other tasks he’d required of her. She jabbed the holo on her datastation. After a moment, Technician Rymes appeared.

“Technician Rymes, a pleasure to see you again.”

“My lord, how may I serve?”

Mara deliberately ignored the longsuffering tone.

“I need a full ground crew in landing bay thirty-one immediately; my ship is woefully unprepared for departure.”

Even via the grainy holo Mara could see the man’s face pale.

“My apologies, my lord - Darth Baras’s instructions were very specific as to which ship was yours. Had I known the supply issue-“

“Be at ease, Technician,” Mara said, adopting that soothing tone again. “I require a remedy, not explanation. How quickly can a team be here, and once begun, when will we be ready to fly?”

“Assuming you need a full resupply, it should be no more than six hours, my lord.”

“Tell your team they have three, Technician.”

As she ended the call, Mara turned back to Vette, who had draped herself over the foot of the bed.

“I have some calls to make, but please double check the galley and medbay. Toovee should have the standard inventory for an interceptor’s medbay in his databanks. As for the galley… bring me a list of what we have, and a list of what you’d like to procure,” she held up a hand as Vette began to grin, “within reason, Vette.”

“You’re no fun.”

Mara smiled at Vette’s exaggerated pouting. “I know.”

There was a beat of silence as Vette looked around the room, tugging the cuffs of her jacket.

“Vette?”

“Did you mean what you said earlier? About me being your adopted sister?”

Mara hesitated a moment, fiddling with the signet ring on her index finger, and hated herself for it. The hesitation had nothing to do with Vette, she knew, but with the way her last adopted sisterhood ended. But those were rare circumstances, she reminded herself, forcing her hands to relax.

“If you would like it to be so, yes.”

“It’s been awhile since I’ve really… belonged anywhere. Never thought it would be with a Sith I’ve only known a month, on her under-appreciated ship.” Vette gave her a weak smile, which Mara returned. She gently squeezed Vette’s shoulder.

“Family and home are what you want it to be, Vette. It can be here, if you want - our under-appreciated ship and our strange little community.”

“That… yeah, I might like that.”

“As would I.”

“Good.” Vette looked around again, blue cheeks warming with a blush, and cleared her throat. “So this means I get to name the ship, right?”

“Absolutely not; I’m not about to explain to Balmorra space control why my ship is named the Fluffy Bantha.”

“Oh, I was thinking of something better, a name that would capture this ship’s full potential: the Vette.”

Mara laughed and shook her head.

“You can leave now.”

“Just think about it,” Vette called over her shoulder as she left the room.

Mara turned back to her datastation and pulled up the holofrequency for her steward.

*** 

Precisely three hours later, Mara stood in the landing bay, encrypted holocomm in hand. Behind her, the ground crew loaded the last crates of supplies into her hold and rushed to detach the various umbilicals that restored the Fury’s fuel, power, and water supply.

She fidgeted as her call rang for an eternity, it seemed, before failing, just as it had every time she’d tried over the past weeks. With a sigh Mara activated the holo’s recording function.

“Eskella…” She grimaced. How to begin what she needed to tell her former friend and adopted sister? “Esk, I know you don’t want to hear from me, and I understand. But there are things I must tell you, beyond how sorry I am. Your father….” She trailed off. No, this could not be said via recording; she was skirting safety as it was making the call within sensor range of the ship her master had given her. “Please, just call me when you get this.”

She ended the message and turned to Technician Rymes, who had stopped a respectful distance away from her.

“Your ship is fully prepped, my lord.”

Mara smiled, checking her chrono. “Three hours and two minutes. Impressive; your team is to be commended.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

His irritation with her seemingly unreasonable demands melted under her praise and he risked a smile in return.

“Control has instructions to give you priority when you’re ready to launch, my lord.”

“Thank you, Technician, truly. You’ve been most helpful.”  

He was true to his word; Mara raised the ship’s entry ramp, sealed the airlock, and stepped onto the flight deck in time to hear Control clear them for launch.

“I could get used to this kind of service,” Vette commented from the pilot’s chair.

Mara chuckled and assumed the navigator’s station, plotting their course as Vette engaged the repulsorlifts. After a moment she felt the twi’lek’s eyes on her.

“What?”

It’s just a ship, Vette,” she teased, her voice dropping to mimic Mara’s tone and accent.

“I don’t have to desire carnal knowledge of the ship to know how to fly it.”

“Then you lose half the fun.”

Mara shook her head, keyed in the final coordinates, and stood.

“Our course is laid in. I have one last call to make before we get into hyperspace; don’t make the jump until you hear from me.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

Back in her quarters, Mara keyed in a familiar holofrequency and was met with a familiar face, if not the one she’d hoped for.

“Captain Funai. We must stop meeting like this,” Mara said dryly. “I take it the major remains too busy to speak to me?”

“Ah, he is currently in a meeting, my lord.” A diplomatic sidestep of her question. “I can remind him of his promise to return your contact-“

“Captain, Major Sicaritae has been making those same promises for days now. You may interrupt that meeting on my authority to remind him of his commitments. If you please. I’ll wait.”

Funai made a strangled noise, but his image disappeared, to be replaced by a hold signal. Mara drummed her fingers on her datastation impatiently. The man was infuriating; if only he’d spare five minutes for her she’d have stopped bothering him days ago.

A moment later Funai’s visage - pinched mouth frowning even more - returned.

“Major Sicaritae assures me he will return your call within the hour; his meeting is nearly complete.”

“Wonderful. I’ll remain on the line; please connect us the moment his door opens.”

Something suspiciously like a sigh wafted through the speaker.

“Of course, my lord. My apologies; the major can be… difficult to pin down.”

Mara laughed.

“He’s ever been so, as long as I’ve known him, Captain Funai. It’s one of the great constants of the universe.”

Chapter Text

“Oh good, you saved me my favorite seat.”

Lieutenant Malavai Quinn pressed his lips together to contain a sigh.

“I prefer to take my meals alone, Doctor Thairn,” he said stiffly. “The empty chair is not an invitation.”

He turned to the younger man just in time for him to flash a winning mustachioed smile, his dark eyes twinkling.

“Admit it; you’d miss me if I didn’t stop by.”

Quinn rolled his eyes and turned back to his food – the same steamed whitefish MRE and limp hydroponic salad that always served as his evening meal. Silence was the surest way to get the man to leave.

Of course, his silence had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Quinn had, over the course of the past two weeks, grown somewhat accustomed to the new doctor’s boisterous interruptions. Not enough to like them, of course, but the man had managed to relieve at least some of the monotony of being stationed at the Sobrik garrison. After a decade, almost any distraction was welcome.

Undeterred, Thairn sat down next to him and ordered a whiskey from the serving droid. Quinn suppressed a wince. The officer’s mess was the only place on Balmorra one could find Kaasi food, or even this beige approximation of it, else Quinn would take his meals elsewhere. Why Thairn would order the swill served here when the cantina on the other side of Sobrik served far more decent alcohol was beyond him.

Thairn elbowed him in the ribs. “Ho boy, Mal, get a look at that lieutenant, three o’clock.”

“My name is Malavai, Doctor Thairn, and no thank you.”

“Hey, I’ve told you to call me Doc; calling you Mal is only fair.”

“I don’t call you Doc,” Quinn snapped, slamming his fork down next to his plate and glaring at the man next to him.

“Knew I could get you to show me those baby blues,” Thairn crowed. “Now. Lieutenant. Three o’clock.”

After Quinn repeatedly turned down Thairn’s overtures, the man had been intent on catapulting Quinn into bed with anyone even remotely, well, alive, within eyeshot. It was a mild but significant improvement; the man’s flirtation had been exhausting, made all the more so by the fact that Quinn did find Thairn physically attractive. Indeed, Quinn may have entertained the prospect had Thairn given any indication whatsoever he’d cease his prattle once intimacy had been initiated.

“Doctor Thairn, have I given you any reason to believe I would be interested?”

“Every reason, Mal; that much tension is bad for the body, and nothing’s better for tension than, what did you call it once, the ‘baser pleasures’. Don’t they teach you field medics anything?”

Quinn opened his mouth to respond, but was interrupted by a burst of static from Thairn’s holocommunicator.

“Blasted Resistance must have taken out another relay,” Thairn muttered, placing the device on the table. “One sec, I’ll go get Luscious Lieutenant’s number.”

Quinn barely heard him. Something about that static was familiar, the pitch and a pattern in the burst that he’d last heard…. he shot a darting glance in Thairn’s direction - the man was in animated conversation with the woman he’d identified - as he pulled out his own comm and keyed in a short code. It flashed twice, red, and went dormant.

Quinn pocketed the device and was once again eating his evening meal when Thairn returned.

“Here, don’t say I never gave you anything,” Thairn said, dropping a napkin onto Quinn’s tray with a holofrequency written on it. “Name’s Logan and she seems to think you’re cute. Call her. Doc’s orders.”

Thairn picked up his comm and left.

Quinn waited exactly six minutes before disposing of his half-eaten meal and returning to his office and the barracks attached to them. He locked the barracks door behind him, retrieved his secure datapad, and hooked his comm to it.

A clone of the data on Thairn’s comm popped up. Quinn scanned through the frequencies most recently contacted. There were dozens; the man certainly did get around, but all had Imperial prefixes.

Quinn frowned, tapping his datapad thoughtfully. He’d chased spies before, in another lifetime it seemed, and so knew to consider his next step carefully. At this point there was nothing to obviously suggest Thairn was a spy. He was a local, from Balmorra, but he’d not made any secret of that fact. It was entirely possible Quinn’s bias against the man was informing his judgment here.

But that static. Quinn had last heard it while tracking a Republic SIS agent.

He scrolled back through the numbers, and froze. The prefixes were Imperial, but looking closer he realized the pattern on some of the frequencies didn’t fit any Imperial standard he knew of, certainly nothing the Empire used on Balmorra. A code, perhaps? He dumped the data into his barracks datastation and set to work.

Two hours later, his datastation pinged, pulling him out of an article in the Imperial Journal of Medicine.  A feral smile spread across his face as he read through the results.

He thumbed his commlink.

“This is Lieutenant Quinn for Major Sicaritae. I request a briefing at his earliest convenience. It’s urgent.”

 ***

Major Daveth Sicaritae was not quite the portrait of a model officer. His sandy brown hair was too unkempt, his face always seeming to be at least two days past due for a shave. Quinn had loathed him on sight when he arrived at Sobrik two years ago. Over time, however, he realized Sicaritae’s exterior was just as calculated as Quinn’s own. Part of Military Intelligence, his sloppy appearance and civilian clothes invited either underestimation or false familiarity, while his piercing blue eyes missed nothing of his surroundings.

He was effective and smart, and Quinn had developed a healthy admiration for him during their service together despite the four years he had on the major. So it was no small matter when the major looked up from his datapad and said,

“This is good work, Lieutenant Quinn.”

“Thank you, sir. I only hope it will aid our effort here.”

“It will do more than that, which you are well aware of given you were smart enough to crack this yourself. This proves the Republic is aiding the Balmorran Resistance. It’s not enough to put on the galactic stage, but it gives us something to start with.”

The frequencies in Thairn’s comm, it turned out, were all fake, save for the bare handful that had not conformed to Imperial standard. Those had been in code, a simple matter for him to crack as there were only a handful of frequency prefixes that made any sense. All were Republic military.

“Quinn, do you know why Thairn has singled you out? Has he expressed any interest in your role or asked any odd questions?”

“No, sir. We’re medics in the same ward; there’s nothing about my role that isn’t part of his.”

“Has he been inside your office or barracks?”

Quinn felt his cheeks warm slightly. He was doubly relieved he’d spurned the man’s advances.

“No sir, though that was not for lack of trying on his part.”

“Interesting.”

“Shall I have Thairn apprehended when he next shows himself, sir?”

Sicaritae was silent for several moments.

“I think not,” he said finally. “No, I think he could prove far more valuable to us.”

“Sir?”

“Lieutenant, I would like you to maintain your connection to Doctor Thairn. I’ll have some tech prepared for you, to protect your own equipment from scans, and I’d like a daily report on Thairn’s activities. Once-“

The door opened and an aide poked his head into the room.

“Major, sorry to disturb, but Lady Thrask called for you again.”

Sicaritae shook his head. “You told her I’ll call her back when I’m available?”

“Yes, she reminded me of your assurances two days ago.”

“For Emperor’s sake, tell the woman not to get her tendrils in a knot; I won’t miss her birthday.”

The aide paled visibly and Quinn nearly choked. To think such a thing about a Red Sith - the tendrils reference could mean nothing else - let alone say the words aloud? Either the man was suicidal or he had even deeper connections than Quinn could have suspected.

“Sir, you want me to say that, verbatim, to a Sith noblewoman?”

Sicaritae sighed.

“No, I suppose not. Ask her, very nicely, to wait until I’m finished here. I can speak to her then.”

“I believe it will need to come from-“

“Captain Funai, give her my personal assurances. She will hear from me well within the hour.”

“Y-yes, sir.”

“Thank you. Bloody woman,” he muttered, turning back to Quinn. “My apologies Lieutenant, I-“

He cut off at something in Quinn’s face and smiled wryly.

“Lady Thrask and I grew up together, Lieutenant. I knew her long before she went to Korriban.”

“I see,” Quinn said mechanically.

Sicaritae chuckled and shook his head.

“You clearly don’t, but that’s beside the point.” His face became serious again. “Getting back to our reason for meeting: I want you to maintain your contact with Thairn. Someone from my office will be in touch with you in the next hour or so to deliver the tech I mentioned. Once we’ve a better idea of his movements here in Sobrik, there are any number of tracking devices you can install on his equipment or person that could prove useful to us.”

Quinn opened his mouth to protest, but Sicaritae held up a hand.

“You need not get closer than propriety allows; most of our tech can work from a discrete distance.”

“Yes, sir.”

“If we do this right, Doctor Thairn will give us the visibility into the Resistance we’ve been looking for, and there could be a promotion to Military Intelligence for you in the offing.”

Despite the decade of forced stagnation, Quinn felt a twinge of hope. He was nearing the end of his time in grade, and thus Colonel Marinos would be forced to grant the promotion Quinn had earned six times over or risk a nasty investigation. That combined with a commendation from a respected member of Military Intelligence could be enough to make such a shift possible. Most likely not, but some hope was better than none.

“I look forward to it, sir.”

“Very good, Lieutenant. You’re dismissed.”

Quinn saluted and left the room. As the door closed behind him he heard a comm panel beep and a woman’s deep, rich voice filled the room.

“Daveth, finally.”

The door closed before she continued. He put it out of his mind. Whatever it was Sicaritae was up to with a Sith Lord, he had no desire to be part of it; he was up to his ears in Sith business as it was. That business would occupy him for the rest of his afternoon, improving the security on his own equipment. Darth Baras would be none too pleased should his data become unsafe, and the Sith Lord’s displeasure often came with a violent and involuntary retirement.

***

Hours later, Quinn ran a final test on the equipment Captain Funai had delivered to his office. Everything seemed in order. He stood, knuckling the small of his back, just as his holo beeped. His eyes widened, noting the Dromund Kaas prefix. That Darth Baras should holo at the same time a spy came sniffing about Sobrik... he slowed his thoughts - coincidences were not unheard of, best not to jump to conclusions - and accepted the call.

“Lieutenant Quinn.”

“Lord Baras.” Quinn bowed. “It is an honor.”

“Yes, yes,” Baras waved Quinn’s niceties away. “I am on something of a strict timetable, so I shall get right to the point. You are aware of Commander Rylon and his Howler Squadron?”

Quinn’s lip twisted. “Of course, my lord, they are the most troublesome and effective squadron in the Balmorran Resistance.”

“Indeed. Rylon himself has also become a threat to my operation. I have dispatched an apprentice, Maranel Thrask, to deal with him. You will liaise with her and provide whatever support she needs to complete her mission.”

“Yes, my lord. I shall prepare a briefing package at once.”

“There is more, for which I will require your particular talents, Quinn.” Baras paused, as if considering his next words carefully. “There is a Republic investigator snooping around my spy network on Balmorra.”

Quinn froze.

“I will send you what I know of this individual; I want them found and surveilled before my apprentice arrives. She will ultimately deal with them as well.”

“And when should I expect your apprentice, my lord?”

“She is launching from the Kaas City spaceport as we speak. You have two standard days.”

Quinn nodded. “It shall be done, my lord. In fact, I do believe this investigator may have made their first mistake – we just this evening identified an enemy operative amongst the medical staff here.”

“That cannot be a coincidence. I leave it to you to use this mole effectively, so long as you are careful.”

Quinn bowed his head. As if he would ever be otherwise with a Sith Lord’s trust.

“I will handle this matter with the utmost delicacy, my lord, as always.”

“Good.” Quinn’s datastation pinged. “You should receive shortly a dossier on Apprentice Thrask and notes as to her targets aside from Rylon and this investigator.”

“The data package just arrived, my lord.”

“Good. Contact me when my apprentice arrives; there are matters I would discuss with her.”

“Of course, my lord.”

The call terminated. Quinn copied the dossiers to his datapad and erased the incoming file, then retired to his barracks to plan. His duty shift at the medcenter would begin relatively early the next morning, but he knew from experience that Darth Baras’s business came before his sleep needs.

Leaving aside the dossier on the apprentice – her information would keep, he was certain – he pulled up the file on the investigator. It was depressingly thin, but one note jumped out at him: this person arrived on Balmorra only days before Doctor Thairn arrived in Sobrik and offered his services.

Chapter Text

Comportment is the primary weapon of a Sith; poor bearing can ruin you before you issue an order or draw your saber.

That it was her mother’s advice and voice - always her mother’s voice; Mara had long given up trying to impose her aunts or her father in its place - was an irony not lost on her. Despite that now-dubious source, the words had proven accurate on numerous occasions.

She wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from her assigned contact here on Balmorra, a Lieutenant Malavai Quinn. That his file indicated he was a thirty-seven-year-old lieutenant did not precisely fill her with confidence; indeed, she feared this contact would need even more work than the fuel- and supply-less ship her master had gifted her. Then again, any military officer with half a brain would think the same about her, a twenty-six-year-old woman only just graduated from the Academy and set loose on her very first unsupervised mission.

On some level it mattered little; whether she needed to mold an inferior officer to her needs or impress a competent one, her first impression had to be flawless. And so Mara strode through the Sobrik spaceport, frowning at the odd thunder rumbling in the distance every few seconds, her head held at the imperious angle her etiquette instructors had drilled into her. That they’d landed a couple of hours before local midnight didn’t help her mood any; as far as her internal chrono was concerned, it was mid-morning.

“This is weird,” Vette muttered beside her.

“What’s weird?”

“You. You have that… Sithy look now.”

Mara raised a brow stalk and cast a glance down at her friend, whose shorter legs struggled to keep up with her. “‘Sithy’ look?”

“Yes, that,” Vette confirmed, jabbing a blue finger up at her. “That ‘get out of my way or I’ll stab you’ look.”

Mara chuckled. “Ah, that look. I find it useful for crowd control.”

“Well, mission accomplished.” The twi’lek’s violet eyes scanned the technicians and other citizens scurrying out of the Mara’s way. “You’re making it hard for me to pick pockets, you know that, right?”

“Perhaps we ought to gather a bit more intel on the local situation before potentially infuriating someone we may need later.”

“You’re the boss, boss.”

Mara opened her mouth to reply, but stopped short as they emerged from the spaceport into open air. Or rather, somewhat open air. She’d known this section of Sobrik was wreathed in a massive energy shield, as they’d had to await clearance to cross it during their landing. But what she hadn’t scanned for was the heavy artillery fire that struck the invisible barrier every few seconds, casting a shimmering pink flash through the night sky. Beyond the confines of the energy shield the city had been largely reduced to rubble, flashes from the energy shield revealing dark windowless eyes of the few standing husks glaring enviously back into the safe zone.

The dull rumble of near-continuous artillery fire had initially sounded like thunder to Mara, a natural assumption for a native of perpetually-stormy Dromund Kaas.

“So this is just an annoying resistance?” Vette asked.

“It most certainly is not. Either my security is slipping or someone is working hard to keep the extent of this insurgency secret.”

“Great. Welcome to the war zone. Get ready for a bumpy ride.”

Mara grinned. “Well, at least you won’t be bored. Come on, let’s go meet our contact.”

***

“You lost her ?”

Corporal Jillins, the fresh-faced leader of the recon squadron Major Sicaritae had assigned to Quinn, cringed back from the outburst. Quinn didn’t often lose his temper; indeed, he prided himself on his ability to keep a cool head during a crisis. But learning his team had bungled their surveillance of this mysterious investigator just as he expected Baras’s apprentice to descend on him at any moment was enough to try anyone’s patience.

“How precisely did this happen, Corporal?”

“We followed the target, sir, and observed him exchanging data with a woman we believe is the investigator. We were at least twenty meters away, sir, under decent cover, but she looked right at us.”

Quinn pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, I gathered she saw you, Corporal Jillins, what gave you away?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“You don’t know.”

“No, sir. All five of us were under cover; it shouldn’t have been possible. I’m sorry, sir, I did my best.”

He glared for a heartbeat longer. “Give me the tracker.”

It took only a moment to hook the device into his datapad and pull up the data being fed through it. He was receiving both telemetry and sensor data through the investigator’s holocomm. He forwarded the stream to Major Sicaritae along with a promise of a full briefing.

“It’s your lucky day, Corporal; despite your ineptitude, it seems the investigator did not connect your presence to Doctor Thairn.”

Jillins relaxed, nearly falling out of attention with relief. He tensed again when Quinn made eye contact.

“Rest assured, Corporal, if she had, your career would be over. I’ve half a mind to recommend you for disciplinary action in any case.”

He grabbed the boy’s collar and hauled him closer.

“If this is your best, Corporal, you’re no good to me. I can shoot you dead with a clear conscience. Do you want that?”

Jillins swallowed noisily.

“No, sir.”

“Then focus, Jillins! I want all the telemetry from your mission sent to me this evening. We will review it together at 10:00 tomorrow, at which time you will have a hypothesis for me. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re dismissed.”

The boy barely got off a salute before turning and practically running for the door. He nearly collided with a tall Red Sith woman who stood just inside the door, a blue twi’lek behind her.

This had to be Baras’s apprentice. She had the aristocratic bearing he’d expected based on the dossier Baras had sent - heads of noble houses tended not to make it to adulthood without a certain level of poise - and a predictably impractical armor that bared her full midriff, the four gleaming points of a gold navel ring practically daring an enemy to strike it. Her long chestnut colored hair was pulled back in an efficient bun, accentuating the signet on her forehead and the bone spurs that ran along her jaw, curving toward the point of her chin. Gold stud piercings, one in her nose and several in each ear, gleamed quietly in the light of his office.

Kriff. His throat dried up as he wondered how much of that exchange she’d observed.

She didn’t seem to notice the corporal scrape past her; her amber eyes held Quinn’s unflinchingly. He kept a tight rein on the urge to fidget under her scrutiny - odd, he’d not experienced that sort of nervousness in some time - and stepped forward.

“My lord, I apologize for the delay. Welcome to Balmorra.”

She stared at him for an uncomfortable moment, until the twi’lek cleared her throat pointedly.

“Ah,” the Sith frowned and shook herself, her spine straightening as she strode further into his office. “My apologies, Lieutenant Quinn, I presume?”

“At your service, my lord,” he confirmed with a polite bow.

She smiled and inclined her head. “Apprentice Maranel Thrask,” she introduced herself, “and this is Vette.”

“It’s an honor.” He choked a little when the twi’lek gave him a sarcastic salute in greeting. He took a breath and continued, “I am to be your liaison as long as you remain planetside. Darth Baras has asked me to acquaint you with the situation here on Balmorra and provide any operational support you might need.”

“I would appreciate the briefing, Lieutenant.” It was an effort to keep the surprise off his face; he’d fully expected Baras’s apprentice to be as laser-focused on her master’s personal priorities as Baras himself was.

“I confess,” she continued, “the research I gathered before departing Dromund Kaas seems to be rather out of date.”

He felt a bitter smile form before he could stop himself. “You’re referring, I take it, to the resistance shelling the city?”

“Indeed. Everything I saw indicated the insurgency was minor.”

Quinn sighed. “It was minor, my lord. However, the worst-kept secret on Balmorra is all of that artillery was delivered from offworld along with Republic ‘advisors’.”

Any assumptions he may have made about her frivolity melted a little further when she nodded, brow stalks furrowed, and took a step closer to him.

“I think you’d better catch me up, Lieutenant.”

***

The comm in Quinn’s barracks beeped, signaling that Baras was finished speaking confidentially to his apprentice. He moved toward the door that led from his barracks into his office.

She was not what he’d expected. Given her relatively advanced age and the fact that this was her first mission, he’d assumed she would be more confidence than competence. And true, she hadn’t performed in the field yet, but the questions she’d asked, and the attention she paid to his briefing, hinted at a mind interested in more than just brutishly swinging a lightsaber.

“Welcome back, Lieutenant. I understand you have equipment for me?”

“Indeed, my lord.” He retrieved a pack from a cabinet.

When he’d finished explaining the equipment inside - mostly explosives meant for the mainframe computer at a nearby satellite control station - she took it and hefted it onto her shoulders experimentally.

“I can take it, if you want,” the twi’lek said.

“No, you’re more useful if you’re mobile; this will only slow you down.” She placed the pack on the floor and turned back to him. “Vette and I are quite space lagged and I’d just as soon get started on this mission. I’ll need nightvision equipment; we have our own speeder bikes.”

“Goggles are in the pack, my lord, though I’ll requisition an extra pair for your… colleague.” Apprentice Thrask’s eyes had narrowed dangerously as he vacillated, but at the word ‘colleague’ they cleared and she visibly relaxed. He filed that reaction away. “I will note that, with the insurgency so active, travel by night has become quite dangerous. Not,” he added hurriedly, “that I believe you can’t hold your own, my lord. I only wish to apprise you of the situation as I understand it.”

A small smile played around her full lips.

“Lieutenant, your understanding of the situation here is superior to mine. I will never punish you for offering clear-eyed assessments instead of empty flattery.”

“Thank you, my lord.” Well that is unexpected.

“One last thing, Lieutenant: in my research to prepare for this mission, I noticed a cycle of shortages faced by the garrison here, and that you’re in a period of lack at the moment.”

Quinn frowned. “Yes, my lord.”

“I brought what I could carry from my own holdings - mainly small munitions and spare parts - is the quartermaster the correct person to deliver those supplies to?”

It took him several moments to formulate a reply. She brought supplies ? And knows enough of military politics to feel out the local garrison before tossing them about? No, this woman was not anything like the master she served.

“First Sergeant Ghajji is a competent quartermaster, my lord; she will make sure the supplies are distributed equitably. Shall I comm her for you?”

“Please do. I also have a crate of fresh Kaasi fruit - I take it she is also the correct person to deliver that to as well?”

When was the last time he had fresh fruit of any kind? The half-remembered taste of Kaasi pears made his mouth water. Perhaps he could ask her for a piece or two, before the entire garrison descended on the crate like a plague of Mantellian locusts.

“Indeed, my lord,” he said instead.

“Good. Have the Sergeant or her staff meet me in landing bay twelve; I’ll set them going on unloading the supplies and retrieve our speeder bikes. If there’s nothing else?”

“There is the matter of the investigator-“

“Nel?”

Quinn snapped to attention and Apprentice Thrask whirled toward the source of the voice.

“Major Sicaritae.” Her voice had morphed into a friendly, almost teasing tone.

Of course . He hadn’t connected the Sith trying to contact Sicaritae with the apprentice before him, but clearly they were one and the same.

“Checking up on me, Lady Thrask?” he asked, moving into the room. He met Quinn’s gaze. “As you were, Lieutenant.”

Quinn relaxed, staring in fascination as she offered the major her hand.

“It’s Apprentice Thrask now, Major,” she said as he dropped a deferential kiss on her knuckles, bowing as he did so. “And no, I’d no idea you were stationed here. I have other business on Balmorra.”

“Congratulations, my lord. You’ll have to regale me with stories of your trials when we have time off-duty.”

“I’d planned to, don’t you worry.” She motioned Vette forward. “Vette, this is Major Daveth Sicaritae. We grew up together; his family’s property adjoins Chwûkûsk .”

“Oh, so this is the bantha’s ass you couldn’t raise on holo for weeks.”

“The very same,” Sicaritae replied with laugh and a small bow of his head.  

“Vette was assigned to me on Korriban during my final trial, Daveth. I daresay her infiltration skills rival yours.”

The major eyed the blue twi’lek, his gaze openly appraising.

“I’d love to talk shop. However.” His voice became businesslike. “If you were nearly done, my lord, I have a briefing with Lieutenant Quinn.”

“Sir, this concerns Apprentice Thrask’s mission.”

“Does it now. Intriguing.”

As he and Major Sicaritae explained about Doctor Thairn and the afternoon’s mission to track and surveil the investigator, Apprentice Thrask’s brow stalks climbed nearly to her hairline.

“It would seem the Republic is still a few steps ahead of us,” she said. “Lieutenant, I trust you will continue monitoring the telemetry we’re receiving from the tracker. Contact me immediately on this frequency if you have significant developments.” She handed him a slip of flimsy with a holofrequency written on it. “I don’t think setting a tail on her is wise at this juncture; whether she’s simply sharp-eyed or our team made a mistake, she’ll be looking for further signs of surveillance. Rather, have your teams mobile in her vicinity and ready to intercept her when necessary.”

“It will be done, my lord,” Quinn answered with a nod, keying her comm frequency into his datapad.

“I will continue to monitor the situation, but my lord I must tell you there are no better hands to leave you in than Lieutenant Quinn’s. I’ve been repeatedly impressed by his work on this matter.”

“Indeed.” Her glowing amber eyes roamed over Quinn, and he felt his cheeks heat with a blush. What is wrong with you, Malavai. “That’s high praise coming from Daveth, Lieutenant.”

“I will endeavor to be worthy of it, my lord.”

The meeting broke up, and after contacting First Sergeant Ghajji, Quinn settled in to analyze the data flowing from the investigator and await contact from Apprentice Thrask.

It would be a long night, followed by another duty shift in the morning, but he had no urge to complain about the lack of sleep. Indeed, he didn’t even want caf; he’d not been this awake in years.

***

The Balmorran landscape rolled by, tinged green by Mara’s nightvision goggles, slower than she would have liked. They’d left the main road some time ago; it was simply too closely watched by the local insurgency, and instead they wove through the open wilderness, dodging rock formations as well as the odd Resistance patrol.

“Are we gonna talk about what happened back there?” Vette’s voice came through her earpiece.

“What happened back there?” Mara countered.

“I’ve gone days without water and been less thirsty than you were for that lieutenant.”

Mara’s mind wandered back to Sobrik and to Lieutenant Quinn’s unnaturally blue eyes and jet-black hair, perfectly arranged save for an unruly cowlick that left her with the urge to muss it fully. He’d spoken with a confident authority that belied his low rank, and when he’d turned to retrieve a datapad he’d revealed that his gorgeous face was not his only physical asset.

“It’s been awhile,” she said. “And Lieutenant Quinn is quite easy on the eyes.”

It was only half the truth, she knew. Beneath that handsome exterior and keen mind churned a maelstrom of emotion. She couldn’t read it completely - her Force senses required familiarity to read more than the strongest of emotional reactions - but she suspected that feeling him unleash it would be… exquisite.

“Yeah, well, sorry to say I don’t think he noticed. Which is odd because you were not subtle. Even your major friend noticed.”

Mara smiled. Daveth had noticed, and more than that, seemed to approve. “I know.”

Lieuteannt Quinn’s obliviousness wasn’t necessarily surprising; the Imperial military was rife with rumors of Sith sexual aggression. While most of those rumors were false, enough were upsettingly true. As a result, many officers simply overlooked Sith as potential sexual partners out of a sense of self preservation.

Mara sighed. She had no intention of adding her own cautionary tale to the list. For now, a passionate celibacy was all she could look forward to.

With that cheery thought she slowed her speeder.

“We’re a kilometer from the coordinates,” she said. “Sensors picking up elevated activity, mainly droids. We should go the rest of the way on foot.”

“I always love a moonlit stroll among the rocks.”

“And droids.”

“Right.”

They stowed their speeders amongst a rock formation and crept through the sparse underbrush. Mara had to admit Vette was far quieter than she, silence being a thief’s first and best line of defense. Ten meters outside the entrance to the control facility they paused and she tapped a new frequency into the gauntlet control panel of her comm.

“Lieutenant, I have eyes on our objective.” Her voice was a low whisper.

“Excellent, my lord. I have your comm tracked on sensors.”

“I’ll keep the channel open and slice you into the security systems once we’re in.”

She glanced at Vette and raised her left arm to signal her forward.

A flash of warning from the force, like a line of white heat across her mind, and she clenched her hand into a fist.

An energy shield sprang to life around her forearm, roughly circular and wide enough to cover them both from head to waist.

Heavy blaster fire ricocheted off the barrier right in front of her face.

“We’re tagged,” she snapped, bolting upright and igniting her lightsaber. “I’ve got three in front.”

“Two behind, guarding the door.”

“Go, Vette. I’ll draw their fire.”

She spun toward the door and hurled her lightsaber at one of the guard droids. Next to her, Vette tapped her own gauntlet and vanished. The droid dropped, hitting the ground as two pieces, and Mara caught her lightsaber just in time to reflect the second droid’s fire back into its face. It jerked and toppled.

“My lord, now that you’ve triggered their security protocols, you have two minutes before the entire security system goes into lockdown.”

“Vette’s on it, Lieutenant.”

She dropped her energy shield, shifted to a two-handed grip on her blade, and threw herself at the three remaining droids.

“Yeah, about that.” Vette’s voice on the comm was accompanied by blaster fire.

Mara yanked her blade out of the last droid. “I’m coming.”

She burst into the satellite control building at a run, barely remembering to yank her nightvision goggles up in time. Vette was pinned down by four more droids. She’d retreated to a corner of the room away from the security console and was using a dead droid chassis for cover.

With a yell Mara leaped in front of them, her first swing eviscerating two droids. The other two, seeing her as the bigger threat, snapped their blaster rifles up.

With a sweep of her hand she sent the two droid carcasses flying into their squad-mates, absorbing the volley of blaster fire. And then Mara was on them, black-magenta blade weaving about the droids like an angry serpent.

Two fluid strikes and it was over.

Well, somewhat over; Mara’s danger sense remained active. Another squad of droids had to be inbound.

“We have ninety seconds, Vette.”

“I can do it in forty.” She was already at the terminal, hands flying across the control board.

Mara took up a post in front of the door, blade low and pointing behind her. Her position was exposed, but surprise would do no good if the droids simply shot Vette before Mara sprang out of hiding. At the very least, the door made for a nice choke point.

“I have visual sensors,” Quinn reported. “Establishing control link now.” His voice became tight with urgency. “My lord, a squad of droids is approaching your level in the turbolift.”

“Got it. I’m ready.”

The first droid of the new squadron appeared, moving cautiously. Mara grinned and yanked it to her with the Force, impaling it on her blade. The remaining four adapted quickly, two drawing vibroblades and rushing to close the distance while the other two held back, laying down cover fire.

Smart, for droids . Of course, it wouldn’t be enough.

She dodged the first swipe of a vibroblade, sweeping her lightsaber low across the droid’s knees. She caught the other vibroblade with her shield, activating it at the last possible second, and slammed her boot into the droid. In the space she’d given herself, she decapitated and then grabbed it, slamming it into the one she’d incapacitated hard enough that sparks flew.

“Watch it!” Vette yelled as a blaster bolt sizzled past her to scorch the wall behind the control panel.

“Do you want my job?” Mara yelled back, grinning as she wove through the blaster fire to close the distance between her and the remaining droids.

“Do you want mine ?”

Mara dropped to her knees, blade scouring across the middle of one droid, spraying her with sparks that bit into her flesh. She laughed and rolled to her feet, bisecting the remaining droid neatly up the middle.

“And miss this? Never.”

“Done. Thirty-five seconds.” Vette crowed, pumping a fist.

“I’ve disabled all remaining security measures, my lord.”

“Good job everyone. Shall we?”

Setting the explosive devices and wiring them to the security systems took only ten minutes. They’d barely cleared the building when Lieutenant Quinn detonated the mainframe.

“You have a very specific definition of safe distance, Lieutenant Quinn,” Mara said wryly, waving smoke from around her face. At least any evidence as to Commander Rylon’s true allegiances was now a smoking ruin.

“You were a safe distance, were you not, my lord?”

Mara felt a smile creep across her lips. His tone remained respectful, detached, but there was a hint of humor beneath the words, so dry one could easily miss it.

“And not one centimeter more,” she said with a quiet laugh. “Your precision is impressive, Lieutenant Quinn.”

“I’m glad you approve, my lord.”

Chapter Text

“Long day?”

Mara jerked in surprise as Daveth appeared at her elbow.

“Apparently, if you’re able to sneak up on me,” she replied, smiling despite her foul mood.

Truthfully, it had been more than long; immediately upon returning to Sobrik from the satellite control station, Baras had sent them traipsing across Balmorra on another ancillary mission. A twelve hour round-trip drive combined with the mission itself had taken its toll. Beside her, Vette fussed with the stealth generator in her gauntlet. It had seen more wear in the last day than it had in the entire six weeks Mara had known her friend. Mara ran her tongue over grimy-feeling teeth; she’d been on this miserable rock a little over 24 hours now without food or a shower.

“Might I buy you both a drink, my lord?” he asked, gesturing across the street to the local cantina.

“If you can stand the smell, I think we’d both be delighted.

Daveth took their orders, trading good-natured banter with the bartender and returning with a tray of drinks and a platter of some sort of appetizer sampler. Mara could only definitively identify the root vegetables and Kaasi squid, but it hardly mattered; everything was the deep-fried embodiment of culinary perfection as far as her exhausted palate was concerned. Daveth raised an eyebrow as she and Vette dug in, incapable of conversation for several moments.

“This last mission was unexpected.” It was not a question.

Mara wiped her mouth with a napkin and picked up her whiskey.

“Indeed. Apparently my target sired a brat with someone here on Balmorra.” And gifted him with so few brains I question his abilities as a parent , she added to herself.

Durmat, the son, had been so useless. That was the worst part; industrious enemies were easy to dispatch and there was honor in neutralizing them. Bumbling idiots who would most likely spill the truth by accident, on the other hand? Just as dangerous but there was no honor or thrill to the hunt. Fortunately the memory-erasing serum had worked; perhaps the boy would make something of himself this time around.

Daveth laughed, interrupting her reverie.

“Only you, Nel.” At Mara’s questioning look, he simply shook his head. “Only you would waltz into a Republic brig - or a Hutt pleasure barge, or Sivak Manor - and not only live to tell the tale but act like it was a mere inconvenience to your busy schedule.”

“I am very busy, Daveth,” she replied with a grin. “My life would be far easier if people would clean up their own messes.”

“So you’ve said, many times.” Daveth cast a glance at Vette, who had slowed her eating and now continued to tinker at her gauntlet. “Stealth generator gone bad?”

Vette looked up, surprised.

“Yeah. Held it for way too long getting into that Pub outpost, and I’m pretty sure it took some shrapnel damage from the firefight.”

“May I?”

Vette nodded and handed her gauntlet across the table. Daveth bent his unkempt head over it, frowning.

“You maintain this yourself?” he asked, blue eyes sharp as he looked at Vette.

“Uh, yeah. Who else would?”

“This is ingenious; there’s no way these components should still be functional.”

“Well, Mara’s Major, I am the best.”

“I can see that. Kriff, Nel, if you don’t have an eye for talent.”

Mara shrugged uncomfortably. If only she’d been able to hire Vette as opposed to having Baras gift the twi’lek to her as a commencement present. She met Vette’s gaze across the table; her friend looked about as uncomfortable as she felt.

“I’m lucky Vette agreed to work with me after everything she’s been through,” Mara said finally.

“Still, Vette, I might recommend a replacement; something a bit more current that you can expend your talent improving, rather than spending all your energy keeping it functional.”

Vette laughed. “As if I hadn’t thought of that. New stealth generator’s a little out of my price range right now.”

“Would you object to my giving you one? You’re outside the chain of command but being attached to a Sith gives me a certain amount of latitude.”

Vette stared at him, violet eyes round. “Why would I- Of course I wouldn’t- Are you kidding? Of course I’ll take some fancy tech off your hands.”

“I’d hoped so.”

They fell into animated discussion of specs and comparing the models available. Mara drained her whiskey and set the glass aside. It had barely hit the table before a serving droid appeared with a new one.

“Compliments of the gentlebeings in that booth, my lord,” it said, gesturing toward two women - a lieutenant and a corporal - a few meters away. When Mara made eye contact they both raised a glass in her direction. She returned the gesture, hoping to keep the confusion from her face.

“Additionally, my lord,” the droid continued, “my master has told me to convey that your tab for the evening has been covered by several other patrons.”

“Ah, thank you.” Mara waved the droid away and turned back to the table. “Daveth, why is half the garrison trying to buy me a drink?”

“That’d probably be because you brought fresh Kaasi food with you, Nel.” He grinned. “Don’t act so surprised; you should know by now the way to a soldier’s heart is through their stomach.”

“Funny, I don’t remember that being how I tripped you into bed,” she replied with a laugh.

“No food was necessary; you’re a very persuasive tripper.”

“I try, though you may want to communicate that to a certain lieutenant.”

“I was wondering how long it would take for you to ask about Lieutenant Quinn.”

Daveth’s smile was far too knowing for Mara’s comfort. Vette laughed as Mara looked around the cantina, eyes sharp for the slim, dark-haired man in question.

“Oh, you won’t find him here; he’s at the officer’s mess eating his evening meal.”

“How do you know?”

“It’s what he does every day. Whitefish MRE and greens. You could set a chrono by him.”

“Why does that not surprise me?” Vette asked sarcastically.

Mara frowned. Indeed, the lieutenant had been exacting, sometimes pedantically so, but eating the same meal at the same time every day spoke of something deeper than mere routine.

“How long has he been here?” Baras’s dossier had omitted that fact.

“I’m not sure.” At Mara’s startled stare, Daveth continued, “his file is sealed; even I don’t have clearance to see the full contents.” He let that sink in for a moment. “But I did some digging since you landed; first mention of him in the duty schedule is about ten years ago.”

Ten years ?” Mara gaped. That was three times longer than the average deployment to Balmorra. “How…?”

“Colonel Marinos can’t live with out him, apparently. Every transfer has been denied on the grounds that he’s mission critical here.”

“A medic. Is mission critical.” I wonder who he pissed off; it must be someone high up if a colonel is keeping him tied here.

“Obviously that’s not his only skill set. But there’s no indication he’s done counterintelligence work for anyone other than your master.”

Mara turned that over in her mind for a moment. She looked back at Daveth, whose blue eyes were dancing merrily as he watched her.

“And you like him.” She said.

“I do. He’s effective - brilliant, really, at seeing patterns others overlook, and the most dedicated officer I’ve ever met, despite being stuck here. Whatever happened, loyalty and competence were not the issue.”

Mara nodded thoughtfully. “And you think I’d like him.”

“Don’t you?”

Mara smiled, cheeks warming slightly. “I don’t know him but-”

Daveth waved her words away “Oh, tosh, Nel, you’ll be gone after your mission is complete; you know him enough given those constraints.”

“Do I now?”

“Smart, good-looking, devoted to work? There’re so few of us.”

Mara laughed, though there was a hint of sadness in it this time. That devotion to work, on both of their parts, was what ended their short-lived relationship. Still, despite the sadness of a path not taken, she had no regrets about her choices, and neither did he, a fact that had allowed them to remain good friends.

“I suppose I owe it to the galaxy to seize what I’ve been presented with.” she said aloud.

“Just so.” Daveth checked his chrono. “If  you’d like to do that now, he should be heading back to his barracks any moment.”

***

“I wish we had more kriffing information,” Apprentice Thrask growled, letting her head fall into her arms.

She, the twi’lek Vette, and Quinn were arrayed around the holotable in his office studying a scale projection of the Balmorran Arms Factory. It was the most heavily guarded installation on the planet - even more secure than Sobrik, from what Quinn could glean - and, unfortunately, Commander Rylon, their target, had his base of operations deep within the facility.

The twi’lek, who’d propped her feet up on the holotable again , rolled her eyes, the impertinent gesture ruined by a yawn that nearly split her face in half. After hours of mission planning, he was the only one of the three who remained standing. Then again, he knew he was the only one of them who’d slept in the last thirty hours.

As if she’d heard him, Apprentice Thrask raised her head, inhaling sharply and massaging her temples.

“Forgive me, Lieutenant.”

“Not at all, my lord. I understand your frustration.”

“I’m not accustomed to acting on so little intel; my position has always been dependent upon knowing as much as possible.”

Quinn couldn’t disagree with Apprentice Thrask’s sentiment, nor even with her palpable frustration with the lack of intel, but it was par for the course on Balmorra; refusing to see the Resistance as a threat had kept intelligence gathering to a minimum. Now that the threat was clear, the Resistance was well-positioned to resist scrutiny, Doctor Thairn’s missteps notwithstanding.

“Unfortunately this is all too common on Balmorra.” He offered a half-smile. “Welcome to the front, my lord.”

Her fingers paused in their circuit over her temples and her golden eyes met his, glowing through the blue projection of the arms factory. His breath caught at the contact, and for one terrible moment he feared he’d overstepped, but then she smiled. He relaxed, though his heart rate remained above normal. She stood and joined him on his side of the table, hands on her hips, brow stalks furrowed in thought.

“Advise me,” she said softly. “How would you proceed?”

“Focus on what we know, and plan for the worst, my lord.”

“Worst case scenario means we need an army,” the twi’lek put in, “which we don’t have.”  

“No, he’s right,” Apprentice Thrask countered, “this isn’t a job for a two-man team.” She paced around the table, tapping her lower lip thoughtfully. “At the very least we need a second team to draw their attention.”

“I’ve cracked more secure places than this on my own,” the twi’lek replied. Where in the galaxy did Apprentice Thrask find this girl? Quinn wondered. “We can’t slice their security from the outside, but get me in and we’ll have our run of the place.”

“Vette-“

“No, look. This place is huge, right? They rely heavily on sensors to identify intruders. I can get in here,” she tapped a portion of the projection, “and get to a security junction to loop the visual feeds. They won’t even see you.”

“The sentient personnel have eyes, Vette, and comms, not to mention-”

“Yeah but-“

“You all are up late,” Major Sicaritae said, waving Quinn to relax as he snapped to attention upon seeing the senior officer. He took in the holo projection and whistled. “Your target’s in there? Good luck.”

“I was just explaining,” the twi’lek said sarcastically, “that I can neutralize most of the automated security.”

“And I was just explaining that I’d still have to sneak past thousands of troops, complete my mission, and sneak out again without a single person seeing me and without backup. Just one alarm raised and I’d be cut off from any exit.”

“Yeah, but you have the Force.”

Quinn stiffened at the near-blasphemy, but Sicaritae clapped a hand over his mouth to contain a laugh, and Apprentice Thrask merely stared at her companion, mouth hanging open.

“That’s not… Vette it doesn’t work like that,” she said. “Daveth, tell her.”

Sicaritae was laughing openly now.

“I don’t know, it seemed to work well enough on Nar Shaddaa.”

She scowled. “You weren’t the one being shot at, Daveth, and need I remind you I was only absorbing blaster bolts because someone missed an alarm system.”  

“I can’t remote-slice a tripwire and a pack of akk dogs, Nel. But yes, the bridge of Talon is rather comfortable, you’re right about that. And anyway it worked out just fine.”

“I detonated my lightsaber .”

“See?” Sicaritae grinned impishly, and the twi’lek giggled. “The Force.”

“You two don’t get to talk anymore.” She waved a hand at both the twi’lek and the major, her lips twitching as if she were holding back a smile. “Just sit there and know you’re wrong.”

“So what do we know?” Sicaritae asked, sobering.

Before Quinn could answer, Apprentice Thrask said, “It’s huge. Thousands of troops and a never-ending supply of automated weaponry thanks to the factory’s output. Not much else.”

“Layout?”

“Only plans from before the war, sir,” Quinn replied. “We have no intelligence about what the Resistance or Republic may have changed since then.”

“And electrical and security systems would be amongst the top priorities for an upgrade at the beginning of an occupation,” Apprentice Thrask added. “Which would make finding a security junction complex, Vette.”

“Options with a larger team?” Apprentice Thrask asked.

“Limited, my lord. Aside from the deflector shield, which prevents aerial bombardment, there is a complex sensor grid active in the outer field of the complex. We’ve sent scouts over the past three weeks; one or two soldiers raised a local response from droids and troops. Anything larger resulted in a perimeter-wide alarm and heavy artillery fire; I can only assume personnel within the facility were also alerted to the disturbance.”

The Sith woman pressed her lips into a thin line, pacing around the holotable.

“And these are the sensor towers?” she gestured toward one of the towers in the killing field outside the facility.

“Yes. They power the external sensor grid and are equipped with heavy blaster cannons and five soldiers each.”

“And if we took them all out?”

“Standard Republic procedure would be a facility-wide lockdown.”

“Well that’s counterproductive,” she muttered.

“But perhaps if you took only one,” Quinn mused. “You’d have a blind spot in their sensors big enough to sneak in a sizable force.”

Apprentice Thrask nodded slowly as he spoke, a smile blossoming on her face. She looked at the twi’lek. “Vette, that trick you mentioned - looping the sensor feed. Can you do it out here?”

“I don’t see why not. I’d have to be able to work on it for several minutes.”

“And you’d have to keep the personnel in the tower from comming for help,” Quinn added.

“Lieutenant, you said we’ve sent teams against the Resistance defenses. I presume each engagement began with comms jamming?”

“Of course, my lord.”

“Good. We choose one tower and jam their comms - same area of effect and jamming frequency they’ve come to expect from Imperial teams. Vette stealths in while I draw their attention.

“That could work, my lord.” He hesitated. “Are you certain you can draw the personnel out of the tower?”

She grinned at him. “Lieutenant, rest assured I am very distracting when I wish to be.”

For a moment he had no reply, only the sound of his heart pounding in his ears.

Two hours later they had a plan. It hadn’t taken the full two hours; indeed, once that first piece had fallen into place, the four of them had moved quickly in finalizing a battle plan.

However, it required an army, as the twi’lek pointed out so derisively. And while they were sitting in the midst of a garrison of Imperial troops, no one in the room had the authority to order an op on this scale. Indeed, the only person with the authority was Darth Lachris, the newly-installed Imperial governor of Balmorra. And so the argument of how to move forward had begun.

“We’re calling my master and that’s final,” Apprentice Thrask said. Suddenly she felt like the tallest person in the room, her physical being radiating command. “Your objections are noted, but a mere apprentice has no standing with which to approach Darth Lachris with this, no matter how badly Lachris wants the Resistance dealt with.”

“He’ll take credit, my lord,” Sicaritae said softly. “Credit for your plan, for your success when you’ve finished.”

“I’m an apprentice, Major, that was always a given. And I don’t care.”

For a moment the room was silent, three pairs of wide eyes fixed on her. Indeed, Quinn was unsure at first he’d heard her correctly; for a Sith, even a Sith in training, to care about the mission above recognition was… rare.

“This is the best way to assure success of my mission, and it gives the Empire a clear shot at the arms factory. Let my master and Darth Lachris fight over their laurels; I have a job to do.”

“Then I guess that’s it,” the twi’lek said unhappily. “I hope you don’t mind if I’m not here while you talk to Darth Mask.”

Mara smiled. “Get some sleep, Vette. Daveth, would you escort Vette back to our landing bay? I believe you promised her some tech, as well.”

The two left, and Apprentice Thrask’s amber eyes shifted to Quinn. “Let’s get this over with, shall we?”

Without waiting for a response, she tapped Baras’s holofrequency into his communications panel.

“It’s possible he may not answer.”

She barked a short laugh. “How long have you worked with my master?”

He paused, unsure if he should divulge that information. But her meaning was clear - Baras always answered. “I withdraw the question, my lord.”

As if to drive her point home, Baras chose that moment to pick up. Quinn bowed, noting as he did so that the Sith woman did so as well, though not one millimeter deeper than propriety required. And when she straightened, she looked Baras full in the holographic face, proud but somehow unthreatening.

“Ah, Apprentice, Lieutenant. I hope this means your mission was a success?”

“We are at the final stage, Master, but we require your assistance.”

“Lieutenant Quinn has been unable to provide the support you need, Apprentice?”

Quinn opened his mouth to defend himself, but Apprentice Thrask’s smooth voice cut him off. “Lieutenant Quinn,” she said, shifting ever so slightly so that she was between Quinn and Baras, “has been nothing but a model officer and is indispensable to me.”

She explained their plan to Baras, but Quinn barely heard her; all he could focus on for the next fifteen seconds was how she’d jumped to his defense, both literally and physically.

“… You must see an operation of this size warrants sanction from Darth Lachris herself, my lord, and only you can grant me that introduction.”

“You wish to confide my plans to Darth Lachris? Were my instructions in some way unclear, Apprentice Thrask?”

Well, that was fast, Quinn thought. But it was a good sign, if Baras was already thinking of their plan as his.

“Darth Lachris need only know this is a proposal to crack the Balmorran Arms Factory for good, as she’s been trying to do since her arrival a month ago.”

“I also told you to stay out of the local troubles, Apprentice; I will not have you distracted from your mission over this.”

Apprentice Thrask raised a brow stalk and her posture straightened arrogantly. “Would Darth Baras truly take an apprentice who could not accomplish both missions?”

“Would an overeager apprentice take on a mission too big for her ability?” Baras countered sarcastically.

“I wouldn’t know, Master, but I suppose you could ask Vemrin or Baal or any of your other apprentices who challenged me and wound up in a pool of their own blood.” She raised her chin and her amber eyes flashed. “Your doubt insults me. We both know you are fastidious in choosing your apprentices and that I’m the best of the lot. Will you get me the clearance I need to carry out your mission or not?”

Quinn held his breath. He’d never seen anyone speak to Baras with anything approaching that level of disrespect, not even his apprentices. The silence stretched, five seconds… seven… to Quinn’s shock, Baras chuckled.

“You’ve a special talent for pushing me, Apprentice,” he said, the indulgent smile evident in his voice. “I do wonder what will happen the day you push too far.”

“What an interesting day that will be, Master,” she answered, her posture relaxing until she was once again the proud-but-deferential apprentice.

“I shall contact Lachris. Be ready for my holo, and prepared to move out immediately.” He paused, then his voice darkened. “And, my Apprentice?”

“Master?”

“Take care you do not embarrass me. I’m sticking my neck out for you and I need not tell you how any failure on your part will be dealt with.”

The holo went dead, the threat dangling in the air.

Quinn released the breath he was holding. Apprentice Thrask gave him a wry smile.

“My master finds my backtalk amusing, for now at least.”

“Yes, my lord.”

She sobered and held his gaze. “I’m as good as my word, Lieutenant; I will succeed.”

He nodded, remembering her ferocity against the droids in the satellite control station. Still, droids were not the same as sentient opponents. “I believe you, my lord.”

“Good.”

She looked around and sighed. “I’d hoped to get a few hours’ sleep, but I’d hate to make my master wait for me to travel from the spaceport when he holos again.” Another wry smile. “I’m glad I took the opportunity to shower when I had it.”

“There’s a second bunk in my barracks, my lord.”

She froze, eyes widening for a moment. “I… would be grateful to use it, Lieutenant. Are you certain?”

Where did that offer come from? You cannot have a Sith sleeping in your barracks, Malavai.

“Quite certain.” He ushered her into his barracks. “I’ve some work to finish in my office, but you should be able to sleep soundly, my lord.”

She hesitated, then gave him a tiny lascivious smile. “You’re not tired?”

His throat went dry; he opened his mouth to respond and coughed instead.

“Ah, no, my lord,” He croaked. “I slept yesterday during your drive back to Sobrik. And to be honest I’ve never been able to sleep before an operation such as this. The Balmorran Arms  Factory has been a thorn in our side for years; I’m excited at the prospect of you laying waste to that place.”

That smile grew wider. “So I excite you, do I?”

No, of course not that would be inappropriate. And yet…. Her bare red stomach, and those full lips…. Okay fine, a bit, yes.

He realized he was still talking, prattling on about the ways she would shape the galaxy. What in seven hells is wrong with me?

She laughed - not maliciously, he was fairly certain, it was a gentle, playful sound that only intensified his distraction - and removed her utility belt.

“Well then, when this mission is complete you’ll have to tell me if my shaping is up to your standards.”

“I’m happy to offer my expertise on any subject you require, my lord.” For fuck’s sake, Malavai, end this conversation before you embarrass yourself further. “May I return to my offices?”

“Of course.”

He practically ran from the room.

He’d not lied when he said he had work to tend to - he had an investigator to keep tabs on, after all. But for a solid five minutes he stared, unseeing, at his datapad, seeing in his mind’s eye the curve of her back as she stood up to her master.

Enough. Focus, man.

At least she would leave after this mission. And then he could once again focus on his work.

The thought depressed him immensely.

Chapter Text

It didn’t take long at all for Darth Baras to bend Darth Lachris’s ear to their plans. Apprentice Thrask had been asleep only two hours before Quinn’s holocomm chimed an incoming call from Dromund Kaas.

Three hours after that Quinn, Apprentice Thrask, and Major Sicaritae concluded a conference with Lachris and Colonel Marinos. If they were surprised or offended that an upstart medic and Sith apprentice had put forth a plan to obtain their goals, they hid it well. But then, Marinos at least knew Quinn’s history; however much Quinn’s actions at the Battle of Druckenwell may have earned him a highly-placed enemy, those actions had also been tactically sound, a fact Marinos could never deny with a straight face. The veracity of the plan, at least, was never a question.

Both Lachris and Marinos fully planned to take credit for the victory, a fact that surprised precisely no one.

Quinn was ordered to remain at Sobrik; Marinos had no intention of putting Quinn in the field where he might distinguish himself. Apprentice Thrask was placed under the command of Lieutenant Vashirn, tasked with the more dangerous pieces of the mission (one could accurately term her role as “bait”) without the potential accolades of leading it.

Like Apprentice Thrask, Quinn found he cared little about the loss of recognition; planning this mission had been the greatest mental challenge he’d had in years and, in Major Sicaritae, he had a new advocate for the advancement of his career. Next to that, any congratulations on a mission well-planned felt somewhat superficial.

Of course, should the battle go poorly, Quinn had no doubt he and the upstart apprentice would be blamed.

They had six hours to prepare themselves and their force. Quinn caught twenty minutes of sleep toward the end of preparations, returning to his offices to find Apprentice Thrask, the twi’lek, and Major Sicaritae deep in conversation.

Sicaritae was fully armored and would be leading an Intelligence squadron into the facility, tasked with preserving and collecting any and all information they could get their hands on during the incursion. The apprentice and her twi’lek companion wore what they’d worn on every mission so far - light synthleather-and-blastweave armor that seemed like an open invitation to anyone halfway decent with a blaster. On the other hand, having seen the two women fight their way through the satellite control station, he knew that invitation was more trap than anything else.

He tested the general mission frequency and their private frequency. All was in order.

“I’ll keep in constant contact once we’re in,” Apprentice Thrask said, taking the earpiece he handed her.

“I’ll contact you immediately if the investigator moves in your direction, my lord.”

“Thank you. If there’s nothing else?”

He shook his head. “We’re ready, my lord.”

“Good.” She reached into the twi’lek’s pack and retrieved two Kaasi pears. His mouth dropped open as she pressed them into his hands. “I understand you were talking me through infiltrating a Republic brig when the officer’s mess put out its share of the provisions I brought.”

“Yes, my lord, I hadn’t expected…”

She smiled.

“I know. Still, I hope you will accept them; it’s a small thank you for your work these past few days.”

“Of course, my lord. Thank you.” He stared at the fruit for a moment - pale green flesh that warmed to a blushing red when ripe - before looking back at her. “Kaasi pears are a favorite of mine. How did you…?”

“To be honest, Lieutenant, they’re my favorite as well, which is why I chose them. I’m pleased to find you’re a man of excellent taste in addition to your other talents.”

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Major Sicaritae grinning broadly. He felt his cheeks warm. She gave him another dazzling smile that set his heart racing, then turned and strode toward the door.

“Good hunting, my lord,” he murmured as she disappeared out into the morning sun.

 ***

“I can’t help but notice you didn’t bring me any of my favorite foods, Nel.”

Daveth’s voice came through Mara’s earpiece on their private channel. She rolled her eyes as she stood at the edge of the forward encampment, looking out across Balmorra’s rocky landscape to the Balmorran Arms Factory, spread out before her: two massive buildings obscuring a central landing field, the back of the complex nestled into the cliffs. Between her and the buildings five sensor towers stabbed into the sky like fingers.

“You raided the officer’s mess, Daveth.”

“Ah yes, I’m sure that’s the reason for your special treatment of Lieutenant Quinn.”

“He’s been invaluable; I want to show my appreciation.”

“I can think of better ways to do that, Nel.”

Mara sighed. So could she; and yet, while she was certain the lieutenant was taken with her, she was also certain he was terrified of the idea of acting on that feeling. A nonstarter if ever there was one.

“I’m switching to general mission frequency now,” she gritted. Daveth’s laugh was cut off as she suited action to her words.

“We’re ready to move out, my lord.”

That was Lieutenant Vashirn. She was one of those who had contributed to Mara’s bar tab the day after the Kaasi provisions were distributed. Now she regarded Mara appraisingly, her demeanor conditionally respectful. Bringing provisions was one thing; trusting an unknown Sith apprentice with the forty-five lives in her platoon was something else entirely. Mara couldn’t blame the woman for her skepticism. Indeed, if she were honest, her shortness with Daveth’s gentle teasing was attributable as much to nerves as it was to her own sexual frustration.

Still, she’d led operations before, if with her own security forces rather than the Imperial Military. She could do this. She had to do this.

Despite the nerves she kept her voice calm.  “Very good, Lieutenant.”

Their platoon split into four squadrons, each taking slightly different routes to the edge of the energy shield protecting the arms factory. They paused just outside its bounds, crouched under heavy cover. Mara caught a hint of feedback from her earpiece as the comms Specialist manipulated his datapad.

“Don’t move until you receive my signal. If you haven’t heard from me in fifteen minutes, proceed with Plan Besh.”

“Understood, my lord,” Lieutenant Vashirn acknowledged.

She and Vette crept through the shield, feeling a slight tingling as they did so. A pause behind a rock formation and Mara cast a glance at Vette, who licked her lips but nodded her readiness.

“Give me two minutes to get them out of the tower, then go,” Mara whispered into her earpiece. At Vette’s sharp nod Mara burst from cover, igniting her lightsaber as she flew toward the nearest guard droid. It dropped before it could even fire a shot or squeal a warning and was quickly joined by its mate, which did get off a shot that Mara deflected. 

Around her, the three men stationed outside the tower jerked backward in shock - they were crouched with weapons drawn, expecting an attack because of the jamming static sizzling across their comm frequencies, but they’d not expected a lone - presumably insane - Sith.

“My Academy mates and I have a bet,” she announced, rotating her lightsaber restlessly, “about how long it’ll take for Republic scum to wet itself with fear facing a Sith.” She held their gaze, hoping the insult would be enough to keep them furiously focused on her so Vette could do her job. She made a show of examining a non-existent chronometer on her wrist. “Your time starts now.”

The soldier in the center - the leader, Mara guessed - didn’t even blink.

“Jansen, fire!”

Above her, the laser cannon at the top of the tower whirred as it turned toward her. She could just make out the gunner through the narrow opening. Mara sighed and, reaching with the Force, yanked the lead soldier to her, catching him with a hand around is throat, her lightsaber poised next to his neck, his boots dangling a centimeter off the ground. His blaster rifle clattered to the ground at her feet.

“Jansen, unless you would like to see your man pasted along with me, I’d belay that order, if I were you,” she said, pitching her voice to carry up to the gunner.

The laser cannon paused in its movement. Mara glanced down the soldier’s trousers and offered a condescending smile. “You’re doing well,” she squinted at his rank insignia, “Sergeant?”

“I’m in; last two guys are above the control room with the cannon. Whatever you’re doing, they’re very attentive. Looping in yesterday morning’s feed.” Vette’s voice was a whisper in her earpiece.

“Sith bitch,” the soldier growled. He inhaled raggedly through Mara’s grip and tried to spit in her face, but she jerked him sideways so his spittle flew over her shoulder.

“You’ve no idea,” she replied with a feral smile. With a grunt she threw her lightsaber in a tight arc. The other two men dropped before it had returned to her hand. “Let’s go see Jansen, shall we?”

Before he could respond, she hurled the soldier upward, shoving him with the Force. He slammed into the cannon emplacement hard enough to shatter the duracrete, his scream cutting off with the impact. Drawing on the Force again, she followed, leaping upward and sending a wave of Force energy ahead of her. That and her energy shield crumbled the remaining edifice like day old bread.

The soldier she’d thrown and the gunner, Jansen, were sprawled across the floor, eyes glassy and unseeing. The final squad member burst up through the hatch that led down into to the control room, where he’d apparently taken cover from her destructive entrance. Mara deflected his first blaster bolt and then cut him down.

She took a breath and re-centered herself. That was a bit more flair than she typically used, but the spectacle had served its purpose in keeping eyes off of her companion. Speaking of… “Vette?”

“Done. Feed is looped; I’ve remote accessed the other towers, too. They didn’t see a thing.”

“Good work.” She switched frequencies. “Lieutenant Quinn, you should be receiving sensor tower telemetry now. Two feeds: one live, the other looped.”

“Received,” Quinn’s voice confirmed. “I’ll modulate the loop periodically to avoid detection.”

“Understood.” She switched to the mission frequency. “All squadrons: we have a green light.”

***

Mara yanked her blade out of the togruta’s body and whirled, slamming her boot into Grand Marshall Cheketa’s barrel-like chest, straight to the crack in his durasteel armor opened by her lightsaber. He went sprawling, ending on his back with her blade at his throat. Around her the sound of blaster fire died as Lieutenant Vashirn’s squad finished off the last of the Republic SpecOps troops.

The togruta hit the floor, his lightsaber bouncing off the duracrete as loud as a thunderbolt in the sudden silence. And now every weapon in the room was trained on the Grand Marshall, the Republic hero “on leave” leading the Balmorran Resistance.

“Let-“ He coughed - it was possible Mara had bruised something in his chest with that last kick. “Let us evacuate the wounded and civilians. I’ll surrender quietly.”

“I’ve already given that order,” Mara growled. That he assumed she would wantonly slaughter civilians... she gripped her lightsaber more tightly, the complex aria of her fury fueling her connection to the Force. “Give me a reason to let you live.”

“I will admit, publicly, to everything you’ve seen here today.”

“Of your own free will? I won’t have the Republic rationalizing such a confession as being coerced.”

“I will cooperate fully if you honor your word and release our civilians and treat our captured soldiers as prisoners of war in accordance with-“ he paused, lip twisting as he fully realized the hypocrisy of the statement, “in accordance with the Treaty of Coruscant.”

“We’ll honor the treaty, Grand Marshall. Perhaps the Republic can find the will to follow our example.”

Daveth appeared and motioned two of his soldiers forward. They cuffed Cheketa before hauling him to his feet and taking him away.

“Your orders have been communicated to the entire company, my lord,” he said. “My team’s still working on the factory’s systems, but I’ll accompany the Grand Marshall back to Sobrik.”

“Thank you, Major.”

Lieutenant Vashnir’s hazel eyes were wide when she appeared at Mara’s elbow, her helmet under her arm, gaze rapt on the Jedi’s corpse.

“A Jedi Knight,” she breathed, her voice soft and smoldering with fury. “Of all the hypocritical, slimy filth.”

Mara nodded in agreement, resisting the urge to kick the corpse for good measure. The Republic dared spout its platitudes about peace and the rule of law, then sent covert agents to foment rebellion on a planet lawfully ceded to the Empire, and then had the temerity to blame the Empire for cracking down on the insurgency in its midst.

“I’m glad you were with us, my lord. They’d have given us a run for our credits had we been alone.”

“I’m happy to be of service, Lieutenant,” Mara replied with a smile.

She activated the landing bay’s console and was greeted with the controlled chaos of a battle coming to its end. The outer killing field and sensor towers were firmly under Imperial control, as was the first building in the complex. Imperial fighters had reduced the Republic’s makeshift landing field to rubble, and the only fighting left in the final building was sporadic, mopping up remaining Resistance forces.

“Lieutenant, I trust you can handle things here. I have a matter to attend to.”

Vashirn saluted and Mara trotted back into the main building, her lightsaber ready, Vette by her side.

***

“Lieutenant Quinn?”

Quinn jumped, tearing his eyes away from the sensor feeds playing on his screen. “I’m here, my lord,” Quinn replied.

“I take it my quarry hasn’t moved?”

“No, my lord. I’ve kept any announcements or sensor feeds from reaching Commander Rylon’s section of the building. They are still defending as if against an attack.”

“Perfect. I’ll be out of sensor contact for a time but I’ll report in as soon as it’s done.”

He stood and paced before his console, rolling one of the pears between his hands. It was excited energy, not nerves, which drove him to his feet. He’d had faith in their plan, but to see so decisive an Imperial victory gave him a thrill he’d never thought to experience again. The Republic had come perilously close to landing a full invasion force on the planet by doing so in increments over a series of years; Imperial leadership on Balmorra had been completely unaware thanks to the Arms Factory’s shielding and security, a failure of intelligence gathering matched only by the import of the victory they just secured. Against all odds, they’d done it.

No, he corrected himself. She’d done it. He couldn’t deny the rapt fascination with which he’d devoured the sensor feeds he received, watching her cut through Republic and Resistance soldiers like a hot knife through butter, disciplined in her approach yet still somehow exuding a joy he found infectious. She was a predator in her element, beautiful to behold.

Just as his brain tripped over those last words, the timber of sound coming from the investigator’s telemetry changed. He pulled that feed to the forefront, muting the others.

“Consider those suspicions confirmed,” Apprentice Thrask’s voice said. As she completed the sentence visual telemetry came online, showing security sensor footage of the Sith approaching a squadron of four Republic troops.

Oh, kriff. Significant details of this mission had been kept from him, he knew, but now the investigator had sliced Rylon’s communications, feeding the data in turn to Quinn.

The apprentice and the soldiers traded insults for a moment more before she cut them off with an ostentatious yawn.

“Please, I may die of boredom.”

“We won’t let boredom steal our kill,” the leader growled.

She shook her head and sighed, radiating disappointment.

“You’re not very funny. What do you think, Vette?”

“I’d give it a three out of ten. Needs work- Hey, rude!”

The troopers opened fire, for all the good it did them. It was over quickly. When Rylon finally arrived it became very clear very quickly why Baras had kept this part of the mission secret.

Rylon was a spy. An Imperial spy. Who’d prosecuted a tireless insurgency against the Empire to keep his cover.

The comm panel beeped, and Quinn swore. The investigator was uploading the live feed, preparing to send it… somewhere. A quick check of his sensors showed she was on the move, presumably to leave the planet that her mission was complete.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Quinn muttered, typing furiously. As he did so, he slapped another button on his comm panel.

“Jillins, our investigator is trying to get off planet. Execute Plan Acklay, exactly as we discussed.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Try not to cock it up this time, Jillins,” Quinn said under his breath after he terminated the call. The next one went to Major Sicaritae.

“Sir, I believe our investigator will be headed to Sobrik. My teams in the field are pushing her here, but some backup would be appreciated.”

“Say no more, Lieutenant,” Sicaritae said. “I’m an hour out.”

His comm pinged again.

“Sir?”

“What is it, Jillins?”

“Sir, we’ve engaged the investigator. She-“ the boy gulped. “She’s got a lightsaber, sir. She’s a Jedi.”

Quinn felt his eyes widen. That changed things a great deal.

“Do not engage her further, Jillins. Cut off her other avenues of escape, but avoid outright confrontation unless you have no other option. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir.”

He looked up to see that Apprentice Thrask had dispatched her quarry. With only a moment’s hesitation, Quinn keyed in her comm frequency. She’d been reasonable, even kind thus far. Hopefully she wouldn’t take exception to this misstep. He held his breath in the silence that followed his explanation.

“I see,” she said finally. She seemed, not uncertain, exactly, but weighing her words carefully. “What’s done is done; we’ll discuss this once the mission is complete.”

He breathed a sigh of relief.

“My men are herding our quarry to Sobrik, and I’m blocking every transmission attempt she makes. Major Sicaritae and I will meet you at the spaceport. And,” he hesitated. “My lord, my men who engaged her report she is wielding a lightsaber.”

Another pause.

“I’m on my way, Lieutenant. I’m sure you know this, but leave her to me; stall her, but you and Daveth are not to challenge her on your own.”

“Of course, my lord.”

She’d taken down one Jedi today; Quinn had no reason to believe she couldn’t take another. He closed the channel and returned to his work, sending the investigator’s transmissions into a communications black hole.

Rylon was a spy and had been pursued by the Jedi.

Quinn’s life hadn’t been this interesting in quite some time.

***

As her black-magenta blade crashed against the Jed investigator’s green blade, it occurred to Mara that she should be more tired - fighting for twelve hours straight, facing a Jedi, a Republic war hero, and a legendary Imperial spy, only to fly back to Sobrik and fight a second Jedi.

But no. As sound of the impact hissed through the hangar bay and she disengaged, falling back to try a different tact, Mara found her body humming, not with excitement, precisely, but with the certain knowledge she was exactly where and what she needed to be. She’d always known that she was strong and that her talents lay with a blade in close quarters. But now, circling the Jedi Knight - Mashallon was her name - the Force infusing her from crown to toes, her body moved almost on instinct, knowing exactly where to move, how to parry. 

Mashallon wasn’t half bad, definitely more skilled and more of a threat than the togruta who’d backed up Grand Marshall Cheketa, but Mara found herself drawing out the fight, testing Mashallon’s defenses, curious as to how she’d respond. Of course, the Jedi’s continued attempts to spread her gospel were beginning to grate.

“Your strength is thin,” Mashallon said, her tone and sense unnervingly serene even in the midst of a fight. “The shortcuts you have taken will be your downfall.”

“And your biased ignorance will be yours,” Mara replied, not bothering to hide her annoyance. “You know nothing about me or how I’ve been trained.”

She struck, bringing her lightsaber up in a wide arc that left her body open. Mashallon spun out of the way, her green blade slicing toward Mara’s exposed stomach.

Exactly as Mara knew she would.

Sparks flew when the green blade hit her energy shield.

Mara’s sword arm reversed direction, slashing her lightsaber diagonally across Mashallon’s body, leaving an angry red cauterized cut behind. The Jedi cried out, her free hand going to the wound before she could stop herself. Mara gathered the force around her arm and shoved Mashallon away with her shield. The woman went flying. Mashallon’s grip on her lightsaber loosened and Mara called it to her as she launched herself after the wounded Jedi. She landed with a boot on the woman’s chest, the blades crossed, green over black-magenta, a point on either side of the Jedi’s neck.

“I suppose,” Mara said conversationally, “the only thing you need to know about my training is that I’m better.”

“Your victory means nothing,” Mashallon gasped, her serene calm cracking only slightly. “I sent your conversation with Rylon to the Jedi already; your spies are revealed and the Jedi Council will know the truth about Nomen Karr’s Padawan.”

Ah yes, the mysterious Jedi Master Nomen Karr and his unnamed Padawan, rumored to have the ability to read any being’s full emotional sense and true nature immediately, an ability that Karr had apparently aimed at Darth Baras’s spy network.

Mara kept her face neutral, though her heart rate picked up some. She opened her mouth to give a witty reply, but a voice behind her cut in.

“I hate to burst your bubble, Jedi.”

Mara’s head snapped up to see Vette leading Lieutenant Quinn and Daveth into the hangar with a squadron of soldiers, their blaster rifles drawn. Quinn paused, as if considering his words.

“No, that’s a lie. I’m reveling in it. I intercepted your transmissions. The Jedi know nothing.”

He let the statement hang for a moment. Mashallon’s brown eyes widened the tiniest bit and she exhaled slowly. Mara carefully kept her own breathing even.

Quinn’s blue eyes shifted from Mashallon to Mara, and his lips curved in a smug half smile that caught her breath for a moment. “I had her screened the entire time, my lord. There was never any danger at all.”

“Quinn, I could kiss you.” The words were practically a sigh of pleasure.

His mouth fell open, and behind him Daveth laughed.

“I’m only doing my job, my lord,” Quinn protested.

“I’ve kissed people for less,” she answered, offering a mischievous half smile of her own.

“So you’ve won the day,” Mashallon said. “I’m at peace knowing I did my duty. Deal the death blow, Sith.”

Mara cast a haughty glare down at her prisoner. “I think not. Major,” she addressed Daveth while holding Mashallon’s gaze, “what would a Jedi prisoner of war be worth, do you think?”

“Invaluable, my lord.”

“What?” Mashallon’s voice was strained.

“I’m afraid you don’t get to become a martyr for your pathetic cause today, Jedi Knight Mashallon.” Mara closed down both lightsabers, keeping her boot on the woman’s chest until two troopers snapped Force-suppressing cuffs onto her wrists. She handed the Jedi’s lightsaber to Lieutenant Quinn. “I trust you can pass this to Military Police when she’s processed?”

“Of course, my lord.” His blue eyes roamed over the hilt for a moment before returning to her face.

Mara licked her lips; she could practically taste his sense: disdain for the Jedi, elation at their victories today, and yes, lust for her, all with an undercurrent of cold anger, deep and complex as a Kaasi wine. As quickly as she processed it, the feeling fled, either her focus or his emotions waning. Still, it was rare for her to read someone so clearly so early on. Well that’s interesting. A pity I won’t get to sample that wine before I leave.

Quinn blushed under her scrutiny, but continued, “Darth Baras will want to know the threat is quelled; I’ll contact him as soon as you return to my office.”

Mara forced herself to relax, quite pointedly ignoring the Daveth’s smug grin. “I’ll be there soon, Lieutenant.”

Chapter Text

Quinn moved on autopilot, folding his extra duty uniforms, his dress blacks - as if he’d ever had an occasion to wear them in this festering backwater - and placed them into a travel case. His hands were busily preparing for the departure from Balmorra for which he’d spent years hoping, but his mind was elsewhere, moving at its own breakneck pace.

Captain Quinn. Finally, after a decade, he’d clawed his way back up to the rank he’d held at Druckenwell, before he embarrassed Moff Broysc and got himself court martialed. It was somewhat amusing that Darth Baras thought he was handing out the rank as largesse for a job well done - oh, it was a few months early, but Colonel Marinos was only waiting for Quinn’s very last moment of time in grade as a lieutenant.

The ability to choose a posting, however, was huge, and a rare occurrence. Clearly Colonel Marinos decided that Darth Baras’s favor was more potent than Moff Broysc’s ire. On the other hand, if the colonel could point to Sith intervention on Quinn’s behalf, he was likely to deflect the moff’s considerable temper.

The only challenge left now was deciding where to go next. He was mulling it over when the call chime on his barracks door rang. He hesitated only briefly before he called an entrance, wondering if Apprentice Thrask had thought of another reason to drop in on him, with her bare midriff and thoroughly unexpected kindness. It was both a relief and a disappointment when Major Sicaritae strode through the door. Quinn snapped to attention.

“At ease, Captain.” He smiled as he said the rank. “And congratulations.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I thought you’d like to know: Doctor Thairn’s gone to ground. He wasn’t at the Arms Factory.”

“And the tracker?”

“He ditched his comm in the middle of the Sundari flatlands.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

Sicariate waved his apology away. “You did good work, Captain. Ditching existing comms is fairly standard procedure for intel operatives after the kind of defeat we just dealt them. Rest assured, he’ll turn up. And we’ll be ready when he does.”

Quinn nodded. Sicaritae cleared his throat. When he spoke, his tone was a study in nonchalance.

“I heard Nel came by already.”

Quinn frowned in confusion at the nickname before realization dawned. “Yes, sir. Apprentice Thrask was the first to offer congratulations, in fact.”

Sicaritae was silent for a moment, his blue eyes keen. “She offered assistance with moving to a new posting, did she not?”

“Indeed, sir.”

“I would offer you a place on my staff, and that invitation certainly stands, but I think we both know where you’d rather serve.”

“Sir?”

Sicaritae’s sandy brows twitched upward. “She’s in landing bay twelve.”

Quinn felt his mouth fall open, for a moment unsure whether the major was joking, and if he wasn’t, far too tempted to grab his gear and run to the docking bay in question. It’s not that the thought hadn’t occurred to him; it had , an exciting prospect that left his pulse racing for multiple reasons, but….

“Sir, I’ve no reason to believe she even needs me on her crew.”

Sicaritae laughed. “Please, Captain. She’s a terrible pilot and far too prone to being shot at for her own good. She could use a man of your talents.” He paused, locking eyes with Quinn. “And you could use a commander of her particular flair.”

Quinn was unsure he knew the Sith woman well enough to offer an opinion on Sicaritae’s assessment of her. As for the second statement…. Oh, he was fairly certain the major was trying to toss him into bed with the apprentice, a prospect Quinn couldn’t even begin to process at the moment. But Quinn felt far more alive and engaged in his work since she arrived. She, with her teasing smile and ferocious beauty, had reawakened something in him. He was fairly certain the Sith would call it passion.

And unlike a standard posting, where he’d be a cog in the machine of the Imperial Military, serving under a Sith would provide ample opportunity to make a tangible difference wherever she leant her strength.

“I’ll consider it, sir,” he said out loud.

“She’s leaving within the hour, so think fast.”

***

Mara stared down at Captain Quinn, who was on one knee before her, looking blue eyes searching her face earnestly.

“Captain, please, stand.” Such genuflection outside of only the most formal of settings always made her feel uncomfortable. And this was far too close to some of the fantasies she’d indulged in the last few days. She pointedly ignored the temptation of that cowlick now that Quinn’s head was at nearly the same height as her hands, practically commanding her to tease her fingers through his hair until it was uniformly disheveled.  “I would be pleased to have you, but if you’re to serve with me, you must swear to never kneel before me ever again.”

Beside her, Vette’s sense was… not unhappy, precisely, but apprehensive. Mara couldn’t blame her; adding a third person to their ship would definitely alter the dynamic. Quinn quickly stood.

“Of course, my lord. If you’re ready to launch, I will transmit the transfer papers as we depart.”

“Just one moment!” Daveth’s voice cracked across the landing bay. Mara turned to see him jogging toward them. “Oh good, I caught you.”

He held out a small, square case. “Base stores had one insignia left.”

Mara raised a brow stalk. “And how, precisely, did you know Captain Quinn would be here?”

“Call it a lucky guess.”

Oh Daveth, a faithful wingman to the last.

Quinn had been in earnest when he explained how she reignited his passion for his work - nothing in his sense suggested duplicity; indeed, she only sensed the passion he hinted at - but Daveth offering a gentle push in her direction made a lot of sense.

“Of course.” She turned to Quinn. “Captain, may I have the honor?”

“Y-yes, my lord.” His cheeks warmed with a blush.

She took the case from Daveth. Like most Imperial citizens, she knew the ceremony by heart.

“At attention, Lieutenant,” she said softly, reverting back to his prior rank to begin the ceremony. The snap of Quinn’s heels coming together echoed throughout the landing bay.

“Lieutenant Quinn. Colonel Marinos, on advice from Major Daveth Sicaritae, Darth Baras, and others, has reviewed your record of service to this garrison and noted your exceptional integrity, patriotism, and devotion to your station. In light of these qualities and your demonstrated potential to serve in a higher grade, you are hereby promoted to the permanent rank of Captain, second grade, effective immediately.”

She removed the blue pip from the case and smoothed his uniform jacket. He inhaled at her touch, and she felt a blush of her own start. She fixed the pip to his insignia, beginning a second column of blue to the right of the filled red column, and then smoothed his jacket a second time with both hands, feeling his warmth through the thick fabric.

“At ease, Captain Quinn.” When he relaxed and his eyes twitched to her face, she smiled. “Congratulations again.”

Daveth held out a hand. “Congratulations, and good luck, Captain.”

“Thank you, sir,” Quinn answered, shaking the major’s hand firmly.

“I’ll see you in a few weeks, Nel. And most likely you, too, Vette.”

He saluted her. Mara shook her head and threw her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly.

“Take care, Daveth. And be sure to get me something good for my birthday.”

“Of course, Nel.” He grinned, kissed her cheek, and left the landing bay.

“Great, can we go now?” Vette asked.

Mara laughed. “Yes, let’s go. Captain, I’d like you to take the ship out and set a course for Nar Shaddaa. I’ll give you the official tour once we’re in hyperspace.”

She’d just sealed the airlock when her holocom pinged an incoming call.

It was Eskella.

Chapter Text

Mara hurried to her quarters and locked the door. With a deep breath, she answered the holocall.

“Eskella!” She couldn’t keep the relief from her voice. “You’re looking well.”

“Don’t give me that nerf shit, Mara.”

She sighed. It had been foolish to try small talk, but some noblewoman habits died hard. She hesitated only a moment - she and Vette spent the entire trip to Balmorra sweeping the Fury for listening devices, starting with Mara’s quarters. It should be safe. Either way, she had to have this conversation now; she doubted Eskella would be willing to call back.

“We need to talk about Overseer Tremel,” Mara began.

“Yes,  you said as much, and I agree. We haven’t seen one another since you murdered him in his office and flounced out of the Academy with your new master.”

“Esk, that’s not-”

“Do you deny that you offered his severed hand to Darth Baras?”

Mara winced. It had been the cost of her apprenticeship, but Baras only got Tremel’s hand; the rest of her former overseer was safe and alive on one of Mara’s properties outside the Dromund system.

“No, but-”

“He trusted you!” The ragged shout stunned Mara into silence. “ I trusted you. You’d still be a nothing but a traitor’s daughter if he hadn’t given you a second chance to complete your training.”

Something in Mara’s face must have changed, for Eskella gave her a venomous smile.

“Oh yes, dear sister , I know all about your mother’s treason. How pathetic, letting us all believe she died heroically on Coruscant.” Her voice became introspective, her brown eyes unfocusing. “Perhaps he deserved the death you gave him if he was stupid enough to trust the get of a treasonous coward.”

Mara’s vision flashed red.

“My mother was not a coward.” Mara couldn’t dispute the other charge, but her mother had submitted herself for judgement after, embracing her fate. That was not the act of a coward.

Eskella barked a bitter laugh. “Perhaps not. Still, she’d be proud of you, you know, following in her backstabbing footsteps. The nut clearly didn’t fall far from the Nûrsot tree there.”

Eskella your father is alive. Baras forced my hand but I spared him. That’s all she had to say.

“Oh, grow up, Eskella,” she growled instead. “Why the fuck do you think your father brought me back to complete my training? Out of the goodness of his heart? No, he was plotting against Darth Baras and I was to be his pawn. He played the game and lost. I’m sorry that upsets you but I will not be used.”

“So much for the famed honor of House Thrask.” The fury in Eskella’s sharp posture and flexing hands mirrored Mara’s. “Don’t ever contact me again, and watch your back.”

Mara laughed. “I’ve seen your saber drills, Eskella. I’m not worried.”

The call cut off.

Her mood remained foul for the rest of the day, only perking up slightly when she gave Captain Quinn a tour of her ship - the cargo and training areas, engine room, medbay, galley, and finally crew quarters and adjacent communal head.

“I’ve settled into my rack,” he said, gesturing to a bottom bunk near the door. Mara was utterly unsurprised to note it looked identical to the six other unoccupied racks in the room. Where Vette’s space was rumpled, her pajamas strewn across her bed with a couple of miscellaneous spare parts she tinkered with in her spare time, Quinn’s gear had been completely stowed. She felt fairly certain it would continue to look so unoccupied for as long as Quinn served on the ship. She smiled despite her mood.

“I shall have to perform a surprise inspection of those quarters, Captain.”

“You will always find them spotless and in order, my lord,” he replied, his hands flexing at his sides.

“Then I shall simply have to help you render them disorderly. I’ve a talent, you’ll find.” Her voice dropped seductively. Stars, but she was touch-starved.

“My lord, please.” He swallowed and looked away for a moment, then forced himself to meet her gaze. “I’m here to do a job. I’m not comfortable with… with this line of conversation.”

His discomfort rolled over her through the Force, along with no small amount of fear. A nearly physical twinge of shame shocked her out of her myopia. Don’t be that Sith, Mara, what is wrong with you?

She meant it as a joke - or did she? If he’d expressed interest it would have been completely earnest - but even so he didn’t know her well enough to know that, all he saw was her role as his commanding officer and her elevated social standing.

“I’m sorry,” she said, taking a step back from him. She wasn’t in his personal space to begin with, but it was the most tangible thing she could do to communicate her contrition. “Truly, Captain, that was inappropriate. I apologize.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“Please take the remainder of the afternoon to familiarize yourself with the ship, particularly the medbay. We’re stocked with standard supplies, but do apprise me of any gaps you note so we may fill them. Same thing with the galley; I make it a policy to have fresh food on hand whenever possible. If there’s something you’re fond of, I’m happy to keep it stocked, within reason, of course. We’ll discuss your role aboard ship in more detail after dinner.”

***

Quinn’s first three days on Apprentice Thrask’s had not gone quite to plan. Granted, it had been ten years since he had to settle into a new posting, but he had not anticipated… this . Some part of him whispered it was the twi’lek - no, Vette , he reminded himself firmly - who’d tripped him up, but he knew that was only an excuse.

That first evening had been lovely - the three of them had eaten a supper prepared by the factotum droid, steamed sleen and vegetables. It was simple fare - even most home-cooked meals on Dromund Kaas were more complex - but it was spiced to perfection, easily the best meal he’d had since being stationed on Balmorra. After dinner Apprentice Thrask passed around dried Kaasi fruits and offered Quinn and Vette selections from her rather impressive whiskey store.

Their discussion of his role had been productive - she’d been receptive to his suggestions regarding her stores and excited about the optimizations he proposed for her ship’s systems. By the time the interview concluded he was eager to get to work.

“Do you drink tea, Captain?” she’d asked as the conversation drew to a close, standing to fill and activate a kettle.

“Of course, my lord, though not recently.” Tea was a mainstay of Kaasi society in general and Red Sith society in particular. He’d always associated it with home and comfort. Drinking it on Balmorra had seemed a sacrilege.

“May I pour for you? This is one of my house’s custom blends. Vette is not so much a fan, but you may enjoy it.”

He nodded, entranced by her enthusiasm. Several minutes later she placed a steaming cup before him. He raised it and inhaled the scent deeply.

“Star of Andor and white clove?” he asked.

