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Drastic Measures

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Theron Shan had never been known as a quitter before. While he had a unique talent for taking a perfectly normal situation and making it a chaotic disaster (and somehow still coming out all right in the end), and had some of the worst attachment issues and workaholicism in the galaxy, he’d never been accused of simply laying down and giving up (and in fact had been known to tell people off for resorting to that themselves).

His actions and situation over the past several months wouldn’t have really confused anyone who’d known him before the Zakuulan invasion started two years ago, even though he was currently on the enemy’s homeworld itself. He didn’t really stand out- a human on this world didn’t attract too much attention. And he was a spy, never minding that he no longer was employed by the SIS- it wasn’t unreasonable that he’d been able to infiltrate the Spire’s officers and got the opportunity, after weeks of work, to scout out the majority of the vertical city. And he was on comms blackout, why else would he have not contacted Korin to fill him in on whatever he might have found?

But today was a big day. Theron had already programmed a few messages to the people he still cared about, set to be sent when he activated his plan. One for his father (This wasn’t your fault, it’s all on me. There’s nothing you could have done. It’s better this way.), one for his mother (I forgive you for leaving me. Don’t spend the rest of your life kicking yourself for this. There’s nothing you could have done that would have made a difference in this.), and one for Korin (Remember that idiot plan I mentioned and you punched me for even thinking of? I did the thing. Please don’t do anything stupid, that’s my job.). He’d collected his gear, with the necessary additions today, and hid his equipment in his deep pockets. The charges he’d acquired were small, but extremely powerful.

He started at the bottom of the Spire, placing the charges on strategically-important pillars and supports that balanced the majority of the city’s weight. He kept his focus around one area in particular to cause as much damage to his preferred target as he could. It wouldn’t do to unnecessarily kill civilians- and besides,she wouldn’t have approved. But blowing up Emperor Arcann and his legion of minions and thralls (and his psychopath of a sister)? That was perfectly acceptable. He could almost hear her encouragement in the back of his mind- that’s right, kick his ass, make him regret it all.

And yet, more often than not he would glimpse little bits of her- a flash of red hair out of the corner of his vision, enchanting green eyes reflected in a mirror, the scent of her (a strange mix of a lightly floral shampoo, the light smell of whatever cleansing detergent her protocol droid used on her clothing, and something intoxicatingly unique that was her) drifting on the wind. And sometimes he swore he could actually hear her voice. Don’t do this, Theron. Please don’t do this.

This must be what going mad feels like. Theron shook his head as he set another charge on a power relay that would hopefully knock out the emergency response droids. Please stop haunting me, Xaja. I’ll get justice for your murder, and then I’ll see you again.

Theron, stop.

Soon, dearest. Theron shook his head again, more emphatically this time, to try and focus around the distraction that Xaja’s spirit (or his hallucinations of her) seemed dead set on creating for him.I need to do this, for you. I don’t care what you thought about your Jedi humility, you’re worth this.

No one life is worth destroying an entire city for.

It’s the only way to blow the bastard to the hell that he belongs in. Theron let himself into another maintenance shaft and placed another charge on a structural support. This one, according to the blueprints, supported a significant chunk of the weight that held up Arcann’s throne room in the upper atmosphere. Someone has to get justice for what he did to you. It hurt, but he forced himself to shut out Xaja’s distracting voice and continue on. The less he thought about her or what she’d do if she knew what he was planning, the better.

And if he actually focused on what he was doing, he’d be able to avoid thinking about the reactions of everyone he’d remotely cared about. Marcus would be furious, Korin would be straight-up livid, Jonas was probably going to punch through a wall, Reanden (if the old agent still lived) would probably grumble something derogatory about SIS hotheads, although Theron wanted to believe that the man once known as Cipher Nine would be secretly proud of him… Jace would probably shut himself in his office and drink himself into a worrisome state… Theron wanted to insist that Satele would just shrug off the news with Jedi stoicism, but truthfully, he suspected his mother would be devastated. There is no death, Mom, remember?

Why did he suddenly feel like Master Zho’s ghost was haunting him for the sole purpose of kicking his ass, with or without Teff’ith’s help?

There was one more charge he still needed to set before he could take down the oppressors and murderers in a brilliant blaze of revenge-driven glory. And the large chamber in the middle of the Spire, right over a Skytrooper production factory, was the ideal location. Hopefully the credentials he’d swiped earlier would give him access.

The chamber was way colder than it needed to be, in Theron’s opinion. He shook his head as he slipped through the door and stepped into the dim lighting. What is this place anyway? he silently asked himself as he squinted through the shadows.

His face paled when he saw the sheer number of carbonite slabs around the room, most hanging on the walls prominently. He could see signs of the poor souls trapped within- the odd hand extended out as though to defend themselves, a face twisted in terror. One poor guy even had a foot extended like he’d been trying to kick his way free. Huh, maybe being frozen will save you lot from the Spire imploding, he mused as he looked around. Then again… at least you won’t feel anything. You’re already asleep, you just won’t wake up.

The pillar in the centre of the chamber was an ideal spot for the last charge, and Theron approached, reaching around the prominently-displayed carbonite-frozen victim to access the wall. “Sorry, buddy,” he muttered as he bumped the slab and the frozen knee of the victim. “I’m sure you’ll understand why I’m doing this. You can’t be too fond of the powers that be yourself, considering they stuck you in here.” The charge was set, and Theron stepped back, mentally preparing himself for the final, fatal task of this mission.

The label beside the slab caught his gaze. “The Outlander assassin”? Huh. Someone else already had my idea to kill Arcann? He frowned as he read more on the label. “Murderer of our beloved Immortal Emperor Valkorion”. Right, it was a Core Worlder they say killed the old Emperor. Some sources had said that Xaja Taerich had been the one to commit the deed, but that was impossible. She and Darth Marr had both died on the destroyed flagship under Zakuulan fire, two long years ago.

Curiosity piqued, Theron looked up at the Outlander. It was a female humanoid- the carbon freezing had been close enough to detail the outline of her slim, feminine build. She’d had her hands raised as she was frozen as though trying to ward off the carbonite. Sorry, lady. Awful way to go. Theron had been carbon frozen once, and hadn’t been fond of the freezing process- and even then, Jonas had been trying to be careful and gentle about it. He doubted the Zakuulans would have been so merciful to an apparent assassin.

Her face, though… Theron stretched up on tip-toe to look at the woman’s face, and felt his heart stop. “No…” he whispered and stretched a hand up to gently touch her frozen cheek with his fingers- she was too high up for him to reach, and his fingers fell to meet her unmoving hand. They killed you and entombed you here?! Xaja Taerich’s face had been frozen in a terrified-looking flinch, and the expression made Theron’s heart break. “Not like this, Xaja…” he whispered, fighting to keep the tears he’d refused to shed at bay. “You deserved so much better than this.” He rested one of his hands on her leg and clenched his jaw, felt a tear escape his closed eyes despite his efforts and trickle over his stubble-covered cheek. “Not you, not ever like this!” Why did the son of a bitch need to freeze you and keep you around?

Why indeed? The spy part of Theron’s mind that never shut up kicked into gear. Even as demented as Arcann was, there would have been no need for him to carbon-freeze the corpse of the woman who’d killed his father. It would have been more logical to burn her body or otherwise dispose of it. This can’t be a Zakuulan tradition, can it? Theron opened his eyes, frowning in thought- and blinked when he saw the carbonite readout signs on the side of the slab-like tomb. He knelt to read them, and nearly had a heart attack when he saw the signs. “Alive?” he whispered, staring up at Xaja in disbelief. “He froze you alive?” A hibernation state would keep her alive…

The first hope flared in Theron’s heart in two long years, along with the sudden need to change his plan (and the horror of thinking that he’d nearly blown her up along with the rest of the Spire, Arcann and Vaylin, and himself. For kriff’s sake, the last charge was literally right behind her!). He looked over his shoulder, mentally calculating- it was well into the early hours of the morning when most sane people were asleep. The factory nearby would be all but empty, and if he moved fast enough, he could escape with her before the Skytroopers were alerted to something being amiss. He couldn’t lug a slab of carbonite across the Spire, but if push came to shove, Xaja had never been a large or heavy woman. If she didn’t panic when freed from the carbonite, he could probably carry her to safety. If she did panic… well, he still had his darts with him. Knocking her out with a stun shot and carrying her out that way wasn’t ideal, but it was better than leaving her and attempting a rescue later.

The idea that maybe he should actually sit down and form a plan briefly floated through his head as he reached for the control panel, and was immediately squashed. I can’t leave her here. She wouldn’t leave me behind. His fingers hurriedly tapped in the command to thaw out the block of carbonite, and then Theron stepped back as the grey started to turn red while it melted away. His heart leaped into his throat when he got that first glimpse of pale skin and worn brown armour, then red hair loose around her shoulders, wet with sweat and the lingering effects of the thawed carbonite.

There was the sound of a ragged gasp, loud in the chamber, and Theron lunged forward just in time to catch Xaja before she landed face-first on the floor, ignoring the skidding sensation of the durasteel against his knees through his trousers. “Shhh,” he murmured as he carefully held her up, his heart racing as he felt her hands groping up and down his arms, his shoulders, his chest. “I’ve got you, Xaja. You’re okay.” He’d never thought that he would be able to hold his Jedi in his arms again, real and warm and solid and breathing- and the mental shift from planning an explosive, destructive suicide to rescuing her still left him reeling. “You’re real. You’re alive. You’re alive and I’m never letting this happen to you again.” Was he babbling? He was pretty sure he was babbling. He didn’t really care.

Xaja looked up at the sound of his voice, squinting as she tried to adjust to the lights of the chamber. For a moment, Theron feared carbonation sickness had made her temporarily blind- then those brilliant green eyes widened, and her hands found his face, fingers scratching against the stubble on his skin and brushing away the tear that still lingered. “Theron?…” she whispered, her voice hoarse with two years of disuse- it was the most beautiful sound Theron had ever heard in his life.