She smiled, pleased. “Yes, with korberry and thornrose blooms for sweetness.”

He took a sip - the spices had a warm taste, darkened by the korberry and thornrose. For a moment he could imagine he was sitting in a kitchen on Dromund Kaas, the thunder rumbling around him.

“It’s extraordinary.”

Her smile deepened.

“This is something of a ritual for me in the evenings; I find it helpful to unwinding and preparing myself for a restful sleep. You may join me whenever you wish, or feel free to brew it on your own.”

The following day began with less promise. Quinn rose and trained, completing his customary morning routine just as Apprentice Thrask entered the training room, wearing a cropped shirt and hip-hugging shorts that drew attention to her legs. He was supremely grateful he’d already completed his workout, for, as he watched her muscles flex as she stretched, he felt a familiar warmth pooling in his groin. He wasn’t sure how long he stared, but she glanced back at him and her amber eyes meeting his snapped him back to reality. He stammered a ‘good morning’ and beat a hasty path to the head to shower.

He returned to the crew quarters just in time to see Vette haphazardly yank her blanket up over her pillow and turn to leave.

“Your rack is not regulation compliant, Vette,” he said, turning to his locker to pull out a uniform.

“Good thing I’m not Imperial Military, then,” the twi’lek replied shortly.

“This is a Sith vessel; military standards apply to its operation,” he said with a sigh, looking up at her. “And loose items can be deadly if the ship is tossed about for any reason. I can show you-“

“You’re going to teach me to make a bed?”

“Ah-“ he stopped short, realizing the ridiculousness of the offer.

“I thought so. Loosen up, Captain Stuffy; it’s a bed. I do my job just fine without a precision-tucked sheet.”

He thought that would be the end of it, for now at least. The day was uneventful, save for some additional suggestions he made to the twi’lek regarding engine function, and he shared another pot of tea with Apprentice Thrask that evening.

The following morning he again returned from training as Vette was rising for the day. This time, she held his gaze as she very deliberately bunched her sheet and blanket up into a shapeless pile in the center of her bunk. With a grin she brushed past him and crossed the hall to the galley.

Quinn ground his teeth but held his tongue, dressing and returning to his work on the flight deck. For the rest of the day Vette was somehow glued to his side, offering colorful and snide commentary on everything he did. Just after midday, he snapped.

“So is it regulation to have a uniform that tight? Seems counterproductive to me.” When he sighed, she grinned. “It explains your bad mood, though. I’d be pissy, too, if my junk were being squeezed that tight all the time.”

“That’s enough!” he roared. “I’ve endured your incessant prattle for hours. Do you have a use on this ship other than annoying your betters?”

The twi’lek took a step toward him, undeterred by his tone, her violet eyes flashing angrily. “At least my use isn’t making the beds, jerk!”

“What is going on in here?”

Apprentice Thrask stood in the hatch that led back into the ship, her eyes narrowing as she took in the scene playing out on the flight deck. Her voice was low, forcing them both to quiet down to hear her.

“He started it!” Vette yelled, gesturing at him.

“My lord,” Quinn began calmly, striving to show his lord he was the adult in this situation, “I cannot work like this. Vette’s never-ending chatter makes it impossible to concentrate, and there’s no filter on that twi’lek mouth.” His last words dripped with disdain.

“Hey!”

“Vette, go to my quarters and wait for me.”

“But-“

“Now!” The word was quiet but emphatic.

The twi’lek glared at Apprentice Thrask for a heartbeat longer, then obeyed, stomping through the hatch and up the hall. The Sith woman waited until she heard a door open and shut, then turned to him, amber eyes hard, her face utterly blank. Quinn swallowed.

“My lord-“

“Tell me, Captain, what did you mean, specifying that Vette’s mouth was twi’lek?”

Quinn froze. “My lord?”

“You put quite a lot of stress on the word. What does it have to do with her lack of filter, as you put it?”

Fuck. He should have chosen his words better. Most Imperials would not have thought twice at the remark, but he suddenly remembered all too keenly the evening Apprentice Thrask strode into his office on Balmorra, and how her face had clouded dangerously as he worked out an appropriate term to describe Vette’s relationship to the Sith woman.

“Nothing, my lord,” he said quickly, wincing with the inadequacy of the answer, “but surely you have noticed Vette’s… exuberance?”

“Yes, I attribute it to her being Vette. But you attribute it to her species.”

She let him dangle in silence for several heartbeats, her eyes holding his mercilessly.

“I see I’ve stumped you, a fact that surprises me given your obvious intellect. Allow me to simplify things.” She took a step toward him. The way she moved, her posture… only decades of discipline kept him from giving in to the urge to run, to escape the predator moving toward him. “If you use Vette’s species as an epithet, or indeed in any kind of pejorative way, ever again, you will be put off this ship immediately. Whether we’re planetside or not. Do you understand?”

“Y-yes, my lord.”

“Do not test me in this, Captain. Do it again, even once, and I will follow through on that promise.”

She held his gaze for several moments more, then, apparently satisfied that he understood, turned and left the flight deck.

Quinn did not share a pot of tea with his lord that evening.

That was yesterday. This morning they resupplied the ship at an Imperial outpost and resumed course to Nar Shaddaa. Vette had been far more subdued; going about her own business, in her own way, and though her bunk remained unmade, at the very least the random objects had been stowed. It soothed Quinn somewhat to know that Vette’s pestering of him had not gone undiscussed. Still, he’d overstepped, to a degree that almost ruined his career, again.

He could only hope to earn his way back into his lord’s good graces. If learning to live with Vette was the cost of his lord’s good opinion, he’d pay it.

Chapter Text

The morning after their resupply, Mara strode into the galley. Quinn and Vette were at separate tables, doing their best to ignore the other. Mara sighed and poured herself a cup of caf and picked up a meal bar - not a ration bar, thank the Force, but something commercially available that therefore tried to appeal to at least some subset of the humanoid consumer population - and took a chair at Quinn’s table.

“Vette, come here. I need to brief you both on our objective.”

Vette looked up from her datapad and shrugged before joining them, sitting as close to Mara as possible. Mara couldn’t blame her - whether a slip of the tongue from someone raised in a society steeped in speciesism, or a calculated speciesist insult meant to cut deeply, Quinn’s words had incensed her, and rightly so. No matter how annoying Vette had been - and she had been quite annoying; the ship’s size meant most of it was within range of Mara’s Force-enhanced hearing if she focused - such a thing was not acceptable.

It had been disappointing to hear, if not surprising. She was fairly certain he would learn from this mistake, though only time would confirm that.

“Our target is an Agent Dellocon,” Mara began, pulling up the ident portrait of the agent on her datapad. “Karr’s apprentice seems to have singled him out despite his cover being otherwise intact. As with Commander Rylon, I have been ordered to contain the threat.

She offered a tight smile. “Our mission is not without complication, of course. Dellocon has, unfortunately, sought and obtained protection from Lord Rathari, a political enemy of Darth Baras’s. Rathari is the highest ranking Sith on Nar Shaddaa, and has all the Imperial resources at his disposal that you’d expect.” She paused, looking them each in the eye in turn. “This means we are likely to find ourselves fighting fellow Imperials. Captain, I want to make sure you and Vette are outfitted with non-lethal weapons; I’d rather stun or incapacitate than kill any military personnel if at all possible.”

“And Lord Rathari and his apprentices?” Captain Quinn asked, nodding as he took notes on a datapad.

The tight smile became feral. “Leave them to me. Again, I will incapacitate if I can, but Sith relations are complex.”

She hesitated again, weighing her next words, then continued.

“There is one other complicating factor: there’s a bounty on my head, placed by the local branch of the Illip kajidic.”

Quinn gasped, his mouth falling open. Vette grinned.

“It’s minor, as such things go, I assure you,” she continued, “Ordered for the sake of appearances more than any actual desire for vengeance. Still, an enterprising hunter could make a tidy sum off my delivery to Illip Palace.”

“This is the ‘detonated your lightsaber’ story, isn’t it?” Vette asked.

“Indeed. And no,” she said when Vette opened her mouth again, “I will not regale you with the particulars, suffice to say Qunovob Illip Kicha thought he could cheat Thrask Durasteel. He was wrong.”

“I see,” Captain Quinn said after a moment, his face unreadable. “What precautions must we take, my lord?”

“None,” Mara replied. “Believe me, I don’t rank in the first hundred bounties open on Nar Shaddaa. No one will be combing the spaceport records looking for us. However, I don’t wish to become a target of opportunity. We keep our heads down. Get in, get it done, and get out as quickly as possible. We land in three hours.”

***

Quinn followed a step behind Apprentice Thrask, scowling at the gaudy neon lights around him, advertising all manner of illicit and/or dissolute entertainment, and scowling at the shadows those lights threw across his lord’s exposed midriff. Her deep brown hair was braided, the end of the plait brushing the hem of her top, calling even more attention to her bare back. In light of her revelation about the bounty on her head, Quinn suggested she choose a heavier armor.

She’d smiled and replied, “Captain, if I’m so sloppy that my bare stomach becomes a liability, then I deserve to fall to whatever opponent exposes that weakness.”

Which really wasn’t the point . But given his recent dressing down and her skill, thus far, for avoiding injury, he’d not pressed any further. He, on the other hand, had traded his duty uniform for blaster- and environmental-resistant battledress. He carried a pack filled with a standard field medic’s kit along with spare power packs, rations, and hydration tablets.

Vette was functioning as their forward recon, scouting ahead to their objective. The role made use of the Twi'lek’s apparently detailed knowledge of Nar Shaddaa, but Quinn suspected their lord had assigned it to also keep Vette from interacting with their local contact, Halidrell Setsyn, who ran Baras’s slaving operation.

“Everything looks good from here,” the Twi'lek’s voice said in his ear. “Just two Hutts and a Sithy-looking guy.”

“That’d be the apprentice, I presume,” Apprentice Thrask said as they approached the entrance to the building indicate on their map. “Good work, Vette. Keep eyes on us in case we need backup.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

“Ready to become diplomats, Captain?”

“I’m right behind you, my lord.”

Negotiations between the Hutts and Rathari’s Zabrak apprentice were already underway when Quinn and Apprentice Thrask entered the room. Quinn followed, wondering precisely what his lord had in mind - they merely had to ruin the apprentice’s negotiations, foiling Rathari’s alliance in order to draw the Sith Lord - and, by extension, Agent Dellocon - out of hiding, not negotiate anything on their own or Darth Baras’s behalf.

“I’ll tell you who this is,” the Zabrak growled when the Hutts demanded the Sith woman identify herself, “this is the apprentice of an over-the-hill Sith Lord named Baras. He’s of no consequence on this planet, nor of any consequence to you, your excellencies.”

Apprentice Thrask merely raised a brow stalk, as if the exchange was only mildly more interesting than watching paint dry. “And you are?”

“I am Girik, and shortly your executioner.”

“Of course you are.” Apprentice Thrask rolled her eyes and stepped forward. “Your excellencies, I offer you an alternative to Lord Rathari,” she said in Huttese. Quinn felt his eyes widen; not many in the Empire bothered with a language as… base as that spoken by the Hutts. “I make no demands of your territories and shortly plan to eliminate any threat Rathari poses to you. All I ask in return is you honor the alliance the kajidics have already made with the Empire.

As she spoke one of the Hutt’s massive eyes widened grotesquely.

You! I know you ,” he gasped. “You’re the Sith that killed Qunovob Illip and destroyed his pleasure barge.

Quinn froze, his hand creeping toward his blaster. So much for keeping their heads down.

I am, your excellency .”

You offer to let us keep our territories in exchange for what we are already doing. Tempting, but how can we trust a murderer of Hutts?

Apprentice Thrask shrugged. “That was business, excellency. Qunovob knew the defined remedy for breaching the contract was execution. My actions were justified under the laws of his own kajidic. ” She offered a smile. “Buyer and seller beware - that is the saying is it not ?”

The Hutt’s guttural laughter filled the room. “You understand us well, Sith.

She has not proven herself against Rathari, Quiltakka, ” the other Hutt cautioned. “And I will not terrorize him if he simply pastes your red friend here and comes after us.

“Yes, let me kill this Hutt-killer for you, excellencies,” Girik cut in, his eyes flashing.

Quiltakka looked between the two Sith. “True, Ybann. Let them fight; the victor will deserve our support.

Shall we make it interesting, old friend? ” Ybann asked. “I take two to one odds the intruder dies.

Done. ” He exchanged a look with Apprentice Thrask. “It’s nothing personal, Sith. Qunovob was even less of a warrior than he was a businessperson.

Her posture stiffened and she pressed her lips together in a thin line as if to ward off a sharp retort. Then she gave another charming smile. “This will only take a moment, excellencies. I won’t even ruin this lovely rug.”

“I’m going to enjoy this, worm,” Girik snarled, igniting his blade and leaping toward her.

Apprentice Thrask caught him with her energy shield and sent him flying backward.

“Clearly less than you’d hoped,” she answered.

She ignited her saber and shifted it to a two-handed, low guard, the blade pointing toward the floor in front of her. It was a classic trap - the Imperial Military Academy taught vibroblade courses and her stance was an almost textbook fool’s guard - but Girik either didn’t know or didn’t care. He rushed her again. She pivoted, lips curved in a confident smile. Two more crashes of their blades meeting and then Girik screamed - more angry than pained - when her lightsaber grazed his abdomen. He swung at her wildly, but she caught the blade on her shield and pivoted, slamming her foot into the side of his knee. The crunch of bone breaking seemed to echo in the room, and then he was on his knees.

Stunned silence reigned. Quinn knew his eyes were the size of tea saucers; she hadn’t even broken a sweat. She stood over her vanquished foe, blade pointed at his throat, core muscles contracting and releasing slowly with her even, well within resting norms, breathing. Quinn, on the other hand, found his heart racing.

He wasn’t the only one; sweat glistened on Girik’s bald head, his breath ragged as he glared orange daggers up at Apprentice Thrask.

“Impossible!” he ground out. “But no matter, Lord Rathari will still be your and Baras’s downfall.”

“You are beaten, but my quarrel is with Rathari, Girik.” Apprentice Thrask motioned Quinn forward with her free hand. “Let us bind your wounds.”

“I will not be pitied,” he spat. “I will die by my own hand, not yours.”

He held his lightsaber to his gut and activated it.

Apprentice Thrask stepped back from the corpse as it fell forward, her face carved from stone. In short, clipped words she confirmed the Hutts would adhere to the deal she’d struck, such as it was, and then turned on her heel and stalked from the room.

That evening the three of them shared a room in a seedy cantina in the Upper Industrial Sector. Vette had chosen it for its view of the Republic outpost Rathari’s contingent was moving on within the next week (intelligence provided by Setsyn was generally accurate if not particularly granular). Looking at the state of the room, Quinn was thankful his fatigues would protect him from the unidentified grime that was coating most of the furniture and floors. Choking down a ration bar, he joined Apprentice Thrask at the window overlooking the installation.

“Forgive the intrusion, my lord, but are you alright?” he asked.

She’d been uncharacteristically subdued since the duel with Girik. His admittedly-limited experience told him battle normally energized her, but not so now. He jumped a little when she turned her amber eyes on him. In the darkness of the room, they had taken on a glow.

“Yes.” She hesitated, then, “Girik’s death seems such a waste. He wasn’t exceptional, but he could have been a useful tool for the Empire.”

“He made a choice, my lord. We all face defeat in our own way.” The words were bitter; he’d faced it for a decade.

“Sith pride,” she murmured with a bemused smile. “It’s a blessing and a curse.” She turned to look out over the city, her lip curling. “I despise Nar Shaddaa. I always have.”

“Then why…?”

“Why cultivate business contacts amongst the Hutts? To be honest, desperation.” She winced, as if recalling unpleasant memories. “My house was not financially stable when I inherited my position. Dealing with the Hutts bought us time to rebuild business within the Empire.”

“I see, my lord.”

“Are you looking forward to returning to Dromund Kaas?” she asked.

“I… hadn’t given it much thought, my lord,” he answered honestly. The past few days had been so filled with his new posting he’d not even thought about the possibility of going home.

“When were you there last?”

He stared out the window, thinking back. “A little over a decade. I was granted a week of leave just before the battle of Druckenwell. Before-“ he cut off, shocked. He’d been about to tell her.

She sat for a moment, waiting for him to continue. When he didn’t, she gave him a knowing, gentle smile - she knew he was holding something back, but accepted his silence - before turning her gaze back to the cityscape.

“Well, you’ll have a month of leave after we’re done here.”

He blinked. “A month?”

“Yes. I will be undertaking the Marsarotikdoranjat , which begins with a month of fasting and seclusion.” She smiled at him. “So I will be hungry and contemplative during that time, but you and Vette will be free to do as you wish. Do you have family on Dromund Kaas?”

“My mother, my lord.”

“You should contact her when we return to the Fury to advise her of your projected arrival.”

“I…” he trailed off and Apprentice Thrask frowned at him.

“Have you not kept in touch?” she asked.

“We have, but only sporadically,” he admitted.

“On purpose?”

“My posting to Balmorra was not under the best circumstances,” he said, stunned to be admitting even that much. “Speaking to her was difficult.”

Initially, his letters and calls had been perfunctory out of shame and she had responded in kind. As the years passed, they continued so, long after he might have hoped his shame and her disappointment would soften.

“And you’re concerned she’ll not welcome you home.”

“Yes, my lord.”

She hummed quietly in response, seeming lost in thought. For a time the only noise in the room was the low voices coming from the holovid Vette was watching on her datapad.

“My mother died when I was sixteen,” Apprentice Thrask said quietly. “That colors my judgment here, but Captain…” she paused and held his gaze. “Visit your mother when you’re on Dromund Kaas. If she doesn’t wish to see you, at least you’ll know that for sure. But to avoid contact because you’re afraid of how you’ll be received? That’s as much a waste as Girik’s suicide.”

He felt himself smile. “Is that an order, my lord?”

She laughed softly. “Only if you wish it to be.”

“I’ll consider it, my lord.”

“Good.” She glanced behind them toward Vette. “Get some sleep, Captain. I’ll take the first watch.”

“Yes, my lord.”

***

Rathari was far stronger than Girik.

Which wasn’t all that surprising, really, Mara mused as she slammed to the ground, her right shoulder taking most of the impact, though it did imply a certain lax approach to training his apprentices. Around her a storm of blaster fire echoed off the nearby buildings as Vette and her appropriated Republic squadron battled Rathari’s Imperial guards.

She snapped to her feet as the other Sith Lord - wearing the truly ridiculous spiked pauldrons made fashionable by Darth Marr - stalked toward her, taking his time as if she were no threat at all. She set her feet and leapt at him. He bellowed at her, and she activated her energy shield hastily when she felt the first brushes of the Force energy he’d flung at her.

The wave of energy hammered her shield, bringing her to an abrupt halt. She dropped like a stone, but landed on her feet, shield still in place, and slid backward several centimeters as a second Force wave washed over her.

She glared at Rathari’s blurry image through the blue static of her energy shield as he used his lightsaber as a focus for the next volley of Force energy. It was a slightly different technique from what she’d learned - a bit more versatile; it seemed he could use most any part of his body to focus the energy.

As intriguing as this master class was, she needed to close the distance between them. What she truly needed now was-

A shower of sparks erupted next to Rathari’s head.

Both Sith jerked in surprise. Behind Rathari, Captain Quinn stood with his blaster drawn. As Rathari snarled and turned, the Captain’s blue eyes flicked to Mara’s for a fraction of a heartbeat, and then he threw himself sideways only slightly ahead of the other Sith Lord’s volley of Force lightning.

Mara allowed herself a tight smile and roared, a sharp, staccato sound that drowned out Rathari’s snarl of rage, and launched herself forward. The Force wave crashed into Rathari’s back as he brought his saber to bear on Captain Quinn, who’d rolled to his feet, followed a second later by Mara herself.

The impact shoved Rathari sideways so his strike missed the captain by a good meter. She grabbed the Sith Lord’s arm and spun him to face her.

“Don’t you dare ignore me, Rathari,” she growled, and struck.

Mara forgot the ache in her shoulder as she engaged her opponent at close range. The blaster fire around them faded as she and Rathari dueled; clearly her forces had won out, else she’d have been the next target for Rathari’s Force-blind guards. Rathari swung his free hand in an attempt to elbow her in the face, leaving his side open to her blade. She shoved him backward instead, bringing her lightsaber back up to guard, a brow stalk raised. She met Quinn’s gaze for a moment, silently ordering him to stand down. The Captain frowned but lowered his blaster. Rathari regarded her for a long moment and then reengaged.

Something in him shifted after that, the dynamic between them going from opponents to master and student, Rathari’s movement slow enough so Mara could follow them, and use them against him in turn. As they fought, the difficulty level rose and he began to push her harder, leaving bruises and, sometimes, shallow burns, where he made contact. Mara returned that hurt and more, until finally she shoved Rathari ’s sword arm aside and jammed her shield into his shoulder joint as she swung her blade down onto his. His fingers loosened and the weapon flew from his hand. She shoved him to the ground.

“You are beaten,” she snarled, her breath coming in short gasps.

“I yield,” he replied, a breathless laugh bubbling out of him. “A pity I didn’t see you the last time I recruited apprentices from Korriban; you’re magnificent.”

Mara inclined her head. The regal acknowledgement turned rapidly to confusion, however, when he reached out a hand.

Agent Dellocon, who was now under guard from both Quinn and Vette, gurgled when his head suddenly snapped to the side. Without another sound he dropped to the ground, dead. Her crew jerked back from the corpse in shock.

“Why?” Mara demanded.

“He was your mission, was he not? Consider it a show of good faith.” He settled onto his knees and bowed his head. “I pledge myself to your service, Apprentice Thrask, if you will have me.”

What the-

“In this single duel you’ve demonstrated a strength the likes of which I’ve never seen.” His eyes were appraising as he beheld her. “Baras will move against you. When he does I would be at your side.”

If that day comes, Lord Rathari, I will welcome you,” she said, her mind racing. She had no qualms accepting Rathari’s loyalty - within limits, of course - but Baras would expect the man to be dead once she left Nar Shaddaa. “Until then or some other time when I have need of your service, you will stay out of sight. I will send you coordinates for an ideal hiding spot.” Tremel would enjoy the company. Probably. More importantly, Tremel would ensure Rathari’s pledge had more longevity than whatever pledge he’d given Dellocon. Given what she’d seen here, Mara was certain her former Overseer could easily take Rathari in a fight.

Rathari accepted the coordinates Mara gave him and limped back into the building he’d been using as his headquarters on the planet. Quinn stepped to Mara’s side.

“My lord, there is the matter of the Republic soldiers,” he murmured.

“Ah, of course.” With adrenaline fading, the ache in her shoulder returned, along with the other superficial wounds she’d taken. She turned to the six Republic commandos who’d come to her aid. “Commander Naughlen, your service has been exemplary. Consider your debt paid in full and go in peace.”

“I… thank you, Sith.” He kept a wary eye on her as they activated their jetpacks and left the area.

“Why are they always surprised when I don’t flay them alive?” Mara mused, thinking back to Mashallon and Cheketa’s reactions to her even-handedness.

“Well, your new Sith buddy did snap Dellocon’s neck on a whim,” Vette pointed out.

“I suppose… Dellocon was the mission; they were not.”

“You expect Republic commandos to know the ins and outs of Sith politics?”

Mara smiled. “A fair point, Vette.” She locked eyes with Quinn. “That stunt with the blaster pack was brazen, Captain, and well-done.” That’s what had cause the sparks, she’d realized - a full shot at Rathari’s head would have risked a strong warning in the Force. Something more annoying than lethal, however, most likely flew under the intense attention he’d been giving her.

Quinn bowed his head fractionally. “Thank you, my lord.” He lowered his voice so that only she and Vette could hear. “You require medical attention, my lord.”

A brilliant tactician and careful with her image in front of other Sith. She smiled. “When we return to the ship, Captain. For now let’s make sure Lord Rathari gets on his way to my safehouse.”

***

With Rathari safely away, all that remained was getting to the Fury to treat Apprentice Thrask’s injuries and get off this wretched planet. Fortunately, his lord shared his assessment, and they returned to the spaceport without further delay.

Quinn heard the low voices coming from the docking bay only half a second before Apprentice Thrask signaled a halt and silence. She cocked her head, listening, and then her amber eyes widened.

“Bounty hunters,” she whispered.

Quinn exchanged a glance with Vette.

“My lord, I thought you said-“

“I know. Vette, had anything changed the last time you checked on the bounty?”

“No,” the Twi'lek replied, fingers dancing over her datapad. “I checked last night, you were still down at-“ she cut off, violet eyes widening. “The bounty’s tripled.”

“Clearly Ybann or Quiltakk clued Illip in on my presence, but the tripled bounty makes no sense. Any other news on the family?”

Vette continued reading. “Nothing in the last few days, but Qunovob’s mother died earlier this year, and was replaced by his sister, Greblak, as scion. Looks like the bounty was picked up by a local 4-person crew; I don’t recognize the names. Probably small players.”

“Greblak has something to prove,” Apprentice Thrask murmured to herself, her tone oddly commiserating.

Quinn felt far less sanguine about this turn of events. He’d warned his lord to take precautions and she ignored him. Now there was bounty hunter scum between them and her ship, itching to get their filthy hands on her for profit….

“How did you not check on the bounty this morning, Vette?” Quinn hissed.

The Twi'lek turned angry eyes on him. “As if you haven’t been double checking on your own every time I scanned the holonet. Why didn’t you check, Captain Tightpants?”

Oh no, how dare she put this back on him when he was the one advising caution to no avail. “This was your job. Your lack of discipline has put our lord at risk, Vette. Do you not understand that?”

“She’s hardly at risk from four idiots with blasters. Right, Mara?”

There was no answer.

She was nowhere within sight, in fact. The only logical - no, it was not logical; the only likely direction she had gone was…

“Good evening, gentlebeings,” Apprentice Thrask’s voice said from the landing bay. “I take it you’re here to deliver me to Greblak, trussed and gift-wrapped?”

Quinn swore feelingly, then froze when Vette uttered the exact same curse. They glanced at each other.

“She’s a pain in the ass, isn’t she?” Vette asked.

“You’ve been here longer and should now better than I,” he growled back. “We need to take all four at once.”

Vette yanked her stealth generator from her belt and pressed it into Quinn’s hands. He stared at it in shock.

“You’ve got what, one blaster and a vibroknife?” she patted the blasters riding each hip. “I can take out two from range, but you’ll need to get close if you’re going to take the other two.”

Quinn nodded, clipping the device to his belt.

“Just don’t get comfortable with it; I want it back the second we’re on the ship.”

“I’m not a thief, Vette.”

“Well, I am, and a thief can’t be too careful.”

“Right.” He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself to let the quarrel go, then opened them again. “Be ready to fire on my signal.”

“That signal being…”

“Becoming visible?”

“Perfect, just making sure you weren’t thinking of a code word on top of the obvious.”

Quinn bit back a sharp retort and activated the generator. He entered the landing bay, moving as quickly as he could while keeping his steps silent.

“Truly, I understand Greblak’s quarrel with me; there wasn’t enough left of Qunovob for a public funeral,” Apprentice Thrask was saying, her voice eminently reasonable. “And I hold you all blameless, you’re simply making ends meet, I’m sure.”

The four bounty hunters were staring at the Sith who’d surrendered to them as if she had six heads and two of them were glowing. Vette had been correct in her assessment - grubby and brandishing poorly-kept blasters, these four qualified more as thugs than hunters. Mandalorians they were not.

“If you’re so contrite, why not give us your lightsaber, huh?” the leader, a Houk, suggested, sounding as though he were asking for the galaxy itself to reverse its rotation.

All four took a collective step back - and Quinn nearly swallowed his tongue - when Apprentice Thrask unclipped her saber and held it out to them.

He was just behind the Houk now, and drew his vibroknife and his blaster, the blade for the Houk, the blaster for the scarred Human next to him. With his knife hand, he tapped the stealth generator.

There was barely even a click as the device shut down. The four hunters had no idea he was there, so fixated were they on Apprentice Thrask, staring at the proffered lightsaber as if it would spit poison a the slightest provocation.

He glance at the entrance to the landing bay and saw Vette. Their eyes met, and he raised his weapons.

The Houk yelled in pain and dropped his blaster as Quinn drove the vibroknife into his side to the hilt. The Human next to him dropped without a sound with a blasterbolt to the back of his skull. Vette’s blasters barked in sequence and the other two - a Devaronian and another Human - toppled forward.

The Houk rounded on Quinn, yanking the blade out of his body. He gave a murderous, blood-flecked grin as he raised the knife.

And died with Apprentice Thrask’s black-magenta blade sticking out of his chest.

Quinn lowered his blaster and took a step forward to retrieve his knife, wiping it on the Houk’s grimy shirt before re-sheathing it as Vette trotted up to them, holding out a hand expectantly. Quinn shook his head and handed the stealth generator to her.

“Glad you could both find room in your argument to join me,” Apprentice Thrask said blithely, striding up the ramp of her ship. She shot them an amused look over her shoulder. “Good work, by the way.”

Quinn exchanged a glance with Vette, his annoyance mirrored in her face. At the very least, he knew the Twi'lek would sacrifice her pride to keep Apprentice Thrask safe. He still couldn’t bring himself to like the Twi'lek, but that was enough for him to work with her.

He gave Vette a commiserating grimace and followed their lord into the ship.

Chapter Text

Setting down on Dromund Kaas drained an unrealized tension from Mara’s shoulders. She had been tempted to use a spaceport closer to Cwûkûsk , but the Fury needed maintenance and supplies that could see it through months of time away from an Imperial outpost. So Captain Quinn brought her ship back into landing bay thirty-one of the Kaas City spaceport, where she’d started only five weeks ago.

She sat in the Fury’s lounge with Quinn, going over the maintenance schedule one last time. Despite their short acquaintance, sitting next to him clad in a casual, silky gown that bared both shoulders and sharing a datapad felt normal. It helped that Mara found herself wondering how precisely she would have handled the logistics of her month-long absence without him. Thus far, she’d not felt like anything other than an equal with him, but in the details of planning, the extra decade of expertise he had on her showed.  

“For the weeks you are out of contact, my lord, I will make myself available to the technicians here should they require me, and I will report in for the final phase of the maintenance so that I can calibrate our systems myself.”

“This is meant to be a month of leave, Captain,” Mara emphasized, shaking her head fondly. “I insist that you take at least three of those weeks.”

“I intend to find time for myself, my lord,” he replied dryly.

“Permission to come aboard?” a voice called from the entry hatch. Quinn stiffened, blue eyes going wide. That could mean only one person.

“Granted, please,” Mara replied, shooting her captain a reassuring look and standing.

A Human woman in her late sixties strode through the hatch. Her platinum-silver hair was cropped short, and though she wore elegant civilian clothing, she moved with the precision and posture of someone who’d spent the majority of her adult life in uniform. Her eyes were the familiar piercing blue that Mara had found herself daydreaming of in recent days despite her best efforts. Shoving down the unexpected nervous fluttering in her stomach, she smiled and inclined her head.

“Captain Vorsila Quinn, I presume?”

“Mrs. Quinn will do, my lord; my naval career is six years behind me now.” Her accent was the crisp, precise cadence of upper Kaasi society. She gave a polite bow.

“I’m honored to meet you, Mrs. Quinn,” Mara said. “I understand you now serve as Artistic Director to the Kaas City Opera?”

“Indeed, my lord.”

“Last year’s production of Shâsot was a marvel,” Mara said, her voice becoming wistful at the memory of sitting in her family’s box utterly entranced. “It was perhaps the most stunning adaptation of Ascendant Period opera I have ever seen.

Vorsila inclined her head respectfully. “You’re too kind, my lord. I take it you have an interest in the art?”

“My final cultural elective exam on Korriban was Alyssa’s aria from act three of Shâsot .”

“That is a difficult piece.” Vorsila cocked her head, eyes sharp. "Did you pass, my lord?”

Mara felt Quinn’s alarm at the question, but she merely smiled.

“With flying colors, I assure you.” Vorsila nodded thoughtfully as if weighing her answer against some unseen criteria. For a moment Mara considered elaborating, moved by an odd desire to rise to whatever judgment the woman had come to.

Vorsila Quinn was short - the top of her head barely came to Mara’s chin - and Mara outranked her by every measure. But she was Quinn’s mother. That fact alone pushed Mara to stand straighter, hoping to impress the woman.

She kept a tight rein on that desire and, when she continued, changed the subject. “At any rate, as pleased as I am to make your acquaintance, I know you’re not here to see me, Mrs. Quinn.”

Mara stepped aside, and suddenly the room was silent as mother and son regarded one another; Captain Quinn strove to keep a calm exterior, but there was a sheepish slump to his shoulders and Mara could feel his roiling of emotion. As for Vorsila, she blinked several times, her lips pressed into a thin line and her sense mirrored her son’s.  

“Mother,” Quinn said softly, averting his gaze, a blush blossoming on his pale cheeks.

Vorsila shook her head and stepped forward, tilting her son’s chin so their eyes met. Neither had the Force, but even so, given the way they held one another’s gaze, Mara felt certain they were communicating silently. She felt a stab of longing as they stared at one another.

“Thank you for bringing my son home, my lord,” Vorsila said at last, glancing at Mara.

“Captain Quinn has been on my crew five weeks and is already indispensable, Mrs. Quinn. The honor has been mine.” Quinn blushed further. “Captain.” His head snapped up to meet her gaze and she smiled.  “Get off my ship and enjoy your leave. That’s an order.”

His lips twitched as if he wanted to laugh, but a glance at his mother smoothed his features.

“Permission to disembark, my lord.”

“Granted, with all my heart,” she answered.

Vorsila’s face shadowed for a moment as she looked between them, but then her eyes cleared and she offered Mara a bow as Quinn retrieved his rucksack.

“Oh,” Mara called as they moved toward the hatch. “I almost forgot. At the end of the month I will be holding a celebration at Cwûkûsk to mark my twenty-sixth birthday and formal investiture as head of House Thrask. I would be honored if you would both consider being there.” She hesitated as two sets of blue eyes widened in surprise. “You may decline, of course, without repercussion. But know you are both welcome.”

“My lord, I should be delighted,” Quinn replied, his eyes holding hers. “I did not realize I would be welcome-”

He cut off at the sound of claws scrabbling up the boarding ramp, jerking to face whatever monstrosity was chirping and squealing its way into the ship. Mara cursed and flew to the entry hatch, her gown billowing behind her.

“Loajalkra sit,” She snapped.

The wrat skidded to a halt, but not before she slid into Mara’s shins. She folded her front paws beneath her and looked up at Mara eagerly, tail twitching and her fluffy brown-and-black striped body nearly vibrating with excitement. At twelve kilograms the wrat came up to her knees even when sitting.

In the beast’s wake, a hairless Finx wrat half Loajalkra’s size trotted up the ramp. He had the same imperious look to him he always had, but something about his gait was tired. Mara frowned and sank to her knees to scoop him up.

“You hideous sack of skin,” she murmured lovingly at him, helping him settle onto her shoulders. “And you,” she said to the larger wrat, her voice sharpening but still fond, “you forget your manners, my girl.”

Loajalkra’s tail swished faster and, when Mara’s hand settled onto her head to stroke her fur gently, a deep thrumming filled the hatchway.

She sighed and turned back to Quinn and his mother.

“My apologies.” She said, stroking the wrat on her shoulders until he, too, bruxed contentedly. “I suspect my steward thought she was giving me a lovely surprise setting these two up the ramp on their own.”

Quinn’s blue eyes were wide as he looked at her, and Mara belatedly realized that, in her silky golden gown with the hairless wrat on her shoulder, she must look the epitome of Red Sith nobility.

“Loajalkra has been mine since childhood,” she said hurriedly. “And this wrinkled ancient evil,” she reached up to stroke the wrat’s body gently, “is Lord Ushlek. He was my mother’s-“

She cut off as her fingers skimmed over something hard in the wrat’s body. Ushlek twitched away from her probing fingertips, squeaking in protest and nearly falling off her shoulder. Mara kept her face neutral only by virtue of stubbornness.

Ushlek truly was ancient by wrat standards; it was only natural that he’d begin to show signs of terminal illness. And yet. Part of her always assumed he’d live forever, powered by spite and some essence of her mother.

“Ushlek was my mother’s wrat,” she finished, keeping her voice light and shifting the wrat to cradle him in one arm. “And my original enemy. But when she died we shared the same grief.” She ran her fingers under the wrat’s chin.

Loajalkra padded forward and, without warning, rubbed her entire body against Quinn’s calf. He flinched back, scandalized, and Mara called the beast back to her.

“She’s very forward,” he commented with a blush.

“She’s an excellent judge of character, Captain,” Mara replied with a smile. She inclined her head to Vorsila. “I apologize again for their sudden appearance. I won’t detain you any longer.”

“It was an honor to meet you, my lord,” the older woman replied, bowing her head.

“Likewise. Enjoy Kaas City, Captain.”

Quinn thanked her, and together he and Vorsila left the ship.

They’d barely made it past the boarding ramp when Vette poked her head out of the crew quarters.

“Captain Stuffy gone?” A grin nearly split her face when she saw the wrats, scampering toward Loajalkra and murmuring high-pitched nonsense at her.

“He’s loosened up in the last few weeks, Vette.”

The Twi'lek snorted. “Doesn’t mean he’s not still stuffy.”

Caldwyn, Mara’s steward, poked her head through the hatchway.

“My lady,” she said with a deep bow, “Vette,” she inclined her head respectfully. “Welcome back to Dromund Kaas.”

“You about terrified the pants off my executive officer, Caldwyn,” Mara replied dryly. “Not that I wasn’t delighted to see the beasts, of course.”

Caldwyn’s brown eyes sparkled with mirth but she bowed her head contritely. “I apologize, my lady. That was not my intention. Did the captain recover?”

“Of course he did.”

“Well then, if you’re ready to leave, I have a speeder waiting for you.”

“Thank you. I’ve given Vette clearance to access our computer systems at Cwûkûsk ; she’s working on a personal project with my blessing. I’d like her to have access to a ship as well, should she need it.”

“Woah, I don’t need a ship,” Vette countered. “If I find what I’m looking for I’ll most likely need backup, so I won’t be going anywhere until you’re available, and the Fury will be ready by that point.”

“You don’t have to use it, Vette, but it will be available if you do.”

“You’re sweet, you know that?”

Caldwyn gasped at the impropriety, but Mara simply laughed.

“Don’t tell the other Sith kids that.”

Mara signed her ship into the care of spaceport security and approved the final maintenance schedule, and then their party piled into a speeder and headed north. They spent most of the ride in silence, Vette reading and Caldwyn working on estate business. Mara stared out the window at the jungles racing past, stroking Ushlek in her lap and contemplating the next forty-four days.

She’d had a large and somewhat indulgent breakfast that morning, including some pastries she’d purchased from a sketchy but highly recommended bakery on the Promenade on Nar Shaddaa. It would be her last meal until her ascension.

The fast wasn’t an excessive hardship, not for someone who could use the Force, at any rate, but the fast combined with the isolation… past house heads had reported seeing visions, though Mara was still unsure if that was the Force or simple boredom.

Either way, she was about to find out.

***

The fifth morning of his leave was the first time Quinn awoke and remembered where he was. Thunder boomed comfortingly outside his window. He relaxed against the pillows, his eyes sliding closed against the grey light, savoring the Kaasi morning before snapping out of bed.

He fished in his bag for his toiletries, took a towel from the rack by the door, and padded down the hallway toward the guest fresher. He’d showered - oh how he’d forgotten how luxurious water showers were - and tended to his face, teeth, and hair before he realized he’d neglected to bring his day clothes to the fresher with him. He groaned and, toweling off as best he could, slipped back into his pajamas to return to the guest room.

It was those little things - the guest bedroom, the guest fresher, the odd familiarity of the pace combined with its incomparable strangeness - that kept him from feeling as though he were home. To be fair, he’d not considered this flat home for quite some time even before Druckenwell, but that familiar yet alien feeling pervaded every place he’d visited in Kaas City thus far. He’d never considered Balmorra home - perish the thought - but after a decade away, he faced the sobering prospect that Dromund Kaas may not be home either.

In fact, the only place he’d felt, not at ease, but a sense of place, was the five weeks he spent on the Fury. He very carefully refused to consider why that was.

Besides, he’d been planetside a mere four days after a decade of absence; it would have been odd for him to feel at ease and at home so quickly, if he was honest. More than that, he thought as he buttoned the top button of his civilian shirt and strode out of the guest room, he was truly grateful to see his mother again.

“Good morning, Malavai,” she greeted him, sparing him a glance before looking back at her datapad.

He responded in kind, pouring himself a cup of caf and retrieving a meal bar from the cabinet, then joined her at the table.

He picked up his own datapad and began reading through the morning’s fleet news. The silence pressed in on him, as it had every morning for the past five days. He knew he was welcome - after a fashion, at least, his mother had scoffed when he offered to secure lodging at the officers’ barracks in Kaas City and practically ordered him to the guest room in her flat - but he still had no real notion of where he stood with her.

They’d never been a family that spoke overmuch of their emotions. And yet, Apprentice Thrask’s voice flashed through his mind: it would indeed be a waste to spend a month on Dromund Kaas without learning for sure. He set his datapad aside and cleared his throat uncomfortably.

“I’m sorry,” he said finally, staring down into the dark steaming liquid in his up. “For the tone of my contact during my time on Balmorra.”

“The last decade, you mean?” she asked, her tone sharp.

“Yes.” He swallowed. “The court martial was humiliating,I couldn’t…” I know my actions were just, but I could not paint you with my shame. And then wasting away in that rotting cesspool of a planet… I couldn’t face you. “I’d no idea whether you wished to hear from me given my disgrace.”

“And you thought calling three times a year and asking after the weather would fix that?”

“No, of course not. That is… perhaps. As I said I wasn’t sure.”

“You’re a smart man, Malavai. You could have asked had you wanted to know.”

“You could have said had you truly wanted to hear from me.”

They glared at one another for several minutes. To his shock, his mother softened first.

“I forgot how like your father you are,” she said, her voice somehow annoyed and wistful at the same time. “Right down to the black cup of caf.”

Quinn smiled around the lump in his throat. “What was it he used to say? ‘A good cup of caf ought to shock your ass out of bed as well as any drill instructor’.”

“Rymar never did understand that a carrot is just as useful as a stick in that scenario,” his mother countered, raising her lightened - and sweetened - caf to her lips.

She sighed and set the cup aside. “It’s a lesson you could stand to learn, my son. A softer touch could have helped you at Druckenwell, could have spared you this entire mess.”

“Broysc was not going to let my insubordination slide, mother.”

“No, and it was his duty to court martial you for it, even if your quick thinking won that battle. But your legal prognosis would have been much improved had anyone spoken for you at the hearing.”

He felt his eyes narrow. He remembered her repeated advice to him in the eighteen months he spent under Broysc’s command before Druckenwell.

“My standards are no more rigorous than those demanded by the Army Field Manual, mother. I refuse to accept sloppy adherence to regulation simply to curry favor with subordinates who may or may not assist me politically later on.”

“Yes, and you found yourself with subordinates and peers who knew you acted correctly but were too relieved by your removal to speak for you. Was it worth the decade on Balmorra?”

“I will not apologize for my actions,” he ground out. “And I would do it again, even given all that came after.”

“I know.” She sighed. “Emperor help us, you got my pride and you're father’s overdeveloped sense of honor. What would you have told me, had I asked deeper questions of you during your posting?”

“I…” he paused. He’d never thought of it. Which was perhaps the point his mother was driving toward.

“You might have told me how unhappy you were, perhaps? I didn’t need an explanation to know that, Malavai. I knew the posting was an insult designed to underutilize your talents.” Her blue eyes hardened, her posture echoing that of a vine cat protecting its cubs. “I could kill Marinos for stymying you as he did, I don’t care that Broysc recommended him for that command. Should such favoritism spread, the Republic need not fire a shot to unravel our society.”

Quinn hummed his agreement with the last sentiment, but he also felt the tiniest twinge of sympathy for Colonel Marinos. Captain Vorsila Quinn had been spent the better part of her Navy career as a member of Singularity Squadron. She could fly anything, land it on the edge of a credit chip, eliminate her target, and be airborne again before the corpse hit the ground. Marinos would be no match for her should she decide to act on her anger.

“The Colonel had better sleep with one eye open,” Quinn said with a small smile.

“What separates me from Broysc and his ilk is I refuse to compromise our mission on Balmorra over personal vendetta. I’m no Sith, willing to throw an entire mission to satisfy my personal bloodlust.”

After several minutes of silence, she locked eyes with him.

“You are welcome in this house whenever you are on Dromund Kaas, Malavai. I’m pleased your career is revived. I only wish you had learned from the experience.” A glance at the chrono and she drained her caf mug. “I’m needed at the opera house for most of the day.”

Quinn shook himself out of his thoughts.

“I need to check on the Fury’s maintenance in any case,” he said.

“That’s the second time in five days, Malavai.”

“The technicians are fresh out of the Academy; it’s as if they’ve never seen an interceptor before,” Quinn insisted.

“I highly doubt that,” she replied, “they received more training than you have; this is their specialty.” She shook her head. “For kriff’s sake, Malavai, you need to learn to pick your battles.”

She let the statement hang for a moment, then changed the subject. “I thought tomorrow we might visit the Kaas City Heritage Museum. I know it was more enjoyable when you were a child, but there are several new exhibits that might catch your fancy.”

“I would enjoy that. Didn’t they only just recently finish the reconstructed Marserha Colossus?”

His mother narrowed her eyes. “Yes,” she said slowly. “I didn’t know you’d developed an interest in Red Sith mythology.”

“Apprentice Thrask’s influence,” he answered. “Marserha is something of a patron goddess for her family. Not as a deity precisely,” he added hurriedly, “but as an example of Sith ideals. In fact, the ritual she is undertaking has its roots in Marserhan coming of age traditions.”

“I see,” his mother said.

With his thoughts focused inward, he didn’t register the seriousness in her voice, or the stony expression on her face.

No, his thoughts were full of his lord. They seemed to race there of their own accord at times. If the colossus was only just completed, he doubted Apprentice Thrask had been able to visit it yet; he smiled at the thought of reporting his experience to her. He stood and crossed the table to kiss his mother’s cheek.

“I’ll see you this evening,” he said, hurrying to the guest room for his rucksack and an umbrella.

***

Mara grunts as she slams into the wall, the thud reverberating through her naked body as pale hands hook round her thighs and wrench her upward. Her eyes close in anticipation and a long moan sighs past her lips as a hard cock fills her. She’s not entirely coherent; all she knows is she’s wanted this for what feels like ever and finally he’s here, hilted in her with her legs wrapped around his waist, her body colliding with the wall every time he thrusts into her. It’s almost too much. She grabs a handful of dark hair and yanks his head back.

She’s staring into Captain Quinn’s blue eyes. They burn with lust and something… warmer, just as intense but less scorching, a tenderness she’d never let herself hope to feel from him. Suddenly the texture of the encounter changes entirely; he’s laying her down on a bed, moving in her long and slow. Every touch of his lips against her skin and the way he sighs her name feels like a sacrament, an anointing as sacred as the one she’s about to undertake.

Mara’s eyelids fluttered open. It was late in the morning on day twenty-three of her seclusion. The dream was the closest thing, so far, she’d had to a Force vision. The subject matter wasn’t that much of a surprise; as her seclusion wore on and the early hunger pangs faded, masturbation had become her third most time-consuming hobby, after sleep and meditation. It did little to alleviate her sexual frustration - it was an outlet, but not a substitute for a flesh-and-blood partner - but it passed the time, not least because it necessitated her fourth most time-consuming hobby, stretching her wrists.

No, a vivid sex dream was not surprising in the least at this point. What was surprising was the warmth and caring she’d felt from imaginary Quinn toward the end. It was not something she typically sought from her sexual partners.

Did she want that from him?

She rose slowly to a meditation form, reaching for a bottle of water at the bedside as she did so.

She certainly enjoyed his company, and of course she’d wanted to fuck him almost as soon as she laid eyes on him. It was a pity he’d not been comfortable with the idea, but she found herself unwilling to press, to ask why or that he reconsider. She knew that would push him away, off her ship and out of her life, and rightly so. Sexual frustration could be relieved easily if she were truly desperate; it was a small price to pay for their evenings aboard ship, sharing tea and discussing topics ranging from the professional - the status of her ship, his ideas for repairs or upgrade - to the frivolous - arguing the merits of Ascendant Period opera versus Triumphal Period.

Indeed, she’d been craving tea the last several days, and now that she focused on it, it was less for the tea itself and more for the man who had begun to accompany it. She desperately hoped he’d feel comfortable enough to attend her investiture - it honestly wouldn’t feel nearly as meaningful without him-

Well, kriff.

She closed her eyes, letting herself feel that warmth - what she’d felt in her dream was the emotion already inside her - and the twinge of fear that came with it.

If something did develop from this, she wouldn’t be the first Thrask woman to become romantically involved with a Force-blind officer; indeed, her father was only the latest person fitting that description to marry into the family.

Her parents had loved each other dearly; it wasn’t the worst example to follow.

But then, their love hadn’t stopped her mother from committing treason.

She pushed the thought away - it was not terribly helpful at the moment - and exhaled slowly, her mind focusing inward on the dark side of the Force swirling through her.

***

“Ah, this is it,” Quinn said, motioning toward the small, elegant restaurant front before them.

“All that research for a tea house?” His mother asked skeptically.

He’d spent days searching for an ideal establishment. Now, on his last day of leave before he took control of the final phase of the Fury’s maintenance, he’d finally located one.

“I had something very particular in mind, Mother,” he answered dryly.

Tea was as central to the Kaasi diet as fish, but it wasn’t just any tea he’d found himself longing for over the last two weeks. No, it was the peculiar sweet warmth of Apprentice Thrask’s familial blend that had become the object of his obsession. Locating a tea house that sold the blend as part of its menu was the easy part; finding one that welcomed Force-blind Humans was an altogether different challenge.

Herb And Spice was operated by Lord Tatsu Vysotsk. She also operated at least two restaurants in the Scarlet District, catering exclusively to her fellow Red Sith. Herb and Spice, however, was borne of a desire to share Sith culture with the broader Imperial society, or so he’d read, and so the menu blended Kaasi and Korribani culinary traditions.

The tea house was quiet save for the gentle gurgle of water running over a fountain at the center of the room. The square teakwood tables were varnished to accentuate the natural grain of the wood. Overhead lighting was warm and diffused by a canopy of overlapping silk fabrics in a variety of jewel tones.

“I see you indeed had a rather singular desire in finding this place,” his mother said quietly.

Quinn shot her a questioning look but she shook her head.

She was uncharacteristically quiet as they were seated and ordered, making only superficial smalltalk until their food and pot of tea arrived. Quinn had ordered grilled whitefish served with a sweet chutney - the smoke of the grill and spices of the chutney complimented the Cwûkûsk tea perfectly.

“Malavai,” his mother said when the serving droid was gone, lowering her voice so that Quinn had to strain to hear her despite his proximity, “are you…” she grimaced but continued, “are you involved with Apprentice Thrask?”

“What?” His voice seemed to echo unnaturally in the quiet space. He looked around, blushing, and lowered his voice. “What could have possessed you to ask such a thing?”

She looked at their surroundings - the architecture and style of decor were consummately Sith, even if the color scheme was not.

“Your sudden interest in Red Sith culture; the obsessive care you’ve taken of her ship?”

“This is a new posting, Mother, I want to do well.”

“This is well beyond the confines of service, Malavai, and even if it weren’t, a desire to impress a new commanding officer would not account for the casual familiarity I observed between you when you landed.”

“Apprentice Thrask takes a more lax approach-”

“Nerf shirt, Malavai, I saw how she looked at you.”

He glared, his temper flaring. “I turned her down, Mother. I’m not a kriffing idiot.”

“So she…” her blue eyes narrowed. “She had the nerve to ask that of you. That little-”

“She accepted my refusal, Mother,” he growled. “She’s not said a word of it since, nor has she changed her approach to my role on her ship at all. She’s- she’s an honorable woman, Mother. She would never.”

His mother stared at him for several long moments.

“That explains it,” she breathed. “Of course behaving honorably would endear her to you.”

“That was not her goal, I assure you, and I’m not-”

“Perhaps not,” she conceded. “But the effects are obvious. You are smitten, my son.”

“I admire her,” he admitted. How could he not? She was stunning and ferocious, duty-bound and restrained when necessary… everything, really, that was good about the Empire. Everything he’d fought to defend. Certainly more than he could ever deserve. “Serving her after Broysc and Marinos could not be more opposite. I’m happy with this posting, Mother, but I’m not a fool.”

“Take care you keep such foolishness at bay, then,” she replied, leaning forward, blue eyes searching his. “Moff Broysc may be mercurial and unfair, but he’ll seem like a paragon of even-handedness compared with a Sith lover. I don’t need to tell you how poorly such things go for people like us.”

“Mother, please. I don’t,” he paused, trying to control the blush that seemed to only intensify the longer this conversation continued. “I don’t believe Apprentice Thrask is Sith in the typical mold.”

“Best case scenario, Malavai, is that you’re a temporary diversion she will drop as soon as she’s grown bored. Unless you truly think you’re capable of holding her interest.”

There was no malice in her voice as she said it; she was simply stating a self-evident truth of Imperial life: Force-blind individuals simply did not meet a Sith on their level. It wasn’t possible. To try was to invite life-changing pain.

“As I said, Mother, I’m not a fool,” he said quietly.

“Good. Promise me, Malavai, that you’ll avoid entangling yourself with her. Please.”

Quinn froze in shock as her hand covered his gently.

And at his deep reticence to make such a promise. He couldn’t account for it. His mother was right , after all. And yet he knew, down to the core of his being, the words would be a lie. Of all his past crimes and mistakes, lying to his parents had not been among them.

For once he wasn’t sure how long he remained silent. He jumped when his mother pulled her hand away from him. For a moment something very like fear flashed across her face, and then she was composed.

“I trust you to do what is right for you, of course,” she said, settling back into her chair to finish her meal.

***

Mara exhaled until her lungs clenched, savoring the scent of pine and wet soil that came with her next inhale. It was a gorgeous night, cool but dry, the evening mists giving way to a crystal clear sky. She lay on the roof of the tiny cottage she’d been living in since beginning her seclusion, Ushlek curled up next to her, staring up at Kaas’s two moons, brilliant pearlescent jewels among the spray of stars.

Beneath her, the planet churned gently with the Force, the current as familiar as her own heartbeat. All planets had a pulse: the ebb and flow of the Force moving through the flora, the fauna, the physical rock of the planet itself. Discrete forms of Force energy weaving together to create a signature unique to each world. All her life, Mara had slept best when her eyes drifted closed in the embrace of Dromund Kaas. It was the first place she’d felt the Force as a child, and the place her body would rest after she returned to it.

As she had so many times in the past forty-two days, Mara closed her eyes and let those currents envelope her mind, breath slowing to match and her muscles relaxing into meditation. The dark side of the Force swirled with her own life energy, dark as pitch one moment and the exploding with iridescent color the next; a tumultuous riot of power and energy.

She’d spent more and more time in meditation as her seclusion wore on, largely to escape the boredom of the one-room cottage. Every bit of marble floor, every tile of every mosaic, every nook and cranny of the place had yielded their limited secrets to her by the time she’d reached the thirty-day mark. The Force, by contrast, was never the same; the colors and currents and textures different every time she looked, ever-changing even as she meditated upon it.

Mara jumped as the trapdoor that led up to the roof creaked open. Without thinking, she was in a defensive crouch, wondering precisely what could have evaded her senses - she could feel everything around her, surely a sentient being would have been notable to her.

The head that came up through the opening bore the same circlet hers did, the same expressive brows talks. The face was more angular than Mara’s, the hair pulled to the side into an intricate braid. Though she could only see her from the shoulders up, Mara knew that braid would reach the woman’s waist. She’d played with it enough as a child, just seeing it conjured up its softness against her hands, and its spiced scent.

Marsah ?”

“I knew I’d find you out here, my jewel.” Ragna Thrask’s voice was a mirror of Mara’s own. “You always got as close to the stars as possible when you needed to think.” A wistful, knowing smile. “Or to sulk.”

For a moment Mara forgot everything, throwing herself into her mother’s arms - belatedly wondering whether they could even catch her, but then the braid was pressed against her face, exactly as she remembered, her mother’s warmth just as comforting as the pulse of the planet itself.

“My darling girl.” Soft hands stroked her hair, evoking another thousand memories. “This is more warmth than I anticipated.”

Ten years’ worth of anger reasserted itself and Mara wrenched away, wiping tears from her cheeks. “It’s more warmth than you deserve,” she growled in reply. “And I am not sulking.” She barked a bitter laugh. “Is this to be my final lesson, then? An example of how not to lead this house?”

“If you’d like to take it that way, yes.”

“How are you here? Why now and not ten kriffing years ago when you could have been useful?”

“This sort of communication requires a certain openness of spirit in the mortal half of the dialog, Maranel. We both know meditation was never your strongest or most preferred skill. Besides,” she smiled, “how could I not see my only child on the eve of her ascension?”

“Ah, so this act is precisely as selfish as the last acts of your life.”

“Maranel…” her mother sighed and sat down on the roof next to her. Ushlek stirred and, seeing his former companion, squealed with excitement and sped across Mara’s lap to bury his face in the crook of Ragna’s elbow. “I know I hurt you, but you must understand-”

Hurt me? You humiliated me. You humiliated this house. The things I did, the insults I swallowed, just to ensure our survival-” she clamped her mouth shut when her voice cracked. “But why should you care? You’re dead; you never had to see the mess your treason left for the rest of us.”

“I had no choice,” her mother replied, stoic in the face of Mara’s roiling anger.

“No choice but to commit treason ?” Mara glared out at the darkness. “You leave me a cryptic letter and then show up ten years later to say you had no choice?”

“I thought you would die,” Ragna snapped. Mara twisted to look at her in shock. “The visions… only one of us could live.”

“Why? What could possibly-”

“I don’t know.”

“Convenient.”

“You’ll find, my daughter, that the Force is rarely convenient in the information it chooses to divulge.” She sighed. “I know there are things you need to say to me. Things you have every right to say and feel. The struggle to overcome this will never go away completely, but I’d hoped…. To unburden you before you assumed your position in truth.”

“I’ve said all I need to say, Marsah . You humiliated me, fucked my chances at becoming a Sith Lord, and kriff you.” She took another several deep breaths, trying to will away the tears that threatened to spill onto her cheeks.

“That’s not all, Maranel. I know you.” Ragna hesitated. “They brought you before the Council, did they not?”

“In the middle of the night, immediately after Malgus arrived and briefed them.”

Flashes of sensation from that night exploded in her mind. The hard edges of the Imperial Guards’ gauntlets digging into her armpits as they hauled her out of bed. The jagged texture of the Council room floor digging into her knees. A tear in the hem of Darth Malgus’s cloak.

“Malgus wanted to execute me, too. As an example. As tainted goods.”

“But you argued for your life, successfully.”

“Some of your political lessons paid off, I suppose.” Mara studied the moons above, as if doing so could ward off some of the adrenaline coursing through her. “I’ve never been so scared.”

“What?”

She turned to face her mother, then, at last losing the fight to keep her features smooth. “I’ve never been so scared. Not before, and not since.” she drew her knees up to her chin, hugging her legs against her. “The fight I could deal with. But the two years of constant terror, and then another four of constant worry?” She glared at her mother. “So there’s your strong, politically savvy heir. I spent the first six years of my office sobbing in corners, waiting for the inevitable moment my effort proved insufficient.”

A warm arm encircled her shoulders, and after only a brief hesitation Mara let herself be pulled into a hug.

“Admitting fear is the hardest thing for us to do; harder than admitting defeat, even,” Ragna said softly. “But you must acknowledge it. Jedi spend a lifetime repressing their emotions and therefore are easily ruled by them if evoked. The same goes for us for any emotion we try to bury, including fear.”

“I’m sorry for everything I put you through. I,” Ragna hesitated, “I don’t think I would have survived it. You’re the strongest of us in three generations, Maranel. I had no doubt you were equal to the struggle I left for you, but I am sorry you had to prove it so early on.”

“I don’t know if your apology is enough,” Mara said as her arms slipped around the ethereal form, surrendering to the part of herself that missed her mother. “But thank you.”

They sat in silence for several moments. “You know my holocron will be amongst the three you face during the ceremony.”

“I'd guessed as much. I thought I’d enjoy yelling at you, but…”

“That itch has been scratched?”

“For now, at least.”

“I don’t need to tell you how important appearances are amongst Sith nobility, Maranel. That will be the test. Only a handful of people - and certainly none of our allies who will be present - know the full truth of what happened. If you can’t maintain that façade, your position will be significantly weakened at the outset.”

“The thought had occurred to me, Marsah ,” she grumbled.

“Good.” Her mother pushed her upright gently, reaching one translucent hand to cradle her cheek. “You will do well, my jewel. You could have ended your aunts’ regency years ago if our laws had allowed it.”

Mara hated how much those words warmed her. Distantly, she felt something damp pelting her skin.

“Your concentration is failing.” Ragna looked down a the wrat in her lap and stroked him gently. “Are you ready, my darling beast?” The wrat chirped at her before turning to Mara and shoving his face into her palm. She scratched him under the chin, smiling as he bruxed happily. After a moment he pulled away and scurried up Ragna’s arm to her shoulder.

“Be fierce, my child.”

Mara’s eyes snapped open to the sound of thunder booming overhead. She was soaked through. She bolted upright, hand going to Ushlek to scoop him up, and froze.

His body was stiff and still, black eyes unseeing.

“You little asshole,” she murmured, gently lifting his lifeless body. “Ten years of caring for you and still you abandon me as soon as she reappears.”

Ushlek offered no rebuttal to that statement as she carried him indoors and sent a note to her gamekeeper. It was technically a breach of protocol for her to reach out, but death customs outweighed all others.

Chapter Text

“Captain Quinn!”

Quinn turned to see Major Sicaritae hurrying toward him. Like Quinn, Sicaritae was wearing his dress blacks, red piping on the trousers and coat sleeves glowing the light of the chandelier of Chwûkûsk’s greeting chamber. Quinn snapped to attention despite the crush of Sith, diplomats, and other military personnel milling about. Sicaritae chuckled.

“This is a social occasion, Captain, please,” he said, turning to Quinn’s mother and giving a sharp bow.

“Major Daveth Sicaritae, my mother, Vorsila Quinn.”

“A pleasure, ma’am,” Sicaritae said. “Captain Quinn and I served together on Balmorra. I hope you won’t mind saying, he is an exceptional officer.” Vorsila smiled and inclined her head. Sicaritae continued, “Lady Thrask has requested I accompany you both during the ceremony; she anticipated you might benefit from explanation.”

He led them through the house, barely pausing to glance at their surroundings, as if the warm white marble of the floor and columns, the sumptuous rugs and draperies, the eclectic art and exquisite woodwork, were all commonplace. And perhaps they were; Apprentice Thrask said the two had grown up together.

Quinn, on the other hand, found himself craning to look into the doorways that lined the hall. They passed a sitting room strewn with low couches and cushions in bright sunset colors, a training room whose ancient weapons spoke of a ceremonial as well as a utilitarian design, a massive ballroom, and a dining room. The latter two were alive with staff - and they were staff; the individuals were a diverse collection of species and none wore collars of any kind - putting last minute touches on the decor and setup of each room.

They emerged, squinting in the afternoon sunlight, through a set of double doors into a grey stone courtyard. Such an outdoor space would have been unthinkable in Kaas City, with its near-constant rain. But here, several hours north on the continent of Ridzwem, the rains had a more seasonal cycle. The flora had shifted from pure jungle at the temperate equator of the planet to pine forest blended with the hardier species of equatorial trees, cooler and less humid than Kaas City and its surrounds. Despite that, Quinn was fairly certain he could make out force field projectors lining the roof of the house, ready to erect a barrier should the rain make an unplanned appearance.

The courtyard was currently set with chairs for at least a hundred guests, the seating fit comfortably with the raised dais at the front of the gathering. Steps on either end of the dais led directly to single doors into the main house. Atop the dais stood three pedestals, each topped with the pyramidal shape of a Sith holocron. To the right of those pedestals a small gazebo had been erected, housing a dressform adorned with heavy-looking gold clothing, and a table holding a chest and several small pots.

“Have you observed this ritual before, Major Sicaritae?” Vorsila asked.

Sicaritae nodded. “When Lady Thrask’s mother, the late High Lady, was raised. I don’t remember that much of the ceremony as I was six years old at the time,” he explained. “Much of what I know comes from having grown up close to the family.”

The other guests had begun to filter into the courtyard. Sicaritae led them to seats toward the left side of the dais, one row back from the front.

“So close?” Quinn asked. Surely she had reserved such honored places for family or closer friends.

“Lady Thrask’s wishes, Captain,” Sicaritae replied with a broad, knowing smile. Quinn groaned inwardly. He and his mother hadn’t spoken of Apprentice Thrask at all after their meal in the teahouse. His time with his mother had remained pleasant, but overshadowed by the bantha in the room that was his charming and vexing lord. The major’s behavior was not going to quiet his mother’s concerns in the slightest.

“I see,” he choked, avoiding his mother’s gaze. The major, Emperor save him, noticed the discomfort immediately, his face fading back to neutrality.

“At any rate,” he said hurriedly, “you’re in good company with her other friends and-“

“Hey cap’n!” A familiar, exuberant voice said from behind him. Quinn grimaced and turned.

“Hello, Vette.”

The Twi’lek wore what Quinn could only describe as dress blacks for smugglers - polished boots, spacers pants of a higher quality than she normally wore, violet shirt under a simple, dark synthleather jacket.

“I missed you, too,” she said sarcastically, climbing over the back of the chair two down from Quinn and flopping into it. “Hey, Daveth. You’re here to translate, I take it?”

“In a manner of speaking; the ceremony’s been performed in Basic for the last, oh, three hundred years.” He settled into the seat between Quinn and Vette. Guests filed into the seats in front of them, including a slim woman whose black plaited hair was laced with streaks of bright purple. She turned around when she heard Sicaritae speak, her brown eyes flashing with mirth.

“Daveth? I’m glad you made it. Last I heard Mara couldn’t raise you on holo to save her life.”

“Yes, and I’ve been repeatedly chastised for it, thank you very much.”

“Doesn’t mean I can’t yell at you separately, Major; I have to hear about it when she’s annoyed with you.” She reached out a hand and squeezed Sicaritae’s wrist companionably, her tawny skin dark against Sicaritae’s pale flesh.

“Apprentice Dysprosia Durane,” she introduced herself. “Mara and I roomed together on Korriban for six years.”

“An honor, my lord,” Quinn said, bowing his head. Normally he would have stood properly to greet her, but Sicaritae hadn’t done so, and he followed the major’s lead in this situation. “Captain Malavai Quinn. I’m posted to Apprentice Thrask’s ship as her executive officer.”

They chatted for a few more minutes until Quinn saw, out of the corner of his eye, a familiar tall, masked form enter from the right side of the courtyard and take a seat. Familiar, though he’d not seen Darth Baras in person for nearly ten years. He inclined his head to the Darth when the mask turned toward him, only sure their gazes had met when the Sith Lord accepted the gesture with a gracious bow of his head. He turned back to his mother and companions, swallowing nervously.

“Malavai, you said this ritual had its roots in… Marserhan customs?” Vorsila asked, stumbling over the ancient goddess’s name a little.

“It does, ma’am,” Sicaritae answered.

“Do all members of this house undergo such an ostentatious ritual?”

“No indeed. All Thrask adolescents observe the fast and speak to their ancestors via holocron, but for most those conversations remain private, and the individual emerges from their seclusion into adulthood. Only one who will lead the house takes the latter part of the ritual in public. If a head of house cannot stand the scrutiny of her forebears in public, it’s likely she’s not fit to lead. It’s better to know that at the outset.”

At some unknown signal, the hum of conversation stilled, and from the right side of the dais, two Red Sith women, one in white robes, the other in black, and a powerfully-built, dark-skinned man in an admiral’s dress uniform entered. Something in his bearing was familiar, though Quinn couldn’t quite place it.

To his left, a door into the house opened, and Apprentice Thrask strode into the courtyard. Her red legs flashed through the opening at the front of her dark blue robe as she ascended the stairs. He found himself transfixed by her waist-length hair, writhing around her in the afternoon breeze, the light-mahogany locks shining a luminescent golden-brown where they caught the sun. It had always been tied up or back on board the Fury, tame and efficient.

“Who comes?” the Red Sith woman in white robes called.

Apprentice Thrask raised her chin, her forehead noticeably bare of the signet she’d always worn.

“Maranel Thrask, daughter of Ragnapshut Thrask, whose death on 12 Syn 1327 passed stewardship of this house to me.”

Quinn blinked. That date was well known to any Imperial citizen over the age of ten: the day of the sacking of Coruscant.

“Do you swear, under pain of death, that you are her sole lawful heir?”

“I do so swear.”

“And will you then submit yourself, openly, without falsehood or modesty, in the presence of these witnesses, to the judgement of your forebears?”

“I am ready. My strength and deeds speak for themselves.”

Quinn barely heard the words for, as she spoke them, the hand holding her robe closed loosened, and the silky fabric whispered over her shoulders and down her arms, forming an inky blue pool at her feet. She walked, head held high, toward the first holocron utterly and completely naked. The sun gleamed on her jewel-red skin, accentuating the dips and curves of her muscles, flashing when it fell over the gold piercing surrounding her navel.

His cheeks were afire with a blush; he was certain one could warm their hands by holding them near his face. In front of them, Apprentice Durane turned and shot Quinn an appraising glance, before turning back to the dais.

“Perhaps I should have warned you,” Sicaritae murmured, leaning close so his words were for Quinn’s ears alone.

Quinn could only nod, keeping his eyes on the tableau before him despite every instinct screaming at him to avert his gaze. He’d spent the vast majority of his adult life in military housing, where efficiency demanded mixed-gender facilities, and functioned perfectly well in those circumstances. To look away now felt a gross violation of his lord’s trust in inviting him here, the sexualization of a decidedly non-sexual situation. And so he watched her walk to the first holocron, taking clinical note of her physical attributes: the curve of her calf muscles, the obvious kinetic energy coiled in the predatory sway of her hips.

She extended a hand, palm up, fingers curled in invitation, and the holocron rose from the pedestal and began to glow a brilliant red. The glow expanded, as did the metal segments of the device, and Apprentice Thrask knelt as a life-size holographic humanoid took shape. It resolved itself into a Red Sith man. He stood well over two meters, towering over his descendant as she knelt before him.

“My lord Folamitet Thrask,” she said, raising her head to look her ancestor in the eye. “I am shortly to take stewardship of your house. Advise and judge me.”

“Stand, child, and let me get a look at you.” His accent was harsher than any Quinn had heard, emphasis on the first syllable of most words, consonants hurled like daggers. “I see my descendants persist in the disrespect of performing this ceremony in Basic. You are the third supplicant offered up to me since that disgraceful change.”

He trailed off as Apprentice Thrask stood. Her head barely came up to his chin.

“What mockery is this, putting a runt such as yourself before me?” A holographic hand shot out, as if it were trying to grab her chin, then fell back to the man’s side. “Your bone spurs and tendrils are far too short, everything about you is smooth, untested, like an infant.” He recoiled from her in revulsion. “I can smell the Human stink on you, girl. You are precisely the sort of mongrel I feared the first time a supplicant addressed me in Basic instead of our native tongue.”

A twitch of movement on the right side of the dais; the Red Sith in black had a red hand on the Human Admiral’s shoulder. And suddenly it clicked: the low-level rage in his posture echoed Apprentice Thrask’s perfectly. He felt his eyes widen. That’s her father; she’s half Human.

“Ah yes, Lord Folamitet. You initiated the policy of entering business contracts only with other Red Sith.”

“Thrask thrived under my leadership.”

“And passed into near-total obscurity in the century that followed thanks to your isolationism. Would you have the same happen to our people?”

“You dare lecture me on our species’ survival, halfblood?” It was a snarl. The hologram lunged forward, passing through Apprentice Thrask briefly. “I lost my mother in the Sith Holocaust. You are nothing.”

“And yet you’re intent on finishing the Jedi’s work for them. You forget the sacrifices of Mavia Raniksh - a Human woman - and so many others who acted as a bulwark against the Republic to safeguard our future. Don’t you dare seek to lecture me, Folamitet, ancient high lord who would see our people extinct but, thank the gods, pure.” Quinn could hear the curled lip as she spat the words. “You would wrap our culture in secrecy and tuck it away, never to be seen or heard from again after our numbers inevitably decline.”

“Your disrespect betrays your mixed blood,” the hologram sneered. “No true Sith would ever speak to me in such a fashion.”

“You’re wrong.” It was a quiet declaration of fact. Apprentice Thrask raised her chin, seeming to grow a meter in the process. “No true Sith would accept such foolishness in its leaders, such bigotry for the sake of stroking your own ego and future generations be damned. Thrask has grown beyond your petty biases, Folamitet. We will live in society and share our lives and our culture with whomever we deem worthy, and in so doing we ensure the immortality of our people.”

“I would die a thousand times over before I allow you to lead this house, mongrel.”

“Would that I could grant your wish, my lord, but alas, you’ve been dust for eight centuries now.”

She snatched the holocron up with the Force and clenched her fist. It snapped back into pyramidal shape, the hologram disappearing mid-sentence. Silence reigned for a long moment. Apprentice Thrask turned slightly to gaze at the assembled guests, her arms at her sides, posture completely open, as if daring any in the audience to argue with her. No one did.

She stepped to the next holocron. It glowed purple as it opened.

“My lord Sâfekh Thrask.”

The woman was shorter than Folamitet had been, but only just.

“My child,” she hesitated, reaching a hand down that passed through Apprentice Thrask’s head before recalling herself. “You are so like my Ragna…. On your feet, my dear.”

“Grandmother,” Apprentice Thrask responded as she stood.

“That explains it. Heavens, you are short. A gift of humanity from your father, I presume?”

Marsah used to say I was three meters of Sith stuffed into a Human frame.”

The hologram’s laughter was musical - not unlike her granddaughter’s. “That sounds like my eldest daughter.” She sobered as she looked down at Apprentice Thrask. “Your father is present today?”

“He is.”

“It will be no surprise to him that I advised Ragna strongly against the marriage. More than argued.” She smiled. “Oh, don’t frown at me so. Yes, your mother was the first head of this house to marry outside our species. That was not the reason, at least not for the reason you’re assuming. No, I feared, if she did, her concerns and her loyalties would be stretched thin, between our family, our people, Gilad’s people, her duties as a Sith, her duties to the house.”

“We’re one people, Grandmother.”

“In spirit, yes. In practice? Not always. That is something you must prepare yourself, for, child, to feel that tear in your soul, between your duty to this house and your duties elsewhere. The sigil is heavy for so small a thing.”

“I know, I’ve worn it for a decade.”

“Have you indeed? My dear you should know it is often more difficult for those of us who experienced our initial years of office with a regent in place. One’s world is… simplified… in a way it is not as you pass into adulthood. You will be divided, child, fundamentally between who you are as a person - encompassing your duties to a master, to the Empire, to your spouse and children - and who you are as high lady of this house.”

Two holographic hands framed Apprentice Thrask’s face, blue fingertips shimmering against the back of her head from Quinn’s perspective.

“The high lady must always win. If Ragna did her job correctly, you’ll know our history, how we’ve teetered on the brink more than once; how other ancient houses have collapsed. That is the consequence of a high lord or lady prioritizing the self over the house. If you hope to be worthy of this responsibility, you cannot let that happen, not ever.”

“I’ve sacrificed for this house, my lord.” It was a quiet statement, but with an incomparable sadness beneath the words. “I’ve given up my own dreams and wishes to perform my duty.”

“Don’t think that past sacrifice will make future ones any easier. It won’t. Now,” her tone brightened slightly. “I advised your mother against her marriage. I was wrong. That is my final lesson to you, my granddaughter: only you can know how best to serve your house. Seek advice, take it when it’s sound, but at the end of the day-“

“It’s my conscience, my judgement. And I will be held responsible.”

“Indeed. Take that seriously, my dear, and rule well.”

The final holocron glowed golden-orange as it opened. When the holographic shape resolved itself into a Sith Woman, Sicaritae inhaled sharply, and Apprentice Durane jerked around to meet the major’s gaze, her brown eyes drawn with concern.

“What?” Vette demanded from Sicaritae’s other side. Quinn felt an odd relief that she’d asked and he didn’t have to break the quiet.

“That-“ Sicaritae licked his lips. “That’s Nel’s mother.”

***

Mara felt the ripple run through the gathering behind her as her mother’s hologram settled. Even though nine out of every ten people assembled didn’t know the true circumstances of her mother’s death, it was highly unusual for the supplicant’s immediate forebear to appear in this ceremony. Their partiality was far too up for debate.

The immediate Thrask relatives, however, would understand - even if the treason was not known, the financial chaos of her mother’s death was enough for them to see the real test here was Mara’s comportment, not her mother’s opinion. Thankful her head was bowed, she licked her lips and gave the standard greeting. She raised her head and found her mother staring down at her, brow knit with concern and confusion.

“Stand, my daughter,” Ragna said, her eyes searching Mara’s. She knew her presence in the ceremony was wrong, but had not quite worked out how to proceed. Silence settled on the courtyard. And stretched, as mother and daughter regarded one another.

After a time, Mara’s courtly training took over.

“You finished this holocron right before my birthday, I think. I remember you saying giving birth was slightly less annoying than the recording process. Was it the questions the archivist asked of you, or something physical about the recording itself?”

Ragna raised a brow stalk. “Are you making small talk with me, Maranel?”

“Are you not supposed to advise and challenge me, Marsah?”

“Oh, very well, I assume Dzaf put me in here for a reason. But before I advise you, supplicant, I want you to turn so I can get a good look at you.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The last time I saw my daughter she was a thirteen-year-old brat who challenged her aunt to a sparring session. Seeing her fully grown is a treat I do not intend to waste. Now turn.”

“This is not even remotely appropriate…” she trailed off as her mother made a twirling motion with one hand. With a sigh she began a slow turn.

“I daresay you’ve not argued with any of the others you’ve spoken to today,” Ragna groused.

“If you believe that, I have a Dashade to sell you.”

That earned her a low chuckle. “Touché, my jewel.” Her face was wistful by the time Mara met her gaze again. “Gilad and I have our faults, but in you we have made something utterly perfect, irreverent stubborn streak aside, of course.”

Mara felt her cheeks warm with a blush. “I am what you made me,” she acknowledged, “but I’m also more than that.” A weight lifted from her chest as she said the words. Her mother’s deeds had irrevocably shaped her, yes, but they were not the extent of her identity.

“So much more,” her mother agreed. “You must always remember, though, as much as you are - as much as you may become - you are still only one woman. That’s the great secret of the high lords and ladies - we stand on the shoulders of our forebears and those we choose to advise and support us, and we do our best with what we’re given and what we know at any given time.”

Mara felt an incredulous laugh bubble out of her.

“That’s it? I’ve not spoken to you in ten years and your great secret is to do my best?”

“You were hoping for something different? I’m sorry, Maranel, but there’s no magical advice, and if there were I would not give it to you. To live is to struggle, you know that. Every day is a fight and all you can do is surround yourself with competent advisors and make the best choices you can.”

“And if those choices are suspect?” Mara asked, voice conversational.

Ragna’s brow stalks furrowed with a frown. Mara kept her back straight, her face carefully neutral. “What do you think?”

“Consequences must be met.”

“And if you did your best and failed? Or you acted in good faith with the health of your house in mind?” Ragna prompted.

Mara didn’t hesitate. “Consequences must be met.” She smiled. “To live is to fight, and to reap the fruits of your labor, whatever they may be.”

“Precisely.” Ragna’s holographic fingers disappeared into Mara’s temple when she tried to stroke her daughter’s hair. “You are ready. Perhaps even moreso than I’d hoped possible.” A shadow crossed her face at that, as if she knew there was something dire that Mara was not sharing. Of course she suspected; she knew her daughter too well not to.

“I’ve reaped the fruits of your actions, Marsah ,” she replied, leaning into her mother’s touch, some part of her forgetting that it was holographic. “And I thank you for them.”

She meant it, she realized. Oh, she’d always carry some residual anger at the years she’d lost. But she’d gained, too, in lessons no tutor or academy could ever duplicate. “I’ll make you proud.”

“Oh, my jewel. You already have.”

The holocron collapsed shut.

***

“You did well,” Aunt Reyna murmured softly as she knelt at Mara’s feet, a clay pot in hand, her black robes fanning out around her.

“I thought it would be more difficult,” Mara murmured back.

“A misconception we happily encourage.”

Mara’s eyes swept over the gathering. Darth Baras was in attendance, a fact that was both heartening and nerve wracking. Her master was highly-placed and influential; a good ally to have visible at her raising. And yet she was on her guard in his presence, never quite able to relax. Her eyes slid over him without pausing, panning to her right until they lit on Quinn, sitting between Daveth and his mother.

The dress blacks were highly unfair, she decided. Just seeing him from the chest up, sitting razor-straight in his chair, handsome head inclined toward her, his blue eyes sharp on hers, she felt her stomach flip. Her Aunt Dzafir appeared before her.

“I’d dearly like to know who in the crowd makes you smile so,” she teased.

Mara shook herself, shifting her eyes back to her aunt and smoothing her features. Before she could venture an answer, Dzafir began the next step of the ritual.

“Maranel Thrask, a daughter of Korriban raised in the Mother’s example, you are consecrated, body and spirit, to the House of Thrask.”

Cool, slick fingers traced the top of Mara’s left foot, a series of criss-crossing lines, then moved up, marking her ankle and calf.

“Your feet, your foundation, the source of stability and strength, speed and elegance, are so consecrated.”

Reyna finished marking Mara’s other leg and stood. The pot hovered in the air before Mara, held by the Force, and both aunts dipped their fingers into the ink. The pigment was derived from Korribani and Kaasi soils, mixing to form an ink that dried a deep, dark brown on her red skin.

Her aunts began by marking her palms with the same crossing of lines Reyna had drawn on her feet: three intersecting lines that formed the six-pointed star of Ahmurn, the oldest of the Sith deities and mythological father of their species. The pantheon had long passed from religion to useful collection of fables, but the star itself endured as the symbol of the Empire.

“Your hands and their ability to create and destroy, to give and to take according to your will, are so consecrated.”

The same symbol went onto the backs of her hands, and then her aunts painted her forearms with broad, uneven mowhef stripes.

“Your heart,” Dzafir said, ink-stained fingers drawing the star between her breasts as Reyna traced the ridges on her chest with stripes, “your passion and courage, your capacity for mercy and love, is so consecrated.”

“And your head, your sense of duty and fairness, the wisdom and understanding you have now and will gain in the future, is so consecrated.”

Reyna gently pressed her thumb to Mara’s forehead, leaving a simple brown oval. Mara took a breath.

“I will lead this house in tireless service of the Empire and the Emperor.”  

Her father stepped to her left side, cradling the heavy golden robes she’d had made for the occasion. They wouldn’t be visible to the other guests, but tears streaked his dark cheeks. Ragna and Dzafir cleaned the ink from their hands and then took the garments from him.

“The Empire’s prosperity is our prosperity to enjoy and protect, and its enemies are our enemies to seek and destroy.”

Ragna spread the lower robe on the ground. Mindful of the still-wet ink on her feet and calves, Mara carefully stepped into the center of the fabric and held perfectly still as her aunt settled the garment about her hips and cinched it shut. She held her arms out and Dzafir eased the bodice over her shoulders and buttoned the back of it.

“To this charge I dedicate every breath in my body and every desire in my heart, and I will not set down this burden until I am one with the Force in death.”

Mara tipped her head back to see her father’s hands lowering the sigil - her mother’s sigil; Mara had never taken the time to design her own, and now seemed a bit late to change banthas midstream - to her forehead. Her eyes slid closed as the cool metal kissed her forehead, settling over the mark Reyna had left on her. He carefully wove the ends into her hair.

Intricate earrings and cuffs followed, weaving through the empty piercings in her ears, the left-hand cuff connecting to her nose ring with an exquisite gold chain. The robing complete, all three stepped back from her.

“You began this ceremony as Lady Maranel Thrask, daughter of Ragna,” Gilad announced. “You are now Maranel Thrask, High Lady of the Sith Empire and Head of House Thrask.”

Aunt Dzafir knelt and kissed her knuckles, followed by Reyna. Mara’s heart clenched when her father sank to his knees before her. He kissed her knuckles and paused, pressing the back of her hand to his forehead for a moment, before she raised him to his feet.

As one the gathered guests stood. Mara took one last look at the gathering, and then swept up the center aisle and into the house.

***

Quinn found he was holding his breath as Apprentice Thrask made her way across the ballroom toward their group. Sicaritae had remained a constant companion to Quinn and his mother, and Apprentice Durane and Vette dogged their steps, chatting almost constantly.

She hardly looked mortal; her heavy skirt was so heavily embroidered with gold, with fire drops and garnets sewn in, that barely any of the black fabric showed through the embellishment. The bodice was much the same. That her midriff remained as bare as it was in the field was the only familiar thing about her. With the robes and the markings on her arms and chest, her hair flowing wild, she seemed more goddess than woman.

But then her face lit up in a smile when she saw Apprentice Durane, scampering the last few steps and throwing her arms around her friend. She greeted Vette and Sicaritae with similar enthusiasm, and then turned to Quinn. He tensed, wondering if she would greet him in the same fashion, and tried to bury his puerile disappointment when she instead inclined her head and flashed a radiant smile.

“I’m honored you both decided to be here. Truly.”

“The honor is ours, my lord,” his mother replied with a shallow bow.

“Indeed. Congratulations, my lord,” he added.

“Thank you. I wished to say you’re both welcome to stay the night if you like. I can have guest quarters made up.”

“That is kind of you, my lord, but I’m needed at the opera house early tomorrow morning. In fact, I should be returning to Kaas City within the hour,” his mother said.

“I understand, Mrs. Quinn; my father was in similar straits. I just walked him to the shuttle landing pad.”

“So that’s what kept you. I thought he got four days of leave,” Sicaritae said.

“Yes, but the flight from the Infinitum is nearly three standard days round trip. At any rate, I’m sorry I couldn’t introduce you both; I think you would have had much in common, Mrs. Quinn.” She spoke to his mother, but her amber eyes held Quinn’s.

“Perhaps,” Sicaritae said, his voice skeptical.

“Just because he hates you , Daveth, doesn’t mean he’s an unpleasant person. My father is a hardass aboard ship,” she explained, clearly for Quinn’s benefit. “But I’ve never known him to actively dislike someone as he despises Daveth. It’s fascinating.”

“And amusing, no doubt,” Sicaritae growled.

“He calls you the ‘disheveled menace’, Daveth. How is that not amusing?”

“At least it’s an upgrade from ‘disheveled blackguard’.”

“See? Another few decades more and you’ll be the disheveled neighbor.”

Sicaritae gave a long suffering sigh. “I was nearly stationed on the Infinitum two years ago; orders came through at the last minute sending me to Balmorra. You’ve no idea how relieved I was.”

“I think I’ve some idea, though I doubt it would have been half as bad as you imagine.”

“The man wouldn’t piss on me if I were on fire, Nel.”

“Oh, hush. My father’s a professional; if you were mission critical, he’d absolutely piss on you.”

Her last words were nearly lost to laughter as she doubled over. Sicaritae rolled his eyes skyward.

“Why do I like you again?”

“Because I’m delightful, of course.” Sicaritae grumbled something under his breath, and Apprentice Thrask turned sparkling eyes from him to Quinn. “And will you be returning to Kaas City this evening, Captain? You don’t need to report until tomorrow afternoon.”

“Thank you, my lord, but I think I shall remain here this evening. I can brief you on the repairs to your ship if you have time later tonight.” Quinn could feel his mother’s eyes on him, but he kept his eyes on his lord.

She cocked her head, studying him.

“Of course, Captain. I’ll arrange for rooms for you.”

“I’m afraid I must take my leave of you, Apprentice Thrask,” his mother said, her voice abrupt.

“I… yes of course. Again, I was honored to have you here, Mrs. Quinn.”

His mother bowed, turned on her heel, and marched out of the room. Quinn held in a wince. He’d have to smooth that over the next time they talked. But he also found himself annoyed. Yes, learning some of her history these past few hours had put him more at ease than he anticipated, but he’d not made any decisions. He simply did not wish to leave her proximity, especially not when she invited him to stay.

The warmth in her eyes as she regarded him drove the suddenness of his mother’s departure far from his mind. Quinn swallowed, his collar suddenly feeling tighter. Relief warred with disappointment when she gestured forward, looping her arm with Apprentice Durane’s.

“Come, they’ll have started serving dinner. Are you much familiar with Korribani food, Captain?” she asked as he fell into step next to her.

“Somewhat, my lord - I’ve taken the opportunity to try some now that I’ve returned to Dromund Kaas.”

“Indeed - and how do you like it?”

“The flavor profile is sometimes unexpected,” he admitted.

“Ah, yes, I’ve heard that from others. It’s not for everyone, I’ll grant you that; Vette and Daveth haven’t warmed to it, for example.”

“You misunderstand, my lord. Though it seems an acquired taste, I’ve found the experience a pleasant one worth further exploration.”

A slow smile spread across her face. “That’s good to know, Captain.”

***

The evening passed quickly, the majority of it spent circulating amongst her guests, accepting well wishes and cultivating House Thrask’s various allies in attendance. Mara only had to speak to her master once before he made his excuses to return to Kaas City, a development that inspired more relief than she liked to admit. She stole moments with her friends as often as she could. The departures continued until finally the crowd dwindled to only her closest relatives and friends, all gathered in the main sitting room.

There was a shriek of laughter from the hallway, followed by a series of thumps as three children spilled through the doorway into the room. A twelve-year-old girl, pale but with amber eyes and mahogany hair that matched Mara’s own, disentangled herself from two other Red Sith girls, aged eight and six. All remained low to the ground, on all fours. Mara’s aunts, sitting a few meters away, both had their heads in their hands. It was a look Mara had seen often enough on her own mother’s face when she was a child.

The girls turned toward her at her approach, the youngest, six-year-old Hasinamun, scrambling forward to sit on her heels, hands pawing at Mara’s skirts.

“My goodness, what mighty beast are you supposed to be, Hasine?” she asked, though she was fairly certain she knew the answer.

“We’re mowhefs!” She growled to punctuate the announcement.

“Play with us, Auntie Nel!” eight-year-old Kasemdet said, pressing her head against Mara’s palm. “You can be Marserha.”

The three were her cousins - daughters of her mother’s sisters - but Heulwen had insisted on calling Mara ‘auntie’, like Mara referred to Huelwen’s mother. The nickname had been passed down to the younger girls.

“The High Lady of House Thrask does not play at make believe, Kas,” a haughty voice proclaimed. That was the eldest, Heulwen. She’d snapped to her feet, hands clasped solemnly in front of her, when Mara approached. She smiled inwardly; ever since being named Mara’s heir, Heulwen had taken the office of high lady very seriously.

“The High Lady of House Thrask can do as she wishes when it comes to her mowhef cousins, Heulwen, especially when it’s only family about.”

“But what about them?” Heulwen gestured toward a cluster of chairs and sofas on the other side of the room where Dysprosia, Quinn, and the others had paused their conversation and were watching the exchange with interest.

“Family is more than just blood, my girl. Now.” She sank to the floor, gathering her legs under her primly. “Now come to me, my beasts.”

Kas and Hasine both giggled until they remembered they were mowhefs - extinct feline beasts from old Korriban, children of Marserha the Mother. They growled and stalked around her, stopping to nuzzle Mara’s hands or bat at the earring Mara removed and dangled for them like toys. Giggles still broke through the beastly growls and purrs.

Mara glanced around the room. Heulwen had joined her mother, Reyna, and Aunt Dzafir on their couch, sitting entirely too straight-backed for a twelve-year-old girl. Reyna clearly worked to keep her amusement hidden. And on the other side of the room… she blushed when her eyes met Quinn’s. There was a tiny smile on his face as he watched her.

She felt a smile of her own start, and then a tiny flicker in the Force yanked her attention forward.

Hasine growled and leapt at her hand, biting at her like she’d suddenly been possessed by the extinct beast she emulated. It didn’t hurt; she may have been somewhat carried away, but Hasine had always been gentle. Mara’s laughter turned to a gasp, however, when Kas slammed into her from the other side, arms flying around Mara’s neck.

“Traitors!” Mara cried, using the Force to shift both girls into the crook of her left arm, her right hand tickling them until the sitting room filled with shrieking laughter. After a moment she let them go and pulled both girls into a hug. An impatient sigh drew Mara’s gaze upward. Heulwen glared down at them, hands on her hips.

“This is not dignified, Auntie.”

“You think all fun ceases when you reach a certain age?” Mara made a face. “That sounds awful.”

The girl stared down at them for a moment longer, torn between proving her maturity and joining her cousins in their fun. The latter won.

Mara threw one arm open just as Heulwen’s knees hit the marble floor and she wrapped her arms around Mara’s waist, her face pressed to Mara’s neck.

“I missed you girls,” Mara sighed into the mess of hair pressed under her chin.

“Do you have to leave again, Auntie?” Kas asked.

“I do,” Mara said quietly, a bit of preemptive homesickness squeezing her heart. She’d fought bitterly for her position as Darth Baras’s apprentice, but she regretted her duties took her away from home for such long stretches of time. “I’ll be back soon, though.”

“Heulwen’s gone all the time, too,” Kas complained. “And Marsah says I will have to go soon.”

“Ah, but you’ll go to Korriban, where our ancestors came from,” Mara murmured. “It’s beautiful and savage, like us. You’ll like it there, and you’ll visit home often.”

“It’s far past these beasts’ bed time,” Dzafir said, motioning to the two younger girls “Say goodbye to Auntie and Heulwen, girls.”

Mara kissed them both and stood. As they left the dining room and main house - Dzafir, like Reyna, had a separate residence on Chwûkûsk’s grounds - she smoothed Heulwen’s hair back from her face.

“Don’t you dare think you’re ever too old to play, my girl, or for hugs if you want them.”

The girl smiled. She was no less Sith than Mara - her father was Human Sith - but where Mara had kept her Red Sith mother’s coloring, Heulwen’s Human genetics were writ large in her pale complexion. Still, she had the Thrask hair and eyes, and Mara could see the points of bone spurs growing in around her chin.

“Will you spar with me tomorrow? We’re learning Makashi drills and Marsah says you struggled with them as well.”

“I did; and yes, I’d be happy to work with you. We’ll meet in the courtyard early, at 08:00.”

They said their goodnights and when Reyna and Heulwen were gone, Mara sank into a plush chair next to Vette. Their group was the last remaining.

“Dysprosia was regaling us with stories about her master,” Vette said.

“Ah, yes. How is dear Darth Zash, anyway?”

Dysprosia had stayed on Korriban for an additional five years after graduating the academy, working as an extern for the Sphere of Ancient Knowledge, before Darth Zash found her. It shouldn’t have been necessary to wait so long between graduation and finding a master, but Dysprosia’s former Overseer, Harkun, had made Acolyte Durane’s life miserable for most of her tenure in his care. It had taken three years just to build up contacts who’d not been tainted by Harkun’s gossip, and another two to publish work that would garner a Sith Lord’s attention.

“Really well, actually,” Dysprosia replied, throwing her purple-streaked braid over her shoulder. “She tried to give me one of her old lightsabers - it was really sweet, actually.”

Mara couldn’t contain her surprise. “She did what?”

“I know! I was surprised, too.” Her friend’s brown eyes twinkled teasingly. “What, Darth Baras didn’t gift you a blade with sentimental value?”

Mara and Vette exploded into giggles before the question was even finished. Across the low caf table, Quinn’s brow was furrowed with disapproval, but Mara didn’t care.

“Let’s just say that sort of nurturing is not really Darth Baras’s style,” Mara gasped when she could speak again.

“So you don’t like him?”

Mara shrugged. “I don’t have to like him. But I have learned from him,” a true enough statement, even if much of Baras’s teaching tended to be of the ‘toss you in and hope you swim’ variety, “and that’s what I’m most concerned with.”

Dysprosia raised an eyebrow but said nothing more.

As another hour of idle conversation passed, Mara found herself watching Quinn. He leaned back in his chair, one leg crossed over the other, a glass of whiskey in hand. Unless, of course, he and Daveth got into some sort of mild but animated debate, and then he was leaning forward, blue eyes sharp. She’d never seen him so relaxed. That he’d stayed, that he was so comfortable in her presence, felt like a gift.

Daveth was speaking, but a yawn nearly split his face in two.

“I suppose that’s my cue it’s time to turn in,” he said.

“My lord,” Quinn ventured, standing. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll turn in for the evening as well.”

“Of course, Captain,” Mara said, standing as well. “Your room is next to Daveth’s - would you mind acting as a guide?”

“Not at all, Nel.” Daveth leaned across the caf table to kiss her cheek. “Good night, High Lady.”

“I’m out, too,” Vette said. “See you in the morning, yeah?”

“Good night, Vette.”

“So, Captain Quinn is… nice,” Dysprosia said the minute they were alone, sitting on the caf table in front of Mara. “Nice voice, nice face, nice… other things.

Mara rolled her eyes. “Yes, he’s nice. He’s also my executive officer.”

“He’s interested in you, Mara.”

“But terrified of having that kind of relationship with me.”

“He didn’t seem terrified tonight.”

“Only because I stopped flirting with him.”

Dysprosia leaned forward. “I think he’ll surprise you, eventually.”

Mara’s heart leapt with hope at her friend’s words. “Perhaps. I’d certainly like it if he did. But not tonight.”

“No, not tonight,” Dysprosia agreed. “I just wanted to make sure you weren’t otherwise committed.”

“Not in the least,” Mara replied, grabbing her friend’s hand and pulling her into her lap.

Mara’s body trembled when their lips met; kriff, but it had been so long since anyone had touched her. She growled and wrapped her arms around the other woman, shifting her until her knees were on either side of Mara’s hips. Dysprosia responded in kind, grabbing a handful of Mara’s hair and yanking her head back to get at her neck. Mara moaned when Dysprosia’s teeth closed on her flesh, raking her mercilessly. She slipped a hand under Dysprosia’s lower robe, tracing her friend’s inner thigh. Dysprosia pulled back from the kiss, mouth open in a wordless gasp when Mara ran her fingers along her folds, teasing her. The sound fired Mara’s blood even more. She moved to shove Dysprosia onto the caf table, but her friend pushed her back into her chair.

“Ah-ah, it’s your birthday, High Lady. I believe it is I who should be kneeling to you first.” She knelt, pushing Mara’s robes up over her knees, fingers teasing across her thighs and making her shiver.

Mara’s chuckle turned to a squeal when Dysprosia slipped a finger into her, crooking it upward gently, stroking her with an aching slowness that always drove her crazy.

“Stars, you’re so wet… desperate, are we?”

“You… oh,” a second finger joined the first and Mara’s hips bucked. “You’ve no idea.”

“We’ve been doing this for nine years, I think I have some idea.” Dysprosia’s voice was teasing. Invisible hands yanked Mara’s hips forward to the edge of the chair. “Get over here and I’ll fix that for you.”

Her entire back arched when Dysprosia’s lips met her cunt, the jolt of pleasure almost searing in its intensity. Her tongue swirled around Mara’s clit, her fingers continuing their maddeningly slow pace. Mara could feel her friend’s amusement as she writhed and moaned with increasing desperation. And then suddenly Dysprosia bore down on her, lapping at her clit with abandon.

Just as quickly as she started, she stopped, going back to teasing. Mara sobbed in frustration and grabbed Dysprosia’s hair roughly. She felt her Dysprosia moan appreciatively against her. Her other hand joined the first, and she dragged her cunt across Dysprosia’s face, desperately seeking her tongue. Her fingers moved in sync with Mara’s hips, fucking her urgently as she ground herself against Dysprosia’s face.

Her movements became jerky, and suddenly her orgasm exploded behind her eyes. Mara bit down on her lip to keep from screaming - despite the distance between the sitting room and the house’s bedrooms, a scream would no doubt cause commotion - and arched her back, holding Dysprosia’s face against her as she rode our her climax.

It took a moment for Mara to be able to open her eyes again. She realized Dysprosia was sitting on the ground, her head resting against one of her knees. Her smirk made Mara’s stomach flip with lust.

“Satisfied?” she asked.

“Not even remotely,” Mara replied with a grin, gently pulling her close and kissing her deeply, tasting herself on her friend’s lips and chin. “Come on, let’s go upstairs.”

***

Quinn closed the door to his room as quietly as he could, sternly ordering his racing heart to slow down.

So carried away had he been during the dinner and subsequent conversation, he’d forgotten to brief his lord on the Fury’s maintenance. He’d returned to the sitting room to propose a time for them to meet the following day.

He was fairly certain they hadn’t seen him take two steps into the sitting room and freeze.

Indeed, the way his lord gripped her friend’s head between her legs, he wasn’t entirely sure she’d been aware of her surroundings at all.

He hadn’t made any decisions about the advances she’d made early on. This changed nothing; it didn’t change his service to her or her kind treatment of him. He had no right to have any opinions whatsoever about what she chose to do in (relative) private or who she chose to do it with.

He had ample time, as he tossed in bed, to reiterate that fact to himself.

Chapter Text

The urn was smaller than Mara anticipated. Ushlek had never been a large wrat, but the funerary vessel in her hand was only about twenty centimeters tall and and the base fit comfortably in her palm. She descended the obsidian stairs into the catacombs beneath Chwûkûsk , the urn - alabaster stained a deep blood-red and etched with gold Kittat lettering that identified the animal within and his history with the family - cradled in one arm, a torch in the other.

Mara walked in near-total darkness, through black halls carved with her family’s history and large, circular galleries of increasing opulence, for a good twenty minutes before she emerged into the largest gallery in the underground funerary complex. She paused in the doorway, her boots standing on one of the six points of the Star of Ahmurn carved into the gleaming obsidian floor, staring up at the pair of statues in the center of the room. She’d been down here more times than she could count, but the statues of Marserha and Ahmurn filled her with awe every time.

They were pale alabaster, a sharp contrast to the black walls and floor, practically glowing in the odd blue light created by bioluminescent lichen that clung to the high ceiling. Her people had long ago moved beyond the belief in their gods, but in Marserha and Ahmurn one could find the core tenets of what it was to be Sith - an example to aspire to. Marserha, the Mother of all Red Sith, her curvaceous, muscled body a font of life and destruction, granted immortality for her forbearance, the selective application of her immense strength. And Ahmurn the Father in his mortal form, tall and angular, chest bare above his low-slung robes save for the second pair of arms from his god form transformed into a woven harness that crossed over his chest. He was the Creator, wild in his passion for Marserha and the serpent goddess Bashara, loving of his children, the mortal Sith, but measured, giving life and taking it as necessary to bring order in the chaos of the primordial galaxy.

To be Sith was to know strength and power such as the galaxy had never seen, to walk the knife edge between love and hate, destruction and creation. To hold a tiny sliver of what had, at one time, been considered divine. Truth be told, most of her people still considered it so.

She gave the gods a respectful nod as she passed through the gallery toward the door opposite the entrance, past two massive stone mowhefs keeping watch, their tails wrapped around their stone paws. This section was relatively empty - the vault to the right of this one had seen its final tomb occupied one hundred and fifty years before. Mara’s mother and grandmother were the only two individuals in this vault thus far. She paused in front of the holo of her mother that identified her tomb, took a deep breath, then keyed open the door and stepped inside. It was lit by the same lichen that lit the gallery outside the vault, and the only structure in the room was a large, ornate stone sarcophagus that, by all rights, should have been empty.

Her mother claimed in a letter that her treason was the result of visions showing a threat to Mara if Ragna did not sacrifice herself on behalf of the enemy.  That her mother’s body, in turn, had been returned to Dromund Kaas was something of a miracle - one made possible by her father. Traditionally, traitors were left on the battlefield to rot, but not this time. He retrieved his wife’s body in the aftermath of the battle, ignoring the claims that she’d died a traitor. Only the intervention of several senior officers had kept her father from court martial for his actions; they’d stationed him on Hoth as punishment, instead.

It had taken far too little consideration for Mara to decide to bury her mother honorably, as if none of this had happened. At the time she’d rationalized it as the simplest way to handle the matter. With every day bringing new financial and other sorts of disaster down on her head, a normal burial was easiest and invited the fewest questions.

Now, as she knelt before the sarcophagus and opened the compartment in its base that had been created for this specific purpose, she could admit to herself that, yes, it had been easiest logistically. But it was also the only way she had available to honor the mother she knew. The woman who’d been executed for treason during the sacking, that was a person Mara had never met. No one in the family had met her - Ragna had been alone in the months the visions began, part of the diplomatic delegation sent to Alderaan to negotiate the treaty that Darth Baras would present to the Republic Senate once the sacking was complete.

And so Ragna laid in the Thrask catacombs with her ancestors, visited periodically by her sisters, husband, and daughter. It occurred to Mara that this room was the odd culmination of a family’s love for each other.

Mara carefully laid Ushlek’s urn in the compartment, murmuring the words that returned him to his mistress and the eternal embrace of the Sahlaj Dzun .

The muted thump of the compartment closing echoed unnaturally in the quiet of the catacombs. As it faded, Mara exhaled and settled onto her heels next to the sarcophagus and let her mind fall quiet.

The air in the catacombs stirred with currents - voices almost, but not quite, that Mara attributed to the Force sensitivity of the individuals buried here. As she stilled her thoughts those currents rushed in, otherworldly and strange but oddly comforting. She was the latest in an unbroken chain that had proven stronger than any one individual’s poor choices. Folamitet’s idiocy had been mitigated by his descendants; so had much of the damage done by her other been undone by Mara and her aunts.

She was more than her mother, and House Thrask was more than any one of its high lords or ladies.

It was another hour before Mara emerged into the grey Dromund Kaas morning. She made her way to the courtyard where Heulwen was eating breakfast with Daveth, Dysprosia, Vette, and Reyna. Mara smiled as she sat down at the table and poured herself a cup of caf.

“Did no one think to wake Captain Quinn?” She asked with a laugh.

Her easy chuckle was not returned by her dining companions. Instead, everyone looked away, uncomfortable.

“What?” She demanded.

“Captain Quinn left quite early this morning, Nel,” Daveth said quietly.  

***

Quinn sighed as he tapped a key, initiating a scan of the Fury’s hull, and took another sip of caf. He couldn’t seem to keep himself awake; he’d spent a restless and exhausting night tossing in the guest bed Apprentice Thrask had assigned to him in her home, trying not to imagine how she and her friend were filling the hours and failing miserably, sexual frustration and annoyance at his lack of control curling in on one another until the tension was almost physically painful. Sunrise had been a blessing; he’d dressed and taken the first shuttle available to Kaas City. He couldn’t face her like this.

Of course, now he’d have to answer for his unannounced departure as well, which didn’t help matters at all.

His panel beeped a warning, and he frowned. The scan identified a small protrusion on the inner panel of the Fury’s port wing, tucked into a corner far away from the usual maintenance access hatches. The object only just cleared the size threshold to trigger a warning - routine scans would have missed it, but he’d been running a finer-toothed comb over the ship to ensure all the maintenance had completed correctly.

Subsequent passes of the scanner revealed a device roughly the size of his hand. Whatever its purpose, it lay dormant for the moment; it had no heat or electronic signature. He sat back, considering. Sabotage was always a possibility, but the device scanned negative for any known explosive. In any case its size and placement suggested it had a different purpose; it was too small for a detonation to take out more than part of the port wing, which would be crippling but hardly lethal to the crew aboard or much of the landing bay itself.

No, that location was chosen because it was out of the way, crowded by the curve of the Fury’s wing, likely to be missed by routine visual and sensor sweeps. He slapped the comm.

“Control, this is docking bay thirty-one. Request clearance to begin an engine test.”

He identified the ship’s serial number and, when granted clearance, waited for the ground personnel to evacuate the landing bay before initiating the Fury’s startup sequence. A moment later the comfortable hum of her engines filled the room. Quinn scanned the device once more.

As suspected, it had become active when power was pushed to the port wing. Quinn scanned the Fury’s heat and radiation signatures, checking for anomalies.

An hour later, he grudgingly admitted the ingenuity of the device’s design. It only activated when the Fury’s engines activated, which meant the sensor noise thrown off by the engines obscured the device’s comm signature unless one knew precisely what to look for. Or rather, it would obscure it to anyone looking for it from aboard the Fury; the comm signal itself was extremely long-range and would reach its destination uncluttered by any of the local, shorter-range sensor noise. Another hour and he’d triangulated the likely end point of the transmissions, based on a review of the ship’s sensor data during their trip from Nar Shaddaa back to Dromund Kaas.

It only took Baras a few seconds to pick up. Quinn bowed low and explained the situation as best he could.

“You should be receiving my calculations now, Lord Baras,” he said, his hands tucked behind his back as he stood at an easy parade rest. “There are only a handful of likely end points in the region I identified, it shouldn’t take long to-“

“It’s here, Captain,” Baras interrupted, pulling up a section of the map. The system itself was uninhabited, within spitting distance of Nal Hutta and Nar Shaddaa. A routine Imperial sensor survey taken about a year ago identified a small facility orbiting the fourth planet from the star.

“You’re certain, my lord?”

“Positive. Nomen Karr is behind this, I know it - my apprentice has finally garnered his attention, it would seem. Have her contact me immediately when she reports.”

“Of course, my lord.”

“Oh, Captain, I’ve been meaning to ask - what do you make of my apprentice thus far?”

Quinn felt his eyes widen. “My lord, I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

Baras chuckled. “She is an apprentice, Captain; it is my duty to assess her performance in the field. To do that accurately I must have the unclouded observations of those who work with her.”

“Ah,” Quinn said slowly. It seemed a reasonable enough request. “She’s shown herself very capable, my lord. A bit unorthodox in her approach at times, but she’s always prioritized your orders and done what is necessary to achieve the best result.”

“That is excellent news, Captain, and a glowing review coming from someone as painstaking as yourself.” He let the sentence hang in the air for a moment. “Be at ease. There’s nothing untoward in this line of questioning; it’s a usual tactic for masters to gauge the abilities of their apprentices, and I anticipate I shall check in with you periodically. Still, it would be best for you not to speak of this to my apprentice; I cannot glean accurate observations from you if she believes you’re my creature. Do you understand?”

Only long years of discipline kept Quinn from wincing at the word ‘creature’. Referring to Quinn thusly did little to ensure his honesty in these ad hoc reports, but Quinn kept that thought to himself. Then again, he reflected with no small amount of bitterness, the idea of lying to Baras was utterly laughable in its unlikelihood, a fact of which the Sith Lord was almost certainly aware. Social niceties were utterly unnecessary under those circumstances.

“Yes, my lord.”

The call terminated.

***

Vette’s usual chatter trailed off as they strode into the Fury’s landing bay. Mara hesitated a moment, centering herself, and Vette touched her elbow.

“Look, I’m sure Captain Tightpants had a perfectly good reason for disappearing so early.”

“He’d better,” Mara growled in reply, though she would have been hard pressed to devise a suitable punishment - or indeed, justification for it - if pushed. This morning he’d still been on leave and his free time was not hers to command.

But leaving unannounced was a rudeness she’d not thought to see from him. She shook her head against the thought, hair brushing her shoulders - she’d asked her aunt Reyna to cut it before she returned to Kaas City. It had taken three years to grow her hair to the length it was during the raising ceremony. But it had been an observation of tradition rather than a deliberate fashion choice on her part and she was eager to be rid of the thick, heavy mass.

“Maybe I’ll go settle into my rack while you guys talk this out,” Vette suggested over the click of their heels on the entry ramp.

“If you like.”

She kept her pace even and smoothed her face to a pleasant smile as she stepped onto the flight deck. Captain Quinn stood hurriedly - sheepishly, she thought - and snapped to attention.

“Welcome back, my lor-“

“Good morning, Captain Quinn,” she said brightly, despite the fact that it was afternoon now. “I do hope you slept well, and that my staff’s attentiveness met with your approval; we had a lovely breakfast.” He winced and opened his mouth to reply but she continued, “Oh, I slept wonderfully, by the way, thank you so much for asking.”

He grimaced at her last sentence and drew himself up to his full height. “My lord, please, I- I take your point. I apologize that I left so early and without warning.”

“If you’d preferred to return to Kaas City with your mother, you should have said,” she said quietly.

“It was not that, my lord,” he said quickly, though his posture remained stiff, his eyes fixed on some point over her right shoulder. “I was concerned at the amount of work I wished to complete before you arrived.”

“Captain,” she said fondly, taking a step toward him. Something flashed across his sense: panic, clear as if he’d shouted in her mind. She froze, confused at his stark difference in temperament from last night. “I’m sorry if I gave the impression you would be punished if not every little thing were squared away before I arrived. I’d hoped you’d know by now I’m not quite so demanding.”

“Forgive me, but you should be so demanding, my lord. You’re my commanding officer and you’ve every right to demand my best from me.”

Something about the way he said ’commanding officer’ was concerning - the emphasis on it, perhaps, over every other part of the sentence. She gave him another small smile. “I wasn’t under the impression you’d given me anything but your best, Captain. But since you mention it, a note should suffice next time, I think.”

He didn’t return the smile. He merely nodded sharply. “Yes, my lord.” His eyes shifted to her, finally, calm and remote. “May I continue? A situation has arisen that requires your attention.”

She hesitated, part of her wanting to prod him until his insufferable, distant calm shattered, but she took a deep breath and pushed the thought away. “Yes of course.”

“During the final sensor sweep of the hull this morning, I identified a device implanted on the port wing,” he began, handing her a datapad with a schematic on it. “After some research and consulting with Darth Baras, we believe it’s a transmitter, sending locational data back to-“

Mara held up a hand, her eyes flashing to Quinn’s face.

“You spoke to my master about this.”

“I… yes, my lord.”

“Did my holofrequency slip your mind? Was it erased from the ship’s databanks?”

His blue eyes widened as understanding dawned. “No, I… I apologize, contacting Darth Baras was force of habit, my lord. I served him for a decade. But you’re absolutely correct, I should have contacted you instead.”

That wasn’t the whole truth, she could tell.

“I have a very hard time believing you’d have accidentally commed Colonel Marinos had you transferred to another garrison after Balmorra.”  She stared at him and raised a brow stalk, waiting for him to deny it. When he remained quiet, she continued, “I think, Captain, you should reevaluate whether you wish to be here and, if you do, why it never even occurred to you to notify me of a tracking device found on my own ship.”

“I do want to be here, my lord. I’m sorry, I erred and it will not happen again.” Where he’d avoided her gaze as much as he could for the entire conversation, he now held her eyes earnestly. His face and sense told her this was the first full truth he’d spoken since he let slip that he’d talked to Baras.

“See that it doesn’t. Now, tell me about this transmitter.”

He complied, explaining its likely tie to Nomen Karr and Baras’s order that she contact him.

“I’ll do so now.” She wasn’t sure what made her ask her next question - a prodding from the Force, perhaps - but the words were out of her mouth before she’d fully thought them through. “Did you discuss anything else with my master during the call?”

Quinn hesitated then looked away. Mara’s heart sank.

“I see,” she said slowly, considering. If she were to hazard a guess, Darth Baras had asked the captain for a review of her performance thus far; an annoyance, but such was the life of an apprentice in the field. What bothered her was Quinn’s reticence to discuss it. Was she truly so terrifying?

That thought made her decision. It was a risk - a foolish risk, perhaps - but worth it if it earned his trust in her. She turned toward the hatch. “I won’t press you further.”

“My lord?”

“My work speaks for itself, Captain,” she said over her shoulder. “I trust your judgment.”

His shock practically echoed off the walls of the corridor that led back into the ship.

***

The following morning Quinn rose and trained. As she always did, Apprentice Thrask entered the training room just as he was racking his weights. He did a double-take despite his best intentions; he was not used to seeing her hair loose, even at this shorter, barely-shoulder length that somehow emphasized her neck and collar bone. The collar bone was more noticeable now. Indeed, close up, without the distraction of a crowd and new surroundings, Quinn could see the forty-four-day fast had taken its toll on her body; her ribs were just visible under the cropped top she wore, her cheekbones sharper than he remembered.

“My lord, forgive me if I’m overstepping, but do you have a plan in place to regain your strength after so long a fast?”

“I’m not sure anyone before me has had a plan per se,” she replied, a smile curving her lips and her voice lightening to a teasing tone. “Why, do you fear I’ve become weak?”

“Not at all, my lord,” he replied hurriedly, refusing to respond to her teasing in kind. “I’m merely offering my services as your medic; I would be happy to research appropriate reintroduction plans to ensure there are no lingering effects from the fast.”

“You would do that for me, Captain?”

“It’s my duty as your medic, my lord.”

She recoiled from his professional tone. He winced inwardly but forced his face to remain smooth. He had no wish to hurt her feelings, but the sooner they moved into a purely professional relationship, the better for them both.

“You’re dismissed, Captain. I’ll expect your recommendations before the evening meal.”

He made a smart about face and went to the head to shower. Five minutes later, a towel wrapped around his waist, he ran his fingers through his freshly-clean hair, parting it and arranging in roughly the right configuration.

Suddenly an image flashed through his mind: long red fingers curled and taut, white knuckled, the tips buried in dark hair…

He jerked himself back to reality, the sensation of fingers in his hair vanishing with the visceral memory. That hair was not yours, Malavai, nor will it ever be unless you’re comfortable being one in a rotation of lovers .

He wasn’t. He knew it was foolish, not to mention egotistical, and definitely not something he could ever demand of someone in his lord’s position. And so he would keep his distance, treat her like the competent commanding officer she was, and nothing more.

Which unfortunately brought him to another unpleasant task pertaining to his lord: to explain the reason for his decade-long posting on Balmorra. With every other individual in the Imperial Military, a commander would be able to pull up a file and see the subordinate’s full history. That was not true for Quinn; the details of his court martial had been classified. He’d been thankful for that, initially, but now…. He had to tell her, irrespective of how it might color her opinion of him. He’d tell any other commanding officer, he insisted to himself. And that’s how he viewed her. Nothing more, nothing less.

By the time he’d dressed for the day, he’d very nearly convinced himself of that fact.

***

That evening he entered the galley to find Apprentice Thrask humming to herself and filling the kettle. He paused in the hatchway, entranced and surprised. It was the overture of Ascendance , the final of eight operas of the Eternal cycle. It wasn’t so much a surprise that she’d know it; no, what was surprising is that it was a Triumphal opera, whereas he knew Apprentice Thrask preferred Ascendant period opera.

It was also Quinn’s favorite.

He’d never heard her sing before, or make any sort of musical sound, really. Her humming was nearly perfect; she hit almost every note in every complicated phrase that would have been played by the high strings in a normal setting. And it was far more emotionally moving than any absent-minded humming had any right to be. A side effect of her Force sensitivity, perhaps? To see her in full performance must have been devastating to the senses, in all the best ways. 

She looked up at the same time as he managed to order his feet to carry him fully into the galley, and hefted a tea mug in question. He accepted her offer of tea before he remembered to stop himself. But as they settled on opposite sides of one of the tables, mugs steaming before them, he was thankful to have somewhere to put his hands as he began to speak.

“My lord, I feel you should know: there’s a reason I was languishing on Balmorra before you arrived.”

She cocked her head. “I thought as much; no one’s file is that redacted without reason.”

He pushed down his panic; of course she’d pulled his file; any competent commander would do so.

“Then I’m grateful you accepted my service despite that.” He hesitated, wondering if there was some artful way to do this, but in the end, all he could do was plunge forward. “A decade ago I served under Moff Broysc at the battle of Druckenwell.”

 

Mara felt her mouth fall open as Quinn told the story: Moff Broysc’s disregard for known intel and rules of engagement; Quinn’s quick-thinking insubordination that turned a near-defeat into victory. And it was not a small disobedience; he’d taken a squadron of ground troops, against orders, to assault and occupy the control center of the automated artillery platforms orbiting Druckenwell. Broysc got credit for the victory while the captain who defied him was hauled to the brig.

“What about your soldiers. Were they court-martialed as well?”

“No, my lord. I signed multiple statements indicating they were unaware of Moff Broysc’s true orders.”

“Were they?”

He looked her straight in the eye. “No, my lord. I commanded the engagement, but my lieutenants Ovech and Vrana and their squadrons all knew Moff Broysc’s orders and opted to follow mine instead. But as their commanding officer, their actions were my responsibility.”

She nodded, thoughts turned inward. Why was he telling her this? He seemed to think it necessary for her to know, and the story did paint him in a positive light. But it also indicated he would defy her orders if he disagreed with her strongly enough, which was not a trait most people advertised to Sith at all, let alone a Sith to whom they directly reported.

She reached out with her mind, tasting his sense. He was nervous; that the story would sully her view of him, perhaps. But proud; he’d stood by his principles and saved his battle group.

And he was livid . At the injustice, at the lost decade of his career.

“So you were court-martialed. What happened then?”

“Darth Baras assigned me to Balmorra, else my career would have been over. Colonel Marinos was a protege of the moff’s; he blocked every attempt at transfer, and put off promotions until delay would have cost him an investigation.”

She frowned. If Baras interceded on Quinn’s behalf, why not save him outright?

“It must have served Baras to keep you on Balmorra,” she mused aloud.

Quinn, who’d looked down at his tea, jerked to meet her gaze.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Clearly he could have offered you reassignment at any time,” she said, gesturing to their surroundings as proof.

“I confess I’d never considered it from that angle, my lord,” he said slowly. “I was simply grateful to be wearing the uniform at all, and serving a powerful Sith.”

Ah-ha. That would explain his apparent guilt in discussing my performance behind my back; he feels caught between the master and the apprentice.

“I appreciate your candor, Captain,” she said. “I can feel that it was difficult for you, recounting what happened, so allow me to ease your concerns somewhat.” She leaned forward, resting her forearms on the table on either side of her tea mug, her eyes searching his face. “I may not always take your advice, but it is always welcome; I will never punish you for good-faith disagreements with me or my methods. Indeed, if you think I’m kriffing up I expect you to tell me, though I will warn you to be prepared to defend your opinion in those circumstances. Are we clear?”

His blue eyes widened as she spoke, but his body relaxed.

“Perfectly clear, my lord,” he breathed. “I feel I should tell you - I have no regrets, about my actions or even about Balmorra, ultimately. I serve you now.”

“I believe you, Captain.” She held his gaze. He wanted the statement to be true, if nothing else. “We’re arriving at our target in ten hours; I suggest you get some sleep. I can’t imagine we’ll be welcomed with anything other than loaded blasters.”

“Indeed.” He hesitated, then, “my lord, there’s a not insignificant chance this is a trap.”

Mara smiled. “I’m aware. But I have you and Vette; what could go wrong?”

For a moment the withdrawn, professional exterior softened to the dry wit she’d come to enjoy. “Best not ask, my lord; we’d arrive before I get through the list of possibilities.”

“Good night, Captain.”

Before she turned down the lights in her quarters, Mara dashed off a quick note to her father. What do you know about Moff Broysc and the Battle of Druckenwell?

***

It was indeed a trap, that much was clear the minute Mara stepped into the control room of the monitoring station. The Jedi depicted on the holocommunicator had that same detached, dead-eyed facial expression that was standard issue on Tython, but his posture contained all the relaxed contentment of a man watching a carefully-laid plan come together.

Just as clear was the fact that the bait - the team of four technicians who tended to the station’s equipment - had been unwitting as to the bigger plan.

“Um, okay,” the lead technician breathed. His hands shook as he raised them toward her in a placating gesture. The others were frozen in shock, spider-rats suddenly facing a hungry vine cat. “You didn’t say we were monitoring a Sith.”

“I told you all you needed to know to perform your duty, Hirosho.”

“And everyone says Sith are cruel,” Mara deadpanned.

“For good reason. Do you know who I am, Sith?”

Mara made a show of studying the hologram. “You’re Jedi Knight Norman Core.”

She could feel Quinn’s amusement from where he remained on the Fury’s flight deck, monitoring her comms and the station’s internal sensors. Closer in at a security junction where she’d sliced Quinn into the internal systems, a similar emotion rolled off of Vette.

“Jedi Master Nomen Karr,” he corrected her. He knew she was needling him, but that he chose to emphasize his title rather than his correct name… Mara laughed softly.

“Of course, my master’s jilted ex-lover.” He opened his mouth to reply, but she spoke over him. “You’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to lure me here, Master Karr, let’s skip right to the point, shall we?”

Hirosho spun to face the hologram. “This was planned , Master Jedi?”

“Of course not, Hirosho; beware what Sith lies you’re willing to believe. Still, she has a point.” Karr shifted his attention to her. “Will you allow Hirosho and his team to leave? They were merely monitoring he equipment, following my orders.”

Mara met Hirosho’s brown eyes, noted his drawn brows; wasn’t buying the Jedi’s lie. “Go,” she said. “It’s not your fault this Jedi placed you in my way.”

She waited silently as the four scurried from the room.

“They’re making for a small transport in the docking bay opposite ours,” Quinn murmured in here ear.

“That was… unexpected,” Karr said, studying her as if she were a lightsaber hilt laid open on a workbench. “You are far more even-handed than your master. Still, I know you seek my Padawan. I’ve taken great pains to keep her identity and location secret, and I will not allow you to compromise her safety.”

“My lord, a squadron of five Republic Special Forces troops just exited the transport. Shall I lock them in the docking bay?”

“You’d best stay out of the way,” Mara replied, both to Quinn and to Karr. The way her blood boiled, she’d have no problem dispatching five troopers, no matter how well trained.

“That I cannot do. I apologize for the subterfuge, Sith,” the control room door slid open behind her. Mara could feel the hum of five minds enter the room. “But I cannot risk you running loose across the galaxy. These men have been sent to capture you. Surrender quietly and the Jedi Council will take that into account.”

Fear trickled through Mara like a bead of sweat down her spine. Not at the thought of facing the soldiers behind her - they were underkill, bait as surely as Hirosho and his team, a fact Karr had to be well aware of. No, it was the memory of every Jedi’s sense she’d ever tasted - the prisoner Quorian Dorjis on Korriban, the togruta and Mashallon on Balmorra - unnaturally still, like a verdant forest suddenly sucked dry. Even the specter of being brought to a planet filled with such beings was enough to turn her stomach. Remembering her mother’s words on the eve of her raising, she embraced it, welcomed the fear along with her simmering anger and smug superiority.

“Jedi honor continues to be highly overrated,” Mara spat. “As does Jedi intelligence if you think there’s any chance whatsoever I’d surrender to this rabble.”

“I see.” The words were uttered with a condescending disappointment. “Men, take the Sith in by any means necessary.”

He’d not finished the sentence before Mara yelled and spun, gathering the Force around her leg as she slammed it into the deck. Force energy billowed out from the impact, staggering all five soldiers. In the heartbeats it took them to regain their footing, Mara slashed one in half. The remaining four brought their weapons up, the one nearest her brandishing a vibroblade. Mara caught the woman’s blade on her own, her free hand snaking up to grip her neck.

A warning in the Force. She yanked the soldier around in time for her to absorb the hail of bolts spat from a blaster cannon. The soldier spasmed and died, her blade clattering to the floor. Mara hurled the corpse at the trooper with the blaster cannon and impaled another who launched himself at her with a vibroknife in hand. The fourth cursed and yanked a thermal detonator from her belt. The device bounced off Mara’s energy shield. She shoved it and the soldier who’d thrown it back through the door as the detonator exploded.

The final trooper staggered from the shockwave of the explosion. Mara was on him before he could straighten, slicing his blaster cannon in half. She reached out a hand and the soldier rose several centimeters off the floor, clawing at his throat. She squeezed, feeling the bone and cartilage pop as surely as if her fingers were truly on his flesh. She tossed the corpse aside and glared up at Karr.

He returned her gaze dispassionately.

“Your master has found a singularly vicious weapon in you. I will be ready for you when next we meet.”

“Let’s settle this now, Karr. I’ll wait.” The words were growled.

“A Jedi does not seek out conflict.”

“No, you just set traps and send peons to do your dirty work, like any good coward.”

“I will not be baited. And rest assured, I will expend every ounce of strength I have keeping my Padawan from you.”

“Knock yourself out,” Mara muttered as the transmission cut off. Into her earpiece she said, “Pack up, I’m on my way back.”

***

“Take us out, Captain. I’ll be in my quarters if you need me.” At Quinn’s acknowledgment, Mara shut her door and locked it, typing a familiar holofreqency into her comm terminal.

She didn’t recognize the Infinitum’s communications officer; she’d not kept the closest of tabs on her father’s bridge crew in recent years. The comm officer, on the other hand, had clearly been briefed on her identity.

“He’s in his rack, my lord; I’ll wake him.”

“What is ship’s time for you?”

“Just past 0300, my lord.”

“Please,” Mara said with a wave of her hand. “If you could just pass on a message that he contact me-“

“If you’ll forgive me, my lord,” the woman interrupted, “I have orders to wake him immediately in the event of your contact.”

Before she could protest any further, the officer was replaced by a hold signal and then, in an impressively short span of time, her father’s face materialized before her.

“Good morning, Nel,” Admiral Thrask said. If he was frustrated by the interruption to his rest, he showed no sign of it. Given his demeanor, it could easily have been mid-day after a luxurious night’s sleep.

Dardiz ,” Mara replied dryly. Her father’s ability to snap from dead-asleep to functional, enthusiastic sentient in the span of a heartbeat had been a continual sore spot between them during her adolescence. Even now, Mara practically had to Force-lift herself out of bed, lured by the promise of caf. Adulthood simply meant she faced that necessary evil with stoicism and refrained from cursing the universe. Usually. “Did you get my note?”

“I did.”

“And?” she prompted.

“I heard about Druckenwell at the time - it spread through the Fleet more than most news would, I think because it was so nearly a disaster.”

“What turned it around?”

“The rumor was one of Broysc’s officers went rogue during the battle, saved their asses.”

“That’s gossip. What really happened?”

Her father smiled. “What makes you think the gossip isn’t true?”

Mara shrugged. “When is it?”

“Nel, you know better than most the best gossip is within spitting distance from the truth.”

“And was this?” Keeping her voice nonchalant was an effort.

“Is this about Captain Quinn?”

She froze. “I’m sorry?”

“I had some of my staff pull the records surrounding the battle. He was court martialed a month later.”

She sighed. “Yes, he told me as much. He intimated he was the one who turned it around.”

“And you don’t believe him?”

Mara paused, pressing her lips together thoughtfully.

“I want to believe him. He certainly has the sort of mind and competence to pull of a stunt like that. But-“

“Trust, but verify,” he finished for her.

She grinned. “Just so. My father raised me well.”

“I should hope so.” He sobered. “In my opinion? Something about that court martial wasn’t right - too much of it is redacted and classified.”

“Is Moff Broysc the sort to punish an officer whose disobedience saved his reputation?”

“Broysc’s a bit of a buffoon,” her father replied. “Usually harmless, he surrounds himself with good talent so he usually gets the job done, but his temper is legendary. It’s certainly plausible.”

Mara tapped her lip thoughtfully. “Odd that Broysc would demand Quinn’s head without taking Ovech’s or Vrana’s.”

Admiral Thrask frowned. “Interesting. Where did you hear those names?”

“From Quinn. They were his lieutenants, were they not?”

“I don’t know their relationship to the captain; I only know Broysc did his damndest to add them as defendants to Captain Quinn’s court martial, but Quinn’s repeated signed affidavits kept them in the clear.”

“So?”

“So, that is not part of the public record. That was in the notes from the Judge Advocate who oversaw the case.”

Mara grinned. “You don’t mean Rear Admiral Daahl.”

Her father sighed. “Don’t start, Nel.”

“How is dear Talasi? Do I still terrify her?”

“Having a Sith sarcastically call you ‘new-mum’ after two dates with her father would terrify anyone, Nel.”

“I’ll take that as a yes,” she said smugly. At her father’s scowl, her voice became compassionate. “Don’t worry, Dardiz , if she’s worthy of you, she’ll find her spine eventually.”

“At least she’s not that disheveled menace,” he grumbled.

“Agreed; Daveth is far too young for you,” Mara replied sweetly.

“How did your mother and I raise such a brat?” His tone was fond.

“I fear you started down that path when you married a Sith.”

He chuckled. “And I have no regrets.” Except that she died so young was left unspoken.

“I’ll let you get back to sleep,” Mara said.

“What’s your heading?”

“Tatooine; I’m not sure for how long yet.”

“I’m slated to rotate in to the Judge Advocate’s office in a few months, so I’ll be on Dromund Kaas, if you’re back by then.”

“Hopefully this shouldn’t take that long.” Her voice softened. “If it’s at all possible for me to be there, I will.”

“I know. Good hunting, my girl.”

“You, too, Dardirhoz .”

Chapter Text

“Hey, so I have a favor to ask.”

Mara looked up from her datapad to see Vette standing before her.

“Of course,” she replied, patting the seat next to her on the lounge. Looking for a change of scenery, she’d decided to work in the Fury’s recreation space rather than the galley or conference room. They had at least one more day in hyperspace before they arrived at Tatooine.

Vette sat next to Mara and pulled her legs up under her. They sat in silence for awhile, Vette’s nervousness a tangible thing between them.

“How goes the hunt for your family?” Mara asked, taking a guess as to what the favor pertained to.

“Not great,” Vette answered, slumping a little. “So far every lead’s a dead end. But,” she brightened, violet eyes meeting Mara’s, “I think I have a solid lead on my old crew. I was hoping when we land, that is, if you don’t think you’ll need me-“

“You can stay with the Fury and work those leads, Vette,” Mara cut in.

“I can?”

“Of course. Why would I be an ass about this?”

“Well, I wasn’t sure what you had in mind for the mission. And since it’s my old crew, I guess it could look like I’m trying to run out on you.”

“Vette, look at me,” Mara said softly. When she did, Mara placed a hand on her shoulder. “If you find your friends and you decide to go with them, I will support you. I’ll miss you, of course, but you’re free to go whenever you wish.”

Mara grunted when Vette threw her arms around her in a fierce hug.

“You’re the nicest Sith,” Vette murmured against her shoulder.

“I only ask that you keep in touch,” Mara said, squeezing Vette in return. “Because if you don’t I will track you down, do you hear me?”

“I hear you, mom .”

Mara felt Quinn’s disapproval a hair before she heard his sharp intake of breath as he cleared the hatch from the flight deck. She rolled her eyes and just barely held in a laugh. Vette was not so circumspect, laughing outright. Mara sighed and sat back.

“Captain, join us, please.” This was as good a place as any to brief them both on her mission. He hesitated, then sat down on the lounge opposite them. “We’re heading to Tatooine because that’s where Nomen Karr’s Padawan trained,” she began. “Darth Baras believes that Karr brought her to train under a Jedi Master Yonlach who resides somewhere in the Tatooine desert. I am to retrace her footsteps and locate Master Yonlach.”

“How will that get you any closer to the Padawan?” Vette asked.

“Darth Baras believes killing him will hurt her; kill enough of her loved ones and Nomen Karr won’t be able to hold her back from seeking me out.”

“No offense, but that’s disgusting.”

“It’s effective ,” Quinn countered. “Distasteful, I grant you, but it’s a solid strategy toward Darth Baras’s goals.”

Mara sighed. While she didn’t have any compunction at killing a Jedi Master, she knew too well that “loved ones” would inevitably include innocent civilians, a line she refused to cross unless absolutely forced.

“It’s both,” Mara said aloud, “a fact of which I’m all too aware. However, I believe staying my hand will have a greater impact in this case.”

Quinn’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.

“Nomen Karr doesn’t strike me as the type to exhibit restraint in pursuing his enemies,” Mara explained. “If this Padawan has any honor worth speaking of, that will bother her.”

“You intend to turn her,” Quinn breathed.

Mara nodded. “Her gifts would be a powerful asset to the Empire.”

She spoke with more confidence than she currently felt. She’d not intended to take an apprentice, not yet at least. And indeed, if that ambivalence were all she felt about the situation, she’d have no business attempting it.

“To seduce another to the Dark Side of the Force requires absolute conviction,” Darth Baras had cautioned her when she made the suggestion. “If you waver even a little, you will fail.” And he was right.

Fortunately for Mara, she was convinced that her own path was correct. And more than that, she was convinced this young woman did not deserve to die merely because some Jedi scooped her up and aimed her at Darth Baras for the sake of petty revenge. Those convictions were enough.

They’d have to be.

“Vette, as we just discussed, you’ll remain with the Fury. Make sure we’re resupplied, and please be near a comm at all times in case an emergency comes up.”

“Aye-aye, boss.” Vette offered Mara a jaunty salute.

“Captain, you’re with me.” She hesitated, weighing her words. “Before we arrive I expect you to have read up on heat exhaustion in Red Sith and have the appropriate medical supplies on your person.”

Red Sith originated in the cold deserts of Korriban. The location of her family estate - far north, away from the sweltering humidity of equatorial Kaas City - was no accident. Stubbornness and Force sensitivity made her hardier than average, perhaps, but the daytime temperatures on Tatooine would be a test of endurance unlike any she’d had so far.

“I will do so immediately, my lord,” he answered. “When you have a moment, I’d like to discuss something with you, if I may.”

“Is there anything else you need, Vette?”

“Nope, I’m good.”

Mara stood, motioning Quinn to precede her. He led her to the flight deck and picked up his datapad.

“I’ve been working on something during my leave, and in my spare time since, that may interest you, my lord,” he began. When she urged him on, he continued, “before Druckenwell, my unit was tracking a notorious SIS agent named Voloren.”

Mara raised a brow stalk. “Your OCF prior to Balmorra involved counterintelligence?”

“Indeed, my lord. My company was part of Broysc’s infiltration unit.”

“Why the switch?”

“I applied for medic training in my third year on Balmorra, in the chance it could allow me a transfer offworld.” He grimaced. “That hope was futile, of course.”

“That explains a lot about your skillset, Captain,” Mara murmured appreciatively. “At any rate, you were tracking a spy?”

“Yes, my lord. Voloren was a thorn in our side for the last years of the war. We finally tracked him to an SIS safe house on Dressel. Hours before we were to begin our op, Broysc recalled us to Druckenwell. I briefed Broysc personally on the matter so another unit could follow up, but alas.”

“How precisely did this man climb to the position he’s in now, if he’s so incompetent?” Mara wondered.

“He has an eye for talent, my lord, and lavishly rewards his inner circle for deflecting questions about his actions.”

That tracked with what Mara had learned from her father. While his response had been less vehement an assessment than Quinn’s, Admiral Thrask had mentioned the man seemed a bit of a buffoon propped up by his connections at Central Command and a bevy of more competent officers.

“So I take it Voloren remains at large?”

“He does. And he’s been busy; Broysc’s inaction has led to a decade of unnecessary defeats and setbacks.” His voice shook as he spat Broysc’s name. “But I believe the spy’s days to be numbered.” He handed her the datapad. Mara scrolled through it, her brow stalks rising as she did so. He’d pieced together Voloren’s likely accomplishments based on a complicated profile of the agent himself and his past known operations.

Based on that pattern, a short list of possible locations stood out toward the end of the information.

“Captain Quinn, I,” she looked up and met his gaze. Though he remained coolly professional, there was a confidence in his sense that told her he knew precisely how good he was. It made her want to pin him against a console and ride him for all she was worth. Something in her face must have changed, for he faltered under her gaze, withdrawing slightly. She licked her lips and pushed the image aside. “Daveth said you were brilliant, Captain. I never doubted him, but I believe he may have undersold your abilities.”

He blushed deeply and accepted his datapad back. “Thank you, my lord. With your permission, I’d like to continue this and, ultimately, bring Voloren down.”

“Granted. I suspect Major Sicaritae may have contacts in Military Intelligence who could lend resources if needed - it would be worth reaching out to him.”

“I will do so, my lord, thank you.”

“It must be gratifying to begin your campaign to pay back Moff Broysc.”

Quinn was looking at his datapad making notes and jerked to stare at her.

“My lord, this isn’t personal; I work for the good of the Empire. Even defying Broysc was in service of that goal. Doing so ruined my career, but I should have done it sooner rather than watch his caprice ruin good officers and put our missions at risk.”

“If picking up his slack made you this tenacious and exacting, you owe him something of a debt, Captain,” Mara said, smiling. Stars, his anger only made him more attractive.

Again his mouth dropped open in surprise. “That is a startling perspective, my lord, one I had not considered.”

She smiled more broadly. “Be at ease, Captain, that the accidental honing of your talent does not outweigh Broysc’s many failings. May I offer you one final point of advice?”

“Of course, my lord.”

“Don’t deny your anger. For one thing, it’s a waste of energy, particularly with me.” He straightened, pressing his lips together in annoyance even as he blushed lightly. “For another, anger is useful. You’re not some green cadet, all rage and no common sense; use your anger in your pursuit of the Empire’s interests. It’s a powerful fuel.” Her voice dropped seductively. “Not to mention an attractive one.”

He must have liked something about her advice, for the wave of lust that rolled off him nearly buckled her knees. She’d known since Balmorra that he had some attraction to her, but this was an intense confirmation of it. He seemed about to reach out to her, but then that iron control snapped back into place.

“I’ll take it under advisement, my lord,” he said softly, his blue eyes boring into hers.

“That’s all I ask,” she replied.

She turned and left the flight deck.

***

Quinn thought nothing could ever make him long for the garish filth of Nar Shaddaa. Then they touched down on Tatooine. He’d read up on the planet, of course, and packed his field kit accordingly. They landed roughly an hour after local sunrise and the dry air held a residual bite from the overnight frigid temperatures.

By the time they trekked through dusty Mos Ila, the largest Imperial-aligned city on the planet, and taken speeder bikes to a dilapidated hut an hour’s drive past the city limits, it was well past secondrise and the temperature was fast approaching 40 Standard, and it wasn’t even mid-day yet. His concern only grew when they fought their way past local Exchange gangsters to get to the hut. Apprentice Thrask was ferociously efficient as usual, but her breathing was elevated beyond normal when they finished and she appeared to be sweating more than Quinn himself was, despite her arm-and-midriff-baring armor compared to his battledress.

Despite that, she frowned at him when he pressed two hydration tablets into her hand.

“I’m not even thirsty, surely we should save these.”

“You asked me to familiarize myself with your species’ needs in extreme heat, my lord,” he said patiently, “and I have; the medical guidance was very clear. I brought more than enough tablets for the next several days, and we can always resupply at a nearby outpost if necessary.”

He held her gaze for a long moment until she nodded and popped both tablets into her mouth.  Although he hadn’t specifically noticed anything slumped or tired in her posture before, as the tablets did their work her gait gained noticeable energy until she strode into the hut with her usual confidence. He held back a sigh; he’d have to keep a very close eye on her while they remained in this simmering hell. The combined natural insidiousness of heat exhaustion and his lord’s pride could prove lethal.

Of course, closely monitoring her for any little sign of heat sickness was completely counter to the distance he was trying to keep, but there was nothing for it. Assuming he avoided succumbing to heat sickness himself.

Beyond the planet’s clear murderous intent toward Human and Sith visitors, their local contacts were decidedly odd. Sharack Breev, a dark-skinned Human woman with close-cropped silver hair, at least spoke in concrete terms, though she spoke as if she were reciting an epic poem surmising their mission. Her speech was circuitous, always spiraling in toward her point as she gilded her words with praise for his lord and for Darth Baras. When she termed their next contact, Izzebowe Jeef, as half madman, half soothsayer, Quinn’s heart sank.

His expectation was borne out, as Jeef spoke almost entirely in metaphor until she and Apprentice Thrask yanked him back from whatever other plane of existence he’d been on. Fortunately, after that point, his narration was clear, if somewhat foreboding: his lord was to seek out something called a sand demon and bathe in its blood, somehow without killing the beast. Of course, the next step after that seemed to be “wander into hostile territory and see what happens”, which was not comforting at all. Sharack gave them coordinates to the cavern the Padawan had entered when she performed the ritual herself.

“Astounding,” Apprentice Thrask murmured as she added the coordinates to her datapad. “If I didn’t know better, I’d wonder if this ritual were Sith in origin; the claiming of a being’s blood for your own seems like it would turn a Jedi’s stomach.”

“Tatooine was once a focus for the light side of the Force, many millennia ago; Jedi made pilgrimages here for the ritual. Few do so anymore, this Padawan excepted,” Jeef replied.

“Interesting. Sharack, I’ll be in contact once the ritual is complete.”

The main challenge in the hours they drove into the desert was the heat; they managed to use sensors to avoid settlements of Tusken Raiders along their route. By the time they walked their speeder bikes into the mouth of a large cave, it was afternoon, and Quinn’s sensor indicated it was 42 Standard at the mouth of the cave. They walked until the darkness of the cave enveloped them and stored their bikes before settling onto the dirty stone floor for a quick meal of ration bars and what little liquid water they’d each brought with them.

“At least it’s cooler in here,” Apprentice Thraks muttered. She fished in the small cargo compartment on her speeder bike and retrieved a piece of cloth, wet it with her cantine, and pressed it against the back of her neck with a sigh. She glanced at Quinn, her eyes glowing in the darkness. “Don’t worry, Captain; I read the medical guidance as well.”

“Very good, my lord,” he replied. He hesitated, then forged on, “I’d like to examine you, if you don’t mind, my lord; just to be sure.”

She gave him an unreadable look, her face completely neutral, then sighed softly.

“If it will ease your mind, Captain.” She gave him a small smile. “I suppose I can’t fault you for doing exactly what I brought you here to do.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

He retrieved his medscanner from his pack and activated it. Her pulse was slightly elevated, but within tolerable levels; ditto for her body temperature, though that was coming down slowly now that they’d retreated to the cave and she’d put the cloth on her neck.

“Will I live, Captain?” the words were playful.

“Easily,” he replied, stowing the scanner. “I’m ready to move on whenever you are.”

“Well then, let’s go find this demon of ours.”

The walk was almost pleasant - the cave became cool the further in they ventured, and they had plenty of light with the torches they carried. After a half hour, however, the air became warmer until they stepped out into a large open cavern whose roof was partially open to the suns above. Even so, it remained cooler than it had been in the open desert.

“My lord, I have concerns about this undertaking,” he whispered as they crept further into the room.

Apprentice Thrask paused and looked at him, that distracting, playful smile curving her lips. “I think it’s adorable how you look out for my well-being.”

He forced himself not to smile back. “Respectfully, you’re my commanding officer and it’s my duty to help in any way I can.” Her smile faltered. He cursed himself - the way her lips turned down and her eyes widened as though she felt his distance like a rebuke left him with the insane urge to pull her to him and promise never to hurt her ever again, which was quite the opposite of what he was trying to do here. He pushed the thought away, looking down the path they walked rather than at her face. “Are you certain about this course of action?”

“Do you doubt I can succeed?”

“Of course not,” he replied quickly. “If a girl nascent in the Force can quell the beast, I’ve no doubt you can. I’m more concerned about what happens next, how the path will be revealed. Will we truly walk into a Tusken Raider settlement and await inspiration?”

She smiled. “My mother once told me the Force is rarely convenient in how it grants knowledge. Wandering into a hostile village to see what happens is perfectly in line with expectation, Captain.”

“I see,” he said, “or at least, I trust your instincts are far more accurate than-“

A shrieking growl echoed through the chamber. A massive six-legged beast bounded through an opening in the curved wall opposite them. It was clearly insectoid in origin, with a jagged mud-green exoskeleton. Its head was wide, with a massive eye on either side and a massive, round mouth at the center. That mouth was open and it inhaled deeply, tracking its head right to left as if tasting the air. It froze, mouth pointed in their direction, and inhaled again.

Quinn jumped when Apprentice Thrask’s hand gripped his forearm.

“Stay here, Captain. We fight it as a last resort. That’s an order.”

She stepped away from him, walking with slow, purposeful steps toward the center of the cavern. She’d only taken three steps when the sand demon shrieked again and charged her.

She kept walking toward it, body completely relaxed. Quinn drew his blaster. He’d only use it as she ordered - as a last resort - but for him the list of resorts dwindled as the distance between her and the beast closed.

“I’m not afraid of you, desert beast.” Apprentice Thrask’s voice rang through the entire cavern, calm, possibly amplified by the Force.

The sand demon cocked its head, its six legs backpedalling as it skidded to a halt only three meters from Apprentice Thrask. It froze, its eyes fixed on her, its mouth open and tasting, bewildered such a small, soft thing would challenge it. Time stretched as the two regarded one another.

Apprentice Thrask took a step forward, and then another. She raised a hand.

“Look into my eyes, monster. Yes, that’s right,” her voice was calm and dropped into a soothing lilt, the sort of tone one might take with a small child who’d just had a nightmare. “We are one.” She was close enough to touch it, though she kept her hand back. “We are at peace.”

The beast stretched its head down - it topped Apprentice Thrask by a good meter of height - and brought its mouth near her hand. Without warning its eyes rolled shut and it collapsed. Quinn exhaled slowly and holstered his blaster, coming to stand next to his lord.

“And now we wait, for… something,” she said. Her eyes shifted from the sand demon to Quinn’s face, twinkling with mirth. “What did you think, Captain?”

“Impressive, my lord,” he replied truthfully. “How long do you think we’ll wait before-“

He cut off at a wet squishing sound. Half a second later a foul, burning stench wafted up to them. A glance down showed the sand demon’s carapace had shattered and it was oozing a dark, viscous liquid that steamed slightly in the relatively mild air.

“It’s shedding its skin,” he breathed, somewhat in awe, then coughed as the stench burned his throat. “The amount of blood it’s letting is astounding. And the smell-” he coughed again, deeper.

“It’s vile,” she agreed, but stepped forward without hesitation, dipping her fingers into the sand demon’s carapace and painting her arms, chest, and belly with the blood. When she looked up at him her face was utterly calm, as if she hadn’t just covered herself in a layer of caustic-smelling sludge. “Captain, remove your jacket.”

“My lord, is this necessary?” he protested, already working at the buttons on his fatigues.

“Sharack said the blood acted as a deterrent against the Tusken Raiders. I may terrify them, but I’d rather not have them run from me only to shoot you on their way out.”

He tied the jacket around his waist and dropped to his knees. Her fingers were oddly soothing as she smoothed the blood over his arms and what little of his chest showed over the neck of his sleeveless undershirt.  Despite the smell, or perhaps as an escape from it, his mind wandered, imagining her warm, slick hands were moving over his skin in vastly different circumstances. Her amber eyes shifted up to his face as she worked, but if she felt the gist of his thoughts, she said nothing. He forced the traitorous thoughts away, reminding himself once again that he was trying to remain professional . It shouldn’t have been this difficult to remember.

She pulled away and stood, a fact about which Quinn deliberately refused to have an opinion. “I believe the village we’re looking for is back out the way we came,” she said, consulting her datapad for a moment. “Assuming Sharack’s understanding of this ritual is correct.”

It was. They stashed their speeders a bit outside the village. As they approached the entrance, the two guards outside let out terrified, guttural yowls and fled. By the time they reached the largest tent in the village, the place had emptied out completely and the suns began to set.

“You actually bathed in the blood of the sand demon,” Sharack’s voice gasped as she joined them, wide brown eyes surveying the abandoned village. “How did you do it?”

“I’ve a very soothing touch,” Apprentice Thrask replied with a half smile. “Now how is the next step of this ritual supposed to be revealed?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Quinn noticed movement in the red, waning light of the suns. His hand dropped to the butt of his blaster. “My lord,” he warned.

She turned. A Tusken Raider approached, his posture bowed and deferential. Shaking hands held something out to Apprentice Thrask. She took it and nodded her thanks. The Tusken Raider bowed again, backing out of the tent before turning and running back out of the village.

“It’s a map,” she said, unfolding the parchment. “Sharack?”

The other woman took it, grey brows furrowed as she examined the crude markings. “This is the Desert Wound Ravine. But the opening that’s marked - I mapped the ravine myself and no such opening exists.”

“There’s a sizable Tusken Raider village around it,” Apprentice Thrask said. “It’s possible you didn’t get close enough to note it.”

“Possibly.” Sharack didn’t sound convinced at all. “But if that’s so, how will you get close enough?”

Apprentice Thrask’s amber eyes had begun to glow in the twilight. “By whatever means necessary.” Her hand rested on her lightsaber hilt.

“I see. The ravine is several hours from here by speeder; it’s not safe to venture there tonight.” Sharack produced a datapad and called up a map of their immediate area. She noted a set of coordinates. “There’s a cave here that’s safe for camping; you should be able to make it there within an hour. I need to return to my-“ she cut off. “I have other obligations to see to,” she amended.

Apprentice Thrask placed a hand on Sharack’s arm. “Return to your family, Sharack, and rest assured Baras won’t find out about them, not from either of us.” She shot Quinn a warning look, as if daring him to challenge her. And indeed, part of him questioned the ethics of hiding things from Darth Baras, but he knew the fear that accompanied serving most Sith, and couldn’t fault Sharack for keeping what family she had as anonymous as possible.

“Thank you, my lord. Darth Baras is a good and powerful master, but I-“

“Say no more,” Apprentice Thrask said. “Safe travels, Sharack. Meet us at these coordinates tomorrow.”

Their walk back to the speeder bikes was uneventful. Twenty minutes into their ride, however, they were delivered an object lesson in why it was unsafe to travel Tatooine at night. Apprentice Thrask’s shouted warning came through his earpiece and her bike decelerated sharply. In the same moment, a heavy blaster bolt struck the front of her bike chassis - it would have struck her instead had she not slowed. Sparks flashed like tiny supernovae in his nightvision goggles and Apprentice Thrask leapt off the bike just before a second bolt hit. The fuel cells exploded.

She hit the ground next to him.

“Take off the goggles,” she snapped, raising her own.

Quinn did as ordered, the snap-hiss of her lightsaber forestalling any protest. The blade bathed the desert in an eerie pink glow. Quinn’s blaster was in his hand, eyes straining against the darkness. Suddenly another blaster bolt streaked toward them. She was ready, leaping to it and deflecting it exactly back along its path. When it struck home, they heard a Tusken Raider yell and a flash showed the gunman had a partner.

In that split second of light, Quinn fired three shots in quick succession, and the second Tusken Raider dropped.

A glance backward showed her speeder was still on fire; none of its cargo was salvageable. Her lightsaber closed down with a hiss and Quinn pulled his goggles back down.

“We should keep moving; others will have seen that,” she said, taking the hand Quinn offered and pulling herself onto his bike.

He tried not to stiffen - in any sense of the word - as her arms went around his waist, one hand clamping onto his belt. His resolve cracked even further when he began to drive and not only did her arms tighten around him, but her thighs as well, squeezing against his legs as she fought to hold on. He was relieved when, forty minutes later, they pulled up in front of the cave Sharack marked for them.

That relief turned to disappointment and shock when she jumped down, leaving his back suddenly exposed to the frigid wind. They walked the speeder into the cave and, once far enough inside so as not to attract attention, set up a camp torch and used sand to scrub the dried demon blood from their skin before settling down for a dinner of field ration bars and hydration tablets.

They ate in silence and each fell to their own pursuits after the meal was over. Quinn had gotten through a single fleet report when Apprentice Thrask began humming to herself. A few moments more and the humming resolved itself into words, a murmuring of the song to herself as she worked on whatever it is she was doing. He glanced up to see her leaning back against the cave wall, making notes on her datapad with a stylus, the light scraping sound of the device somehow in time with the melody. It wasn’t until the song faltered and amber eyes twitched up to meet his, that he realized he was staring.

“What?” she asked, smiling.

“I… forgive me, I just am unaccustomed to hearing you sing.”

“Something of a nervous habit,” she replied. “I can stop if it’s bothering you.”

“That’s not necessary,” he replied hurriedly, feeling himself blush. “It’s quite calming, to be honest, even if it is from Shâsot .” The last words were out of his mouth before he knew he was going to say them.

She cocked her head, one corner of her lips turning up in playful challenge. “And what precisely is wrong with Shâsot ?”

It’s the trashiest of the Ascendant operas , he thought to himself, and that’s saying something.

“It seems somewhat… frivolous for someone of your temperament,” he said instead.

“It’s one of the most popular operas in all of the Imperial canon.”

“The popularity of a thing does not necessarily indicate its quality.”

A laugh, half shocked, half delighted, bubbled out of her. “Why Captain, who knew you were such a snob?”

“It’s not snobbery to demand more complexity in one’s art,” he protested. “The themes of Viraldun’s Eternal cycle, for example, are far more complex and richly communicated.”

Shâsot is the most technically difficult opera in canon,” she replied. “Oh, I grant you the themes are somewhat simplistic. Alyssa and Hakan’s love igniting an empire even as it burnt them to ash; one could even call it overwrought.” Quinn raised an eyebrow at the word ‘could’. She smiled and continued, “But have you never wondered why Lord Rand wrote so simplistic a story over such complicated music?”

Quinn shook his head. “I’ve not devoted much time to studying the piece,” he said. He refrained from adding that he’d never thought it worthy of such analysis, though given how her eyes glowed with enthusiasm, he found himself keen to know what she saw in it.

“You can’t ask an actor - any actor - to simply convey the all-consuming heat of Alyssa and Hakan’s love. It’s not possible. So Lord Rand did the next best thing; he wrote music that would absolutely torment the actors and musicians trying to learn it.”

Quinn frowned. “I don’t understand how that’s helpful.”

“The music of this piece is insidious,” she said. “It burrows in whether you want it or not, until the melody jumps unbidden to your mind when you ought to be thinking of other things. And it’s utterly tyrannical, demanding things of you and your voice that are impossible, demanding to be mastered even as it commands you.” Her eyes stared past him, mouth curved in a tiny smile as if fondly recalling an old lover. “You don’t just learn it; you court Lord Rand’s work, offering yourself over and over again, driven to despair by every failure but drawn on by the tantalizing prospect of finally proving yourself worthy until finally, if you’re tirelessly persistent and extremely lucky, you and it arrive at an understanding.”

Her eyes twitched back to his face, and her smile broadened. “And trust me, after two months of that, the desperation and suffering of Alyssa and Hakan’s passion come through effortlessly. That is the true genius of Lord Rand’s work.”

He stared at her, open-mouthed, for a long moment, unsure of how to respond. “Perhaps I should revisit it with an open mind,” he said finally.

Her delighted laughter was a warm balm against the cold desert night. “I can’t say I disapprove, though I do hope you won’t think that’s an order.”

They fell back to reading, Apprentice Thrask’s low voice accompanying their work, for another half hour at least, until she cleared her throat. When Quinn looked up, it was to see the torch light throwing odd shadows onto her skin, making her face somehow look darker than usual, as if she were blushing.

“Captain, I feel I should point out we only have the one bedroll between us now.”

Quinn fought to keep his features smooth; he’d known this conversation was coming the minute her speeder went up in flames, and had dreaded it. And longed for it.

“Yes, my lord. I’m happy to give it up.”

She frowned. “Captain, with all due respect that’s a ridiculously unsound suggestion. I’ll need you at my side tomorrow, rested and preferably unfrozen.”

He winced; it had indeed been a stupid suggestion. “My apologies, my lord. I did not wish to presume-”

“Surely this is not the first time you’ve shared a bedroll with a colleague in the field?”

“Of course not,” he ground out. How to explain without… explaining . He’d never shared space or body heat with someone he was so attracted to. “None of those colleagues were Sith, my lord, and to assume you wished that proximity to me would be supremely rude.”

She sighed. “Captain, so long as you are comfortable I’ll share the blanket with you. We’ll both be warmer for it anyway.”

“Indeed, my lord.”

After some difficulty he determined the best way to approach this was to unzip the bedroll fully and use it as insulation against the cold ground. He checked his pack for other supplies that could help, but found nothing. He’d packed a cooling blanket, but it was single use, filled with a gel that became cold to the touch as soon as its sterile seal was broken. Apprentice Thrask removed her utility belt and the gauntlet that held her shield generator, placing both next to her. Quinn followed suit with his own utility belt and laid down on his back, his fingers laced together over his stomach, staring up at the jagged stone ceiling. He’d half expected Apprentice Thrask to obviously enjoy their proximity, but a surreptitious glance to his left showed her body language mirrored his: tense, consciously keeping any part of her body from touching his.

This is ridiculous, Malavai. At this rate you’ll both freeze anyway. Is this a standard field op or not?

He took a long, deep breath and shifted onto his left side, facing her.

“I meant to tell you, my lord, that I saw the Marserha colossus at the Kaas City Heritage Museum. I wasn’t sure you’d had a chance to visit it.”

She turned her head to meet his gaze, a broad smile on her face. “I haven’t. How… what was it like?”

“Quite large,” he answered without thought.

She chuckled and rolled onto her side to face him. “That’s it? I’d hope she would inspire more awe than that.”

“Of course,” he added hastily, trying to distill his experience into words. Standing at the feet of the goddess, his head only slightly higher than the tops of her toes, had indeed been humbling. “She was beautiful,” he said finally. “And there was a wisdom about her… I don’t know what conveyed it, precisely, but it was nearly tangible.” Another pause. “To be honest, I remember understanding why the goddess meant so much to your family. She reminded me of you.”

He’d been staring past Apprentice Thrask, eyes unfocused as he scanned the memories of looking up at the colossus in awe, meeting her stone gaze without flinching and feeling proud of that for some reason. When his eyes returned to his lord it was to see her amber eyes had gone wide, her lips parted in an expression of profound surprise. Suddenly he realized the implication of his words and blushed furiously.

“Forgive me, my lord, I did not mean to give offense.” Idiot, likening her deity to a mortal woman may well be blasphemous to her. “I did not mean to imply that I can’t tell the difference between you. I only meant that I could see why she would appeal to you as an example, and that for a Force-blind Human who knows very little about your culture, the similarities between you are obvious…” he trailed off; his babbling was almost certainly making it worse.

He realized she was smiling.

“You must forgive me, Captain, for letting you dangle like that. I simply make it a policy to never interrupt someone comparing me favorably to a goddess.” A pause and her smile became kind. “Ask me what I was writing earlier.”

He frowned in confusion, reeling from the emotional whiplash of the last few moments. “What were you writing, my lord?”

“I was taking notes regarding the ritual we’re undertaking.”

He gave her a grateful look, nearly sagging with relief at the change in subject. “You seemed highly intrigued by this ritual, beyond what is necessary to track down this Padawan,” he replied, thinking back to their first meeting with Jeef.

“My Aunt Dzafir’s influence,” she explained, smiling fondly. “I enjoy learning our history, but Aunt Dzaf’s specialty in the Sphere of Ancient Knowledge pertains to preserving Force rituals like the one we’re experiencing here.”

He smiled in return, her enthusiasm warming him. “That explains why you let Jeef drone on so about it.”

She laughed. “Precisely.” Her smile faded as her eyes searched his face. “Captain, you’re allowed to touch me. As much as my ego delights in your comparing me to Marserha, I’m just as flesh and blood as you, and I understand the only way this setup,” she gestured to the bedroll beneath them, “will truly benefit us is if we’re close enough to keep each other warm.” Again, her skin darkened, confirming her earlier coloring had been due to a blush. “But I don’t wish to make you uncomfortable.”

He sighed, grateful to her for raising the issue. “No, you’re correct. I shouldn’t… I shouldn’t treat you differently from any other colleague in this. Thank you for giving me your explicit permission, though.”

One of her brow stalks twitched as he said ‘any other colleague’, and her eyes took on a knowing glint. She didn’t believe his justification - indeed, given her Force sensitivity, she must have had some inkling about the true root of his discomfort. But she merely nodded an scooted closer. With only a slight hesitation he did the same, until their heads were close enough her scent - Kaasi pine and clove - swam in his nostrils, and the fronts of their shins were touching.

“Good night, Captain,” she murmured, reaching out and lowering the light output of the torch.

“Good night, my lord.”

Chapter Text

Quinn woke some hours later far warmer and more content than he expected to be under the circumstances. Oh, the rocks under the bedroll were still there, digging into his back, but he shifted, settling into a more comfortable position. Mara sighed against his chest as he moved, partly in protest, he thought. He stroked her hair, soothing her back to sleep as he had several times already during the night-

His eyes snapped open as his brain registered something wrong with that statement, but not quite parsing what it was. The torch remained active, at the low setting she’d chosen. Further out, the gray light of early morning trickled into the mouth of the cave. He craned his neck.

His chin rubbed over her hair - voluminous and thick, soft despite the day she’d spent in the desert. The fingers of his right hand were tangled in her chestnut locks, his left nestled in the small of her back. Further down he could feel their legs tangled together. She fit into his arms perfectly. He smiled at that fact for half a heartbeat before reality rushed back in and he froze.

No. Oh kriff… Bloody, kriffing hell.

He yanked his hands off of her and, before he could stop himself, scrambled backward. Mara - no, Apprentice Thrask - inhaled sharply and bolted upright.

“What? What’s wrong?” Her hand went behind her and reappeared holding her lightsaber hilt, head turning to find the source of his panic. “Captain, what is it?”

Quinn winced when her eyes landed on him. Amber eyes scanned him and the rumple in the bedroll his body had left behind. She lowered her weapon.

“Oh.” She turned and gathered her utility belt and gauntlet.

Quinn got to his feet a hair before she got to hers, his mouth open despite the fact that he hadn’t figure out yet what to say.  “My lord, please forgive-“

“There’s nothing to forgive, Captain,” she said, stepping around him without looking at him. “Pack up the camp, please. I’ll meet you outside.”

She yanked a ration bar out of his pack and strode out into the morning sun.

Quinn did as ordered, glaring at the bedroll as he folded it, as if this were somehow its fault. These were extenuating circumstances , he told himself sternly. The whims of your subconscious are no reason to insult the woman you hold in such high esteem. He had no idea how to make this right. She’d brushed off his apology; all he could do was not do it again. To handle tonight - there was no reason to believe they’d be back at a settlement that evening - better than last night.

The morning chill had burned off by the time he walked the speeder back out into the sunlight. Mara was sitting on a rock, her utility belt and gauntlet in place.

“The ravine is two more hours’ travel from here,” she said, amber eyes searching his. “We should get going.”

“Yes, my lord.” It was an acknowledgment of her words as well as the forced normality. He moved to swing his leg over the speeder but she slipped in front of him.

“I’m driving, Captain.”

***

It was stupid to be this hurt, Mara growled to herself internally as they barreled across the Tatooine landscape. She knew the rumors, the norms of the Imperial Military that warned against entanglements with Sith. Hell, it was blatantly obvious Quinn’s own mother had advised him against becoming involved with her. Captain Quinn himself had been nothing but clear in his desire to keep their relationship professional, especially after her raising.

Except when he looked at her and those cold blue eyes softened, and she could feel the warmth he radiated. When he smiled and asked her about her family, her life, her interests, in a way that felt far too intimate to be platonic. And of course when his lust for her washed over her senses.

But those were just moments. She knew better but still she treasured them, hung onto them in the hopes that this time, perhaps, he would remain at least somewhat open to her, and every time he closed back down. Each cycle of this felt more and more like a personal rebuke despite the fact that she, as she had been insisting for the full two hours of this drive, knew better . The sooner she could let this go, the better.

But waking up in his arms, sleeping with his heart beating in her ear… the Mother help her it had felt wonderful. A comfort and safety she’d not felt since, well, since Daveth.

By the time they slowed, winding carefully around Tusken villages and patrols, her heart was pounding, her grip on the controls white-knuckled. At the very least this encounter would be useful to her, if not for the reasons she may have hoped.

“Captain, keep an eye on the perimeter and make sure nothing slips I behind me. I’ll signal you when it’s time to bring the speeder in and we’ll stash it at the opening the map is pointing us toward.”

“Forgive the contradiction, my lord, but I think it would be wiser for me to accompany you.”

She slipped off the bike, turning to skewer him with a look.

“My orders stand, Captain. Hydration tablets?”

He pressed his lips into a thin, annoyed line, but unslung his pack and offered her a tube.

“Thank you. I’ll yell if I need anything.”

He didn’t return her confident smile as he slid into the driver’s seat. She chuckled and trotted to the nearest entrance to the village. The guards fell without a sound, and without her breaking a sweat. Or more than a sweat than she already had thanks to the heat. She growled low in her throat.

Time to hunt.

The village was bigger than she anticipated, she thought, an hour later, as she decapitated yet another Tusken Raider. Of course, she was trying to be surgical in her advance, keeping to the rock wall that led to the opening she sought, which added to the time this took. And there seemed to be no end to attackers as word spread throughout the village. Though most of the residents fled, a steady trickle of warriors made their way through the encampment to challenge her.

Not that they were much of a challenge, she thought as another ran toward her, bellowing and brandishing a gaffi stick. Mara grabbed him with the Force and slammed him into the rock wall, her blade flashing through his middle before he dropped.

Pain exploded behind her eyes when a gaffi stick struck her from behind. She whirled in time to take another blow to the stomach and staggered backward, coughing. She wiped her forearm across her forehead, for all the good it did; every square centimeter of her skin glistened with sweat. She frowned as the world tilted and reached out to the Force, inhaling it deeply into her body. Her vision cleared and she let out a delighted laugh at the four Tusken Raiders arrayed around her.

It took a little longer than normal, but Mara was closing down her blade with a pleased smile when the bark of a standard-issue Imperial Army sidearm yanked her attention to her left. Not a meter from her, a Tusken Raider dropped to the sand dead, a smoldering hole between lenses of his eye protection. A glance over her shoulder revealed Captain Quinn, still astride the speeder, blaster at the ready, blue eyes scanning the area for any remaining threats.

That she didn’t notice him approach - let alone the Tusken, who’d taken an uncharacteristically stealthy approach after watching her mow down his fellows - was worrisome, especially given the exasperated annoyance simmering in his sense. That annoyance combined with the cool efficiency with which he’d dispatched her attacker left an embarrassingly desperate heat curling in her belly.  

“I don’t recall signaling you, Captain,” she said, smiling to take the sting out of her words. “But I’ll never turn down so perfectly-timed a rescue.”

“My lord, you’re pale,” he said, ignoring her levity, brow knitting with concern as he slipped off the speeder and closed the distance between them.

“A minor case of heat sickness only, Captain,” she replied airily, thumbing open the tube he’d given her and downing another two hydration tablets. The blasted things had gotten less effective the longer she’d fought. “I require shade and rest, nothing more.”

He seemed about to argue but thought better of it; indeed, the best treatment for minor heat sickness was precisely what she admitted to needing. Instead he bowed politely and followed her as she led him to a narrow fissure in the rock. The bike would fit, but only just. The size of the opening combined with the jagged nature of the cliff-face meant this cavern was nearly invisible from afar. The size of the settlement had acted as an effective cloak.

Once inside, she sank down into a meditation form, letting the Force infuse her being and wash away the premature exhaustion the heat had given her. She heard the wet patter of liquid water dripping onto dirt and opened her eyes to see Quinn holding a wet cloth out to her. She nodded gratefully and applied it to her neck. After a time, she opened her eyes and met his gaze.

“I should tell you I don’t know precisely what will happen when we get to the end of this cavern, Captain. Every Force ritual has its own quirks, but,” she hesitated. “They almost always require something in exchange for the knowledge they impart.”

“I see; do you expect to fight, then?”

“Potentially. Which is why I’m resting now”

“You should have let me accompany you, my lord.” The rebuke was clear despite his deferential tone.

“I had some things to work out, Captain,” she replied, able to allude to her hurt now that she’d embraced it. “But no matter. Let’s eat and then continue on.”

By the time they emerged from the cave into the light of the twin suns, Mara felt restored enough to realize just how close to the edge she’d danced earlier. Her arms no longer shone with sweat, her mouth was no longer dry, and her Force senses were once again open to the world around her, not laser-focused on keeping her body from overheating. That narrow focus was why she’d been taken unawares by that last group of Tusken Raiders that found her. Once again aware of her surroundings, she could feel the swath of darkness she’d cut through the village, the familiar churning of emotion that was her captain.

And the massive currents in the Force that emanated from this place. The moment she’d stepped back into the suns, she felt herself being pulled toward the shallow pool of water that marked the center of what turned out to be an oasis of sorts. Much of the sky was blocked out by rock, with enough of a gap to allow light to pass through. As with the sand demon’s lair, it was a good six standard degrees cooler here, though the humidity added by the pool and lack stagnant air meant it wasn’t quite as refreshing a change as it might have been.

Despite that, she inhaled deeply and relaxed, reaching out with her senses.

“My lord?” Quinn’s concern washed over her, along with his myriad other conflicting emotions. How could he be so calm and collected on the surface with such a squall raging inside him?

“This place it’s almost,” she frowned, searching for words, “a focus, intensifying the Force.”

Again, that subtle but intense pull. She allowed herself to be drawn forward several steps. “I’ve never felt anything like it.” She’d been on planets that pulsed with the Force, Korriban for example, but it hadn’t been anything like this. Where Korriban was uniformly alive with the dark side everywhere, Tatooine had felt utterly mundane until they’d arrived at this spot. It was like a singularity and she approached the event horizon.

“Is this wise, my lord?”

“Possibly not,” she admitted, looking back at him with a smile. “But if this Padawan underwent this ritual, so must I. Stay back, in case I need help or any of the local Tuskens followed us through.”

He nodded, accepting her reasoning and her orders. “I will guard your back, my lord.”

She barely heard him. As she surrendered to the pull of the Force, a cloud of dark energy coalesced over the surface of the water, moving toward her as she was drawn forward. The cloud resolved itself into a humanoid shape, wisps of red-black dark side energy becoming a pair of boots and armored legplates, a bare stomach… By the time the toes of Mara’s boots kissed the edge of the water, she found herself staring into her own face, wrought in Force energy. The entity, which moved with a confident sway of hips Mara could only hope she exhibited in her physical body, stopped within arm’s length of her.

“Do you know me?” it asked, imitating her voice as well as it imitated her form.

Mara couldn’t stop herself from grinning. “I knew I was good looking, but this is ridiculous. What do you think, Captain?” She looked over her shoulder. Quinn was staring, eyes wide, but made no reply.

“He can’t hear you,” the entity said, following her gaze, an amused smile curving her lips. “But we could give him quite a show if you like.” A smoky hand stroked her cheek, somehow solid despite its obvious energy field appearance. Mara shivered under the caress.

“I’m not sure the universe could survive that much lust generated in so small an area,” she replied dryly, earning a rich chuckle from the entity.

“Vanity becomes you, but you could be so much more. I am the embodiment of your true potential.”

“A being of pure energy?”

“A purified font of darkness,” the entity corrected, a touch of annoyance in its voice. “All you need is the courage to embrace it.”

“It’s clear you’re not a reflection of my intellect if you’re mistaking me for some light sided twit.”

“You’re no Jedi, but nor are you pure . The light infects you, sabotaging your potential and muddling your priorities, blinding you to the risks and traps that surround you.”

Mara rolled her eyes. It was nothing she hadn’t heard before, usually from fellow Sith who threw themselves rabidly against Jedi blades only to receive a pointed reminder of how little the Jedi hewed to their pacifist ideals.

“You’re referring of course to restraint, to service to the Empire, to the trust that builds alliances.”

“We are Sith ,” the entity spat. “We are the latest in an unbroken line that stretches back beyond the Great Hyperspace War. You serve when you should rule, trust when you should dominate. You could have anything our heart desired and yet you dither, weakened, frustrated, and vulnerable.”

“And your way would leave me with the brittle illusion of power, but just as vulnerable. My honor is a source of strength.”

“Explain that to our mother,” the entity growled. “Oh yes,” it continued, smiling cruelly, “you remember, do you not? The gut-twisting terror in the months that followed her death?”

She sits behind the nûrsot wood desk, hands tucked into her lap so her aunts can’t see them shake, thinking bitterly that she’ll be an expert at shielding her mind and emotions from others before her mother’s body makes it home. She listens calmly as they walk her through the house’s finances – they’ll be completely out of liquid assets within two months – and when the steward of her zersium mines holos to report an attack from a rival house. House Sivak is weak – has always been weak – and should never have found the guts to attack a house as ancient as hers. But they have and they are. The steward’s transmission cuts off mid-sentence with the bark of a blaster rifle and a gurgled scream.

Mara forced her eyes open, gasping for breath against the irregular jump of her heart. Fuck… fucking hell, just breathe .

“We never have to feel that way again,” the entity said softly, its impossibly corporeal hand gentle against Mara’s cheek as she leaned into the touch, her eyes sliding closed against the tears that threatened to spill out. “But we will feel that way again if you do not embrace what has been given you.” It stepped closer, its other hand coming up to cradle Mara’s face fully, its voice dropping to a tone that both soothed the tension in her insides and sizzled in her ears seductively. “We have a purity of blood and purpose most Imperials only dream of. You were born to rule, to have all you desire and more. Embrace your passions and take your destiny in your own hands.” Vaporous eyes peered over Mara’s shoulder toward Captain Quinn. “And we know precisely which passion to start with.”

Mara pressed her forehead against the entity. She never wanted to be that helpless again. Kriff, she wasn’t sure she could survive being that helpless again. The only way she’d survived the first time was….

Mara opens her eyes to slits and glares at the sunlight pouring into the room. Morning is not welcome. Morning means she has to leave this cocoon – Loajalkra snug against her left side and hated, hairless Ushlek hogging most of the pillow. Her mother’s scent surrounds her, though it has lessened every time she’s slept in this bed. Soon it will be gone. She thrusts that thought away from her. The door opens and Reyna enters carrying tray, two-year-old Heulwen toddling in her wake. Mara smiles despite herself and sits up enough to snag the girl into a hug, giggling squeals rousing the wrats and driving them from the bed to glare balefully from the closet. That afternoon she allows Caldwyn to move her things into the high lady’s rooms, though she refuses to let them change the linens. The next day Reyna arranges a meeting with Qunovob Illip Kicha to discuss a business proposition that bears fruit only a month after their liquid assets run dry. She sells two cargo ships and a Ziostian vineyard to cover the shortfall. Thrask survives.

“You mean well,” Mara said to the entity, drawing away slightly, “but no, thank you.”

“What do you mean, ‘no, thank you’?” The entity leaned in, closing the distance Mara had opened. “Do you truly think Baras will sit by as you grow more powerful? As you take an apprentice he has you hunting specifically because she threatens him? Don’t you see I’m offering you the power to control your destiny?”

“You offer the overreaction of a scared little girl.” Mara’s voice dripped disdain. “True strength comes with demanding more and better from those around you - trust, duty, love, even - which is far harder and more perilous work than simply lashing out whenever something goes bump in the dark.”

“A pity,” the entity sneered. “You had such potential.”

The entity’s hands tightened around her neck. Mara was ready. She drove the heel of her palm into its throat.

Or would have, if her hand hadn’t passed straight through the Force energy. The entity laughed.

“Idiot. Did you think it would be so simple?” Gaseous fingers tightened, pressing mercilessly against her windpipe.

Distantly, she heard the sound of boots scraping over rock - Captain Quinn running to her assistance, probably. She split her attention long enough to wave him back desperately. If she could barely fight this thing, he stood no chance.

Her fear for his safety opened a torrent of the dark side. She drew it into her body, pressing back against the entity’s grip enough to take a ragged breath as spots began to flutter across her vision, then pushed harder, lashing out at the entity in every way she could think of to get it off her. It loomed, suddenly taller than she, a cruel laugh echoing off the walls of the oasis. Mara felt the ground fall away from her boots as it lifted her off the ground. She pushed against its grip again, enough to take one final breath, mind racing. It knew her every move, her every strategy; for all intents and purposes, it was her. How could she-

Of course. She felt herself smile and drew on the Force again.

This time, she pulled.

She drew the entity toward her, accepting it, and the selfish fear it represented, back into her being. It shrieked, resisting, but she leaned into her will harder as it began to shrink. Suddenly the grip on her neck disappeared, the fingers going incorporeal as she absorbed the entity’s body. She inhaled desperately and continued to pull, yelling hoarsely with the effort. The face - her face, harsher and crueler but still hers - went last, eyes glaring at her murderously, until suddenly Mara’s vision burst through the cloud of energy and her vision cleared.

She’d continued to hover half a meter above the ground and now, the spirit reabsorbed, she dropped. Her legs buckled under her but she managed to land in a meditation form, eyes sliding closed.

We are one, at peace, her own voice - and yet not her voice - said. A sense of utter calm and clarity settled over her, until suddenly a lone, solitary building flashed before her mind’s eye. The Jedi Master you seek is here, beyond a rock formation called the Forbidden Pass. He will lead you to the Padawan.

Mara’s eyes snapped open. Fuck, her head was throbbing. Quinn was on a knee next to her, his brow knit with concern. He relaxed somewhat when she smiled at him. “I know where we’re going,” she said, getting her feet under her and slowly standing. She wobbled, and Quinn braced to catch her, but she reached out to the Force and steadied herself, willing the throbbing in her head to lessen. Suddenly Quinn’s hand was on his blaster and he jerked to look at the cave entrance. Mara raised a hand and he relaxed as Sharack trotted out of the cave.

“Did you do it?” she asked, running up to them.