“Yeah, it’s me. I’ve got you.” Theron pressed his lips against Xaja’s forehead, then left a series of near-frantic kisses all over her face, finally feeling her lips against his own as she kissed him back. It’s not a dream. This is really happening. She’s alive and I have her! Those kisses had never felt so solid or warm or real in his dreams, vivid as they were- and usually by this point she’d faded back away into the void and Theron would have woken up with tears on his face and his heart breaking again. This was real. “I’ve got you. You’re gonna be safe with me.” The sudden reminder that she wasn’t quite safe yet despite being out of the carbonite made him look back up and toward the door. No alarms raised yet, but he’d done his research on the patrols around the Spire in preparation for his original plan- the next patrol would be two Knights in about twelve minutes. “I’ve got to get you out of here.”

“Where is…” Xaja looked up at the strange architecture of the chamber, and her already-pale face went a little lighter when she saw all the other carbon frozen victims on the walls. “… Zakuul…” she finally whispered, a frown marring her face. “That son of a…”

“We’re gonna make that bastard wish he’d never been born,” Theron promised with a growl. He got back to his feet, but didn’t let go of Xaja’s arms. “If I help you, can you stand?”

“I think so?” Xaja gripped tightly onto Theron’s forearms as she shakily stood up, helped in no small part by Theron practically pulling her upright. She let go of him only long enough to shift her grip to his shirt, leaning most of her weight on him as she rested her head against his chest. “Sorry,” she mumbled, “I’m just… so kriffing dizzy.”

“It’s okay.” Theron gently rubbed her back and pressed another kiss into her hair. “I’ll carry you out of here if I have to. You’re not spending any more time here, I promise.”

“My hero.” Xaja looked up, and the smile she gave him, small though it was, lit up the shadows still lingering in Theron’s heart and melted all the icy grief he’d endured over the last two years. “Theron, I-” Her gaze drifted around him to the empty slab she’d just been freed from, and Theron saw her eyes narrow dangerously. “I am not a kriffing trophy, and neither are they,” she hissed, and now Theron saw the container overhead that contained two familiar silvery hilts, proudly displayed. Chances were that she’d sensed her crystals within the lightsabers. The Jedi reached out her hand and focused despite the dizziness; Theron saw the lightsabers tremble, then suddenly fly out of the open case as the bindings holding them in place broke. Xaja caught one weapon, but fumbled the other- Theron snatched it out of the air before it could land on the floor and took the liberty of attaching it to Xaja’s belt. “Thank you,” she said, giving him another smile as she safely attached the other blade on the opposite side. “What would I do without you?”

“Probably still be frozen,” Theron said with a lightheartedness he didn’t quite feel at the reminder of where she’d been only minutes earlier. “C’mon- next patrol passes by in seven minutes, and we’d better not be here.”

“I hear you.” Xaja started toward the door with Theron at her side, her steps shaky at first, but stronger and more confident as her muscles remembered how to walk. “What’s our escape route?”

“Uhh…” I can never tell you what I nearly did. You would never forgive me. “… I kinda wasn’t expecting to make it this far. We’re making up the escape plan as we go.” Theron palmed open the door and took a look around. No Knights yet, and the only Skytroopers were well away. If he and Xaja hurried, they could hopefully escape the complex before an alarm was raised.

“Heh, sounds like normal then.” Xaja squeezed Theron’s hand and sent his pulse skyrocketing. “I trust you, and the patented Shan Exit Strategy. Lead on.”

I can’t believe I have you back, forget you trusting me. Theron swallowed hard around the lump in his throat, and had to force himself to think strategically for their escape. A quick blink brought up an overlay of the Spire layout to his implants, and he quickly plotted out a route. “Okay… the quickest exit route’s going to be this way. Let’s go.” 

Chapter Text

As soon as Theron had securely locked the door to the carbonite display chamber behind him, he started hurriedly walking down the corridor, never letting go of Xaja’s hand. “The sooner we get offworld, the better for both of us. I’m running preflight checks on my shuttle and can remotely pilot it to a pickup point once we’re outside. With any luck, we’ll get out of here before the Spire goes on lockdown.”

“I’ll be delighted to never see this place again,” Xaja muttered, green eyes darting around warily. Theron couldn’t tell if she was looking around out of fear of pursuit and recapture, or out of curiosity. How much of Zakuul did she see before being frozen, if any? How did she get here in the first place? Theron had a long list of questions he wanted to ask, but they could wait until she was safe. “Do we have any backup plans or allies if this fails?”

“Not really,” Theron confessed as he rounded the corner. “Me being on Zakuul in the first place is, uh… kinda unsanctioned.”

“‘Unsanctioned’ as in the SIS ordered you elsewhere?”

“‘Unsanctioned’ as in I may or may not have quit the SIS and didn’t really tell anyone where I was going.”

“You what?” Xaja blinked in shock. “I thought you’d never leave the SIS, even after Ziost. What happened?”

“It’s a long story, I’ll explain it fully when I have you out of here.” Theron glanced down at the Jedi, wondering how the hell he was going to tell her that she’d lost two years of her life in that Force-forsaken carbonite tomb. “The short version is that Zakuul conquered the entire galaxy, Saresh decided to focus on stabbing at the Empire instead of trying to do something against Arcann, and, uhhh… I got fed up and walked away. Someone had to try finding a weakness in that bastard’s armour, and the Republic wasn’t going to do it.”

“The hell…?” Xaja’s jaw dropped as she tried to process what Theron had just said. “Zakuul just… what?”

“Yeah… there was going to be no nice way to break that to you. I’m sorry.” Theron turned another corner, then suddenly jerked backward and pushed Xaja behind him. “Keep your head down,” he whispered. “Skytroopers just ahead.”

Xaja paled as she ducked into the shadows. “Someone raise an alarm already?” she whispered. Raw, naked fear sparked in her eyes at the idea of being recaptured and forced back into carbonite. “I haven’t heard anything!”

“Nothing’s come through that I’ve seen,” Theron murmured, tapping one of his implants. He’d already sliced into the Spire’s communications, and was closely watching for any alerts about an escaped Core Worlder prisoner. “But civilians aren’t usually seen here at this hour.” He was still wearing the jacket he’d stolen that marked him as a moderately-ranked security officer, but Xaja’s armour marked her as a foreigner, even without her apparent reputation as a feared assassin. He pressed himself against the wall as Xaja all but cowered into an alcove behind him. Reaching his left hand back, he found her fingers again, his grip as tight as hers on him. Blaster’s going to cause too much noise; lightsaber won’t be much better, he thought as he raised his right arm, toxin darts prepped to fly silently at the droids. He could just sense Xaja grabbing one of her lightsabers with the hand that wasn’t holding his tightly. Please don’t raise an alarm, please don’t notice…

The Skytroopers got to the intersection of corridors and turned right, away from the two hiding humans. Theron breathed out a silent sigh of relief and lowered his arm. Not daring to whisper anything to Xaja with the droids so close, he cautiously poked his head around the corner, saw no more patrols, and tugged at Xaja’s hand to hurry her along after him. You should have brought a stealth generator with you, idiot. “C’mon,” he lowly breathed out as they hurried further down the corridor. “Shuttle’s coming around now and our pick-up point is-”

The alert flashed in the overlay across his left eye. Theron let loose with a couple of quiet, but no less emphatic, expletives. “Alarm’s raised, they know you’ve escaped. Run!”

“I really hope that pick-up’s not far away,” Xaja said as she started running beside Theron. She was trying to act calm, but the spy knew her well enough to recognize just how pale her face was, and the lingering fear in her eyes. “There’s-” She stumbled over her words for a second, and for a heartbeat stumbled over her own feet; Theron caught her arm just in time to right her. “Anger… darkness… rage… two of them.” Her gaze drifted up to the highest points of the Spire, where Theron knew Arcann’s royal palace to be located. “One of them is Arcann…”

“The other one’s probably his sister, and Vaylin is someone neither of us is ready to deal with.” Theron took a hard right down a narrow corridor that led to a shortcut to the exterior. “Hurry!”



 So much for getting out of here unnoticed, Theron silently grumbled as they fled through the labyrinth of corridors and tunnels that made up the Spire. If it hadn’t been for the map he’d downloaded into his implants and was now following closely, they would have gotten hopelessly lost. As it was, they were having a difficult enough time staying out of sight from the Knights and Skytroopers now swarming the facility. It certainly wasn’t Xaja’s fault that she couldn’t run as fast as she once had on Rishi or Ziost, or that she was frequently stumbling and cringing like she was in pain, or that Theron’s heart nearly stopped every time he felt her grip on his hand falter as she staggered. “Come on, just a little further, Xaja,” he coaxed as he wrapped his arm around her to steady her as she regained her balance. “We’re almost at the pick-up point. I’m not leaving you behind.”

“I’m sorry,” Xaja groaned as she finally straightened back up and did her best to hurry along with Theron. “Theron, I’m slowing you down-”

“You’re the reason I’m here. Like hell I’m leaving you.” Theron pulled her around a corner and rechecked his navigational overlay. “Just a little further, okay? We’re almost out of here. I’m not going to let us die in here.”

“Death wasn’t quite what I was afraid of,” Xaja mumbled almost too quietly for Theron to hear, but she did manage to start running again without needing him as a crutch.

Theron didn’t have the breath to spare to answer Xaja as they kept fleeing, as fast as she could push herself. But his heart ached at the thought of Xaja’s terror of being back in captivity - and this time he wouldn’t be able to rescue her, because he’d either be dead or frozen himself. Not happening. He set his jaw tightly in resolution of that vow and rounded another corner. “Okay, good enough. Shuttle’s nearby, and if we’re lucky, the Knights won’t catch up until we’re gone.” He palmed open the door to the exterior and pulled Xaja out into Zakuul’s night air. They were on a fairly narrow walkway, with a brisk wind blowing through the Spire’s skyscrapers. He tugged Xaja tighter against his side as she shivered. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Just… really kriffing cold.” Xaja leaned into him for a moment. “So this is Zakuul…”

“The current seat of power in the galaxy, otherwise proof that there is in fact a hell and we’re standing in it.” Theron turned his head as he heard the sound of his shuttle engines approaching. “And there’s our ride-” He suddenly felt himself pale as he heard a sound he’d grown to hate and fear during the occupation: the clanking sound of running Skytroopers. “We just gotta hold them off for a few minutes!” He drew his blasters and stepped in between Xaja and the approaching sounds of the droids.