It took a moment for Mara to get her mouth to work. “Y-yes,” she said slowly. Her head was beginning to feel as if it were stuffed with wool.

“What is the next step in your journey, my lord?” the other woman asked excitedly.

“The For,” Mara paused, frowning at the roar of blood in her ears, focusing on the words. “Forbidden Pass.”

Sharack jerked away from her. “No one returns from there, my lord. I will not… I cannot allow you to go there.”

Did she just tell me no? Mara wondered. Why in the galaxy would she… “I have to go.” She shook her head again, trying to clear it, drawing on the Force heavily helped somewhat, but far less than it should have. Some part of her mind remembered to be alarmed by that fact but she focused on the woman before her. “Either you can tell me where this Forbidden Pass is, or I can spend days finding it myself, which will put me at higher risk.” She reached out a hand and placed it on the woman’s arm. Only her grip on the Force kept it steady. “I don’t require you to come with me, Sharack. Go home to your family; I can take it from here. I just need the coordinates.”

“I… yes, my lord, but I fear I won’t see you again.”

“Give the coordinates to Captain Quinn,” she gritted.

The edges of her vision grayed. Mara could feel the Force slipping from her as she wavered on the edge of consciousness, but stubbornly hung on, trying not to scream in frustration at the slow pace Sharack took on her way back into the cave. She’d just disappeared through the opening in the rock wall when Mara’s control failed completely. The headache spiked like the gaffi stick she’d taken earlier, exploding pain behind her eyes. She turned ponderously toward Quinn.

“Captain,” she gasped.

Then darkness.

 

Quinn dove forward and caught his lord just before her knees hit the ground. He hissed when his hands touched her flesh; it was dry and blisteringly hot. Fuck. He swept her up into his arms and carried her, staggering a bit under her weight, back into the cave, out of the worst of the heat, and eased her to the ground.

A quick medical scan confirmed she’d progressed to full heatstroke. He wasn’t sure what precisely happened between her and her double even after they started fighting, but it had clearly weakened her a great deal, enough for the heat to pose a serious and immediate danger. Fortunately, as she’d ordered, he’d come prepared. He retrieved a bundle of single-use cold packs and the disposable cooling blanket from his pack. As he tucked the blanket under her and removed her armor, a part of him remained highly aware of her body as it was revealed to him. But only a part. Whenever it asserted itself, a touch of his lord’s dangerously hot skin snapped him back to professionalism.

Once she was stripped to her underclothes and tightly cocooned in the cooling blanket with the cold packs against her skin, he set his medscanner to monitor her core body temperature and settled in to wait.

He’d always prided himself on his patience, but now he fidgeted restlessly. He folded her clothing neatly and arranged her lightsaber where she could reach it, lit a torch and set up a makeshift camp, fuming silently all the while. Kriff, but she was reckless. And fuck this hell hole of a planet for being the sweltering garbage pit it was. He hoped this wouldn’t do any lasting damage to her - she’d proven hardy in the past, and he’d caught the symptoms quickly - but that didn’t keep him from worrying. He had a duty to her, and he couldn’t do it when both she and their environment conspired to harm her. He’d finally settled down to re-optimize his training routine to focus on lifting strength - how he’d struggled to get her into the cave was concerning, especially given her propensity to push herself too far - when he heard her stir.

“How bad is it?” Mara asked, her teeth chattering.

He checked his medscanner - 38.5 standard. “Well, my lord, I am happy to say at this point you have a very bad fever rather than hyperthermia. I’m going to give you something for the shivering-“

“No need.” Her eyes slid shut and her brow stalks furrowed in concentration. Her body slowly stilled. She opened her eyes again. “Thank you for saving me from my own idiocy.”

He blinked; he’d expected her to crack a joke about his undressing her, or chide him for overstepping a boundary, not an earnest expression of gratitude. He smiled.

“You’re welcome, my lord.”

“When can I leave this freezing tube?”

He looked at his chrono. “Another hour, I think. You’ll still have a fever at that point, but I can regulate that with a hypospray.”

He was right; within an hour she was able to dress herself and curled up next to him on the bedroll. When he woke the next morning, his body curled around hers, he swallowed the panic enough to actually enjoy the closeness, if only for the briefest of moments, before gently shaking her awake. The way she smiled at him when her eyelids fluttered open, as if he’d given her something precious, set his heart racing. She sat up and stretched languorously.

“Good morning, Captain.”

He pulled the medscanner from his belt. “Good morning, my lord. May I?”

Mara nodded her permission. She was still running a low-grade fever, but the danger was long past. He produced a hypospray and passed her several hydration tablets along with a ration bar.

“Might I suggest you not overdue it quite so much today, my lord?”

She smiled. “I’ll heed your warning as much as possible, Captain, but Yonlach may well have other plans.”

“That is all I ask, my lord.”

“Good. Let’s finish this, shall we?”

***

Jedi Master Yonlach was a taut, leathery wire of a man. The apprentice at his side, Yul-Li, was at least twice as broad as his master and towered over him by a good half meter. His stance when Mara and Quinn strode into the hut reminded Mara of Loajalkra in full guard-wrat mode, tense and snarling. It was utterly unsurprising, then, when Yul-Li drew his blade and urged Yonlach to flee.

Quinn’s blaster was in his hand, muzzle pointed between Yul-Li’s eyes. Mara hadn’t even seen him draw. He stared the Jedi down as if his Force sensitivity meant nothing, sense fairly vibrating with rage. You beautiful idiot , Mara thought, her heart clenching at his clear protectiveness even as she fought down her fear that Yul-Li would cut him down without a second thought.

Yonlach ordered his apprentice to stow his weapon. Only after he obeyed did Mara turn and place a hand on Quinn’s wrist, giving him a half smile when their eyes met. He flushed and holstered the weapon. Yonlach was staring at them thoughtfully when Mara turned back to him.

“You are a puzzle, Sith,” he said, his brow furrowed, “I monitored your progress through the ritual; you displayed a conscientiousness I’ve never witnessed in your kind.” Mara felt delicate, probing pressure against her mental shielding and raised a brow stalk in challenge. Yonlach shook his head. “You are a fascinating and contradictory example of your order.”

“Only to people who know nothing of what it is to be Sith,” Mara countered. “But philosophy is not what brought me here.”

“Indeed. You seek Nomen Karr’s Padawan. I trained her, brought her powers into full expression; the bond we share runs deep. I’ll never willingly divulge anything about her to the likes of you. I will not see her destroyed.”

“You assume much, Master Yonlach. I only wish to speak to her.”

“Of course you do.”

“Sarcastic, for a Jedi,” Mara commented.

“You must understand, Sith, that you face a full Jedi Master and a knight whose lightsaber skills exceed any I’ve seen before. Are you truly ready to die in this senseless crusade?”

Yul-Li’s saber was back in his hand. Mara forced her body to remain relaxed, acknowledging the nerves that fluttered in her stomach and accepting them. Jedi Knights she’d killed, but a Jedi Master would be a new test.

“My lord, the threat is not lost on me,” Quinn murmured, his hand resting on the butt of his blaster.

“Nor me,” she replied, “but this is a challenge I must meet and,” she threw him a confident smile, “there’s no one I’d rather have at my side.”

“Surely that’s a jest, but no matter - your officer’s query is moot,” Yonlach said.

Blue energy flashed around Quinn’s head and he dropped bonelessly to the dirt. Mara gasped and dropped to her knees next to him, keeping her shield arm between her and the Jedi, fingers frantically searching for a pulse. Her fear subsided when she found one, swallowed by rage.

“Interesting,” the Jedi Master said. His voice remained calm, analytical. A scientist examining an animal laid out on his lab bench. “His devotion to you goes far beyond duty. I’d expect such obsequious self-loathing from an Imperial officer, but that the affection goes both ways is unexpected.”

“Well done, Master Yonlach, now get out of here,” Yul-Li growled. His lightsaber flashed to life, a brilliant green.

“I didn’t seize the upper hand here only to relinquish it, Yul-Li,” Yonlach chided.

“Please do stay,” Mara purred, looking up from Quinn’s unconscious form to the Jedi before her. She glared at them through narrowed eyes, feeding her anger and protectiveness into her Force connection. “Leaving Yul-Li on his own wouldn’t be sporting.”

“Now you sound like the Sith you are,” Yonlach said. It was almost praise.

“Does that make it easier, Jedi ?”

She bellowed at Yonlach and threw herself at him, blade igniting mid-leap. He brandished his hands, and suddenly every piece of gravel scattered throughout the dirty hut flew at her. She bellowed again, Force energy clearing most, but not all, of the debris streaking toward her face. A few stray rocks pierced her arms and face, but she barely felt the pain as she slammed into Yonlach. He staggered, shoved her away with the Force, but she yanked him with her, grabbed him round the neck and rammed him into the wall. He staggered and turned back in time to catch her lightsaber hilt in the face. He dropped.

The Force screamed through her mind and Mara yanked her shield up, grunting with the impact of Yul-Li’s blade.

“You’ll pay for that, Sith,” he said.

“Don’t get your knickers in a knot, Jedi, I need him alive. Now show me what the Jedi’s best can do.”

He wasn’t bad; his stance was perfect and he read her body language well. But his attention was divided. He simmered with anger at her treatment of his master, but fought that anger as fiercely as he fought her, whereas Mara’s motivation and her rage were pure. It was only a matter of time before he made a mistake, trying to catch her in a powerful down swing. She danced backward and for a split second his stance faltered, his arm awkwardly crossed over his body. Her blade followed his in a short arc, and he screamed. The smell of charred flesh flashed through the room as his hand hit the ground. His lightsaber deactivated and rolled across the dirt floor until she called it to her hand.

“Now, where were we,” she growled as Yonlach pushed himself up from the ground.

“This isn’t worth it,” Yul-Li said through labored breathing, cradling his wrist against his chest. “I’ll tell you everything I know about Jaesa if you let Master Yonlach go.”

“Yul-li, no!”

Now we’re getting somewhere . She ignored Yonlach’s outburst. “Done. Does this Jaesa have a family name?”

“She’s just a Padawan; you’re a legendary master,” Yul-Li replied, gazing up at Yonlach adoringly. He turned his attention back to Mara. “Willsaam. Her name is Jaesa Willsaam. She grew up on Alderaan, and Master Karr took her to-“

“Yul-Li, you have no memory of the Padawan this Sith seeks.”

“I- I have no memory of the Padawan this Sith seeks.”

That blue flash again, and Yul-Li joined Quinn, sprawled across the floor.

Mara took a step backward as the body collapsed, her mouth falling open. “You play with the minds of your own apprentices.”

“I took no pleasure in wiping Yul-Li’s mind like that,” Yonlach snapped. “Now you may as well kill me because you won’t get anything else.”

“No.”

Yonlach blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“I said no. If I had a credit every time a Jedi asked me to kill them…” Mara shook her head and closed down her lightsaber. “Tell Jaesa I wish to talk. I mean her no harm.”

He stared at her for a long moment. “Because of our bond, Jaesa knows what happened here.”

“Good. Take your whelp and get him some medical treatment.”

Yonlach kept a wary eye on her until he cleared the front door of the hut, Yul-Li slung over his shoulders. Despite their difference in size, Yonlach carried the younger man as if he weighed no more than a sack of grain. Mara tossed the Jedi’s lightsaber into a corner and knelt next to Quinn.

 

Quinn’s eyelids felt like they were made of duracrete; he was fairly certain he heard them creak as he forced them open. It was worth the effort, though, he decided as his eyes focused and Mara smiled down at him, relief clear on her face. He could feel her hand, warm through the fabric of his jacket, against his side. He smiled back weakly, trying to remember what had happened, thinking for a moment how easily he could become accustomed to waking like this, seeing her first thing, preferably after a night filled with those soft, moaning cries he’d tried so hard not to think about for the last two weeks. He frowned at the trickles of blood on her face, small puncture wounds-

Reality crashed back into him, exploding like a proton torpedo. His thoughts flew apart, propelled across his mind in rapid succession.

That damn Jedi fucked with my mind. I was useless to her. She didn’t need me at all to defeat them, of course she didn’t. This. This is why it would never work. How could she take more than a cursory interest in someone with so little to offer her? How fitting , he mused bitterly , I know what she sounds like in the throes of ecstasy because she was fucking another Sith.

He glanced up to find her expression had changed to one of concern. Clearly his emotional state was obvious to her, a fact on its own that was more than a little embarrassing.

“Captain, are you alright? Are you in pain?”

“Ah, no, my lord,” he answered, pushing himself into a sitting position. “I feel oddly rested, in fact.” He scrambled to his feet and ended nearly at attention. “I apologize I was no use to you during the fight; I should have anticipated the Jedi’s mind controlling abilities.”

She frowned at his stiff posture and brisk tone.“It was a dirty trick, Captain, one even I would have had trouble evading; don’t be so hard on yourself.”

“Still, I’m gratified my support proved unnecessary. We should return to the ship.”

She cocked her head, her eyes hardening as they met his.

“You keep doing that.”

“Doing what, my lord?” he frowned, genuinely confused.

That . One moment you’re here, warm, the next you’re nothing more than a soldier.”

“I am nothing more than a soldier, my lord,” he replied with more vehemence than he’d intended. He knew what she meant, but something about her turn of phrase needled at him.

“You sell yourself far too short,” she said, her voice infinitely tired. “You are more than just your service to the Empire, Captain.”

“What?” He’d always considered service and duty the highest callings of his life. That she saw more was…. He mentally shook himself. What more was there?

“You know what I mean, Captain,” she said softly. “You’ve known and yet you repeat this stupid cycle-“ She took a deep breath and lowered her voice, looking him in the face. “You need to decide what you want from me, Captain. I will respect whatever decision you come to, and your role on my ship is safe either way, but I can’t do this forever. I won’t.” He opened his mouth to answer, to plead ignorance, or to confess his desire for her, he honestly wasn’t sure. Blessedly she held up a hand for silence. “Think on it, decide what you want, and let me know. I’m not discussing this anymore today.”

Chapter Text

Some weeks later, Mara sat on the floor of her quarters, back braced against her bed, idly plucking a candied thornrose star from the shallow dish in front of her feet. The tiny flower, no larger than her pinkie nail, crunched between her teeth, releasing a sweet, low spice with its demise. The sweets had arrived along with a holonovel and other assorted Life Day provisions, sent by Aunt Dzafir and delivered to Mara’s landing bay during a resupply mission at Vaiken Spacedock before Mara and her crew had returned to space, idling just on their side of the Republic border while awaiting orders from Darth Baras.

The candy was a treat, but one she tasted only distantly as, at the moment, she found herself transfixed by the orchid that sat on her datastation. Orange petals that darkened to black at the uneven edges, as if burnt, it was the first real personalized addition to her cabin.

And it had been a Life Day gift from Captain Quinn. Despite her black thumb, he’d helped her keep it alive so far - only a few days - which gave him a regular reason to be in her quarters. She pulled her mind back to the moment in time to catch a pronunciation mistake.

“Emphasis on the first syllable, Captain,” she corrected, pulling her attention away from the orchid to meet his blue eyes. “ Kyan tuska, not kyan tusk a.”

His gaze flicked to the orchid for a moment, having clearly noticed her divided attention and the cause of it. His lips turned up in a tiny smile as he repeated the word, still tripping over the harsh consonants, but with a passable accent. The smile seemed to help, oddly. Mara formed the syllables mutely, feeling the corners of her lips draw back, a facsimile of a smile, to sharpen her tongue on the t’s and z’s.

“Read the entire sentence again,” she instructed. As he did so, she said, “I’m honestly surprised Thalia,” she smiled around the name she’d given the plant, “seems to be thriving. I usually murder my plants in very short order.”

He smiled in response, still reading aloud as instructed, and his pronunciation immediately snapped into place. He cut off and turned shocked eyes on her.

“See? Your mouth is equal to my language, Captain,” she teased.

He blushed, but it was equal parts embarrassment and pleasure at her praise, and looked down at the book in his lap.

Physical books were a rarity in the Empire. Most written documents and entertainments were electronic in medium. The book Quinn held was a reproduction of an heirloom from Mara’s family vaults, and her Life Day gift to her captain, containing an account of first contact between the original, indigenously-Korribani Sith, and the Dark Jedi that found them. Most of it was in Basic, save for key passages that defied translation from Sith.

In the weeks that had passed, they’d found a routine: he joined her in her quarters to help her care for the plant, and remained for an hour of reading aloud from either a language primer or the heirloom itself. He’d seemed scandalized the first time she sank down to the floor, sitting cross-legged in her silky gown, and invited him to join her, but had settled into the routine within a week.

“You’re an excellent instructor, my lord,” he replied demurely.

“It’s easy to teach well when your student is industrious.”

“My lord, you honor me by sharing your language with me at all,” he protested, “it would be abominably rude to waste your time with idleness.”

Mara chuckled. “You’re certainly in no danger of that. At the rate you’re learning, you’ll be translating the original Râzkaj Ladzleq in no time.”

Another blush, but he held her gaze steadily.

“If you continue to threaten that, my lord, I may begin to take you seriously.”

She gave a delighted laugh. He had yet to answer the question she posed that last day on Tatooine, but the frustrating cycle of warming then retreat had been replaced by this middle ground: him sitting on the floor of her quarters, joking with her about an ancient treatise on physical passion. Her desire for him hadn’t lessened, but something about the shift in his behavior left her utterly content with the shortened distance between them.

Quinn glanced at her chrono and slipped a marker into the book, closing it with reverent hands.

“I believe Vette wanted to speak to you, my lord,” he hesitated, “as did I. We thought the galley would be an ideal place to do so.”

She eyed him suspiciously. “Have you two been fighting again?”

“No, my lord,” he said hurriedly. “We simply had related topics to discuss. Can I tell her you’re on your way?”

Mara nodded and, after a few moments of solitude, followed. She froze in the galley’s hatchway when greeted with the sight of Quinn settling at Vette’s table. The two had been nipping at each other incessantly for the week they spent in hyperspace from Tatooine to Vaiken, until, fed up, Mara imposed an involuntary team building exercise on them. A part of her felt bad for frightening them the way she had; the other part treasured the peace and relative respect they’d all enjoyed after the two were forced to work through an Imperial Academy war game together.

Mara took a seat and looked between them expectantly.

“I want to go to Nar Shaddaa,” Vette announced. As Mara raised a brow stalk, she explained, “Oh, I found my old crew! They’re why I want to go, actually.”

Mara chuckled. “Lead with that next time, please. What are they doing on Nar Shaddaa?”

“Theft, mostly,” Vette replied with an impish grin that only widened when Quinn muttered an ‘of course’ under his breath. “I’m a thief, Captain, what do you expect? Anyway,” she continued, enunciating the word crisply, “it’s the good kind of theft this time. We are going to rob Cada Bliss.”

“Are we indeed? To what does Bliss owe this unsavory fate?”

“You know how I got picked up on Korriban?”

Mara grimaced. Picked up meaning arrested and sold into slavery . “Yes.”

“Well, Cada Bliss hired my gang for that job. And then somehow, mysteriously, the Imps knew exactly where we were going to be. My gang barely made it out.”

Quinn’s eyes had narrowed as Vette spoke, looking slowly between the two women as if trying to piece together what Vette had been looting from the Sith homeworld, and why Mara would forgive the slight. Truth be told, Mara had never asked, and had no intention to do so. She knew Vette’s sense now and that was good enough. They all had past stories better left untold.

Besides, Vette paid a disproportionate price for that potential crime. A memory flashed through her mind, of Vette in a cell, slave collar around her neck, mouthing off to the warden no matter how much he shocked her.

And Bliss had put her there.

“Is there a reason to rob him instead of kill him?” Mara growled, her fists clenched.

“Because he has the Star of Kala’unn, an extremely ancient artifact. And knowing Bliss, he’s got approximately three million buyers lined up for it. Taking it from him will really kill his business.” She grinned. “Thing is, he’s really armored up, running with some guy called The Virus, and Taunt and the others can’t take him alone. Can we help them?”

“Of course we can.”

Mara exchanged a look with Quinn. His disapproval was a tangible thing in the air of the galley - a Sith participating in a petty shakedown was the definition of improper - but he offered no comment.

“And what did you need, Captain?”

“I found Voloren.”

Mara blinked. That was fast.

“Where is he?”

“At an SIS outpost only about twelve hours from Nar Shaddaa, my lord. I propose dropping the two of you off for your… venture… and taking the Fury. It’s an ideal craft for what I have in mind.”

“I see. Are you certain you can do this alone?”

“Positive, my lord.” There was a feral glint in Quinn’s blue eyes that made her stomach flip.

“Take him out, Captain.”

“Try not to Broysc it up, yeah?” Vette put in. Quinn flushed.

“Vette, we discussed this,” Mara said, her voice a low warning.

“I know, I know! Sorry.” That last word was mumbled.

Quinn pinched the bridge of his nose. “That’s actually one of the better ones you’ve come up with,” he admitted, “but it’s still highly inappropriate.”

Vette shrugged. “That’s not a dealbreaker for me, but fine, I’ll follow the rules.”

***

Cada Bliss and The Virus turned out to be far less of a match for Mara and Vette than they anticipated. She and Vette had the Star of Kala’unn secure in a case before Taunt, Plasmajack, and Flash actually touched down at Manzeti Spaceport.

“Are sure it was safe to let Cada Bliss go?” Mara asked Vette as they sat in the spaceport lobby. “What’s to stop him from coming after you again?”

“Oh, I called a bunch of potential buyers on Bliss’s behalf, negotiated a steep price, and sent them each a plastene fake I bought off the holonet. He’s going to be on the run for years .”

Mara laughed. “Clever.”

“See, not everything has to be solved by death and destruction.”

“Everyone needs a hobby,” Mara laughed, holding up her hands defensively.

“Vette?”

Mara looked up to see a red Twi'lek woman in a synthleather jacket walking toward them.

“Taunt!” Vette practically leaped into the woman’s arms. Two Twi'lek men joined them - Plasmajack and Flash, presumably. They each hugged Vette in turn.

Mara held back, unwilling to interrupt the reunion, until Taunt looked over Vette’s shoulder and smiled.

“You must be the lady Sith Vette’s adopted as her new older sister.”

Mara laughed. “That would be me, yes.”

Vette grabbed the case and handed it over. “The Star of Kala’unn, authentic and undamaged.”

Plasmajack’s brown eyes widened. “This is big.”

“More than big,” Flash countered. “This is a huge victory for Twi'lek pride, and it was all you, Vette.”

“You did well,” Mara said. Vette blushed.

“Stop it, you guys… wait what is this?” Vette jerked back from the credit stick in Taunt’s outstretched hand.

“A finder’s fee. It’s everything we could scrape together.”

“No way. Knowing you guys, you didn’t leave enough for you to eat, let alone resupply. We don’t want your credits… right?” Vette looked at Mara questioningly.

“Of course not,” Mara agreed. “Vette said you needed her help; I’m here for her, not for credits. Take the Star back to Ryloth where it belongs.”

Taunt hesitated, then pocketed the credit stick. “Figures you’d find the one sweetheart Sith in the galaxy, Vette. We’ll make sure the Star ends up in a museum, in Twi'lek hands. In the meantime, can we buy you dinner, at least? Celebrate?”

Mara laughed. “I’d like that. But be warned, I will drink all of you under the table.”

Plasmajack grinned at her. “Challenge accepted!”

It was early to start such things, but then, Mara hadn’t cut loose in quite some time, since before she returned to Korriban and won her apprenticeship with Darth Baras. And stars, she needed it.

Three hours later, she had to admit Plasmajack was a worthy challenger. Even with her sizable advantage in the Force, he was only slightly worse off than she.

“You okay?” Vette asked over the din of the cantina. “You’re looking a little green.”

Mara frowned. “I am not green.” She held up an arm as proof just in time for the neon light over the bar to turn green and cast a sickly glow over her skin. “Seriously?” She shouted toward the bar.

“Yeah, I’m cutting you off,” Vette said with a laugh, pulling away the shot of… Mara wasn’t even sure what it was at this point. They’d long run out of the expensive bottle she’d purchased at the outset. In reality this swill was probably used to clean engine parts, but she was too far gone to taste it.

“We’re not done yet.” She snapped, yanking the shot back to her with the Force. “You ready, Plasmajack?”

The green Twi'lek - he was green, Mara thought triumphantly - shifted queasy eyes from the shot to her face. “You’re trying to poison me,” he accused with a grin.

So much talk,” she sighed theatrically, lifting her shot glass.

He did the same, the look on his face an eloquent summation of her roiling insides.

“I’ve never seen a Sith puke,” Taunt observed from the other side of the booth.

“I beg your pardon,” Mara said archly, turning to Taunt in mock-outrage. “Sith do not pu-“ she clamped her mouth shut around a gag when she caught a strong whiff of the contents of her glass.

“I can see why you like her,” Taunt said to Vette with a laugh.

“Yeah, she’s gonna be a barrel of fun when the hangover sets in.” Vette’s voice was fond, taking the sting out of her words.

Mara ignored them and focused on her opponent.

“Are we doing this or not?”

He swallowed noisily, took a deep breath, and knocked back the shot. Mara tried not to groan and, after only slight hesitation, followed suit. The reaction was immediate.

“Enough,” she groaned, slamming the glass on the table. Her head followed. “Kriffing hell, no more,” she muttered into the table top.

“Same, I give… fuck , I give.”

Mara offered Plasmajack a limp hand without looking up. “Well fought, sir.”

“Yeah, you, too,” he said, shaking it weakly.

“I think it’s time to get us some rooms,” Vette said, climbing over the back of the booth.

“That’s a good idea,” Mara groaned, reaching out to the Force to begin burning some of the alcohol from her system. That wouldn’t help the headache, though. She needed water.

She nearly jumped through the ceiling when her holo buzzed. A glance showed it was the Fury. She activated the comm as she wound her way through the cantina. “One moment, Captain,” she said, stopping at the bar.

“Water, mistress?” the Rodian bartender said, offering her a tall glass. It was the usual size of an ale, but she drank it down without pausing for breath and handed the glass back with an appreciative nod, then stepped out into the relative quiet in the promenade.

“My apologies, Captain. It went well?”

Quinn’s small hologram frowned at her. She realized she was grinning quite stupidly and tried adopt a more serious, or at least neutral, expression.

“It… did indeed, my lord; I’m pleased to report complete success.”

“Wonderful, Captain. I look forward to hearing about it in person, but for now… kriff I’m tired.”

“My lord, have you been drinking ?”

“I’m afraid so,” she answered with another grin. “I only claim half responsibility, though. Vette’s friend started it.”

“I… see.”

Was he holding back laughter? “It was quite outrageous,” she insisted. “He could have given up at any time, but no.”

“Of course, my lord.” He was definitely laughing. Mara scowled. “I’ll have an array of stimulants available the moment I land.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Mara said tartly. “See you in twelve hours.”

Mara tucked the holocomm back into her utility belt and turned toward the door.

Her mind tingled sluggishly with the Force for only a second before the stun blast hit her. She staggered against the wall, turning to face her assailants.

“Told you we didn’t have to drug her; she’s drunk enough already,” a Republic-accented voice sneered. Three men stood in the street facing her, the leftmost had a blaster drawn. The center man, face hidden in a hood, was the one who’d spoken.

Her lightsaber was in her hand but another stun blast slammed her knees to the duracrete and she reached out to the Force, drawing it into her hurriedly, trying to clear her head. She just needed a second-

Something cold bit into her neck, and suddenly the Force fled, present but distant and unreachable. Without it working in her body, her hangover reasserted itself, the headache crashing against her skull.

Clenching her jaw against the panicked bile rising in her throat, she ignited her lightsaber.

A stun blast from behind. Stupid , she snarled to herself, who do you think collared you . She toppled forward, her extinguished blade clattering away. Trembling with the electricity of the blasts, she glared up at the men closing in on her.

“I thought she’d be scarier,” said the man on the right. He was short and pale, brown eyes staring down at her coldly as he took a few steps closer.

“Heroes and sworn enemies; equally as disappointing when you meet ‘em,” the hooded leader replied.

As soon as Brown Eyes was in range, Mara yanked the vibroknife off his belt and shoved it into his gut, then threw it, blood spattering, at the man with the drawn blaster, hitting him in the throat. She lunged for her blade. The hooded man sighed, yanked out his blaster, and fired. The bolt struck her in the side, paralyzing her with shock for half a heartbeat, long enough for the person behind her to shove her flat on the ground. A foot slammed into her back, driving the air from her lungs in a staccato grunt.

“Well, at least you’re less disappointing than we thought. Drug her.”

She felt the sting of a needle. Then nothing.

 

Back inside the cantina, Vette tried Mara’s holo again, but it rang until it disconnected. It’d been nearly half an hour since Mara stepped out to take a call. At first Vette thought they were perhaps having a detailed conversation - not entirely unlikely given the truly stupid amount of sexual tension between them - but as the minutes wore on, it was becoming more obvious that something was wrong.

“She went out the side door, yeah?” Vette asked Taunt. At her friend’s nod, Vette ventured out the door in question.

Her hackles immediately went up; the street was far too quiet for Nar Shaddaa. Judging by the fresh puddles of blood on the duracrete, something had scared away the usual foot traffic. She gulped, offering a silent prayer that neither had come from Mara.

Vette walked further out into the empty street, eyes scanning for additional clues. On a whim, she dialed Mara’s frequency again. A faint chime sounded behind her. Vette turned and ran toward it, stopping after a couple of meters to call again, until she waded into the holographic bushes that marked the median of the road and dropped to the ground, ice creeping through her insides.

Mara’s holocomm blinked up at her, showing six missed calls, all from Vette.

Fuck . That would have been the easiest way to track her. Whoever took her knew what they were doing. Bounty hunters, probably, better than the ones they’d encountered on their last trip. She grabbed the holocomm and trotted back into the bar.

Taunt gasped as Vette explained what she’d found.

“Do you need us to stay and help find her?”

Vette paused, considering. “No. I don’t want to put you guys at risk; get the Star back to Ryloth.”

“Whoever did this incapacitated a Sith, Vette, I’m not leaving you to face them alone.”

Vette grinned. “I won’t be alone; I’ve got backup coming in and trust me, he’s probably even more motivated to get her home than I am.”

“If you’re sure….”

Vette hugged her friend. “I’m sure. Get going; I have leads to run down, and you don’t want to be a known associate of mine after Quinn and I are done here.”

“Take care of yourself, little sis,” Taunt said, squeezing her tightly. “I hope your backup’s as good as you say.”

Hopefully all that repressed sexual tension would heighten Quinn’s focus and drive. Or it could lead him to shoot Vette for failing to babysit their lord adequately. Before Life Day and that insane exercise Mara put them through, she would have called it even 50/50 odds as to which would happen. Now… she put it at 60/40 against him shooting her. Probably.

“He’s an uptight, speciesist jerk, but yeah, he’s good at his job.”

She never thought she’d be counting down the hours until Captain Tightpants showed up. Nar Shaddaa was a crazy place.

***

Everything hurt; her side burned, and she could feel her pulse marked in every throb of her head. Instinctively, Mara reached out to the Force, to soothe her pain and clear her head.

And kept reaching, like rolling over in bed to reach for a lover and finding only empty sheets. Her eyes flew open, lips clenched around a groan. She was lying on a bare duracrete floor, staring at bare duracrete walls. Again, she reached out to ascertain if she were alone and bit her lip in frustration.

Her hands were bound in front of her, she realized, heart hammering in her ears, and pushed herself to sitting. Her feet were manacled as well. The room was almost perfectly square and utterly empty; just four duracrete walls, one of which had a door. No windows, no chrono, nothing to tell her how much time had passed since they dragged her into the back of a speeder truck. She didn’t even see evidence of surveillance equipment.

She took a deep breath and released it slowly. Her training had included functioning while Force-suppressed. Panic would do nothing to aid her escape.

The room itself offered no help either, bare as it was. Her captors had taken her utility belt. All she had on her person was an emergency comm concealed in the thigh plate of her armor. A moment of fumbling confirmed it was still there. Either by virtue of being buried in her duatium armor, or the fact that it was dormant, her captors had missed it.

Of course, the minute she called someone, even a halfwit captor would notice the new comm signal nearby. She sighed. If only she had a fancy transmitter like the one Nomen Karr installed on her ship, that would only activate when local noise drowned out the transmission-

That trick had worked because the transmitter had only sent location pings.

She smiled.

Any voice transmissions would stand out like a sore thumb. The passive existence of the comm, however, was an entirely different story, given the sea of comm traffic on Nar Shaddaa. Vette and Quinn would be looking for her, and the base comm on the Fury would receive her comm signal’s location data. So long as she kept the bursts short, irregular, and most importantly, silent, anyone noticing the feedback on their comm channel would assume it was simple sensor noise.

She wriggled until her back was to the door and settled into a meditation form, thumbed the device on, felt her heart beat, and thumbed it off. She took seven deep breaths, then did it again. Fifty slow breaths, and again.

Her crew would find her. They’d better find her. Else she would become a grisly decoration for Greblack Illip Kicha’s throne room.

Three hours later Mara heard the lock on the room’s only door click off. She stowed the comm in her armor and forced her hands to relax in her lap, no matter how much her spine itched at not being able to sense the people who filed into the room behind her. Three, possibly four individuals based on the number of footsteps she heard.

“Meditating even without the Force, eh?” It was the voice of the hooded man from the promenade. “Seems like a waste of time to me.”

Rough hands hauled her around to face her visitors.

And that’s how she forced herself to see them. She settled back onto her heels, chin angled upward imperiously and her spine straight, as if receiving visitors in her public rooms at Chwûkûsk .

The leader was no longer wearing a hood. And he was gorgeous : blonde hair kept short and spiked slightly in the front, green eyes hard as jade. He stared at her with the dispassionate eyes of a man looking at a job. The other two, a tawny-skinned man whose dark hair had a similar, if slightly longer cut, to the leader’s, and a woman with short red hair, had more spark to them, glaring at Mara openly.

The distinctive haircuts told her one thing: whether they were on the clock or not, she was dealing with Republic SIS agents.

She fought down another surge of bile. A lifetime of Force use meant, for her, an entire being was both the physical surface and the emotional sense. The former without the latter was wrong ; a shell of meat devoid of the true substance of existence.

“I grew bored,” Mara said with an elegant shrug.

“Well I’m about to liven your day, Sith,” the leader said. “You will be delivered to Greblak Illip-”

“And you’ll collect your bounty,” Mara sneered. Might as well rattle some cages straight away. “What has she promised you? A night in her private den of imported pleasures .” The polite term for a bordello whose denizens were overwhelmingly victims of trafficking. She smiled coldly as the woman’s brown eyes narrowed and her lip curled into a snarl. “Oh yes, I know your appetites, my dear. All you hunters are alike: bottom feeders to the last.”

Blonde Hair put a hand on the woman’s arm, holding her back, then looked back at Mara.

“We’ll deliver you to Greblak eventually. But first, you’ll be spending the next day with us, Sith. This is Nichta,” he gestured to the woman, “and this is Fren. You murdered their friends yesterday.”

“And now they want revenge, the poor dears?” Keeping her here made her chances of escape better; Greblak was sure to put her straight into carbonite upon delivery.

“I told you it wouldn’t feel remorse, Carridin” Fren said.

“Remorse? I was drunk and Force-blind but still got the drop on them. They were incompetent,” Mara laughed. Not to mention actual enemy spies .

Stars exploded across her vision along with a flare of pain in her cheek. Mara blinked, but kept the smile in place. It was easy; the blow had been hard, but poorly placed, the product of a burst of rage. More importantly, it seemed to assume a human level of vulnerability to blunt force; Red Sith bodies were hardier than that even without the Force. This would be unpleasant but most likely lacking in mortal danger.

“Fucking Sith filth ,” Nichta snarled. Mara’s head snapped to the left when the woman hit her again.

“What do you think, Sith? Still bored?” Carridin asked, grabbing Nichta’s arm before she could land a third blow. He seemed somewhat annoyed at his colleague jumping in prematurely.

“I award you points for diversion,” Mara allowed, giving her head a shake. “But I must deduct several for lack of imagination.”

“Cute,” Carridin said. “I’ll see how you feel in a little while.” He turned to leave. “Remember, she has to remain alive for this to work. I trust you both to remain professional.”

Mara forced her breathing to remain even as she stared at her captors and centered herself. Pain is part of life, an essential teacher . She repeated it like a mantra as the blows came.

She would definitely avoid getting sloshed in public from here on out.

Chapter Text

Given how inebriated Mara had been during their call, Quinn wasn’t surprised at all to see Vette alone in the landing bay when he arrived, carrying a field kit stocked with stimulants and hangover remedies.

“I take it our lord is still indisposed?” he asked, moving forward as Vette closed the distance between them.

“We need to talk,” Vette replied. Closer now, he realized her face was far more serious than he’d ever seen it, brows drawn, jaw set stubbornly.

His blood turned to ice.

“What’s wrong?”

“Mara’s missing.”

“What?” The word echoed through the landing bay. Vette flinched, but stayed firm. “Come on, I have an idea of who took her, but I can’t get to her without my equipment  from the Fury.” She paused. “Or you.”

“How could this happen?” he demanded.

Vette shot him a glare. “Quinn, I can’t sit on top of her all the fucking time. She stepped outside to take your call. She didn’t come back.”

The anger he’d aimed at Vette ricocheted back at him. Shit, I caused this . Then, Why was she so stupid as to get that drunk in the first place?

“You said you had leads?” he asked as they stepped onto the flight deck.

“I sliced Illip’s finances overnight. Look.” She handed him a datapad. “Illip authorized payment on the bounty, then paused it about six hours ago. Whoever took her still has her.”

“What is Farblast Holdings Company?” he asked.

“This is where it gets interesting. It’s a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a subsidiary, but if you dig far enough it gets you back to Defensescape Industries.”

Quinn’s heart stopped. “A known front for the SIS. What in the galaxy could the SIS want with a low-level Hutt bounty?” His musing cut off with a gasp.  “The treaty with the Hutts. If a prominent Hutt family accepts delivery of a kidnapped Sith apprentice….” It might not be enough to break the treaty in full, but Imperial retribution could shake loose enough Hutt families to give the Republic a diplomatic opening.

“I made a list of all known offices for Defensescape and its subsidiaries on Nar Shaddaa, but there are thirty.”

Quinn scrolled through the list thoughtfully. “We can eliminate any that do business onsite - meetings and so forth.” That eliminated six of the possibilities. He pulled up the intel file Major Sicaritae sent him to help with the hunt for Voloren. “Another twelve are unmanned listening stations; Defensescape is leasing building facade for its surveillance equipment.”

“Still leaves too many for us to case by ourselves.”

“Yes, but…” He sat back for a moment. “Standard training for both Imperials and Sith would be to use every opportunity for contact or escape… ” He tapped his lip. “She carries a spare comm. If we’re lucky, it may have escaped their notice…”

He scanned the Fury’s base comm logs, teeth worrying at his lower lip as he scrolled through the data. As he was doing so, the flight deck holo chimed an incoming call. Quinn spared a glance at it - Dromund Kaas prefix, almost certainly Baras - and slapped the button to silence the chime, then turned back to the comm log.

“There!” he snapped. “Her comm pinged the base seventy-two minutes ago.” He typed a command and a map appeared.

“I’ll grab my slicing equipment; you grab surveillance gear and whatever else you think we’ll need,” Vette said, hurrying through the hatch.

For a heartbeat he was tempted to argue with her - he should be giving orders, not she - but the urge died almost immediately. His pride could wait. He hurried to the crew quarters to change into his field armor.

Quinn drove, weaving through traffic as Vette kept a feed running to the Fury’s base comm, in case Mara reactivated her comm at some point during the drive to the Upper Industrial Sector and one of Defensescape’s warehouses. The building faced the road on one side and had adjacent buildings on two others. The fourth backed up to empty air, with docking space for cargo shuttles.

They did a passive scan of the front of the building from the street, then circled back to the cargo side and parked at an abandoned cargo dock that kept the warehouse roughly within line of sight.

“This is the better entry point,” Quinn said.

“Only if you’re dumb enough to think there’s no surveillance on their cargo dock.”

“Don’t be silly, of course there’s surveillance. You’ll use your stealth generator.”

“And once the door opens or the sensors go down, the entire facility will know we’re there.”

“And they’ll find me; not you” he said patiently. “This is a small safehouse; sensors showed only ten individuals, one of whom is Apprentice Thrask. If we’re smart we can take most of them out on our way to her.”

“You want to burst in guns blazing. You , Captain ‘Let’s Think About This Logically’.”

“I am thinking about this logically,” he snapped, ignoring the small voice in his head that hadn’t stopped a panicked stream of consciousness ever since Vette told him what happened. She’s going to be alright. She has to be. If not …. He gripped his macrobinoculars tighter. What in blazes am I supposed to do if she’s not?

“Quinn.” Vette’s voice was soft, her violet eyes far too understanding when he met them.

He took a deep breath. “A frontal assault is all that’s left to us, Vette. We don’t have time for a proper infiltration.”

“Aren’t you afraid they’ll kill her?”

“They need to deliver her alive if they’re to destabilize the treaty.” It was a reasonable tactical assumption; Emperor help him if he was wrong. “And I doubt they’ll see me as much of a threat. If they’re at all competent, they’ll jump at the chance to capture me; handing an Imperial officer off along with Apprentice Thrask will only incense the Empire further. If our lord is able to fight, she’ll take advantage of our diversion.”

“And if she’s not?”

“Then we fight until we get to her. Or we fail.”

The Twi’lek whistled low. “You don’t fuck around, do you?”

Three months of service and he was hers completely. “No.”

“Okay then.” Vette paused, an impish grin lighting her face. “You make good points, but don’t think I haven’t connected the dots here, lover boy.”

For fuck’s sake . “Vette-“

“Say no more. Okay We’re going to fire this EMP in -“

“You just said that would alert them to our presence.”

“It’d be way too suspicious if you just walked up and knocked on the door. This way, at least, it’ll look like an honest, if incompetent, rescue attempt.”

Quinn gave a reluctant nod, firmly stuffing down the part of his ego that resisted even a feigned incompetence before the enemy.

“Good. It’ll give us about a minute of sensor static, enough for me to slice the door. Once we’re in, I’ll stealth so we can pincer whoever comes to greet you, and take out their security sensors as soon as I can.”

He nodded and handed her an earpiece and six spare blaster packs to add to her equipment. She waved off the thermal detonators. He sorted his own equipment - blaster, spare power packs and medkit - donned his helmet, and slid into the driver’s seat of the speeder.

“Okay, keep it steady,” Vette said as they approached the warehouse. “Just a little closer-“ Her utility blaster barked and a small projectile arced toward the cargo dock. “Let’s go.”

They’d only taken a few steps inside the warehouse before a Republic-accented voice barked at Quinn to freeze where he was. He turned slowly, keeping his hands elevated. The pair of Humans in front of him were staring in shock that was rapidly turning to pleasure, as if they couldn’t believe their good fortune.

“Take a wrong turn, Imp?” the taller of the two spat.

“I have business with your superior.”

“Oh, I’m sure you do.”

“You’re holding a Sith here, in clear violation of the Treaty of Coruscant,” Quinn replied mildly. “I’m sworn to her service, and I’d like her back. Now.”

As if to punctuate his demand, Vette’s stealth generator clicked off and the shorter of the two dropped, body twitching involuntarily as the stun blast faded from his muscles.

The taller, the man who’d spoken, turned, but Quinn’s blaster barked and he dropped, a smoldering hole in his throat.

“You’re really good bait,” Vette observed. “I like the, ‘you took my lord, prepare to die’ speech.” She gave him an infuriating grin. “It adds a nice touch.”

“Shut up, Vette.”

“Do I ever?”

He ground his teeth and marched up the hall. We’re coming, my lord.

 

“You’re one tough customer,” Carridin said as he entered the room.

Mara was back in her meditation form, slightly slumped, but upright. With or without the Force, it calmed her and dulled some of the aches in her battered body. She’d been correct in that Nichta and Fren lacked the strength to damage her skeletal structure, and indeed they scrupulously worked to keep her free of permanent damage. But by the Force they’d given it their all. Her exposed midriff was a mass of purple, splotchy bruises and one eye had swollen nearly shut. Truth be told she’d have luxuriated in unconsciousness if she could achieve it safely, but she’d also die before letting Carridin or his cronies see that.

She raised her head to see her captor had brought a chair into the room.

“Maybe your peons are just weak,” she countered through a split lip.

“That right there is so unnecessary,” he said, disappointment in his voice as he hauled her into the chair. “I pay you a sincere compliment, and all you give back is sarcastic insults.”

“I don’t make a habit of complimenting or receiving compliments from enemy spies, Carridin,” she spat. “If it’s feigned affection you want, Nar Shaddaa has many fine establishments where you can buy the exact adulation you crave.”

“Ah,” he said with a small smile, “what gave us away?”

“Aside from everything?”

“When did you realize?”

“Immediately.” She locked eyes with him. Well, locked eye at any rate. “I’ve known the entire time and I’m still not afraid of you.”

“Well that’s just a challenge if ever I heard one, Sith,” he said. He unclipped something from the back of his belt and brandished it at her.

Her lightsaber. Only discipline kept her from growling at him. The gall.

“I’ve always wanted to use one of these,” he said softly, igniting it. His face took on a skeletal quality as the magenta light played havoc across his face. “And now finally-“

His head snapped toward the door at a soft thump above them. He paused, but it did not repeat, and turned back to her. Mara forced her muscles to relax. If the distraction had been just a second longer.

“Careful, Carridin. Give that weapon half your attention and you will cut yourself.”

“Your concern is touching, Sith,” he replied sarcastically. “At any rate, as well as you’ve taken Nichta and Fren’s attentions, I can’t help but wonder how you’ll react to this.” He lowered the blade to just so it kissed her forearm. Her flesh charred immediately, her nerves so disoriented by the heat of the blade that it almost felt like frostbite. She lost her battle to keep her breathing steady, hissing through clenched teeth as the smell of her own cooked flesh rose in the air between them. She grunted when he pulled the blade away but kept her face smooth, if just barely.

“Do you think you’re the first person to burn me with a lightsaber, Carridin?”

“I’m definitely the first to burn you with your own blade, unless you’re a very incompetent Sith.”

Fair enough, but still .

He moved the blade toward her shoulder, but a loud crash from above whipped Carridin around to stare at the door.

Mara slammed both feet into his knees. He grunted and turned toward her, but she shot to her feet, manacled hands latching onto the arm that held her blade, but not before it brushed her shoulder. She barely felt the pain. Instead, she shoved upward as hard as she could.

The blade went straight through his head. He didn’t even have time to scream as he dropped.

She dove onto the now-extinguished lightsaber hilt, trapping it between her knees on the floor, locking it on before the familiar snap-hiss of ignition had finished, welcoming the sparks that bit into her face when she severed the link between the handcuffs. Half a second more and she’d similarly freed her ankles. Crude, but sufficient. The collar would have to stay - she grimaced at the thought. It required finer tools to separate from her skin. Getting out was the higher priority, and if her instincts about the ruckus above were correct, she was in good hands.

“Captain, Vette, I take it I have you to thank for this diversion?” she said into her comm as soon as it was in her ear.

“My lord!”

The warmth in Quinn’s voice brought an involuntary smile to her face and quite possibly healed some of her injuries.

“Captain,” she returned, running through the door and up a set of stairs. Vette’s laughter filled the silence on the other end of the connection.

“You’re in the basement, my lord, make a left when you get to the top of the stairs.”

She obeyed, finding herself in a wide hallway, one wall lined with windows looking out into an empty warehouse space. Ahead of her, a four-way intersection. Across the hall Vette was huddled behind several storage crates along with someone in full Imperial Army battle armor. Although she couldn’t feel his sense, the way he moved and held his blaster told her it was Quinn. On her side of the hall, their backs to her, was a man and a woman, each familiar to her, huddled in a doorway.

“We could use some of that Force magic you do so well, Mara,” Vette gritted into her comm, ducking behind a crate to hide the fact that she was speaking.

Mara’s stomach twisted, a wave of nausea washing over her. It had been easier to resign herself to the collar’s temporary presence when she was alone. Now she had to fight the visceral urge to claw it from her neck.

“I can’t,” she mumbled.

“I’m sorry?” Quinn replied. “I couldn’t-“

“I can’t,” she said, forcing the words out. “I can’t do what Vette’s asking.” She turned her body so they could see the metal glinting against her neck.

“You fuckers ,” Vette roared, shooting up from behind the crates and spraying the hall with blaster bolts.

Fren spasmed and dropped. Nichta jerked backward, into the doorway that led to the empty warehouse floor.  Heedless of the blaster fire, Mara ran the last few steps down the hall and launched herself at the woman. Nichta swore, bringing her blaster to bear, but Mara grabbed her arm in a durasteel grip.

“I have a secret for you, Nichta,” Mara purred. “My kind don’t break easily, as you found. Humans, on the other hand?” She hammered the lightsaber hilt into Nichta’s elbow, smiling coldly at the satisfying crunch . “Are wonderfully delicate.” To her credit, Nichta merely grunted, glaring daggers up at Mara.

“Tell what’s-his-name I said hello.” She ignited her blade and drove it through the woman’s chest.

“Woah,” Vette breathed.

“A new friend,” Mara growled, standing and closing down her lightsaber. She steeled herself and turned, unsure if she was prepared for whatever reaction they would have to the collar and her bruised body.

Vette was nearly vibrating with fury, her violet eyes fixed on Mara’s neck. Quinn’s helmet was under his arm, face perfectly neutral as his eyes took her in, the sort of calm one only forced in the face of extreme disquiet. She could see him cataloging her various injuries. “Were these the last?” she asked.

“Two unaccounted for, my lord,” Quinn said, clearing his throat to cover up how his voice cracked on her title.

“Unimportant,” Mara said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Let’s get out of here. If they get in our way we’ll deal with them.”

The last two members of this squadron - a red Twi’lek and a pale Zabrak - forced the issue when Mara and the others made it to the cargo dock. She expected nothing less from the collection of adrenaline junkies that comprised the SIS. The agents were dispatched quickly, if not before she took a hit to the shoulder while she protected Vette and Quinn as best she could.

Quinn grabbed her by the arm and steered her into the back of the speeder, tossing his helmet into the passenger seat. As Vette sped through traffic back to the spaceport, he cleaned and applied kolto gel to the worst of her injuries - the various burns and her swollen eye. His hands were gentle and efficient as he worked, but there was a set to his jaw that belied his calm ministrations. Mara found her shoulders tight, in turn; it was unnerving not to feel his emotional state, even if she was fairly certain she could tease out the causes of his disquiet without the Force.

 

Quinn couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this angry. Not even after Druckenwell; oh, he’d hated Broysc, but that had been tempered by the certain knowledge that he, Quinn, had done the right thing and saved countless lives while doing it.

This was something else entirely: a fury borne of frustration and helplessness. Frustration with her, for her recklessness and apparent disregard for what that recklessness did to Vette and to him. Frustration with himself, for his weakness, his inability to put aside this childish infatuation and do his job. Helplessness because if nothing else this incident proved he’d follow her anywhere and pull her out of any ridiculously avoidable scrape, just to be by her side.

He couldn’t be with her the way he wanted - that wasn’t the way of their society - all he could do was serve her and hope she’d be kind enough not to get herself killed. As a man, he could demand nothing else of her.

But as her captain, he could make some demands. He managed to keep himself quiet until they were back on the Fury.

“Vette, get us airborne. My lord, I will continue treating you in here.” He didn’t wait for her assent but marched straight to the medbay, ushering her through the door.

When he turned to face her, she’d perched on one of the beds, back straight, keen amber eyes watching him thoughtfully. The swelling on her eye had receded almost completely thanks to the kolto. He opened his mouth, closed it again, then moved to the cabinet.

“My lord, permission to speak freely?” he asked as he rummaged about in search of the tools necessary to remove the collar. Restoring the Force to her would speed her healing; it made little sense, since she was stable, to proceed treating her without that.

“When we’re alone, Captain, you need never ask.”

“Thank you, my lord.” He took a deep breath. “With all due respect, what the hell were you thinking?”

He whirled on her in time to see her brow stalks shoot up in surprise.

“How did it never occur to you that there is a bounty on your head? Why do I have to be the one to remind you of it constantly?”

“Captain, I-“

“I know I can ask very little of you, my lord, but as your executive officer I must insist on you taking your own safety far more seriously.”

Her amber eyes narrowed. “You’re right, Captain, about how avoidable this entire mess was, and I assure you I will not repeat the mistake. But I wonder - what else is it you wish to ask of me?”

“What?” He hadn’t anticipated that question; indeed, her ready apology caught him off-balance as well.

“You said you can ask very little of me. You have more right than you seem to understand. I said I would never punish you for speaking to me honestly.”

How did she do that, zeroing in on the throwaway wording in his sentences that betrayed his feelings, even without the Force?

“My lord,” he coughed and looked away. “Please, I-“

“Ask me, Captain,” she said quietly, “please. The answer will be yes.”

His heart jumped into his throat and he stared at her for a long moment. She’d grown softer, somehow, as she spoke, her eyes warm pools of honey he could drown in.

“I can’t do that, my lord,” he said finally, shoulders slumping in defeat. “Even were it not inappropriate, I know I can’t compete with another Sith. I cannot ask that of you.”

Her brow stalks lowered in confusion, but then her eyes widened.

 

Mara gasped, his sudden disappearance the morning after her raising and the entirety of their interactions on Tatooine suddenly snapping into focus. Oh, Dysprosia, you were right, even if our timing was so very wrong .

“Y-you weren’t meant to see that,” she stammered, her face aflame with a blush.

“I know, nor do I have a right to an opinion on the matter,” he replied quickly, his own cheeks nearly as red as hers. “But my lord, I know I could never be what she is to you, nor would I try.”

Mara frowned. “And what is that, precisely?”

Stars, if he gets any redder he might burst a blood vessel or six, she thought.

He stared at the wall behind her when he finally answered, “I know it is not uncommon for Sith to take several lovers, my lord.”

“For kriff’s sake, Captain.” She sighed in exasperation. “I have an order for you.”

His eyes snapped to hers, body tensing.

“If in the future you want any intelligence on what I may or may not want or do, you will ask me . Not your mother, not someone in the Imperial military who might guess. I can assure you I have a far more intimate grasp of my thought processes than anyone else you might speak to.”

“I… yes, my lord.”

“Dysprosia is one of my oldest friends. We provide certain relief to one another when we are both unattached, but we are not lovers in a romantic sense, nor could we ever be.” They’d never even tried it; somehow they both knew their friendship did not extend quite so far as to be the other’s primary emotional caretaker. “Had I wanted to invite you into that situation, I would have couched my interest in you in those terms. Captain, look at me.”

He dragged his blue eyes to her face.

“I’m interested in you . Alone. Exclusively.” His mouth dropped open a little more with each word. “Does that clear things up for you?”

“Yes, my lord.” The words were slow, thoughtful. He turned and retrieved two small tools from the cabinet behind him. “My lord, I would like to remove the collar, now. I shouldn’t have left you so long with it on.”

Mara frowned at the sudden change of subject but nodded. It had been unnerving to have this conversation without being able to feel his reactions, but she was also glad to have it while they were on even footing.

She lowered her head - sitting on the medical bed she was quite a bit taller than he - and his hands went behind her neck. She could feel the scrape of the tools against the metal as he worked. Her face was pressed against the unforgiving armor of his shoulder. The scent of him lurked behind the smell of blaster scouring and plasticine, bringing to mind woodsmoke and a Dromund Kaas forest after rain. She hadn’t been this close to him since Tatooine.

“Almost got it,” he murmured.  “And… there.”

Mara gasped as the world flooded back into her senses. She squeezed her eyes shut against lights that were suddenly brighter, the peculiar subsonic cadence of the Fury’s sublight drive humming through her bones.

And her captain’s emotions washed over her. Mostly shock, shot through with quietly radiant veins of hope.

She kept her head on his shoulder, fingers curled against his breastplate, breathing deeply as her senses readjusted to the extra input. Quinn sighed and laid the collar aside. His hands were gentle on her upper arms.

“You’ve caused me a bit of difficulty, my lord,” he said, his tone dry.

Mara gave a small laugh and lifted her head to meet his gaze. “Left you tossing and turning in your bunk, have I?”

“Yes, but that’s not what I meant.” He reached up a shaking hand to stroke her cheek. “I was beside myself today. Had you been seriously hurt I-” he cut off.

“I was stupid,” she said softly, her hand covering his. “I won’t be so again.”

“I believe you, my lord, but the life we lead… things will happen. Romantic attachment between us could cloud our judgment; we may not be able to act if the other will be hurt or worse. It’s a substantial and unnecessary risk.”

His eyes held hers as he said it. She smiled at the last word, sure he used it purposefully, knowing what her answer would be.

“My dear Captain, if you know nothing else about me, you should know by now that I enjoy taking risks.”

She tipped his chin up and pressed her lips to his. His stubble rasped against her skin as he leaned into her. She felt him inhale, felt a surge of emotion, and pulled back.

“Do you need-“

His hand was in her hair, pulling her lips back to his hungrily and silencing her words. He kissed her like he was a man dying of thirst and she was a mountain spring. When his other hand slipped up to cradle her face, the synthleather of his glove warm against her skin, it was with his thumb and forefinger on either side of her tendrils on that side, instinctive as if he’d been holding her thus for years. Mara drank him in just as desperately, her arms tangling around him, cursing the armor that kept his body from melting into hers.

At length they separated. Quinn drew back, his blue eyes searching hers, his breathing as elevated as Mara’s own.

“My lord, I’m drawn to you, make no mistake. But…” he trailed off, biting his lower lip as his eyes dipped to her mouth and then back up. “Some risks are worth taking. But they should be well-considered.”

“I’m not in a rush, Captain, not now that I know where we stand with one another.” She smiled, one hand toying with the short hair at the back of his head. His eyes slid closed with pleasure at her touch. “Do let me know if you would like any fresh food for thought.”

He inhaled slowly and stepped back from her, his hands dropping back to his sides, posture straightening to that of her executive officer. “I shall, my lord. For now, however, I would like to treat your remaining injuries.”

“Of course.”

They were in hyperspace by the time Quinn finally allowed her to leave the medbay. She was a veritable quilt of kolto patches, covering her lightsaber and blaster burns, but her bruises had already begun to heal now that the Force once again infused her body. The world felt substantial and real again: the slight tickle of recycled air moving over her skin; the bite of cool metal against her fingertips as she gripped the edge of the hatch on her way onto the flight deck. The blue mottle of hyperspace was almost painful in its clarity, the moving shadows playing over Vette’s lekku.

“I owe you a debt,” Mara said softly as she settled into the command chair. Vette swiveled the pilot’s chair to face her. “Thank you for finding me.”

“I wasn’t about to leave you to the Hutts.” Vette grinned. “And besides, Illip’s encryption attempts were pretty bad; they made it easy.”

“I should have listened to you after we finished that first bottle. I was foolish.”

“Yeah, you should have. But I sorta figured the worst you’d get was a bad hangover; I never thought the SIS would pick you up.”

“No, nor did I. But I should have known better.”

“What’re you going to do about Illip?”

“I thought about storming their palace, but I’ve decided to take a page out of your book.”

Vette frowned. “Send a bunch of porn holos to Greblak’s palace?”

“No, I’m going to ruin their business.” Mara grinned. “As a dear friend once said, not everything has to be about death and destruction.”

“Let me know if you need any help.”

“I will; I suspect my own security can do the job, but I’ll run their plan by you before the implement it.”

“Wouldn’t want your security getting sloppy?”

“Precisely.” Mara sobered. “Truly, Vette, I was stupid and put you and Captain Quinn at risk, and I apologize.”

“Eh, Plasmajack gets under everyone’s skin,” Vette replied. But something in her sense relaxed in response to the reiterated apology.

“Did your friends make it off Nar Shaddaa safely?”

“Yeah, I sent them packing right after I realized you were in trouble.”

“Did you-”  Mara cleared her throat. “Would you like to rendezvous with them?”

Vette stared at her for a long moment, violet eyes unfocused.

“No.” Her eyes met Mara’s. “Thanks, but no. I’m gonna stick around for awhile.”

“I’m glad, and grateful,” Mara replied, warmth in her chest.

Vette smiled and turned back to the Fury’s console. “What can I say, you’re a decent boss and I haven’t annoyed Captain Tightpants nearly enough yet.”

Chapter Text

Alderaan, 1327 Imperial

“Good morning, Darth Baras.”

“Darth Avari,” Baras returns, glancing up from his datapad.

In theory, he should stand and bow; she’s his assigned superior on this mission, and a pureblooded High Lady of the Sith Empire besides. Those are the exact reasons he resolves to remain seated unless absolutely forced.

The tall woman’s red skin and bone spurs are the sole reason she was granted leadership of this mission. True, she’s a renowned member of the Diplomatic Corps; she brought over at least three Republic star systems by virtue of her silver-tongued negotiations alone, and if this were truly a diplomatic mission, her presence would make sense. But Baras knows, thanks to his master’s position on the Council, that this is not merely a diplomatic mission, and Baras’s own hybrid military and diplomatic experience make him the ideal leader. Still, the appearance of earnest diplomacy must be maintained, and so here she stays.

Or rather, it was necessary to maintain. That has changed as of today.

The Sith woman doesn’t comment on his lack of courtesy. She’s ignored his attempts at needling her in the month they’ve spent on Alderaan, seeming to flaunt her confidence in her own power and station despite Baras’s deeper knowledge of the many layers at work here. The annoyance takes a backseat to intrigue, however, when he allows himself to really look at her.

On the surface, she’s infuriatingly poised as ever. But there are dark circles under her glowing eyes. She surveys the assembled breakfast options before her, grimaces, and pours herself a cup of caf, drinking the entire cup black before refilling it. He realizes he hasn’t seen her eat more than a few bites at a time in days.

What in blazes…

On some level it’s amusing to see her inexplicably crumble. He embraces that feeling only cautiously; if her anxiety is caused by something that can derail the mission, something he doesn’t know, that could prove problematic.

“Are you well, Avari?” he asks.

She turns a neutral face to regard him for a long moment. If not for the bags under her eyes, her stare could be described as unnerving.

“My wellbeing is not your concern, Baras,” she replies tartly, “but yes, I am well.”

Liar . He reaches out to probe at her mental shielding. Her eyes narrow and the room seems to darken around them.

“Tread carefully.” Her voice is quiet, a breeze whispering through a tomb. “Whatever you think you know, is it worth my dicing you into tiny pieces where you stand?”

“If I believe you endanger this mission, it is very worth it,” Baras counters.

“My resolve and acumen are clear as ever. Was there anything else you needed this morning?”

The question is clearly a dismissal that he ignores. “In fact, there is.”

She pauses on her way out of the room and joins him at the table with a sigh. She raises a brow stalk as he sweeps the room for listening devices, and then activates a dampening field despite the negative results of the sweep.

“I’ve received word from Darth Vengean,” Baras begins. “I am to tell you, in my capacity as apprentice to the Councilor of the Sphere of Military Offense, that the Council has given the go order for Operation Eclipse. A fleet will deploy above Coruscant in approximately thirty hours.”

“I beg your pardon?”

The shock in her eyes alone is worth the month of pretending she led this mission.

“This negotiation is now classified as a military matter; the Council has instructed me to take control. You will depart Alderaan immediately and return to Dromund Kaas.” He smiles, knowing the expression doesn’t touch his eyes. “You can plead an emergency with that child you’re so proud of.”

Her mouth falls open, and once again the light seems to drain from the room, the air congealing like old blood until he can barely inhale it.

“Why wasn’t I told about this?”

“We needed a renowned negotiator with an earnestness that can’t be faked. You were the ideal tool.”

“You pompous, bloviating-“ She snaps to her feet, dualsaber in hand, unignited.

“Careful, Avari. Would you truly defy the will of the Council and your Emperor?”

He keeps his breathing even, focuses inwardly for a moment to make sure his mental shielding is still in place. Posturing aside, Avari is known for more than just her negotiating skill; he’s fairly certain he’d win an all-out fight, but fairly certain is not a guarantee. More to the point, a fight would be loud, messy, and difficult to explain to the Alderaanians and the Republic delegation.

Her nostrils flare and Baras flexes his hands at his sides, gathering the smallest tingle of Force lightning around them, focusing on his disdain for this puffed-up pawn to fuel his connection to the Force.

Suddenly she gasps, and a look of utter understanding settles onto her face. She returns her dualsaber to her belt and suddenly the air thins back into a breathable substance.

“I am loyal to the Empire, Baras, and I will follow my orders.”

“See that you do.” Only long practice keeps the confusion from his face, and the worry; he’s rarely confused. Things that confuse are dangerous.

“I will go now to make my excuses to our Republic counterparts and be off Alderaan by mid-day.”

He isn’t sure if he’s surprised when she does exactly as she says.

***

Alderaan, present day

A decade past and suddenly it’s all come back to Alderaan, Baras thought, to him and to the High Lady of House Thrask. The power differential was quite different this time around.

The child standing before him shouldn’t have survived. She at least should have had the good grace to die in the wake of her family’s ruin, even if she had somehow convinced the Council to spare her life.

Darth Vengean had watched Malgus drag the girl before the Council to inform her of her mother’s efforts to evacuate Jedi younglings from the temple during the sacking. And to charge her, as the family’s new head of house, for treason by association.

Vengean’s briefing for Baras betrayed a grudging respect for Darth Avari’s teenage daughter, quietly defiant in her poise before the twelve Darths who held her life in their hands, insisting on addressing them as her new station permitted. And she’d faced the chosen punishment - expulsion from Korriban and a further injunction against attending any and all other Sith Academies - with a straight back and calm eyes.

That, combined with her resurgent political standing and obvious raw strength in the Force, demonstrated Maranel Thrask’s worth as an asset to be used - and to the need to keep a close eye on her progress. The line between maintaining a useful tool and eliminating an unnecessary threat was a knife’s edge, one only true masters of the dark side could walk effectively. Baras had no doubt that the day would come when his apprentice’s threat outweighed her usefulness.

But for now she was his hands on Alderaan. She received his instructions with a gracious incline of her head and a sarcastic promise to make Duke Kendoh, Baras’s highly unreliable contact on the planet, quite sorry he’d begun ignoring Baras’s calls and instructions.

“The Alderaanian civil war is heating up, Apprentice,” he rumbled, “and thus far our chosen proxy in this fight, House Thul, has proven weak-willed at best. Moff Sarek is representing Imperial interests on Alderaan and has been charged with whipping our allies into shape. Given your unique skillset, I have promised the Moff any and all aid you can provide to our cause.”

“I will do as you say, Master.” She smirked at him. It was but the latest in a long line of insolent displays. She may have impressed the Council with her deft use of deference as a weapon in her favor, but the experience clearly left her with as much unearned confidence as her mother had died with. He looked forward to the day he could bury that smirk with the rest of her. “You’re not usually one to involve yourself in the local troubles of the planet.”

“Ever since the treaty negotiations, Alderaan has held a special place in my heart, Apprentice,” Baras replied dryly. “I spent many hours of blood and sweat bending the Republic’s lackeys to the Emperor’s will, as did your late mother. I would not see the legacy of that work go to waste.”

Her golden eyes widened the slightest bit at the mention of Darth Avari. He waited, wondering if she’d risk betraying her mental state by asking questions about her mother. Instead, she bowed fractionally and, after another promise to carry out his will, cut the transmission.

He shook his head, the bemused smile hidden by his mask. Her silence wasn’t particularly surprising; she had, after all, been well trained. He’d definitely have to keep an eye on her from here on out, which meant he also needed to put the fear of the Sith back into Captain Quinn, who’d failed to return Baras’s last check-in call.

But that would keep; Quinn’s was the type of loyalty easily bent back into place with a strategic shock to the system. Better to let the man forget his error for a time and then surprise him with it.

For now, Baras had other business to attend to. He tapped a command into the intercom on his desk, signaling to his next appointment that he was ready for her. The door to his antechamber slid open, and Eskella Tremel strode into his office, coming to stand nearly at attention before him. She remained silent, waiting for him to address her - smart girl. She too had been well trained, if in an entirely different vein from his apprentice. Her face remained calm, but her brown eyes twitched periodically to the preserved hand displayed on Baras’s desk, her hands flexing almost imperceptibly at her sides with every glance.

“Good afternoon, Supplicant,” Baras said at length. “I’ve been told you all but demanded to see me.”

“I did, my lord.” She answered his question without volunteering additional information.

“And why is that?”

Her brown eyes fixed on his face and she dropped to one knee. “I wish to become your apprentice, my lord.”

Baras’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. Not for the first time, he was glad for the full mask that hid his face. He turned that mask deliberately to the hand on his desk. “And why would you want that, Supplicant?”

“If you’ll forgive me, Lord Baras, you have a problem on your hands.”

“Do I indeed?”

“Her name is Maranel Thrask.”

Baras allowed himself an indulgent laugh. “You’d better hope you’ve brought me better information than that, girl, else I shall think you’re implying I’ve lost my wits.” He paused, letting his voice go cold. “And believe me when I say you wouldn’t want to imply that.”

“I’m implying no such thing, my lord,” the girl replied smoothly, though her face darkened with a flush, “I’m merely offering my services in helping you to manage her.”

“And why would you offer such assistance to an old enemy of your father’s, Eskella Tremel? You must know I shed no tears upon receiving news of his death.”

It was Eskella’s turn to stare at her father’s severed hand. Her hands balled into fists and her rage stabbed out to Baras through the Force. “You at least opposed my father openly, with honor.”

Baras stared at her. Eskella stared right back.

“Mara knew precisely how to earn your favor. Of course you would welcome the death of your old enemy; that is the way of the Sith. She’s always excelled at getting her own way.” The words were bitter.

The girl actually believed Maranel took initiative on her own to kill Tremel. What a poor judge of character she was; one of the few failsafes Baras depended on with his apprentice was her inflexible sense of honor.

“And what would you want out of such an apprenticeship, Supplicant?” Baras asked.

“Mara will turn on you as she turned on my father. When she does, I beg you to let me be your hands in dealing with her.”

“And if I give you such a prize?”

The girl bowed further, nearly pressing her forehead to the floor.

“I am yours for life, my lord.”

Baras smiled slowly, allowing the silence to stretch uncomfortably before replying, “I believe we can come to an arrangement. Rise, Apprentice Tremel.”

He’d have to find a role for her that kept her off Maranel’s scanners. Fortunately, he had just the place. His eyes and ears in Darth Vengean’s office had, as they so often did in the case of Force-blind pawns, become unreliable, necessitating his elimination. It would be a simple matter to suggest to his master that he take Tremel’s daughter as an apprentice. The aging fool had implicit faith in Baras’s judgment, after all.

“I have an assignment for you, Apprentice, which I would only entrust to one who has sworn herself to me as completely you just have,” he began.

Baras had always been an ardent believer in playing the long game and planted his metaphorical crops accordingly. But every so often, the Force granted a gift beyond his wildest dreams. Who was he to refuse it?

Chapter Text

“Hey Mara? Come here.”

Mara paused in her circuit of the room and turned toward Vette, face softening to the first smile Quinn had seen on her since they’d arrived at Thul Palace nearly twelve hours ago. Darth Baras had described House Thul as “weak-willed at best”, and Quinn had seen nothing so far to contradict that description. If anything, it may have been overly generous. His lord had never been one to suffer incompetence lightly, but Jorad Thul, the tall, portly scion of House Thul, seemed particularly offensive to Mara for reasons Quinn hadn’t quite worked out yet. Still, she’d done Thul’s bidding, in part to satisfy Darth Baras’s orders that she stabilize the Empire’s diplomatic prospects on Alderaan, and also in exchange for Jorad Thul locating Duke Kendoh, who had gone missing several days before Mara and her crew landed on the planet.

As she stepped up behind Vette’s chair, Mara activated a small device next to Vette’s datapad, enabling a dampening field that sealed their small suite against surveillance.

“Good work. I knew you were better than any slicer Thul might have on staff. What did you find?”

“Those droid cores you took from the forces that attacked Thul’s outposts? Their encryption isn’t Republic.”

“What?” Quinn hurried to Vette’s shoulder, leaning over to get a closer look at the data. “You’re certain?”

Vette jerked away from him, glaring over her shoulder, and Quinn leaned back, out of her personal space. “Does this encryption look like any Republic code you’ve ever seen, Captain Counterintelligence?”

“No,” he admitted reluctantly.

“But if not the Republic, then who…” Mara’s eyes widened. “One of Thul’s vassals.”

“Vette, scan local frequencies, see if you find a match,” Quinn said.

“Yeah… got it.” She frowned. “Okay, it’s definitely local but how do we figure out whose it is?”

“May I?” Quinn asked. Vette moved aside. Quinn typed a few keys, triangulating the likely source of the signal and pulling up a map of the local estates. “Killesa?

“Thul mentioned Killesa as one of his staunchest supporters,” Mara said thoughtfully, then grimaced as if she remembered just how much stock she took in Thul’s ability to recognize friend from foe. “Disable the dampening field.”

A moment later her holocall rang through to Jorad Thul, who sputtered with outrage at mention of Killesa.

“Yes, yes, you’re shocked at the treason. Again.” Mara’s voice was utterly flat. “Lord Thul, if all of your vassals are rebelling it may be time to consider what it is you’re doing wrong.”

Whatever Lord Thul’s response was, it was cut off by a squeal from a second comm on his end.  A pause as he muted the call with Mara, then, “My lord, we’re analyzing the communications feed you sliced for us; there’s a lot of chatter about a pending attack against my holdings. If what you’re saying about these droids is correct, Killesa is the most likely suspect.”

“Glad to see that your strategic acumen isn’t entirely missing, Lord Thul; I concur.”

“I…thank you, my lord. The problem is that Killesa’s lands are connected to mine by a tunnel; it opens right under this audience chamber. It’s the most likely point of attack.”

“Why in the  name of the Force wouldn’t you collapse that tunnel the minute civil war broke out?” Her voice mirrored Quinn’s own incredulous fury.

“An obvious oversight, my lord; I should have been more vigilant, I know that now. If you meet me in the audience chamber, I have a plan to turn back Killesa’s force and correct the tunnel problem right now.”

Mara shared a glance with Quinn and Vette. “Wonderful. If Lord Thul hasn’t located Duke Kendoh by the time I’m finished turning back his enemies, we move forward with finding Jaesa Willsaam ourselves.”

***

Cowardice. The most frequent charge leveled at the Empire by Thul’s unhappy vassal houses. And given the mewling incompetent the Empire had chosen as its proxy, Mara found it increasingly difficult to blame the vassal houses for that misconception. By allying with a coward whose cowardice was useful to it, the Empire appeared to share that particular failing.

Appearances.

Fortunately, appearances could be repaired, and Cedarik Killesa had given her a perfect opportunity for just that.

“If you or the Empire had any honor worth speaking of, you’d fight me in single combat instead of relying on the thermite explosives you’ve scattered throughout this tunnel.”

Mara ignited her lightsaber and offered a standard dueler’s salute. “If I win, you and your forces will retreat from Thul holdings, and you will return to the palace to re-swear your house to your liege.”

“Acceptable. And if I win, you and the Empire will leave Alderaan for good.”

There was no way a single apprentice could orchestrate such a massive reversal in foreign policy on her own. But when she met Killesa’s gaze, his brown eyes were more speculative than challenging, his hands balled into fists to keep them from betraying his nerves. This was not meant as a test of her dueling skills; given the obvious gap between them that was Killesa’s Force-blindness, it was a test of her mercy.

“I accept your terms, Cedarik Killesa.”

Killesa drew a vibroblade from his back and nodded to his squadron of troopers. They hesitated, but at a stern glance from their lord, holstered their blaster rifles and fell back, holding the tunnel opening that admitted the faint light of Alderaan’s moon. Mara heard the scrape of Quinn’s blaster sliding into his holster even before she glanced back at him. He gave her a small nod punctuated with a tiny, self-assured smile that was so brief it was gone almost before his lips had turned up fully; she doubted Vette or Killesa had seen it. Vette also holstered her blasters, but her violet eyes held a warning. Don’t humiliate this guy. Mara could practically hear her friend’s voice in her mind. She gave Vette a small nod of understanding, then turned back to her opponent and raised her blade.

“Shall we?”

Killesa closed the distance between them in seconds. Mara parried his attacks easily, her lightsaber flashing always a fraction of a heartbeat ahead of him. On her next parry, she shoved him backward a few steps with her shield. He ended in a perfect defensive form. Mara raised a brow stalk appreciatively.

Her advance was slow, testing his defenses, ramping up the difficulty of her attacks. She could end this quickly, humiliatingly, but she wanted to truly test his strength. A nobleman of honor would understand.

And he did. As they fought, his body relaxed, until suddenly they were… not sparring partners, precisely, but not the deadly adversaries who’d initiated the duel. When she was satisfied, Mara snapped back into an attack stance. His vibroblade went flying across the room less than a heartbeat later, and Mara’s blade flashed through the air, point poised at Killesa’s throat.

He didn’t flinch.

Whatever else he still thought of her, his brown eyes met hers calmly, with respect. His guards were less trusting; at least three had their blaster rifles trained on her.

“I submit,” Killesa said softly. His voice hardened to a commanding tone. “Stow your weapons.” The guard hesitated only a moment before obeying.

Mara closed down her blade and gave her opponent a shallow bow. She could feel Quinn’s shock like a sudden burst of cold air on her mind, but ignored him.

“You were a worthy opponent, Lord Killesa. I am honored by the opportunity to test myself against you.”

“Don’t patronize me,” he snapped, some of his ire returning. “We both know it wasn’t much of a test.”

Mara raised a brow stalk and called his vibroblade to her hand. “I suppose that depends on what you were testing. Dueling to investigate rather than kill is its own challenge, one I don’t have occasion to attempt very often.” She offered his blade to him, hilt first. He stared at it for a long moment.

“I will honor our agreement, Sith, assuming Jorad will grant me safe passage back to the palace.”

“I will escort you myself if need be. Lord Thul has much to learn, but rest assured I will teach him.”

Killesa shook his head and sheathed his blade. “I never thought I’d see the day when a Sith is teaching an Alderaanian about honor.”

Mara smiled. “That’s because you only know what the Republic has told you about us. I suspect that miscalculation is why Lord Thul twisted himself into such knots in an attempt to gain our favor.”

“I’ll… take your word for it,” Killesa replied, clearly unconvinced. “You, at least, are a woman of honor, and so long as the Empire sends people like you to aid and advise House Thul, we will follow.”

Mara gave the Alderaanian a wry smirk. “I’ll be sure to make recommendations to our Diplomatic Corps.”

***

In their absence, Lord Thul had finally located his cousin and Baras’s erstwhile Alderaanian operative, Duke Kendoh Thul. The man somehow managed to slither under the already rock-bottom expectations Quinn had for him, given his recent silence toward Darth Baras.

If Lord Thul was a study in puffed-up nincompoopery, Duke Kendoh Thul was something else entirely: unearned arrogance and utter disregard for his duty to Baras and, by extension, to Mara. Worse, he had the stupidity to announce as much to his lord’s face. Quinn couldn’t decide if the most offensive thing about Kendoh was his missing sense of duty, or his blithe disrespect toward Mara. That indecision, in turn, only made him despise the man further.

Either way, Quinn had a white-knuckled grip on his blaster long before Kendoh ordered his pet Sith, a tattooed Human named FimRess, to kill Mara and her crew. His blaster was halfway out of the holster when Mara’s gauntleted hand covered his. She wore a confident half-smile, her amber eyes so warm when they met his he briefly forgot the danger entirely in favor of wishing he could feel her palm against his bare skin.

She turned her attention back to FimRess and Quinn’s mouth dropped open when the tattooed Sith, instead of following his orders, bowed low.

“I’m sworn to protect you, Duke Kendoh, but I’m sworn to the Emperor first and foremost. I would not defy Darth Baras, nor would I attack a pure-blooded High Lady of the Sith Empire unprovoked.”

Mara inclined her head to FimRess as her hand left Quinn’s.   

“You were saying, Kendoh?” Her tone was smugly amused with a layer of durasteel beneath it.

The duke - a slight, mustachioed man in his fifties - opened and closed his mouth several times, hazel eyes wide.

“That was- I apologize, my lord. May we begin again?” He gave a low, obsequious bow.

“You may, quickly.” The snap of her words yanked the man upright to a stiff, almost military, posture. “Take care I like what you have to say, Kendoh.”

Fortunately for them all, the duke’s information was at the very least actionable, and delivered with an almost amusing alacrity. In only handful of minutes, Quinn followed his lord back into their assigned rooms in the palace. Night had long fallen. With little ceremony, Mara ordered food for the three of them and paced until it arrived.

“We move out at 06:00 and I want both of you with me tomorrow.” She said after they’d gotten most of the way through their meal.

“No argument here,” Vette put in, to Quinn’s surprise. The Twi'lek was even less of a morning person than their lord, or at least, Vette had less compunction about grumbling at the early hour. “If Kendoh and his buddies don’t get us first, someone here is absolutely going to trip over a gas line while lighting a cigarra and take the entire place down.”

Mara snorted. “Indeed. And though I sincerely doubt FimRess would be the one to do Kendoh’s dirty work, there’s no point in waiting to see if one of his Force-blind lackeys gets lucky.” Her face became serious and she looked at them each in turn. “I want you both in bed within the hour. Something about this mission tells me we’re going to be on the move from here on out. Pack your gear accordingly, and get rest while you can.”

They both nodded and rose to head to their respective rooms, but Mara’s hand on Quinn’s arm stopped him. She waited for Vette’s door to hiss open and closed, then raised a brow stalk.

“That blaster arm is a bit eager, Captain.”

Quinn grimaced, feeling his cheeks go up in flame.

“My apologies, my lord. I,” he hesitated. Honesty was probably best here, if he could make his mouth form the words. “I find myself taking strong exception to any disrespect paid to you.”

Her smirk blossomed into a smile and Quinn’s heart stuttered in his chest.

“Believe me, Captain, I appreciate your care, but perhaps we can agree upon other demonstrations that don’t run the risk of starting a firefight.”

She leaned into him as she spoke, her voice quieting to an intimate whisper that sent a shiver of anticipatory pleasure down his spine. Moved by some irrational power he didn’t understand, one hand dropped to her bare waist - how many times in a day could a man curse his gloves? - and he stared into her amber eyes.

“I’m open to suggestion, my lord.”

The part of him that remained rational yelled a warning - he was so very close to a line he thought never to cross, but Mara’s breath caught, her lips returning to that pleased smile that made him desperate to kiss her, and all reservation fled.

“This is an admirable start.” She leaned close and pressed her lips to his cheek, her bone spurs caressing his jawline. He stifled a groan, his arm going fully round her waist to hold her against him, the the other hand threading through her shoulder-length hair. “A pity your CO ordered you to rest up tonight, Captain.” Her breath sizzled against his ear. “Else I might have far more suggestions for you.”

“My CO is wise to order the rest, my lord, no matter the short-term sacrifices necessary to comply.” And it was short-term; he could no longer lie to himself about how far gone he was. One could only fight such desire for so long.

“How fortunate, and infuriating, for me that you follow my orders so faithfully.”

Her cheek brushed his as she pulled back. Amber eyes searched his face, her hand bunched in the fabric of his jacket, before her lips were on his: soft, gentle… a promise. Her hand tightened against his chest - if he didn’t know better he’d say it was a physical approximation of her strained control - and she pulled back.

“Good night, Captain.”

Her mahogany hair slipped through his fingers as she stepped away from him. He could still feel the tangible memory of her cool lips against his.

“Good night, my lord.”

***

Two days later Mara knelt in the mud outside the Juran Mountains power generator station. Next to her, Quinn and Vette were working at - and fighting over - a datapad and scanner. Vette elbowed Quinn out of the way, groping for the datapad, that Quinn jerked out of her reach.

“Well?” she prompted, cutting off a squawk of protest from the Twi’lek. “Is Kendoh’s intel sound?”

She made no attempt to disguise her contempt when she spat the name. Kendoh’s first lead turned out to be at least eighty percent fabrication - a cover to send Mara to cut a hole in Lady Renata Alde’s defenses big enough for FimRess to weasel in and carry the lady out and into Kendoh’s waiting clutches. Mara prevented that particular crime from taking place, and the only reason the smarmy duke still drew breath was that Renata, while she’d not known Jaesa Willsaam, knew who she’d been handmaiden to: one Gesselle Organa, noblewoman turned general in her family’s fight against Houses Ulgo and Thul in the Alderaanian Civil War.

It was Kendoh who had suggested they trip the region’s power generator to get past General Organa’s automated defenses. On the face of it, it wasn’t a bad tactic. Given the source, however, Mara intended to verifying every facet of the suggestion.

“It is sound, my lord,” Captain Quinn replied. “General Organa, rather than tapping a line directly into the power, has instead connected a generator of her own; it’s connected to the system but isn’t part of it.” Vette lunged for the datapad, and he swept it once again out of reach. “If we trip the regional generator, Organa’s generator will have to be reset by hand- Vette will you stop .”

“Give me the kriffing datapad, Captain Jerkface.”

“My lord!”

Mara grabbed the datapad with the Force and handed it to the Twi’lek. “Honestly, you two. Vette?”

“Before we blow the power, I can slice the generator and grab a map of the lines it’s feeding. You know, in case we want to actually find the compound before someone comes out here to reset their system.” Vette shot a triumphant glare at Quinn.

“And I told Vette that this is military-grade hardware; any such map will be buried under layers of security. The regional generator’s personnel will see us before we’ve gotten past the first firewall. Beyond that, a competent engineer will have added failsafes. Unauthorized accession of the map may trigger an alarm at the general’s compound.”

Mara pursed her lips. “How likely is that?”

“It’s how I would set up the security if I were in command, my lord.”

Mara allowed herself a flirtatious smile. “Fortunately for us, Quinn, you’re hardly an average soldier.”

He sighed, but there was a fondness in it. “My lord, you flatter me, but the fact remains this is an unnecessary risk.”

“But a well-reasoned one, Captain,” she replied, emphasizing her words. His blue eyes twitched to her lips for a fraction of a second and nodded. “I’ll handle the main generator; I can distract the local personnel while the two of you work on Organa’s system.”

“You sure you can get in by yourself?” Vette asked, worry in her violet eyes.

Mara grinned. “Some local guards and engineers are no match for a Sith.” Her smile faded as she looked at them each in turn. How they could be at such odds with each other while she cared for them each so deeply was a mystery. “Besides, given how you two have been at each other’s throats today, I believe I’ll have the easier task.”

“We’ll get the job done before you get into trouble, I promise.” Vette’s serious expression cracked slightly. “I know my job, and there’s no way Quinn would pass up a chance to impress you.”

“Vette!” Quinn glared icy daggers at the Twi’lek, but his suddenly-scarlet cheeks proved the truth of Vette’s words.

Vette laughed, tossed the datapad to Quinn, and walked the few steps to where they’d stowed their speeders. In the relative solitude, the captain’s eyes softened and his worry sang in her mind; this was the first time they’d split up for a mission since her stay with the SIS on Nar Shaddaa.

“I’ll be careful,” Mara said softly. “The faster you and Vette get that map, the safer I’ll be.”

“I won’t fail you, my lord.”

Mara glanced at Vette, who was still absorbed in her pack, and reached out to squeeze Quinn’s fingers gently.

“I’m counting on it.”

***

It turned out, they were both right, Quinn thought bitterly as his hands flew over his datapad; to his left, Vette was working the input terminal on the generator itself, her concentration just as intense as his. Organa’s engineers had installed not one but three separate electronic tripwires in the security they’d cracked so far. Fortunately Quinn identified the warning signs before the alarms were tripped and they’d been able to shunt the alerts into the communications ether.

But it had taken time, which was not a commodity they had in excess at the moment.

Either way, this was necessary, for as they examined the generator’s setup it became clear that following the power lines would require an airspeeder they didn’t have.

“Report.” Mara’s voice was clipped, accompanied by the background noise of blasterfire.

“Almost through the fifth layer of security,” Vette said.

“We’re getting close, my lord,” Quinn clarified. “We’ve found maintenance logs in the most recent files we accessed; the map can’t be buried much deeper.” He paused. “And your status, my lord?”

“Outside the generator control room. Being shot at.” A pause. “Not that I don’t enjoy it, of course, but the game is wearing a bit-“ a pained grunt sounded in his ear. “Ugh, the game is wearing a bit thin.”

Quinn split enough of his attention to shoot a look at Vette. Unless he were very much mistaken she’d just gone from being shot at to being shot. The Twi’lek grimaced and turned back to the terminal. Quinn bit down on his lower lip and did the same.

“I’m in,” Vette snapped. The data on her screen scrolled across Quinn’s datapad.

“Go back three files,” he replied. “There.”

“Got it.”

He shoved his datapad into his pack and turned toward the generator station, only peripherally aware that Vette was following.

“We’re on our way, my lord.”

“Sadly, I don’t think I’ve left any for you,” came the dry response. The ambient noise of blasterfire had ceased. “But your company is welcome all the same.”

Quinn smiled despite himself. “Magnanimous of you, my lord.”

“I know- fuck.”

“Was that an order? Because I’d rather not be here for that,” Vette said.

“Oh, hush you. No, the console’s locked down. I can’t do… anything.” The last word was a snarl punctuated by the crunch of a fist slamming into the console.

They cleared the trees, the entrance to the power station looming ahead of them. “We’re nearly there, my lord, we can-“ He heard the snap-hiss of her lightsaber igniting and broke into a run. “My lord, that’s not the most prudent-“

A boom and then the screech of feedback in his earpiece; half a second later a small shockwave rocked the floor beneath their boots. Quinn staggered and grabbed Vette’s arm to steady her; the lights in the hall flickered out for the half second it took the station’s auxiliary system to come online, then stabilized. They exchanged a look, then sprinted the last few meters to the control room.

The control console was a smoking, sparking heap of scrap. Mara was curled up in a corner, her form obscured by the blue static of her energy shield. As they skidded into the room, the shield clicked off and she lowered her arm, an unrepentant half-smile on her face.

“Captain, I think you should know the console exploded.”

Vette’s laughter echoed off the walls of the room.

“I see that. If only someone had warned you, my lord,” he replied flatly as he hurried to her, his tone only widening her smile. She gathered her legs under her to stand, but he shook his head. “Don’t move; I need to check for internal damage from the blast.”

“I’m fine, Captain, aside from the blaster burn.” She began to rise again.

“Sit. Down.”  A small voice warned against the unmistakable order in his tone. The rest of him, however, held her amber gaze mercilessly until she settled back onto the duracrete, allowing him to tend to her. “Thank you.”

The scan was negative for any injury aside from a blaster burn on her side - an angled slash that connected her utility belt and midriff-baring top.