“What-” Xaja saw the Skytroopers rounding the corner and ignited one of her lightsabers. “Kriffing hell!” The blue light spun through the air in front of Theron, and the blaster bolt that had been shot at him bounced back at the droids. He opened fire around her blade and watched the Skytroopers start to fall. But there were so many of them, and more coming to send the shattered fragments of the fallen droids skittering over the hard surface. Xaja struggled to deflect the shots as they kept coming. She’d always been fast, but two years in carbonite had sapped her endurance, and they both knew it. It was this reality keeping her from jumping into the fray and tearing the droids apart with her blades.

Theron had never wished so much for backup in his life as he did right then. And if it hadn’t been for the sound of his shuttle rising behind them, the two probably would have died. As it was, Theron blinked a command to the ship’s systems, yelled “Get down!” and dropped to a crouch as the vessel’s onboard guns started firing. That proved to be a far more effective method of taking down the Skytroopers as they broke under the fire.

Xaja dropped and rolled against Theron’s side, breathing hard. “Time to go?”

“You bet.” Theron snatched her hand as he saw blue lightsaber blades that didn’t belong to his Jedi approaching at a run. “Last thing we need is to face the Knights. Let’s go!”

“You’re going nowhere, Outlander!” shouted one of the Knights as they started running through the Skytrooper remains, dead set on catching both Core Worlders “Your carbonite tomb awaits!”

Theron saw Xaja freeze up at the Knight’s words, saw him raise the polesaber to throw at the Jedi, heard himself shout “No!” as he opened fire again. The blaster bolts didn’t take the Knight down, but they did distract him, long enough for Xaja to shake out of her panicked stupor and Force-throw him backwards into another one of his fellows, buying her time to turn and jump over the railing to the shuttle’s entry ramp. Theron followed, landing in a low crouch and looking to the side. “You all right?”

Xaja deactivated her lightsaber and started running into the shuttle’s hold. “I’m good. Let’s get out of-” She suddenly went white and looked back. “I know that presence…”

Theron looked back and felt his heart thud in his throat when he saw the white clothing and black mask obscuring half his face. He didn’t need the Force to sense the hatred radiating from the other man. “Arcann,” he breathed out, then hurriedly followed Xaja up into the shuttle when he saw the yellow lightsaber light up the night around the Emperor. “We’re in no state to fight him. Hang on to something, I’m hauling jets out of here.”

“You hear me arguing?” Xaja ran up and slammed the control for the ramp to close as Theron hustled to the pilot’s chair and grabbed the shuttle’s controls. “He’s close…” That was fear in her voice, a terror that Theron immediately decided he wanted to protect her from ever experiencing again. “Theron…”

“Hang tight. I’ll get us out.” Theron gunned the engines and gave the shuttle a hard bank to the right, blasting away from the facility where Xaja had been imprisoned for far too long. Almost immediately they had tails, two Zakuulan military craft that he suspected were piloted by more Skytroopers. “I kriffing hate this planet,” he grumbled as he swerved between the Spire’s buildings and around catwalks. He was pretty sure he took out someone’s garden with a very low flyby. If he hadn’t, then the shots from the enemy vessels behind him certainly did.

“That makes two of-” Xaja yelped as Theron banked hard to the left, and wound up claiming the co-pilot’s chair. “Any rear-facing weapons on this shuttle?”

“Nope,” Theron grumbled. “That would be too damn convenient.” He swooped through another labyrinth of skyscrapers and tunnels and just saw the orange glow as one of the Zakuulan ships proved to be not so deft with the clever piloting and crashed into the side of a building. “Prep for a hyperspace jump, I can go once we’re clear of the Spire.”

“Where are we jumping to?” Xaja asked as she flinched from another too-close pass with a skyscraper.

“Anywhere not here. We’ll figure out a destination later.” Theron glanced down briefly at the map interface on his control panel, then took another hard right and all but flipped over a thin stream of civilian traffic. “Almost… there…”

They flew past the last buildings, and suddenly there was open space, a cloudy atmosphere, and the Eternal Fleet overhead. Theron spared the monster ships only a glance before he pushed the shuttle into a hyperspace jump to safety, mere seconds before the ships’ fire would have blown his vessel out of the atmosphere.

In all the madness, Theron completely forgot about the three messages he’d programmed to send before his first plan for an explosive suicide mission changed. As he fled to the safety of the hyperspace tunnel with his precious Jedi passenger, the three letters were sent out on their timer…



 The datapad tumbled from her fingers and landed hard on the deck of her ship. The telltale sound of a cracking screen echoed through the small space, mirroring the sound of her heart shattering. No, no… It can’t be. Not him… oh, Theron, what did you do?

Satele didn’t stoop to pick up the datapad. She couldn’t bring herself to re-read the message on the screen, to make sense of the words that her son had sent to her.


If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen reports about something drastic and explosive happening on Zakuul, or you will not long after you see this. It was me, and I didn’t plan on an exit strategy. What I’m doing, it’s for the good of the galaxy. You and Dad always were all for the good of the Republic, now it’s time for me to do the same. Just a bit more… extremely. It’s the only way.

This isn’t your fault - there’s nothing you could have done to change this outcome. Just… I’m sorry, Mom. That probably doesn’t mean a lot to you right now, but please know I wouldn’t be doing this if there was another way. With Xaja gone - yeah, we were a thing, like you probably suspected - there’s no hope left. I’m trying to give the galaxy a chance now.

I forgive you for not raising me and for leaving me with Master Zho. I wish things had been different, but I know you were doing your best. Please don’t blame yourself for this. There is no death, only the Force. I’ll say hi to Master Zho for you.


“No, no, no…” Satele numbly fell backward into her chair, staring blindly at the damaged datapad. She didn’t respond when Darth Marr’s apparition (still something she wasn’t quite used to yet) appeared and tried to flip over the datapad to read the message, or when the dead Sith gave up and looked directly at her as though trying to get her attention. “He can’t…” she whispered.

“Who?” Marr almost sounded worried. “Breathe, Jedi. What-”

Satele suddenly lunged back to her feet and ran to the navicomputer. Coruscant’s coordinates were not hard to remember or enter, but her trembling fingers still fumbled and she had to retype her destination twice before she got it right. Jace. I need Jace. Theron, no, please…



The flight back to Coruscant took too long, and Satele spent the entire time pacing, too terrified to meditate; too nauseous to even think about eating anything; too anxious to attempt sleep. The exiled Grand Master of the Jedi Order was not a woman given to panic like this… but no mother with a heart would brush off such terrible news from their child. It didn’t matter that Satele hadn’t raised him, had barely known him as an adult… he was her son.

And now he was go- no, he can’t be, he’s not gone; he can’t - ! She lunged into the Force, seeking some trace of his signature. The Force offered no reassurance. Even if their bond had been all that a connection between mother and son should have been, it would have been almost impossible to sense him at such a great distance. Just... not yet, she pleaded. Not now. Please, let this be a bad dream…

No longer the Grand Master anymore, she retained a designated landing pad for her ship. She landed the vessel quickly before hurrying to a taxi station. One moment, she was fidgeting with how slowly time moved as she hurried to her former lover’s apartment; the next, she was there, knuckles rapping frantically against the door. Maybe it’s just a bad dream and Jace doesn’t know of anything. Or maybe he’s heard from Theron directly. Maybe this is all some sick joke -

The door slid open. Satele felt the last fragments of hope die in her heart when she took in Jace’s swollen red eyes, felt the devastation in his Force-signature, and smelled the sickly-sweet aroma of Corellian brandy on his breath. In that second, blue eyes met hazel, and they knew.

Satele wasn’t aware of launching herself into Jace’s arms or feeling him cling back to her like his life depended on it. She only was aware of burying her face in his chest and feeling his broad shoulders shaking. The first tears that she’d resisted shedding on the flight here escaped her eyes and fell onto his shirt. Together, they bitterly wept for the son they had never truly had the chance to know and love. Theron… please…




There was the sound of a fist slamming into a wall, hard enough to echo through the small building. “You son of a bitch!” Korin shouted at the datapad on the floor where he’d dropped it upon reading Theron’s final words. “You said you weren’t gonna do it! You karking promised!”

Nervous, angry energy had him pace away from the wall, take a step toward his best friend’s last message, and then back away again. “You think losing my sister an’ this bloody galaxy to the Zaks didn’t hurt me too?! Now I gotta mourn my best friend, too. Kriff you!”

The last words were all but screamed. Korin swung for the wall again,, fist making contact against the durasteel plating as hard as a somewhat-trained, Force-sensitive brawling smuggler should. The sound of creaking bones was drowned effectively by the groan of caving plates, pain rippling up his nerves and into the Force around him.  It could not compare to the grief within his heart -- a pain he hadn’t felt since he’d watched Darth Marr’s flagship disintegrate under Zakuulan fire, then followed the Serenity as it fled back to Coruscant, only to realize Xaja hadn’t escaped aboard the small ship…

“You son of a bitch…” he whispered. He fell to his knees and pressed his forehead against the wall, teeth clenched and tears falling down his face. I just want to stop losing the people I care about, dammit! Is that too much to ask?! he screamed silently into the Force. He received no answer. Why would it heed him? It had always come strongly to his sister, or to his younger brother.  It only graced him enough to make his life inconvenient. And now his sister had been murdered; his best friend had taken his own life in some idiotic revenge-driven plan; his crew had all but scattered with the attack of the Eternal Fleet. All he had now was his father and his younger brother. “I just want it to stop.” The proud and cocky Captain Korin Taerich, known to some as the Voidhound, reduced to a shattered man who’d lost most of the people he cared about.

He wasn’t sure how long he knelt there before he felt a gentle hand take his shoulder and turn him around to lean against the wall. His dad was crouched beside him, gently lifting his arm for a better view of the broken hand. Korin cracked an eye open as he watched his father carefully examine the damaged limb, a frown marring his forehead. “Dad, I…”

“Hush, son.” Reanden opened his medkit and started tending to the swelling hand. “Just breathe. I’m here.”

Despite being a grown-ass adult, a man who proudly insisted he could take care of himself, Korin still mentally clung to his father’s steady presence with his limited Force abilities. He stayed quiet and numbly watched as his hand was carefully set and expertly wrapped. The old Cipher, it seemed, had done this a few times before. When Reanden finished his work and started to stand, Korin grabbed his wrist with his other hand, not caring that he looked and felt like a kid. “Dad…”

“It’s okay, Kor-”

“No, it’s not.” Korin looked up into his father’s concerned gaze, a stare that turned to grief with the smuggler’s next words. “Theron’s dead. He killed himself. On Zakuul.” Just saying the words made it real, a terrible blow to his spirit.

“Blasted idiot.” Reanden heavily sat beside his son and sighed. “Still... deserved better than that. How did you…?”

“He sent me a kriffing letter. Son of a bitch planned it all along after he promised he wouldn’t.” Korin slumped in defeat as his father pulled an arm around his shoulders and tugged him closer. “Why like this? I want this to kriffing stop!”

“Me too.” Reanden ran a hand over Korin’s hair, as though forgetting that his older son was a grown adult and not a child anymore. “I’m sorry, son… I know you were good friends. Gotta admit: the damn nerfherder was one of the best agents I’ve ever worked with…”

And selfish as hell, Korin mentally amended. How are we going to take down Arcann now if you’re gone? I don’t care what you said about your death bringing the bastard down with you - it’s not worth it to lose someone else. Why did you have to leave too?

Chapter Text

For several long minutes after the shuttle blasted into hyperspace, there was near-silence from its two occupants as they tried to steady their breathing and realize that they were, in fact, still alive. Theron finally stood up and left the pilot’s seat, approaching Xaja in the next chair over. “Hey,” he softly said as he came up and wrapped his arms around her slim shoulders, watching her eyes open to look at him. And to think he’d thought he would never see those eyes again… it was still so surreal. “You okay?”

“Yeah, all things considered.” Xaja grabbed Theron’s larger hand with her own and leaned up into his chest. “Thank you, Theron. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“Anytime. I wasn’t going to leave you in there.” Theron angled his head just enough to kiss her cheek, and stayed still for a long moment, content to simply breathe in her scent, feel her touching him, hear her soft breaths. “I thought I’d lost you…” he whispered before he could catch himself.

“Theron…” Xaja tilted her face into his shirt and breathed him in, visibly relaxing. “I’m so grateful you came for me, even with all of that.”

I can’t tell her that I didn’t go in there for a rescue. Theron kissed her nose and gently tightened his arms across her shoulders. “I’d never abandon you in a place like that.” He gently tugged her to her feet and turned her around to face him so he could run his hands over her arms and abdomen, looking for any injuries. “Are you hurt at all? The bastards do anything to you before they froze you?”

“No- at least, I don’t think so.” Xaja looked saddened for a moment as she seemed to remember what had happened. “They managed to take Darth Marr and I alive from the ship, brought us to Zakuul to see their Emperor. He was calling himself Valkorion, but Marr and I, we could both sense it…” She looked up at Theron, and now he could see the distress in her eyes. “Theron, it was him. Vitiate. He-”

“How the hell- no, I don’t want to know.” Theron pulled Xaja against his chest in a tight hug and felt her tremble in his arms. The reminder of her most feared and hated nemesis, the kriffer who’d raped her mind for months, broke her fellow Jedi, did his damn best to destroy the galaxy they knew… Theron didn’t blame Xaja in the slightest for being scared. “Shhhh. He can’t hurt you. We’re not there anymore.”

“I… I know.” Xaja tilted her mouth out of Theron’s shirt so he could hear her properly. “He gave us both a chance to kneel to him, the arrogant bastard. He offered it to Marr first- Marr told him where he could go and how he could get there, and took out probably half a dozen of the Knights on his own before Vitiate… he killed Marr. So much lightning… Marr didn’t have a chance.”

“Damn.” Theron kissed the top of Xaja’s hair and soothingly rubbed her back. He hadn’t been fond of Darth Marr, but the Sith was an all right sort, as far as Sith went, and Theron had respected him. To hear that the strongest member of the Dark Council had gotten fried like that was disheartening.

“Then he offered it to me, and… I didn’t think about trying to survive or anything. I told him to go kriff himself and his so-called offer with a rusty hydrospanner, said I’d sooner die than kneel. Apparently I wasn’t worthy of a personal execution, because he told Arcann to kill me.”

That’s my girl for telling that lunatic off. Theron kissed her hair again. “If he killed you, how did you wind up in carbonite alive and…?”

“He didn’t. I think he was impressed enough by me telling off his father… he cut off the binders and tossed me one of my lightsabers and attacked Vitiate. I had the chance to finally kill the bastard again, and when he fell, there was a flood of dark energy, it knocked me down. I couldn’t move, but I could hear…” Xaja trembled again and tightened her hold on Theron’s shirt. “Arcann said that I was an assassin sent to kill his father, and I heard him make his first speech as Emperor vowing to attack the Core Worlds while his people were dragging me into a chamber, and I could feel the carbonite but I couldn’t do anything-!”

“Shhh. Shhhh.” Theron tightened his hug around Xaja’s shoulders as he felt her start to panic again at the memory of being frozen. So the rumours that she killed the old Emperor were true after all. “He can’t hurt you anymore. I won’t let him. You’re never going to be in carbonite again like that, I promise. You’re okay… you’re safe…” Xaja might not have been physically harmed during her captivity, but clearly the mental scars more than made up for it. Theron felt distraught, knowing that the legendary Master Taerich, Battlemaster of the Jedi Order and the Hero of Tython, was so terrified at what she’d been through, and he couldn’t fix it. “I’ve got you. You’re safe with me.”

“I know,” Xaja finally whispered as she looked up at Theron, seemingly forcing herself to calm down. “You’re my hero, Theron. I… I’d probably be dead without you.”

You almost were anyway, because I’m an idiot. Theron swallowed hard around the lump in his throat and bent his neck down to gently kiss her, softly and sweetly like he’d desperately wanted for two years. “I’d do anything for you- you know that, right?”

“I believe it.” Xaja gave him a small smile as she rested her head against his shoulder. “I-”

She froze mid-word, and Theron had to bite down on the sudden burst of fear he felt. “Xaja?” He gently nudged her shoulder, then pulled back to look at her face. She was staring in what seemed to be mute horror at something on the control panels; Theron followed her gaze and winced when he saw what had stolen her attention.

“Theron, tell me that calendar’s wrong. Please tell me it’s only been a few weeks and it’s just displaying the wrong year.” Xaja looked back up at Theron, and the spy felt his heart break for her when he saw the desperation in her eyes. He couldn’t speak to reassure her with a lie or break her with confirmation, but Xaja got enough of an answer from his silence. “No… I was there for two years? It can’t…”

“Two years, three months, two weeks, and one day,” Theron whispered, the anniversary of her reported death burned into his memory. “I’m sorry, Xaja… I’m sorry I couldn’t find you sooner…” He felt her bury her face in his chest again and felt his heart shatter when her shoulders shook. “I’m so sorry.” He knew he couldn’t take away her grief, no matter how much he wished he could… all he could do was hold her, kiss her hair, and rub her back as she let the tears come. “I’m sorry…”



 When Xaja’s eyes fluttered open, it was several hours later. She was on the one cot on the shuttle, Theron’s arms tightly around her. He’d apparently thought to remove her armour and boots before getting into bed with her, even though she had no recollection of that, or of almost anything else after she’d realized she’d lost two years of her life- perhaps his assurances that her father and brothers still lived and a promise to find her crew. But the realization that she was legally considered dead hurt. Two entire kriffing years, and most of the galaxy thinks I’m dead. Dad, Korin, Sorand… too far away for me to feel. Where are you?

Theron was still sound asleep, and when Xaja carefully rolled over on the bed to look at him, she could see the lines of care gracing his eyes and forehead, the small furrow in his brow that didn’t go away even in rest, the dark bags under his eyes. He must have pulled some awful late nights planning this… She craned her neck up to take a look at the chronometer, saw the time of 8:53, and inwardly winced when she did the mental math. It had to have been the wee hours of the morning when Theron had rescued her. No wonder he was still out cold. He still came for me even after I was gone for two entire years? That thought made her snuggle closer.

He shifted on the bunk as Xaja’s movements apparently disturbed whatever dream he was having. The Jedi froze, but to no avail; Theron’s eyes slowly blinked open, staring at her in confusion, then disbelief, then recognition and joy. “It wasn’t a dream,” he sleepily murmured, stroking her cheek with the backs of his fingers. “You’re really alive and here.” He leaned in and gently kissed her forehead. “Are you doing okay?”

Xaja gave him a small smile, but couldn't make herself nod. “I don't know yet,” she quietly confessed. “Losing two years…”

“I know. I'm sorry I couldn't find you sooner.” Theron kissed her brow again and cuddled her closer to him. “I wish I could make everything better for you.”

“You rescued me, Theron. You're the only reason I'm out of there.” Xaja tilted her head up enough to brush her lips across his. “That's already helping.”

“Still… if there's anything else I can do to make things easier for you...” Theron gently nuzzled his nose against hers and pressed a sleepy kiss to her lips, the gesture soft and sweet. Xaja softly sighed in answer and ran her fingers up through Theron’s soft, sleep-mussed hair, savouring their gentle kisses as Theron slowly rolled onto his back, pulling her to lie on top of him as his fingers slipped under her shirt…

It was some time later when Xaja rested her cheek against Theron’s bare shoulder and felt him trail his fingers along her back as their breathing steadied out. “Force, I missed this…” she murmured.

“Yeah. Thought I was never going to have this again.” Theron kissed her hair. “I’m still afraid that I’m going to wake up and realize it’s all been a dream and you’re dea- you’re frozen still and I can’t get to you.”

“Am I going to have to do more work to convince you I’m not a dream?” Xaja asked with a wink.

“Mmm… give me a few minutes and you can convince me again.” Theron smirked as he gently kissed her again.

Xaja smiled and pillowed her head on his chest, feeling his arms tighten around her. She could have stayed like this, secure in Theron’s embrace, the safest place in the galaxy, forever… but a thought made her nose suddenly wrinkle. “Think I might make a better case if I don’t smell like I’ve been in carbonite for two years?”

“Well, I wasn’t gonna say anything, but…”

“Jerk.” Xaja lightly pushed at Theron’s shoulder as he chuckled. “In seriousness, I think I’d just about kill for a shower.”