“Well, are my insides intact?”

Her voice was soft, gently teasing; her glowing eyes warm pools of honey as they searched his face.

“Quite,” he replied. “Your only injury is the blaster burn-“

“Which you will treat after we’ve left this building.” The command in her voice was clear. “Gesselle Organa and any other of Alderaan’s nobility that siphon power will be sending teams to investigate their downed generators.”

He nodded. “Of course, my lord.”

She grinned. “We’ll show her what a one-woman army looks like.”

Quinn thought about reminding her that she’d have backup but thought better of it, grimaced, and followed her out of the power station.

***

Bruised. Bruised is what a one-woman army looks like , Quinn groused to himself as he and Mara drove by speeder back to the camp they’d made in one of the many cave systems at the foot of the Juran Mountains. Bruised, with a new blaster burn and, judging from how she landed when that final battle droid threw her, a broken ankle. Against his stringent advice, she’d insisted upon walking back to their speeders untreated; no doubt using the Force to shore herself up even after they were out of view of Gesselle Organa’s troops.  

She was victorious as well, against all odds, a fact that left Quinn’s pulse racing despite his worry about her injuries, both in turning back House Ulgo’s forces and in getting the intel they needed from Organa. Now that she was off her injured ankle, pressed against his back with her arms around him as he drove, he found himself inclined to focus on the victory over the injuries. But no, he scolded himself firmly. Both had to be considered together. Kriffing hell she was arrogant to the point of recklessness. How could a character trait be simultaneously so entrancing and so infuriating?

“Everything’s clear here, Captain,” Vette’s voice said over their comms. “I’ve got the heater going so it’ll be nice and cozy when you get here.”

“Oh wonderful, heat. Precisely what I wanted on top of being labelled an invalid,” Mara gritted.

“No one said you were, my lord,” he sighed. “And the heater is set to a temperature optimal for all three of us.” Sitting in a damp, cold cavern and fighting with his lord about treating her broken ankle did not appeal to him at all. A damp, warm cave, at least, was modest improvement.

And that’s exactly what they found when Quinn walked the speeder into their cave, ignoring Mara’s drawn brow stalks and her glare down at him from where she remained perched in the speeder’s passenger seat.

“Don’t put any weight whatsoever on that ankle-” he nearly choked and dove to catch her when she slid carelessly down the side of the speeder. Vette shot him a commiserating look.

“If you’re looking to hold me, Captain, you need only ask.” Fortunately, her voice was pitched low, an intimate and distracting whisper for his ears alone. “Indeed, I dare say I could warm you better than any field heater.”

He bit back a chuckle - no, he would not reward this nonsense by laughing at it - and supported her until she settled on a rock a few steps from the speeder. “Obey my instructions for caring for your injuries, my lord, and then we’ll talk.” He raised his voice to call over his shoulder, “Vette, can you retrieve our lord’s pack?”

“What do I look like, your maid?”

“Vette-”

He turned to glare at her and jerked back when he realized she was less than an arm’s length from him, the pack in hand. He rolled his eyes and took it from her.

“You’re welcome,” she muttered.

“Thank you,” he replied, belatedly.

“I’m eating your share of the alderberries we gathered,” she announced, stomping back to the pack that held their rations.

Quinn sighed. He turned back to his lord, looking up to find her gazing at him thoughtfully.

“You seem frustrated, Captain.”

“I take my duty to you seriously, my lord,” he replied, unzipping her boot to get at her injured ankle, “I cannot perform my duties if you don’t heed my advice.”

“And my stubbornness calls your professional reputation into question?”

Of all the- does she truly think that’s where my concern lies?

“Of course not,” he bit out, slamming her boot onto the ground next to him. “My concern is with you and your well-being. Now hold still.”

She was silent while he scanned her ankle to confirm the fracture and applied a kolto wrap, winding it tightly to compress the injury without threatening her blood flow. Once her foot and the wrap were covered with a clean sock from her pack, he folded a portable splint around her foot and ankle.

“Hold this in place.”

She did.

He eased her boot over her toes, sliding it on until he met resistance. “This may hurt,” he said, pausing until she gave a hum of acknowledgement, then firmly pushed the heel into place.

Her pained grunt yanked his eyes up to hers.

“Are you alright?”

“Fine,” came the soft reply, her amber eyes impossibly warm.

Something in her gaze shocked him back to reality, a gasp escaping him when import of what he’d just done - going through her pack, ordering her about - flooded in.

“My lord, I-” he looked up at her, sputtering. “My apologies I should have-”

“None are necessary, Captain; you’re merely doing your job.” She smiled that warm, inviting smile again. “I must say you’re uniquely suited to giving me orders.”

He looked away quickly, his face burning. “My lord, please-”

“I like it.”

That yanked his head back round; her voice had been almost too soft for his ears despite their proximity.

“You what?”

“I like it.” She held his gaze for a moment, then gestured to her side. “Will you treat this?”

“What? Oh- yes,” he stammered, grabbing a tube of kolto gel.

Today’s blaster burn neatly crossed the one she’d taken yesterday; she barely seemed to feel them, though every hit took at least a year off his life, he was certain.

The line between his professional and personal selves blurred uncomfortably in the seconds it took to treat the smoldering gash, her heat and sweat overwhelming his senses until all he could think of was the joyful snarl on her face when she’d collapsed the windpipe of the soldier who’d shot her, and all he wanted was to feel her hot flesh under his lips and hear her gasp with surprised pleasure.

He didn’t lean back as far as he might have when the task was done, one hand curling around her calf as he stared into her glowing eyes, keenly aware of her core muscles contracting and releasing with her increased heart rate.

“I’m afraid, my dear Captain, I force you to keep me alive despite myself.”

“I’m equal to the task, my lord.” He would be equal to any task she set.

“Not to spoil the moment, but if you two are going to boink, you have to find your own cave.”

With a start, Quinn realized they’d been speaking in hushed ones for some time, and worse, his hand remained wrapped around Mara’s left calf. His cheeks burned and he snapped his hand away.

“Hush, you,” Mara admonished Vette fondly, putting her weight on her good leg to stand.

“Is the splint uncomfortable, my lord?” He asked, suddenly reminded of his professional duty towards this woman.

“Not yet,” she replied. “How long do I wear it for?”

“A few days. The kolto should have the bone largely healed within the next standard day, but the splint will allow you to strengthen the ankle slowly.”

She nodded, slowly testing her weight on the injured foot.

“Thank you, Captain.” She gave him a genuine, warm smile, then turned back to Vette and strode over to where the Twi’lek sat glaring at a ration bar. “Don’t you dare eat my alderberries, Vette. Captain Quinn may not fight you for his share, but I’m not above fighting dirty for mine.”

***

Alderaanian nights embodied the word crisp , Quinn decided, shifting against the rock just outside the cave. The midnight air nipped at his nose and cheeks, and the sharp scent of pine accompanied every inward breath.

He’d taken the first watch after no small amount of coaxing Mara to sleep; indeed, she insisted on spending over an hour in a healing trance, speeding the kolto’s work on her ankle, before acquiescing to a few hours’ rest. Inside the cave, Mara and Vette were both tinged an otherworldly green by his nightvision goggles, and his lord’s breathing was even, her face relaxed in sleep. He felt a rush of warmth as he regarded her, smiling to himself and turning back toward the Alderaanian landscape and the stars he could just barely glimpse between the trees.

Quinn jumped to his feet in shock at the sudden vibrating of his holocomm, the sound unnaturally loud in the silence of the night, and fumbled the device from a pocket in his fatigues. His heart stopped.

It was Darth Baras.

With another glance into the cave, Quinn moved a few paces away, positioning himself with the cave mouth in view but far enough away not to wake either woman. Raising his goggles, he forced his face into a neutral expression and answered the call with a polite bow of his head and a, “My lord”.

“Captain Quinn. How good of you to find time in your busy schedule to speak to me.”

Quinn frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t understand, my lord,” he said, proud of how little his voice shook. He’d Baras take this tone only a handful of times in a decade, thankfully never with him. Until now.

“I hope for your sake you have a very good reason for ignoring my holo from a week ago.”

A week ago? That would have been- oh fuck . For one horrible moment he worried he’d sworn out loud, but Baras remained silent, impassively awaiting an answer.

“We were on mission, my lord.” The truth, if only the barest version of it. “Based on our previous conversation, I thought you would contact me again if you desired a report.”

It was an awful justification. He held his breath

“This will not happen again, Captain.”

Quinn bowed his head contritely. “No indeed, my lord. I apologize.” A pause, then, “Did you have need of me?” Stars help him if Baras demanded the particulars of the mission that had preoccupied him. Could he tell the Darth that his apprentice was apprehended by the SIS? Could he bring himself to lie? His own honor aside, would Baras see through the falsehood as easily as he seemed to see through the webs woven by his enemies?

“No.” Quinn almost relaxed. “I’ve had everything I need from Duke Kendoh who, though highly distractible, at least has a clear sense of loyalty.”

I very much doubt that , he thought, but held his silence.

“Captain, do you like your posting on my apprentice’s ship?”

Fingers of ice crept through his gut. “Yes, my lord; it is an opportunity for service few can even dream of.”

“It is indeed. And it is a privilege I will only extend to the very best, for my apprentice is young and untested. I suggest you keep that in mind the next time I contact you for a report.”

The holo went dead.

Quinn stared blankly, mind racing.

He thought he was free. Baras said as much during their last conversation on Balmorra.

But then he gave Quinn the privilege of choosing his next posting. You ignorant fool, of course that was another debt . And this one heavier than the last because it’s not just my career, it’s her. He’d lose both, he was certain.

The holocomm danced back and forth as his hands shook.

“Captain?”

Quinn jerked and turned to see Mara’s glowing amber eyes. It was too dark to see anything else until she was nearly within arm’s length of him. Her lightsaber was in her hand and she scanned the forest around them until her eyes landed on the holocomm in his hands.

“What’s wrong?”

Lord Baras wants me to report on your activities and he could take me from you whenever it strikes his fancy .

“I’m not-“ he took a steadying breath. “I’m not ready to talk about it, my lord.” He wasn’t. He wasn’t even sure how to begin.

She seemed ready to press him further, but the deeper implication of her presence struck him.

“My lord, you shouldn’t be walking on that ankle.”

“It’s fine, Captain.” At his raised brow she gestured downward. “You’re welcome to scan it if you like.”

He frowned. “You seem quite certain of yourself.”

“Force healing is a wondrous thing,” she replied teasingly.

He smiled. “Fair enough, my lord.” He paused, feeling quite ridiculous. “I’m sorry the sound woke you. I thought I was far enough away-“

“The Force woke me,” she interrupted gently. “I felt… troubled.”

“I’m unharmed, my lord. I merely had…” he took a deep breath, “an unsettling call from Dromund Kaas.”

“That you’re not ready to talk about.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Her glowing eyes held his for a long moment, and then she reached out a hand and caressed his cheek. Her skin, usually cool, was a warm balm against his coldbitten face. “Come back to camp, Captain. My watch starts now.”

He should pull away; he knew he should. He would never be free of her master and that made him a threat to her. But her hand on his cheek felt so very right he couldn’t help but lean into her touch. “As my lord, commands,” he said softly, turning his head so his lips brushed her palm.

The last thing he saw before dropping to sleep was her silhouette standing in the mouth of the cave.

Chapter Text

Nearly a week after Darth Baras’s midnight holocall, Quinn followed Mara back into an Imperial forward camp, his feet shuffling on autopilot, his memory worryingly void of how they got up the trail to the encampment. Three days without sleep was too many, he thought sluggishly; yes, he’d kept to a strict regimen of stimulants, but that just meant he’d avoided the hallucinating stage of exhaustion.

On some level, Quinn welcomed the mental sluggishness and the three days of near-constant action. It distracted him from Darth Baras’s last communication to Mara, just after she’d successfully convinced Jaesa Willsaam’s parents to join the Empire, where Baras relayed a mountain of slander gotten second-hand from Duke Kendoh: that Mara was enriching herself rather than focusing on her mission, and that she’d downed the regional power generator as part of a successful assassination plot against several Thul vassals, Cedarik Killesa among them.

It was all lies, of course. The only person with the advance notice necessary to plan such a multi-pronged strike was Kendoh himself. Darth Baras had to know that. Indeed, that Mara’s brief update regarding the Willsaams so easily mollified him was evidence of that; had Baras truly believed his apprentice to be shirking her duty, Quinn had no doubt his retribution would be swift and painful.

No, that call had been a performance entirely for Quinn’s benefit. A reminder that, if Quinn failed to report on her, Baras always had other spies, spies who were more self-serving, who couldn’t possibly care less about the Empire or Mara, only too happy to act as informant.

And so he’d thrown himself into his work, serving as his lord’s second when she was drafted by Moff Sarek and Darth Viktus to lead a combined Thul and Imperial strike force against Bouris Ulgo, the pretender to the Alderaanian throne. Ulgo had amassed troops against the tiny holdings that remained of House Panteer, the house of the late Queen Silara. Panteer had been nearly wiped out by Ulgo forces in the aftermath of the queen’s assassination, but they still held sufficient political sway to place the crown on any head they saw fit. And so the Empire, naturally, jumped to Panteer’s defense as soon as it was able.

They returned to camp victorious; Mara and six squadrons of mixed Thul and Imperial troops had not only stalled Ulgo’s advances on the Panteer camp, but pushed them back enough that an assault on Bouris Ulgo’s position in Castle Panteer was now feasible.

“Welcome back, my lord, sir,” Lieutenant Muir, attache to Darth Viktus, saluted them. “Darth Viktus and Lord Panteer are in the command quarters; I’m to escort you to them immediately.”

“Of course, Lieutenant,” Mara replied. She wasn’t as tired as Quinn, thanks to the Force, but her voice still carried the aural equivalent of drooping eyelids. As if she heard the thought, she glanced in his direction, brow stalks furrowed with concern. “Darth Viktus is aware of how long our forces have been without sleep, yes?” she asked.

Muir gave a tight smile as he pulled aside the tent flap. “He is. You’ll find his timetables have been drawn up with that in mind.” A Sith and a dark-skinned Human man stood on opposite sides of a holotable, regarding a scale projection of Castle Panteer. The locus of the early stage of the civil war, the building was already a smoking ruin. That Bouris Ulgo insisted on living in that ruin was elegant symbolism of his troubled - and hopefully, soon to be terminated - reign.

“Apprentice Thrask, Captain Quinn, come in.” Darth Viktus, a tall, veiny Human whose eyes held the unnatural orange glow of the dark side of the Force, smiled ghoulishly. “I must say, Moff Sarek was right to send you to me. You have performed beyond all expectation.”

“Indeed,” Lord Panteer added, his brown eyes shining. “We never dreamt to have a viable shot at Bouris Ulgo so soon. My family will finally take back the palace he stole from us when he assassinated my aunt Silara.”

“It’s been an honor to protect what’s left of your house, Lord Panteer” Mara replied with a slight bow of her head. “Lieutenant Muir’s squadrons are well trained, and the Thul troops we’ve integrated show great promise. Darth Viktus, I hope you will laud them as well in your report on this engagement.”

“I will indeed. Now, our actionable window is tight and I want the two of you rested, so I shan’t keep you long. Five squadrons will be deployed to the palace grounds and in the lower ruins to take key security junctions. You and the sixth squadron will be dropped off here,” he illuminated a point on the projection in the upper levels of the castle, “within spitting distance of the throne room.”

“Ulgo’s so-called King’s Guard will be in the room with him,” Panteer warned. “They will be trained to battle Force users and outfitted in cortosis armor pilfered from my aunt’s armory; don’t underestimate them.”

Mara nodded. “Cortosis will stop a lightsaber, but it has its drawbacks, Lord Panteer. It’s brittle, vulnerable to blunt attack.”

“You see, Lord Panteer, what well-trained and resourceful assets you will have at your disposal as a member of the Empire?” Darth Viktus purred.

“I do see, Darth Viktus. Your efforts on our behalf have been stunning thus far.” He turned his attention back to Mara. “If at all possible, we want Bouris Ulgo alive. He must stand trial for his crimes; let all of Alderaan see justice done.”

Viktus, standing slightly behind Panteer, stared intently at Mara, his face an eloquent summation of his disagreement with Panteer.

“Message received, my lord,” she replied with a shallow bow.

“Wonderful,” Viktus said. “You will report in five hours. Rest up.”

Quinn did not need to hear that order twice.

“Lieutenant, Captain Quinn and I require quarters.”

“Oh, ah,” Muir paused as he led them out of the tent. “My men are all stacked two to a bunk. As I’m fresh, you’re welcome to take my bunk, my lord, though that still leaves your Captain without lodging.”

Mara waved a hand. “If everyone else is sharing quarters, I will be no different. We’ll share the bunk.”

Muir’s eyes widened, something very like a blush staining his dark features. “I… as you command, my lord.”

Muir’s tent was slightly larger than that of the rank and file soldier, and his cot somewhat wider than standard issue - something from Thul, perhaps? Still, their proximity would be… intense.

“It’s better than sleeping on the ground, is it not?”

“Ah… yes, my lord,” he said carefully, his cheeks aflame.

She gave him a wry smile and moved to one side of the cot, removing her belt and gauntlets. He followed suit, and when they both lay down, he could feel her back pressed against his. He couldn’t decide between wanting to pull away, and risk falling off, or give up and pull her into his arms, a far more appealing prospect in every way except for his guilty conscience. Being equally pulled in both directions, he settled for doing nothing, and willed himself to sleep.

When he woke three hours later, facing the other way and with Mara curled against him, her head pillowed on his chest, he was forced to admit that his will was perhaps not what it used to be. He sighed, stroking her hair idly. The week of work and exhaustion had been a welcome respite. But now, in the quiet before another battle, panic churned in his belly. He had two choices, so far as he could tell: remain on her crew, with a self-imposed distance that would keep him from knowing anything too damaging about her, or remove himself from her charge altogether. The former seemed the better option - he could at least know what information was being passed to Baras.

Either way, this was perhaps the last time he’d hold her like this.

In light of that fact, he allowed himself the luxury of savoring her warmth against him and the spiced scent of her hair. He passed the final hour of their rest like that, until he felt her shift against him, a soft inhale signaling her return to consciousness. She went very still for a moment, then,

“What time is it?” Her voice was pitched low, the words murmured into the front of his jacket, as if speaking louder would ruin their little moment of peace, and she was not wrong.

“Just after 02:00,” he replied.

She did look up at him then, amber eyes alert and warm as they held his. “I suppose we should gear up.”

He nodded. “We should.”

“To report late would be embarrassing,” she said after several moments of inaction, “to say nothing of the disciplinary action we’d be subject to.”

“Indeed.”

Her eyes slid shut and she snuggled closer against him, her body languid, one arm going round his waist to squeeze him gently. He swallowed noisily around the lump in his throat; he knew she desired him, but feeling her relax against him was a demonstration of trust beyond anything he’d ever hoped for.

All too soon, she sat up on an elbow and gently disengaged from him. His arms gave way reluctantly, even as he knew this was for the best. He stole what felt like a final glance at her as she buckled her utility belt, her back muscles flexing slightly.

Emperor’s bones, he was going to miss this.

***

Cortosis armor may have been brittle by Sith standards, but it still packed one hell of a punch, Quinn mused bitterly. He was on his backside in the Panteer throne room, leaning awkwardly against a column and trying to breathe through his buckled body armor. That he sat in ankle-deep rain water admitted through the damaged roof only added insult to injury.

It was moderately less humiliating than the fight with Yonlach; here, at least, he’d taken his attackers down with him. The corpses of three King’s Guards littered the floor around him.

Still, it was a victory that would carry high diplomatic dividends.

Six meters away, Bouris Ulgo, the pretender to the Alderaanian throne, was on his knees, water soaking the fine brocade of his trousers as he glared daggers up at Mara, who stood over him with her blade at his throat while a Thul soldier cuffed Ulgo and readied him for transport. The rest of their squadron held entry points into the room.

An unknown amount of time passed as he tried to force himself to stay conscious. Even from afar he could see the tension in his lord’s body as she tended to the last details of the engagement, worry plain on her face whenever she glanced at him, until finally Lieutenant Muir arrived to relieve her.

He sputtered with horror when she dropped to her knees in the dirty water.

“My lord you mustn’t-“

“Hush,” she said softly, taking the medscanner from his belt.

He gritted his teeth. “Please, you need not trouble yourself with this.”

She frowned. “How can I not?”

He had both no answer to that, and too many to communicate.

“A concussion, two cracked ribs and, well, I would say you’re made up of approximately sixty percent bruise at this point,” she said, studying the scanner. “I want to get you back to base for treatment.”

“My lord-“ he cut off at her glare.

“Do you recommend a different course of action?”

“No, but-“ Again words failed him; her worry and clear desire to care for him were too much after the emotional whiplash of the last week.

“Then hush,” she repeated, smiling slightly. “You’ve treated enough of my wounds, Captain, let me take care of yours.”

“My lord, a transport is ready for you,” one of their squadmates said.

“Thank you, Corporal.” To Quinn, she said, “Can you walk, Captain?”

“Of course I can walk,” he replied, pushing himself to standing. The palace tilted sharply and he staggered backward, only to be caught in her warm arms.

“I can see that,” she replied dryly, one arm going round his waist, the other pulling his arm over her shoulders. “Come on, let’s get you home.”

Back at their forward base, she eased him onto the cot in Lieutenant Muir’s tent. The corporal who’d summoned them to the transport left them in privacy to retrieve a medic. A fact for which Quinn was supremely grateful, since he doubted Mara would have been willing to wait much longer to begin freeing his battered torso from his armor.

“I’m sorry I didn’t protect you better,” she murmured as she removed the last piece.

“My lord,” he sighed. She took her duty seriously, and that was part of her guilt here, he knew. But her profound belief that she could keep him (and Vette) from all possible hurt if only she were quick enough, strong enough…. There were very few instances where the eleven years he had on her mattered, but this was one of them. “We both did our duty, my lord. You were exemplary, as always. This is the nature of the life we lead; things will happen despite the best planning.”

She smiled at him as she cut his undershirt off his body, revealing the bruises and superficial cuts that mottled his stomach and ribs. “I know, but I can still curse the universe for defying me.”

He smiled and opened his mouth to respond, then froze when he felt her cool fingertips on his bare chest. He wasn’t sure when she’d removed her gauntlets. He stared in fascination as her long, red fingers moved over his pale flesh, hands that could crush a man’s skull with little effort turned impossibly gentle as she smoothed a kolto patch over his ribs.

He looked up to find her studying his bare flesh, hands stilled. She’d never seen him in a state of undress, he realized with a start. She licked her lips and when her eyes met his, they were smoldering pools of amber flame.

His heartbeat quickened, body responding with instinct he couldn’t help but embrace; she was everything . Everything he’d ever wanted, consciously or unconsciously, looking up at him with the desperation of a starving manka cat stalking its first kill in months. Emperor help him, knowing he inspired such want was the headiest aphrodisiac he’d ever experienced.

He tipped her chin up, kissing her softly.

It hurt. His abused rib cage shot pain through his sides in protest and in that moment, it didn’t matter.

Mara rose on her knees to meet him, taking pressure off his injured ribs, her cool hands sliding up his chest as his arms went around her. He pressed her mouth open hungrily, her soft moan firing his blood even more-

She tore her lips from his, her head cocked as if listening.

“Someone’s coming,” she whispered.

He cursed and released her. They barely settled into their previous positions when Moff Sarek poked his head into the tent.

“My lord, Captain-“ he cut off, dark brows furrowing as he looked between them. Quinn held in a wince. Just what we needed . Blessedly, the Moff didn’t offer any verbal comment on the tableau before him. “I understand the battle went well?”

“It did indeed,” Mara replied, her poise somehow completely restored by the time she turned to the Moff. “Auric Panteer will be taking a delegation to Thul Palace to finalize the alliance between the two houses, though that may be complicated by the Republic wooing certain branches of the family, and Ulgo will face trial at the hands of his fellow nobles.”

“The news is spreading quickly, my lord; already we’re being praised for our swift action and even-handedness.” He smiled. “Jorad Thul is insisting upon a ball to celebrate the new alliance; he’s asked me to pass along his wishes that you and your crew attend.”

“We would be honored, Moff Sarek,” she replied with a nod. “Did you need anything else?”

“Lieutenant Muir notified me the Captain needed medical attention. I’ve brought a small team to assess his needs.”

The tent flap opened wider to admit a woman with a Lieutenant’s insignia and two corporals. If they found it odd that a Sith was on her knees before an injured Army officer, they hid it well. Instead, the three moved with the detached precision of experienced medical personnel, deferentially shooing Mara out of the way. The Moff gave a respectful nod to Mara and, as the tent flap closed behind him, her holocomm buzzed with an incoming call.

“I- ah, that’s Vette.” Amber eyes met his, a hint of apology in them.

“Please, my lord, all is well in hand here,” he replied. That call would be important; Vette had been tasked with taking Gregor and Parvin Willsaam to rendezvous with Mara’s Aunt Dzafir, who would complete their journey to Dromund Kaas and help them with all the flimsiwork their odd status required.

Mara inclined her head and stepped out of the tent. By the time she returned, carrying a flak jacket and undershirt, the medics had finished treating him. They bowed low before stowing their gear and leaving the tent.

“I’ve asked Vette to slice Kendoh’s communications and start gathering evidence.” She handed him the garments. “The quartermaster had some extra battledress. It may not be quite the right size, but-“

“It’s better than nothing,” he finished for her, grateful for the covering.

“There’s a transport returning to Thul Palace in half an hour; let’s head back.”

***

Three days later, Quinn stood in front of the full-length mirror in the room assigned to him in Thul palace running a critical eye over his dress blacks. The polished boots shone almost as much as the gold belt and bandoleer. He adjusted his rank insignia and Medal of Distinction, glaring at the unruly cowlick that seemed to have a mind of its own. Most days he just dealt with it, but today he desperately wished he could tame it, as a symbol if nothing else, that his internal conflict could also be tamed.

With a final nod, he strode out of his room and into the communal sitting room of the suite he shared with Mara and Vette. A quick glance showed his lord on the balcony with Vette.

Courage, Malavai , he told himself firmly. This is best for both of you .

The incident at the forward camp had proven, once and for all, that Quinn could not continue to serve on Mara’s crew without deepening their physical relationship. He simply wasn’t strong enough. Every moment spent in her proximity, he fell harder, creeping closer to acting on the all-consuming need to hold her, to taste her skin and finally be the cause of her moaning sighs of pleasure….

This isn’t helping.

He shook himself and marched to the balcony, back ramrod straight. There was only one honorable action left to him.

“My lord, if I may have a moment?”

His eyes fell on her and his breath caught. She was wearing velvety deep blue robes, her shoulder length hair loose and wavy. Gold embroidered mowhefs reared up the full skirt, their paws reaching to her waist. Massive gold earrings framed her neck, an intricate necklace curled delicate gold tendrils over the red skin visible above the neckline of her midriff-baring blouse, and her forearms were so laden with jewelry they were practically armored.

“Of course, Captain,” she said with a smile. “Vette, you know what we’ll need tonight?”

“Yep. I’ll slice the ballroom’s media feeds first thing when I get back to the ship, and I’ll be on the flight deck with a comm.”

“Excellent. Captain, I hope you’re prepared for a fight. I don’t think it’ll come to that, but one can’t be too careful.”

“I’ll have your back, my lord.”

She nodded. “Vette, you’d better get going.”

She waited in silence until the Twi’lek had left the suite entirely, then her amber eyes met Quinn’s. “What did you need, Captain?”

He took a deep breath, trying to calm his racing pulse, and settled into a parade rest, welcoming the tangible reminder of his rank that was the stiff uniform jacket protesting the movement. Dripping in gold, she looked like the part of a fierce, enchanting warrior goddess. He was a soldier, the warrior goddess’s devotee, but common and mortal all the same. Their difference in station could not be more obvious and lent weight to his request.

“My lord, I must officially request to be reassigned.” He was proud of how calm, how matter of fact his voice was.

She blinked, her face utterly blank. “I’m sorry?”

“I request reassignment,” he said, his voice less strong.

“Have I done something-” A pause. “Do you truly wish to go?”

Not in the slightest .

“For your sake, my lord, I do.” The words sounded as rehearsed as they were. “Thoughts of you distract me; it’s only a matter of time until I make a serious mistake. I cannot jeopardize your campaigns in such a manner. I cannot in good conscience continue to serve you.”

He thought he was prepared for her reaction - he remembered keenly how she’d reacted in the past when he’d rebuffed her.

But nothing could have prepared him for the way her face fell, a combination of surprise and… hurt. He flinched despite his best efforts. He couldn’t blame her - before, it had been false starts at emotional intimacy before he pulled back. Now…he’d spent the last weeks encouraging her, kissing her, literally learning her language , too weak to disengage even after Baras’s call. Perhaps the hurt will push her to grant the request . The thought twisted his insides.

“What’s changed?”

He froze. “I’m sorry?”

“This was not an issue two weeks ago. What has changed?” Her hands twitched, as if she wanted to reach for him, but she held her distance.

“I care for you, my lord.” A selfish admission, perhaps, but she deserved truth if he was to hurt her like this. “Because of that, I can’t stay. I know the danger I represent to you.”

“That’s not what I asked, Captain. Why are you asking me now?” This time she took a step forward. “I will grant your request, you know that. I only ask for the truth.”

“Darth Baras has ordered me to report your activities to him. He contacted me just before we left Dromund Kaas, and again a week ago.”

The silence seemed to stretch past several lifetimes. Then suddenly she burst into laughter.

“My… lord?”

“Captain,” she inhaled deeply, warm eyes searching his, “my dear Captain. I’m an apprentice; of course he wants regular reports on my performance.”

“You knew?” It was an accusation.

“I suspected.” Her face became serious. “I’m so sorry you felt yourself put into an impossible position; I wish you had confided this sooner.”

“And it doesn’t bother you?”

“I can’t say I’m thrilled, but,” an elegant shrug, “I’m an apprentice,” she repeated. “My aunts use similar tactics if they have an apprentice in the field where they can’t be observed. It won’t last; when I become a lord in my own right he’ll no longer have the right to demand such reports.”

He stared at her, trying to assimilate this information. Why bring up his loyalty? Why subtly threaten his posting, if this were normal? “He seemed quite… adamant. Threatening, even, on the subject.”

“Captain, surely you can’t have served Baras for as long as you did without realizing he has no notion of how to ask politely for anything.” She sighed when he maintained his silence. “Why would he move against me? Think it through; what would be the strategic value in doing so?”

She had something of a point there.

“Exactly,” she said. “Beyond serving him, I do him credit. He can boast at having a Red Sith noblewoman as an apprentice, a fact that bolsters his reputation and reminds him that moving against me would be to move against one of the most powerful houses in the Empire. Baras is too smart to risk that.”

He remained silent, his mind racing. Her eyes took on that sadness again and she turned her back to him, leaning against the stone railing, staring off into the distance.

“I said I would grant your request, and I stand by that. Just know I will miss you.” She inhaled shakily and seemed to straighten. “My offer on Balmorra, to smooth your transfer, still stands. Just let me know what commands appeal to you.”

Her eyes held his for a heartbeat longer, and she turned to return to the sitting room. His hand shot out, catching hers.

“Wait.”

She stared at their hands a moment, her gaze traveling up his arm to his face.

“Captain, you don’t have to decide now. Please, I don’t wish to pressure you-“

“I don’t need time,” he interrupted gently. “I’m an idiot.”

She frowned in confusion and he felt himself smile. She was so different from her master; where he threatened, she offered him his freedom. More; she would not merely allow him to leave her side, but help him do so advantageously.

To be Force-blind in the Empire was to spend one’s life in the service of the Sith; he’d never questioned that. Indeed, it was an honor. But in her service, he’d been granted something most could only dream of: she was a choice he could make willingly. Not to follow orders or out of desperation, but but because she was stunning, a personification of all he’d fought for his entire life. And because she wanted him as much as he wanted her. He was no Sith, but in this particular moment he keenly understood the credo, “passion will set you free”.

“I’m an idiot,” he repeated, taking a step closer to her, cradling her face with his free hand. “I withdraw my request.”

“You’re certain?” Her whisper sizzled against his skin.

“Yes. May I kiss you, my lord?”

Her eyes had closed, but at his question they snapped open, searching his face.

“Use my name.” It was half command, half plea. “I don’t want want to be your lord when you kiss me; I want to be your-”

Mara .” He’d not thought of her as anything else in at least a month, but saying the syllables aloud sent a thrill through his body.

That thrill only intensified when her hand slid up his chest to pull his head closer to hers. “Just so,” she said. A mischievous smile lit her face. “With that sorted, I do believe you’ve promised me something… Malavai.”

He shuddered under her touch, his name on her lips an almost tangible stroke of pleasure.

“I asked you,” he teased, somehow holding onto enough self control to keep their lips apart. “I take it that would be a yes , I may kiss you?”

“Please, yes-“

He claimed her lips gently, taking his time to explore them: their cool softness against his, how they curved as she smiled against him, her bone spurs pressing into his chin, firm but pliant. Her hand curled in his tightly, a moan of desperation vibrating against him as she parted her lips.

It was an invitation he couldn’t ignore.

He pulled her body flush against his as his tongue plundered her mouth, every sound she made, every movement of her body stoking his need until he was certain he would burst into flames. Suddenly her teeth caught his bottom lip, sharp and raking him until he groaned, taking control and reciprocating his passion, the nails of one hand threading through the hair on the back of his head, setting off tingling shivers all over his body.

At length he had to pull back for breath.

“Oh, Malavai,” she sighed, the signet on her forehead cold against his skin. “You make it exceedingly difficult to leave this suite and attend Lord Thul’s party.”

“Ah, but Duke Kendoh is in need of punishment,” he reminded her, “and watching you deal with him will be a pleasure all its own.”

She chuckled. “Well, if that doesn’t sate your desire too much, you are welcome in my bed tonight when we return.”

His stomach flipped and for one brief moment he considered advising they arrive fashionably late - just enough so that he could take her here and now.

But no. As much as he may have wanted to blunt his desire, she deserved his undivided attention, and there was a case to be made for anticipation heightening the eventual release.

“If you think I could be so easily sated, you’re sorely mistaken.” His voice dropped to a dark murmur. “A fact I look forward to demonstrating for you at length.”

Her breath caught and her lips curled into a wicked smile. “Good.”

Another short kiss, a promise of the heat to come, and she reluctantly stepped away.

“Shall we, Captain?”

Chapter Text

The ballroom of Thul Palace occupied the top two floors of the castle’s northern wing, with two-story windows lining three of its walls. Guests entered the room via its doors on the second floor, pausing on  a narrow balcony to be announced by herald before descending a long spiral staircase onto the plush purple carpeting of the lower level. The far half of the lower level was given over to a sunken white marble dance floor that was framed on either side by staircases that ascended up to a gallery rimmed with a gilded wood railing. 

The sun had just begun to set when Quinn and Mara arrived, sending gold and pink shafts of light through the red-draperied windows. Once it set, three massive crystal chandeliers would take over bathing the guests in warm light. Music filtered through the room, a small string quartet’s play amplified by a sound system Vette, in theory, now had access to.

Quinn’s pulse raced as the herald announced them and they descended the marble stairs, Mara’s hand warm in the crook of his arm.

“My how they stare,” Mara murmured dryly.

Quinn hummed in agreement, feeling his ears warm as the crowd’s attention settled on them. Mara chose that moment to call a tall, slender glass of sparkling wine to her hand, lifting it from the tray of a liveried server with the Force and plucking it from mid-air while they were still two steps above the crowd.

“Shall I get you one, too?” she asked.

“Ah, no thank you, my lord.”

“As you wish.” She smiled and raised her glass toward Duke Kendoh, who stood in a corner with FimRess, her gold-laden arms gleaming in the fading sunlight. The duke stared at her for a heartbeat before reciprocating the greeting. “I suppose this is where we separate for a time, unless you’d like to be trapped in conversations with inane Thul lords.”

“No, thank you,” he said again with a grimace.

She laughed softly. “I thought as much. Keep an eye on Kendoh; we don’t want our quarry leaving early. Enjoy the ball, Captain and,” she leaned close enough he could feel her breath on his ear when she whispered, “I’d advise you to eat well this evening; you’ll need your strength later.”

The blush that had nearly receded returned with a vengeance, along with a rush of heat to his groin. Before he could respond, she was threading her way through the crowd, moving with an easy grace that spoke to long hours spent in such surroundings, trading pleasantries with various nobles as she zeroed in on the Duke Kendoh and his pet Sith.

Quinn watched her out of the corner of his eye for the next several hours as he circulated amongst the Imperial personnel present, discussing tactics and gossip and receiving introductions to minor Thul nobles who’d shown an interest in future joint efforts between Imperial forces and Thul security such as the one that had taken down Bouris Ulgo.

He understood the necessity for this sort of extroversion, especially for one who wanted to advance deep into officer ranks, but it was draining. As soon as was polite, he retreated to a quiet corner with Lieutenant Muir and handful of similarly-introverted officers, watching Mara continue to flow through the assembly, just as bright and elegant as when they arrived, until Lord Thul snared her into conversation.

He introduced her to a   man about her age, whose coloring and bearing could only mean he was Thul’s son. Not five minutes into the discussion, her face clouded dangerously. Neither man noticed. The moment passed and the danger cleared, leaving boredom in its wake, glowing eyes seeming to actually dim as she claimed another glass of wine from a passing tray. When it was halfway gone and Thul showed no sign of slowing in his monologue, Quinn drained his whiskey and stood, weaving carefully through the crowd.

"I beg your pardon, my lord," he said, touching her elbow gently, "but I do believe you promised to honor me with a dance, and it is rather late in the evening."

Mara's eyes widened a fraction - they had discussed no such thing - and then she smiled.

"Indeed I did, Captain." She drained the last of her wine and handed the empty glass to the Thul whelp. "My lords, please do excuse me."

Their sputtering replies faded into the din as Quinn led his lord toward the sunken dance floor.

"You do have experience with the waltz, yes?" Mara asked as they descended the steps.

"I was raised on Dromund Kaas, my lord," he replied dryly. "Are you certain your ankle is up to the task?"

Though she’d healed quickly, this was her first day walking without the splint.

"My ankle is perfectly healed, thanks to my talented field medic," she replied. "On your lead, Captain."

He placed a gloved hand on her side, wishing he could feel her skin under his hands directly. In good time, he chided himself. The first few steps were awkward, but after a moment they settled into a graceful rhythm, Mara responding expertly to his changes in direction as they moved through the crowd on the dance floor.

"Thank you for the rescue," she said a few minutes later. "If I have to answer one more fool question on the basics of leading your own house..." she trailed off and shook her head. "My mother would return from the dead to skin me alive if I were even half as incompetent."

"Lord Thul is lucky to have your advice at all, my lord."

“True, and I’m happy to serve the Empire by imparting it. Still, Lord Thul is far too demanding of my time and expertise.” Her scowl turned into a mocking smile. “Do you know he had the gall to suggest a union with his son, the bloody cheek!”

Quinn tripped over his feet. “I’m sorry?”

She laughed. “Be at ease, Malavai, my family is not one to pursue diplomatic ties through marriage and, in any case,” her hand crept up his shoulder, “my affections lie elsewhere.”

He stumbled again, this time tripping over another couple that was whirling past them. Mara’s arm tightened around him to stabilize his balance. She smiled an apology to the couple, complimenting the lady’s dress, before turning to him, brow stalks furrowed in concern.

“Are you well?”

“Yes, only,” he took a breath, centering himself, searching for words. “Your… affections?”

Her smile made his heart clench as her hand slid to the back of his neck and his hooked into the small of her back to pull her closer, until their proximity strained the bounds of propriety. They swirled back into the dance.

“I should have thought that was obvious by now,” she answered. “Affection is not a prerequisite of physical intimacy for me, but nor are they mutually exclusive and yes, Malavai, I feel quite a lot of affection for you.”

He’d known, intellectually, that she cared for him. But hearing her say it, hearing her scoff at a fellow nobleman (however inane) in favor of him? He found himself smiling at her, utterly incapable of words.

When he did speak, he changed the subject slightly. “So how does House Thrask pursue alliances, if not by marriage?”

“Business, mainly,” she said. “Business contracts are clean and clear; marriage is too personal, too…” she paused. “Too emotionally involved to form stable alliances, in our experience.”

“Ah.”

“Besides,” she said with a grin, “we tend to be a mulishly stubborn lot, a trait that does not lend itself to arranged marriages.”

“I’m sure I know nothing about that, my lord.”

“Of course not,” she agreed, amber eyes sparkling with mirth. “I am delightful.”

“You are delightful.” He knew he was wearing a stupid grin, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

 She smiled back, guiding him through the rest of the dance until the song drew to a close. They separated reluctantly, fingers sliding apart, and a liveried servant appeared at the side of the dance floor.

“High Lady Thrask? Lord Thul is ready for you.”

“Thank you, I shall be there shortly.” She waited for the man to withdraw, then turned to Quinn. He slipped an earpiece into her hand. “Ready?”

“I’m right behind you, my lord.”

A nod, and she pressed the earpiece into place under the guise of untangling her hair from her large earring. Quinn did the same, murmuring quietly to confirm Vette’s readiness. He followed her up the stairs to the gallery above the dance floor, where Jorad Thul stood with his son, flanked by Moff Sarek to his right and Auric Panteer to his left, a microphone hovering in the air before him. Mara waited quietly off to the side, just at the top of the stairs, as Lord Thul began his speech. He congratulated his house and its vassals on a battle well-fought, relishing in the removal of Bouris Ulgo, and exhorting his fellows to to continue the fight, through Organa and the Republic until Thul claimed its rightful place on the throne.

The assembled nobles ate up the pretty words Thul lavished on them. They were positively giddy by the time Thul said, “The Empire has done much to ensure Thul’s ascendance, but none has done so much for us so quickly as the High Lady Maranel Thrask.” He locked eyes with Mara. “My lord, I would be honored if you would say a few words.”

She inclined her head and strode to the center of the gallery, taking Thul’s place behind the microphone.

“My lords and ladies,” she began, “it has been my honor to fight on your behalf, to ensure the stability and long-term security of Alderaan. This great alliance, between Thul and Panteer, between Alderaan and the Empire, would not be possible without unprecedented cooperation between Thul security forces and Imperial troops. To them I say, it has been my extreme privilege and honor to lead you, to fight by your side, and see the Emperor’s will done.  When I look out over this assembly tonight,” she swept one jeweled arm out, encompassing the entire room and the occupants of the gallery, “I see the future of Alderaan and the future of the Empire. And I’m proud to say it is bright.”

Applause filled the room. She waited patiently for it to die down.

“I realize that may sound odd to Alderaanian ears, a Sith praising her Force-blind comrades.” She smiled, looking around the room. “I understand. You have lived too long with Jedi and Republic propaganda. I am happy to set the record straight.”

“Those outside our borders assume that the heart of Imperial society is deceit, betrayal, and that the Sith stand above all with a boot on the collective necks of our Force-blind military.”

Her voice hardened. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Though the Emperor stands at the head of our society, and the Sith are the hands that execute his will, our troops, our tireless men and women at arms, are the backbone and the heart of the Empire, the foundation of our strength and the inspiration for our ferocity. Our society functions best - indeed, can only function, if there is a fundamental trust between Sith and Imperial, body and hands.”

“This is a child’s civics lesson,” she smiled mirthlessly, “but a necessary one for you to hear. When I arrived on Alderaan, I put my trust in many members of House Thul and its allies. And for the most part, I am pleased to say that trust was well-placed. Lord Cedarik Killesa, in particular, impressed me.” The room went completely silent at the mention of the dead vassal lord. “He was an honorable man and, ultimately, devoted servant to his house and to Alderaan.”

She paused for a heartbeat, face going hard. “He is dead because Duke Kendoh Thul abused the trust I placed in him.”

There was a collective gasp. Below, the throng of nobles seemed to snap away from Kendoh, leaving him at the center of a clear circle three meters across.

“Cedarik’s death was a tragedy,” Kendoh replied, glaring up at her, “one that had nothing to do with me.”

She continued as if he hadn’t spoken, eyes sweeping the assembled nobles. “Duke Kendoh advised me on a mission pertaining to Sith business here on Alderaan, a mission that ultimately weakened House Organa and gave us our shot at House Ulgo.” Her tone was colder than ice.

“At his suggestion, I reset the regional power generator to get into a highly secure Organa compound.” Her gaze settled on Kendoh then, and had it been a tangible thing, it would have shredded Kendoh to ribbons. “While I risked my life on behalf of my people, Duke Kendoh murdered his fellow noblemen to expand his own power.”

“Sith lies!” Kendoh snapped. “She has no proof; she’s dissembling to cover up her role in the murders.”

“Now,” Quinn muttered into his earpiece, pretending to cough to cover up the communication.

Mara raised a browstalk. “Oh?”

“-have ten minutes once I give the signal,” Kendoh’s voice said over the sound system. “You will move quickly. I of course want them all dead, but Killesa is the priority. Take him out at all costs.”

The holoprojector in the microphone activated, and suddenly a larger-than-life image of Kendoh and a woman appeared in the air before the gallery.

“Speed will cost you extra.”

“And you’ll have it when you return, assuming Rist is as good as it claims.” A nasty smile. “Of course, if you are caught, I will disavow any knowledge of you or this plot. The down payment can’t be traced back to me.”

A shriek echoed off the walls of the ballroom and suddenly a woman in a black gown and veil shot across the ballroom. FimRess stepped easily between her and Kendoh, catching the woman across the waist. She shrieked again and struggled against the Sith, not caring that he could snap her neck like a twig.

“Murdering swine!” she growled. “I’ll see you dead for what you did to my Cedarik.”

“This is nothing more than fabrication, Liara,” Kendoh said soothingly. “This recording is clearly doctored-“

“Aldera Limited is your holding company, is it not, Duke Kendoh? I’m sure the payment made to one Elaria Rist is simply a coincidence.”

Kendoh blanched but summoned a weak chuckle. “She lies. Surely, my fellows, you would trust my word over that of a raving Sith…” he trailed off and looked around, realizing he had no support. He glared up at Mara again, then bolted toward the stairs leading to the exit.

Before Quinn could draw his blaster, Kendoh halted in mid-stride and was yanked backward as if an invisible cord had caught him round the neck. He landed on his back with a wheezing grunt.

As he fell, Mara leaped off the gallery, ornate robes fluttering as she flew through the air to land, perfectly poised, next to Kendoh. She placed one slippered foot on the nobleman’s neck and looked around the room.

“This man’s life belongs to me. He attempted to blame me for his crimes and slandered me to my master, I can only assume with the goal of having me killed.” She leaned on her foot, and the sound of Kendoh’s gagging attempts at breath filled the room. “The penalty for such a crime is death.”

She let the word hang for several heartbeats.

“K-kill. Her.” A ragged inhale. “FimRess. O- obey me.”

Mara’s eyes found FimRess, staring impassively at the duke as he writhed under Mara’s foot.

“Anything to say, FimRess?”

The Sith looked up at Mara, then bowed. “I follow our laws and the Emperor first, Lady Thrask. Kendoh’s life is yours.”

A choking squawk shot up from the floor. Mara smiled down at Kendoh, pinned and helpless, and it was the smile of a predator ready to deal the death blow and feast. To be the subject of that gaze, Quinn knew, would be terrifying. To see her turn that gaze on others was something else entirely. He swallowed, his collar and trousers both suddenly tighter than they’d been a moment earlier.

“As bad as his crimes are against me,” Mara said, thoughtfully, “they cannot equal his crimes against this house, and against Lady Killesa in particular. Lord Thul.”

Her amber eyes snapped up to the gallery, skewering Jorad Thul, who flinched.

“Yes, my lord?”

“Duke Kendoh is yours to punish according to your laws. The evidence we have gathered will be forwarded to you; please do review it rigorously to determine its authenticity.”

Thul nodded jerkily.

“It will be done, my lord. Kendoh Thul, you are hereby stripped of your title and your lands are forfeit. If you are found innocent, they will be restored to you.”

Two guards dragged Kendoh away, his venomous protests fading as he traveled beyond earshot.

Mara inclined her head. “Thank you, my lord. As much as I’ve enjoyed your hospitality and this lovely evening, I’m afraid dispensing justice has left me somewhat drained. With your leave, I’ll withdraw to my rooms.”

“Oh course, my lord.” Thul bowed his head.

“Wonderful. Captain Quinn, if you’ll escort me?”

Quinn’s heart thudded in his chest. He was certain the entire ballroom could see it jumping against his uniform jacket as he snapped to attention in acknowledgment and trotted down the stairs to offer his arm to his lord.

They kept a discrete distance apart as they made their way through the halls of the palace to their suite, a tense silence between them. The turbolift ride to the correct floor was interminable.

After a small eternity, the lift opened and they stepped into their joint sitting room.

“One moment,” she murmured, leaning down to the sensor jammer Vette had left behind. Quinn fidgeted impatiently as she activated it with a nearly subsonic puff of static and removed her earpiece, laying it next to the jammer.

His eardrums popped as he laid his earpiece next to hers.

She straightened, eyes scorching his, a thoroughly wanton half smile curving her lips.

“We’re alone, Malavai.”

He didn’t need to hear the invitation twice. He growled and yanked her to him, his lips claiming hers as their bodies collided.

 

Mara grunted as she slammed into him, staggering until Quinn’s back hit the wall. Her fists had a white-knuckled grip on his uniform jacket as she opened herself to him, moaning into his mouth as their tongues danced. He trailed kisses down her jaw to her neck, the fine white silk of his gloves whispering over the bare skin of her lower back, the sensation an indescribable tease. His lust sang to her through the Force, pulsing and entwining with her own, a constant mantra of more, now building in her mind.

But everywhere she touched him she met the unyielding fabric of his uniform. She growled with frustration and reached down to grab his belt, making quick work of the buckle. It thudded to the floor when she let it drop.

Quinn made a similar noise as his teeth grazed her necklace, the path to the crook of her neck blocked by the cool metal. He pulled back to work at the clasp behind her neck. His blue eyes seared over her in a way they only ever had in her fantasies. But that had been a tepid approximation of the reality. For a moment Mara was certain the force of his gaze alone would burn off her ornate robes.

Her necklace loosened, the metal scrollwork tickling her as he tugged it away and let it drop atop his belt, and then his face was buried in her neck and he bit her gently. She cried out, fingers threading through his hair, feeling his smile against her skin when she whimpered again. His teeth raked her savagely and she shrieked, pleasure shooting through her when he soothed the bite with his tongue, then bit her again. He worked at her intently, biting and sucking until she knew she would have a mark in the morning.

Her hands twisted in his hair and he moaned against her, the sound igniting her blood. She yanked his head away from her, hands fumbling with his uniform jacket as she walked backward, pulling him into her bedroom. He laughed as she stumbled, yanking him toward her because she refused to let him go.

“Impatient, are we?”

The buttons gave way and Mara slipped her arms into his jacket, pulling his undershirt out of his trousers feverishly.

“And you’re not?” she countered, pausing with her hand a hair’s breadth from his bare flesh. “I can always stop, if you wish.”

He licked his lips. “Please,” his blue eyes darkened with need, “please don’t stop.”

 She slipped the fingers of both hands under his shirt, her fingertips tasting his warm flesh for only the second time, and gasped softly. His pleasure rolled over her. It was the overstated shock that only came between lovers who’d never touched each other before.

“Malavai,” she whispered, her palms sliding over his sides and up his back, “touch me. Please.”

The word sent a shiver through his body. “How can I refuse you when you ask so politely?”

The sardonic command in his voice nearly buckled her knees. “I think you’ll find, Malavai, that I can be extremely polite when properly motivated.”

“Indeed?” His blue eyes flashed. He brought a hand up to cradle her face, his thumb tracing her lips. Her eyes slid shut, but his hand tightened against her. “Look at me, Mara.” There was no mistaking the pleasure in his eyes when she obeyed. He pressed his thumb ever so slightly through her lips. “Help me with my gloves.”

Holding his gaze, she took the thumb of his glove between her teeth, delicately nipping at the seam of the fingertip without catching his flesh, and loosening the glove. And again with the index finger.

It should have been humiliating. But all she knew was, if she complied, she’d finally feel his hands on her, and for that, the thrill of obedience hummed through her body. When she caught the seam of the middle fingertip, he yanked his hand out of the glove completely and let it flutter to the floor.

“Very good,” he murmured. When his bare hand touched her cheek, she moaned at its warmth and turned her head to nip at his wrist.

He inhaled sharply at the contact, another wave of his pleasure washing over her, and then his warm lips were on hers, desperate and hungry. She jumped in surprise when his bare hands slid over her back - she’d not noticed him remove the other glove. His touch was almost reverent.

“Mara,” he groaned, “Fuck.”

She pushed his jacket down his arms, regretting the split second his hands left her flesh while he let it drop, then pulled his undershirt over his head as well.

She stared, just as she had in the forward camp when he’d been injured. Stars, but he was beautiful - pale and muscled and perfect. She leaned in to press a kiss above his heart, only to whine in protest when he caught her shoulders with both hands.

The whine turned to a moan when he spun her around and shoved her face-first against the wall, his hips pressed to hers and his lips on her shoulder as he fumbled with the closure on her top. She could feel his cock pressed against her.

“Malavai,” she gasped when he finally opened her blouse, baring her back to him in full. One hand reached back to grab a handful of his hair and tug his lips toward the base of her neck and the ridges at the top of her spine. “Th-there.”

The monosyllabic directive wasn’t terribly specific, but then, Quinn had always shown a knack for inferring her intent. His lips pressed against the tip of the first v-shaped ridge, just below her neck, and she shuddered against the wall. She felt his lips curve when he smiled, and then his tongue traced the groove in her skin, practically searing her sensitive flesh as it passed, and leaving her a secondary sizzle as his breath ghosted over the trail.

She writhed, mewling, grinding her ass against his cock desperately, and grinning when she heard his breath hitch with the sensation. He worked over every one of the ridges on her upper back, and when her need crested, she arched backward against him and yanked his head upward to catch his lips. She nearly shrieked when his hands found her breasts, kneading her gently.

“I’m not fragile, Malavai,” she growled against his mouth. “You can-“ he raked his nails over her nipples. She did shriek then, a long yes.

By all the gods, his touch was somehow simultaneously overwhelming and not nearly enough.

She slipped her hand between them, feeling the length of him, hard and straining against his trousers. He groaned softly as she stroked him, his teeth catching her earlobe as his hands found the apex of her thighs, fingertips stroking over her cleft delicately. The sound he made when he touched her - a raw, needy moan - drowned out her own gasp of pleasure and fed even more heat to her swollen cunt.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you wanted me to fuck you.” His voice sizzled against her ear.

“Then you’d be wrong,” she murmured, turning to face him with a smirk. Her hands worked at the closure of his trousers. “I want to fuck you.”

She shoved him backward, using just a touch of the Force to push him far enough that he hit her bed and sat down hard. He stared at her, eyes burning, as she unzipped her lower robe and let it drop, stepping out of the puddle of blue fabric.

“That is,” she said, a brow stalk raised as she stalked toward him, “if you don’t mind.”

He hummed thoughtfully as she stepped between his knees, his hands caressing the skin of her hips and around to her ass, where he squeezed her gently.

“I could be persuaded,” he allowed, smirking.

“Could you now?” Her hands were in his hair.

“Fortunately for us both, you make a compelling case.” He nuzzled her stomach, his lips teasing her sensitive flesh. “I’ve wanted to do this for some time now.”

“This?” She frowned in confusion.

He looked up at her, the smirk back in place. “Your bare stomach is extraordinarily distracting.”

She grinned. “And here I thought you refused to notice.”

“Of course I noticed. Just not when I have to keep you alive.” He slipped his hand between her legs, this time circling his fingertips over her clit, his other hand holding her steady when she moaned and arched her back.  “So wet…. Are you going to fuck me or not?”

“Is that an order?” she teased.

He pulled his hand away, smiling cruelly at her whimper of protest. “Absolutely.”

“Well then.” She dropped to her knees.

It took a moment to wrestle his boots off. After he’d helped her with the rest of his clothing, she ran her fingers up each thigh, digging her nails in until he gasped and his pleasure hummed through her. At the same time, she leaned forward to drag her tongue up the underside of his cock, earning a shocked groan.

She smiled up at him. “I’m going to ride you until we’re both sore.”

Another teasing lick at his cock, and then she was on her feet, climbing into his lap, straddling him. She shifted until he was at her entrance, her hips poised so that he just barely pressed against her, and held herself there, ignoring how she ached with want, focused instead on how he bucked under her, desperate to hilt himself in her.

“Did you want something, Malavai?”

“Let me fuck you.” His tone was almost plaintive, but then he grabbed a handful of her hair, blue eyes hardening. “Get that wet cunt onto my cock, Mara.”

Fuck. Her cunt practically spasmed in response. She grabbed his hands and pressed them to her hips, her eyes holding his sternly.

“Take it.”

As with every other order she’d ever given, he exceeded expectation. She’d assumed, based on his obvious desperation, that he’d yank her down onto him.

Instead he eased her down, filling her with an aching slowness, watching intently as her eyes slid closed and her head tipped back in ecstasy, until she settled against him. She hugged him tightly, relishing in the feel of him, crying out when he turned his head enough to run his tongue over the ridges on her chest.

“Gods, Malavai. I-“

“Fuck me,” he interrupted. It was half plea, half command. “Bloody hell, I need you to fuck me.”

She shuddered and obeyed, riding him slowly, moaning when his hands tightened on her ass. Her body sang with the sensation of him moving within her, intensifying as she quickened her pace, the thud of her body against his the percussion to their harmony of moans and curses.

She was trembling, she realized, her movements jerky as her body tightened, muscles stretched taut with pleasure. As her fine motor control evaporated in the heat of her passion, Quinn’s hands on her hips took control, guiding her over him, until he suddenly held her still and slammed his cock up into her, driving a shriek from her lips.

“That’s it,” he murmured in her ear as she clung to him, nails eviscerating his shoulders, nearly incoherent with white-hot pleasure. It built within her, increasing the frequency and pitch of her cries. “Come for me.”

She was already close, but the words shoved her right over the edge. She shrieked and sobbed, shaking violently with her release.

Somehow, even as she rode her orgasm, she found the presence of mind to nip his earlobe and whimper, “as you command, Malavai.”

He shouted her name as he spilled into her, holding her against him so tightly she felt certain he would leave bruises.

It was a moment before either of them was capable of speech or movement. Quinn recovered first, his arms tightening around her as he stood, grunting softly, and turned to lay her on the mattress. The comforter and sheets swept aside with a wave of her hand, and then she was on her back, sinking into the pillows as he stretched out next to her, propped on an elbow and toying with a lock of her hair with his free hand.

“Was it everything you hoped?” She asked, smiling up at him.

He laughed and shook his head. “How could I have possibly imagined this?” He sobered, blue eyes impossibly warm. “No, you’re beyond my wildest dreams, beyond anything I could have thought to hope for.”

She laid a hand on his chest. “Then you should raise your expectations, Malavai, for you’re exactly what I want.”

His mouth fell open in shock, and she leaned up to kiss his lower lip. When she settled back, she pressed her lips to his wrist, reveling in how his hand tightened in her hair.

“You enjoy that.”

He blushed. “It teases,” he confirmed.

“And you like that I obey you.”

“Yes. Or rather, I like that you want it.” He paused. “Unless I misread your reactions.”

She chuckled. “You did not. I do want it, and I must say you seem very well-suited to it.”

Another blush, but his eyes smoldered. “I like knowing exactly what you want.” His free hand wandered over her naked body, raking a nipple and making her gasp. “Knowing exactly when to give it to you.” His hand slid lower, teasing over her swollen cleft, watching her keenly as she canted her hips toward him. She whimpered his name when two fingers finally slipped into her.

He worked at her at a gentle, maddeningly slow pace, his movements within her changing until she keened, raising her hips to meet his hand as her pleasure slowly built.

He pulled away. She bucked her hips, chasing him, and gave a ragged cry of protest, her eyes flying to his face.

“And knowing when to take it away,” he finished. He touched his fingers to her lips and she obligingly sucked them into her mouth, eyes holding his as she swirled her tongue round them, tasting them both on his skin.

“Malavai, please,” she gasped, gripping his hand tightly. She dragged her tongue over his wrist, feeling his pulse and, reaching with the Force, the flow of blood through his arteries. She exhaled gently, her breath ghosting over the path her tongue left, watching his eyes slide shut and his body shudder with pleasure. With her other hand, she cupped his cheek gently. “Please,” she repeated when he met her gaze.

He shook his head, a languorous smile curving his lips. “Stars, but you already know how to melt my control.” He kissed her, tongue exploring her mouth gently. “I want to worship you,” he whispered. “Slowly, savoring every sound, every movement you make in the throes of ecstasy.”

Mara’s heart thumped against her ribs.

“May I?” He asked.

“Yes.” A small smile. “I’ll endeavor to be patient.”

“Not too patient, I hope.”

He kissed her one last time before making his way down her body. He teased the ridges on her chest with his tongue, raked them with his teeth until she buried both hands in his hair and shoved him downward in desperation. By the time he settled between her legs and eased his fingers back inside her, the teasing contact was nearly overwhelming; every nerve ending in her body was alive and humming with his attention.

He was as good as his word. Her sense of time broke completely as he he explored her with his lips and tongue and fingers; her entire existence shrank to their bed and the exquisite pleasure thrumming through her body, rising until it broke like a wave on a stormy shore, ebbing slightly and then building again.

It wasn’t the exact experience she’d dreamt of during her seclusion, but it was just as divine 

 

Quinn awoke the next morning struggling to remember where he was. Then he noticed the naked body pressed against his, the soft mahogany hair pressed under his chin, the scrapes on his shoulders where she’d clawed him repeatedly.

The still-warm slick where her cunt pressed against his thigh, tactile proof the prior evening had not been a startlingly vivid dream.

He stroked Mara’s hair and back, eyes sliding shut, heat pooling in his groin in response to the feel of her body. Despite being functionally alone, he still felt a blush heating his face. He’d never been quite so insatiable before. Her stamina exceeded his, a fact that was not particularly surprising, but even after all they did the prior night, the simple touch of her skin was enough to set him wanting to make her keen and moan, again.

“Good morning,” came the soft greeting as she inhaled gently. She raised her head to look at him.

“Did I wake you?” His blush intensified as he realized what part of him was the most likely intrusion to her sleep.

A smirk. “You did indeed. Still, there are far worse things to wake up to than your lover’s single-minded desire.”

“My desire…” he frowned in confusion at her choice of words.

The smirk became a smile. “I can feel how much you want me, Malavai.” A deep breath and she shuddered against him. “It’s intoxicating.”

“That feeling is most definitely mutual,” he answered. “I’m helpless against your allure, Mara.”

“What else is there to do,” she asked, leaning toward him, “but to sate this longing?”

The last words were a murmur against his lips. He let her press him back into the pillows, his hands on her hips, guiding her to straddle him. The’d need to leave the bed soon, ready themselves for the day and to leave Alderaan entirely. But first….

Mara jerked back, amber eyes wide.

“Vette’s-”

An extremely insistent knocking started at the door. Mara cursed and sprang out of bed, a dressing gown flying to her outstretched hand as she landed. Quinn sank deeper into the pillows, pulling the comforter and sheets up to his chin as Mara opened the door just enough for her to peer out, her body between Vette and the bed.The knocking had continued unabated until Mara opened the door.

“Vette, what in the Mother’s name-”

“Do you know what time it is? I’ve been calling since 10:00. You left the dampening field on.”

Quinn bit his lower lip to keep from cursing aloud.

“I’m sorry.” Mara’s usually smooth, low voice held a world of confusion. “Things got more animated at the party last night than I anticipated.”

“Hangover?”

“Indeed.”

“Well, I hate to add to your troubles but Quinn’s not in his room. I haven’t seen him all day.”

Quinn froze.

“Vette, I’m sure he's training or-”

She cut off when the Twi’lek thrust something at her. Quinn couldn’t identify the object, but it caught the light and twinkled. Mara stared at it, seeming at loss for words. Her head shifted to look at Vette. Quinn couldn’t see the Twi’lek’s face, but it was clear some sort of nonverbal conversation was taking place between the two women.

“Well,” Vette said after at least a full minute of silence, “if you run into Captain Stuffy, holo me, yeah? I’ve been doing some work on the long-range comms - better encryption and whatnot - and let me tell you, he does not want to see the mess of cables the flight deck has become.”

“What?” The word was out of his mouth before he realized it.

Vette, Emperor damn her, burst into peals of laughter that receded as she left the doorway. She was gone entirely before Mara gathered her wits enough to close the door.

“You fell straight into her trap, Malavai, though silence wouldn’t have helped you overmuch.” Mara turned and held up her hands.

His belt was in one hand, her necklace in the other. They’d dropped them in the sitting room last night before moving on.

“Fuck. Bloody, kriffing fuck.”

“Blood is not my particular appetite, but I’m happy to indulge you otherwise” Mara smirked. She sobered at his glare and perched on the bed next to him. “How do you want to handle this?”

He sat up, frowning thoughtfully. There were only three of them on the ship to begin with; if he started sharing his lord’s quarters regularly, there was no way Vette could fail to notice, even without this little incident. Unless they returned to their earlier celibacy aboard ship….

A glance at Mara, hair mussed and the top of dressing gown gaping to display her ridges and cleavage, he immediately dismissed the proposition. He’d struggled to keep his distance before they’d even kissed, but now? Having tasted her and felt her writhe against him in that way that made his toes curl… no. Enforced celibacy was not tenable at this juncture.

“How soundproof are your quarters?” he asked finally.

Her laugh soothed him somewhat. “I don’t know, what have you heard since your posting began?”

“Nothing,” he said with a frown.

A wicked grin. “Then I’d say they’re completely soundproof, the Force knows I’ve neither foregone my own pleasures nor sought to quiet myself since you’ve come onboard.”

He stared at her in shock.

“Do you truly believe you were the only one pining away in the dark, Malavai?”

“For a time, I did,” he admitted, lacing his fingers with hers.

“For so smart a man, you can be impressively dense at times,” she replied, pressing a kiss to the back of his hand. “We can return to the Fury separately, if you wish, and I can talk to Vette-“

“That won’t be necessary,” he cut her off. “Vette knows; sneaking about will only provide additional fodder for her needling.”

Mara nodded. “Very well.” Her eyes drifted to his shoulder and widened, cool fingertips running over his raw skin. He winced at the touch. “I did this.”

He nodded.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize.”

“I liked it,” he said softly. She froze, mouth open in surprise. “I’d have objected, otherwise.” He stroked her cheek. “I liked that I drove you to such… distraction.” That there was a tiny thread of fear woven into the thrill of it only heightened the sensation.

Her lips were hot and insistent on his when she kissed him. Then, “I hope you’ll let me tend to these. And,” her amber eyes smoldered, “that you’ll give as good as you’ve gotten.”

His breath caught, somewhere between excitement and nervousness. “You want me to hurt you.”

Her eyes drifted to his belt, laying across the bed next to them. “If you’re amenable.”

His cock stirred at the thought of her lying prone, marked flesh writhing as she keened for him. It was wrong - against all bounds of propriety and in direct contravention of everything he’d ever been taught. And he wanted to give it to her.

She must have felt his lust, for she looked back to him, a small smile curving her lips. “Well won’t that be fun to explore.” Her voice, which had been a purr, rose to a more normal, if still intimate, tone. “May I treat your shoulders?”

He nodded his consent and, when she’d retrieved his medkit from his room, hissed only a little as the kolto gel sank into the gashes, expediting the process of knitting his skin back together. There was time enough for one last, long kiss before he reluctantly withdrew from her bed to ready himself for the day.

When he returned to the sitting room, fully dressed in his duty uniform, he found Mara in her usual armor, a rucksack on her shoulder and a garment bag containing last night’s robes folded over her arm.

“Shall we, Captain?”

They were on duty, once again a Sith and her executive officer.

“As you command, my lord.”

They returned to the Fury. 

 

Chapter Text

Vette looked up at the sound of footsteps on the Fury’s entry ramp. A look at the chrono showed it was just past local mid-day. Must have been some night, especially to keep Quinn in bed so late, she mused. Unless they’d gone for round two this morning. Or Mara tied Quinn to the bed to keep him from keeping his usual o’dark thirty wake up time.

She pushed that thought from her head; she did not need to think about this in that much detail.

Of course, you didn’t have to think about Mara and Quinn’s new relationship status too deeply to mine it for new levels of comedy gold. She turned to face them, and grinned. “So?”

Mara looked like a loth-cat that had just woke up in a puddle of sunshine, relaxed and smugly content.

Quinn looked… like a loth-cat that woke up in sunshine and found its happiness to be in violation of the Imperial Army Field Manual.

Which wasn’t a surprise, really. Vette was pretty sure Quinn was physically incapable of actual joy; it didn’t come standard issue during Basic.

“Soooooo?” she asked again, drawing the word out in a sing-song tone, her smile widening as Quinn reddened. How the hell did he survive in the military with such thin skin? She’d almost feel bad for him if he weren’t such an ass to her. “Hard night?”

“I beg your-“ he sputtered, but Mara cut him off with a simple,

“Hard and long.” She gave Vette’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze before turning back to the hatch. “If you keep asking, I’ll happily give you a moment-by-moment account of our activities.”

Well that bluff was called.

“Ew, no thanks,” she answered with a laugh, putting her hands up in a placating gesture. She shot a glance at Quinn, who’d gone an even brighter shade of red. “Can you blame me? The jokes write themselves.”

Mara laughed. “Get us airborne; I need to report back to Darth Baras.” Her chuckle disappeared with her into the ship.

“I can safely say your being a nuisance is one of the great constants of the galaxy,” Quinn grumbled, not meeting Vette’s eyes as he turned to the pilot’s console.

“Thank you for that penetrating observation, Captain Obvious.”

“Then we’re agreed you’re a nuisance?” Quinn pressed, clearly reaching for whatever high ground he could find.

“I’ll go with the general thrust of your argument for the sake of puns,” Vette allowed.

“Are you finished?” he demanded.

“I really hope you didn’t say that last night.”

It was a mark of how their relationship had progressed, Vette reflected, that Quinn’s hand just barely twitched toward his blaster. Getting laid worked wonders on sentients of all stripes, even speciesist jerks, apparently.

“If you’ve quite finished,” he ground out, “I suggest we follow our lord’s orders.”

“Still ‘our lord’ and not ‘Mara’? Even now?”

He looked genuinely confused at that. “We’re on duty; it would be inappropriate to address Apprentice Thrask as….”

He trailed off, gaze going toward a flashing red light on the comms panel.

“Did you check incoming messages?” he asked.

“I figured you’d yell at me if I did,” Vette countered sourly.

He seemed about to argue that, then closed his mouth, apparently realizing he had no leg to stand on in denying it. Instead, he activated the panel. There was one message, and both Vette and Quinn gasped when it began playing. It got only a few seconds in before Quinn hit the pause button.

“This must go to Apprentice Thrask.”

Vette nodded mutely and followed Quinn into the common area, where Mara had activated the holoterminal and was wrapping up her conversation with Darth Creepy. Vette slowed her steps, making sure to stay well out of holo range, realizing with a start that Quinn was doing the same. Interesting. They didn’t have to stall for long; with another gleeful proclamation about the general mayhem he would visit on the galaxy, Baras ended the transmission.

“My lord, I thought it best not to interrupt Darth Baras,” Quinn began, stepping forward deferentially, “but I discovered a message waiting for you.” He tapped a command into the holoterminal.

A three-quarter size holo of a Human woman materialized above the terminal. She had shoulder length brown hair and wore hoodless Jedi robes. She had some of the calm serenity Vette had learned to associate with Jedi, but mostly her large eyes were… worried. And kind.

“Greetings, Sith. I am Jaesa Willsaam.”

Mara’s brow stalks twitched upward in surprise, then furrowed with concern as Jaesa’s message continued.

“We both know this isn’t about us,” the Padawan said. “Our masters pretend otherwise, but this is personal. We are only pawns in their private war and those I love are caught in the middle. It must end.”

Vette held in an appreciative whistle, mind racing fast enough to drown out Quinn’s commentary on the message.

Everyone in this room knew Mara was a decent being who planned to shelter the Padawan from Baras as best she could, but Jaesa had no real way of knowing that; sure, Mara had avoided killing any of her family, but that was a low bar for decency. Really, the Padawan only knew what Karr had told her about Baras. And yet she offered to meet with them, including coordinates for the rendezvous and a frequency on which to send an encrypted reply should they decide to take her up on the offer.

“Well, I’ll say this for her: she’s got guts,” Vette said when the transmission ended.

“She most certainly does.”

The resignation in Mara’s voice drew Vette’s eyes. The Sith woman was staring at the empty air Jaesa’s holographic image had occupied. Her glowing eyes were wide, jaw set with determination.

“That’s good, right? For her?” Vette prompted.

“My lord, it’s entirely possible this is a trap,” Quinn interjected before Mara could respond.

Vette rolled her eyes, an exasperated sigh rushing out of her. “Don’t listen to Captain Paranoid. I think we can trust her.”

Mara shook herself, expression returning to a neutral mask. “Captain, send an affirmative response on the frequency the Padawan gave us and set a course.”

“My lord, I must respectfully request-“

“It’s not a trap.” The conviction behind the words shut Quinn’s mouth. “Or rather, if it is, it won’t be a trap of her making. She’s in earnest, Captain.” The troubled expression returned to her face. “I can feel it.”

“Very well, my lord.” He did not sound happy about it.

Mara smiled at his tone. “Take whatever precautions you deem necessary, Captain Quinn, but we are going and we’re going alone.”

Quinn nodded and seemed to relax slightly as he started toward the flight deck. Vette summoned her courage and, before he could leave the common area, blurted, “I need to talk to you guys before we go.”

He froze, practically radiating outraged shock that Vette dared to issue anything approaching an order.

“What is it, Vette?” Mara asked.

“I don’t want to make this a thing, but since you two are…” she trailed off and gestured helplessly between the Sith and her captain, “you know.” Why were puns so easy but this conversation so embarrassing?

“Sleeping together?”

“Yeah, that,” Vette answered. “Anyway, I’m happy for you and all, but don’t even think about boinking in the crew quarters or the galley. Not ever. Or,” she felt her nervousness grow as Quinn’s dark eyebrows lowered dangerously, “or anywhere outside your cabin if I’m on board. If you do, I’m out.”

“Of course,” Mara answered at the same time that Quinn sputtered, “I beg your pardon?”

Both women jerked to stare at him in surprise. He was so red Vette wondered if he had blood flow in any other part of his body.

“You’re in no position to issue orders to our lord, Vette.”

Vette opened her mouth to retort but Mara stepped between them.

“On the contrary, Captain, she has every right. Would you demand any less if it were Vette in my bed and not you?”

He looked like he couldn’t decide whether to turn red or go pale, and instead turned an interesting shade of sickly grey.

“Of course not, but I would trust you to maintain appropriate boundaries.”

“As I said earlier today, Captain, you need to raise your expectations. Vette is perfectly in the right here, as you would be if the situation were reversed.” She held his gaze until he nodded. “Good. Now, is that the extent of your objection? Or,” a teasing smile lit her face, “were you actually hoping to fuck me on the galley counter?”

Quinn opened and closed his mouth several times, his blush somehow darkening, before stammering, “N-no, my lord.”

“I thought not.” She shook her head fondly - fondly! - and turned to Vette. “Your terms are agreeable, Vette, and we will honor them.”

“See, that wasn’t so hard now, was it?” Vette asked sweetly.

“Captain, please carry out my orders. I’ll be in the galley if you need me.” Another brilliant smile. “I find myself famished after a busy morning.”

She swept up the passageway to the galley, leaving Quinn and Vette to stare at one another uncomfortably. Quinn glared before turning away sharply and heading to the flight deck. Vette hesitated only a heartbeat before following.

“Hey, so I know you don’t like me very much and the feeling is definitely mutual,” she began, not flinching when Quinn turned cold blue eyes on her, “but Mara seems to like you for whatever reason, and I like that she’s happy.”

“That’s… good to know,” he replied slowly, clearly not understanding why Vette would even bring it up.

He turned to continue through the hatch and Vette threw up an arm, blocking his way.

“I like that Mara’s happy,” Vette repeated, her voice becoming sharp. “But if you ever make her un happy, I want you to remember that I know where you sleep, yeah?”

He stared at her, eyes narrowed, for so long that Vette wondered if she’d broken him somehow. Then, shockingly, his face relaxed into something almost respectful .

“I understand, Vette, and believe me, that is not and will never be my intent.”

“Good.”

“Come on,” he said as Vette lowered his arm. “Once we’re in hyperspace I want you to show me what you did to the long range communications panel.”

“Oh, I didn’t do a damn thing to it,” Vette replied airily. “I figured if I said something crazy enough you’d be physically incapable of staying quiet.” She hesitated, shooting him a slightly sympathetic look before heading to the engine room. “You really are an easy mark.”

***

The Padawan’s coordinates put her ship only a few parsecs from Rishi, a two day flight away at the Fury’s top speed. Quinn reluctantly sent the prescribed affirmative message and plotted a course, trying to fight back the misgivings twisting in his gut. The rendezvous had to be a trap; however sincere the girl may have been, Nomen Karr didn’t strike Quinn as the type of man to let his charge run loose across the galaxy.

Still, Mara had walked open-eyed into traps before. Unnerving as that habit was, he trusted her skill to keep them all safe. That didn’t keep him from worrying, of course. Worry seemed to have become a permanent part of his being as his feelings for her deepened.

The overall atmosphere aboard ship during the trip didn’t help matters at all. Quinn busied himself with work during that first day, spending the entire time on the flight deck save for brief meal breaks. Vette may not have mucked up the comms, but she had made some rather creative changes to key systems. None of them were wrong , but she’d left the electronic version of a mess behind: file directories completely kriffed and vestigial lines of code dangling in the proverbial wind. Mara visited twice, maintaining a respectful distance as she alternately asked questions about his work or stared out the viewport at the blue mottle of hyperspace.

He found himself aching to reach out to her, but there was an awkwardness between them that stayed his hand. Indeed, if she’d wanted his touch, she doubtless would have initiated contact, as she had prior to their becoming intimate. That she did no such thing was as perplexing as it was disappointing.

That night, he was boiling water for tea when Mara appeared in the galley’s hatchway, in a silky golden dressing gown that shimmered in the overhead lighting and draped over in such a way that it left nothing of her curves to the imagination. He poured for her before he realized he was going to; it was such a standard part of their routine. Her warm smile melted some of the tension between them, until she was perched on the edge of the table next to him, her bare feet resting in the chair next to his, intense amber eyes staring rapt as he described his childhood pet, a rust-colored cat named Naya.

“I had more than my fair share of scratches and cuts, all incurred when she felt my attention had strayed from her,” he was saying, shaking his head wistfully at the memory. “She was a pain in the neck.”

“She sounds magnificent,” Mara countered, smiling. “I wish I could have met her.”

“As do I,” he said quietly, sobering. She’d put herself between him and a pack of vine cats when he was eleven, hiking in the jungle with his father. They’d made it back to the safety of civilization thanks to a ten pound cat’s defiance bewildering a pack of beasts forty times her size. “Although you may have been too alike to get along,” he said, smiling at the thought.

Her amber eyes took on a teasing twinkle. “Are you sure you’re not more worried about us joining forces against you?”

“Perish the thought,” he said with in mock horror.

The warm laughter trailed off, and silence stretched as Mara regarded her empty mug. Quinn found himself gripping his own cold tea with white knuckles.

“Malavai, I’d like it if- “ she grimaced as she struggled for words. “You’re welcome to spend the night in my quarters, if you wish to,” she said finally, giving him a glance that he’d describe as shy if he didn’t know any better.

“I’d be delighted,” he replied without hesitation.

She gave him a small, wicked smile. “Good. Join me at your convenience.”

She stood quickly and strode from the room, her shift from shy flirtation to confident promise of pleasure to businesslike Sith Lord leaving Quinn utterly flat-footed.

The door to her quarters had long opened and closed before he pulled himself together enough to put their mugs away and gather tomorrow’s training clothes and undergarments from his rack.

All remaining awkwardness evaporated as soon as he cleared the threshold into her quarters. No sooner had he dropped his clean clothes on her datastation then her hands were on him, touching him with the confident heat he remembered from the night before, and which he returned eagerly.

The lightweight golden gown was a novel change from the stiff, formal robes of the prior evening. It stayed on even when she rode him, the cool, silky fabric sliding over his bare skin with a delicious fluidity that mirrored the slick velvet of her core. She came with a shriek and his hand knotted tightly in her hair, the sound cutting off when she sank her teeth into his shoulder, as if the pleasure of her release were too much to take. The thought and the pain hurled him over the edge after her.

He awoke at 0600 as usual, disentangling himself from Mara and smiling fondly when she groaned in protest, amber eyes opening to slits.

“I’ll return this evening, if it will lessen the inconvenience of my leaving you now,” he murmured, teasing his lips across hers.

“You could save us both unnecessary anguish and just stay here,” she countered, an arm slipping around his waist.

That offer was far more tempting than it should have been. Still, he adopted the sternest manner possible, which was not all that stern given that he couldn’t seem to stop smiling. “Someone has to check our heading and keep your ship in order.”

“You act as if the Fury were in shambles when you arrived.”

“No, I simply have a clear eyed understanding of what I have brought to your crew,” he replied, kissing her nose.

She grumbled unintelligibly, without any real rancor in her voice, and pulled the blankets back around her. But she remained awake, amber eyes glowing from her improvised cocoon as he dressed in his PT clothes, then pulled him back for a short kiss before he left her quarters.

When she emerged an hour later to train, the awkward tension emerged with her.

Perplexing didn’t even begin to cover it. Still, despite the awkwardness during the day, she once again softened during their evening pot of tea, and relaxed completely when he joined her in her quarters.

She and Vette joined him on the flight deck the following day when they dropped out of hyperspace at the coordinates provided by the Padawan. A scan showed a small resupply station and a single ship already docked with it.

Mara hissed next to him.

“My lord?”

“She’s not here.”

He jerked to stare at her, trying to find the appropriate words to question her. Fortunately, Vette was not so reserved.

“You can tell?”

A slight hesitation, then, “yes.”

“So it was a trap,” Quinn growled.

“I… perhaps. This doesn’t feel right.” The uncertainty in her voice made Quinn’s skin crawl. His lord was never this hesitant. “No, you’re right, Captain. It is a trap.”

The sensor panel beeped a warning. “My lord, the enemy ship is scanning us.”

“How quickly can you get us back into hyperspace?”

“Immediately,” he replied. “I can simply reverse our last trip.”

“Do it.”

As she gave the order, the holocomm chimed an incoming call from Dromund Kaas. And the enemy ship engaged its sublight drive, separating from the supply station. Quinn watched the navicomputer load their course, a bitter taste in his mouth.

“We’re not running, Captain,” Mara said softly. “We could take them if we needed to. But my instincts are screaming that we’re needed elsewhere.”

He doubted the Jedi - it had to be Jedi - would see it that way. But however odd their daytime life had become, Mara was still his commander and he trusted her instincts.

“Forward Darth Baras’s call to my quarters.”

She disappeared from the flight deck. Quinn completed his calculations and, just as the enemy ship entered weapons range, star lines flared and the Fury streaked away. He forced his muscles to relax.

Several minutes later, Mara reappeared to order a course change to Hutta.

“I was right: Nomen Karr called Baras, incensed that his Padawan tried to slip his charge, and challenged him to single combat,” she explained as he brought them out of hyperspace to recalculate their heading.

What? ” Vette’s voice echoed off the panels on the flight deck. “And he expected Baras to agree ?”

Mara chuckled. “My thoughts exactly.”

Quinn frowned at their irreverence, which only earned him an amused smirk from his lord. “Come now, Captain, you can’t possibly have expected that Baras would accede to such a demand. Darth Baras may have been a man of frontline action during the war, but he’s long settled into a more strategic role.”

“I… yes, my lord.” She wasn’t wrong. It simply didn’t sit well in Quinn’s gut for the Darth to send his apprentice to do such a job on his behalf. One faced their enemies head on.

“This is my job as his apprentice, Captain.” Her voice was soft. Quinn looked up to meet her gaze. She must have felt him soften, for she nodded fractionally and turned to Vette. “Do you have any local contacts that can get us through the spaceport quickly and without scrutiny? I’d rather not flash my Sithyness before I’m forced.”

Vette grinned. “You bet. Appropriate bribes to Customs and spaceport security coming right up. I’ve already got a couple of burner IDs worked up for the ship, too. Which do you want to use: Revan’s Tits or Starscape ?”

It took Quinn a moment to realize the indignant choking sound came from his own throat. Resorting to smuggler’s tricks was bad enough without adding…. Emperor’s bones, please let her pick the latter. Mara was looking at him, amber eyes sparkling with amusement, and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“As many credits as I’d pay to watch you announce the arrival of Revan’s Tits to Hutta Spaceport Control,” she said, “the goal is to escape notice, not demand it. Get Starscape pointed at Hutta, please.”

Vette sighed dramatically. “You’re no fun. I have a great aliases in place for the badass crew of Revan’s Tits , too.”

As he acknowledged the order, Mara seemed to realize she was touching him. She snatched her hand away as if he’d burned her and, after a moment of awkward silence, practically ran from the room.

“I though you guys boinking was supposed to fix that,” Vette complained from the copilot’s chair.

So did I , he thought sourly.

Chapter Text

Hutta exceeded all expectation; Mara never thought she’d find a place seedier than Nar Shaddaa. And where Nar Shaddaa at least had a sort of gaudy charm to it, the Hutt homeworld was a hot, fetid swamp swirled liberally with pollutants she preferred not to think too deeply about. They’d not even cleared the main settlement before Mara resolved to jettison the armor she was wearing once she returned to her ship. There was no cleaning product or Sith alchemy in the galaxy strong enough to remove the stench of this swamp from her clothes.

Nomen Karr also exceeded expectation. His sense was as much a graveyard as any other Jedi Mara had encountered. There was a tension to it, however, that had not been in the others, save for perhaps Yul Li; the early tremors that signaled a volcano ready to erupt. Mara gave a predatory smile as she drew her blade, gesturing for Quinn an Vette to fall back and give them space. As her magenta-black blade crashed against his green, she felt something stir in his sense: pleasure. He’d hoped to lure Baras here, but he would make do with the apprentice. Either way got him the single combat he so obviously craved.

How very unbecoming of a Jedi , Mara thought, disengaging enough to take a step back. This could be even easier than she thought.

“You seem upset, Master Karr,” she purred. “Angry, even.”

His grey-blue eyes seemed to darken and the tranquility in his sense cracked. “I’m not too proud to admit your actions have affected me, Sith,” he replied, voice shaking as much as his calm. He advanced on her cautiously, testing her defenses. “But you are young in the Force, and I am a full Jedi Master.”

Mara batted his blade away and laughed. “Hardly seems fair to you.”

And she attacked. He parried, but a hair slowly. Frowning internally, she refused to press the advantage. Was he testing her? Or was the internal battle he waged truly distracting him from the external threat she represented?

They continued, his technique sloppy, and after three more engagements Mara threw caution to the wind and followed through on her next attack, opening a shallow gash across his thigh. Karr cried out as his leg buckled slightly under his weight. Mara shoved him backward with the Force, bringing her lightsaber down to a low guard as he picked himself up.

“The Force is… q-quite strong with you,” he admitted, breathing heavily as he steadied himself on his injured leg. “But you’re still just a pawn. I eliminate you, and Jaesa will be safe.” He turned predatory eyes on her, and his sense oozed a desperate rage. “Your master’s spies will be revealed for what they are, and the fact of her gifts will be indisputable. I just need to… dig… deeper.”

Mara opened her mouth to reply, but he leapt at her, green blade slicing down toward her head. It was a surprise - Karr’s style thus far had been conservative, even uncertain. She took two hasty steps back and shifted to a high guard barely in time. The impact reverberated up her arms. Before she could recover, his leg flashed out, aiming for her knee. She let it come; he’d be hard pressed to break her bones with blunt force alone even if she weren’t armored from the waist down.

It still hurt when his boot made contact. She grunted and took another step back, shoving him away as she did so to open up space. Before Karr’s form settled into a defensive stance, she was on him, blade flashing. His defense was tighter this time; his rage was laser-focused on her, anticipating her every move.

But only her every move.

“Yes, Master Karr; use your anger. We both know you’ll never defeat me if you play fair.”

Hoping her strategy would become obvious, she gathered the Force around her shield hand. On his next attack, turned his blade aside with a one-handed parry, and backhanded him as hard as she could. His head snapped to the side so hard, for a moment Mara worried that she’d snapped his neck. His sense remained strong, however, so she pushed the fear aside. In the moment his attention was diverted, she danced to her right. He pivoted to follow her, using the movement to add momentum to his downward swing.

She parried, barely, wincing at the impact. Then his gray-blue eyes, now the deep, ominous grey of storm clouds ready to unleash their fury, widened. He gasped just as the smell of charred flesh hit Mara’s nostrils. She allowed herself a smirk, her eyes flicking to Quinn’s over Karr’s shoulder, savoring the smug pleasure he took in the shot, then back to her opponent.

“Having difficulty splitting your attention, Karr?” she asked sweetly. “This is helpful; I’ll know where to start Jaesa’s lightsaber training when she joins me.”

“You’ll never touch her,” he growled. Suddenly his eyes flared into the deep orange of a Force user drowning in the dark side’s currents. His sense exploded at the same time, all arrogance and righteous fury. He shoved Mara backward, and as she rolled to her feet, he turned toward Vette and Quinn and lifted both hands. Dark side energy writhed around them.

It took a moment for either of them to react. Then Quinn’s free hand flew to his neck, followed quickly by the dull thud of his blaster hitting the dirt floor and then both hands were clawing uselessly at his throat, blue eyes bulging wide as his face turned pink in a gross parody of the blushes Mara usually enjoyed causing.

Vette managed a gurgled cry before her air cut off entirely, her posture mirroring Quinn’s as they both rose several centimeters off the ground.

“Will you break when they die, Sith?” Karr spat, turning wild orange eyes on her. “Like you thought to break Jaesa? My Padawan has resisted you despite the torment you’ve visited on her. Once I’ve helped her sever those attachments, she’ll be the strongest Force user in generations; far stronger than a hound like you will ever be.”

Mara knew he was trying to provoke her - turning that tactic back on her as well as the tactics she’d used thus far to lure Jaesa out of hiding. But she barely heard him. Quinn and Vette had become her entire world, their wide, suffocating eyes holding hers, their terror smothering her Force senses. If she stretched her senses even slightly, she could hear the rustle of their clothes as their feet kicked, the guttural groan as they fought to inhale through Karr’s grip.