“In the name of preventing unnecessary homicides…” Theron finally got up and gently pulled Xaja to her feet with him. She shivered as the shuttle’s recycled air wafted over her bare skin. “The water pressure’s kinda pitiful and if you swear by hot showers, you might be disappointed, but it’s something.” He pushed open the door to a tiny cramped ‘fresher toward the back of the shuttle. It wasn’t much- a sink, a toilet, and a shower small enough that Theron by himself probably had trouble fitting in it, but it was something. “Gimme a sec, there should be an extra towel somewhere.”

“Even if there’s not, I could kiss you just for this.”

“Is that an offer?” Theron grinned and stole a kiss before making his way over to a storage compartment and rooting around. “I’ll see if there’s any extra clothes in here too. All my stuff’s going to look gigantic on you, but it’ll be something you haven’t been wearing for two years.”

“I can deal with wearing oversized clothing. Thank you so much for everything, Theron… I owe you.”

“No, you don’t. Consider this even for saving my hide on Rishi.” Theron came back over and handed her a towel he’d found- dusty and smelling of a storage compartment, but functional. “Take your time, yell if you need anything.”

“I will.” Xaja smiled up at him and let herself into the ‘fresher. The shower controls weren’t difficult to figure out, and soon she was standing under a stream of lukewarm water, already feeling cleaner from her carbonite prison before she started washing her hair. Two shampoos later, and her hair finally felt clean enough for her to move on. She reached an arm out for the neutral-scented body cleanser Theron kept around, but suddenly yelped as the muscles spasmed. The bottle of cleanser fell from her fingers and landed with a thud on the shower floor. Xaja winced as she focused on the pain in her arm, trying to will the muscles to relax. Must’ve pulled something fighting, maybe…

“You okay?” Theron called through the door. He’d apparently heard either the bottle falling or her yelp, or maybe she was just taking a long time… or maybe he was just paranoid.

“Yeah,” Xaja answered. “Think I’m getting near done.” She crouched down to retrieve the bottle, and wound up holding onto the shower walls when the ‘fresher suddenly tilted dangerously as she tried to stand back up. Okay. Light-headed- not good. Maybe it’s low blood sugar- that’d make sense, you haven’t eaten anything in two years. She took a shaky breath, then slowly raised herself back up to her feet once the ‘fresher quit spinning. There, you’re fine. You’ll feel better once you’ve eaten something. She hurried through the rest of her shower and wrapped herself in the towel as she stepped out of the ‘fresher.

Theron had gotten re-dressed while waiting for her, and Xaja was pleased to see his familiar red jacket instead of the off-white Zakuulan coat he’d stolen for his infiltration mission. He looked up at the door opening, and Xaja saw the concern in his eyes despite his smile. “Feeling a bit more functional now?”

“Immensely.” Xaja kissed his cheek and pulled the towel closer around her thin frame. It wasn’t shyness- Theron had already seen everything, as recently as an hour ago. It was the damn cold that tore through her. “Any luck on the clothing hunt?”

The spy nodded at the pile he’d assembled on a chair. “I tried to find the smallest things I could, but it’s still gonna look huge on you. It’ll at least give you something to wear while your stuff’s in the laundering cycle.”

“That’ll work. Thank you so much- I don’t know how I can ever repay this. You’re more than even for Rishi and Ziost combined.” Xaja hurried over to the chair and gratefully pulled the tee-shirt and sweatpants on- they were several sizes too big for her, but they were clean and dry and smelled like him.

“All I want out of this is for you to stay alive.” Theron stood up from where he’d been sprawled over another chair and gently cupped Xaja’s face with his hands once she’d gotten her hair wrapped in the towel, running his thumbs along her cheekbones. “I’ve lost you once already- I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure I don’t lose you again.” He stooped down and kissed her, long and sweetly, and for a moment, all was well with Xaja’s world. She was warm and clean and safe with someone she cared about-

Then the shuttle tilted, and Xaja just felt Theron catch her before she could fall. “Xaja!” He sounded… almost scared. “What’s wrong?”

“Sorry,” Xaja mumbled as she tangled her fingers in Theron’s shirt and focused on staying upright. “I’m just so… dizzy.”

Theron’s worried look didn’t go away; it just got worse when Xaja’s left leg suddenly spasmed, painful enough to make her hiss. She felt him pick her up and set her back down on the cot, and saw the fear in his eyes when he started rubbing her leg to make the muscles ease up. “This isn’t normal,” he muttered, his brow creased. “Not after you’ve been resting… what did those bastards do to you?”



Arcann couldn’t recall the last time he was as enraged as he was right now. The Outlander was gone, escaped from carbonite and taken from Zakuul despite being swarmed by an entire battalion of Skytroopers. And he couldn’t get a straight answer as to who her ally had been or how he’d managed to get into the Spire without being detected, then most of the way back out before the alarm was raised. The strange man was a damned good pilot, Arcann had to admit; he’d been able to flee the Eternal Fleet’s fire with the Outlander on board.

The Emperor privately might have been a little bit impressed, if he hadn’t been so furious.

The entire security team had been brought in for questioning about their fellow who’d apparently turned traitor and run off with the assassin who had killed Valkorion (and Arcann had a terrible feeling that he would lose so much influence if it was discovered that he’d helped the Jedi woman murder his father. It definitely wouldn't help with controlling the population.). It had eventually been deduced that the man was no Zakuulan at all, but an infiltrator from the Core Worlds. A spy in the middle of the Spire! Arcann snarled under his mask. He would have to let Vaylin loose on the Eternal Empire’s intelligence network to express his displeasure that they should have let an enemy spy get so close.

A Core Worlds spy… and his accent, as everyone from security agreed, sounded close to a native Zakuulan’s, with barely a hint of his origins. Arcann frowned in thought- out of the planets he had attacked with Thexan, the people who had accents close to this man’s were from the Galactic Republic. The Jedi had been from the Republic too- why she had been apparently working with the Sith Lord Valkorion had killed was still a mystery. So he was probably a Republic spy sent to retrieve the Outlander. How did they know she was alive? We claimed we executed her, and perhaps a dozen people knew otherwise. I should have killed her.

He’d been even more furious when a Knight-Captain had reported finding numerous detonite charges hidden on strategically located structures around the Spire. The spy had known what he was doing as a saboteur- if he had managed to detonate the charges, they could have brought down the Spire. A terrorist, then, working with an assassin. Yes. We’ll need to put pressure on the Republic to give us their spy. Perhaps I’ll have one of the Star Fortresses positioned over their capital city, or up their tribute requirements.

But perhaps the terrorist doesn’t plan on returning home. No smart spy would run straight for home after committing a crime such as this. No… he would hide elsewhere in the galaxy. But people have ears and a need for credits. Someone will talk, given the right… incentive. He stood up and gestured for the holorecorder. Within the hour, Arcann’s message was being broadcast across the entire HoloNet, accompanied with images of both the terrorist and the assassin. And if bribery didn’t work to force the Outlander and her cohort into the open… the threat of the Fleet was always an option.

“Citizens of the galaxy! A rogue terrorist from the Core Worlds has attacked Zakuul at her heart, and plotted the deaths of countless civilians. This renegade, while he was stopped before he could murder my people in cold blood, escaped with a dangerous cohort- the Outlander assassin who murdered my father, Emperor Valkorion. Zakuul will not let this injustice stand, and will reward those who aid us in bringing these dangerous criminals to justice. Information leading to their capture will be rewarded with up to fifty million credits- each. Double to anyone who brings them in themselves, dead or alive.”

Chapter Text

Carbonite had not been a dreamless sleep, nor had it involved the regular, mundane dreams of a normal person. Xaja had spent the entire nightmare sequence running, and fighting… watching her crew be cut down by Skytroopers while she stood by, helpless to interfere; seeing the life fade out of Master Satele’s eyes as her twin blades pierced the Grand Master through the stomach; striking down Darth Imperius and watching Cipher Nine and the Voidhound both draw blasters on her- that one had made her scream in the nightmare as she’d fallen back from her baby brother’s robe-clad body, his eyes staring up at her accusingly. Master Satele’s execution at her hand could be chalked up as a nightmare that Valkorion- Vitiate- whateverthehellhisnamewas’s lingering voice in her mind seemed to bring about. But the murder of her little brother? Her father and other brother drawing weapons on her? That was a step too far.

The dream shifted, and Xaja stood in a dark chamber, adorned with red banners. A blonde-haired woman bent over a desk piled high with reports, golden eyes looking drained of the will to fight. Lana? Another shift- she was in a narrow alley, and a dark-haired man was walking past her, pausing long enough to set a charge on the wall. He lingered long enough to pull a detonator out of his pocket and turn it over in his hands contemplatively, and Xaja screamed Theron’s name. Don’t do this, Theron, please don’t!

Theron stubbornly shook his head and moved his thumb over the trigger button, and the nightmare shifted. She stood on Ziost’s ashes, and Vitiate’s spectre loomed ahead of her. He opened his mouth to say something, then suddenly looked up as the planet started to crumble around them, fury darkening his expression. Xaja whirled as Ziost fell into darkness, dragging her down with it, down down down-

Her eyes flashed open, and she had to fight to not throw up. Just a dream… just a dream… carbonite makes you dream weird things. You’d never kill Sorand or Master Satele. Theron would never do… that. She couldn’t bring herself to name what she suspected the Theron in her dream had been doing. And that dream ended when you fell into Theron’s arms- literally. The Emperor’s dead, he can’t hurt you anymore. You’re safe, you’re with Theron, you’re okay… She craned her neck to take a look down at her rebellious body and frowned. Mostly okay. Maybe.

It was their third day in hyperspace, fleeing as far from Zakuul as Theron could push his shuttle’s fuel supply. Xaja had come to the conclusion during the second day that something was wrong; when the dizziness hadn’t gone away even after eating and resting, when her muscles kept seizing painfully, when her head ached if she tried to meditate for longer than a few minutes. Her connection to the Force felt fuzzy and weak, and she was pretty sure that wasn’t due to being in hyperspace.

If she was worried, Theron was terrified and valiantly trying to hide it. He’d spent the time pacing between the navicomputer, the pilot’s console, and Xaja’s side, apparently afraid to take his eyes off of her. His original plan had been to help her vanish somewhere in Hutt Space where he was reasonably sure there were a few exiled Jedi survivors hiding out; now he was considering detouring somewhere along the way to find a medic or a healer who wouldn’t ask too many questions. “Most people coming out of carbonite don’t have symptoms like this days after being thawed,” he’d said while she’d been fending off another muscle spasm in her shoulder. “Any side effects should have gone away within the first forty-eight hours. These are just getting worse.” Xaja didn’t want to know how Theron knew so much about carbonite sickness. It was probably something he’d come across during his career as a spy, but she really didn’t want to think about it.

She very carefully stood up from the chair she’d been sitting in and held onto the headrest until the wave of dizziness had past. Maybe if I can get some sunlight and fresh air, it’ll help with at least the vertigo? The Jedi carefully made her way through the shuttle to the pilot’s chair and wrapped her arms around Theron’s shoulders from behind. “Hey.”

“Hey, yourself.” Theron looked up and smiled, although there was tension in his mouth and eyes that Xaja couldn’t loosen from him. He reached up and took her hands, giving them a gentle squeeze. “How are you feeling?”

“Nothing’s twitching and my head’s not exploding, so better.” Xaja brushed a kiss over Theron’s temple, just above his implants. “Did you get any sleep?”

“Some.” The bags under Theron’s eyes indicated that he was probably lying. He looked away from Xaja’s skeptically-raised eyebrow and back to the hyperspace tunnel that they’d been flying through for three days. “We’re well into the distant Outer Rim. Zakuul does have a reach out here, but it’s less than in other regions. With any luck, we’ll be able to stay off of Arcann’s radar.”

“Do you think he’ll put up a public notice about us?” Xaja asked with a worried frown.

“On the one hand, he’s never said anything about keeping you as a prisoner, so most of the galaxy thinks you’re already dead. On the other side, I get the feeling he’d do just about anything to recapture you and save face.” Theron frowned in contemplation. “Even if there’s no public bounty postings or arrest warrants, he’ll have agents hidden throughout the galaxy. He’s not just gonna let this slide, Xaja- you’re going to be hunted, one way or another.”

“Hmmph.” Xaja rested her cheek against Theron’s hair and twitched her nose as his fauxhawk tickled her skin. “And the only way I’m getting out of that will be to work out a truce or take Arcann down myself.”

“I don’t think he’ll be keen on negotiating.” Theron sighed and squeezed her hands again. “Well, you’ve already killed his father twice, and Revan once, plus a few other particularly-powerful Sith and a handful of giant rancors, survived bickering with two members of the Dark Council at the same time, and yelled at Saresh to her face. Wiping the floor with one half-metal tyrant shouldn’t be a problem for you.” He looked back at her for that and grinned.

Xaja laughed, although the laugh suddenly turned into a wheeze as another spasm tore through her slim frame. Her diaphragm contracted painfully, making her double over and struggle to breathe. Theron’s grin fell off his face as he lurched out of his seat and grabbed her arms. “Xaja, breathe. Where is it hitting now?”

The redhead pressed her hand against her ribcage and tried to not panic as her lungs refused to cooperate with her. “Can’t…” she gasped out. “Breathe…”

Theron loudly swore as Xaja felt herself fall to her knees, and dropped with her. “No, don’t you do this to me, not now!” He held his hand against her abdomen where Xaja had indicated and tried to ease the painful spasm that had frozen her chest entirely. “Stay with me, I’m not losing you! Breathe, sweetheart. Breathe…”

How could she breathe when it felt like her lungs were being encased in carbonite again? Xaja clung to Theron’s shoulders and tried to gasp in another bit of air. It hurt, and her lungs refused to budge enough for her to breathe properly, and she could see blackness growing at the edges of her vision. Theron swore again, and Xaja could hear the panic in his voice as she felt herself being laid on her back. “No, no, no, don’t do this! I can’t lose you now!” She could see his eyes, wide with fear, but it was through a rapidly narrowing tunnel as his hands gave up on her abdomen and tilted her head back, and she felt his mouth cover hers…

Pain flashed through her lungs as air was forced into her chest and her body remembered how to breathe. Xaja gasped as her lungs finally kicked in, gratefully gulping in precious air and only coughing some of it back out. Her head pounded, and not from the persistent vertigo. Theron stared down at her for a few seconds, as though to make sure she was actually breathing on her own and not dying on him, before he all but snatched her up and held her tightly against his chest. “You’re okay, you’re okay, I’ve got you. Oh, don’t do that to me again…” he mumbled into her hair, his words turning into a nonsensical stream of relieved sounds.

Xaja finally reached up and clung to his arms, burying her head against his neck. “Sorry,” she finally whispered when her breath finally stabilized. She could feel herself shaking like a leaf- or was that Theron shaking as he held her?

“Don’t be.” Theron stubbornly shook his head. “Just… don’t ever do that to me again.” He pulled back to look at her, and his face was ashen when he kissed her and stood up, moving over to the navicomputer. “This just changed our plans…”

“Force, I hope that was just a one-time freak occurrence.” Xaja leaned against the side of the chair and shakily focused on breathing while she watched Theron typing into the console.

“And if it’s not? What if the next one hits your heart instead? What if you don’t recover from the next one?” Theron looked back at Xaja, the fear in his eyes painfully obvious. “You need a doctor, now. Rishi’s the closest inhabited planet to us- we might find someone there.”

“You really think we’ll find someone on Rishi?”

“Hey, even pirates get sick too, right? There’s gotta be somebody.”



 Raider’s Cove was still the hopping little outpost it had been when Xaja had last seen it years ago. If anything, she mused as she stepped off the shuttle, it was even busier. Apparently Rishi was becoming a haven for those seeking to stay the hell off Zakuul’s radar. “If all else fails, maybe we can hide in one of the Revanite bases,” she said with a cheeky smirk.

Theron just rolled his eyes at that. “Very funny.”

“What? Remember how hard it was to find their base the last time?”

“No, because I was in the base itself while you were looking for it. First class priority transport and everything. I think they threw me in a crate…”

“… Sorry.”

“’S okay.” Theron wrapped an arm around Xaja’s shoulders and kissed her hair. Anyone watching closely might have noticed that the gesture was as much to keep her upright and against him as it was affectionate. “You feeling okay?”

“Yeah. The sunlight feels good.” Xaja tilted her head back to let the sunshine warm her fair skin, feeling a small smile creep over her face. She could barely remember the last time she’d simply been able to stand still and revel in the feeling of sunlight on her skin and warming her hair, or breathe in a gentle, warm breeze (okay, the breeze on Rishi was constantly humid and was already making her hair frizz, but that was beside the point). When was that- when I was back on Tython before getting the summons from Marr? Or that one quick stop we had to make on Coruscant- that sunlight totally counted. Or even the last time I was on Rishi full stop?… how could that have been almost three years ago? The reminder of her two lost years in carbonite sent a pang through her chest.

Theron gave her shoulders a squeeze. “I’ll try to make sure you have every opportunity to enjoy it. You’ve missed out on more than your fair share.” He started walking down the wooden plank-built pedestrian ramps, and Xaja followed along. “Rishi’s turning into the Nar Shaddaa of this section of space. There’s always traffic of the legal and not-so-legal varieties here, and with that comes information and refugees. Odds are there’s bound to be at least one decent medic around here.”

“And if there’s not?” Xaja asked, trying to hide the worry she felt at the idea. She hadn’t had another bad muscle seizure that had nearly killed her (although the lightheadedness and comparatively-minor cramping wouldn’t ease up), but the memory of suffocating as her body rebelled and feeling herself fading out as Theron fought to save her still made her fearful of another attack.

Theron’s mouth tightened grimly. “Then we keep moving until we find someone. I don’t care if that means sneaking onto Dromund Kaas, there has to be someone who knows how to fix whatever this is. Are you sure you don’t remember the Knights injecting you with something before freezing you or making you breathe something or anything like that?”

“I think I would have remembered that if it had happened.” Then again, her memory was proving fuzzy- small details were escaping her recollection more than she wanted to admit. “Maybe I’m just allergic to carbonite?”

“Is that even possible?”

“I don’t know. I’m just throwing out guesses here.” Xaja slipped her arm around Theron’s waist as they started walking through the marketplace. There were several hawkers out selling their wares, and Xaja couldn’t help but give some of the clothing items a longing look. Her clothes were clean and she was wearing them again, but she desperately wanted a change of clothing that would fit her more than Theron’s oversized tee-shirts would.

Theron followed her gaze and nodded. “We’ll get you set up with some new things- sooner than later. Having a different outfit might throw any pursuit off you, at least for a bit.” He let go of her shoulders and slipped a cred stick into her pocket. “Are you gonna be okay by yourself?”

“I should be.” Xaja absently patted the cred stick’s location and made a mental vow to repay Theron somehow for everything. The Zakuulans certainly hadn’t left her with her own credits when they’d frozen her… if nothing else, she’d find a way to mysteriously make a large number of credits appear in Theron’s accounts someday. “I’ll let you know if I’m in trouble.”

“With what comm?” Theron asked, his brow furrowing.

Xaja nearly kicked herself for forgetting she didn’t have her comm anymore, then lightly tapped at her forehead. “If this is okay?” A Jedi could use the Force to contact another, and Xaja was skilled enough with telepathy to be able to reach a Force-blind mind, but Theron had spent his entire life learning how to block that skill. And she wasn’t about to go forcing her way into his mind to get his attention, not when he’d risked everything for her and they had that trust built between them.

The spy hesitated, then slowly nodded. “That’s okay when it’s coming from you. I won’t be far in any case- I’ll poke around and see what I can pull up on a doctor. Yell if you need me.”

“Will do.” Xaja stretched up and kissed Theron’s cheek, earning a smile from him, then headed in the direction of the vendors, leaving Theron to go talk to some of the other locals. Twenty minutes later, she had swapped out her old clothing for a new outfit, sporting a lightly-armoured nondescript jacket that covered her lightsaber hilts, and was walking back out to the causeway. She didn’t see Theron’s bright red jacket anywhere, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything- the colours of the crowd meant that even that jacket could blend in here. She called the Force to herself, grit her teeth against the pressure in her brain that spawned with that, and cast out, seeking the familiar point of light that was him.