She screamed.

The room flashed as her magenta-black blade spun across the room, blade arcing toward Karr’s neck. Mara told herself she counted on him turning around in time to save himself. Truth be told, in that moment, she couldn’t bring herself to care. It didn’t matter that killing him could ruin her plans for Jaesa. It didn’t matter that she herself had invited Karr to embrace his darker feelings. All that mattered was the sight and sound of her loved ones fighting for breath against an opponent who hopelessly outclassed them.

Karr turned, their blades clashing as he batted hers to the side. His grip on his victims didn’t slacken. A hair behind her blade, the Force wave she unleashed with her scream hammered into him like a turbolaser blast. He staggered. Quinn and Vette dropped to the floor, gasping.

Mara stalked forward, dark, wispy tendrils of the dark side writhing through her field of vision. Karr’s lightsaber flew toward her, a mirror of her earlier move. A swipe of her left arm, fist clenched to activate her shield, and she swept it aside, sparks sending pinpricks of pain into her face when the blade collided with the wall before extinguishing. Another guttural howl and she leapt the last meter, slamming into him, propelled by the Force.

He may well have been her equal in terms of physical prowess and skill in the Force, especially as he was now, losing himself in the dark side with abandon. But whatever shape his training had taken, It hadn’t included going hand-to-hand with an enraged, Force-sensitive predator. The air left his body in a sharp oof when she made contact, dragging him to the floor.

“You dare to call me the animal,” she growled, landing a solid right hook against his chin.

Pain exploded in her face. She felt the cartilage in her nose crack, the warm flow of blood over her lips.

“Your kind are a scourge upon the Force,” Karr spat, taking another swing at her, “and you will be eradicated-“ he cut off with a yell when his fist collided with her shield with a sickening crunch. She slammed his arm to the floor, shifting to pin it in place with her knee, and stilled his other arm the same way.

“Better Jedi than you have tried and failed, Karr.”  Straddling his chest as she was, leaning over him, a trickle of deep, dark red dripped from her chin to leave a wet spatter over the bruise she’d left on his face.

She ran her tongue over her lips, tasting the sharp, molten metal of her blood, reached out a hand, and smiled. “And in any case you won’t be available to make the attempt.” The familiar cold bite of her lightsaber hilt settled into her waiting hand. The blood spatter and Karr’s eyes flared almost white in the glow of her blade.

“My lord.”

It was a croak, but recognizable as Quinn’s voice. Mara froze, looking up to see her captain approaching, a gloved hand outstretched, blue eyes wide with alarm.

Livid, purple bruises chased each other around his neck.  

“He hurt you,” she said, her voice deadly calm. She shifted her gaze to Vette, who was only a few steps behind Quinn, a similar worried expression on her face. “Both of you.”

“Yes.” Quinn’s croak became ragged and feral. “And I would enjoy seeing you eviscerating this scum with your bare hands. But,” his voice softened, “you need him, my lord.”

The affection in his voice turned the title into a term of endearment.

“And you’re better than him,” Vette added. She paused, as if uncertain. “You have to be better than him.”

Mara remained still, vacillating. Oh, how she wanted to see him die, to hear him scream as her blade pierced his flesh. It occurred to her, with a start, this was how the SIS lackeys must have felt about her.

“Kill me, Sith,” Karr growled. “I will not be used against Jaesa. If there’s any so-called honor in that defiled mind of yours, you will end me quickly.”

“You wouldn’t know honor if it kneed you in the groin, Karr.” The wisps flowing through her vision began to fade. “I’m not using you against Jaesa. I’m merely showing her your true nature.”

Karr’s orange eyes darkened until they were nearly red. He opened his mouth.

Whatever retort he’d prepared, he didn’t get to say it. Mara extinguished her blade and brought the hilt down across his temple hard enough to crack bone. He went slack beneath her.

***

“Hold still,” Quinn said softly, ignoring the pain in his throat. Mara obeyed, not offering comment as he applied a kolto splint to her nose. He glanced up and found her glowing amber eyes fixed on his neck, brow stalks drawn in concern. “I’m alright, my lord.”

The words felt inadequate. He wanted to take her in his arms, to kiss her despite the blood drying on her lips, and soothe away her worry.

She sat on the narrow cot in Karr’s safehouse, Quinn crouched before her. Behind them, an unconscious Karr was slumped in a chair, Vette standing guard over him. Her eyes twitched up to his. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m a soldier, my lord. These are the risks.”

She wanted to argue the point, he could tell, but held silent, leaning into his hand when he cradled her cheek under the guise of holding her still to wipe the blood from  her face. When she did speak, it was to pull focus back to their mission. “Karr’s secure?”

“Yes. We’ve restrained him using Force-suppressing cuffs, and Vette emptied an entire roll of duct tape securing him to the chair.”

“A sensible precaution,” Mara replied, then smiled, a touch wobbly. “Am I cleared to return to duty, Captain?”

A groan from behind silenced Quinn’s reply. It was followed quickly by Vette declaring, “Great. He’s awake.”

“So he is. I’d welcome you back to the waking world, Karr, but it would be a lie.” Mara’s eyes shifted to Vette. “Come here, please.”

Karr shifted, straining against his bonds, to no avail. Without the Force, he was simply an aging whip of a man, eyes bloodshot and alive with a Force he could no longer touch directly. He kept a steady stream of groggy invective directed at Mara, who paid him no further mind. Her attention was fully on Quinn and Vette, who she ordered to her former position, perched on the edge of Karr’s cot, and ran a scanner over them each in turn, before applying kolto to their wounds.

How she could ignore the Jedi Master so entirely fascinated Quinn. Their captive wasn’t particularly creative in the insults he hurled at the Sith woman, but he was still a Jedi running his mouth. Quinn flexed his hands, wishing for a moment Mara would give the order to let him work out some of that frustration on the de-fanged Jedi master. Mara must have felt something of his anger, for she glanced at him, hands stilling on Vette’s neck, for a heartbeat before continuing.

That was how the Padawan found them: her master tied to a chair and ranting angrily at a Sith woman who knelt before her Force-blind Twi’lek and Human crew, treating their wounds in the aftermath of a battle.

To say the Jedi Master was displeased to see his student was an understatement. His growling rage took on a new target when his Padawan walked cautiously into the room, brown eyes surveying the tableau before coming to rest on Mara, who stood quickly, turning to greet the young woman.

And she was young. He’d known that, intellectually, based on her parents’ age and how she appeared in the recorded message she’d left with the Fury. But seeing her in person - slight build, shorter than Mara by a good handspan, eyes wide with horror and confusion as she looked between Karr and Mara - it was difficult for Quinn to remember that the girl was a Jedi.

“What did you do to him, Sith?” she demanded, raw voice contributing to the impression that she was little more than a child.

Mara sighed. “I removed his mask, Jaesa.” A pause. “Had you never felt it from him?”

“He instructed me not to use my powers on him,” the girl said slowly. “I never-“

Her lips thinned into a determined line, the youthful naivete parting to reveal the layer of durasteel that must have been what carried her through the Tatooine desert and the sand demon’s lair, and drove her to reach out to the woman who’d been stalking her family for months. She turned sharp eyes on Karr. Suddenly there was something deep and ancient about her gaze. Indisputable power. In that moment it was impossible to view her as anything other than a Jedi, and a dangerous one at that.

The Padawan hissed and jerked backward, as if burned. Her eyes returned to Human norms, filling with tears.

“H-how could I have missed this? How could you hide this from me?” The last words accusatory arrows flung at her master.

“This is a trick, Jaesa.” Karr’s voice was oily enough to keep the Fury’s engines at peak performance for months. “It’s all a deception, the Sith is manipulating you, my Padawan. Search her sense, and you’ll see the truth.”

“Please do,” Mara replied, opening empty hands in a gesture of invitation and peace. “I have dealt openly with you, Jaesa, and I have nothing to hide.”

She cannot possibly allow a Jedi to muck about in her mind . Quinn’s hand dropped instinctively to the butt of his blaster. Mara shot him a glance, frown making her order clear, and he forced his hand back to his side, grinding his teeth. The girl’s eyes had taken on that dark ancient look again as she stared at Mara, her dark brows furrowed in concentration… and consternation.

“You use the dark side,” the Padawan breathed, eyes still far away, “but there’s light in you… a restraint. Honor.” Tears trickled down her cheeks as her brown eyes scanned the room wildly, as if looking for support. “You’re telling me my entire life has been a lie. Everything I’ve ever believed… I served this man, never knowing… how can I trust my power ever again?”

“Kill the Sith, Jaesa,” Karr growled. “Your clarity will return when she is dead.”

“This is the Jedi Order.” Mara’s hand shot out, index finger stabbing at Karr. “They preach peace and goodness , with this roiling around inside them. They mask and dissemble and pretend. I will not do that to you. Whatever else I may be, I’m not a liar, nor am I ashamed of who I am. I will help you find your own way, not mine. Not Master Karr’s. Yours.”

“Just… stop. You have to stop talking.” The girl took a step back, hands up as if to ward off both the Sith and her master’s words. “Both of you are trying to drive me insane. What am I supposed to do with this?”

Mara seemed on the verge of reaching out to touch the girl. Her hand stopped just shy of the Padawan’s shoulder. She wrenched away, and Mara stepped back several steps, hands raised in a placating gesture.

“You must do what you believe to be right, Jaesa.”

The girl laughed.

There was no mirth in it; it was brittle razor blades through the air, her voice cracking through the sound in a way that made Quinn’s skin crawl. He’d heard worse, from Sith who inhabited the crueler end of the spectrum, but that tenuous thread of control, that sense that the slightest misstep and it would shatter completely, was the same. And Sith were a known - terrifying, but still known. Quinn had no notion what the Padawan could do with her power if it exploded out of her indiscriminately.

“What I believe to be right? You revealed my beliefs for a child’s fantasies and now you want me to do what I believe is right ?”

Her lightsaber was in her hands and slashing toward Mara’s face before Quinn fully understood what was happening. But Mara was ready, her shield arm flashing upward and turning the golden blade aside, and using that split second to ignite her own weapon to parry the other end of the dual saber.

“Stay back!” Mara snapped without looking back at them.

Quinn clenched his jaw but obeyed, catching Vette’s arm before she could draw her own blasters. “Only if she’s faltering,” he murmured, eyes glued to the dual unfolding before them. The Padawan attacked relentlessly, with a ferocity Quinn never would have associated with her kind. It would have been concerning, except Mara’s body moved with the relaxation of a person whose limits were nowhere near being challenged.

“Ah yes, anger. It’s a potent weapon, is it not?” Mara’s voice was conversational; it held none of the seductive growl she’d used on Karr when goading him into rage. She flicked the Padawan’s blade aside and drove her energy shield into the girl’s gut. “But it has its limitations.”

Shut up .”

“It lends power to your attacks, it’s true. But if you hope to break my defenses you must focus it. This indiscriminate rage will get you killed.”

The Padawan hesitated for half a second, confusion trickling into the anger on her face. “Why do you care?” It was more accusation than question.

“I have no intention of harming you, Jaesa.”

“Too late.”

She attacked with a yell, her form just as sloppy as before. Mara blocked her easily and stepped back to disengage.

“Focus it,” she commanded, her voice cracking like a whip. “It’s an almost tangible thing in your body, yes? Push it into your Force connection. It’ll power you, but leave the rest of your mind free to work.”

The Padawan frowned. Mara did as well, then tried again. “That part of yourself you empty to access the light side. Push it there…. Yes. Like that.” She smiled and slid into a defensive form. “Attack me.”

The difference was immense. The girl advanced methodically, her strikes short and deadly but controlled. Mara’s body tensed as she, too, focused, forced to take her opponent more seriously now that she’d gathered herself.

It helped, but the Padawan wasn’t anywhere near Mara’s equal. After only a few moments, Mara sidestepped a lunge and caught the hilt of her dualsaber in one hand, using her lightsaber to keep the girl from using her back blade in a second attack. In that split second the weapon was still, Mara drove her knee into the Padawan’s ribs and then slammed the hilt of her lightsaber into the girl’s fingers. They loosened enough for the Sith to sweep the weapon out of her grasp.

“You… you could have killed me. At any time,” the Padawan said through labored breathing. Her face had calmed, and though her body was clearly exhausted, she seemed unperturbed by Mara’s magenta black blade poised at her neck.

“I could have, yes.”

“But you didn’t. Why?”

“Because you’re right: I have already harmed you. This is the only way I can balance that harm.”

“By what? Taking me back to the Empire and showing me off as your prized captive Padawan? Turning my power on your enemies the way Master Karr did?”

“By teaching you the strength you need to keep anyone from treating you like a weapon ever again.”

“Even you?” The disbelief in her voice was clear.

“Including me,” Mara agreed. “It’s not precisely frowned upon for masters to send their apprentices to do their dirty work.” She spread her hands, indicating their surroundings. “But I prefer to face my challenges head on.”

“I won’t turn to the dark side for you.”

Quinn’s mouth dropped open at the bald defiance in her tone, and Mara frowned. “Did you not use it just now?”

“No.” There was a slight hesitation, as if she were sorting through what she’d experienced during the duel - or preparing a lie, Quinn thought sourly. “Your words helped me focus, but what I felt in the Force remained unchanged.”

There was a long silence as they regarded one another.

“I won’t lie and say I will teach you Jedi doctrine, Jaesa. I won’t. But, if nothing else, you’ve learned today that there’s more than one way to be Sith.”

“And you will guide me in finding my way.”

“Yes.”

Then, “Master Karr was right,” the Padawan said slowly. “In fighting you I’ve found clarity.” Another beat of silence, and then the girl’s jaw tightened with determination and she slipped to her knees. “I willingly submit to you.”

Karr was still ranting at both women, but he was mere background noise, and that, too, fell silent as Jaesa’s knees hit the floor. The look on Mara’s face mirrored the look she had on Balmorra, all those months ago, when Quinn himself had knelt and pledged himself to her: pure discomfort. Despite that, her voice was steady when she spoke.

“And why would you do that?”

“You… I sense your honesty. I may not understand why you’ve been as restrained as you have, but….” she glanced back at Karr. “It’s better than the lies I’ve been told. And I want to know the truth.”

“I meant what I said: I will not lie to you. And therefore I must tell you this path will be difficult. You were not raised to be Sith; our ways will seem alien at best, and you will be forsaking everything you’ve known up to now. And believe me when I say you will not be allowed to return. Can you accept that burden, Jaesa Willsaam?”

“I can shoulder any burden with your guidance… Master.”

To Quinn’s shock, Mara flinched away from the title, cheeks darkened in a blush as she raised Jaesa to her feet. “Then I accept you as my apprentice and pledge myself to your guardianship and tutelage, with all the responsibilities and protection that implies.”

Quinn doubted Jaesa would have noticed the slight tremor in her voice; indeed, it was so subtle that he wouldn’t have noticed himself, if not for the broad spectrum of her vocal capabilities to which he’d been newly acquainted in the last three days.

***

Karr was surprisingly easy to dispose of; Darth Baras had sent a small contingent of ground troops to Hutta in Mara’s wake, meaning they’d contacted her only a few minutes after she began deliberating about what to do with him that would both contain the threat he represented and also not alienate her new apprentice. In the end, she’d sacrificed a bit of Jaesa’s trust for the sake of security, opting to send Karr to Darth Baras. Let her master deal with the man; she was done with him.

It probably wasn’t a death sentence. There was something between Karr and her Master, fostered when Karr had infiltrated the Sith Order during the war. Whether it had been romantic or otherwise she wasn’t entirely sure, but her gut told her that Baras would delight in having his old associate back and in rare, rabidly dark form. Jaesa accepted the decision, and her reasoning, but it was clear she didn’t like it. But then, there was precious little about this situation to like in the first place.

Returning to her ship was the greatest gift in the galaxy.

The planet stubbornly clung to her in the form of stinking stains on her armor and the pain in her knee where Karr had kicked her, to say nothing of Vette and Quinn’s bruises and the addition to her crew. Still, she resisted the urge to run immediately to her quarters to scrub herself raw and instead tapped Baras’s holo frequency into her holoterminal, Quinn standing to her right, and Jaesa and Vette to her left. The Twi’lek had been hovering over Jaesa ever since the hike back to the spaceport, trying to lighten the Padawan’s - no, her apprentice’s - mood with casual conversation and the occasional groan-worthy pun. She’d been only partway successful, a fact that Mara could well appreciate. No amount of friendly conversation could lessen the weight of what Jaesa had done today.

Baras, predictably, was delighted by her report, especially the part about Karr being taken to him on Dromund Kaas. Something about his pleasure churned Mara’s stomach, so much so that when her master turned his masked face on Jaesa, she moved on instinct, sliding between her master and her apprentice. She was still learning to understand Jaesa’s sense, but the apprentice’s relief came through loud and clear, piercing the maelstrom of emotion like sun through storm clouds.

“I can sense your devotion to one another,” Baras rumbled pleasantly. “I am beyond pleased, Apprentice. You have exceeded my wildest dreams for you in this endeavor, and in turning a Jedi to our cause,” Mara felt Jaesa stiffen behind her, “you have proven yourself a true master of the dark side. As is my right as your master, I hereby promote you to the rank of Lord of the Sith, with all the rights and responsibilities attached thereto.”

Mara blinked. She’d been wanting this - oh how she’d wanted it, more than anything once it seemed to have been taken away from her after her mother’s treason - and she knew she’d done superb work for Darth Baras. But having it offered still wiped her mind clean with surprise.

“Master, I…” she gave a slight bow of her head, the accepted greeting between a Lord and a Darth. “Thank you, Darth Baras. I will continue to be worthy of the title.”

Another wave of relief washed over her, this time radiating out of Captain Quinn. Mara shot a surreptitious glance at him; his face was smooth but the way his eyes roamed over her… She navigated the rest of the conversation on autopilot, focusing instead on keeping herself from returning the low heat of his gaze.

The credit stipend Baras promised as reward for her elevation meant little to her personally; Mara resolved to split the credits amongst her crew in acknowledgment of a job well done. She’d also need to set up a salary structure for Jaesa when they returned home.

They were returning home.

That combined with her promotion had Mara bouncing on the balls of her feet when Baras’s holo winked out.

“Congratulations, my lord,” Quinn said, almost before the glow of the holo had faded. His voice was scrupulously detached, but his happiness and pride caressed her Force senses until she fought back a shudder of pleasure.

“This means we have more autonomy from Darth Creepy, yeah?” Vette asked.

Mara chuckled. “To a point; he’s still my master, Vette, and has the right to order me into battle. He’s simply not entitled to check in on me as he used to, and the Fury is now solely in my custodianship.”

Vette nodded thoughtfully. “Good.” Then suddenly her arms were around Mara in a quick, heartfelt hug. “I know how much you’ve wanted this.”

Mara squeezed Vette in turn, then looked over her head at Jaesa, who stood a meter or so apart from the rest of the crew, hands knotted together in front of her. Mara swallowed a sigh and gently stepped back.

“We’re returning to Dromund Kaas, where we’ll be able to complete the necessary bureaucratic procedures to formalize your apprenticeship, Jaesa. Your parents are currently residing in Kaas City. Would you like to see them?”

The girl’s brown eyes widened. “I’m allowed to see them?”

“Of course.” Mara frowned, then understanding dawned. “Sith apprentices are allowed to continue as members of their own families, Jaesa. You may have as much contact with your parents as you wish, and you may stay with them when we’re off duty if you wish to. As an apprentice, you’re also entitled to space in my home, or in apprentice housing in Kaas City.” She hesitated. “I might advise against that last option.”

Jaesa returned her frown. “I suppose it wouldn’t do for me to be in close proximity to other apprentices right now, not when I’m so… new.”

“I think you’d be surprised by how little that matters to most of your peers,” Mara replied. Dysprosia had been a slave before she was brought to Korriban at the age of eight. Her time at the Academy, especially early on, wasn’t easy, but the worst treatment she’d received was at the hands of her overseer, not her fellow students. Indeed, over time, Harkun’s overt cruelty and Dysprosia’s resilience earned her more friends and comfort than she might have had originally. “No, I meant that apprentice housing is both rather crude and, well… unruly.” Few things rivaled newly-graduated Sith for sheer wild idiocy. In a way, Mara was somewhat relieved her career as a Sith had been so unconventional; she’d skipped that particular step in the process.

“She’s saying it’s loud and everything smells like barely-competent sex,” Vette put in with a smile.

Mara rolled her eyes. “You forgot burnt toast.” For some reason the apprentices who lived in apprentice housing never had cooking abilities worth speaking of.

“Yeah, that, too,” Vette said, waving a dismissive hand before turning back to Jaesa. “Anyway, if you don’t want to stay with your folks, I highly recommend staying at Mara’s. The Thrask Hotel and Sith Day Spa is amazing.”

Jaesa looked between them in bemusement. “Can I decide after I’ve seen my parents?”

“Of course. For now, Vette, can you show Jaesa to the crew quarters and acquaint her with the ship? We also have extra personal supplies in the cargo bay cabinets.”

“Aye-aye, boss.”

Vette led Jaesa away, chattering amiably with every step.

“Shall we?” she asked Quinn, turning toward the flight deck.

She could feel his surprise when she slid into the co-pilot’s chair and called up the Fury’s pre-flight sequence.

“I’ve no problem doing this on my own,” he murmured when she was nearly through her checklist, blue eyes meeting hers over the consoles that separated pilot and co-pilot stations.

She paused in her work. “It’s been some time since I’ve had to do this, and it’s a skill I’d rather not lose entirely. Do you object to my flying with you?”

“Not at all, despite Major Sicaritae’s opinions about your piloting skills.”

His teasing smirk made her stomach flip, making it difficult to maintain a tart tone. “Despite what Daveth may have told you, I am capable of getting a ship out of a spaceport,” she grumbled.

“That’s good to hear,” he said, smirk warming into a smile.

She grinned in return for a long moment, before casting a glance at her console. “My board is green, Captain. Let’s go home.”

***

“So this is it, home sweet rack,” Vette announced as the hatch to the crew quarters slid open. “Captain Field Manual has this one,” she gestured to the lower bunk to the right of the door, “it looks completely deserted because we call him Captain Field Manual for a reason.”

Jaesa stared at her blankly, and Vette felt herself redden.

“Because, well, the Imperial Army Field Manual has a bunch of rules for how you keep your rack? And he follows them to the letter? You should have seen his first day here he actually lectured me about….” Vette trailed off, realizing the joke wasn’t getting any better with explanation. “Anyway,” she continued hurriedly, “you don’t really  have to worry about him, because I doubt he’ll be sleeping in here much.”

“Why not?”

“Oh, he sleeps with Mara.”

“He sleeps-” Jaesa’s brown eyes widened. “You mean they’re… involved ?”

“Very,” Vette replied, and grinned when Jaesa cast a wide-eyed glance across the hall toward Mara’s door, like a dozen uninvited images of what went on inside had just launched themselves through her mind. It was a feeling Vette knew all too well. “Yeah, I know. If you can aim your Force senses literally anywhere else, I would.”

The Human woman shook her head, bemused. “I thought I felt something between them, but I didn’t…” she gestured helplessly. “Is that even allowed?”

Vette shrugged. “I’m pretty sure Sith can do what - and who - they want. You get used to it. Although… I guess you won’t have to, so much.”

She knew halfway through the sentence that was the wrong thing to say, but the words tumbled out anyway. Jaesa went completely still, the laughter fading from her eyes. Good job, Vette, she thought, looking around hurriedly for a change in subject.

“That’s my bunk,” she blurted, jabbing a blue finger toward the only obviously-occupied rack in the room, then halted awkwardly, unsure what to say next. The silence stretched until inspiration finally struck. “Go ahead and choose one for yourself. I’ll be right back.”

Without waiting for a response, Vette hurried to the galley and set a cup of caf brewing while she loaded the remaining alderberries onto a plate. She paused outside the crew quarters to resettle the caf - the mug’s handle was beginning to warm up - and the faint sounds of crying trickled through the open hatch. Vette froze, listening for a moment to make sure Mara and Quinn were still on the flight deck, out of earshot, then took a step into the room and keyed the hatch closed. Mara would understand Jaesa’s distress, but Vette knew what it was to wind up on this ship under some form of duress.

“Hey,” she said softly as she stepped around the support pillar separating the front racks from the back ones. Jaesa was sitting in the rack opposite hers, knees pulled up to her chest, robes pulled tightly about her. She flinched back from Vette, wiping her face almost guiltily. “Hey, it’s okay, I get that this is overwhelming. I’m sorry, that was a crappy thing for me to say before.”

“But it’s the truth. I won’t- I’m not-” she took a shuddering breath and scrubbed her hands over her face and through her hair. “Oh stars, what if this was a mistake?”

The question was rhetorical, but that never stopped Vette from answering them.

“Joining Mara? I mean, it may not have been your original life plan, but it’s not a bad gig, really.”

Jaesa seemed to turn that thought over in her mind before looking up at Vette. “You sound like you’re speaking from experience.”

“Former Imperial slave,” Vette confirmed, leaving the berries on the room’s sole table and cradling the caf mug in both hands as she folded onto her own rack. “Mara freed me, offered me this job so I can get back on my feet.”

“And you like working with her?”

“She’s a good boss. I mean, she’s bought into all the ‘for the Empire’ propaganda, but she’s,” Vette paused, searching for words, then sighed. “It’s complicated. Her family has a history of helping people Imperial society usually grinds down, and she takes that responsibility seriously.”

Jaesa nodded, thoughts turning inward again.

“Oh, so, we brought a bunch of alderberries with us from Alderaan… if you want some?” Vette pushed the dish forward a centimeter. Jaesa’s brown eyes lit up.

“I haven’t had these in years,” she sighed as she popped two of the deep red berries into her mouth. “We always had frycakes and macerated alderberries for Life Day breakfast when I was young.” A pause. “Does the Empire celebrate Life Day?”

“Of course, who doesn’t celebrate Life Day?” Vette countered, taking a sip of caf.

“I thought… I was always taught the Empire didn’t value life, so it seemed like it wouldn’t be a holiday.”

“Oh man, just wait until you go to your first Sith party,” Vette laughed. “I mean, it’s definitely different - sort of a ‘live as much as you can because we’re all going to die in glorious battle for our Emperor’ attitude, and some lives are more valuable than others.” Her voice became bitter. “But it’s more complicated than most of the Republic admits. There are way more people like Mara than you’d think, for example. Not enough, maybe, but a lot.”

“It sounds like an odd experience, living with such extremes.”

“Eh. It’s like living with Captain Stuffy.” At Jaesa’s questioning look, Vette waved a hand. “He’s a speciesist jerk, and a total pain in the ass,” she explained, “but he’s good at his job, and he adores the fuck out of Mara, and he’s slowly getting to be less of a speciesist jerk, so… I don’t know, it works.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Jaesa said with a small, timid smile.

“After a few days it won’t just be my word,” Vette replied, draining the last of the caf, then she froze. “Oh shit, I brought this for you.” She held the empty mug out guiltily.

Jaesa laughed. It was one of the purest expressions of joy Vette had ever heard, and was accompanied by a smile like flowers blooming in spring. “It’s okay; can we make more?”

“Yep, galley’s this way. And hey, while we’re there - Mara has this gods-awful tea she makes every night. You should try some.”

Chapter Text

The mattress shifting under her pulled Mara back into the waking world. A glance at the chrono on the far side of the bed showed it was 0600. Quinn sitting up had woken her. Marserha’s teeth, but she’d grown to hate this hour over the last few days. He’d put on his clothes and leave, and when they saw one another again it would be as Lord and Captain… except a Lord and Captain who hadn’t determined how to negotiate the different boundaries required while on-duty. In her fear of overstepping, she found herself wary of even flirting as much as she had before they’d begun sleeping together.

“Malavai,” she murmured, pushing up on an elbow to slip her hand into the crook of his arm. He turned, his face softening into that small smile he wore only for her, in private; the one that always inspired a smile in return. “Will you stay? Please?”

She’d never asked this before, not in earnest. But they would arrive on Dromund Kaas later today, and the Force only knew what that would do to their daytime life.

He seemed to understand. With only a slight hesitation and a half hearted glance at his PT clothes, he was back under the comforter with her, warm arms drawing her close. She sighed happily, snuggling against him.

“I fear you’re a bad influence on me,” he admonished her, his fingers sliding through her hair.

“I beg your pardon, I am an excellent influence.” She scowled up at him playfully. “Relaxation is necessary to maintaining one’s edge.”

“That is an excellent point. I’m lucky you’re willing to look out for my well being.”

“Altruism is a heavy burden,” Mara sighed dramatically, “but one I shall bear for your sake.”

His quiet laugh rumbled pleasantly against her cheek as her fingers traced idle patterns in his fine spray of chest hair.

“What time do you need to leave?”

“I have a light day,” he said thoughtfully, “reviewing maintenance and supply logs so that I know what to requisition when we land, making sure our action reports are ready for filing, preparing for my qualification exam. I can remain another hour, at least.”

Mara laughed. That list was not something that described a light day as far as she defined it.

“And you?” he asked.

“Working with Jaesa, mainly. I’ve not finished evaluating her saber skills. She holds back too much when we spar; I can’t get a good read on her abilities.”

Quinn’s body tensed and his sense rippled with annoyance. Mara frowned and looked up at him.

“What?”

“I…” He paused blue eyes focused on some point behind her head. “I’m not overly fond of allowing her to remain armed aboard ship.”

“You don’t trust her.”

He sighed. “I trust your judgment. It just… goes against all instinct for me.”

There was something lurking in his sense, too dark for simply wrestling with training or even ingrained distrust for Jedi. “You really don’t like Jedi, do you?”

“I haven’t noticed a particular fondness on your part, either,” he countered.

“True, but.. There’s something else, I can feel it.” She sat up, meeting his gaze, then waiting quietly when he looked away and remained silent.

“My father was killed at Rhen Var,” he said finally, tone indicating this was a complete explanation for what she felt from him.

Mara blinked in confusion. The name of the planet sounded familiar, but she wasn’t sure why. “What happened at Rhen Var?”

It was Quinn’s turn to pause in surprise, though it turned to a wry smile. “I suppose the minutiae of the war wouldn’t have circulated amongst the acolytes on Korriban. We captured Rhen Var late in the war - less than a year before the treaty. It was a resource-rich planet, necessary for the continuation of hostilities. The Republic… liberated the planet not long after we’d set up a forward base, led by a squadron of four Jedi Knights.”

“How do you know it was the Jedi specifically who killed your father?”

“He was stationed in the command center, directing the battle and serving as the final line of defense for Darth Mekhis.” His voice hardened. “Only Jedi made it that far.”

Suddenly the pieces clicked; her father’s ship had been part of that battle. He’d returned home furious at the loss; and furious at the Jedi Knight who’d rallied Republic forces and wounded Darth Mekhis.

“Only one Jedi made it that far. It was Satele Shan,” she finished.

“Just so.”

Mara’s eyes widened as a thought suddenly struck her. “Druckenwell was only months after Rhen Var, wasn’t it?”

He gave her a sharp nod. “Grief isn’t what led me to defy Moff Broysc,” he clarified hastily, “but it was present, yes.”

“Oh Malavai,” she murmured, “I’m so sorry.”

She folded him into a tight hug and he clung to her for a moment. Then, “It’s foolish, really. He died defending his lord, defending the Empire. There’s no greater death than that. But… I hate them for it.”

His voice was impossibly calm as he said it, but there was a bone-deep sadness in his sense, made all the worse by his obvious attempts to bury the feeling.

“That’s only natural, Malavai. You need not be ashamed of it.”

“It’s self indulgent,” he countered firmly, then gave her a sympathetic look. “After all, I’m not the only person to lose a parent to the Jedi.”

With an effort, Mara kept her face blank. “No, you’re not.” It wasn’t technically a lie; she’d not stipulated that her parent fit that description, only agreeing that Quinn was part of a large population whose loved ones had fallen to a Jedi blade. She sternly ordered her conscience to stand down. “That doesn’t make losing someone to them any easier. Your hurt is yours to feel and to use, Malavai.”

“I’d rather use other feelings,” he said, lips ghosting over her neck, smiling smug pleasure when she shuddered against him.

“Well then I suppose I’d better give you quite a lot to work with.”

“You have done, more than you realize.”

Warm fingers threaded through her hair, a physical manifestation of the emotional warmth radiating out to her through the Force, twining through her senses. She was happy to comply when he drew her back down into the mattress, her ear pressed against his heart.

“I’m going to miss this,” he murmured after a time.

Mara smiled. “Your trials will only last two weeks, Malavai. Surely we can survive the separation.”

His hesitation and guilt hit her like a spray of cold water.

“Malavai?” she asked cautiously, lifting her head only to find he had trouble meeting her gaze until she gripped his chin gently. “Talk to me.”

“I- I have not told my mother,” he admitted.

“I’ve not told my family yet either. We’ve been rather preoccupied.”

“I’m not ready to tell her yet. I… you must know she will not be thrilled by the news.”

“Ah.”

It was the only syllable she could utter, for her mind was suddenly crowded with a hundred conflicting feelings, one of which quickly rose to prominence:

Is he ashamed of me? Of our relationship? How dare he be ashamed of me. If we’re talking about societal shame, it should by all rights go the other way.

She stuffed the arrogance down as hard as she could; this wasn’t about the social norms of the Empire. This was about Quinn and his mother, and her reasonable concerns about him entangling himself with a Sith.

It also meant he wasn’t quite sure of the longevity of their relationship just yet, nor was he completely trusting of her promises not to hurt him. Why risk a confrontation if Vorsila’s fears would only be realized mere weeks later? It was understandable for him to want to protect himself.

That didn’t make it not hurt.

Quinn didn’t have the Force, but he was, as she’d found to her repeated delight, superbly attuned to her body language. That worked against her now, for he must have felt her body tense up as she wrestled with the myriad feelings his admission inspired.

“Mara?” He sat up against the headboard, bringing her with him, his hand going to her cheek in a mirror image of her earlier gesture, turning her gaze back to his. “I said on Alderaan that being with you is beyond my wildest dreams, and I meant that.” The way his sense curled through hers, and the softness in his eyes as he scanned her face, she couldn’t bring herself to disbelieve him. “I only need time, please.”

Time to determine if I’m just another self-centered Sith; time to figure out how much you stand to lose if you disclose our relationship. Her internal voice was bitter as Korribani sourgrass, then softened.

He has so much more to lose than I, if I were what he fears. That’s the nature of our society.

She didn’t force a smile - it would be a lie, and she’d never outright lied to him - but she nodded, practically inhaling the warmth she felt from him through the Force, gathering it into herself greedily as proof her darker fears were unfounded.

“I’ll be patient,” she said, “and follow your lead when we arrive.”

“Thank you.” He hesitated. “Would you prefer me to leave?”

“No,” she said hurriedly, her arms snaking around him to hold him fast. “Now I have even more reason to want you here this morning.”

He relaxed noticeably, then glanced at the chrono again. His dissatisfied groan would have been inaudible if her head weren’t pressed against his body. “Perhaps, this once, I can simply trust that our after action reports may be sent as-is.”

“Why, Malavai, that is quite unlike you,” she teased. “If you’re not careful I shall think you’re shirking your duty.”

“On the contrary, I’m more focused on my duty than ever. I’ve simply judged you a higher priority this morning.”

Her smile nearly split her face in two. “Have you now?”

“Yes,” he murmured, pulling her near until his nose caressed hers. “I find myself wanting to prove my adoration for you.”

Mara paused, pulling back slightly, face going serious. “You have nothing to prove, Malavai, this is just… I need time as well, I suppose. This is unfamiliar to me.”

“I understand.” He stroked her hair back from her face, lips turning up into that small smile again. “Even so, it would seem we will have some time apart, and I want you to have something to remember me by.”

“And to have some additional memories of your own, I presume?” she ran her nails up his back as she finished the question, smirking at his sharp gasp.

“Just so. May I?”

The last word was muffled by her lips claiming his.

***

They spent more than the morning in bed, instead emerging less than an hour before their scheduled afternoon arrival time on Dromund Kaas.

“Damn. I owe Jaesa ten credits,” Vette quipped when Mara shambled into the galley in search of caf. “I didn’t think anything could keep Quinn in bed this late. I was starting to think I’d have to land this bucket myself.”

“Well then, you’ve shown impeccable instinct, Jaesa, both in assessing my persuasive abilities and in betting in my favor,” Mara replied with a wink for her apprentice.

Jaesa reddened. “I hope I’ve not overstepped, Master.”

“Not in the slightest. I’m pleased you two are getting along so well.” She joined the two younger women at their table, a cup of caf and a meal bar in front of her. “Jaesa, I must apologize for missing your training session this morning. However, we can continue after we’ve gotten you settled and your flimsiwork in order.”

The girl brightened somewhat - a sentiment Mara shared. True, she may have been simply putting off the inevitable in terms of finding an optimal working relationship with her new apprentice, but after two days of sharing very close quarters and training intensely but, fruitlessly, the break would do them both good. Caldwyn would meet them at the spaceport with all the necessary forms. They’d also need to take Jaesa shopping; wandering Dromund Kaas in Jedi browns would only invite scrutiny Mara had no desire to endure. And of course, all of that implied her parents were settled and happy, which was by no means certain. This would be the first time Mara saw the Willsaams after whisking them out of Castle Organa.

Mara had fought Jedi Masters and survived a political scandal that should have killed her. She’d been tired from the effort. And yet integrating Jaesa into Imperial life seemed a far more mountainous prospect.

The Fury shuddered as she dropped out of hyperspace. Mara forced herself to eat her meal bar and finish her caf in the galley before sitting down in the common area to review the resupply list Quinn had sent to her after he took his station on the flight deck. That’s where he found her once the Fury was snug in her landing bay.

“My mother and your steward are requesting entry, my lord,” he said, posture parade-ground perfect.

“Granted, of course,” came her stilted reply.

This is going to be fun , she groaned internally.

Fortunately, Vorsila and Caldwyn strode through the Fury’s main hatch almost side by side, Loajalkra trotting in their wake. The wrat paused and sniffed the air, her pointed snout tracking straight to Jaesa. She padded over to the Human woman carefully, nose brushing Jaesa’s hand. Mara hesitated only a moment before following. Loajalkra didn’t have a history of attacking new acquaintances, but one couldn’t be too careful, and indeed, it was a welcome distraction from trying to act naturally in front of Quinn’s mother, especially since she had no notion what “naturally” meant while on-duty at the moment.

“Hold your hand out, Jaesa, so she can get your scent. She won’t bite.”

The apprentice complied, her dubious expression softening as the wrat’s sniffs slowly turned into nuzzles. Mara smiled as she drew even with the beast, stroking her fluffy back gently.

“This is Loajalkra. She’s been my companion since I was a child. Lojalkra,” Mara’s voice dropped into a sing-song lilt, earning an eagerly-swishing tail from the animal at her feet, “this is Jaesa, my new apprentice.” Said aloud to a non-sentient beast, the words sounded almost normal.

“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Loajalkra,” Jaesa said, kneeling to stroke the wrat’s head.

The beast bruxed happily for a moment, and then, apparently satisfied the new sentient was sufficiently acceptable, remembered that she was seeing her mistress for the first time in months. Her tail swished madly and she squealed with delight, nuzzling Mara before tearing about the common room, pausing to cuddle against Quinn’s calves before galloping to Vette and nearly bowling her over.

Mara sighed and shook her head, rising to her feet to face Quinn’s mother.

“Mrs. Quinn, it’s an honor to see you again,” she said with a slight bow of her head, raising her voice to be heard over Loajalkra’s scrabbling claws.

“Likewise, my lord. I understand from Malavai that congratulations are in order.”

Mara’s stomach leapt into her throat, eyes flicking to Quinn in confusion for a moment before remembering that she had just recently received a promotion.

“Ah, yes, thank you,” she replied awkwardly. “I’m both pleased and humbled by the development.”

Quinn stood behind his mother, staring at Mara as if he’d never seen her before, and she forced herself not to grimace. What was that, Mara?

“In any event, I expect you’ll want to begin your leave, Captain, since you report for your trials on Meneday.”

“Of course, my lord,” he replied smoothly.

“I’d wish you luck, but I’m certain you won’t need it.”

“You flatter me, my lord.”

She smiled, unable to help herself. “We both know I’m not a flatterer, Captain. You’ll represent this ship well.”

“I will endeavor to do so, my lord.”

He gave a sharp bow and followed his mother toward the hatch. She watched him go, enjoying the view afforded by his impeccably tailored uniform pants, and desperately wishing to call him back to her. He hesitated on the threshold, blue eyes scorching hers for half a heartbeat, and then he was gone.

Vette looked up from rubbing Loajalkra’s belly, whistling low.

“Could that have been more awkward?”

“I’m sure it could have,” Mara replied tartly, turning to Caldwyn. “I understand you have everything we need to clear my apprentice through customs?”

The steward nodded, a knowing gleam in her eye and produced a datapad. She’d clearly noticed that last look between Mara and her Captain, but Mara knew the steward would refrain from commenting unless she mentioned it first. Caldwyn was the sort of woman content to let something remain on open secret until addressed directly, a point of discretion that made her invaluable in her position as estate steward.

“Indeed, my lord. May I first offer my congratulations on your promotion? Your aunts are beside themselves.”

Mara smiled and gestured for Caldwyn, Vette, and Jaesa to follow her into the Fury’s conference room.

***

Hutt pleasure barges always smelled like sweat. No matter how opulent, no matter how many credits were represented in the plush carpeting and gaudy decor, the faintly salty smell of desperation lurked beneath it all. The feelings of the two Twi’lek women behind Mara - cold anger from Vette, resigned fear from Tivva - mixed with it all to nearly overwhelm her senses.

“What if he says no?” Tivva murmured through clenched teeth, low enough that only Mara’s Force-enhanced hearing could catch it.

“You’re leaving here today, Tivva. I’ve given you and your sister my word.”

“It sounds so simple when you say it like that,” Tivva replied dryly.

It really was that simple. Vette had spent months tracking her sister, only to find her among Toobu the Hutt’s dancing slave girls on Nar Shaddaa. Mara promised to help in any way she could, up to and including buying Tivva’s freedom. If the Hutt refused to be amenable, well. There was more than one way to skin a vinecat.

They stopped before a set of double doors that was somehow more gaudily opulent than the rest of the barge, including the casino deck. A nervous protocol droid hovered outside.

“Maranel Thrask, Lord of the Sith and High Lady of the Sith Empire to see your master,” Mara said.

“I’m terribly sorry, my lord; the master is not currently receiving visitors.”

“I bring him a business proposition, one that will make him very rich. I daresay he might even reward the droid who admits me to his presence. Shall I find someone else?”

“Oh, no indeed. It is my pleasure to serve you.”

Mara allowed herself a tight smile as she the droid keyed open the door. A blind spot in Hutt programming. Somehow the protocol droids had a greedy streak that mixed with their programmed loyalty to make such a promise of recognition work.

She expected the audience chamber to be dim and gloomy, and the edges of the room met that expectation. At the center, however, a large gambling table was spotlit, gleaming red and false gold lacquer. Toobu took up the long end of the table, and an array of garishly-clad humanoids of varying races arrayed around the remaining three sides. They reeked of liquor - expensive liquor, but too much of it - and spice smoke.

I told you I was not to be disturbed! ” the Hutt spat in his native language as soon as the droid’s chrome chassis flashed in the light.

“Master, I bring you a most advantageous business opportunity ,” the droid protested, motioning Mara forward.

Just as it had with the droid, the light caught the sigil on her forehead and the gleaming gold studs in her ears, marking her immediately as Sith in species and, by extension, occupation.

The Hutt paused with his arm raised, ready to wave her off, his eyes narrowing in thought.

Interesting. What business could a Sith have with a humble businessman like myself?

The lucrative kind, Excellency ,” she replied, inclining her head respectfully and introducing herself. “ I understand you have a dancer, Tivva, who no longer brings you profit. I’m here to remedy that by taking her off your hands. Tivva and Vette stepped forward.

What is your interest in the woman? I can see from your other slave that your taste generally runs better than a dancer long past her prime.

Vette’s revulsion washed over her, complementing Mara’s own.

Your first step in making this deal advantageous to yourself, ” she growled, “ is to refrain from ogling my companions or presuming to know my taste .”

I only wish to service my clients as well as I may.

Mara’s stomach lurched at the idea of being considered a client by this filth.

The only service I require, Toobu, is that you release Tivva to my custody. I’m prepared to offer you one million credits.

The room went completely silent at the offer. That was easily double the price of an average dancer; perhaps triple one in Tivva’s situation, aging past the disgusting tastes of the sort of person willing to take pleasure from enslaved women.

We have a saying, Sith: too good a deal is false. There is a catch.

There is no catch, Excellency. Take my credits, give me Tivva’s collar code, and we’ll leave in peace .”

Your lies are pretty, Sith, but that only makes them more dangerous. You may not be able to control my mind, but I know manipulation when I see it. The slave is not for sale. You may leave my barge .”

Ah .” Mara allowed herself an ostentatious look around the room. “ This is the same model as Qunolob Illip Kicha’s old barge, is it not?

That is not relevant to this negotiation Sith- ” A pause as he realized the implication.

Mara gave a feral smile. “ And poor Greblak has lost millions of credits in the last few months, has she not? So much difficulty to befall one family.

Silence.

Business is fickle, ” Mara commented. “ So easily made or ruined by one single decision. I put it to you now, Toobu. Tivva is leaving with me. That can end with you one million credits richer, or it can end, ” she paused and caressed the blade at her side lovingly, “ poorly .”

Credits now. Then take her, ” Toobu snarled.

Twenty-five percent now, ” Mara countered sharply. “ The rest after Tivva’s clean and we’re back on the Promenade.

Get Crystal in here now! ” the Hutt bellowed at his droid.

Crystal, the Twi’lek woman who oversaw the dancers, appeared with alacrity, just as she promised Mara she would. As she worked at the slave collar, Mara transferred the first portion of her payment.

“Vette?” Mara asked. The prompting was unnecessary; Vette was already running a medical scanner over her sister’s body.

“Clean.”

Mara inclined her head. “ So good doing business with you, Toobu .”

They were walking up the Fury’s boarding ramp before anyone spoke.

“Is this-” Tivva rubbed her neck for at least the fourth time in the last fifteen minutes. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

“Believe it,” Vette replied with a grin. “You’ll never have to bow and scrape for that sort of scum ever again.”

“And you, Ce’na.” Vette flinched at the use of the name she’d been born with. “I still can’t believe you even found me.”

“Turns out money and influence can do a lot.”

“Have you found Mom?”

Vette’s face fell. “No. No good leads, either.”

“Take me to the outer rim. I can hotwire a ship-”

“I think we can do you one better,” Mara cut in dryly. “Vette, how would you feel hiring a subcontractor to help with your search? Thrask Durasteel will cover all expenses, of course.”

Both sisters stared at her.  

“You do know you can’t solve everything by throwing credits at it, yeah?” Vette asked, grinning.

“Well, if you’d rather not have them-”

“No, no, we’ll take them.”

Mara smiled. “I thought so.”

Vette folded her into a hug. “Thank you. Really,” she whispered.

Mara squeezed Vette and then stepped back. “You’re welcome. Now help me get the Fury in the air. Tivva, we’ll land at my estate, and Vette will get you set up with gear and a ship.”

***

Quinn hurried to his bunk, the envelope in his hand seeming to burn with his desire to open it. Only one person, so far as he knew, would bother sending him mail during the two weeks of his trials, and he had perhaps five minutes before he was required to report at the next exercise.

The potential of being seen by his fellows was a secondary, if powerful, motivation for speed. This wasn’t Basic, but it was astonishing how quickly a group of seasoned officers could regress into the exact same puerile mentality.

Despite that, he worked carefully to break the seal on the envelope, not wanting to damage it more than necessary, a foolish notion, perhaps, but it was the most tangible reminder of his lord and lover - stars how it still felt odd to think of her that way despite the visceral memory of her heat and scent -  he’d have for some time.

Finally, he extracted a piece of flimsi from the envelope. Something bright orange dropped out of it, fluttering to his bunk.

It was an orchid, dried and pressed flat. One of her orchids, to be precise: bright orange and burnt black edges. But there was something off about it: a shock of deep magenta at its center. He was certain that hadn’t been there before they’d left Alderaan. Ithorian orchids were notoriously malleable, quick adaptations to change of environment showing on their blooms, but he’d not expected their activities to prove so noticeable to the plant so quickly.

He unfolded the flimsy to find three words:

Miss you already.

-M

“Ooohh, someone’s sending our Captain Quinn flowers !” a voice crowed.

Quinn jerked, eyes flying toward the voice to find Captain Sallese, a slight whip of a woman with tawny skin and dark, short-cropped hair, grinning at him. Behind her, the rest of his class had filed into the barracks, having returned from their scant leisure time to gear up.

Fuck .

“Soooo,” she crooned. “Who’s the lucky sentient?”

“Are we sure they’re a sentient?”someone else called. “Quinn’s more of a droid man, mark my words.”

“I hardly see how this is relevant to any of you,” he gritted, face going up in flame.

“Come on, Quinn, give us a name.” Sallese’s brown eyes flashed with mirth.

At his continued silence, she darted forward, whisking the flimsi from his hand and reading it aloud.

“Definitely a posh hand,” she announced, shooting Quinn a glance, “which is unsurprising.” Another grin, this one an odd mix of genuine and lurid, “I’m impressed, Quinn, that you can inspire such longing . I had no idea you had it in you.”

“No, he had it in someone else.”

“Psh, I bet it came from his mother,” someone else grumbled.

The comments continued, fading to so much background noise until Quinn lunged for Sallese’s hand. She twitched away, body bending in seemingly unnatural ways to avoid his attempts to retrieve the letter.

“C’mon, Quinn, just give us a name, a species, anything .”

Asking nicely now would only be interpreted as begging. And he could not betray Mara’s identity. Even without the double standard of him not telling his mother, he knew down to his bones that his lord would not appreciate him disclosing the relationship to random strangers for the sake of his own comfort. That left only one option.

“Enjoy your spoils, Sallese, for you won’t get anything else from me,” he said coldly, grabbed his gear, and marched out of the barracks.

Once the door slid shut between him and the jeering crowd, he opened his fist to reveal the orchid. Thank the Emperor Sallese hadn’t grabbed that as well.

He tucked it into the breast pocket of his uniform, willing the rush of warmth to drown out the rage.

***

“Jaesa, when I tell you to attack, I expect you to attack, ” Mara sighed, disengaging and stepping back. They were in the ceremonial training room on Cwukusk’s ground floor, three weeks after returning to Dromund Kaas. Time had not helped as much as Mara had hoped. At least Jaesa had given up her drab Jedi browns - she stood across from Mara in loose, soft training gear in a heathered grey, and in her room hung robes of varying light colors. Despite the sartorial changes, the young woman who’d dueled Mara on Hutta had yet to reappear.

Jaesa lowered her training saber, her face a mirror of Mara’s consternation. “I’m sorry, Master, I don’t… I’ve not been taught to attack with abandon.”

“That would be your first mistake, Jaesa. I’m not asking you to attack wildly; I’m asking you to treat me like an honest opponent.”

“But Sith… I thought…”

Mara sighed again. “Such misunderstandings are-” she paused. “Jaesa, I know you did not use it when we dueled, but have you ever felt the dark side of the Force?”

She shook her head. Mara racked her practice saber and settled into a meditation form on the floor, gesturing for Jaesa to take up a position opposite her within arm’s reach.

“There is an exercise we use with children to help them touch the Force consciously, rather than catching it in flashes of feeling or stress. We’ll go through it together, yes?”

Jaesa froze, still standing. “I told you I wouldn’t turn to the dark side.”

Mara grimaced. That was something they’d have to work through another day. For now….

“I’m not trying to turn you, Jaesa. I merely want you to understand what it is to channel the Force in the way that I do.” It was so obvious now that she was looking at their communication challenges through this lens. “We need to understand one another better, Jaesa, if we’re to find a way to work together. This will help.”

Another long pause, and then she joined Mara on the floor. “I understand.” Some of that old durasteel returned to Jaesa’s voice. “Guide me, master.”

Mara’s eyes slid shut and she exhaled long, reaching out to her apprentice with her senses.

“I’d like to touch your emotions. I won’t push any further, but it will help me to guide you if I can feel what you’re feeling.”

The gentle sea of emotion that was her apprentice’s Force presence shifted, seeming to reach out to her, as she murmured her consent.

She took Jaesa through the exercise, purposely focusing on intense positive emotion rather than the stereotypical rage and pain, gently herding her apprentice along until she heard a sharp gasp that told her Jaesa had opened herself to the dark side.

“Good, now open your eyes and take a training saber off the wall.”

She opened her own eyes to see Jaesa’s dark brows drawn together in consternation.

“How do you- it’s strong but… it’s… it almost hurts .”

Mara frowned as she watched a training saber lift out of the wall rack and float toward them to lie next to them on the ground.

“The dark side of the Force is in all life, Jaesa, and pain is a part of the experience. I suppose I never felt that part of it as its own sensation.” Touching the dark side had always been exhilarating to her; pain and love and joy and rage and dark and color swirling together in the primordial ocean of existence.

“May I show you the light side?”

Mara froze, a refusal ready on her tongue. Then she looked at Jaesa. She’d released the Force, her face smoothed out. But her brown eyes were appraising, clearly wondering if Mara would reciprocate the trust she’d shown. This was the young woman she’d met on Hutta.

“Yes,” she said slowly, allowing her nervousness to show. “I put myself in your hands, Apprentice.”

The title tripped off her tongue effortlessly. Jaesa gave her a small smile.

“It’s a similar exercise, and one also meant for children.”

Mara closed her eyes, allowing Jaesa’s soft voice to guide her actions, frowning in concentration as she tried to empty herself of conscious thought or feeling, pushing it all to a back corner of her mind until all that remained was instinct, and the Force.

But not the Force she recognized; not her Force. This was the utter stillness of the eye of a storm, an unnatural quiet. But it wasn’t empty as she thought it would be, just as diamonds weren’t empty or even necessarily colorless despite their pristine clarity.

“Well this is… odd,” she murmured, opening her eyes and clinging tenuously to the crystalline fiber that was the light side of the Force.

“Can you use it?”

I damn well better be able to , she groused to herself, especially since she was able to use the dark side . Jaesa must have caught some of her thoughts, because she laughed softly, a friendly, almost relaxed sound.

Mara focused her attention on the training saber beside them, tightening her grip on the Force and bending it to her will-

It slipped away from her, like water through her fingers. She frowned and pushed this time, only to have it flow past her grip. Another internal curse and her connection almost fizzled entirely as her frustration grew and she gripped tighter and tighter. An exhale and counting to ten in her mind, and the light side flowed back into her as she calmed and her grip lessened. Before she cold think better of it Mara opened herself entirely, a silent invitation as the clear currents washed over her senses, unfamiliar and uncomfortably warm. Suddenly, immersed and having surrendered some part of herself to it, Mara found she could nudge it where she wanted it to go, reaching for the training saber and returning it to its place on the wall.

Jaesa beamed at her, a fact that Mara deliberately forced herself not to see as condescending.

“I’m not terribly sure I enjoyed that,” she said dryly, releasing the Force entirely, resisting the urge to immediately fill herself with the cleansing frostbite of the dark side.

“No,” Jaesa agreed. “But I think it… helped.”

“Perhaps. I need to meditate on this,” she said slowly. Stars, even if Jaesa did acquiesce to using the dark side, her approach to everything would be nearly opposite Mara’s. She’d not felt prepared to take on an apprentice raised with Sith teachings, let alone someone whose training ran completely counter to her own. How could she begin to account for it? “For now, I think we can conclude for the day. Your parents are staying on the estate?”

“Yes; they’ll be excited to see me so early.” A moment of hesitation, then, “Master?”

Mara stood and extended a hand to Jaesa, pulling her to her feet. “Yes?”

“Thank you. I appreciate your trust in me.”

Mara found herself smiling despite her lingering disquiet. “Likewise, Apprentice.”

She walked Jaesa toward the guest cottage she occupied with her family. They walked in semi-companionable silence for a few moments, Mara’s mind churning. What if Jeasa never showed much aptitude for the dark side? Could she properly train someone in Sith philosophy if they primarily used the light side? Perhaps it didn’t matter; Jaesa clearly felt deeply; her sense wasn’t the graveyard she’d felt in other Jedi. Perhaps that would be enough.

Jaesa cleared her throat carefully. “Master, I have a request to make of you.”

Mara stopped walking, catching Jaesa’s elbow. “What is it?”

“My mother was not well when I arrived here. I know you did all you could for them from a distance,” she added hurriedly when Mara frowned in confusion. “But the storms in Kaas City… the thunder had her in a constant state of anxiety. Father says she hardly ate and barely slept since arriving.”

“I’m so sorry - they had my holo frequency, I wish they had reached out.”

“They were nervous about disturbing you. And I also gather Darth Baras visited them a handful of times and discouraged their contacting you.”

Mara’s frown deepened. Why would he do that? “How can I help?” she asked instead.

“She’s improved greatly since coming here, to Chwûkûsk. She’s even slept normally the last few nights. I don’t wish to overstep, Master, but would it be possible for them to remain here?”

“Of course. The cottage is theirs, if they want it,” Mara said, making a mental note to inform Caldwyn of the change and to send someone to Kaas City for the Willsaaam’s belongings. “I’ll send my steward to you this evening to make preparations.”

A genuine smile blossomed across Jaesa’s face. “Thank you! They’ll be so happy…” She hesitated for a long moment, eyes focused on the forest around them, then, “Master, I think Darth Baras really frightened them.”

Mara sighed. “My master is not one to make a polite request when he can intimidate and demand, and I’m sorry your parents were here alone for weeks without assistance. But Jaesa,” she gripped the girl’s upper arms, searching her brown eyes intently, “you are my apprentice, not Darth Baras’s. You and your family are under my protection for as long as I’m alive. I take that responsibility seriously, even where my master is concerned. Anything I can do to assure their comfortable life here, I will.”

“Is your family under Darth Baras’s protection?” Jaesa asked. “Does everyone in Imperial society need protecting from someone stronger?”

Mara smiled. “In some ways, yes - Sith politics are complex, Jaesa, and it is never good to be without allies. If my family lacked for standing or power, Darth Baras’s protection would be mine by right. Since we don’t need his intervention or protection, I’ve not claimed it. I know I’ve uprooted you; it’s a matter of honor for me to provide every shelter I can.” She checked her chrono and forced a bright smile. “Now, go tell your parents the good news. I must see to the arrangements.”

Jaesa bowed, favoring her with another grateful smile, and then continued down the path that led to the guest cottage. Mara continued on to the main house and her rooms, Jaesa’s words echoing in her mind. It was entirely possible, even likely, that the Willsaams had simply misinterpreted Baras’s usual mien as intimidation. But if they hadn’t… If I didn’t know any better I’d say he’s flexing his muscles, reminding me of my place.

Well. Two could play at that game. In removing the Willsaams to Chwûkûsk, Mara was reminding her master of her own status. He could take that as a challenge or simply as an indication that she took Jaesa’s apprenticeship seriously; either way, the Alderaanian couple were beyond his reach now. She yanked open the cupboard in her kitchenette and frowned at the empty shelf where her tea should be, until she realized she’d brought the entire stash aboard the Fury when she left for Tatooine.

“Of course,” she muttered to herself. At least she hadn’t removed her boots yet.

It was an hour by speeder to the local spaceport where the Fury was docked. Mara vacillated only a moment before grabbing her holo and jogging to the speeder pad. If nothing else, she could divide her stock and bring some back to the house.

***

The ship was so quiet it was almost eerie, a feeling only partially dispelled by activating the interior lighting.

Mara brewed a small pot of tea, inhaling its nutty fragrance, and settled onto the couch in the common area, the pot on the djarik table, her legs tucked under her. Even that small act accomplished what the lights alone could not, and the quiet became peaceful rather than unsettling, unknotting the tension in her shoulders. Her eyes slid closed.

She wasn’t sure how long she sat there, tea cradled in her lap, eyes shut, before a voice called quietly,

“Permission to come aboard, my lord.”

She jerked around, and was rewarded with the sight of her Captain, datapad in hand, face lit with a delighted smile that only grew when she smiled in return.  

“You need never ask, Captain. How did you know I was here?” she asked, motioning for him to join her and refreshing her teacup before offering it to him.

“I called your house frequency and your steward said where you’d gone. She seemed rather excited at the prospect of my surprising you.”

Mara chuckled. I’m sure she did . “Caldwyn delights in surprising me. I think I’ll always be a ten-year-old girl in some part of her mind,” she said instead.

He laughed lightly and accepted the cup, his blue eyes closing as he savored the first sip.

“As delighted as I am to see you, Malavai, you’ve not said why you’re here.”

“Oh, of course.” He pressed the datapad into her hands, sense taking on a distinct sense of pride as he did so. “I passed my trials. Apparently my promotion has come after the shortest time in grade in the last twenty years. It needs only your signature to go into effect.”

She grinned. “I know; I took the liberty of looking up the requirements before recommending you for promotion. It’s long overdue. Congratulations, Captain, First Grade Quinn.”

Despite sitting next to her, he seemed to snap to attention long enough to nod his head deferentially. “Thank you, my lord.”

“You didn’t have to bring it all this way yourself, you know.”

“I’m aware.” His blue eyes were wide and innocent. “But one can’t be too careful with these things.”

“And one might need an excuse to leave Dromund Kaas on official business?”

He laced the fingers of his free hand with hers. “Perhaps.”

“Did you get my letter?”

His face shadowed. “I did.”

“What-” she paused. “I didn’t cause you difficulty, I hope.”

“Not at all,” he said just a touch too quickly. “It was nothing I couldn’t handle.”

“You know, Malavai, telling people you’re sleeping with a Sith Lord will shut them up with amazing alacrity.”

His eyes widened and snapped up to meet her gaze. “Mara, I would never- I couldn’t-  That’s not why I’m with you.”

“I know,” she soothed, reaching up to cradle his face. “I wouldn’t have you in my bed if I thought you were trying to use me to advantage. But quelling childish insults is quite different from using my name for career advancement, can you not see the difference?”

“I can, I simply… I’m not comfortable with either; I must make my own way. Please.”

“Alright,” she relented as he pulled her closer to rest his forehead against hers.

“I missed you,” he murmured, his free hand threading through her hair.

Mara sighed happily, his sense as warm against her mind as his arms against her body when he set the tea aside and wrapped them around her. Her species had a very low heat tolerance, but her Captain always seemed to be the perfect iteration of “warm”, a place she could very nearly think of as home if she let her thoughts get away from her overmuch.

He kissed her slowly, as if re-familiarizing himself with her lips, before relenting to her efforts to deepen the kiss, his fingers on either side of her spine, chasing shivers up her bare flesh until his fingers met the fabric of her cropped training top. They seemed to melt into one another, until her legs were draped over his, arms holding each other as close as possible.

“Mara,” he murmured, pulling back and gasping for air. “I fear this may be too public a-“

She reached out with the Force and hit the release on the entry hatch, the hiss of it sealing cutting him off.

“Better?” she asked playfully.

He hummed an affirmative and pulled her against him again. Mara was only too happy to comply. In the heat of their hunger for one another, they’d always moved through kissing as a preamble to other intimacies. And, of course, she hoped to get to those things in due time. But for the moment, on the curved couch of her ship’s common area, one hand tangled in his hair, she was utterly content losing herself in his kisses and his embrace.

Quinn’s holo beeped, vibrating against her leg and inspiring a yelp of surprise.

He frowned and shifted to retrieve the device from his belt and examined the frequency.

“Odd.”

Mara tensed. “Odd?”

“It’s voice only,” he clarified, “and I haven’t spoken….” He trailed off and activated he device. “This is Quinn.”

“Mal?” a man’s voice asked. It was heavy with relief, accent slightly less crisp than Quinn’s, from the western coast of Kaas City, if she wasn’t mistaken. “Thank the Emperor you picked up.”

“Ovech? It’s been…”

“Ten years, I know. I’ve been meaning to holo you ever since I heard you left Balmorra, but, well, you know how things are here.”

Quinn grimaced. “Indeed.” He shot Mara a glance and mouthed, “Broysc”. Interesting. “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you using visual contact?”

“I need to keep this transmission from being noticed. Are you in a position to secure your end?”

It was Mara’s turn to frown.

“I’ve just reported for duty, so yes, though you should know my CO is aboard as well. You can trust her.”

There was a slight hesitation on the other end of the transmission, then, “Fair enough. You would need to go to her anyway. Let me know when you’re secure.”

“Major Xandir Ovech,” Quinn clarified after he hit the hold key. “We were in the same class at the Academy and served under Moff Broysc together.”

Mara nodded. “Is this typical?”

“No. If he’s this paranoid, something is very wrong.”

Chapter Text

The distress call crackled to life almost immediately when the Fury dropped out of hyperspace at the coordinates Ovech had given.

“This is… -or Ovech….. Pinned…. -public forc-…. Request…. -inforcements…” the coordinates were completely garbled.

With an effort, Quinn unclenched his fists and forced himself to keep working. Nightbringer , Ovech’s ship, was within sensor range, though she hadn’t scanned the Fury just yet. Her sublight drive was idle; sensors dark. She wasn’t going anywhere in the near future. A pass of the Fury’s own sensors showed a small craft docked at one of the bridge airlocks. Its serial number was one Quinn knew all too well.

Black Skulls . Broysc’s favorite Army special operations squadron; they acted as the moff’s personal enforcers. There were too many life signs aboard for Captain Sidcro, Black Skulls’s CO, and his men to be alone. Clearly Ovech’s reserve force was being kept forcibly in reserve. Or they had defected to Black Skulls. Either way, he and Mara had to get aboard that ship.

“Bad news, I take it,” Mara said from behind him, her voice strangely muffled.

“Indeed.” His tone was clipped, angry. “Ovech sent a distress call - the time stamp is almost an hour old, but his ship is idle. And there’s this.” He replayed the sensor pass showing the docked ship and explained the history of Black Skulls under Broysc.

“I don’t suppose there’s a chance the Black Skulls CO would listen to reason?”

Her tone was dubious, and no wonder. An Imperial officer who deliberately ensured the failure of a mission against the enemy - treaty or no - was beyond parley. Indeed, Quinn was surprised she’d bring it up, if he were honest.

“I ask only because this will be crossing a line,” she said, as if she’d heard him. “If I intervene, we can’t take it back.”

He hesitated. “I understand, and I applaud your discretion, but,” he trailed off. “Captain Sidcro has never been one for discussion, and certainly not one for peaceful resolution once put in the field. If nothing else, he’ll move against Ovech again for the sake of his pride even if we talked him down now.”

“Okay. What’s our next move?”

Quinn blinked. Even after their months serving together, and the days they’d spent trading intimacies, her explicit trust still took him aback. “One thing we’ve not accounted for is Sidcro’s likely reaction to a Sith fighting her way on board,” he said slowly. “He’s likely to react… intensely.”

“Then we shall have to make sure he doesn’t see a Sith, then,” came the reply, laughter in her muffled voice.

Quinn frowned and looked back at her, and his mouth dropped open in shock.

She was dressed entirely in black, the fabric looked to be similar to standard issue Army battledress, and thus would be flexible but blaster-resistant. The high jacket collar was framed by a hood and soft mask that folded over the lower half of her face, obscuring all of her most obvious Red Sith markers. A wicked-looking blaster rode one hip, and her lightsaber was nowhere to be seen.

“You approve,” she said, pulling the mask down to show her teasing smile.

“Yes.” The word came out as a croak. He cleared his throat and continued, “But your lightsaber, will you need-“

“It will shock you to know I have been trained to use a blaster,” she deadpanned, “and that I can do rather a lot of damage with my bare hands.”

“That latter doesn’t surprise me in the least,” he replied with a laugh. “I’ll change into my field armor and then take us in.”

***

“Malkin has departed to deliver your message to Moff Broysc, my lord,” Ovech reported, eyes fixed on a screen that showed the Black Skulls transport vectoring away from Nightbringer . His arm was in a sling, and his armor bore far more blaster scouring than one would want to live through, but otherwise he was fine, thanks to his reserve forces being liberated in time to extract him and his main team.

Of an age with Malavai, Ovech wore their thirty-eight years a bit more heavily than her captain, a light but noticeable dusting of silver in his brown hair, the expression lines on his face not quite disappearing when it relaxed. But his hazel eyes were just as intense.

“Very good, Major,” she replied. “Is the tracker on his ship transmitting?”

“Loud and clear. We’ll know if he tries to run.” He paused, looking around at what remained of his bridge crew and insertion teams. Black Skulls had not been squeamish about killing fellow Imperials. “My lord, I owe you a debt. Without your intervention, I’m not sure this command would have survived.”

Mara waved his apology away. “You owe me nothing, Major. Captain Quinn believes you’re an exemplary officer. Justify his faith in you, and we are even.”

He stared at her for a moment, before giving a wry smile. “I think you may have just secured the undying loyalty of this unit whether you want it or not. I imagine you have business to return to - may I walk you to the airlock?”

Malavai fell in behind them as they left the bridge, keeping a polite distance behind the major until Ovech rolled his eyes fondly. “Honestly, Mal, relax and get up here.”

The captain gave her a questioning look and she raised a brow stalk. “You heard your friend.”

He lengthened his stride to pace Mara, placing her between the two men.

“You two are extraordinarily well-matched, according to my men,” Ovech said, his voice studiously nonchalant.

Malavai sighed. With a barely-concealed smile, Ovech continued, “I’ve seen Mal fight, of course, and I would never question the prowess of a Sith, my lord, but to retake this vessel on your own? That requires an intimacy of fighting style and trust that’s rare enough among squad-mates, let alone individuals of such different rank.”

“Oh for kriff’s sake,” Malavai muttered. “Yes, we’re involved. Does that sate your curiosity?”

The glare her turned on Ovech faded when he instead found himself looking into two equally-shocked faces. Apparently Ovech hadn’t expected his friend to admit the connection, and Mara thought for sure he’d keep their relationship secret from all his circle, not just his mother.

“Well, okay,” Ovech said finally. “My lord, if I may be so bold,” he trailed off as Malavai muttered a here we go , smiled, and continued, “ if I may be so bold, I’ve never known Mal to have anything even approaching a personal conversation while on-duty.”

“You sound as though you approve, Major,” she said cautiously.

“Oh, very much; Mal should curse more often while on the clock.” He grinned when, as if on cue, Malavai swore again. “If we had more time, I’d happily regale you with tales of our exploits during Basic.”

“Xandir…” Malavai’s voice was half plea, half warning.

Mara laughed. “I hope our next meeting is under more favorable circumstances, Major, because you will find me a highly captivated audience.”

She waited until they were back aboard the Fury and in hyperspace before she slipped her arms around Malavai’s waist and said, “Thank you.”

He frowned. “For what?”

“For telling Ovech, especially in those circumstances. It must have been outside  your comfort zone.”

“Not at all,” he countered, his confusion plain on his face and in the Force. “Mara, my mother is a special case. I have no difficulty disclosing our relationship to friends.”

“No, I meant, while on duty. I know you prefer to keep our work and personal lives separate.”

His frown deepened. “Well, of course, where propriety demands it, but I know you’d also reach out if you wanted me.”

“I…” Mara paused and understanding dawned. “Malavai, I’ve held back because I believed you would want me to. Am I to understand you held back only because you thought the same of me?”

“Well, yes. I thought you would feel my… longing.” He blushed.

“Yes, but I’ve been feeling that for months.” She hesitated, weighing her words. “I can feel your emotions, but I refuse to act on them without better context. I only want you if it’s of your own free will.”

“I know that; I would not be here otherwise,” he said, cradling her cheek with one hand. “Would it ease your mind to know I will tell you if your advances make me uncomfortable?”

“Yes, but-“

“And that I won’t hesitate to demonstrate my desire for you if the circumstances are appropriate?”

Mara felt herself smile. “I would like that very much.”

“Good. I believe we have an accord, darling.”

The endearment was a bare whisper, and the thrill of it sent her lips crashing into his with a desperation that surprised them both. Her teeth raked his bottom lip when he pulled back and he grunted, his lust a hot flash in her mind.

“What was that for?” he asked.

She was wearing a ridiculous grin, and it broadened at his question. “You called me darling.”

“I suppose I did. If you don’t like it I can-“

“I like it,” she cut him off gently. “In fact I refuse to answer to anything else this evening.”

“I shall keep that in mind,” he replied with a grin. “Your ship is on course for Dromund Kaas and we find ourselves with two more days of solitude.”

“Hmm, that is quite a lot of time,” Mara mused, breath hitching when his lips caressed her neck. “How do you propose we fill it?”

“Let me come to your bed, my darling, and I’ll show you.”

The whisper sizzled against her skin. She moaned his name and began working at the fasteners on his armor. It was a more circuitous route to her quarters than she intended, between the fight to wrestle his battle rattle into submission and frequent pauses to briefly satisfy their mutual distraction.

But they made it, eventually.

***

Quinn smiled as he guided the Fury back into her landing bay at the Kaas City spaceport. Despite the reasoning for their improvised mission, he felt remarkably restored. Broysc had been thwarted, and one of Quinn’s oldest friends was safe from retribution. Sidcro and his men would face court martial. And he and Mara….

His smile broadened as he cut the engines and began powering down key systems.

He wasn’t completely sure when he’d see her again without Baras calling them back into service, but he knew they’d figure it out. She was still asleep; her natural sleep cycle tended to be later than his to begin with, and they’d been up quite late the night before. He’d not decided yet whether he wanted to slip back into bed with her once he was done here.

The holocomm pinged an incoming message. Quinn frowned and accepted the transmission, giving the Fury’s serial number.

“Is this so-called Lord Maranel Thrask’s ship? I would speak with her immediately, of all the insolent little…”

Quinn froze as the voice continued, panic and rage warring within him until he clenched a fist and forced his face back to a neutral expression and activate the visual feed.

“Moff Broysc.” He kept his tone flat, disinterested as he stared into the moff’s mustachioed face. It was one of the proudest moments of his life. “Lord Thrask is not available, nor do I think she would be interested in speaking to you if she were.”

You. ” Broysc’s eyes narrowed. “I thought Malkin was lying when he said Admiral Malcontent weaseled his way off Balmorra.”

The synthleather of his glove creaked as he clenched his fists. Fuck that nickname to every Corellian hell and back .

“Finally learned to play the game, eh Admiral?” Broysc sneered. “Oh, don’t look so offended. You must be slipping her something on the side; we both know no commander worth their salt would court your insubordination otherwise. Aiming for a Sith… not a bad reach, though it won’t save you. I wonder if she’d keep you if she knew the depths of your disgrace. Or perhaps she would keep you, leashed for her amusement. Would you enjoy being a Sith’s hated pet, Malcontent?”

This was pathetic. How in the galaxy did anyone in Command listen to this man’s drivel?

“Good day, Moff Broysc,” he grated, hand moving to end the transmission.

“You took Sidcro from me. I will bury you both alive for that.”

Quinn’s hand froze over the comm’s switch.

“Don’t you dare,” he growled, mind racing. He was fairly certain the threat was empty - oh, perhaps Broysc would try, but surely Mara was too well placed for Broysc to be an actual threat. But people listen to him… and he understands nothing but posturing.

“Interesting, you care for your keeper.” Broysc gave a nasty laugh. “This Lord Thrask will know no peace so long as she retains you, Malcontent. You may count on that.” His face grew as he apparently leaned into the transmitter. “You will tell her, will you not? Tell her just what sort of enemy she’s made, tell her that I will make your court martial and your time on Balmorra seem like an afternoon garden party in comparison to what I will rain down upon your heads.”

The comm went dark.

“Is he always so pleasant?” Mara asked lightly.

Quinn whirled, trying to order his racing heart back to a reasonable pace. Her tone was light, but concern was written clearly across her features.

“How did you-“

“I’ve been awake for most of the landing sequence; when I felt your distress I came to investigate.” She glided toward him, grey dressing gown flowing about her, to kneel in front of him, hands cradling his face. “He can’t touch you, Malavai. And I will dismember him if he tries.”

“And all the military leaders who inexplicably listen to him?” he asked, trying to keep his voice calm. Her jaw set stubbornly and he laughed despite himself. “You can’t fight the entire military leadership, darling.”

“Military leadership is politics, Malavai. Given the opportunity to yoke themselves to someone stronger, Command will take it.” She said it with unflinching confidence, amber eyes searching his. Her full lips curved in a smile as the silence stretched. “But yes, I will fight them all if I have to.”

He sighed. “It mustn’t come to that.”

“I agree. Let us hope that politics prevail.” She paused. “My father is in Kaas City. I’ll meet with him; he should have council to give.”

***

“My lord.”

Mara was already halfway out of her chair before her father spoke. Their bond wasn’t as strong as the one she’d shared with her mother, but it was enough for her to know if they were within the same city block of each other. He bowed at the waist in greeting.

“Admiral,” she replied, inclining her head, trying and failing to keep the smile from her face.

They stood for half a second, frozen in the postures of their respective professions, and then her father  pulled her into a tight hug.

“I’m proud of you, my dear,” he murmured into her hair. He hesitated only a moment before adding, “Ragna would be proud, too.”

Mara was surprised to find the statement warmed her rather than annoyed her; apparently her visions during her seclusion had proven cathartic. She kissed her father’s cheek, smiling against the beard that rasped her face, and motioned him to the table’s only other chair.

“What’s good here?” Mara asked, eyes scanning the menu.

Her father frowned. “You’ve never been to Saraai?”

“Unlike some people, I’ve not had business in Kaas City recently.” She grinned. “Given your rotation here, your intel on local restaurants is far more current than mine.”

“I’m glad you let me choose, then,” he replied dryly. “Try the rainbow fish; I think you’ll be pleased. Oh, but the Ridzwemi mushroom bisque is also an excellent choice, and-“

Dardirhoz ,” she cut him off, “would you like to order for us?”

His brown eyes twinkled. Gilad Thrask had always been something of a foodie, a fact that surprised many of his crew who watched him happily exist on rations for months on end. Asking him to order for them both was like gifting him the keys to the Council chambers.

“Is there anything you’re particularly in the mood for?”

“Surprise me,” she said.

He flagged a server - a sentient server, there were no droids employed by Saraai - conferred with the woman for several moments before ordering a bottle of a 1326 Jongaib red along with the other courses.

“A ’26?” Mara asked. “A bit much for the occasion, is it not?”

“How often does one’s only child become a Sith Lord?” he countered. “A superlative wine for a superlative achievement, and the ’26…” he trailed off, brown eyes staring at nothing. “It was a good year.”

“I know,” she replied. It wasn’t exactly the greatest year politically - the last months of the war had been hard on both sides - but it was the last year their family had been whole.  

“Besides, you’ll enjoy it,” he said, brightening when the server returned with the bottle.

He was right, of course. A deep inky red and heavy in the mouth, it had the brightness of summer berries made velvety and dark by notes of spice and smoke. With the soup course, it took on a meaty flavor against the delicate mushroom bisque. And with the rainbow fish…

Mara felt her eyes widen after she chased the first bite with the wine. The smoke and fruit took over, layering over the savory sweetness of the fish.

They were halfway through their entrees before her father cleared his throat.

“So what can I help you with, Nel?” he asked.

“Why would you say that?” She gave him her best innocent look when he raised an eyebrow. “Can I not wish to have dinner with my father, who I haven’t seen in months?”

“Of course you can, and I know you would have contacted me anyway.” He gave her a knowing look. “But letting me choose the restaurant and your meal? You’ve sufficiently buttered me up, my daughter, now tell me what you want.”

Mara sighed ruefully. “I suppose letting you order was a bit much, though I will confess I’ve benefited from your choice. But yes, there… is a matter of some delicacy upon which I need your advice. You remember Moff Broysc?”

When he nodded, she related the details of Broysc’s call to the Fury the prior morning. She’d considered telling him about their trip to help Ovech deal with the attempt on his life, but for now she wasn’t sure it was necessary or advisable for that to be widely known.

Of course, it had nothing to do with the fact that explaining her high-handed intervention on Nightbringer would have been… time consuming, at the very least. Sidcro would be attending his court martial lacking an arm; it was a just punishment so far as Mara was concerned, but she had to concede it might look differently to someone with a military background.

“So I’m to understand that Moff Broysc is so incensed that you accepted Captain Quinn’s transfer that he’s now threatening you directly?” His voice was incredulous.

“Yes. I… My instinct here is all wrong. I want to deal with this correctly, within regulation.”

“What is your instinct telling you?”

“To eviscerate him and leave him on his bridge as a warning,” Mara replied honestly.

“And here I thought you’d grown out of your flare for drama,” he reproached her mildly.

“I’ll settle for his being removed from command.”

“Oh, is that all?”

“He needs to be put out to pasture, Dardirhoz . If he’s willing to threaten a Sith over a personal vendetta, what other ill-advised personal risks is he taking with his command? What good could he possibly be doing to outweigh such obvious lack of judgment?” She hesitated. “Does this not worry you at all?”

Her father skewered her with a glare that reminded her why he had a reputation as a hard ass aboard ship. “Am I worried that a moff has gotten it into his fool head to threaten my daughter? Of course. But this must be done correctly, Maranel, to avoid sowing unnecessary chaos in our ranks.”

With an effort Mara forced down her annoyance and smiled. “I would expect nothing less from someone serving in the Judge Advocate’s office. What must I do?”

“You need to prove gross malfeasance and misuse of position to justify removing someone of his rank from command. Did your captain record the call?”

“Of course; we record all incoming transmissions as per regulation.” Or rather, they’d begun after Quinn joined her crew. Thank you, dearest , she thought.

“And the threat was explicit?”

Mara hesitated. “He did not detail a plan or any kind of timeline, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Her father leaned back and sipped his wine, lost in thought. “Implied harm may not necessarily be enough.” His eyes met hers. “Record any subsequent transmissions, and if you can quietly ask around his officer corps, you may be able to find other examples to hang your accusations on. But I emphasize such inquiries must be made quietly . If Broysc is as volatile as you say, his retribution will be swift.”

“I can be subtle when I wish to, Dardiz .”

“Of course you can.”

“Is there a format the complaint should take?”

“I’m sure your captain knows the forms by heart, from what you’ve told me. The supplementary documentation will make your case more persuasive, but for the actual complaint the form must be followed.”

Mara nodded. “Understood.”

“Be careful, Nel. This isn’t something you should do lightly.”

Mara frowned. “I know that. If we can’t find anything, we can’t,” and then it becomes more interesting , “but nor can I believe he’s allowed to toss around threats with impunity.”

Her father eyed her for a long moment, then nodded. “Good. Now, with that out of the way, I think it’s time to choose a dessert.”

“But I thought-“

“That was an entire meal’s conversation spent on work, Nel. I’m choosing the dessert.”

“Yes, sir,” she grumbled, rolling her eyes ostentatiously in a parody of her teenage self.

Chapter Text

“Ah, if it isn’t the newest Lord in the Emperor’s arsenal,” Baras rumbled pleasantly as Mara cleared the door into his offices. It had been months since she’d been here - no, over a full Standard year.

“Master,” she replied with a bow of her head. “You had a mission for me?”

“Indeed. My own master, Darth Vengean, tires of these petty skirmishes edging around the Treaty of Coruscant. He seeks to restart open war with the Republic, but the rest of the Council is reticent. It falls to us to make sure his will is carried out.”

Mara frowned. “I thought the Emperor signed the treaty.”

“He did. However, it is time for us to achieve full victory over our enemies.”

He wasn’t wrong . And yet. “I presume if the Councilor for the Sphere of Military Offense desires war, that the Empire is prepared for the logistics of the conflict?”

Baras’s mask regarded her impassively. “You presume correctly, in that Vengean’s opinion on the Empire’s military readiness is the only opinion that matters here.”

She gazed back for a moment, then bowed her head. “Of course, Master. What’s my target?”

“General Karastace Gonn. He almost single handedly kept the Fringe systems from falling to us during the war. He worked from the shadows; we never got a fix on him. It took me years to understand how he did it.”

“I’m all ears,” she prompted.

“He’s on Nar Shaddaa now meeting with Imperial traitors. The fed him intel during the war and helped him stay two steps ahead of us since.”

It took only a few minutes for the briefing to conclude. Baras was more thorough in his intel than usual, but Mara made a mental note to have Malavai investigate as well. After she had her orders, Mara gave another bow of her head and moved toward the door.

“Oh, master,” she said, pausing to turn back to him, as if a thought had just occurred to her. “I’ve moved Jaesa Willsaam’s parents to Chwûkûsk . I hope you don’t mind.”

The silence was palpable.

“And what made you believe such a move was necessary, Apprentice?” The stress he put on the title left Mara grinding her teeth.

She let some of that annoyance bleed through her mental shielding. “I would not expect you to assume the burden of caring for my apprentice’s family, Master. I take my responsibilities seriously.”

Another long pause. He most certainly wanted to keep them in his control , Mara thought.

“Carry out my orders. And in future, do not take such initiative without speaking to me first.”

“Of course, Master.”

That was a lie, but she felt little remorse for telling it.

***

Quinn sat in the Fury’s pilot chair watching hyperspace streak past her viewport. The’d been in hyperspace for ten minutes. There were no more calculations and no other research he could do at present. All that was left was the complaint to the Inspector General's office.

And the blinking red light on their comms panel. In the weeks that had passed since Broysc first contacted the ship, it was always blinking. Persistent, unfeeling, and utterly distracting.

He was a professional. That wasn’t merely a point of pride in the quality of his service; there was certainty, sanity even, in the structure imposed by every form and every regulation. It kept him grounded during that lost decade on Balmorra, and now, it was a source of pleasure, one more point of expertise that he could offer his lord and lover.

That had been eroded in the weeks that passed since Broysc’s first call. Every new shift on the flight deck meant five or ten new messages from the moff, all astonishingly creative in their invective and threats. If Quinn didn’t get to them first, Vette found them, and though she’d not said anything, the disbelieving pity in her eyes whenever she looked at him was too much to bear. While they had remained on Dromund Kaas, it became a competing interest: to meet Mara at the Fury for scraps of time alone and endure the omnipresence of the blinking comms light, or to be away, blissfully separate from the one hook Broysc managed to sink into him, but also without her .

That Broysc could still have such a hold on his life, enough to sour, even temporarily, the best posting of his career… he clenched his jaw stubbornly. I will not give him the satisfaction .

“Captain?”

“Good afternoon, my lord,” he replied, turning enough to peer through the hatch that led to the rest of the ship. Vette and Jaesa had been involved in some sort of sparring when he began his shift, and it looked like they were still occupied elsewhere, which was just as well. Mara’s skin was cool against his when he caught her fingers and pressed a kiss to the back of her hand.

“He’s persistent,” she commented, amber eyes focused on their comms board.

“Indeed,” he sighed.

“Do you have enough for the complaint?”

“More than,” he said. “Between the escalating messages and his attempt on Ovech, the IG will have to listen.”

They had no recourse otherwise.

“Then submit the complaint and delete any further incoming messages. That’s an order, Captain.” She pulled her hand from his and cradled his face, turning his chin up to meet her gaze. “Don’t let him in here anymore than is necessary to hang himself.”

“No, my lord,” he answered. The odd blend of personal and professional in this conversation should have been discomfiting, but in truth her touch was as grounding as the regulations he could quote from memory. “I will not allow him to disrupt operations on your ship.”

She smiled and his heart skipped a beat. “I know you would never allow such a thing; that’s not what I meant.”

He turned his head to kiss her palm. “I understand.”

“Good. Submit the report, then brief me on what you’ve learned about General Gonn.”

“I’ll meet you in the conference room, my lord.”

As her footsteps moved back toward the hatch, he read through the complaint one final time. It took nearly fifteen minutes despite the cursory nature of this last read-through. It was… verbose, and the supporting documentation and sensor logs even more so. Finally, he was satisfied that they’d met the threshold for review of the moff’s performance, and that the document was the best they could possibly submit.

They’ll listen. Not even a moff is immune to review .

By the time he settled into the conference room with Mara, he completely believed it.

***

Four days later, they were sitting in the brig at an Imperial forward post in the Upper Industrial Sector of Nar Shaddaa, awaiting the arrival of Imperial Military Police who would pick up the four traitors they’d arrested for feeding information to General Gonn. With the general himself left dead with a cauterized hole in his guts, the leader of the traitors, a Chiss man named Fawke, had collapsed like an Adastan flan. The MPs were to bring Fawke to Lord Baras for debriefing before what would almost certainly be a death sentence. Beyond regretting that an Imperial officer would engage in such sedition, Quinn felt very little remorse for Fawke and his ilk.

He turned toward the cell, where the traitor was still trying to talk his way back into proper service, pressing on despite the dangerously bored look on Mara’s face. From Fawke’s perspective, perhaps, he had little else to lose in angering a Sith.

“Mr. Fawke seems to believe his actions had little materially adverse impact on the Empire, Captain,” she mused when she noticed his attention. Fawke fell silent.

“That would seem to be the either delusion or another attempt at deceit, my lord.” He didn’t bother to conceal his disgust with the man.

She smiled. “I agree. Fawke, your file mentions activities along the Corellian Run where it crosses into the Outer Rim; it was about eight years before the war ended.” A pause for Fawke to nod. “What do you know about the Empire’s diplomatic efforts on Herdessa?”

The man paled and swallowed noisily.“There was an attack on the Imperial envoy.”

“Indeed. Six Imperial soldiers died and the ambassador returned to Dromund Kaas grievously injured. A treaty was never signed.” Her tone was musing, but her amber eyes held Fawke’s mercilessly. “We never figured out how the Republic knew we’d even made contact; it had all been done with the utmost discretion. Now I understand we had a leak, isn’t that right?”

Fawke grimaced. “Yes, my lord.”

“Ask me how I know the extent of the ambassador’s injuries, Fawke.”

The man looked like he’d rather endure a field amputation without anesthetic, but he forced the words out anyway, glowing red eyes sagging with the resignation of a man facing his own gallows.

“The Imperial ambassador to Herdessa was my mother, Darth Avari.” Mara’s voice was cold enough to drop the temperature in the room several degrees. “I was home from Korriban during her convalescence. She’d barely been cleared from regular kolto immersion before she insisted on contacting the families of the six soldiers she’d lost.”

She gave a sharp smile that did nothing to warm the cold rage in her eyes. “Tell me again, Fawke, why you should be deemed worthy to return to service?”

Whatever Fawke’s answer, Quinn didn’t hear it, for his datapad chimed an incoming message. It was text only.

 

Dear Captain Quinn:

The IG’s Office of Interservice Personnel Review thanks you for your recent communique regarding Moff W. Broysc. We have conducted a thorough review of the complaint and supporting documentation. After consultation with multiple Judge Advocates, we have determined that the documented incidents fall short of the threshold for action against an officer of his rank.

We’re certain you understand the necessity for such a threshold to be extremely high in order to preserve the chain of command. Interservice officers must be allowed to conduct their commands in accordance with readiness and deployment needs without fear of reprisal for every slight, real or perceived, against subordinate personnel.

At this time we consider this matter closed.

Sincerely,

Maj. P. Brassard
Associate Inspector General, OIPR

They’re going to do nothing. Worse, they… the words “every slight, real or perceived”, seared his retinas.

He completed the prisoner transfer on autopilot, signing Fawke and his officers over to Military Police for delivery to Baras and following Mara back to her ship, which was thankfully empty. It was nearly local midnight.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” she said as soon as the hatch sealed shut behind them, amber eyes drawn with concern.

“I’ve heard from the Inspector General’s office,” he began, feeling his body tremble with every word. “They’ve reviewed my complaint and determined the incidents fall short of ordering a review of Broysc’s service.”

“How-“ she blinked and flexed her hands, “They had the complaint for three days; how thorough could they have possibly been in that time?”

Her eyes followed him; he was pacing, he realized, stalking ten steps in either direction like a caged animal.

“I read the regulations, I know what we sent was sufficient. The only answer is they refused to act.” He stopped and met her gaze, hating how helpless he felt. “I don’t know what other-“

The holo terminal beeped an incoming call. Indeed, the message light had been flashing when they arrived; he’d grown so accustomed to it that it had faded into the Fury’s decor. At his lord’s slight nod, he activated the line.

“You’re begging for death, Admiral,” Broysc snarled. “How dare you send the IG’s office after me. Did you really think to accomplish anything other than pissing me off?”

Quinn took a step forward, flushed with rage. “You’re a danger to the Empire and a disgrace to your command, Broysc .”

“My command was exemplary before you began sowing dissent in its ranks,” the Moff shot back. He opened his mouth to continue when Mara took a long step forward into visual range. His attention immediately flew to her, a gut-churning smile lighting his face. “Aaahh, she finally shows herself: the Sith holding the Admiral’s leash.”

With Broysc’s attention momentarily diverted, Quinn pressed a button on the holo terminal to activate a tracking program.

“I can see how so young a thing would be taken in by Admiral Malcontent’s sly tongue and pretty face.” Quinn growled in his throat at Broysc’s oily, predatory tone; he hated that Mara was subjected to this trash, and he hated the stab of shame when Broysc used that hated nickname in front of her. “I shall hold you completely blameless, my dear, if you turn Malcontent over to me for execution immediately.”

Before Quinn could interject, Mara burst into laughter.

“I’d advise caution before turning my kindness aside so callously,” Broysc warned.

She laughed harder. For a moment, Quinn wondered if she would actually begin crying. Broysc’s face pinched more and more intensely with rage the more she laughed.

Finally, she took a gulping breath and replied, “No. Captain Quinn is under my command and I’m disinclined to part with him.”

Abruptly all levity left her body, her voice quieted to an unnerving stillness. “This is my final and best offer, Broysc. We all know gross malfeasance of duty is a mild way of looking at your command. Surrender yourself to me or my agents and you will find me merciful.” She gave a chilly smile. “I’ll only come for your command.”

“I will kill both of you before I allow you to remove me.”

Mara raised a brow stalk. “Is that a threat, Moff Broysc? You’ll forgive me if I find it lacking; I’ve fought many worthier opponents than you.”

“It’s a promise, you Sith bitch,” he growled. His eyes shifted to Quinn. “I hope you’ve enjoyed Nar Shaddaa, because it’s going to be your tomb.”

The transmission cut off.

“Did you get a location?”

“He’s…” Quinn’s mouth fell open. “He’s here on Nar Shaddaa.” That final threat took on a new shape. He’s here… if he brought soldiers… His hands balled into fists. He would not allow Broysc to lay a hand on her.

It was a ridiculous thought; Mara was far more prepared to defend herself against Broysc than any Force-blind officer ever could be, and yet. Stop panicking and act .

Mara’s heart clenched at the haunted look in Malavai’s blue eyes. He was a man of precious few illusions, she knew, but he’d just had one of those few shattered. Despite that, it was only a heartbeat before he snapped back to his usual, businesslike mien.

“It would be advisable to recall Vette and Apprentice Willsaam to the ship, or to otherwise send them to safety,” he said.

Mara’s holocommunicator was in her hand. “I’m already on it. Get a fix on his signal.”

“Master?” Jaesa’s shout pierced through the Fury’s common area, and for one terrible moment, Mara worried Broysc’s men - if he indeed had any - had already found them. But the background noise resolved itself into the boisterous congeniality of a cantina. “Master, what’s wrong?”

Mara grimaced. There were downsides to training an apprentice who read those around her with accuracy and alacrity beyond anyone in known history. “We’re handling a bit of a situation here, Jaesa. Is Vette with you?”

Some shifting and Vette squeezed into visual range, one lekku falling over Jaesa’s shoulder. “Who did you piss off this time?”

“That’s not important right now. I need you two to avoid the docking bay until I give the all clear. Vette, do you know of a place you two can hole up for the next few hours?”

“I… uh, yeah, I can think of a few places of the top of my head. Why?”

“Pick one, and don’t tell me where it is. Get yourselves there and wait for my contact.” She hesitated, hating the words that were about to leave her mouth. “Stay clear of any Imperial soldiers. They may not be friendly.”

Silence punctuated by the odd shout from the cantina on the other end of the line, then, “Master, will you and Captain Quinn be okay?”

She gave a tight smile. “The best thing you can do for us, Apprentice, is keep each other safe so we don’t have to split our attention.”

“Nar Shaddaa really doesn’t like you, Mara,” Vette said. “Maybe we should stop coming.”

“This has happened before?” Jaesa asked.

Mara squeezed the bridge of her nose, a combination of embarrassment and impatience. “I’m sure Vette will regale you with the story. Get going.”

She shot a questioning glance at Malavai as soon as the call terminated.

He’d relaxed somewhat, but his dark brows were furrowed in what she’d come to think of as “perplexed face”. Usually it made her want to kiss him. Right now, however… “What is it?”

“He’s in the Red Light District.”

Nervous laughter bubbled out of her before she could stop herself. “Does that make it more or less likely he’s brought a squad of SpecOps soldiers with him?”

He answered with a bemused half-smile so brief, it was barely a twitch of his lips. “Less likely, I should think.”

“Well that’s something at least.” Her incredulity evaporated as anger took over. “We’re here taking out a Republic general and arresting spies and he’s….”

“Precisely.” Malavai’s voice shook with fury. He took a step forward, snapping to attention within arm’s length of her. “My lord, he has to be stopped. He’s going to continue on like this, unless he steps down or is forcibly removed. The Inspector General has failed us, and we know he will never step down.”

Mara froze. She agreed, wholeheartedly, and yet. “You understand what you’re proposing, yes?”

“I will return him to Dromund Kaas for court martial.”

“Malavai.” She said it gently, knowingly. The familiar maelstrom of his sense felt like a drumhead - drawn so very tight, she couldn’t understand why he wasn’t in physical pain. By all the gods he wants this man dead, but he can’t seem to admit it. “Tell me what you want to do.”

“This cannot be allowed to continue. The letter and spirit of the law are with me.”

That wasn’t what she’d asked, but she didn’t press him. Not yet, anyway. She had little doubt where this was headed, and sooner or later her captain would have to face the truth of his motivations, no matter how they happened to coincide with the law.

She would help him. Oh, stars, to ease that bleakness in his eyes, she’d do most anything. But she would not let him lie to himself.

“We have to do this very carefully,” she said finally. “We need a plan.”

***

The plan, such as it was, went off with very little difficulty, much to Quinn’s pleased surprise. Once they pinpointed Broysc’s exact location on one of the more expensive Hutt pleasure barges, Vette had been able, from whatever hole she and Apprentice Willsaaam retreated to, slice the barge’s security feed and give them eyes on the moff.

He’d not been alone at first, a fact that was not precisely surprising even if it was highly distasteful, but after a truly irresponsible amount of Corellian brandy, Broysc had been rendered quite incapable of performing for the type of company he’d secured. The women left - no doubt happy to keep the moff’s credits without having to engage in the acts he’d purchased - and it had been little effort for Quinn to slip in unnoticed and haul the moff back to the Fury. The ship’s sensor logs would be central to building their case.

Quinn could hear the old man’s grumbling in the back of the speeder - the gag prevented actual words, but Broysc didn’t let that stop him from trying to make his opinion on this turn of events known. It mattered little; he’d long moved beyond any possibility of sympathy for this man. If the ten years on Balmorra and the threats against Ovech and Mara had not been sufficient, the icing on top of this disgusting cake was that Broysc had left his ship without applying for official leave. He was AWOL while the Empire marched back toward war, and seemed utterly unworried about facing any consequences for that action.

Quinn rather looked forward to helping Broysc re-learn the art of worrying about consequences.

“We’re aboard,” Quinn announced into his comm as he drove the speeder into the Fury’s cargo bay. He received a short acknowledgement, and the cargo loading ramp closed behind them. A moment later and the deck shuddered as the ship left her docking bay and headed into space.

“In case it wasn’t painfully obvious,” Quinn began, hauling Broysc out of the speeder and into the cargo bay proper, “you are under arrest under charges of dereliction of duty and conspiracy to commit murder. Given that one of those murders would have been a Sith, you also stand charged with treason.” He yanked the gag out of Broysc’s mouth and let it drop to the floor. “Have you anything to say for yourself?”

It was a necessary part of military jurisprudence, but Quinn had little illusion that anything that came out of Broysc’s mouth would be of any use other than to be infuriating. He wasn’t disappointed.

“Arrested?” Broysc laughed. It was a nasty, cracked sound; a laugh that had only a passing relationship with reality. “I wonder where you got your reputation for intellect, Admiral Malcontent, for all I’ve ever seen from you is stubborn attachment to lost causes. Did you not receive the IG’s dismissal letter? Who the fuck are you going to hand me over to who won’t immediately release me?”

“You’re right, of course,” Mara’s voice said calmly as the cargo bay hatch slid shut behind her. “What makes you think we’re handing you over to anyone when the law makes it perfectly clear how traitors and deserters may be handled in the field?” Broysc’s eyes widened as she continued, “Oh yes, you’ve underestimated Captain Quinn for the last time, Broysc. How does it feel, knowing the man you’ve smothered for a decade has his boot on your throat?”

Her purring tone made it perfectly clear how she felt about the matter. Quinn’s stomach flipped with the realization of how much pleasure she took from offering him his greatest enemy on a silver platter. Broysc, on the other hand, was far less positive about the situation.

“I will kill you both,” he snarled, surging forward several steps, hands straining against the manacles that held them behind his back. Wild eyes turned on Quinn. “You piece of filth. You think killing me will make you something? You are nothing. How a venerated colonel and one of the most decorated pilots in Singularity Squadron could sire such useless flesh is beyond me. You are a disgrace to your parents’ careers and you will be nothing for the rest of your pathetic life, do you hear me? Nothing . Kill me a million times over; we both know that I’m right.”

“And you, Sith. I had no idea the services of the Emperor’s chosen were so cheaply purchased,” Broysc spat. “Does your base loyalty to this walking dung heap shame your order, or are you a typical example of your kind?”

Fuck this. “You will be silent,” Quinn snapped, slamming the butt of his blaster into Broysc’s temple with enough force to drive the moff to his knees. “My lord, permission to execute the moff.”

There was a beat of silence, then, “The law allows for Broysc’s execution in this instance, does it not?”

Quinn frowned at the question, his attention going to Mara’s face and the amber eyes that were fixed on him. “Yes, my lord.”

“Then why do you need my permission as well?”

“I don’t strictly-“ he stammered, paused, “This is your ship, my lord, I must-“

“You’re in the right; the law is with you. Why do you lose your nerve now?”

“I’m not.”

“Don’t lie to me; I can feel the hesitation in you, Captain.” A pause, and then her voice became solicitous, infuriatingly so. “Are you concerned you misread the regulations?”

“Of course not!” The outraged words were out of his mouth before he could think about them.

“Then you perhaps misrepresented them to me, and are having second thoughts.”

How could she even think that. “No! My lord, I would never-”

“Then grow a spine and pull the trigger, Captain.”

Her eyes were so calm, her face completely blank as she uttered those words. They were a blow to Quinn’s gut. He glared between her and Broysc, blaster hand shaking.

“My lord, I-“ Why is she doing this . She’d been kinder to that Chiss traitor. Anger began to eat away at the hurt in his belly.

“For kriff’s sake, put a blaster bolt in his brain and be done with it.” She took a step toward him. “Do I need to do it for you?”

“No!”

“Then why-”

“It’s too good for him!” he roared.

A beat of silence, and something in her belligerent exterior cracked, giving him the slightest glimpse of the woman he knew and-

“What?” The question was quiet.

“He’s a disgrace ,” he growled. “He’s cost us countless lives and more than one battle during the war, and now he fucks his time away while we prepare to re-engage the enemy.”

“And?”

A few minutes ago, he would have hesitated to continue, but the floodgates had been battered open. “And he fucked my career, for absolutely no reason.” He rounded on Broysc, who cringed back from whatever he saw in Quinn’s face. “I saved us, you incompetent ass. You could have taken the victory and moved on, but of course you-“ The impact of his blaster butt against Broysc’s face reverberated up his arm. “I want him to suffer.” The words were directed once again at Mara, but he held Broysc’s eyes mercilessly. “I want him to feel every gods forsaken day on Balmorra, a decade of slow death compressed into however long I can keep him alive.”

He’d enjoy it - a stimulating challenge the likes of which he had never undertaken.

“Will you do that, if I give permission?” Her voice had softened completely.

He stood, unsteady blaster pointed between Broysc’s eyes, for what felt like an eternity, until, at length, his hand stilled.

“No.” He said finally. It would feel so good, but… “I will not stoop to his level.”

“You see, Broysc?” She was suddenly at his side. Quinn jumped - he’d not heard her move, so focused had he been on the Moff at his feet - and turned his gaze to hers. She was once again the lord and lover he knew. “My captain is a far better officer than you could ever dream of being. I’m lucky to have him.”

Broysc exploded with more invective, but it was utterly peripheral to the echo of her words in his mind.

She’s proud of me , he realized with a start. How could she not see the luck in their arrangement was completely on his side?

She gave him a small smile. “Do your duty, Captain. You’ve never needed my permission for that.”

She swept out of the room.

***

It was several hours of work to deal with Broysc’s body - an insultingly unceremonious burial in space - and return to Nar Shaddaa to collect Vette and Jaesa, but at length they were all once again aboard and bound for Dromund Kaas.

Throughout it all, Malavai remained subdued; lighter, now that his enemy had been dealt with, but still deep in thought. Mara gave him space, knowing he’d broach the subject when he was ready, and only then when they were alone. When she turned in for the night, he was already in the fresher, the shower running. She’d finished readying herself for bed before the shower shut off and he emerged, scrubbed nearly pink and bare chested above soft sleeping trousers. That day’s uniform went into the laundry, and fresh PT clothes onto the datastation, where he stood, his back to her, as he fiddled with the fabric for several moments. Just when she was about to prod him, he spoke.

“Did you mean those things you said? Calling me a coward, weak willed, and so on?”

His anguish washed over her and gathered a lump in her throat. Stars, I didn’t want him to feel this in the aftermath of his victory .

“Of course not,” she said gently. “I needed-”

“So you simply suited your insults to get the response you desired.”

She hesitated. It sounded so cold when he said it like that. And yet. “Yes,” she admitted. “Malavai, I’ve felt your rage at Broysc building for months, buried and ignored… it’s so easy to be ruled by emotions we don’t acknowledge and accept. I only wanted to help you.”

“By triggering my anger during-” he cut off, slamming his clothes onto the datastation and turning on her. “You knew the delicate balance we walked today. Why would you ever introduce something so volatile to the into such a situation?”

“I know you,” she said softly, wanting to reach out to him but holding her distance. “I knew you wouldn’t jeopardize the mission, no matter what you were feeling.”

“And what if you were wrong?” His voice broke on the last word. “I understand what you intended and the stars alone know how honored I am by the trust you place in me, but,” blue eyes searched hers urgently, and when he continued his voice dropped to a bare whisper, gaze turning inward, “your trust is a terrifying thing.”

She was halfway to him before she realized she was moving. “I’m so sorry,” she said, pausing an arm’s length from him. “I didn’t- it’s a Sith technique, frequently used on acolytes during training. It never occurred to me it might harm you like this. Forgive me, please.”

“I realize I’m not precisely in a position to judge since my family rarely engaged on the subject, but do Sith never simply talk about their feelings?” he asked weakly, taking her hand and closing the remaining distance between them.

She gave him an equally wobbly smile in return. “Have Sith ever been known to do anything quietly or simply?” she countered. The self-deprecating comment was rewarded with a quiet laugh that relaxed the tension in her shoulders, and she reached out to cradle his cheek with her free hand, face turning serious. “I’ll speak to you frankly, in private, next time.”

“Thank you.” He drew her close, pressing his forehead to hers. “And thank you for helping me see this through.”

“You need not thank me for that, Malavai,” she murmured. “It was my privilege, and no less than you deserve from your lover.”

His sense had quieted as they talked, still that deep well she knew lay beneath his calm exterior, but far less troubled.

“I might quibble with that,” he murmured, “if I weren’t bone tired.”

“Well then I’m afraid you must accept it,” she teased, reaching out with the Force and drawing back the bedclothes to make room for them both, “and allow me to care for you.”

She pulled him with her onto the mattress, shifting until they were both cocooned in the blankets, Malavai curled against her, his head resting against her breast. Usually he held her, but tonight… he needed rest, and he needed her strength. Broysc was dead, but they would still be making a report to the Judge Advocate’s office, which would almost certainly result in a hearing.

She threaded her fingers through his hair and craned her neck to drop a kiss onto his head.

“Sleep, my love,” she murmured. “I-”

She froze, realizing the words that just tumbled from her lips. Tentatively, she tasted Malavai’s sense, waiting for a reaction… and was rewarded with a light snore. She relaxed, holding in a sigh of relief lest she wake him. Her galloping emotions were the last thing he needed to deal with right now.

It was the last thing she needed to deal with right now. Love was not something she usually felt for her bedmates. Even with Dysprosia and Daveth, while she did love them, it was different; real and complex, but with a certain amount of distance that allowed all parties to step back. It was not this… thing that sank its hooks into her and sprang unbidden from her lips. Stars, if he’d heard… Sith had enough of a reputation for moving at breakneck speed through a relationship without her adding her own spin on the stereotype.

Be that as it may, she couldn’t help how she felt. He was her brilliant, Force-blind Captain, and she loved him.

And the Mother help her, two months into the relationship was far too early for her to tell him.

Chapter Text

Quinn’s heart felt like it would gallop out of his chest. It had felt like that ever since they landed on Dromund Kaas to answer the summons issued by the Judge Advocate’s office.

It had only taken a week for the summons to be issued. Another two for Quinn to obtain his own counsel and prepare his defense. Not that it was a defense per se, his advocate, Lieutenant Commander Krevans, assured him. This was a preliminary hearing, to determine if a crime had taken place. Given that no crime had occurred, and they would prove so successfully, no defense was necessary.

But this has all the same markers as last time , he mused, again. The thought managed to stumble his racing heart, stuttering his pulse in a way that left him gasping and on the verge of lightheaded.

His eyes fell on Mara, and his pulse slowed, somewhat. No. She was the obvious  and crucial difference here. Last time he’d acted on his best judgment but without sanction; now, his commanding officer was at his side. She seemed to know the central role she would play, for she’d chosen black robes heavy with gold embroidery. The plain gold studs in her ears had been replaced with Kaasi river pearls. They marched up the outside of each ear linked by fine gold chains, and ropes of the gleaming white stones chased each other around her neck, settling heavily into the valley between her breasts in an obvious echo of the ridges that ran down her chest. Her chestnut hair was pulled back from her face, emphasizing the signet on her forehead and her Red Sith facial features.

She was Sith Lord and a High Lady, and no one who saw her in conference today would forget that fact.

Nor would they be able to forget what side she was on; he’d disclosed their romantic relationship as part of his official report on Broysc’s execution. Far better to be upfront about it, rather than giving the appearance of shame or other lapse in judgment.

“You will testify first, Captain,” Krevans was saying. “Remember what we discussed: answer only the question that is asked. Don’t volunteer anything.”

“I understand,” he said, dragging his eyes back to his advocate.

“Good. You both held up well during prep, but my lord,” Krevans hesitated, as if picking her words carefully, “take care with displaying an attitude that could be termed flippant.”

Mara raised a brow stalk. “I can’t imagine what you mean, Commander.”

Krevans didn’t smile in return. “ That , Lord Thrask. You must understand that, however justified Captain Quinn’s actions, you cannot be seen to take the death of a moff lightly.”

“I know.” Her voice went soft. “I’m aware of what’s at stake, Commander Krevans, believe me.”

“Good. Now-“

The door sliding open cut her off. Two Imperial Marines, in dress blacks and armed to the teeth, stepped inside.

“They’re ready for you. Captain Quinn, if you’ll accompany us.”

Quinn’s heart seemed to triple in size, straining against a rib cage that was suddenly too small. This was not like before. He was not bound, there would be no brig, he had a skilled advocate at his back and detailed records of his interactions with Broysc leading up to the moff’s execution, to say nothing of the Fury’s sensor logs recording the incident. Still.

He took a step forward to comply, and had to put a hand out to steady himself against the table when the room tilted slightly. His mouth tasted like he’d bitten into an underripe lemon.

“Clear the room.” A pause. “Now.”

There was a slight growl under the word, and the two marines jumped to obey. Krevans gave Quinn another glance, hazel eyes shrewd, before giving a sharp nod.

“I can only give you a couple of minutes, my lord,” she said softly. “We can’t keep the panel waiting.”

“I’m aware of what’s at stake,” Mara repeated, amber eyes holding Quinn’s, her voice low and calm. “Leave us please.”

The door slid closed and she crossed to him, her hand gentle on his arm as she eased him to sit on the table.

“I know, “ she murmured, her voice a soothing balm against his mind. “I know this must feel like Druckenwell all over again. But it’s not.”

“I know that, but it feels so-“ he took a long deep breath, matching the inhalation to hers and breathing out again. “Nothing has gone as expected where the bureaucracy has been concerned.”

“Broysc is dead. If he had sway at the JA’s office, his hold is gone; no one has anything left to fear from him, or gain from him.”

“You truly believe that?”

“I do. Malavai, you have every shred of evidence on your side today, and,” she hesitated, a tentative smile curving her lips. Usually her smiles set his heart racing, but today, it helped slow his pulse to something resembling normal, adding to the grounding effect of her hand on his arm. “You have me. You will always have me.”

His hands were on her waist before he realized he’d moved. Her arms were strong and warm around him, the clove and pine scent of her enveloping him when he nuzzled her hair. She was the first place of total safety he’d known since leaving home at the age of sixteen. He had no idea why fortune had decided to smile on him and bring her into his life, but stars, he loved her so. 

His eyes flew open.

They had only been together, truly together, for two months. Normal people did not entertain such intense attachment so quickly. But that made it no less true. 

She must have sensed his disquiet, for she pulled back slightly, her amber eyes searching his face. He met her gaze, trying to determine how to explain the sudden rush of emotion. However real his feelings, he could not tell her, not yet; that he had fallen so easily and quickly was ridiculous.

“My darling,” he sighed, cradling her face with one hand. Her eyes slid closed and she leaned into his touch and his chest clenched again, this time with warmth at her obvious affection, rather than with panic at the upcoming proceedings.

“Kiss me.”

As he jumped to obey, he couldn’t help but wonder whether she’d picked up on his precise emotions and deliberately given him an outlet for them. He could not confess his feelings outright, but he poured all of it into the kiss, turning the gesture of affection into a wordless confession. When she pulled away, her breath came in quick gasps through parted lips.

“That’s a loan,” she said. “To be repaid by me with interest when this is done.”

He smiled and, unable to help himself, claimed her lips a final time.

“I’m ready.”

When the door slid open to admit them to the hallway and their escort, they stepped apart and into their professional roles. As they moved through the halls of the JA’s public offices, Mara’s body seemed to tense, brow stalks drawing together as if concentrating.

“What is it?” he murmured, his own anxiety jumping a degree.

“I’m not sure. Maybe nothing.”

That seemed like a mild lie, but he didn’t press, for they arrived at the door to the conference chambers. The door slide open.

Shit .”

It was a low hiss, stabbing into the air before he’d placed a foot inside the room.

Quinn frowned, eyes scanning over the bench at the head of the room and, seeing nothing amiss, moved to the observation gallery.

“Shit,” he echoed.

His mother’s blue eyes narrowed; he was absolutely certain he’d enunciated clearly enough for her to read his lips. Next to her sat a familiar dark-skinned man, admiral’s stars shining bright against his dress blacks. When his eyes landed on his daughter, his jaw tightened visibly despite the beard that obscured his chin and jawline.

Quinn was thirty-eight years old. Why did he feel like a teenager caught sneaking a lover into his room?

“Perhaps we should have arranged a far less awkward introduction,” Mara murmured, “like having them both stumble upon us fucking against a tree in Memorial Park.”

 

That startled a laugh out of him, half reluctant amusement and half horror. Then there was no more time for conversation, for they took their places behind a table and a marine called the room to order. Mara very consciously forced herself not to hold her breath as the five Judge Advocates filed in, resplendent in their dress blacks.

In retrospect, it had been stupid of her not to anticipate her father - indeed, both their parents - would learn about the hearing. She’d wondered at the low-level exasperated annoyance she’d felt from him all morning. Now, his eyes boring into the back of her neck, she knew.  

She didn’t recognize four of the five panel members, but the last, Brigadier General Miranda Harsch, was a friend of her father’s. Mara had no doubt the woman would remain impartial before the law while still eloquently communicating Admiral Thrask’s annoyance with the situation on his behalf.

Nothing for it but to continue .

The panel wasted no time calling Malavai to provide testimony on the events leading up to, and including, Broysc’s execution, which gave her something to focus on. He was magnificent: polite, detached, and utterly factual. The only moment Mara held her breath was when General Raines asked,

“You wish us to believe, Captain, that your actions are solely the result of analytical application of the Military Code of Justice. But it strains credulity that Moff Broysc’s actions against your career played no role whatsoever in your calculus. Can you honestly say you hadn’t wished for this opportunity?”

There was a long silence as Malavai seemed to consider his words.

“Moff Broysc was perfectly within his right to court martial me after Druckenwell, sir. I may have wished otherwise, but I knew the likely consequences of my actions when I took them, and I have no regrets whatsoever on that score. No, General, what I wished for was to move on with my career and not have cause to think of the moff ever again.”

Mara released the arms of her chair, hoping to keep the movement slow enough so as not to attract attention. She knew part of him did want Broysc dead - but the greater part, the part that she counted on aboard ship - abhorred the idea of acting upon that desire. And that part was all that was visible today.

“Thank you, Captain, you may return to your advocate.” Rear Admiral Ardiff’s gaze shifted to Mara, her green eyes hard and efficient. “Lord Thrask, we have questions for you as well, if it please you.”

She let her fingertips brush Malavai’s back as she moved behind his chair toward the chair set out for witness testimony.

“Good afternoon, my lord,” Raines said, nodding his greying head respectfully. “As I’m sure you can understand, the nature of your relationship with Captain Quinn has disturbed this panel. We do not question your authority as a Sith to act in these matters, but we do object to an officer using his Sith lover as a shield against punishment.”

“Indeed.” Only long discipline - and the knowledge that her father would be picking apart every tiny physical reaction she had - kept her face smooth. She raised her chin ever so slightly. “I appreciate your candor, General Raines, and I hope you will value my candor in turn. If the situation were as you characterized it, this panel’s concern would be entirely justified.”

A faint smile that didn’t touch the general’s dark eyes. “Magnanimous of you to state, my lord. Now. Records show that Captain Quinn joined your ship eight months ago, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“And when did you initiate your personal relationship?”

“Two months ago.” Mara met Malavai’s gaze, barely feeling the smile that tugged the corners of her lips. “We were on Alderaan having just completed missions on behalf of Darths Baras and Viktus.”

“Can you tell us more about that, my lord?”

“Respectfully,” Krevans interjected, standing. “Sir, Captain Quinn and Lord Thrask have been nothing but up front about the nature of their relationship.” Mara’s eyes went to their parents before she could stop herself. Gilad raised a dark brow sarcastically. “Given that no regulations or laws prohibit the attachment, I submit it is a waste of the panel’s time to dwell on it.”

“On the contrary, we believe it speaks to motive and state of mind,” Raines replied. “But I shall concede the early details are beyond the scope of this hearing. Lord Thrask, when was the decision made to execute Moff Broysc?”

“After the IG failed to act and the Moff called my ship making specific threats.”

“The nature of those threats?”

“He intimated that he was on Nar Shaddaa, as were we, and that he was positioning to deploy troops against us.”

“And you swear, under oath, that the decision was not made before then?”

“Yes, I do so swear.”

Raines cocked his head. “It never even crossed your mind? Not for a second?”

Mara frowned.

“You never casually mentioned it over dinner?”

She caught her father’s frown in her peripheral vision just as her own words replayed in her head: eviscerate him and leave him on his bridge as a warning . Had Raines been in the restaurant and overheard? Or somehow had listened in? The idea was paranoid in the absurd, and this felt like a fishing expedition, but still….

“Captain Quinn and I sought to handle this within regulation, General. We were of course aware that execution was an option under the law, but we very purposely sought out the IG’s office as the next step in the chain of command. Only after that chain broke down, and Broysc was both AWOL and making actionable threats, did we decided on this course of action. Captain Quinn acted within the law and with my blessing.”

For a moment she thought Raines would call out the lie. Indeed, he leaned forward, a triumphant flash in his dark eyes, then inexplicably froze. A moment’s consideration, then he simply sat back and nodded. What in the galaxy… why start that line of questioning without following through?

“Did your personal relationship make that blessing easier to give, Lord Thrask?”

Mara cocked her head, allowing her confusion to show when she met General Harsch’s grey eyes. “I’m sorry?”

The general leaned forward, hands resting on the bench before her. “You conducted a clandestine affair with your executive officer, and two months later his personal nemesis is dead in your cargo bay. You must concede the appearance of conspiracy is there.”

“I concede no such thing,” she replied, fighting to keep her voice calm. “You have the sensor logs, the statements. We acted rationally and in defense of the Empire.”

“This affair calls into-“

“It’s not an affair,” she snapped.

“Forgive me, my lord.” The tone was contrite, but still managed to carry an air of sarcasm. “I have no context through which to characterize the connection.”

Oh yes, Harsch was most certainly communicating Admiral Thrask’s annoyance on the matter.  

Her sarcasm ignited Mara’s anger. “With respect, General,” she ground out, hoping her tone didn’t belay the alleged respect she was paying, “you read the report. Do not mischaracterize this to make your arguments sound more plausible. My record-“

“Lord Thrask-“

“I’m not finished,” she cut in, glaring. “My record and Captain Quinn’s speak to our respective characters. The IG refused to act, and broke its own confidentiality rules when it went to Broysc directly and disclosed the identity of his accuser. We exhausted every other avenue available to us. To classify this as some kind of lurid crime of passion is insulting and indicative of this body’s inability to grapple with its own failures.”

The silence was suffocating. Her father’s shocked outrage echoed in her mind and Krevans’s face was in her hands. The panel seemed to be considering whether it could order a Sith to appear before a firing squad.

Malavai practically glowed with pride as he stared at her.

“Thank you, my lord,” General Harsch said finally. “I do not believe we have any other questions for you.” To the broader room, she said, “We will break to complete our deliberations in light of the testimony heard today. Please remain on the premises.”

With that, the panel rose and filed out, and the room suddenly came alive with sounds of scuffling boots and rattling flimsy.

“You are going to owe me several drinks, my lord,” Commander Krevans muttered.

“It needed to be said, Commander,” she replied, unrepentant. “And General Harsch, at least, knows me well enough-“

Maranel. Come with me, now .”

Admiral Thrask stepped past her without another word. He’d spoken to her in Sith, apparently hoping to keep their exact words private even if his tone had the unmistakable growl of a parent desperate to get out of the public eye and deal with their errant child. Without pausing to think, she folded her arms across her chest.

I’m not a little girl anymore, Dardirhoz .”

Then act like it ,” he snapped, whirling on her.

His angry gaze skewered her to the floor where she stood, and suddenly she was fourteen again and they were arguing about her training schedule. Her only responses to that glare had ever been sullen defiance or guilty fidgeting. The former won; she raised her chin, felt her eyes narrow.

Would you rather do this here, then? ” Brown eyes flicked briefly to Malavai, who’d gone still as stone next to her. She couldn’t tell whether her father knew her captain was comprehending at least some of their words; their language lesson’s hadn’t focused too much on the likely vocabulary of a parental argument. Despite that, she felt her cheeks warm.

Fine, ” she growled.

She most definitely did not stomp after her father as he led her to an antechamber off the main hearing room.

“Tell me, Maranel, what was the point in joining me for dinner to ask my advice regarding Broysc? Were you even listening during that conversation?”

“I followed your advice.”

“And yet Broysc still somehow wound up on the receiving end of Sith justice.”

“He threatened me, Dardirhoz ,” she snapped, incredulous. “He threatened my ship and my person and my-“

“And your Captain Quinn,” he finished.

“Would you not act in defense of your crew?”

“I’m not sleeping with any of my crew.”

“That’s beside the point.”

“Is it? You lied to me, my daughter.”

“I did not!”

“Why didn’t you tell me about the attempt on Ovech?”

At that Mara recoiled slightly. After a lifetime of arguments, her father noticed the shift in her stance immediately.

“Thought it might be a touch difficult to explain why it was necessary to mutilate an officer in your custody?”

In her mind’s eye, she saw Sidcro’s black eyes glaring down at her, the smell of his gloves when he grabbed her chin and told her exactly what he and Broysc would do to Malavai after they’d disposed of her. She glared past her father at a potted plant in the corner of the room.

“You’d have done the same,” she growled.

“I wanted to.” At Mara’s shocked glance he sighed. “I watched the sensor footage from Nightbringer . I know what lines Sidcro crossed, and yes part of me believes he got exactly what he asked for. But, Nel.” Mara blinked at the sudden softness in his tone and the use of her childhood nickname. “You didn’t react until he threatened Quinn.”

Dardiz ,” she began, searching for words that would explain without sounding like they came from a besotted child. “He’s an excellent officer,” she said finally, “with an exemplary record. He deserves better than threats from Broysc and his ilk.” How can he not understand what it is to face such unfair consequences? He’s been there.

“Be that as it may, you must understand the troubling pattern here. Sidcro insults Quinn’s honor, so you take his arm. Broysc threatens his life, and is executed in your cargo bay. You tell selective truths to those of us who advise you to get the answers you want. How many other enemies does your captain have who you’ll take out for him?”

“I didn’t-“

“Nel, you did. I read the file, I watched the footage. Help me understand why-“

“He doesn’t have an Admiral Yukiro,” she snapped, whirling back on her father.

He frowned, brown eyes widening. “What?”

“I couldn’t- after Marsah - “ She took a breath. “I couldn’t help you. But Admiral Yukiro intervened on your behalf. What if your CO had been Moff Broysc instead? Someone willing to let you twist for petty revenge? I couldn’t help you, Dardiz , but I can help him. I don’t have to stand by while good officers are destroyed for the sake of one man’s pride.”

Her father regarded her for a long moment, one hand stroking his beard idly.

“You think highly enough of him to compare him to me.”

It may have been an arrogant statement, but Mara felt no sting from it; she was an only child and had never made any secret of her affection for both her parents. “Yes.” This was an easy admission; a way of speaking about the feelings she’d realized without speaking them.

“I see.” Another sigh, this one of resignation. “Nel, I need you to promise me: if you come to me for advice, no more lies, by commission or omission. If you don’t take my advice, that’s fine, but don’t manipulate me into giving you what you want.”

“I’m sorry. I should have told you about Ovech.”

“Damn right, you should have. You’re smarter than that, Nel.”

“And the answer is none, by the way,” Mara said. Her father frowned, and she gave a tentative smile. “Malavai has no other personal enemies for me to crush.”

“Well, that’s a relief. I know… Nel, I know that these incidents overlapped with the Empire’s interests. I’m merely looking to ascertain that was the deciding factor.”

“It was, I promise. I’m not so far gone as that.”

“Good. See that you prove it with your actions from now on.”

The questions about Saraai ,” Mara began, hesitant, bowing to her paranoia enough to slip back into Sith. If they were being monitored, there was no shortage of individuals who could translate, but it was better than taking no precautions at all.

I noticed. I’ve no idea what was behind those questions. It was most likely a coincidence.” He waved a dismissive hand. Either way, this is not the place or time to discuss it.

The words were calm, but Mara could feel the ruminating worry gnawing in her father’s sense. That he was unwilling to discuss the matter even in private, in Sith, was worrisome. Despite that, she nodded.

As you say, Dardirhoz.”

The silence between them stretched awkwardly, and her father cleared his throat before saying, “so tell me about Captain Quinn.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. We… we weren’t sure of the seriousness of our relationship initially, and then with Broysc…” she felt herself blush. “I should have told you.”

“I know what it is to become involved with a Sith, Nel; I wish you’d told me, but I understand.” He smiled. “I think his mother may surprise you.”

“You talked about us?”

“Oh yes. You’re similar pains in our necks.”

“Rather than listen to such slander,” she said with feigned acid, “perhaps you’d like to meet the man yourself.”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

It was a short walk back into the hearing room. Malavai and Vorsila were against the wall, only three steps from where Mara and her father had left them, speaking animatedly in hushed tones. Mara took a deep breath, sternly ordering her heart to slow as she rejoined them.

“My lord-“ Malavai paused, cheeks going pink, “Mara. If I may re-introduce my mother?”

“Mrs. Quinn. I must apologize for our deception it was,” she paused, thinking, “it was childish of us. If you’ll allow, I’d like to earn your trust.” She offered a hand.

Vorsila Quinn stared at it for a moment, platinum-white eyebrows climbing into her hairline, her surprise reverberating through the Force. Whatever detente she and her son came to, she’d not expected this precise reaction.

“Thank you, my lord. For Malavai’s sake, I will give you that chance.”

But not of her own volition. Despite that line drawn, there was a cautious optimism in how she accepted Mara’s offered hand. Not a terrible place to start . Dimly, she wondered how much her father’s existence - and species and Force-blindness - played a role in Vorsila’s softening toward her.

“I understand, Mrs. Quinn. Thank you.”

Gilad cleared his throat, and Mara stepped back, motioning her father forward. Malavai snapped to attention with a crisp, “Sir.”

Her father chuckled. “At ease, Captain Quinn. I’m happy to finally meet you.”

Malavai’s blue eyes were wide as he shook Admiral Thrask’s offered hand. “The honor is mine, sir. I must apologize for the circumstances of our meeting, I-“

“Nel has explained as much as is necessary, for now.” His brown eyes shadowed for a moment when they fell on Mara. “She speaks very highly of you, both personally and professionally. I trust my daughter’s judgment.”

“Good,” Mara put in, lips curving in a smile when Malavai’s gaze met hers. “Because I’m right.”

Malavai blushed, but oh, the warmth in him as he looked at her.

Neither of them noticed the identical bemused exasperation on each of their parents’ faces.

Chapter Text

Two mornings after hearing, Quinn was tucked into the back of a plush airspeeder headed north, Mara’s fingers entwined with his. Between the hearing itself and the day and two nights apart after - they’d each spent time with their respective parents - it felt like years since they’d been alone together. Which should have been alarming really, but as with several things lately, Quinn couldn’t seem to convince his emotions to align with what was proper.

“That could have gone far worse,” Mara ventured, squeezing his hand lightly.

Quinn shook himself and met her amber gaze. “I know.”

She was right - and not just regarding their parents. The hearing hadn’t gone completely to plan - their evidence had been less persuasive than it should have been, but Ovech had rallied a distressingly large number of Broysc’s officers to submit tales of their own experiences with the moff’s violent temper and incompetence. Caught between the careful steps he and Mara had taken on one hand, and the near-universal relief at Broysc’s removal on the other, the panel had let Quinn go with a formal reprimand and nothing more.

“But?”

Again he hauled his mind back into the speeder.

“The reprimand will be in my file for the rest of my career.”

She frowned. “That’s true,” she said slowly, “but it’s not something that should interfere with promotions, and honestly I’m not sure-“

“Oh, they couldn’t have let me go without some sort of consequence,” he cut in, waving his free hand. “It’s not that.”

“Then what…?”

“I’m… fine with it.”

“And that bothers you.”

“The court martial was sealed to the point that it almost didn’t show to those who didn’t already know about it. This… this will be visible to everyone, forever. It should bother me.”

But he couldn’t summon the feeling. Honestly he couldn’t bring himself to care at all. He’d done what was right, and his actions had been resoundingly endorsed by his fellow officers. Given that…. The file almost didn’t matter.

He realized Mara was smiling.

“What?”

“My darling perfectionist,” she murmured, leaning in to kiss him gently. “I’m proud of you, for everything about your comportment throughout these events.”

His heart swelled in his chest. Sometimes it was frightening how much her approval meant to him. Again he found himself wanting to confess his feelings, the words rising in him, so he crushed his lips to hers, groaning in pleasure when her lips parted for him.

“I can’t wait to get you home.” Her voice was a dark murmur and its promise sent a bolt of lust through his body.

“I’m counting the kilometers until we arrive.” Stars, but he needed to let this out, to demonstrate what he wasn’t sure he could say.

“I suppose it’s a good thing our parents begged off having breakfast with us.”

Admiral Thrask had hearings to prepare for, and cases to transfer as his stint in the Judge Advocate’s office drew to a close. Vorsila, on the other hand, quite simply wasn’t ready to have a meal with her son and his lover. He had her tentative blessing, but she wasn’t completely on board yet.

He laughed and cuddled her close. “Indeed.”

A pause, and he felt her mood sober. “Malavai, do you think your mother will… will come round?”

“If you’d asked me that before the hearing, I wouldn’t have been sure. But now? She will.”

“How do you know?”

“Your interactions with your father. They… they were familiar to her.” He smiled, remembering his mother’s face as she watched Mara glare petulantly at Admiral Thrask before obeying his request for privacy. At first he’d worried she wasn’t seeing Mara at her best - but something about the normalcy of the interaction, and Mara’s obvious concern for her Force-blind father’s opinion, had eased more of his mother’s fears than she was willing to admit.

“My-“ Mara’s laughter brought another smile to his face. “You mean my channeling my teenage self put her mind at ease?”

“Imperial society is not conditioned to see Sith as people,” he reminded her. “Realizing otherwise is an adjustment. A rewarding one,” he squeezed her gently, “but an adjustment nonetheless.”

He’d been to Chwûkûsk before, of course, for Mara’s raising ceremony. But he’d barely known her then, and had been perpetually distracted by the crush of guests and his own confused feelings. It had felt less like a home and more like a public service building. This time, they were greeted by the steward - whose eyes took on a disconcertingly knowing glint when Mara explained that Quinn would be staying in her rooms - and then left alone.

They bypassed the first floor of the building entirely - he realized now that those rooms were intended for entertaining - and settled into a snug sitting room on the second floor, just across the hall from Mara’s rooms. The space felt like a hollow Kaasi pearl stuffed full of couches, cushions, and plush Korribani rugs in a rainbow of jewel tones. A part of him rebelled at the idea of such ostentatious comfort , but then he dropped onto a bright orange couch. It gave way under his weight just enough to cradle his body completely, and he felt a sigh escape his lips despite his best efforts.

A low laugh pulled his attention to his lord where she stood before a small tea service, a cup in hand.

“It’s nice, isn’t it?”

“I-” A yawn cut him off.

She laughed again. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

He let his eyes slide closed. It wouldn’t hurt to relax, just for a moment. He thought he’d made peace with the events of the last two days, let it all leave him when he’d fallen asleep the prior night. But the way his muscles unclenched told him he’d still been holding on to something . He sank deeper into the couch, another gentle exhale emptying his lungs. Tension fled, a blissful exhaustion taking its place.

He could hear her ask him something - almost certainly offering tea - but unconsciousness claimed him before she’d finished the sentence.

When he blinked himself awake, the room had the sort of warm, bright feel that only came from artificial lighting. Squinting against the glare, he turned his head slowly, letting his eyes adjust. Mara was on a couch opposite him, curled under the elaborate flimsi shade of a massive floor lamp with her datapad on her bent knees, the tap tap tap of her stylus providing a percussion to the tune she was humming.

She’d changed clothes while he slept - trading businesslike trousers and boots for a silky black gown. A gold silk shawl had, at some point, wrapped around her shoulders and each elbow, but now drooped, leaving one red shoulder exposed. As he watched, she absentmindedly pulled the shawl up, her attention so focused on the datapad that she didn’t seem to notice when it drooped again a heartbeat later.

“Good evening,” he said, pushing himself up to sitting.

“Welcome back to the land of the conscious,” she replied, smiling. She laid her datapad aside and crossed to him. “Are you hungry?”

He grasped her offered hand and, rather than allow her to pull him to his feet, yanked her down into his lap, one arm around her waist, the other pushing her shawl further down her arm.

“I am,” he answered just before his lips found her bare shoulder.

She inhaled sharply when he grazed her with his teeth. The sound sent a shiver through him; oh, he loved dragging those pleasure sounds out of her. He bit her again.

“I see,” she murmured, trying valiantly to keep her voice calm. A cool hand gripped his chin to turn his face up to hers and the lascivious half-smile on her lips. She knew what that smile did to him. “I won’t lie and say I haven’t been somewhat desperate for you to wake up.” The hand on his chin shifted, and she teased the nails of both hands over his scalp. He groaned at the touch.

“Kept you waiting, have I?”

“In my own home,” she confirmed with a playful pout. Her arms slid around his neck, those full lips chasing his. “But no longer.”

“Ah-ah,” he admonished. “Not here.”

“But this is-” she hesitated, “I thought you’d like it here.”

“For what I want to do to you, even this is too public.”

He hadn’t precisely planned on this. Oh, they’d spoken about it, briefly, their first night together, and he’d always intended to, but somehow…. He’d not been purposefully hesitant, but looking back he realized whatever it was he shed when he fell into this couch had held him back.

Now he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

She cocked her head, confusion and the first sparks of excitement in her eyes. “And what do you want to do to me?”

He trailed kisses up her jaw to her ear, one hand in her hair to pull her head to he side, and whispered,

“Do you still want me to hurt you?”

Mara gasped as Malavai’s hand knotted in her hair, and for a moment she had trouble interpreting his words through the sound. Then his meaning crashed into her and she gasped again, her hands tightening on his shoulders to keep herself upright.

She thought he’d forgotten, or that he perhaps wasn’t as enthused at the idea as he seemed at first. Their sexual relationship had been ecstatically fulfilling and so she’d seen no real need to revisit the topic.  That he’d been the one to broach the subject again… oh, stars, she’d never been so turned on in her life.

It wasn’t just his confidence, or desire for control, or his offering of something she craved, though those were all arousing to the extreme. It was the way his sense hummed against her mind, threatening to unleash that squall of emotion he carried within. It always intensified when they fucked and added to her pleasure. But this time… she knew as well as she knew her own name, that he was on the verge of losing control of that storm completely. More than rough play, that was what she’d craved as soon as she‘d tasted his sense that first night on Balmorra.

“Oh Malavai,” she purred, her lips brushing his ear and setting off a shiver through his body, “I’m all yours.”

He growled in the back of his throat, a feral, hungry sound, and she nearly came then and there. Despite that, when he opened space between them, his hand was gentle on her face. “What are your limits?”

“No choking, no slapping my face, and no spitting. And you may call me ‘my lady’.”

Her ready answer sent his brows toward his hairline in surprise, then he smiled. “I adore that you know what you want, did you know that?”

“I may have noticed,” she replied, running her fingers through his hair, tone going businesslike again. “If I become otherwise uncomfortable, I’ll stop you.”

He nodded and pulled her face down toward his with a finger under her chin. “Good.”

The kiss was tender and impossibly warm; almost a reflection, she thought, of the feelings inside her that had manifested so absurdly fast. Just when she moved to deepen the kiss, his hands flashed to her shoulders.

“On your feet, then.” He shoved her backward hard enough she had a choice between falling flat on her ass or obeying his order.

“I’m honestly hurt you don’t need to take me here and now,” she said with a smirk as she stood.

“If you wanted a partner lacking in self control, my lady,  you wouldn’t have chosen me.” He stepped close, his hand coming up to grip her chin firmly, voice dropping to a clipped whisper. She hesitated, uncertain for a moment that her knees would support her enough to walk. “Now get in the bedroom, before I have to carry you there myself.”

Now she was certain they wouldn’t. Fuck . Ready to catch herself with the Force, she took tentative steps toward the hall door, feeling his gaze on her as he followed.

She made it into her bedroom and turned to face him when she heard the door slide shut.

And froze. He stood just inside the door, lust blooming in his sense like a thornrose. Blue eyes smoldered over her, the heat of his gaze nearly tangible against her skin. When he walked toward her, there was something undeniably predatory in the way his body moved. Her stomach flipped and she licked suddenly-dry lips.

She’d never had any illusions about her captain’s lethality. While she was perhaps a more natural-born weapon than he, there was no denying how his decades of experience and that tightly-controlled rage at Moff Broysc’s injustice had hardened him. She’d simply never seen it demonstrated so keenly outside of a combat context before. He stopped just outside of arm’s length.

“Strip for me, darling,” he ordered.

The sharp enunciation, the way his voice trembled with tightly-controlled desire… With a shallow breath she obeyed, dropping the lgold wrap and then sliding the straps of her black dressing gown over her shoulders one at a time. A small shimmy, and the fabric whispered down her body to pool at her feet.

“Your turn,” she said with a wicked smile.

He ignored the levity, face utterly serious, and crooked a finger. “Come here.” As she stepped closer, he removed his belt and held it out to her. “Is this what you want? You may choose something else if you wish.”

“Yes, this is what I want.” Her voice was strange in her own ears - low, breathless, words tumbling over a parched throat.

“Then you may hold it until I’m ready for it.”

She obeyed and stared at the leather in her hands, somehow warm against her palms, stomach fluttering. She looked up to see him removing his uniform jacket, followed closely by his undershirt. When he returned his attention to her, she was staring at his bare, pale chest above his impossibly tight uniform trousers, licking her lips hungrily. She was still staring when he extended a hand expectantly.

“My belt,” he said, a note of amusement in his voice. Mara shook herself and handed it over, feeling suddenly exposed without it. Her eyes drifted back to his bare chest.  

He took a step closer to her, his belt folded into a loop, and caressed her cheek with the leather, grinning wolfishly when she shuddered against the touch. “Tell me what you want.”

“I want-” Mara worked moisture into a dry throat. “I want to kiss you, and bite you until you have lovely purple bruises all over that gorgeous skin.” She leaned forward, preparing to follow through on that promise, only to have him grab her arm roughly.

“You forget yourself, my lady.”

His belt whispered over her body, slipping between her thighs to the wetness there, sliding against her slick folds until she moaned, shifting her feet apart to give him better access.

“You’re mine.”

She exhaled shakily, holding onto the Force to keep herself upright. “Yes.” It was a breathless gasp of pleasure.

“You’ll touch me when I say you can. And you’ll come,” he pulled away and she cried out, “when I allow it.” He pressed the belt under her chin, turning her face up to meet his gaze, the smell of her own arousal mingling with the scent of the leather in a way that made here mouth water. “Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” she hesitated, then, “Yes, Captain .”

His blue eyes narrowed when she used his rank, his desire writhing through her senses. He grabbed her hair and hauled her lips to his in a harsh kiss, then shoved her face into the mattress. Mara whimpered when the belt caressed her bare flesh, starting at the base of her neck, tracing her ridges almost like a finger, then trailing down her spine. She arched her back instinctively, growling and writhing in disappointment when he merely teased the leather over her ass.

“Ask me.”

“Please,” she whispered.

“What was that, darling?” He continued teasing her, going so far as to tap one ass cheek lightly with the belt, chuckling richly when she whined.

“Please,” she said again, louder, clutching the comforter with both hands.

“Please what?” When she remained silent, he leaned over her and gripped her chin from behind, and the leather returned to her cunt, teasing her mercilessly as he held her head still, lips teasing against her ear until she moaned. “I want to give you what you crave, my lady.” She tried to arch her back, to press against the belt sliding over her slick flesh. “I want to make you shriek for me. But I need you to tell me what you want.” There was a tremor in his voice when he said the words, conveying his desperation almost as eloquently as the way his sense vibrated like a piece of wire drawn too tight, about to snap.

“Hit me,” she gasped. “Please, Captain, I want you to hit me until I bruise-” the word cut off with a shriek and the slap of the belt against her ass. She wailed a long yes and he hit her again.

“More?” he asked.

“Harder,” she begged. And it was begging; her tone could be termed nothing else.

“As my lady commands,” he growled, and brought the belt down hard enough to make her jump. The impact sent shock waves through her body, both pain and pleasure. He hesitated and she wailed encouragement, desperate for more.

He obeyed. As the blows came, the combined pain and pleasure evolved until her muscles were shaking with adrenaline and her cries of encouragement became desperate pleas and she could feel her climax building.

“Malavai,” she half sobbed, half moaned. “I’m going to- oh fuck please don’t stop.”

He stopped.

She collapsed against the mattress, keening with frustration, her body relaxing reluctantly in the absence of stimulus.

“Sshh.” He laid the belt on the bed next to her, where she could see it, and then gentle hands smoothed over her back, soothing her overstimulated nerves, helping her to sit up. “My darling,” he murmured, pushing sweaty hair away from her face, his fingers brushing away the involuntary tears that had trickled down her cheeks, blue eyes searching hers. “Is that what you wanted?”

She threw herself against him with such force he nearly fell off the bed, kissing him hungrily as her hands skimmed over his bare chest and back, raking him with her nails until he moaned into her mouth.

She was dripping wet, the residual ache in her bruised ass giving way to the yawing ache of her empty cunt. “Please,” she whimpered, her lips only a breath from his. “Please, I need you inside me.”

“I know.”

The confidence in those two words made her stomach flip and she kissed him again and dropped to her knees, her hands sliding down his chest as she went until she was teasing her fingertips over the sensitive V of his hip bones. “May I?” she asked softly.

He groaned and his hands flew to the closure of his trousers, helping her with the last of his clothing. As she straightened from tossing his boot aside, his hand found her hair, grabbing tight and holding her in place. She was at eye level with his cock, her mouth watering until she leaned forward eagerly.

Or tried to. He yanked her backward by her hair, blue eyes cruel as he looked down at her.

“Manners, my lady,” he admonished, his free hand stroking his shaft slowly.

She couldn’t stop the smirk that twisted her lips. “I don’t think, Captain, that you got me down here to practice my please and thank you.”

“Are you certain of that?” He pulled his hand away from his cock. She could feel his reluctance, but he still did it. “Are you so certain I can’t walk away and leave you wanting if it will improve your civility?”

He wouldn’t . But then, of the two of them… he’d certainly be more capable of it. She settled back on her heels, wincing as her ass protested the pressure, ignoring the ache in her cunt, and folded her hands in her lap.

“That’s better. Now, I ask you again, my lady, what is it that you want?”

“I want to suck your cock, Captain.” She said it calmly. His sense trembled as his control strained further. She kept her face neutral. “I want to tease you until you grab my head and shove your cock in my mouth as far as it will go, and, if it please you, Captain, I’ll do that thing I do with my throat that makes your entire body shake-“

“I’m not certain you’re respecting the spirit of the rules,” he said, his hand in her hair shaking, “but that was well played because I don’t particularly care at the moment.”

And then he hilted himself in her mouth, both hands holding her head against him.

“Like that?” he asked, snapping his hips against her lightly.

In response, she did exactly as she promised, squeezing her throat muscles rhythmically until he pulled out of her and she had a moment to breathe.

“If you’re not careful I’ll come down your throat and then where will you be?”

“Extraordinarily appreciated?”

She caught the flash of mirth even though he buried the smile that threatened the stern look on his face. Not giving him time to recover his countenance completely, she plunged forward, catching the head of his cock and teasing it with her tongue until he shoved her down all the way. His grip on her slackened as she worked him over, her nails digging tiny crescents into his thighs, and his sense curled so tightly her own body tightened in sympathetic response. He’s so close .

“Mara-“ The word sounded like it was being forcibly torn from his throat. The hand that gripped her head shook so badly she had to cover it with one of hers to keep her teeth from being rattled out of her skull. “I can’t-“

“You can.” Blue eyes snapped down to hers and she gave him the seductive smile that had always worked thus far, one hand curling around his cock. He grunted and thrust into her hand once before his control reasserted itself. “Come for me, Malavai. I-“ she took a breath. “I need you-”

“Like this?”

She smirked, one brow stalk raised. “I know what I’m asking for.”

The hand in her hair slid to her cheek, caressing her with a reverence he’d not shown since their first night together, his thumb sliding over her lips until she caught it between her teeth gently and he gasped.

“Do it.”

He’d barely closed his teeth around the last consonant and she’d practically leapt forward, tongue capturing the drop of pre-come that gathered on his tip before slowly pulling him back into her mouth, relishing the groan that echoed through her room. She picked up where she left off, quickly returning him to a state of trembling, bucking need.

He moaned when she grabbed his ass with both hands and yanked him into her as far as he would go. She squeezed him with her throat as she had before, but this time, she reached out to the Force. Her tongue was held immobile when he was in her this far, so with her throat working the head, she circled his cock with the Force and pulled, jerking him off in time with her throat’s contractions.

“Fuck- how are you-“ His sense cracked and his knees buckled, but Mara was ready, catching him with a second flow of the Force to keep him upright. Shaking hands clutched her head desperately as his hips rolled against her.

And his sense exploded , bathing her Force senses in the shower of sparks that was everything: his anger at past injustices, the mounting frustration of the decade on Balmorra… and also his desire for her, and the wonder that their passion was real. And something else, something warm that curled deliciously through her senses.

A scream tried to force its way past the obstruction in her throat as the molten fire of his sense enveloped her, and suddenly she was shaking, her cunt spasming around nothing, nails digging into Malavai’s ass as she fought to stay upright. Confusion trickled into the torrent, but the attempted screams only tightened the muscles in her throat, squeezing him even more.

He exploded again, this time in a more literal sense, his yells muffled by his body as he seemed to curl around her head.

She pushed him upright again with the Force, suddenly aware of how close she was to running out of air. Something clattered to the floor as he steadied himself and she pulled back enough to breathe, flexing her jaw to relieve stiffness.

“My gods you are-“ he trailed off.

“Magnificent? Orally talented? Hands down the best fuck you’ve ever had?” she suggested.

He laughed and offered her both hands to pull her up to standing. “Yes, all of those.” She staggered when she was on her feet, stiff knees and bruised ass both protesting every movement she made. Malavai caught her, but stumbled backward onto the bed. He stretched out, pulling her onto her stomach.  “Have you done that, I mean, used the Force on me, before?”

Mara shook her head. “It’s a fabulous tool but I prefer to feel your body under my hands.”

“I see. I… you have my permission to experiment more with it, if you want to.”

She grinned. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“And did you come?”

“Quite thoroughly.”

“You weren’t even touching yourself.”

“No, but you were.”

He frowned in confusion.

“Your sense, darling. I told you I can feel your desire and that it adds to my pleasure. But tonight was…” her body shuddered in visceral remembrance. “You let go completely. I’ve never felt anything like it.”

“I wasn’t aware I was holding back before.” He stroked her cheek, his other hand rubbing her back soothingly. “But I was pulled in too many directions: duty and propriety against my own desires and wishes. I was afraid indulging the latter would complicate the former.”

“And it’s different now?”

“Something about the hearing… Before you, I was so inflexible, so bound by the letter of the law. To be frank I wasn’t entirely aware I had any desires of my own outside of service. But it was a false simplicity; Broysc complicated everything.”

“No wonder you looked so confused when I told you that you’re more than only your service to the Empire.”

He snorted. “Indeed. But now…” He wrapped his arms around her completely, her head nestled under his chin. Similarly, his sense seemed to reach for her, bathing her in warmth. “I can have both - I need to have both.” He hesitated, as if searching for words. “I feel whole ; I’m not conflicted in the slightest about anything, least of all you, my- my dear.”

“I’m honored.” It was the only thing she could think of to say in response to such a declaration, aside from the three words she refused to let herself say yet. “Truly, I- I don’t know if I can express how happy I am that you feel so safe with me.”

“I think you expressed it quite eloquently a few moments ago,” he replied dryly. “Though I must confess to one slightly conflict.”

“Oh?” Mara raised her head.

“As proud as I am at getting you off without actually touching you,” his hand whispered down her body, wiggling between them to get at her cunt. It wasn’t difficult; between the spanking and his emotional torrent, she wasn’t sure she’d ever been this wet. “I do feel rather cheated of the chance to feel you come for me.”

Mara shifted onto her side to give him better access, sighing softly as he teased her. “If only there were some way to remedy that.”

“Oh darling, I’ve thought of several just in the past few seconds.”

“I love that mind of yours, Malavai, have I ever told you that?”

A brief panic flew through her as she realized the verb she used, but he only grinned rakishly.

“Not in so many words, but I’ve been able to guess.”

The following morning, Quinn awoke and took his first good look around Mara’s room. It was large enough to hold the gigantic bed they were lying in now, a dressing table whose contents had been sent partially to the floor in their activities last night, and a small caf table and sofa in one corner, but only just. The close-ish quarters gave the room a homey feel it may have lacked otherwise. Outside a set of double doors was a small stone terrace, and doors on either side of the dressing table led to the fresher and clothing storage.

Shelves lined the wall above the dressing table, filled with small candid holo portraits and knick knacks of varying types - an ancient-looking lightsaber hilt, a sprig of dried flowers, something that looked like a holocron but glowed constantly, bright white against gold filigree. He had the sudden longing to add something of his own to the shelf, and quickly quashed the notion. Stop trying to move so fast .

A stir of sheets told him that Mara had joined him in consciousness.

“Good morning,” she murmured, stretching languorously, then wincing when the movement aggravated the bruises he’d given her.

“On your stomach, dear,” he said, reaching for the first aid kit he’d left on the side table before they went to sleep.

She grumbled, something about her having taken worse, but obeyed and he pulled the sheet back.

“I’d like to put more kolto on these,” he said. She was healing nicely, but a second round of treatment would have her completely healed by the following morning.

“I don’t mind the pain,” she said, amber eyes glowing up at him from the crook of her elbow. “It’s a rather pleasant reminder.”

“Hmm, but you don’t know if-“

Her holo buzzing cut him off. With a curse she sat up and her dressing gown flew to her hand from where she dropped it on the floor the previous night.

“Master,” she said when she picked up, moving to the sofa in the corner to make sure Quinn was out of holo range. “I take it you require my presence at the Citadel?”

“Indeed. Get here as soon as you can. We have a war to start.”

The transmission cut off, and Mara gave him a wry smile.

“I suppose I’ll be taking that second course of kolto after all.”

Chapter Text

Nearly six hours after her master’s initial contact, Mara strode into the Citadel alone. Neither Jaesa nor Malavai had liked being ordered to prep the Fury for departure while she answered Baras’s summons; Vette, the Mother bless her, had far too much sense, or perhaps too much direct experience with the Citadel, to argue, and instead corralled the apprentice and captain to their respective tasks. If all was going to plan - and with Malavai directing the work, she knew it would be - the Fury would be about to leave the Ridzwem spaceport and land at Kaas City in time to pick her up.

Until Mara understood her misgivings about Baras more - and determined their basis in reality - she felt far more secure meeting him alone. Beyond that, her appearances in Kaas City were rare enough that even on her own she invited more scrutiny than she would have liked, let alone trailing a formerly-Jedi apprentice and a Force-blind lover. And so she stepped out of a taxi on the Citadel’s landing pad, the dark diatium of her reinforced greaves stark against the grey afternoon light, Kaas City’s omnipresent rain having given way to a mist that swirled between the city’s skyscrapers and left a fine, silvery sheen on her exposed midriff and upper arms.

I am a high lady and a Sith Lord. Stare all you like.

With that thought, her etiquette training kicked in and she raised her chin, striding into the citadel like it was her own estate.

Baras’s antechamber was deserted, and the sound of voices drifting through the office door drew her to a pause. She cocked her head and stretched with the Force, listening.

“You’ve carried out my will admirably, Baras.” Mara couldn’t quite place the voice, though hearing it gave her a sudden wave of anxiety she couldn’t explain.

“I am only too happy to serve, Master.” That was Baras.

Vengean. Of course.

“You asked me for Gonn’s head,” Baras continued, “and to deliver it was a privilege.”

Mara raised a brow stalk. This was certainly a… new side to her master. Well, the subservience was new; he’d been taking credit for her work since Balmorra.

“It will make a fine trophy to kick off this new war,” Vengean agreed. “You are to be commended.”

Well. I’m a Lord now; Baras can order me into battle but he’s not entitled to my kills .

“Give credit where credit is due, Master,” Mara said smoothly, striding into the room. Vengean’s holo flickered above Baras’s desk. She slid to one knee before it, chin raised to look him in the eye despite the deferential posture.

“Ah, yes, I was wondering when you would arrive. Master, this is my most distinguished apprentice, Lady Maranel Thrask. She is also the hand that snuffed out Gonn’s life and brought his traitors to heel. Apprentice, this is Darth Vengean, my master.”

“We’ve met, Baras,” Vengean replied dryly, his angular face almost skeletal thanks to the dark circles around his eyes and the skull-hugging hood he wore. “I see you’ve not lost your talent for mixing defiance and deference, young Lady Thrask. Take care you find the right balance - killing Gonn has earned you my favor today, but only for today.”

During her interrogation at the hands of the Council, Vengean had seemed oddly charmed by her demeanor. She leaned into that now, giving a nod of her head while maintaining eye contact.

“I would expect nothing less, my lord; I will eclipse the feat tomorrow.”

“How she must vex you, Baras.” There was definite amusement in his voice. “I never thought you would stomach such backbone in an apprentice; I’m happy to see you growing in that regard.”

“One is never too old to adapt and learn, my master,” Baras replied. Everything about him was calm - or at least, hidden behind mental shielding Mara herself hadn’t ever tried to crack - but something in his voice left her hand itching for her blade.

“I’m impressed; truly, Baras, this is the finest apprentice of yours yet. You’ve both performed beyond my expectation, and because of you the border systems are ripe for the picking. I will send my own flagship and Harrower group to begin the assault. Baras, I want you to initiate Plan Zero, as we discussed.”

Baras gave a shallow nod of his head, and with a final glance between them, Vengean’s holo vanished.

Mara spent one more heartbeat on her knees and then rose, shifting to face Baras.

“Darth Vengean and I assembled a list of officials whose loss would have an outsized effect on the Republic’s military readiness,” he explained before she could ask. “Plan Zero is the exploitation of any and every opportunity we see to take action against those individuals. I’ve cultivated my apprentices specifically to carry out this plan.”

“I see. Who on this list will be my first target?”

“You first targets, plural, are four generals colloquially known as the War Trust. They head up the Republic Special Forces weapons research program, and Intelligence places all four either on or en route to Taris.”

“That seems like a stupid risk on their part,” Mara said dubiously.

“Or it means whatever they’re looking for on Taris is worth the risk. The last time all four gathered in one place, the Republic began sending heavily modified fighters against our fleets. We found ourselves on the back foot for months before we could adapt both strategy and tech to compensate. We cannot afford that at the dawn of our new campaign against our enemies.”

“I will crush them before they can lift a finger against us, Master.”

***

It was a four-day flight to Taris. Despite the tone of their mission and its import, the trip was pleasant. Their stores of fresh food once again high, all four crew shared a meal each evening. Three nights was predominately Kaasi fare, with additional spice to lend it a Korribani flavor, but one night Jaesa shoved TooVee out of the galley and emerged with a pot of strox brisket stew.

Where Kaasi food tended toward a relatively simple flavor profile - spices and aromatics designed to enhance the flavor of the meal’s main protein (usually fish) - and Korribani food’s main flavor focus was complex combinations of spices and chiles, Jaesa’s Aldreaanian stew was something else entirely. The stew base and vegetables carried the flavor of the meat, but enhanced with animal fat and, it turned out, cooked-down Adastan wine. She explained that it was usually served either on smashed, creamy root vegetables or egg noodles, but given the ship’s stores, had substituted in Kaasi grains.

It made for an odd combination, but not an unpleasant one, Mara reflected, scooping the last of the soaked grains onto a spoon. As she passed around what remained of the wine, Vette hurried to the crew quarters and returned with a small bag that she tossed onto the table.

“What are-” Mara picked up a lump of chocolate.

“Caldwyn turned me loose in your kitchen,” Vette said with a grin. “Try it.”

She bit the lump in half, savoring the dark bitterness of the cocao and then- she gasped when the aromatic heat of raw inshenroot burst over her tongue, tempered and darkened by both the residual chocolate and sugar added to the root during the drying process.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever had inshen dried like this, let alone dipped in chocolate,” she murmured.

“Candied,” Vette clarified. “Dried fruit is all well and good, but a little extra sweetness never hurt anyone.”

“It’s rather good,” Malavai said, frowning at the sweet. He looked up at Jaesa. “The stew as well.”

Vette’s gasped, a hand flying melodramatically to her chest. “Do my ears deceive me or- Jaesa, pinch me.”

“What?”

“Pinch me- ow !”

Jaesa jumped back. “I’m sorry, was that too hard?”

“Nope, just needed to confirm consciousness.” She turned a wide grin on Malavai, whose frown had deepend, and her voice took on a singsong lilt. “You like non-Imperial food!”

“I only meant,” Malavai began, but Vette continued talking over him.

“Don’t worry, Quinn, your dirty little secret is safe with us, isn’t it, Mara?”

Blue eyes glared daggers at Mara when she laughed into her napkin. Jaesa, for her part watched the exchange with eyes the size of tea saucers. She wasn’t afraid of Malavai - indeed, Mara was fairly certain there were few things of which her apprentice was actually afraid - but she’d clearly accepted his all-business exterior and the impression that he was beyond such teasing from anyone other than Mara.

“You, Vette, are an Imperial citizen, as is Apprentice Willsaam,” Malavai said crisply, his posture entirely too perfect for the congenial setting, “Therefore this is technically Imperial cuisine and your accusation is moot.”

“Then why are you so mad that you like it?” Vette’s triumphant grin only grew as the silence stretched and Malavai’s glare intensified. “That’s what I thought. Welp, it’s not our turn to do the dishes, so, bye.” Vette stood and grabbed Jaesa’s arm to hurry her from the table.

“You could have helped,” Malavai grumbled as soon as the hatch slid shut behind them.

“In what capacity? As your CO I need only for you two to work together while on-duty, which you do. Your off-duty relationship is yours to navigate,” Mara countered, stacking the bowls inside the empty stew pot. “And as your lover, I agree with Vette.”

For a moment, Mara thought Malavai would drop the wine glasses he’d carried halfway to the counter.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Darling, if the Empire were as welcoming of its conquered cultures as you intimated, we’d both have had Alderaanian food before today.” The bowls and pot went into the sonic dishwasher and she crossed her arms. “And that’s not even touching the potential cultural contributions of slaves or former slaves. Or the assumption that their culture is a contribution to the Empire and not the property of its people.”

He frowned. “I don’t think I understand.... Ah. Mara, Red Sith culture is entirely different.”

“How so? And don’t you dare link it to Force sensitivity.”

He fell silent, and Mara sighed. “I’m half Kaasi, Malavai, and there are many things I love about Kaasi culture.” A smile and she slipped her arms around his waist. “And I love sharing Korribani culture with those I’m close to. But it’s an act of trust, not something I want subsumed into the whole.”

“I know that,” he protested. “I could never think otherwise.”

“Jaesa’s been with me for a matter of months, and Vette was actively harmed by the Empire, but tonight they both offered us that same act of trust. Accept or reject it, but don’t accept it and then act like it’s offensive to you.”

“But must she be so smug about it?”

Mara smiled. “That’s Vette, dear. You should be used to it by now.”

***

She kept an eye on Jaesa as they moved through the Imperial space station orbiting Taris. Walking her estate, or through an unaligned planet like Nar Shaddaa was one thing; walking amongst Imperials was quite another. Mara’s apprentice wore grey-purple robes, the hood pulled up over her shoulder-length brown hair. She suspected that was to obscure the way she studied her surroundings. Right now, it helped hide the way her jaw tightened as they entered the shuttle hangar, though Mara could feel her disquiet. Mental shielding was something they would have to work on.

In this instance, at least, it wasn’t completely out of place. When they dropped out of hyperspace, they both noticed that Force seemed to have an oily sheen over it, the emotional manifestation of a shudder of revulsion. As they drew closer to the planet, it intensified, going from revulsion to the after-image of billions of people screaming in terror: the after-image of Darth Malak’s fleet raining death and destruction onto the planet. Three hundred years after the fact, the disturbance in the Force was potent; if she focused too hard on the sensation, her head began to immediately ache.

“Compartmentalize it,” she murmured to Jaesa as they settled into a shuttle bound for the surface.

“I’m not sure I want to.”

“Giving yourself a migraine won’t honor the people who died here, apprentice.”

From the depths of her hood, Jaesa grimaced but nodded. Silence reigned for the remainder of the flight and as they moved through the base in search of Moff Hurdenn, their local contact.  His office was in the bowels of the base, an oddly-pristine space that left Mara wondering if he actually did any work in the room. It wasn’t like Malavai’s office and barracks on Balmorra, which had been ship-shape but bore telltale signs of work - a datapad here, wear and tear on the datastation keyboard and chair. No, everything in Moff Hurdenn’s office was stylish and seemed brand new, a sharp contrast to the rest of the base, which looked like the hastily-constructed, overused structure that it was.

The moff was huddled over a datapad, eyes unfocused, and a soldier a good two handspans taller than he, in blaster-scoured battle armor, worked the datastation. Mara and her party stood in the doorway for several heartbeats before the armored soldier looked up. Brown eyes travelled from Mara to the moff, then rolled ever so slightly before the man snapped briefly to attention and announced, “Moff Hurdenn, the Sith is here.”

Hurdenn’s entire body jerked in surprise when he looked up to see four newcomers standing in his office.

“You’re lucky I’m the forgiving type, Moff Hurdenn,” Mara said, offering a smile that did not reach her eyes. “That sort of distraction is not a good trait in a moff.”

“My apologies, my lord,” Hurdenn replied hastily. “Please don’t interpret this misstep as a commentary on my willingness to work with you. I’ve long been an admirer of Darth Baras, and I have become an admirer of your work as news has spread. Indeed, I-”

“I doubt she came all this way to be fawned on,” the soldier interrupted, to Mara’s relief - and Malavai’s approval.

“Of course.” The man’s thin mustache drooped as he frowned, then brightened. “Lord Thrask, this is Lieutenant Ryland Pierce. He’s one of my best officers, and I’ve assigned him to you for the duration of your mission here. He is to provide for your every need while you are with us.”

“I’m a full-service kind of guy,” Pierce confirmed as Hurdenn returned to whatever he’d been doing.

There was nothing leering in his sense; it was the usual ribald Army humor. Mara chuckled even as she felt Malavai’s sense darken. “Fortunately, Lieutenant, I need only your combat-related skills. Tell me where we are.”

He nodded and briefed them both on intel extracted from a scout Pierce’s Black Ops squad had captured: the Republic had been laying supply lines, carefully timed to appear random, to funnel material for an unknown project, but nothing more specific in terms of the destination of the supply chains or a schedule for deliveries.

“Very good, Lieutenant.” Mara exchanged a glance with Malavai, who nodded. “Take me to the prisoner; I’d like to spend some time with them.”

“Ah.” Pierce briefly looked abashed. “I, ah, sorry, I overestimated his stamina.”

“You what , Lieutenant?” Malavai’s voice was deadly quiet; a pleasant reminder of his tone of voice the first time she laid eyes on him.

“I leaned on him a little too hard, sir ,” Pierce snapped. “I said I was sorry, at least we got what we need to start this op.”

“That was a perfectly unnecessary waste of an asset, Lieutenant, for the vague information that the enemy might be setting up supply lines somewhere ?”

“Like you coulda done better-”

“Gentlemen.”

Both men froze, heads turning toward her.

“Unless I’m very much mistaken, this bickering will not restore the scout enough to answer our questions.”

“No, my lord,” Malavai answered with a slight bow of his head that did nothing to conceal the glare he shot in the lieutenant’s direction. “What are your suggestions for fixing this mess, Lieutenant Pierce?”

“If you’d let me finish, Captain ,” Pierce’s rough Ziostian dialect sharpened considerably on Malavai’s rank, “I’d say he smashed his comm, but we have his helmet transponder. It’ll give us a bead on his movements for the last eighteen hours or so before we nabbed him.”

“That’s a start,” Mara said slowly. “Vette, anything you can do with a standard Republic transponder?”

“Oh yeah. The location data’s easy, but if I can slice into its output I could see what other local devices it pings off of and their locations, too.”

“That could give us an accurate map of their movements, but it would take too long to assemble if we have to ping one device at a time,” Malavai mused. “But it could give us targets of opportunity.”

“The transponder would ping off of sibling devices on their walkers and other heavy ground transports.” Pierce said. “Get me enough of those and I can triangulate their location data - see where they converge.”

“Yes, that should be adequate, Lieutenant.” Malavai sounded like he’d rather endure whatever it was Pierce had done to the scout than praise the man, but he forced the words out nonetheless. “If I may, my lord, we should bring the transponder with us, so that we appear friendly to Republic scanners.”

“Should work,” Vette said. “Let me clone it and you guys can get going.”

“Perfect. Lieutenant Pierce, Vette will remain on base with you to work the tech. She is the second officer on my ship and on my payroll, do you understand?”

“Noted,” Pierce replied. If he was surprised at Vette’s status, he hid it well.

“Good.” She gestured to her captain and her apprentice, introducing them each in turn. “They will accompany me into the field.”

As soon as Vette had her tech ready to go, Mara tucked the transponder into a pouch on her utility belt and led Malavai and Jaesa out to the base and the speeder rental pad. The walk from the shuttle to Moff Hurdenn’s office had been hurried, and as they returned again to open air, Mara allowed herself a glance upward. Night was falling, a handful of exceptionally bright stars visible in the strip of purple sky that showed between the ruined skyscrapers of what had once been a planet-wide city that rivaled Coruscant in size and population.

Next to her, Jaesa visibly shuddered.

“Apprentice?”

“Forgive me, Master. This planet unnerves me. I sense such suffering here.”

She sighed. “I know, I sense it, too. I need you present, Jaesa, not in the past.”

“The Empire did this.”

It was a quiet statement, but it drew Mara up short. “ Malak did this,” she corrected sharply. “With formerly Republic soldiers and Republic ships. Not a drop of Imperial blood or the tiniest bit of Imperial tech or ordnance was spent on this wretched planet.”

“He was Darth Malak, wasn’t he?”

“He took our knowledge of the Force, but nothing more. He wasn’t even given a Darth title; he just added it to his name.”

“Doesn’t that count for something? You don’t feel the slightest bit of remorse?”

“I feel remorse for the lives lost on this planet, yes.” For a moment Mara opened her mind to the residual death and terror, and grimaced. “But I do not feel responsible.”

“The Sith corrupted him-”

“Did I corrupt Master Karr? Is that what you believe?”

“No.” Jaesa’s voice faltered. “No, I know you didn’t but-”

“The Sith unveiled what was already within Malak. Nothing more. He returned of his own volition and declared war on his own people.”

“But the Empire knew what he was. Just like you know what Master Karr is and have contained him.”

“Red Sith are a long-lived people, Jaesa. The Jedi slaughtered us and drove us from our ancestral home barely four generations before Malak arrived within our borders,” Mara replied quietly. “Even if there is responsibility to lay at our door, I cannot fault the Emperor and the Council for sending him back.”

“Well, I can. What happened to your people was awful and it was wrong; but so was this.”

Mara smiled. “We can agree on that last bit, at least.”

“And the Empire’s role?”

“On that we disagree, which is your right, Jaesa. Your obligation as an Imperial citizen requires your loyalty, not your complete agreement on the reading of history.”

After a long moment, Jaesa nodded, then pulled back her hood. “I understand. Shall we begin the mission, Master?”

***

Quinn had deep misgivings about taking Apprentice Willsaam into Republic territory, especially after the near-argument she and Mara had regarding Darth Malak’s bombardment of the planet. However, after observing her behavior during the first two engagements they had against supply walkers, he was forced to admit the girl, while perhaps too questioning for Quinn’s comfort, at the very least was completely loyal to her master.

Halfway through the first engagement, they’d worked out a rhythm, spinning adversaries between them (or toward Quinn’s blaster) and managing to move around each other’s blades as Mara ducked to put her shield arm between Willsaam and a soldier’s vibroblade, or the apprentice’s dualsaber arced behind her master’s head to deflect a blaster bolt.

In fact, thanks to Willsaam’s dualsaber and Mara’s shield arm, they turned aside enough blaster fire that the two of them together required less kolto and other field dressing than Mara by herself usually did.

Now they sat, two walker transponders tucked away in Quinn’s pack, crouched in an upper floor of a building too damaged to identify its original use. It afforded decent high ground over the area they’d identified as the main thoroughfare, such as it was, for Frelka’s supply walkers. It had been several hours since their last engagement.

This had better work, or I’ll have that lieutenant’s head.

Willsaam glanced across Mara’s shoulders at him, a slight frown on her face, before turning her gaze back to the field below them. He fought the urge to scratch the skin that had suddenly begun to crawl. He was used to Mara reading his emotions; a prodigious former Jedi was another question entirely.

“Master.”

Below, a walked lumbered into view. Quinn raised his macrobinoculars as Mara scanned the vehicle.

“A pilot and co-pilot confirmed,” he said.

“And the usual complement of five soldiers.” Mara gave him a small half-smile. “You’d think they’d learn.”

“Something’s wrong,” Willsaam said slowly.

“Jaesa?”

“The pilot. The others were cautious, alert, but relatively calm. This one is-“ she cut off, brown eyes going wide. “He knows where we are!”

Unseen hands hauled him backward a good two meters before his lord’s physical hands grabbed his arm to wrestle him to his feet. They’d run another three meters when the ledge they’d crouched on exploded in a hail of heavy cannon fire.

“Stay down; if they can’t get a visual they won’t know which way we-” Mara’s sentence cut off with a curse and she dove onto both Quinn and her apprentice, shield activated, just in time for another volley of fire, this one closer to their current position. Debris rained down onto the shield and the structure beneath them groaned and shuddered threateningly.

“They’re tracking us,” Quinn snapped. “The transponders.”

Shit .” Then, “Get the transponders out of your pack. Now.”

Half a second and understanding dawned. Another volley, slamming into the building face just below their position as he fumbled the pack open, grabbed a transponder, and shoved it into Willsaam’s hands.

“Detonator.” Quinn frowned but handed a device over. “I’m going that way.” Mara pointed left, toward the section of floor that was already spiderwebbed with cracks. “Split up and run the other way.”

He shouldn’t argue. This wasn’t the time, and if anyone could do whatever harebrained thing she’d thought up, it was her. And yet, that sliver of terror kept him rooted in place for another heartbeat.

“Go,” she snarled, “and keep running until you get an all clear. If you don’t get one, get to the speeders and go back to base; what you have will have to suffice. Do you understand?”

He dragged himself back to professionalism. “Understood, my lord.” He grabbed Willsaam’s arm - the girl was frozen in place, staring at her master in shock - and dragged her to her feet, hauling her a good two meters before shoving her off into a third direction.

There was a third volley, and then silence as the walker’s gunners realized their point of reference had diverged. Behind him, he heard the earsplitting screech of metal beams warping and tearing, then the nearly subsonic, crackling boom of duracrete colliding with durasteel and shattering.

“Clear!”

The word was accompanied by a smaller sound of metal wrenching free in the background, and blasterfire.

Then the smaller, higher boom of a detonator exploding, echoing slightly as if in a small confined space.

He’d already changed direction, retracing his steps. He yanked his blaster free when the bushes to his left rustled, but it was Apprentice Willsaam who burst onto the path next to him. They skidded into the open area together and stumbled to a halt.

The walker’s viewport had been completely smashed in by a massive, irregular block of duracrete, metal beams poking out of one end like spikes. Above, Mara lounged next to the hatch, relaxed as a lothcat in sunshine, a transponder in one hand and her lightsaber in the other.

“Easy,” she said. Despite that, when she hopped down to join them, her legs wobbled enough that she slumped against Quinn, whose arm went around her waist instinctively.

“My lord,” he began.

“That chunk of building was heavy, that’s all.” Her face was pressed into his shoulder, blocked from Willsaam’s view by his head. She straightened slowly, lips ghosting over his cheek, before stepping back. “I’ll be fine. Get Vette on the line so we can figure out where we’re going next.”

***

The walkers converged on a cave system several kilometers from the base. Pierce reported that Imperial troops had cleared it of pirates months ago. There hadn’t been any reports of anything notable at the time, but clearly the Republic had discovered otherwise. They managed to slip past the enemy’s outer picket, and found not just caves, but a mine; droids and a handful of Republic troops guarded miners extracting something from the rock walls.

Vette kept the enemy’s comms jammed while Mara, Jaesa, and Malavai fought their way to the control room, which was populated by the mine foreman and his closest staff.

“If you’re looking for General Frelka, I can hit the silent alarm and that’ll get him here,” the foreman, a stout man in his forties, said hastily, hands up in a placating gesture.

“What are you guarding?” Malavai demanded.

“Mining, not guarding - something called ‘siantide’. It’s a liquid sludge - there are rivers of it underground. I don’t know what they’re using it for, but General Frelka seems to think it’s worth its weight in gold.”

“Aren’t you free with the Republic’s information.” Mara crossed her arms and raised a brow stalk.

“I ain’t getting paid enough to get in your way, believe me,” the foreman replied. “We’re not soldiers; we were hired to do a job, and all jobs end sometime.”

“Hit the alarm, then get out.”

“Was it wise to let them go, my lord?” Malavai asked when they’d cleared out. “I’m not suggesting you kill them,” he added hastily, casting a glance at Jaesa. “Only holding them until Frelka is dealt with.”

“I want to do some snooping, and we can’t do that with them here. Can you get into this terminal?”

“Assuming their encryption is standard,” Malavai mused, “yes.” A slight hesitation, then, almost too soft to hear, he said, “Vette, stay on the line in case I run into something I can’t deal with.”

“Wow, that musty mine air must be getting to you, Quinn,” Vette commented.

A deep sigh, and Malavai began his work without further comment. She watched him work in silence for a time. When she’d sent him away, there had been a split second… something in his sense had cracked, and her own feelings had been reflected back at her, clear as if she’d felt them in her own mind. She’d suspected it for a couple of weeks now. But getting that confirmation, even for that brief moment… it made it even harder not to blurt out the words every time they were in danger. And also left her wondering if perhaps he were waiting for her to make the first move.

That was a question for another time, she told herself, pulling her mind back to the task at hand.

The encryption was far from standard, but between Malavai and Vette, the got past it quickly, and it became clear why the terminal had such protection.

“Project Siantide is developing a power source three times more powerful than anything in existence. It’ll power anything from blasters to capital ships once it’s refined and properly stabilized. Everything’s here - R&D history, prototype schematics.” Malavai looked up at her. “We need to get this back to the Empire.”

“Agreed. Download it all; we’ll carry it back. I don’t want this going out via holo.”

He complied, copying the information to a datastick and placing a charge against the computer base.

And then they settled in to wait.

Jaesa sank into a meditation form, seeming perfectly at ease with the situation, and even Malavai leaned back against a crate, looking far more enticing than he had any right to, but Mara found herself prowling the length of the room.

“Are you always this impatient, master?” Jaesa asked. It seemed half genuine question, half wry rebuke.

“I’m an only child,” Mara countered, smiling. “It comes with the territory.”

“I beg your pardon,” Malavai said with mock outrage.

“I-“ Jaesa paused, looking between them. “You’re both only children.”

“You as well?” Mara asked, feeling a bit stupid that the realization was only just dawning.

“Of course; my parents would have had a much harder time coming to the Empire otherwise. Is it common in the Empire to have only one child?”

“No,” both she and Malavai said at once, before exchanging a bemused glance.

“The Red Sith were nearly wiped out just over a millennia ago; even if children and family weren’t central to our culture as they are, it would still be considered part of our pact with the community to have enough children to keep our population stable,” Mara explained.

“It’s much the same for all Imperials,” Malavai added. “My parents wanted more children, but my mother was injured in the field when I was three.”

“Was that difficult for them?” Jaesa asked, seemingly touched by the rare reveal of something in Malavai’s off-duty life.

“I think so, though I never felt it directly. My mother took to volunteering for children’s organizations, and they both became involved in youth reserve officers' training programs, to fulfill their desire for additional children and give back to the Empire as best she could.” He hesitated. “And your mother?”

“Rather hated being pregnant, or so I’m told,” Mara replied wryly. “Once she was reasonably certain I was strongly Force sensitive and not an imbecile, she took steps to ensure she’d not fall pregnant again.”

At Malavais’ choked laugh she raised a brow stalk. “What?”

“That is very… knowing you I can see how that thought process worked for her.”

Mara laughed. “Then you’ll be shocked to know I plan on having several children.”

“Indeed. To balance out your mother’s duty? Or because the idea of a larger family is appealing?”

“My more removed cousins all had large families. I never lacked for attention from my aunts, but it always seemed somewhat lonely by comparison.”

“I will confess to having enjoyed the quiet in comparison to many of my peers,” Malavai said, eyes unfocusing as he thought through the unspoken question. “But I can’t say I mind the idea.”

Mara felt herself smile that small smile she usually only used in private; she couldn’t help herself. A heartbeat and she recalled their current situation. “General Frelka is certainly fond of making one wait. What about you, Jaesa? Are only children common in the Republic?”

“I’m not sure - perhaps a bit moreso, because we don’t have the same… considerations. But my parents always told me they were perfectly content to stop after me, because I was precisely what they wanted.” She hesitated. “I also think they were wary of bringing too many children into servitude with them.”

Mara sobered. “I’m sorry, that must have been a difficult decision.”

“Perhaps it was, but I have no complaints. I never felt anything other than love. It made for a wonderful childhood despite our status. And it made joining the Jedi harder.” Jaesa’s brown eyes locked with hers. “I’m glad we get to be a family again.”