There, a few dozen metres away, near to another few lights that were other sentient beings Xaja was unfamiliar with. She barely had time to get the general direction of Theron’s Force-signature before the pain overrode her senses and her connection to the Force fumbled. Oww. Oh, that’s not good. Being in a carbonite coma for two years shouldn’t have… oh, that hurt… what’s a Jedi without the Force? She had the presence of mind to slip behind a stack of crates and out of sight before sinking to her knees as the pain throbbed through her head and all the way down her spine. Breathe. Breathe…



 The sharp, stabbing pain in the back of Theron’s head made him flinch, interrupting the conversation he’d been having with a couple of the locals. One, a Korun smuggler who’d decided to set up shop as a bartender, frowned. “Y’ a’right thar? Thought it was your wife ‘s what’s sick.”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Theron grunted as he rubbed the back of his head. “Haven’t been sleepin’ well with takin’ care of her an’ all.” Maybe that’s all that was, sleep deprivation. Hopefully once they’d found someone, he’d be able to rest without being terrified of Xaja ceasing to breathe again while he slept. “You sayin’ there’s a medic around what fixes almost everything?”

“Yeh. Th’ doc, he’s good people.” The Korun’s buddy, a curvy, attractive Twi’lek woman, nodded affirmation. “He don’t charge folks what can’t pay for a normal doctor, or gives ‘em a deal, an’ don’t let himself get pushed around none by the gangs out here. An’ I ain’t seen a case yet he ain’t fixed. Whatever’s wrong with yer wife, he’ll fix ‘er up.”

“Thanks.” Theron stepped away from the pair, thinking. They were the third and fourth people to recommend a particular doctor who lived up near the beach, down the way a bit from the Blaster’s Path. There’d been mention of a couple of other passable medics around, but nobody who’d borne as much positive reputation as this doctor. It’s worth a shot. If he takes charity cases, maybe we can convince him to stay silent if he finds out who Xaja is. Blast, it was hard to think around this headache piercing his brain; he focused his mind with an old Jedi meditation trick, trying to accept the pain and let it fade.

It didn’t budge. When Theron frowned and focused on the pain, it felt foreign and yet familiar, like he knew it and yet… it was not his own. What- Xaja? Feeling his heart leap into his throat, he walked back in the direction he’d left Xaja in, focusing. The pain shifted, started to feel like a tug in a particular direction; he dodged around a couple of lazily strolling Rishii natives and rounded a corner, then saw the bright hair behind a pile of crates. “Xaja?” he quietly asked as he crouched in front of her and gently touched her shoulder. Yes, this was the source of the pain he’d felt- what the hell did you do? “What happened?”

Xaja looked up at Theron for a second before looking back down. “So, bad news,” she whispered as she tried to push herself back upright- Theron caught her shoulders before she could move and gently started stroking her hair. “Apparently using the Force isn’t an option anymore.” She winced and leaned into Theron’s touch, pain twisting her features. “Oww.”

“… Oh, kriffing hell, sweetheart.” Theron gently kissed her forehead and frowned, wishing he could do something to make her pain ease. “Just breathe, okay? I’m right here. I might’ve found a good doctor, too- at least he’s got a good reputation around here. We’ll go find him when you think you can stand up.”

“Give me a minute?” Xaja reached up and clung to Theron’s shoulders for a long moment. “I’m trying to not throw up on you.”

“That’s very appreciated,” Theron tried to tease around his worry. “Breathe. Don’t worry about the Force, we’ll see if the doctor can fix your connection to it. If he can’t, we’ll figure something out.” It took several long minutes more before he finally felt Xaja shift to stand up, and made it upright with only a little bit of swaying and leaning on him for support. “Any better at all?”

Xaja started to nod, then thought better of moving her head more than strictly necessary. “No? Yes? It’s hard to tell. I’m upright?”

“That’s a start,” Theron agreed, and tried to hide his concern as he slid his arm back around Xaja’s shoulders and pulled her close against him. “It’s a bit of a walk, but no rush. We’ll take as long as you need to get there.” And I’ll carry you if I have to.

“Okay.” Xaja managed a little smile up at Theron as she leaned into his side and started slowly walking with him. She’d managed to put up enough of a mental shield to spare Theron the brunt of her pain, but he could still sense it radiating from her, and was just impressed she was walking at all. But that mental bond he seemed to have with her, where he could feel her presence in his head as clearly as he could with his body… that gave him questions. How did she form a bond like that with me when I can’t feel the Force at all and she can barely touch it right now?…



 “Heh, that one’s a pretty little thing,” mused a burly Zabrak as he and his Togruta buddy skulked in the shadows, comparing notes on the appealing-looking targets they saw in the marketplace. “You don’t see hair like that much at all.”

“Mmm, yeah, an’ her face ain’t bad either.” The Togruta nodded in agreement. “She’d get us a good price on Hutta or Nar Shaddaa.”

“Almost a pity, really,” the Zabrak said. “I’d wanna keep a piece that sweet.”

“No one said we can’t test-ride the new ones first,” the Togruta slaver agreed with a wolfish grin. They watched the pretty redhead slip behind some crates and out of sight. “I gotta see what the Hutts’ll pay for a girl like that.”

“Yeah, you do that. I’m gonna sit here an’ think of how to train this one.” The Zabrak grinned in anticipation as he thought about the pretty redhaired human, and almost missed the human man slipping around the crate to follow her like he knew where she’d gone. “Hmm. We might have t’ kill her boy to get at her-”

“We ain’t sellin’ her to the Hutts,” the Togruta suddenly interrupted, his eyes bulging.

“That mean we’re keepin’ her for us?” The Zabrak’s teeth flashed in a predatory grin.

“No, lookit here.” The Togruta passed over his datapad. “See?”

“Ugh, ‘s from Zakuul, what’re you-”

“Read it, idiot!”

The Zabrak scowled, but the frown turned into a dropped jaw. “The hell’d that girl do t’ make His Royal Assholeness so mad at her? Ain’t no way a pretty little thing like her could be some assassin.”

“Dunno, not our problem.” The Togruta squinted intently as the two humans came out onto the causeway and headed up toward the town proper, the man with his arm protectively around the girl. “An’ lookit the guy with her!”

The Zabrak looked at the images of the two fugitives from Zakuul, then at the couple they were eyeballing. “A hun’red million credits is a nice, tidy sum… an’ two hun’red million credits is even sweeter.”

“An’ there weren’t no condition made of ‘em bein’ in good shape when we sell ‘em to the Zaks. She’ll still gets lots a’ playtime.”

“This is the best day I’ve had in years.” The Zabrak cruelly grinned and stepped out of the shadows. “Go get the boss an’ tell ‘im we just got the payday of our lives. I’ll follow ‘em.”



 Xaja was trying so hard to act like she was all right and not draw attention to herself or Theron by visibly betraying her illness. But Theron could feel her grip on his jacket tightening and see her jaw clenching against pain, or feel her leaning into him for support, or trembling under his arm. “Need to stop again?” he murmured as they walked past a large, shady palm tree.

“You said the doctor’s close?” Xaja sounded almost normal, if Theron ignored the tense tone to her voice or how weak she sounded. That migraine was still pounding through her head, and he could sense it. “Let’s just get there. I can make it.”

“Okay.” Theron was dubious that his stubborn little Jedi could actually stay upright and functional for the two hundred more metres the medic was supposed to be found at, but it would draw a lot of attention if he simply picked her up and carried her. It’ll also get attention if she faints or has another spasm, he inwardly mused. It’s still morning, too early for what looks like socially acceptable intoxication.

Then again, this was Rishi, and he suspected people here drank more alcohol than they did water or caf. Maybe he could pass Xaja off as being drunk or high off some classified stimulant if questioned.

The pair slowly made their way to the door that had been identified already as the doctor’s lodgings. Theron walked up, noting Xaja barely staying upright beside him. “Almost there,” he murmured as he squeezed her shoulders comfortingly. “Almost there.”

“I still owe you,” Xaja mumbled as she let Theron tug her into the alcove protecting the door from the elements. “For everything.”

“No, you don’t.” Theron shook his head and guided her to lean against the wall of the alcove. “Hang tight for a sec, I’ll check this guy out before he gets at you.” He raised a hand and knocked at the door, watching Xaja out of the corner of his eye as she leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. The tug in his mind that felt like her indicated she was dizzy and still fending off that killer headache, and standing purely on willpower and the support of the wall. I wish I could make this better for you right now…

The door opened, and Theron’s eyes started bulging with the first words he heard in a voice he’d never expected to hear again. “The doctor is in! What can I do for- you!” The other man’s jaw clenched, mustache all but bristling. “You’ve got a hell of a nerve, Shan.”

“Nice to see you too,” Theron growled out. “Miss me?”

Archiban Frodrick Kimble glared at the spy, his hand twitching to where he still carried a blaster pistol on his hip. “It’s not bad enough that you decided to drag Xa- Master Tae- her into your family argument-”

“Hey, the Revanite incident was not my fault! I didn’t ask for a batshit psycho ancestor to-”

“- Then you dragged her to Ziost- and you know how badly that karked her up mentally? She didn’t smile ever after that!”

“Listen, I know I kriffed up there, but-”

“And then she went off on that stars-damned chase and died with the Imps she’d spent her entire life fighting, and where were you to talk her out of it or to back her up?”

“That’s not-! Listen, Kimble, she’s-”

“It’s taken me this long to get over her dying, Shan, and seeing you…”

“Is this about how she turned you down for the fourth time after meeting me?”

“This is not about that, don’t change the subject!”

“Then let me get back to why I’m here, dammit!”

“I do not care if you’re dying of some slow and incurable disease, or if you’ve got a flimsi cut.” Kimble made to slam the door shut. “Go kriff yourself.”

“I’m not the one who needs help!” Theron got his foot and hand in the way of the door, and before the medic could draw his blaster, the spy had reached out for Xaja, and tried to swallow his fear when she struggled to lift her head. She’d been a bit more focused on not passing out than on listening to the argument. “She is!”