“As am I,” Mara replied. Something tingled in the back of her mind - a warning. As it did so, Jaesa also perked up. “I do believe we’re about to have company.”

***

Frelka was, all things considered, an easy target, and it wasn’t difficult to dispatch him and his guard, and detonate the mine computer to protect the data they’d plundered. Back at the base, Moff Hurdenn’s dark eyes took on an enterprising glint as they described the Siantide data until Mara resolved to keep the datastick in their own custody until they could get it to analysts who weren’t quite so self-serving. At length, Mara, her crew, and Pierce convened in a conference room to plan.

“I’ve got a bead on General Minst, thanks to your twi’lek friend here,” Pierce rumbled. “He’s holed up in an old nuclear power facility. It’s perfect, really, the background radiation of the reactor masks anything they’re doing unless it’s big, and no one’s gonna happen upon them.”

“And Durant and Faraire?”

“Still working, but we got a break on Durant - the intel grunts are analyzing comm chatter and figure Durant’s on the move; it won’t be long before we pin him down.”

“Understood.” Mara leaned back in her chair, considering. “What are we likely to face at the reactor hideout?”

“Comparable resistance to what you took out in the mines,” Pierce said before Malavai could open his mouth.

“Let’s run this light, then. Jaesa, Vette, stay with Pierce and help with the search. Lieutenant, if you have actionable intel, you’ve my blessing to act on it. Take my apprentice with you. But,” she held up a hand as Pierce began to grin, “be warned, Lieutenant, that if you waste lives on what turned out to be a hunch, we will have words, do you understand?”

“Noted, m’lord.” The words came out as a growl, but it was the sort of anger that fueled one’s drive to excel, not the sulk of a soldier angry an early failure had consequences. Mara nodded approvingly.

“Good.” She turned to Malavai and flashed a smile. “Shall we go take our second general of the day?”

“We’re past local midnight, my lord,” Malavai corrected, the dry smile in his voice proof he was teasing her, and taking a rather large amount of pleasure in being able to do so in front of the crew without their understanding. “But yes, I am at your disposal as always.”

***

“This could have gone better,” Mara shouted as they ran through the reactor facility, making a beeline for the building’s only fallout shelter. “Remind me to hit General Minst extra hard when we get to him.”

“If we don’t get that door open in the next three minutes, it won’t matter,” Quinn called back, hand flashing to his ear as he reactivated his comm. “Vette, I need you to talk me through slicing the door on the facility’s fallout shelter.”

“What? What the hell-“

“We have two minutes and forty-five seconds. Less speculation, more instruction, please,” Mara interrupted.

“Right, shit.” Vette’s voice had gone tight, and Mara heard the whoosh of air on the other end that was the Twi’lek inhaling and exhaling to steady herself. “Give me a visual.”

They skidded to a halt before a data terminal outside a massive durasteel door. If it were up to standard, it would be thicker than her body was wide, and reinforced at multiple points to absorb not only the blast but radiation as well.

Malavai shot her a look as he activated his holo and trained it on the terminal. His sense seemed to reach out to her, an emotional caress filled with worry and that same familiar warmth from earlier.

Before she’d even finished identifying it, that squall of emotion seemed to batten down and he turned to the terminal. Mara tried not to pace behind him, feeling ridiculously useless as his hands flew over the keys, his voice and Vette’s trading queries and answers that might as well have been a different language for how much she understood. Two minutes left.

The muscles in her shoulders knotted. Dying on its own wasn’t a huge fear for her; she’d die in battle, her captain by her side. But dying before-

A flash in the Force, a warning burning across her awareness, and she leapt between her captain and the adjacent corridor in time to catch a heavy blasterbolt against her shield. Three Republic soldiers advanced on them.

Idiots, we don’t even have the door open yet. Well, she’d wanted something to do.

“Keep working,” she muttered, igniting her blade.

Without waiting for them to fire again, she grabbed one soldier in a Force grip and hurled him across the room, smiling at the satisfying crunch when he collided with the duracrete wall. She parried another shot with her lightsaber and leapt, gathering the force around her as she landed, stunning both remaining troopers. Seconds later, and it was over.

Vette had fallen silent in her ear, having apparently imparted every bit of slicing expertise she could for this situation. Malavai seemed to be progressing, but-

One minute left.

Fuck this.

“Malavai,” she said, trying to keep her voice from shaking. Saying the words were an admission he could fail, she didn’t want to impart that, but- “If- if there’s something you need to say to me, now may be the only chance we get.”

His shock was a tangible thing, quickly suppressed as he shot a glance at her, mouth working as if he were trying to figure out how to answer.

“I believe you know how I feel about you, my lord. I’m not sure this is- got it.”

The lock on the door began to cycle.

“How long is that going to take?” she snapped into her comm.

We’re facing death and that is all I get?

“Forty seconds, give or take,” Vette said, almost too soft to be heard over the claxons sounding around them as the reactor core began to melt down.

“Give or take how much?” Malavai demanded. “We have exactly thirty seconds left as of… now .”

“I don’t know, I’m not familiar with this specific system,” Vette snapped, panic spreading into her voice. “Mara can you do anything to-“

“-To contain a reactor core explosion with my bare hands?” Mara demanded. Vette didn’t answer.

Still, Mara scanned their immediate surroundings. This part of the corridor dead ended at the fallout shelter, with the corridor to her left they’d been attacked from, which led out, and a right-hand bend in the corridor a good twenty meters away, that led back to the core.

Twenty seconds.

They could run, take the exit corridor and hope to get far enough that whatever shielding she was capable of would hold.

There was the data terminal itself, she could rip it from the wall and use is a a shield, if they pressed into that inlet next to the corridor opening. It would absorb something . Though it would probably just melt and add to their immediate danger.

Ten seconds.

The door clicked. Her eyes flew to it. A second click, and the rumble of machinery. The door inched open.

Somewhere deep below them, something exploded.

Just as the shockwave rippled the floor beneath their feet, Mara grabbed Malavai’s arm and dove through the narrow opening, not waiting for the door to complete its cycling. They hit the floor with a thud, and Mara raised her hand and pulled with the Force.

The door shuddered to a stop and screeched as the opening mechanism fought her hold. It was all she could do to keep the door from lumbering open completely, as the mechanism wanted to do. It wasn’t designed to open part-way and close before completing the motion.

A second explosion, this one closer, tossed her half a meter to the side.

Behind her, Malavai swore. His voice was drowned out by the roar of blood in her ears as she reached out with all she had, opening herself to the Force as much as she could, feeling its freezing torrent rage over her mind and into her body, filling her until her head throbbed. Clenching her hands into fists, she pulled again.

The door shifted downward a centimeter.

The far end of the corridor began to glow, and the duracrete outside the fallout shelter buckled.

Fucking, Force-cursed, piece of shit .

She screamed and yanked as hard as she could, leaning back in an awkward physical approximation of what her mind was trying to do, yanking and pulling as, bit by bit, the door jerked closed. A flash of heat hissed through what remained of the opening and pain exploded behind her eyes.

There was hardly a thud when the door kissed the duracrete. She held it closed as the chamber shook and rumbled with the explosion outside, until the resistance disappeared and she cautiously relaxed her grip.

“My lord.” Malavai’s voice was thick with worry as he eased her to a sitting position and crouched before her. Mara licked her lips, eyes widening at the salty metal taste of her own blood. When had her nose started bleeding? “Look at me,” he commanded.

She obeyed, and as amber met blue her annoyance flashed back to life. “I’ll be alright, Captain. It was an overexertion, nothing more.” Gods, her head hurt.

“Overexertion can cause bigger problems if left unchecked,” he chided her, running his thumb over her upper lip. He paused, but the newly-clean skin remained dry; apparently the bleeding had stopped almost as soon as she’d released the Force.

“If you think I’d allow either of us to die to avoid a conversation, Captain, you don’t know me nearly as well as you think.”

“For the Emperor’s sake, my lord, I-”

“What the fucking hell were you thinking?” a Republic-accented voice demanded. As one Mara and Malavai turned to lock eyes with a Rodian in battle armor that bore a general’s insignia. Behind him, a Human man in battledress. Neither had drawn a weapon; the Human’s eyes were wide, jaw slack with shock, and the Rodian simmered with the sort of outrage that came when a child tracked mud on an expensive rug. “You could have killed us all with that stunt!”

“General Minst, I presume?”

“Damn right, Sith. I guess my decoy had less backbone than I thought. I should have-”

Three rapid stun blasts, one for the Human, two for Minst, accounting for his armor. Both dropped unceremoniously to the floor.

Mara’s eyes flew downward in shock to see Malavai’s blaster between them. Their bodies and his field pack had concealed the blaster until he was ready to draw.

A thrill ran through her body when she looked up to see his blue eyes had gone sharp and cold, one corner of his lips tugged slightly upward in a smirk she was certain no one noticed but her. Suddenly the pain in her head seemed immaterial. “You know you can’t just shoot people to distract from uncomfortable discussions, yes?”

“I can when it’s mission-critical,” he countered, shoving the blaster back into its holster and retrieving his medscanner. “Now hold still.”

“Yes, Captain.”

He rolled his eyes fondly at her purring tone and kept working.

“If they were using the reactor’s radiation to activate the Siantide, General Minst is going to be a very valuable prisoner indeed,” she continued, re-focusing on the business at hand.

“Yes, I imagine in the hands of a proper interrogator, he could help us re-create the project in its entirety.” The reference to Lieutenant Pierce was only nominally veiled.

“Angry you have to share your sandbox, darling?” Mara teased.

“I shall attribute that question to exhaustion, my lord,” he replied primly, pressing a hypospray to her neck that, with a hiss, dispelled her headache entirely.

“Otherwise he’d have to admit that, yes, he’s very pouty about it,” Vette’s voice said over their comms.

Vette !” Malavai glared up at the ceiling, as if she could see him.

“Look, I thought you guys died and where else am I going to find someone with such thin skin? Let me have this.”

“I will not .”

“So, good news: the explosion just scrambled your signal temporarily, it didn’t fry your comms. Even better news: I kept the channel private while I figured out what happened to you, so the snarly lieutenant doesn’t know you said that.”

Mara placed a hand on Malavai’s arm, and he snapped his mouth shut around whatever retort he’d prepared.

“Send a squad to our position, Vette. There will be two prisoners, cuffed and probably unconscious, for pickup. They’re to be treated well - I want General Minst to find unexpected salvation and warmth in the bosom of the Empire, and to spill his secrets accordingly.”

“Got it. Relatedly, Jaese and Pierce are on the move to intercept General Durant. Patching you through now.”

Chapter Text

“I hope Lieutenant Pierce is as good as he boasts,” Malavai growled into her ear as she drove their speeder at breakneck speed across the Taris ruins.

“They’re… not fine, exactly,” Mara replied, taking her attention off the landscape long enough to focus on the still-nebulous knot in her mind that was her apprentice. “Under pressure, but not in dire need. Not yet, anyway. Hurdenn’s forces must be providing adequate distraction.”

“It was smart of you to use the moff’s blunder to our advantage.”

If Hurdenn’s blind, all-out attack on a facility housing an unknown and potentially unstable power source had cost them their shot at General Durant… “He’s lucky his mistake was something we could make use of,” Mara replied tartly. “You think I was too hard on him?”

“Not at all; on the contrary, you were far more measured than Darth Baras would have been, I think.”

There was approval in his sense. Mara smiled. Securing Malavai’s good opinion hadn’t been the reason for the tact she took with Hurdenn, but it was a pleasant side benefit. Any reply she had, however, was curtailed as they encountered the outer line of Hurdenn’s forces.

“Report,” Mara barked as she hopped off the speeder, Malavai a respectful step behind her.

“We’re monitoring heavy resistance within the facility my lord,” a woman in a Sergeant’s insignia replied with a crisp salute.

“That matches my last communication from my apprentice, thank you. Any fix on their location?”

“Yes, my lord. Sending you coordinates now. We’ve got a hole in their automated defenses ready for you.”

“Captain Quinn and I are going in. Continue your bombardment for another twenty minutes to cover our insertion, then you are to withdraw to base.”

“Ready to hunt, Captain?”

Malavai gave her a sharp nod. “Always, my lord.”

 

“I’ve lost a third of my men,” Pierce’s voice rasped through Quinn’s comm. “Would have been more if not for your apprentice, but there’s only so much one Sith can do. We’re still outnumbered, got ‘em at a choke, so they can’t overrun us. We’ll hold out as long as we can.”

“If you’re dead when we get there, Lieutenant, I will be extremely cross,” Mara replied, her words punctuated with a short arc of her lightsaber, slicing a Republic soldier in half.

“I’ll do what I can, m’lord.”

A slight pause as Quinn felled their last attacker, and she gave him a worried look. “We need to get to them.”

“Coordinates should be only about thirty meters further into the facility.”

The corridors were oddly empty as they hurried toward Pierce’s position. More than that, Quinn was shocked at how close they were to the innermost ring of the base; the squadron had gotten nearly to the general’s doorstep.

They skidded round a corner and something unseen yanked Quinn to the ground just as two laser cannon blasts slammed into the wall where his head would have been, sending debris flying. He coughed and looked up in time to see Mara land on the gunner’s position, her blade arcing through the soldier and the gun together. Across the hall, and a bit further on, a second canon, which had been pointed toward Pierce’s coordinates, swiveled toward her when its operator noticed the Sith carving up their back line.

Quinn sighted along his blaster and fired. The first shot flared in the gunner’s throat; the next three slagged the canon in a shower of sparks. He was pacing Mara, now, the two of them cutting through the remaining resistance until they found the chokepoint Pierce had referenced. The place was littered with bodies, mostly Republic, and through the hallway, as the smoke of tabanna gas cleared, another handful of dead, all Imperial. Lieutenant Pierce and three Black Ops soldiers were all that remained of the original squadron.

Pierce’s helmet was in the dirt next to him, a trickle of blood running out of the complicated pattern of his thick brown hair. He glared at the Sith Apprentice as she fussed over him.

Mara’s amber eyes took on a glow as they entered the relative darkness of the room.

“Good to know you don’t fuck around, Lieutenant Pierce,” she said, admiration in her voice. “You’re all to be commended.”

“Thank you, m’lord,” Pierce gritted.

“He needs kolto,” Apprentice Willsaam said, standing. “The cut seems fairly deep.”

“Our medic’s dead,” Pierce said, a shadow of something passing through his brown eyes before glaring again. “I’ll be fine.”

“Stand down, Lieutenant,” Quinn said, stepping forward without hesitation as professionalism overrode his dislike for the man. “I can treat your head wound.”

“I’m. Fine.”

“As Lord Thrask’s medical officer, I’m fully within my right to order you to shut up and accept medical treatment. Lieutenant.”

He was fairly certain the man would have slid a vibroknife between his ribs if Lord Thrask hadn’t been in the room, but he held still as Quinn cleaned the cut on his head and packed it with kolto. A subsequent scan revealed the lieutenant was a mass of bruises and suffering from deep exhaustion.

“Jaesa, get these men back to base. We’ll take it from here,” Mara ordered when Quinn gave his prognosis.

Pierce shoved Quinn out of the way as he levered himself to his feet. “Honored to have ushered you to the door, m’lord,” he said with a smart salute. “I can send my remaining men so you’re not unguarded.”

Quinn stiffened, mind struggling to construct an adequate retort, but Mara stepped in.

“I suggest, Lieutenant, you take care insulting my crew, obliquely or otherwise, and see to the health of what remains of your squadron. Are we clear?”

***

“Oh, you’re too kind, Sith.” The gaunt, leathery man who could only be General Durant radiated a smug superiority that left Quinn wanting to drive his blaster through the man’s teeth. “I worried we’d have to go looking for you.”

“I’d no idea you were so eager to die, General Durant,” Mara replied coolly. “You must know you can’t beat me in a fight.”

She slowed to a stop several meters away from Durant. Quinn was another meter behind and to her right, gaze trained on the two lackeys who accompanied the Republic general, who laughed outright in response to the Sith’s words.

“The goal was never to beat you.” The words were bitter, spat like so much poison. “We needed time to stabilize the Siantide. Our colleagues did their jobs well.” A flash of sadness shadowed Durant’s face for a moment before anger tightened his jaw and he drew his blaster. “Now beating you is an unexpected side benefit.”

Quinn drew his own weapon, then jerked in surprise when Mara yelled his given name.

Durant fired.

She seemed to materialize in front of him, her shield up and activated. There was a sharp pew as the blasterbolt collided with the energy field, then the characteristic pop-hiss of overloaded circuitry and the shield blinked out of existence.

Before his mind could process the near miss, Quinn squeezed the trigger.

Durant howled and dropped the blaster, shaking his ruined hand. Mara leaped forward, her lightsaber flashing toward the soldier on her right as Quinn dropped the other with three holes in his chest.  

She drove her fist into Durant’s throat. The choked gasp reached Quinn along with the crunch of his knee shattering under her boot, and then he was on the ground, struggling for breath and glaring daggers, defiant to the last.

Mara’s lightsaber dropped neatly into her hand. To Quinn’s surprise, she closed down the weapon and instead retrieved the discarded blaster.

“I’m sure General Minst will make good use of this prototype once he’s been sufficiently integrated into Imperial society.” A pause, and her lips curved in that terrifying smile that always left Quinn’s throat dry. “But take heart, General Durant: you and General Faraire still get to experience the fruits of your labor.”

The prototype barked a second time.

The modified blaster wasn’t turbolaser grade as boasted, but it was stronger than the laser cannons they’d faced on their way into the facility. The visual proof of its potency was something he could have done without, he decided as he turned away and sternly forced down the bile that rose in his throat.

A gentle hand on his back helped soothe his insides.

“Are you alright?” Mara asked.

Quinn frowned and turned to face her; the question had been shaky, as was her hand.

“Yes. Are you?”

“Disgusted, is all.” With exaggerated care, she engaged the blaster’s safety and removed the Siantide pack. “Who needs to carry that much firepower on them?”

“Gutless Republic dogs?” Quinn ventured lightly.

Her face remained somber. “Perhaps. If I hadn’t gotten to you in time-”

Ah. “But you did,” he interrupted gently. “And if you hadn’t,” he hesitated, “I’d rather die here at your side than live out the rest of my life on Balmorra.”

“Those can’t be the only options.” Her glare and the stubborn set of her jaw brought to mind her words from the fallout shelter: If you think I’d allow either of us to die to avoid a conversation…

Initially the invitation to share his feelings had been a surprise, and not simply because of the setting. But meeting her gaze, seeing her worry along with the annoyance, he realized with a start she was trying to initiate a dialog rather than a one-ended confession. It took him a few moments to recover his voice, first to process what that meant, and then to gather his courage to keep their attention where it was needed right now.

“Darling, this isn’t the time.” His voice was quiet but firm.

“No, of course not.” She said with forced brusqueness. She opened her mouth to continue, but the beeping of her comm cut her off.

“Lieutenant Pierce has briefed me,” Baras’s voice rumbled.

“Master,” she replied dryly. “Checking up on me again?”

“I was curious about your progress. Lieutenant Pierce and Moff Hurdenn have been quite complimentary. Is Durant dealt with?”

“Just now, Master.”

“Good. And we’ve found General Faraire, but he’s pulled what remains of the Republic’s forces on Taris to his position to defend against any attempted incursion. Moff Hurdenn’s forces are yours, Apprentice, to lead against the general. Captain Quinn?”

“Yes, my lord?”

“You will plan the assault.”

“I- Of course, my lord.”

“Pierce and Hurdenn have instructions to make any and all intelligence and analysts available to you, Captain. Apprentice, proceed to the forward base set up at these coordinates.”

***

Baras was true to his word. Hours later, Quinn sat in a barracks pouring over mountains of data. The planning had begun in Hurdenn’s wardroom with the moff, Pierce, Mara, and a number of analysts, before Quinn had sent everyone to bed. The plan called for him to remain on base during the attack, to coordinate at least three different assaults while the others went into the field, and so his sleep needs were the least intense.

Mara had accompanied him to his barracks under the guise of finalizing their plan, but had only protested slightly when he ordered her into the room’s only bunk. It reminded him of those frenzied days on Balmorra, him finalizing their strategy while she rested for the battle to come.

“Malavai?”

He hummed in response, turning to see her lying on her side, amber eyes keen on him.

“Do you know what Balmorra was like before the war?”

He smiled. “I was thinking about the Arms Factory, too.” He paused, recalling everything he’d read about the planet. “It was always an industrial planet.”

“But it had civilization, culture. Sobrik was a thriving city, was it not?”

“Yes,” he said slowly. “I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking.”

“I wonder what we might have preserved, if we’d caught on to the Republic’s antics sooner.” She met his gaze again. “If we’d proactively crushed them, rather than escalating in response every time they did.”

“I wish we’d have done so,” he answered honestly. “It was a failure on our behalf not to anticipate their tactics.”

“Exactly. And now… the planet is nothing aside from its manufacturing capabilities. Who would want to live in the smoking ruin that’s left?”

“I’m not sure anyone would want to live there at all,” he countered. “But I take your point.”

A yawn nearly split her face in two, and he walked the three steps between the datastation and the bunk to run his fingers through her hair. “You should sleep, darling.”

You should sleep. I’ve gotten three hours already, and we report in two.”

The plan was largely done; the few details he needed to hammer out would be dependent upon scouting reports received in the morning anyway.

“Is that an order, my lord?”

She shifted until her back was against the wall, opening just enough space for him on the single bunk. “Think of it as an invitation.”

He smiled and slipped under the covers. With her draped over him, head nestled on his chest, sleep found him easily. He surfaced sometime later when she wriggled over him and grabbed her boots, dropping a kiss into his hair before slipping quietly out the door. Her leaving wasn’t precisely a surprise; there was still some sense of decorum to maintain, he thought as he drifted back off.

What was surprising was the news when he arrived in Hurdenn’s wardroom.

“Minst is dead.” Her amber eyes flashed dangerously.

“What?”

“Suicide. He had some sort of poison concealed in his armor. He was found dead in his cell.”

Quinn blinked, trying to process the information. Project Siantide wasn’t necessary to prove the Empire’s ultimate supremacy in the galaxy,  given the technology were taken away from the Republic, but it certainly would have been useful. “How could this happen? Do- what about the prototype?”

“Moff Hurdenn is investigating how we missed the substance, but yes, we still have the prototype.”

Hurdenn’s eyes were narrowed, mustache turned down in a brooding frown. “We will get to the bottom of this, Captain, rest assured.” The wardroom door opened and Pierce stepped into the room. “For now, I believe we have an operation to initiate.”

 

Mara felt her muscles loosen as Malavai nodded and turned to the holo table to prepare his briefing. She wasn’t sure how much of his questioning Hurdenn would be able to endure before spilling the truth. She hated lying to him, but the fewer who knew about Siantide’s ultimate fate, the better for the galaxy.

Jaesa and Vette entered last, both doing an admirable job of acting completely nonchalant. Good girls , she thought.

“Captain, we’re ready.”

“The situation is fairly complex,” he began, “but-”

“Durant’s got a huge force at his disposal. We’re outnumbered ten to one, and we’re facing multiple layers of automated defenses and potential reinforcements from the spaceport.”

The smug grin Pierce tossed in Malavai’s direction had to be grounds for court martial. Malavai’s answering frown was wholly perplexed, as if he couldn’t understand how Pierce functioned in such a state of imprecision.

“The lieutenant’s statistics are inexact, but the general thrust is sound.”

That perplexed glare and the seething over-enunciation triggered something impish in her, and Mara felt herself give an amused smile. “Is something wrong, Captain?”

Blue eyes flashed to her face in a glare that other Sith may have found insubordinate. You’re not the only one who can tease in public , dearest.

“Not at all, my lord. I’m sure just responding to the lieutenant’s… enthusiasm.”

“Of course,” she said, keeping her voice and face neutral only by her full force of will. “Please continue, Captain Quinn.”

The assault was to be a three-pronged attack: Disabling the Republic base’s power station, cutting off reinforcements from the spaceport, and of course the direct frontal assault led by Mara herself. She found herself impressed as Malavai detailed each prong and suggested crew assignments.

“Vette should definitely be on slicing and traps duty,” Mara agreed.

The Twi’lek grinned. “It’ll be just like Alderaan, except you’d better not get shot this time.”

“I have to keep you on your toes somehow,” Mara replied, shifting her attention back to Malavai. “What do you suggest for the frontal assault?”

“Take me,” Pierce interjected. “You’ll need some muscle out there.”

To his credit, Malavai ignored the thinly-veiled barb. “I disagree. You’ll be outnumbered, as the lieutenant has mentioned, as much as ten to one, my lord. You need to undercut their defense if you’re to puncture it.” His eyes fell on Jaesa. “Two Sith will be more intimidating than one, and Apprentice Willsaam can use her talents for reading people to identify and exploit the weakest parts of the enemy’s deployment.”

Mara cocked her head, surprised. Was he just that disdainful of Pierce’s abilities, or had Jaesa managed to impress him during their early missions on Taris? Either way, she agreed with him, and said as much.

“Pierce, take a team to the spaceport,” she said. “Once you’ve got the reinforcements cut off, I have full faith in your ability to drive them off Taris completely.”

“Thank you, m’lord.” He was disappointed, but still excited to take the fight to the enemy. She nodded.

“We all have our assignments. Once our comms are in place, we’ll go.”

“My lord, may I speak with you confidentially?”

She nodded, tensing, and followed Malavai to a small anteroom off the main wardroom.

“I know there’s a conversation you’ve been hoping to have,” he said quietly. “And that my reluctance has been vexing to you.”

Mara laughed, a nervous sound, as her body relaxed in the knowledge he wasn’t going to ask her about General Minst. “Yes.” She hesitated. “The close call we had yesterday, I- would regret if you didn’t know-”

“I know,” he interjected, blue eyes piercing hers. “And I agree. But when we have that discussion, I want it to be clear that my feelings are mine, and not the product of adrenaline and duress.”

She let out a shaky breath, feeling herself lean toward him, a ridiculous smile tugging her lips. “I understand.”

His eyes shifted as he gave a quick look around and, apparently satisfied that they were reasonably isolated, cradled her face in both hands and kissed her gently.

“Get this done and come back to me so we can talk properly,” he said when he pulled back, his thumbs stroking her cheeks.

“This is blatant manipulation, Malavai.”

“Is it truly manipulation if it’s so blatant?” he countered with a smile.

“Or if I enjoy it so much?” she added. “You won’t be rid of me so easily.”

“I thought as much.” He released her and they returned to the main wardroom. “I’ll coordinate the assault from here, my lord. Good hunting.”

Just outside the wardroom, Mara took Vette and Jaesa aside.

“Is Captain Stuffy suspicious?” Vette asked without preamble.

“Of course; it’s rare for prisoners to manage to die in custody before we want them to,” Mara whispered in reply. “Fortunately, Pierce’s early misstep sets a precedent, and I’ve put enough fear of embarrassment into Moff Hurdenn that he won’t argue with whatever public story I put out.”

“I really don’t like throwing our weight around like this,” Jaesa put in. “I know General Minst spearheaded this and he was wrong, but this coverup feels….”

Mara grimaced. “I know. If I’d truly understood what Siantide could do when we were in that mine, I’d have purged it entirely and we’d not have to contain it now.”

“At least we’re keeping it from getting worse,” Vette replied. “I finished those tasks you gave me, by the way. And here.” She pressed a device into Mara’s hands. “This’ll send out an EMP. Use it on any non-blaster devices powered by that stuff; it’ll be up to you to make it look like the Siantide failed, though.”

“Got it.” She placed the device into a pocket on her utility belt and fished out her earpiece. “Let’s do this, shall we?”

***

“What the- they said it was stable!”

The man’s voice was shrill, carrying easily to Quinn through the blast door Vette was diligently slicing. Behind her, two Imperial Technicians watched over her shoulder, occasionally murmuring between themselves, a combination of tight jaws and wide eyes conveying a grudging respect for the Twi’lek’s skills. They could have gotten through the door eventually, but Quinn knew Vette’s average was half that of Army Technicians, making her the preferable choice for the job.

“Did they?” Mara’s voice was bored. “I suppose Republic engineering remains as it’s ever been.”

“Project Siantide may be worthless, but if you think this is the only thing we were researching, you’re an even bigger idiot brute than you look like.”

There was a click as the lock mechanism released. Quinn allowed himself an internal smile.

The general’s voice dropped from shrilly shocked to confident, predatory. “I look forward to testing those other projects against you, Sith.”

Quinn looked across the hall to Lieutenant Pierce, hand raised to give the go signal-

The door released before Pierce bothered to look across for confirmation. Quinn bit back a curse, blaster flashing up to ready, glowering at the infuriating smirk the younger man sent his way, before turning his attention to General Faraire, who’d skidded to a stop, mouth open in shock.

“I thought you might try to run, General,” he said, allowing himself a smirk. “Lieutenant, arrest General Faraire and turn him over to military police.”

“With pleasure,” Pierce growled.

“Why, Captain Quinn,” Mara purred, and Quinn’s throat immediately lost all moisture, “what a pleasant surprise.”

“I’d not leave you without backup, my lord,” he replied, fighting down a blush.

“Perish the thought.” Her amber eyes shifted from Quinn to Hurdenn, who followed their main force into the cargo area Faraire had tried to escape. “Moff Hurdenn, I’m sorry to report that Project Siantide seems a failure. This droid lost all power perhaps two minutes into the fight. Something about the Siantide power cells released an electromagnetic pulse that disabled it entirely. Based on its performance, I’d surmise the blaster prototype will similarly give out after only a handful of shots.”

“You’d be correct on that front, my lord; I was in touch with my engineers before accompanying your captain, and you are correct. Even in its most stable form, the Siantide is unpredictable, and therefore unsuited to battlefield use.”

Quinn felt his heart sink. “Is there nothing that can be done? The research was quite promising.”

“As of now, no,” Hurdenn replied. His gaze fell on Faraire who glared back. “But I imagine we’re about to have access to a full catalog of Republic weapons research that we can test on our own.”

“Please do make sure he does not follow Minst,” Mara reminded him.

“Of course; new precaution will be taken.” To the MP who stood next to Faraire, Hurdenn snapped, “Take him back to base. I’ll join you shortly. My lord,” his attention returned to Mara, “it has been an honor to assist you on this mission. If you’ll take him, I would happily place Lieutenant Pierce in your command. He has always been an excellent officer for me, and I know he’ll serve you well.”

Oh, bloody hell . Visions of the contents of their armory strewn across the cargo hold, minor explosions damaging the ship’s interior, danced through Quinn’s mind.

“You’re a capable soldier, Lieutenant, and I could use an expert in heavier munitions. Unless you object, I’ll authorize your transfer effective immediately.”

Pierce grinned. “Finally, get to see some real action.”

“It’s settled then,” Hurdenn said. “I’ll submit the paperwork as soon as I’m back to base.”

Quinn drew himself up to his full height - which was still a hand span shorter than the lieutenant, but bearing was more important than brawn - and stepped forward.

“At attention, Lieutenant,” he snapped. The lout hesitated half a second, sending a glance in Mara’s direction, clearly questioning the order. The Sith, to her extreme credit, did nothing to countermand Quinn, and so Pierce obeyed. “Fall in. You will accompany me to the ship, and I will brief you on how Lord Thrask’s command functions.”

The smug grin faded and Pierce’s posture drooped ever so slightly. Quinn fought back a satisfied smile. That’s right, you oaf, welcome to a command with standards.

“Can’t… wait.”

“Taking bets now as to how long before Mara has to break up a fight,” Vette said.

“I hope for both of their sakes, it is a very long time.” The warning in Mara’s voice was clear.

Quinn hoped Pierce was listening.

***

Hours later, refueled and fully stocked, the Fury streaked through hyperspace toward Dromund Kaas. Mara stood in her fresher, wrapped in a towel and cleaned of the day’s battle grime. Through the open door, she could see Malavai lounging on their bed, one arm tucked over his head, the other holding a datapad he frowned at in concentration.

“Difficult reading?” she asked, picking up a hairbrush.

“Lieutenant Pierce’s file,” he replied without looking up.

“Ah. Have you worked with soldiers like him before?”

“I know the type; performs well in the field, but can’t square a sheet to save his life. All he needs is discipline; Moff Hurdenn was shockingly lax.”

“I see.”

A pause, and in her peripheral vision she saw his head move as he looked up. “You disagree?”

“I suspect Lieutenant Pierce has seen quite a lot of discipline in his career.”

A flash of annoyance and he laid aside the datapad. “You think I should relax my standards.”

“I think the lieutenant will exceed your standards if handled correctly,” she countered.

He raised a dark brow. “And how, precisely, would you handle him?”

“Pierce needs a certain amount of latitude, within limits of course.”

“Ah, offering false choices, as one does with a toddler.”

Mara sighed ruefully and put her brush away. “I would highly suggest not phrasing it that way outside this room if you want favorable results, Malavai. Pierce did excellent work for us on Taris; Hurdenn has many faults but getting Pierce to bring his best to the table was not one of them.”

“I shall take it under advisement,” he said.

“That’s all I ask.” For now . If their pissing contest got out of hand, she’d have to insist, but for now she’d see where this went. She felt Malavai’s attention on her intensify as she removed the towel and crossed to the wardrobe, taking perhaps longer than strictly necessary. She glanced over her shoulder as she reached for a dressing gown. “I must say, dearest, you always give me the best surprises. I rather enjoyed your unexpected appearance today.”

“I’m alway surprised by how my contingency planning seems to excite you.” His cheeks dusted pink with a blush, but there was pleasure in his blue eyes when they met hers.

“Then please, excite me further.” Her hands found the inky blue silk of the dressing gown Malavai purchased for her during his stay in Kaas City. She had yet to wear it, but he’d blushed so furiously upon presenting it to her she knew it had to reveal at least as much as it concealed.  “How many contingencies were there today?”

“I’m sorry?” His desire was like a space heater in the room with them, slowly building. With a tiny smile she slipped the gown over her head and settled it over her curves.

She wasn’t disappointed; the gown barely covered her backside, and the plunging neckline only just managed to hold her cleavage in place. That he’d clearly entertained some rather scandalous thoughts of her wearing the garment was almost as enticing as feeling his eyes on her now. She turned to face him.

“Your intellect is incredibly sexy, Malavai. Regale me.”

“Ah-“ he swallowed and visibly pulled himself together as she slipped into bed next to him. “There were four. The first assumed all three assaults succeeded, and ended as you saw today.”

She hummed in acknowledgement and settled between his legs, her body perpendicular to his, and snuggled against his chest contentedly.

“The others- darling, this is quite unfair.”

She looked up to meet his gaze innocently. “And the others?”

She felt him take a breath, one arm sliding around her as if to ground himself. “One assumed Pierce failed and Vette succeeded, another assumed the reverse, and the last assumed they both failed.”

“No contingencies for my failure?”

“No.”

“Liar.” She smiled and stroked his cheek. “If you didn’t plan for all contingencies no matter how uncomfortable, you wouldn’t be the man I fell in love with.”

“Mara, I-“ he froze, looking so perplexed she couldn’t help chuckling at him. “You-

“I love you, Malavai,” she repeated, the words inspiring a ridiculous smile she couldn’t have fought if she wanted to. “Surely you suspected; I’ve not precisely been subtle.”

“I did, only hearing you say the words,” he shook his head, bemused. “I can’t fathom how I was so fortunate as to earn your love.”

“You did so rather expertly,” she replied. “My love for you isn’t happenstance, Malavai; I love everything about you. I love how meticulously you approach everything you do, and how you know every uniform regulation by heart, and how this one bit of hair sticks up no matter what.” She ran her fingers through his hair until it matched his cowlick for unruliness.

He laughed. “I fear it sounds rather trite in response to your declaration, but,” one hand cradled her cheek gently and he looked into her eyes as if she were the most precious thing in the galaxy, “I love you as well. I never thought- I think I’ve loved you for months now and was too blind to see it.”

“Malavai,” she whispered. Speaking any louder felt impossible with how her heart swelled in her chest. “It’s not trite at all; I could listen to say those words for years.”

“I think we can arrange for that.”

Chapter Text

The holo screeched an incoming communication, yanking Mara upright and into consciousness. What unholy racket - sleep fled entirely as she recognized it as a tone used for extremely urgent, extremely encrypted, communications.

Malavai, predictably two heartbeats ahead of her, was fully awake and standing at her datastation. As she rose from the bed, Darth Baras’s one-quarter holo materialized. “Captain Quinn. Wake my apprentice; I would speak to her immediately.”

“I’m here, Master,” Mara said, stepping into visual range. “What’s wrong?”

“My lords, I’ll give you privacy.” Malavai gave a slight bow of his head.

“That is not necessary, Captain,” Baras said. “I know there are no secrets between you and this saves the delay of communicating orders to you second-hand.”

Suddenly the setting and its implications snapped into focus; Malavai answering her private holofrequency, both of them dressed - thankfully dressed - for bed and sleep-tousled.

“And those orders, Master?” she asked, hanging onto calm by a thread and shifting to stand between Baras and her lover.

He gave a small laugh that sent a shiver down her spine. “Be at ease, Apprentice, I make no judgment of either of you. Given that I found out secondhand and your performance in the field has remained stable, I see your relationship has not clouded your professional obligations.” The mask moved between them slowly. “See that it continues to be so.”

“Yes, my lord,” Quinn said hastily with another sharp bow of his head.

“Of course,” Mara echoed, hoping Baras attributed any tremor in her voice to the static of their connection. “Master, you mentioned delay would be costly.”

“Yes, of course. Darth Vengean’s fleet was ambushed immediately upon exiting hyperspace. We received half a distress call before all communications were jammed, but we know one thing: the ship leading the Republic assault is commanded by Admiral Monk, a Republic war hero and perpetual thorn in our side, and he’s on the Plan Zero roster.”

“I presume part of my mission will be identifying the leak that allowed the mission timetable to slip into enemy hands.”

“It is not. Information has ways of getting to where we least want it to go. No, Apprentice, you will go to the coordinates contained in the briefing package I just sent, and ascertain the disposition of Darth Vengean’s fleet and kill Admiral Monk.”

Mara frowned. “Respectfully, Master, if there is a traitor on Vengean’s staff-“

“That is beyond your concern!” Baras snapped.  Suddenly he was the mercurial, unknown Darth who Mara had met on Korriban, when every one of those early missions was a potentially-fatal test and Baras seemed certain she lacked the mettle to endure his training. “You will keep your head down and follow my orders to the letter, else I may cut it off. Am I clear?”

“As crystal, Master.” She forced the words between clenched teeth.

“Contact me as soon as it’s done.”

She exhaled slowly when the image winked out. “He had to find out eventually.”

“Yes.”

Mara turned to find him staring at nothing, beautiful face carved from stone. “Malavai?”

He shook himself, features slowly regaining life, and met her gaze, blue eyes worried and determined. “You’re correct, of course. My apologies, I’m accustomed to a different level of discretion, when it comes to-“ he hesitated, blushing.

“To Sith,” she finished for him. Even she’d never been overly eager to share personal information with Baras; information was power, and Baras seemed to wield that power better than most. “Believe me, I understand.”

He nodded and squeezed her hand quickly before turning to the wardrobe to retrieve a uniform. Mara couldn’t help pausing to watch; he was fully dressed and buckling his blaster belt in just under a minute. “I will set a course for Darth Vengean’s coordinates and wake the crew, my lord.”

***

They dropped out of hyperspace into a complete shit storm, Quinn thought to himself, hands tightening on the Fury’s main control yoke.

Vengean had brought one Harrower group to begin the assault. The flagship, the Harrower-class dreadnaught Starhunter , and her two G-2A gunships were all that remained of the six-ship group. Fortunately, the small amount of debris in the area suggested the other three member ships had retreated rather than been destroyed.

No, it was the presence of Starhunter that worried him. It was the largest and best armed in the group; it and the gunships should have been enough to cover the smaller vessels’ retreat before jumping to hyperspace themselves. But it remained in a slow, uncontrolled portward list, power and shields only spottily available, and the gunships…. Well. Judging by the wreckage and the radiation surrounding each, they’d spent every life aboard covering the Harrower.

“Pierce get into a gunner’s tube now.”

“Yes, m’lord.” Pierce snapped to attention - at least she showed a modicum of proper decorum to their Sith commander - but he hesitated. “M’lord, I don’t have much training on turbolasers.”

“You’ll find the concept much the same as the workings of a 500-terrawatt stationary laser cannon, Lieutenant,” Quinn said, frowning with confusion of his own when Pierce glowered at him. He ignored him and turned to Mara. “Are you expecting trouble, my lord?”

Her eyes glowed golden in the low light of the bridge as she stared at the remains of the battle. “Yes. Everything about this feels wrong. Starhunter’s primary mission would have been getting Vengean to safety.” She shook herself. “Vette, take the other cannon emplacement, but do not charge them, for kriff’s sake. Not yet.” As Mara settled into the copilot’s seat Vette had vacated, she met Quinn’s gaze. “Hail Starhunter once we’re situated.”

Starhunter saved them the trouble. “Unidentified Interceptor, state your serial number and purpose.”

He complied. “We’re here under orders from Darth Baras to intercept and eliminate Admiral Monk, and render any aid we can to you. Request permission to board.”

“Darth Baras?” a new voice demanded. Suddenly the visual feed flashed to life, showing a slight man whose duty uniform bore a moff’s insignia. “How stupid do you think we are?”

They hesitated, Mara muting their end and throwing a questioning look at her apprentice.

“We’re too far away for me to read him completely,” Willsaam said slowly. “At least, beyond the obvious.”

Mara nodded slowly. “We’ll need to get you trained up on this ship’s systems. For now, strap in.” She turned back to the console and reactivated the comm. “This is Lord Maranel Thrask,” she said, her voice soothing. “I’m not sure I understand your question, Moff…?”

“Moff Masken, commander of Starhunter .”

“Moff Masken, I would speak to Darth Vengean, please.” Despite the pleasantry, her tone indicated it was an order, not a request.

“Oh, I’m so sorry to say, Darth Vengean isn’t here.”

“Not here?” she repeated. “You mean he successfully escaped and left you behind?”

Masken barked a laugh. “Your Republic lackeys fled the moment they realized their quarry escaped. So what, Baras sent you hoping we’d be stupid enough to disclose Vengean’s location to you?”

What in blazes…

“Moff Masken, I don’t want Vengean’s exact location.” Mara’s frown was a tangible thing in the room with them. “All I need know is whether he is safe. I have reason to believe there’s a traitor somewhere in this group; if they were aboard whatever ship Vengean left in-”

“How dare you insinuate my troops are traitors when your master orchestrated this massacre .”

“What?”

“Admiral Monk knew exactly where we’d exit hyperspace. He had my shield frequencies, my boarding codes, and a spike specially designed for Starhunter’s computer.” He spat. “We’ve only just begun to regain control of our systems. Vengean knew the moment we came under fire who did this.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. If you won’t accept our aid, that’s fine, but I am going after Admiral Monk.”

“You’ll find your precious Pub on Quesh. Or rather, you would if we were fool enough to let you go.” He looked to his left at someone out of holo range.

“My lord-” Quinn’s hands were already moving over the controls.

“Do it.”

He threw the yoke forward, sending the Fury into a steep dive the inertial dampeners couldn’t quite counter. His stomach leaped into his throat. Behind them, Jaesa gasped lightly.

“Lucky for us a Harrower’s tractorbeam is far less nimble than this ship,” Mara muttered. “Vette, Pierce, get those cannons active but do not fire unless ordered.”

Quinn barely heard the order; his concentration was on avoiding the Harrower’s tractor beam. Had Starhunter been running at peak performance, it would have been impossible, but her crew was clearly shifting from one beam generator to another manually, resulting in sluggish responses to his evasive flying.

“My lord, it’s entirely possible they worked to restore weapons before anything else.”

As if on cue, Starhunter’s turbolaser batteries opened fire.

“Stand down, Masken,” Mara growled into their comms. “That is a direct order.”

“I will not allow the Sith to throw Imperial lives away in your petty power struggles,” Masken retorted. “This ends now.”

She slapped the comm into dormancy. “We need to get aboard that ship and unravel what happened here. If Jaesa can identify the traitor we can clear this up and use them to get to Monk.”

Darth Baras wouldn’t go this far. Would he? Commander Rylon had been an Imperial spy who prosecuted an insurgency against Imperial forces on Balmorra as part of his cover, but that was a far cry from deliberately sending a member of the Council into an ambush.

Aloud, he said, “The plan is sound, my lord, unless the traitor indeed escaped with Darth Vengean.”

Silence reigned as he wove the Fury between laser blasts. He was about to prompt her when a direct hit slammed into their shields and the ship lurched violently, which seemed to focus her.

“We run. Get us a safe distance and take a different vector into Quesh so we can deal with Monk.”

Quinn moved to comply as Mara ordered Vette and Pierce back to the flight deck. She seemed almost relieved to vacate the copilot’s seat in favor of the the Twi’lek.

“Opening fire on a Sith vessel is treason, ain’t it?” Pierce asked as the ship’s hyperdrive hummed and starlines flared.

“It is indeed. Do you suggest we go back and take down a Harrower ourselves?” Mara countered.

“Well, no. I only thought, since the Pubs softened ‘em up-”

“I will not finish the Republic’s work for them, Lieutenant; enough Imperials died today without my wounded ego adding to the body count.”

Pierce nodded slowly and then, to Quinn’s shock, he snapped to attention. “My apologies, m’lord. Sith concerns are above my paygrade.”

Mara chuckled. “Apology accepted, Lieutenant Pierce. And don’t get too complacent about your paygrade; if Moff Masken’s allegations are true, that conflict is going to trickle down to all of us.”

She sobered as she said it. Quinn was sure the others wouldn’t see it - save for Vette, perhaps - but the set of her jaw, the way she clenched her hands behind her back. The encounter had shaken her.

***

Well this is certainly fitting , Mara groused internally as she stepped out of the shuttle’s shadow and found herself staring at a sky the color of an infected wound.

She turned back toward Malavai, the motion tugging on the reinforced synthleather armor that hugged her entire torso. It didn’t actually limit her movement, she was fairly certain, but she was so unaccustomed to having something there, the slight pressure of the material left her feeling like she should have a more limited range of motion.

Malavai had insisted on the full armor and the distinctly insectoid respirator that covered the lower half of her face. Originally the product of groundquakes, the rampant pollution on Quesh had only increased with the Republic’s attempts to distill the atmospheric toxins into something useful for high-end stims and adrenals, making a world that had already been supremely hostile to sentient life nearly unlivable.  

In short, Quesh was disgusting. Hutta seemed a pristine wilderness by comparison. But it fit her foul mood.

Today had not gone to plan in the slightest, and somewhere in this diseased landscape a Republic admiral was holed up with his soldiers and Imperial secrets. And for whatever reason, Moff Masken (and potentially Darth Vengean) thought her master was the leak.

“We’re ready, my lord,” Malavai’s voice said, staticy and hollow through his own respirator. He was in full battle rattle and helmet.

The remainder of the crew was on the orbital station, guarding the Fury in case Moff Masken managed to arrange for a welcoming committee.

She nodded an acknowledgement. “Let’s get this over with.”

***

“What the hell are you doing?” Admiral Monk stalked toward Mara, his outrage nearly overwhelming her senses. He was a slight man, dark hair and mustache, and behind him his three remaining officers brandished blasters but, curiously, held their fire. “Did Baras send you to make sure it looked good ? You’ve killed nearly all my men now back the fuck off.”

Mara froze, careful to keep her blade in a low guard. “What?”

Monk’s mirthless laugh was like razorblades over stone. “You mean you didn’t know? Did you never think to ask who you’re taking out?”

“You’re a poor liar, Admiral Monk,” she growled, trying to sort through his sense for evidence of the falsehood. It was difficult after only a minute or two of acquaintance, which had to be the reason she couldn’t sense the deception. “Why on earth would we dispose of such a highly-placed spy?”

A snort. “You haven’t worked for Baras long, have you?” At Mara’s silence, he gave a feral smile. “Or perhaps you have. We had orders to attack Darth Vengean - bungle his attempts to take the border systems. But they managed to smuggle him out right under our noses. So now Vengean knows Baras moved against him, which makes us a loose end. Am I right?”

“My orders are to eliminate a high-ranking Republic official; not silence a spy,” she snapped

“Funny how they’re one and the same. Baras is a slippery bastard.”

“When did you defect?” Malavai demanded behind her. “And why would be trust your word when, at best, you’ve betrayed your own people?”

“A year before the Treaty of Coruscant; brought my full senior staff with me. And to be frank, you wouldn’t trust me. But Sith don’t have to trust, do they?”

Monk was staring at her as he spoke.

“He’s not lying so far as I can tell, “ she said quietly, belly clenching as she remembered how Baras had ordered her, in no uncertain terms, to leave the question of the information leak alone. She risked a glance over her shoulder and saw the same realization dawning on Malavai’s face.

Damn it .

“Let’s say, for the sake of argument, I believe you. Rather than kill you, I would prefer to place you in our Military Intelligence. You’d be in a proper rank structure, answerable to a superior who isn’t Sith.”

“Sounds like a dream,” Monk retorted. “We did good work for Baras, and for him to…” he trailed off, eyes going introspective. “No one is immune, you know. Not even you. As soon as you’re a liability,” he drew his thumb over his throat.

“Perhaps. That’s not the issue right now.” She relaxed slightly, though she’d not extinguished her blade. “Captain Quinn and I will take you into custody. You will surrender your weapons and remain with us, under guard, until we can hand you over to Military Intelligence, at which point it will be their decision if and when you can re-arm and resume your work.”

“If you think-”

“Those are my terms. You can agree, or I can follow my master’s orders. Your choice.”

The hum of her lightsaber was the only sound in the room as Monk glared daggers at her, mustache turned down in anger. Then, with exaggerated care, he pulled his blaster from its holster and tossed it aside. A heartbeat, and his officers did the same.

“Smart. Captain, keep an eye on them. I have a call to make.” She closed down her weapon and gave a tight smile. “I’ll tell the major you said ‘hello’.”

“Yes, my lord.” Malavai’s tone was the aural equivalent of a fond eyeroll.

She shook her head and stepped into an adjoining room, leaving the door open and all four Republic officers in her sight, just in case, and entered a semi-familiar number into her holocomm. It rang long enough she began to worry - and nurse a bit of annoyance. Then,

“Nel? What’s wrong?”

A sigh of relief rushed out of her and she smiled. “Daveth. At least you answer your emergency comm.”

“Only because you’ve avoided using it to convey party invitations,” he replied dryly before sobering. “What do you need?”

“I have some friends I’d like you to meet. They’re on a rather tight timetable, I’m afraid.”

“Friends.” He frowned. “What sort of friends?”

“The unexpected but extraordinarily useful kind. I can’t say more over holo - last I heard you were in Hutt space?”

“How did you-” He pinched the bridge of his nose, then sighed, brushing his unkempt, sandy hair back from his face. “Never mind, I don’t want to know. Sadly, your intel is out of date; I’m elsewhere.”

“Is there, perhaps, a mutual friend nearby?”

A pause as he considered. “Yes. I can pull someone from the intel station on Nar Shaddaa.”

“And they’re trustworthy?”

Another frown. “Of course. Is everything okay?”

“Of course.”

“You’re a terrible liar, Nel. Yes, my contact is trustworthy. Can I send your coordinates?”

“No,” Mara said hurriedly. “My apprentice will meet your contact on the Quesh orbital station.”

“I forgot you had an apprentice now - congratulations, by the way.”

Mara raised an eyebrow. “Checking up on me, Daveth?”

“As much as you check up on me. Sit tight - my contact will be there as soon as they can, with some discreet backup.”

It took the better part of a day, but at length, Jaesa arrived at their coordinates with Captain Katyr, a tall Chiss who, after their introduction, wasted no time bringing in three plainclothes operatives and getting the Republic defectors ready for extraction.

Six hours later Mara and crew were gone from Quesh, scrubbed clean of the planet’s toxins. The rest of the crew went about their business, leaving Mara in her command chair on the flight deck, staring out at hyperspace while Malavai fussed with something or other at the pilot’s station.

She noted his movements only peripherally. Her mind was elsewhere, wondering about Baras’s motives. To hobble Vengean, and then terminate the asset used to do so... Was it simple blind ambition at the expense of the Empire? Or did her master have a long game in mind, sacrificing a particularly powerful pawn in favor of the greater good? She’d certainly kept her own suspicious secrets in hopes of doing better for her people in the long run.

That thought brought her up short. She focused on the back of her captain’s head, the low-level guilt she’d been feeling since Taris twisting painfully in her gut.

She bit her lip, considering, then with a forceful rush of air from her nostrils, reached out and slapped the hatch release with the Force. The hiss and soft thump yanked Malavai’s head out of the console. He turned, lips pressed together as he fought a smile.

“Darling, I’m flattered, but this is far too public.”

“No, Captain I meant- I would speak with you as my executive officer without the crew eavesdropping.”

“Ah.” His posture straightened. “My apologies, my lord. What do you need of me?”

“I need to brief you on an aspect of our mission on Taris. It was to remain classified, but today’s events…” she sighed. “I’m clearing you for this knowledge.”

“Alright.” His confusion shimmered between them.

“Project Siantide was not a failure. It performed exactly as advertised.”

He went so still… the silence was unbearable, so she kept talking.

“After fully understanding its capabilities I determined it was too dangerous for use.”

“I see.” Slowly, he turned to stare out the viewport. “And what was the basis for this decision, my lord?”

The low tremor in his voice, usually so enticing, rasped against her mind like sandpaper.

“We don’t need it to win this war. By developing it in the first place, the Republic acknowledges our superiority. Take it out of the equation, we still win.” She hesitated. “And the galaxy remains a place worth living in despite the conflict.”

“General Minst did not commit suicide.”

“I offered him a quick death that would ensure Siantide never fell into our hands; he accepted.”

“And Moff Hurdenn was a part of this- this mission?”

“No. He believed what I told him.”

He relaxed slightly at that - just enough to release his white-knuckled grip on the console, and to look her in the eye. It took all she had not to flinch back from his gaze. She could feel his anger as if it were her own, but she wasn’t prepared for the hurt in his eyes.

“How can you be certain the knowledge won’t get out?”

“Everyone who worked on it for the Republic is either dead or saw proof of Siantide’s failure, and I erased every byte of data from both Republic and Imperial systems.”

“You erased-” the tension returned. “You mean Vette erased the data.” He spat the Twi’lek’s name like it tasted foul to him.

“Yes, you know I-” The reason for his renewed anger hit her. With a deep breath, she continued, “I don’t have that skillset, and you yourself have said Vette’s the best slicer you’ve seen.”

“Yes,” he growled. “Did Pierce know?”

“Of course not.”

He stood and settled into a parade rest, blue eyes focused on the hatch behind her. “I appreciate your confidence, my lord, and will of course adhere to all regulations regarding the handling of classified information.”

She did flinch at that; by deploying Vette, who could at best be termed a contractor, she’d violated those regulations.

“I’m sorry I kept this from you.”

“It is not my place to question how and when you inform your crew of classified information, my lord.”

She sighed and rubbed her temples against the headache she felt building.

“Don’t do this, Malavai, please.”

“My lord,” he enunciated both syllables crisply, “I have duties I must attend to. If you would like the flight deck to remain manned while we’re in hyperspace, I will implement our usual duty shifts and notify Pierce his is to begin immediately.”

“No.” The word was a soft sigh. “That won’t be necessary, Captain.”

“Very good, my lord. Was there anything else you needed?”

She needed to reach out to him, to hear that he understood her reasoning, that he forgave her deception.

“No, Captain, thank you.”

***

Baras scrolled through the unredacted file of Major Daveth Sicaritae. Graduated top of his OCS class, awarded two Medals of Distinction, credited with preserving multiple Balmorran assets despite the Empire’s withdrawal from the planet…. The man had built an impressive career for himself, a career no doubt smoothed by his family’s connection to House Thrask. Word was Sicaritae had grown up with Baras’s apprentice, with more than one rumor suggesting the connection had been intimate at different points in time.

That Major Sicaritae unexpectedly deployed an agent to Quesh just at the same time Admiral Monk should have been receiving the business end of a lightsaber could be a coincidence.

Baras had not gotten to his current status by believing in coincidence.

His apprentice had intimated during their debriefing call that Monk had been dealt with. She’d let slip nothing to imply she knew Monk’s true loyalties. But there was something in her bearing - an unexpected lack of flippancy - that told him she was playing things closer to the vest than before. That combination of factors… no, his intrepid apprentice had clearly stumbled upon the information he specifically forbade her from seeking, and she’d acted to preserve that intel and perhaps the asset himself.

The girl was enterprising, and oh, so dangerous. Still, overreaction was as much a novice mistake as belief in coincidence. Cautious preparation was called for here.

He typed in a holofrequency. It rang only twice before Eskella Tremel activated her comm.

“Lord Baras. This is unexpected.” The girl bowed her head respectfully.

“Do you remember the bargain we made when I took you on, Apprentice?”

“I do, my lord.”

“You have indeed shown me loyalty, but you are as yet untested. I have a task for you, Apprentice Tremel, and should you complete it successfully, I am prepared to turn you loose to make Maranel Thrask’s life a miserable hell.”

Despite the grainy blue of the holo, he could see the feral glint in Eskella’s eyes. “I will do anything you ask.”

Baras smiled behind his mask. “Yes, I know. I placed you on my master’s staff for a reason.”

***

Quinn held back a sigh as he approached the door to their quarters. He’d spent the rest of ship’s day attempting to work with only partial success. He’d scarcely focus for five minutes before his thoughts wandered back to sorting out which feelings were professional affront rather than personal hurt. Hours of ruminating and he was no closer to teasing the two apart.

He’d considered sleeping in his old bunk in the crew quarters, but that seemed like a stalling tactic more than anything else. So he keyed the door open and stepped inside.

Mara was at her datastation, but whatever work she was doing halted immediately when the door hissed shut.

“I wasn’t sure if you’d want to sleep with me tonight,” she said, turning to face him. Relief was plain on her face.

“For a time, I wasn’t sure, either,” he answered honestly. She tensed slightly at that, and he sighed. “This… this is something I’ve not experienced. It’s precisely what I feared when we became involved. I know you have complete command over what information may be disseminated to your crew. I would never question that. But I cannot help…” he trailed off.

“You’re hurt that your lover lied to you.”

“No. That is, yes, but I was going to say: I cannot help but feel you kept it from me because you feared I would try to stop you.”

She was silent for so long, amber gaze turned inward, he knew he hit the mark.

“I never worried you would behave unprofessionally in terms of handling the information, but… yes, I feared you would disagree and act accordingly.”

“Can you not see how that is questioning the very core of my professionalism?” he asked, more sharply than intended.

“Malavai-” She hesitated, “Captain, I-”

He sat down at the foot of the bed, close enough to take her hands in his and smooth some of the confusion about which version of their relationship they occupied right now.

“I know you didn’t intend that.  But I am yours to my core, and to assume I would hinder you in some way-” he forced his hands to relax. “I can’t perform my duties if you won’t communicate intel I need to know.”

“I’m sorry.” She stared at their entwined hands, her grip tightening as his relaxed. “I never meant to question your commitment to me as my executive officer or as my lover, and I’m sorry my actions communicated the exact opposite.” Her glowing eyes met his. “I won’t always be able to tell you everything.”

“Nor would I ask you to, if doing so would breach regulation.”

She nodded. “But if I can tell you, I will.”

“That is all I ask.” He hesitated. “Did Vette keep a log of what directories she searched to locate and delete the Siantide files?”

Mara frowned. “I think so. Why?”

“You’re correct in that Vette is a talented slicer, but she doesn’t know our systems completely. There may be places she didn’t think to look.”

“Oh.” She hesitated. “Malavai, are you certain? I don’t want to make you do something that seems….” she trailed off, and suddenly the pieces clicked in Quinn’s mind.

“You’re ashamed of what you did.”

“No!” She pulled away from him and stood to pace. “I did what I believe is right. We have an obligation, as the aggressor and the superior power, to maintain the galaxy for our children.” Quinn allowed himself a small smile that she didn’t seem to take in. “But what it looks like from the outside. Slicing our own systems.”

“Ah.” He reached for her hand and drew her down into his lap. “Darling, I agree with you regarding our obligation to the galaxy. I would have agreed with you on Taris had you confided in me fully.” He now understood what that conversation regarding Balmorra had truly been about. “I can’t say I like the idea of sifting through our systems to delete data, but I understand the necessity.”

Her arms went around him, fingers laced together at the back of his neck, and she smiled that soft, warm smile he loved so much. “I was an idiot not to confide in you.” Quinn gasped when she leaned forward and her teeth caught his earlobe gently. “Can I make it up to you?”

“I would love nothing more,” he said, groaning on the last word when she nipped at his neck. “But first, I would speak with Vette.”

She chuckled low, the sound sizzling against his ear. Unable to help himself, he pulled her into a deep kiss, one hand pushing her dressing gown up to her hip and seeking the apex of her thighs. She moaned into his mouth and shifted her legs apart, only to have him retreat and tug her gown back into place.

“Tease,” she pouted.

“I’d prefer to consider it something to think on while I tend to this unexpected, urgent task, my lady.” He kissed her again and she stood, pulling him to his feet. Just before he left their quarters, he glanced back to find her staring after him, that smile still in place, and gave an almost involuntary smile in return.

Chapter Text

“This came out of nowhere, my lord,” Commander Tritan was saying. “I don’t know what made the Republic take this from a salvage dispute to all-out attack, but we’ve counted at least two platoons of Talz commandos, led by at least one Jedi. We’re surviving for now, but we need reinforcements if we’re to hold.”

“Then it is fortunate I’m monitoring Darth Vengean’s holo frequency, Commander,” Baras replied, “for my master is running under silent comms at the moment.” He was careful to keep his voice steady.  “I will order my apprentice and her squadron to your aid immediately; they are only five, but believe me when I say they will more than even the odds. Based on her last coordinates, she’s about a week away.” He paused, scrolling through a datapad.

Tritan snapped to attention. “We will hold, Lord Baras.”

“You had better,” Baras replied. “We cannot afford to lose the Republic’s attention on Hoth.”

“Colonel Vannis is completely understanding of the stakes, my lord, which is why he ordered me to contact Darth Vengean. Dorn Base will be whole when your apprentice arrives.”

“Very good, Commander.”

The man saluted and Baras ended the transmission with a flourish. He wasn’t the sort of person who experienced joy , but he was perhaps as close to it now as he could possibly get. What a prodigious victory to have under his belt when his master had, so far as the Council could see, blundered through his initial re-engagement of the Republic in Hutt space.

He had no doubt his apprentice could secure the victory; if she weren’t capable, he’d have no need for the contingency planning he’d initiated.

***

Vette didn’t enjoy being cold. She didn’t enjoy being surrounded by Imperial troops. She didn’t enjoy being trapped underground with no way out. Which meant Hoth and the Empire’s subterranean base was basically the last place in the galaxy she’d ever want to be. Even places like Dromund Kaas offered at least some interesting scenes and pastimes, whereas Hoth offered only militarized stubbornness and bitter, tech-sapping, ass-biting cold. She’d been quietly cursing Mara’s existence ever since the Sith firmly herded the entire crew onto Adamas Space Station and into a shuttle bound for Hoth’s surface.

The expectations were low. Dorn Base still managed to disappoint.

Her hackles rose immediately. In her various illicit careers, Vette had learned to recognize beings on the verge of panic or despair. Looking into the faces of the men and women staffing the base, that was all of them. Oh, they clung to professionalism like a lifeline - she could see the muscles clench as soldiers snapped to attention as Mara walked by, the stubborn set to the jaw. But they were close to some sort of break.

The cause was obvious as soon as they marched into the wardroom: Colonel Vannis had been missing for two days. Worse, he’d managed to get off a distress call that ended with far too much screaming for the eventual search to be a rescue rather than a recovery.

“What on Hoth could make a seasoned officer scream like that?” Mara demanded, hands flexing at her sides.

“There are any number of hostile wildlife species that could do so, my lord,” a Chiss officer said. “But based on recent events, I would surmise it was a squadron of Republic Talz.”

“Talz,” Mara mused. “Yes, our briefing package mentioned their involvement.”

“Indeed. I sent the briefing to your executive officer at Commander Tritan’s behest, my lord,” said the Chiss.

“It was well done, Captain…?”

“Core name Yudress, my lord,” he replied with a slight bow of his head.

“It was impressive, Captain Yudress,” Quinn said, “and I’m not easily impressed.”

“You can say that again,” Pierce muttered, too low to be heard. Or rather, it should have been too low to hear, but Mara shot a warning glare over her shoulder and Pierce snapped his mouth shut.

“You said he left investigating a spy?”

“Yes,” Yudress replied. “We still haven’t unravelled just what it was that convinced him we had a leak; at this point, it could easily have been a hoax of some kind. But he took most of his senior officers with him.”

“My lord,” the sandy-haired Human, Tritan, began. “I’m sure you’ve noticed the soldiers are restive. We were already being picked off a few at a time before Colonel Vannis disappeared. He was-“ Tritan paused to take a breath. “Colonel Vannis was a gifted leader, my lord. There is a void. We need a victory. We need vengeance .”

Because that always goes so well, Vette thought.

Fortunately, Mara was on the same page. She  raised a brow stalk. “Vengeance, Commander?”

“Yes, for every one of our dead, I want ten Republic soldiers to suffer. Let it be known the Empire cannot be trifled with.”

“My lord,” Yudress interjected gently, just as Quinn perked up with the same words. Mara’s eyes shifted between them, a small smile tugging her lips, before gesturing for Yudress to continue. “My pardon, Captain Quinn. While I agree with the commander that retribution is in order, I might suggest we take a more circumspect approach to the first engagement.”

“I concur, my lord,” Quinn said. “Our intelligence is inconclusive as to the number of squadrons we’re dealing with. Hit one and the others may go to ground.”

“Slice their communications, however, and we can plan something much bigger, something to exact the kind of vengeance Commander Tritan has asked for,” Yudress finished.

The two captains exchanged a glance, as if they couldn’t wait to run off to the base cantina and start pouring over the Imperial Census together for data errors.

“You never told me you had a Chiss brother, Captain Quinn,” Mara said dryly, earning a blush from Quinn and an embarrassed cough from Yudress. “Let’s do this your way. I assume whatever comms they have will be set up using relays?”

“Yes, my lord,” that was Quinn. “But they will be fairly close to the squadron’s forward bases - Hoth’s weather makes securing comms over long distances nearly impossible; you either have a secure line no one can hear, or an audible line that can be sliced by a toddler.”

“We have coordinates for Colonel Vannis’s final transmission?”

“Yes, my lord,” Tritan said. His brows had lowered as his initial plan had been torpedoed, but he seemed willing to continue as a team player. “I’ll have them sent to your team.”

“Thank you, Commander. We’ll start there and see if we can track the movements of that squadron. Vette?”

Vette straightened somewhat. “Yep?”

“I’ll take Quinn and Pierce and draw their attention; you and Jaesa slip in and slice into their comms relay.”

“Aye-aye, boss.”

“My lord, I presume you and your crew will require barracks for the night?” Tritan asked. “I would advise against any sort of action at night - our equipment ices up during the day as it is; blasters and the like will be utterly unusable at night time temperatures.”

“Yeah, I definitely vote for not going out at night,” Vette said quickly, her lekku shivering at the thought. She ignored the nasty look Tritan shot her.

“Well, I was on the fence, but that settles it.” Mara grinned and looped an arm through Vette’s. She pinned Tritan to the wall with a sharp look. “Three barracks should be sufficient, Commander. Vette, you can share with Jaesa. Quinn, Pierce, I expect you’ll know how to behave yourselves.”

“Of course, m’lord,” Pierce ground out. Vette knew the only reason he wasn’t pitching an actual fit was because none of them expected Quinn to wind up anywhere but Mara’s barracks.

As if prompted by Vette’s thoughts, Mara turned to Quinn. “Actually, Captain Quinn, we need to complete our review of Yudress’s briefing package. If you’re up for it, I’d ask you to join me before you turn in.”

“Of course, my lord,” Quinn replied with a slight bow. “I’m at your service.”

“Wonderful.” To the others, she said, “We’ll muster after local sunup.”

There was nothing about the exchange that suggested romantic attachment - at least, not to someone who didn’t already know about their relationship. Yudress and Tritan, for example, seemed unfazed as they assigned barracks.

But Pierce had that slightly ill look he’d gotten the morning he realized Quinn and Mara were sleeping together - which had also been the morning after Pierce spent the day trash talking Quinn and all but demanding a route round him in the chain of command. Mara had taken it all with surprisingly good grace, and Vette was almost positive she was working with Quinn in private to keep him from ejecting Pierce out a proton torpedo tube.

But it was still hilarious.

“Hey Pierce, your saliva is gonna freeze if you let your mouth hang open like that,” Vette said, moving toward the section of the base given over to barracks. She took care to stick with Pierce and Jaesa. The stares she was pretty used to; but having a mountain-sized Human soldier and a noticeably Sith Human woman with her kept the nastier Imps at arm’s length.

“Is that really what she wants in a partner?” Pierce groused. “The bowin’ and the scrapin’?”

“I honestly never asked,” Vette replied, rolling her eyes. “Why, were you hoping her ideal would be more you-shaped?”

“Nah; Lord Thrask ain’t my type,” Pierce replied with a wave of his hand. The nonchalant gesture became a helpless, one-fingered stab at Mara and Quinn, who’d unconsciously drifted ever so slightly closer together as they walked. “But that makes no sense.”

“I don’t think he bows and scrapes in private,” Jaesa said.

That brought them up short.

“Jaesa, I’m gonna stop you before you elaborate on that at all.”

“What? I don’t mean anything untoward.” Jaesa blushed. “Just based on how they work. He teases her in public.”

Teases her? In what world is pedantry teasing or flirty?

“I have literally never seen that,” Vette protested.

“That’s because you have never been looking for it,” Jaesa replied. Her smile was surprisingly smug, and adorable as hell.

It took her a minute to recover.

“Well not all of us are Force sensitive, Ms. Willsaam,” she retorted finally, grinning in turn.

“And that’s my cue to turn in,” Pierce said, rolling his eyes.

***

The following day, Mara knelt in the snow, macrobinoculars held against her snow goggles, assessing the Talz camp below them. Definitely a full squadron of twelve Talz, and they were dug in. Their temporary shelters showed signs of extended wear and were arrayed around several pieces of heavy equipment including a comms relay.

Or rather, it had been a full squadron of twelve Talz. Now all but two were sprawled in the snow, the red stains pooling out from their bodies proof that they were not getting up. She passed the binocs to Malavai, grimacing at the way the long sleeve of her gear rasped against the snow. There was no way the remaining Talz could hear it - the perpetual howling of wind was a convenient cover - but it was a reminder of the heavy equipment that covered her from head to toe.

It was worse than the armor she’d used on Quesh, which had been relatively thin, flexible material that conformed to her body. This was entirely different - multi-layered, and heavy enough that she’d had to expand the fasteners on her gauntlets, greaves, and boots. The hood and mask were the worst part - Malavai swore they wouldn’t limit her peripheral vision or aural processing, but she wasn’t entirely sure she believed him. She’d tested the armor against her training droids and came away feeling like she’d be able to hold her own, at least, but still concerned about moving quickly in all this bulk. Still, she’d negotiated Malavai down by a couple of layers - her cold tolerance was better than his - and after an hour out in the elements they’d both grudgingly agreed the other was correct  - that the gear was necessary, and that she didn’t need as much as a Human soldier.

Malavai and Pierce were both wearing at least three more layers than she, their gear obscuring any identifying markers they had, rendering them each a vaguely-humanoid shadow following her. Even the humanoid shape was challenged by the massive packs they’d each carried into the field.

The packs had been a surprise, in that their necessity was the only thing Mara had ever known the two men to agree upon. She’d asked - they were huge and slowed them down, and this mission was recon only, taking hours rather than days - but both insisted that, given Hoth’s unforgiving environment, the all-weather shelter, rations, de-icing agents, warming gear, and various spare weapons parts were absolutely necessary. The only difference between the two was Malavai’s medkit and Pierce’s stock of thermal detonators.

“What do you think?” she asked them when Pierce lowered the binocs.

“Only two left? Let’s drop ‘em and get this over with,” Pierce quipped.

Malavai’s sigh was audible over the comms. “And dive into the path of whatever killed the rest of the squadron?”

“Lord Thrask can handle it,” Pierce said with a shrug. “I’d think you of all people should have more faith in her than that.”

“What precisely are you implying-“

“Enough,” Mara snapped, rounding on Pierce. “Take care with speculating on things that don’t concern you, Lieutenant.”

There was a sheepish slump to his posture. “Yes, m’lord.”

“Whatever we’re doing, can we do it sooner rather than later,” Vette put in from somewhere several meters to Mara’s left. The gear did its job; they were impossible to pinpoint in the snow. “If my lekku fall off I’m going to be extremely difficult to live with.”

“Your lekku are under your cap, Vette,” Jaesa said.

“It’s the principle of the thing.”

“Master!”

Jaesa’s shout came at the same time as the flash of warning from the Force. Instinctively, Mara yanked her soldiers down behind the bank just as two heavy blaster bolts sent a spray snow and grime everywhere.

“Cover me,” Mara muttered, then leapt over the ridge. Blaster fire splattered off her shield as she flew through the air, igniting her blade as she fell.

Two things happened at once.

A third Talz appeared, seemingly from thin air, and drove a vibrosword through his compatriot’s chest. Mara landed on the second Talz, blade slicing through white fur and bone.

The newcomer exploded in a series of clicks and buzzes, taking several menacing steps toward her until she was forced to look up to meet his gaze.

“Wait,” she yelled, throwing a hand up. Oh, she was certain this Talz was spoiling for a fight. But if she could get out of him why he’d attacked his fellows, she wanted that information.

“He wants you to back off,” Pierce said, sliding down the ridge to join her.

“You speak Talzzi.” Mara split her attention long enough to raise a brow stalk at Pierce.

“Took some courses at the Military Academy. Never had cause to use it, so I’m a little rusty.”

“Does he speak basic?”

“Talz physically can’t speak basic,” he explained as the Talz buzzed in reply, “but yeah, he understands you.”

“Good.” She turned back to the Talz. “Why would you attack your own people?”

The Talz, through Pierce, identified himself as Broonmark, and explained his clan - these Talz - had ousted him as leader when they joined with the Republic. He was on some sort of blood vendetta to “cleanse” the clan of the alliance.

“He’s pissed that you killed that last Talz, m’lord. Says the kill was his.” Piece looked almost embarrassed as he said it.

“I have no opinion about your vendetta, Broonmark, but if your fellows are in the path of my mission, I will not go around them.”

More clicks and buzzing, and a screeched warning in the force-

Pain exploded across her face and suddenly she was flying backward. She hit the snow on her back and skidded at least a meter before rolling to her feet, shaking snow from her hood. To her right, Pierce was recovering from a similar attack.

“He says he’s gonna kill you for-“

“I got the message,” Mara cut in. She caught a flicker of movement in the periphery. “Captain, hold your fire. He’s mine.”

With that she leapt forward, igniting her blade and yanking her hood and mask off. Goggles followed. It was a stupid move, but her gut told her it was appropriate for the situation.

It had been smart, attempting to get her out of blade range. Broonmark was a competent warrior. He also hit like a fucking speeder truck.

Fortunately, so did she.

She parried his first vibrosword strike, grunting at the impact that jarred up her arm, and shoved her free hand into his gut hard enough to drive him back several paces. Broonmark growled and leapt on her. This time, she caught the sword on her shield and traced a delicate line across his sword wrist with her blade. Not enough to maim, but enough to loosen his grip on his weapon. A flick of the Force and it flew from his grasp.

Before he could react, Mara grabbed the front of his harness in both hands and hauled him over her head, grunting with the effort, and slammed him into the ground.

Two more blows to the face and the Talz threw up his hands in defeat, black eyes boring into hers.

“He acknowledges the ‘Sith clan’s’ superior strength,” Pierce translated as he levered himself out of the snow. “He won’t fight you, but asks you not to interfere with his hunt, m’lord.”

“I’ll repeat my earlier words, Broonmark: I won’t stay my hand if your clan gets in my way, but I won’t seek them out.” She hesitated. “Do you know what they’re planning against my clan?”

Broonmark’s buzzing took on a distinctly grumbling tone, but the Talz rose slowly and answered her.

“A Jedi named Xerender is leading them,” Pierce said after a moment. “Outside news forced them to move on us in a big way.” Another hesitation as he listened to Broonmark’s buzzing. “The plan is to, quote, ‘behead the Sith clan and cleanse smaller clans after’.”

“That would explain why our communications and scouting parties are being intercepted,” Malavai said, joining them. “They’re deliberately isolating our outposts.”

So Plan Zero was having an effect. Baras would be pleased. Still, this was a serious problem given how thinly stretched they were here.

Mara nodded in agreement, and turned back to the Talz. “Thank you, Broonmark. You may go.”

Broonmark buzzed over his shoulder as he retrieved his blade and limped away.

“He says to hunt the ‘Jedi clan’, m’lord, and leave the Talz to him.”

Mara sighed. The Republic Talz wouldn’t give her a choice, she knew. She opened her mouth to respond, and snapped it shut when the skin at the edges of her mouth cracked. Her face was cold to the point of losing feeling.

Her mask and goggles flew into her hand just as Malavai reached her.

“Vette, get that terminal sliced,” he ordered, “and gather some of their supplies; I have an idea.” The words were barked into their comms, but even through the helmet Mara could tell his focus was entirely on her. His voice softened, but remained chiding - more so than usual. “My lord,” he began.

“I know,” she gritted, wrapping the mask around her face and donning her goggles. She froze when he pulled her hood up over her head. She couldn’t see his face, but she knew the look he was giving her. She smiled; she couldn’t help it. “I know my limits, Captain.”

“Of course, my lord.”

Sarcastic bastard.

“Okay, Jaesa, you win,” Vette said suddenly. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice before.

***

Early in his career, before Broysc, Quinn had nearly been slated for deployment to Hoth. It was the one time he’d ever used his parents’ names for his own ends. He wasn’t proud of the act, but he also couldn’t bring himself to regret it. Of course, that maneuvering had dropped him into Broysc’s battle group. So perhaps a little bit of regret was in order.

Given all of that, he’d expected to despise this mission. And indeed, between the frequent weapons malfunctions, the nauseating, musky smell of tauntaun, and Mara’s intense hatred for their bulky cold-weather gear, their time on Hoth wasn’t exactly pleasant. But they were doing good work. He and Yudress had used the comms data to devise a strategy of hit-and-run raids against the six - not one or two, six - Talz platoons arrayed around Dorn Base. The idea was to turn the Republic’s siege tactics back on its troops, raiding the forward camps of food and medical supplies, thus restocking their own supplies and also depriving the Talz of the means of sustaining their commandos in the field.

Three weeks on and it was going well. Base stores had increased substantially (though, to be fair, the only soldiers fool enough to touch the Talz rations had done so on a dare), and they’d even been able to get a couple of supply parties through the thinned-out Talz lines. Their current mission was the second raid in as many days.

“Team Aurek reports success,” Yudress’s calm voice said through their comms. Aurek was Pierce’s squad. “Team Usk, be warned sensors suggest heightened ice cat activity in your sector.”

That would be Jedi Xerender. Quinn tapped his comm. “Dorn, please confirm: adults only?”

“Negative, Usk; adults and juveniles.” Xerender and his Padawan.

“Confirmed, adults and juveniles.” He turned toward Mara. “My lord?”

Her initial reply was drowned out by a sudden gale of wind. She paused, and as it dwindled, said, “We carry out this raid like any other. Call out any ice cat activity you see; they’re mine.”

She got a chorus of acknowledgments from their team then, with a yell, leapt out of the hollow they’d been using for cover.

The Talz weren’t surprised by their attack; on the contrary, three weeks of harrying from an unknown number of Imperial strike teams and reduced rations, the remaining aliens were leaping at shadows, which did nothing for their efficiency as warriors. Still, the object was to raid rather than kill, so Quinn and two sergeants took up guard positions as another three soldiers hauled a tauntaun into the fray and began loading it with rations. Beyond their picket, Mara leapt between enemies, cutting down commandos that closed enough to pose a threat.

A flash of green was the only warning before Sergeant Inax screamed.

The sound whipped Mara’s head around and she hurled her saber. It arced past Quinn, who followed its trajectory to see it bounce off the green blade of an armored Jedi who stood over Sergeant Torres. It was enough to send the Jedi’s strike wide. Xerender stumbled slightly, righted himself, and when he struck again his blade hissed against Mara’s shield.

“The attack dog shows herself,” Xerender growled loud enough to be heard over the wind.

“Get out of here,” she snapped into their comms. “Get them back to base.”

She shoved the Jedi backward and settled into a defensive stance, keeping herself between their squadron and the enemy. Quinn grabbed Torres and yanked her out of her crouch.

“Sergeant, take charge of the retreat.” When she remained still, transfixed by the duel unfolding, he shoved her in the direction of the base. “You heard our lord; get moving.” Their soldiers scrambled to obey, and Quinn brought his blaster back up, keeping the crash of lightsabers in his awareness, but scanning the fog caused by snow whipped up by the wind and- He cursed. Now that he was paying attention, he realized it wasn’t just wind, but heavy snowfall, and both were intensifying. Shit, we can’t get caught out in this. Still, he didn’t move to follow their team. Torres knew her job without him breathing down her neck.

He had bigger concerns; Yudress said the Padawan was here somewhere. He had little hope of stopping a Force user, but he couldn’t just leave-

A flicker of movement to his right. He fired four rounds.

And promptly dropped to the ground as two of those were reflected right back at him.

With a grunt of exertion, Mara hurled Xerender in the direction Quinn’s fire had indicated. The Jedi skidded backward several meters, just to the edge of visibility, and Mara flew after him. Xerender was on his feet before she reached him, blade flashing out. She parried with her own weapon. At the same time, she swept her free hand in a short arc, fist clenched, and the form of a young man, wielding a blue lightsaber, stumbled into visual range, apparently yanked forward by the Force.

“I gave you an order, Captain.” The words were a snarl.

A blasterbolt sizzled past Quinn’s shoulder, cutting off any reply. He whirled to see the eight Talz that remained of this group, weapons raised. With a curse he dove behind the nearest shelter for cover.  I should have taken one of Pierce’s thermal detonators, not that he’d ever admit that to the man. He took a breath to center himself, threw a glance at Mara, who was once again engaged with both Xerender and his Padawan, and leaned out of cover long enough to get off three shots. Two Talz dropped, and he was forced to duck back as a hail of blaster fire splattered the snow where he’d been.

They were still advancing. He’d have perhaps one more chance at range before they were on him.

The snow was getting heavier. He could still see Mara and her attackers, but they were fuzzy.

Another breath, and he shot out from cover and fired. Another Talz down. This time when he ducked back, he narrowly avoided a vibrosword.

His vibroknife was a comforting weight in his hand. He tried not to think about how far Broonmark had flung his Sith - such thoughts were counterproductive and ultimately moot. He had to keep them off her; he would keep them off her, as long as he possibly could.

He gathered his feet under him, ready to lunge at the first Talz to clear the shelter’s wall-

A blur of white fuzz shot past him.  

Quinn allowed only a heartbeat of confusion before he followed, then halted again in shock.

Broonmark was pulling his blade free of his first victim. As Quinn watched, he leapt on a second. A third Talz threw themselves forward, blade raised.

And jerked backward as Quinn’s vibroknife embedded in their chest.

Broonmark had finished with his second opponent. He shot an unreadable look at Quinn before driving his blade into the third Talz, right next to Quinn’s knife.

The sounds of lightsaber combat slowed, then Quinn was bowled off his feet, landing in a tangle with Mara.

“Force-damned coward,” she yelled, scrambling to her feet.

Xerender didn’t even look back as he disappeared into the storm. His Padawan stared in shock.

There was the click of a stealth generator. The remaining Talz were down, bleeding out. A second click.

“Broonmark, wait!”

Mara’s shout was punctuated by a vibrosword shooting out of the Padawan’s chest. He gurgled, eyes snapping down to the blade. The blade retracted and he dropped bonelessly to the snow, revealing the Talz.

“What the hell?” Mara’s goggled eyes shifted between Quinn and Broonmark, as if she couldn’t decide where to focus her ire. Broonmark settled that question with a shrug and a click. “You didn’t have to kill him,” she snapped in reply.

Pierce had been teaching her Talzzi ever since that first recon mission; she seemed to be picking it up quickly.

Broonmark gave a petulant buzz, and Mara stalked forward, her fist flashing out and knocking his head to the side.

“The Jedi clan is mine , Broonmark. Or do you no longer respect strength?”

The Talz sheathed his blade, something ritualistic in the movement, and stepped back. Rather than back down, Mara took a step forward, body radiating anger such that she seemed nearly as tall as the beast before her.

“Can you track the Jedi who retreated?” She spat the word. “Good. Track him. When you have his location, seek me out at the Imperial base. We’ll be fine,” she said in response to an interrogatory buzz. “We have shelter here. If it’s safe for you to go, go now.”

The Talz nodded, shot Quinn another unreadable look, and trotted off into the storm.

It wasn’t until she was right in front of him, a hand on his arm, that he realized just how thick the snow had gotten. At less than arm’s length, he had to squint to see her clearly.

“We need to get inside, my lord.”

“These shelters should be rated for such storms, yes?”

“Yes, my lord.” They’d clearly stood for months.

Instead of replying, she tugged him forward by his wrist, her other hand running along the shelter’s wall. They crept forward, rounding the structure until they found the entry flap.

It was considerably warmer inside, though that meant it was merely uncomfortably cold rather than dangerously so. He turned from sealing the flap and found himself staring into a pair of narrowed amber eyes.

“What is wrong with you?” she demanded. When he just stared incredulously, she continued, “I gave you an order, Malavai. I need to know you can do your job no matter-“

“My job,” he cut her off, removing his goggles and headgear, “was to arrange for the safe return of our squad and to give you the best tactical advice I can. Sergeant Torres was in command and knows her job. I knew there was a second Force user nearby; we both neglected to consider the remaining Talz. It was my duty to stay with you.”

“I ordered you-“

“That order was wrong,” he said softly. “You can’t sacrifice yourself just to save me, especially not when there are variables you’re not considering. I will submit myself to your judgement for defying you, but I will not apologize.”

When she spoke again, her voice had softened. “You’re infuriating, you know that?”

“I believe that makes two of us,” he replied, shrugging out of his pack. Doing so left his back vulnerable to the cold and he shivered.

By the time he’d unpacked their gear, the snow had blanketed the structure enough that a camp torch was necessary for any kind of appreciable vision. Mara nestled it into a corner of the shelter and helped him set up a nest of sorts to keep them alive and warm. A meal of rations, and then they stripped of their outermost layers, adding them to the nest, and snuggled together into the mass of blankets and coats, each with their own datapad.

“We have rations for two weeks, yes?” she asked.

“They could stretch to three weeks if necessary,” he confirmed, scrolling through their last meteorological reports from Dorn Base. “Fortunately, this storm should lift enough by morning for us to return.”

She hummed an acknowledgement. Neither suggested contacting the base for help; they were too aware of the rampant insecurity of comm traffic on Hoth. Indeed, they’d been exploiting those security gaps to confuse the enemy and make their force seem larger than it was. Absent a true emergency, it wasn’t worth alerting Xerender and his Talz to their continued presence in the now-dead camp.

For a time they fell to their own pursuits. It wasn’t that far different from how they would have spent the evening at Dorn Base, really. The lighting and temperature might have been somewhat more favorable, but it had been weeks since he’d been truly warm anyway, and that fact seemed immaterial so long as Mara’s humming accompanied his work and her scent calmed his sleep. If he were honest with himself, despite all he did to avoid Hoth, he wanted to be nowhere else in the galaxy so long as she was here.

That thought brought him up short; both for its truth and its implications.

He assumed they would be parted for short stretches of time in future, but from where he sat, wrapped in eighteen layers of thermal gear, he wanted that to be the exception; the slight challenge that made the rest of their life together sweeter.

“Would you marry me, if I asked?”

The words tumbled into the cold air of the shelter unbidden. He was certain he hadn’t intended to speak them aloud. His muscles tightened as her head slowly turned toward him, brow stalks raised in surprise. The silence was almost physically painful as Quinn internally berated himself. Then a smile tugged at her lips.

“I would, though you will have to ask properly.”

“You would?” The words sounded distant - like they were spoken by someone else.

“I would happily marry you,” she said, that tiny smile blossoming into something radiant enough it should have melted the snow around them. “I need you to understand what you’re asking, though. Or what you would be asking.”

“I- I’m aware of what marriage entails,” he replied, a smile of his own starting as his mind raced. He hadn’t intended to start this line of discussion, but nor did he want to stop now that it had begun. Still, a touch of anxiety trickled through his insides. Do you really know what marriage to a Sith entails?

“You would be the consort to the High Lady of House Thrask,” she said, sobering as her eyes searched his. “I have commitments to honor in that role.”

“Children,” he clarified. She nodded, and he continued, “My sixth year on Balmorra, I resigned myself to the idea that marriage and children would not be my path. It wasn’t the worst thing; children had always been one duty for me to fulfill to the Empire, and I knew I could serve in other ways.”

“But knowing my children would be yours ?” he shook his head helplessly. “My darling, I- I never knew I could want children for myself, for my own experience, until that realization.”

“You have no idea how much I’m honored by that, Malavai, truly.” Something in him wanted to protest - the honor was entirely his - but another smile and the words died in his throat, the expression warming his entire being. Her amber eyes sparkled as she said, “Was there something you wished to ask me, Malavai?”

“Will you marry me, and let me stay by your side for the rest of our lives?”

Two gloved hands framed his face, something in her face brought a lump to his throat. “Of course I’ll marry you, my love.”

Chapter Text

Mara barely felt the cold. The searingly bright Hoth landscape flew by, wind tearing at her hood and her clothes, trying everything it could to bite through to her skin. It was all secondary to the fact that she barreled across the frozen planes with her arms wrapped around the man who would be her husband.

She could tell, when the words bubbled out of him, that they’d surprised him as much as her. But they were sincere, and as she turned the question over in her mind, there had been no other answer she could give. She’d never allowed herself to become so… open with anyone, nor had she ever been quite so happy in a romantic relationship.

And, of course, she’d always wanted to marry someone who her children could idolize as she’d idolized her own father. Malavai fit the bill perfectly. She could only hope, as they continued their life together, she could convince him of that.

“My lord, must you hold on quite so tightly,” Malavai asked.

“Oh, my apologies, Captain.” She relaxed her grip, felt him inhale through the space she’d created. “How shocked do you think Yudress and the others will be wh