Kimble opened his mouth to snarl something else at Theron, then took a look at the tiny redhead in the spy’s company and went white. “No… you’re dead. She’s dead. Not possible.” He whipped around to glare at Theron again. “The hell type of a sick joke are you trying to pull, Shan? I saw that ship go down, there’s no way-”

Xaja finally managed to raise her head and make eye contact with her former crewmember, and Theron lightly shifted his weight to give her a more sturdy support to lean on. “Doc?” she whispered, her eyes widening. “You’re alive?”

Kimble numbly shook his head, grief and denial and maybe a little bit of hope flashing through his eyes. “You can’t be. We looked for you for an entire kriffing year before we gave up…”

“I was in carbonite until less than a week ago.” Xaja offered a weak smile. “I’m not dead- not yet anyway.”

“You’re…” Kimble took a step forward, then froze. “Prove it. How do I know you aren’t-”

“Archiban Frodrick Kimble!” Xaja managed to give him a scowl as Kimble’s eyes widened. “What reason would Theron have to show you an imposter? If that logic’s not enough, I know you take your caf black and intravenously, you secretly love romance holo-flicks, and spent longer in the ‘fresher in the mornings than Kira and I did. Combined.” She was almost standing upright on her own by the time she’d finished telling him off.

“… The mustache takes work, you know.”

“I never understood how one mustache requires more effort than detangling long hair.”

“Neither did Kira.” Kimble finally broke down and lunged forward to catch Xaja in a tight hug. “For kriff’s sake...” He sounded like he was trying to hold back tears.

Xaja clung back to Kimble, and Theron tried to not feel a little possessive- or a little worried when he saw her trembling. “I missed you, Doc.”

“We thought you were gone,” Kimble whispered. “Even Scourge, and we… the invasion… and we didn’t have you to keep us together…”

“I’m sorry. I’ll do my best to not die on-” As though waiting for a perfectly ironic moment, Xaja’s right leg gave out; Theron could almost see the muscle spasm through her pant leg. The Jedi yelped in pain and would have fallen had Theron not jumped in to grab her from behind and Kimble not adjusted to hold her up from the front. “Ow…”

“She’s sick, Kimble,” Theron confessed as the doctor as the other man’s face went pale behind the mustache. “She’s been sick as hell since I rescued her off Zakuul, and I don’t know what’s wrong.”

Kimble looked up at Theron’s words, then back down at Xaja. His brow furrowed in thought, but his lips were twitching in the old charismatic, cocky smirk that Theron remembered from the entire Revanite incident years ago. “Come inside… both of you,” he finally added the last part to Theron when Xaja raised her head to give him a pointed look. “Ol’ Doc will get you fixed up, Red. Just like old times, right?”

Chapter Text

Doc had set up a respectable little makeshift clinic in his house: one narrow cot, a few precious containers of kolto, and whatever medical equipment he’d been able to purchase or steal. Humble? Sure. But Xaja had seen him do more with less before. It had been his daily existence on Balmorra, amidst swarms of giant insects. Pirates and ruffians on Rishi paled in comparison.

Xaja laid on the cot and watched Doc as he started running scans. Her dizziness had finally eased up with laying down and a small dose of whatever stim Doc administered, but her head still ached. That being said, she could almost ignore the lingering throbbing in her skull by focusing on her joy that Doc was here and alive and safe. She could also almost ignore Theron frowning as he leaned against the doorframe to watch, or Doc’s side-eye scowls at the spy. Apparently two years wasn’t enough for either of them to forget Doc’s unrequited romantic affections for the Jedi he traveled with, or how hard and fast Xaja and Theron had fallen for each other.

Fortunately, Doc wasn’t so focused on his rivalry with Theron that he would stoop to unprofessional behaviour where his patient was concerned -- especially this patient. “You said you were in carbonite?” he asked as he held a light into Xaja’s eyes, nodding in apparent satisfaction with whatever he saw.

“Yes, from about twenty minutes after arriving on Zakuul until Theron broke me out days ago.” Xaja fell silent as Doc carefully felt around her neck and jawline, frowned, and reached for his datapad to enter something in. “I’m not sure how they got Marr and I off of the ship alive.”

“There’s no way either of you should have survived. I watched that ship disintegrate.” Doc was uncharacteristically sombre. “We ran back to Coruscant and warned the Republic like you said to do, but nobody believed us, even with your brother backing us up --”

“Wait.” Xaja sat up despite her head swimming, her eyes widening. “Korin was…”

“Yeah. He got there just after we came under attack and protected the Serenity while we were stuck on that airlock. He followed us back to Coruscant when we ran since he thought-” Doc fell silent for a second. “He thought you were on board.”

“Oh, no…” Xaja felt her shoulders slump. Theron told her that Korin had all but lost his joviality and become grim and sober in the aftermath of Zakuul’s attack, but he hadn’t told her that her brother had watched the ship she was on fall apart under fire. “Did he… is he…”

“Back down.” Doc gently pushed at Xaja’s shoulder until she was on her back again so he could resume his examination. “I don’t know,” he said. “Korin kind of dropped off the face of the galaxy after Saresh told all of us to get the hell out of the Senate tower and called us all traitors to the Republic for allying with the head of the Dark Council --”

“Saresh did what?! ” Xaja shot upright again, and was immediately greeted with a hand on her shoulder to firmly push her back down.

“I said down. Keep your heart rate down, you’re affecting the results of the scan I’ve got going on you.” Doc selected a syringe from a tray beside the cot and pulled it out of the sterile packaging with the efficiency of someone who’d done this countless times. “She was eating her words two days later when Arcann attacked the Core Worlds -- everywhere, all at once. Last I saw of your brother, he was taking back off from Coruscant after we got kicked out of the Senate. I’m not sure where he went.”

“He rendezvoused with your dad in the Mid-Rim,” Theron finally interjected. “I’ve caught up with him over the last couple of years. He’s okay, all things considered. As far as I’m aware, Darth Imperius and Cipher Nine are still alive too.”

“I guess Imperius dying would have been news even in Republic space.” Doc gently turned Xaja’s arm over and found a vein. “If Saresh knew your dad and little brother were an Imperial spy and another of the Dark Council…”

“Then I’d probably be kicked out of the Order, blacklisted across all of Republic space, and possibly die mysteriously.”

“Grand Master Shan liked you. She would have fought to keep you with the Jedi -- if, y’know, the Order was still functional.”

Xaja frowned as Doc expertly drew his blood sample and held a small wad of fabric against the puncture. “Theron did mention the Jedi were scattered after the war and the Order all but disbanded.”

“A lot of Jedi died in the fighting. Most of them took a few Zakuulans or Skytroopers down with them, but…” Doc sighed as he slipped the blood-filled syringe into a testing chamber. “Last I heard of Kira, she was helping some Padawans disappear, making sure there were at least a few Order survivors.”

“Did Lord Scourge help the Jedi at all, or did he return to Imperial space?”

“Not to the best of my knowledge for either.” Doc frowned at the results on his datapad, picked up a handheld scanner, and started his own manual analysis. “He just vanished one day; Rusk and I couldn’t figure out where he’d gone. Then Rusk got transferred back into the military, head of some specialized black-ops squad, and Tee-Seven’s ownership reverted to the Order. I’ve got no idea where either of them are now.”

Grief clenched itself around Xaja’s heart again as she looked at Theron’s sympathetic gaze, then at her hands, then back up at Doc. “How did you end up here?”

“There’s always people who get hurt or sick, and even more in wartime. While Coruscant was under siege, I was working in the Old Galactic Market with refugees and other stranded folks like me, and when the siege lifted, I caught the first transport offworld anywhere. Wound up world-hopping for a while until I landed here.” Doc sounded almost distracted as he frowned down at the scan results. “Been here for eight months now. Sit up and face away from me for a second.”

Xaja carefully sat back up and was pleased that the vertigo didn’t return this time. Her shoulders still slumped as she turned her back to Doc and heard the sound of the scanner moving up and down her back. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “If I’d been there…”

“I don’t think even you could have held off the Eternal Fleet by yourself, Red.” Doc lowered the scanner and squeezed her shoulder. “One Jedi against a horde of unstoppable warships… you’re good, but not that good.”

“That’s a kriffing chall-” Xaja hissed mid-word as her arm spasmed. “… ‘kay, you might have a point.”

Doc set the scanner down and tugged on Xaja’s shoulder to turn her back around. “If you hadn’t been frozen, you wouldn’t be having this problem,” he muttered as he took her arm and gingerly rubbed at the muscle.

Theron had stood up from leaning on the doorframe when Xaja’s arm seized, and now stood a couple of steps into the room at the foot of the cot. “What did they do to her?” he growled. Xaja had never heard him sound so protective. Hell, she’d never heard anyone that protective over her. She was usually the one doing the protecting.

Doc frowned at Theron, saw Xaja’s nod to give the diagnosis with the spy listening, and went back to his datapad once the Jedi’s arm had relaxed somewhat. “Most cases of carbonite sickness ease up within about forty-eight standard hours from the time of thawing. A lot of those symptoms are sensory: heightened sensitivity to sounds or lights, or dulled senses. Blindness shows up every so often too, but that usually goes away on its own.”

“I haven’t had any of those reactions,” Xaja said with a frown. “Maybe a bit of photo-sensitivity, but it’s been lightheadedness and muscle spasms and headaches. I can’t kriffing use the Force, Doc.”

“And something’s wrong with your ability to regulate your body temperature,” Theron added. “You keep showing signs of being cold, even if you’re not complaining about it. I think the only time you didn’t was in the direct sunlight when we got here.” Xaja quirked an eyebrow at her spy, then looked down at her slim frame, only now registering how she was holding her arms and legs close as though to preserve her body heat. Doc had made her take off her jacket for the examination, and now she wanted it back, despite Rishi’s heat.

“I’m not too familiar with Force-user illnesses -- we’d have to find a Jedi healer for that.” If any of them still live went unspoken in the room. “But the rest of your symptoms…” Doc looked up from his datapad, and Xaja felt her heart leap into her throat when she saw the grief in his eyes. “They botched your freezing.”

“What?” Xaja heard her pulse pounding in her ears, over the sound of Theron reaching a hand out to her shoulder supportingly.

“You’re showing symptoms of severe carbonite poisoning. A little bit might have been expected from a normal freezing, even if you’d been there for a decade or longer, but this much poisoning in only two years suggests that your carbonization process was flawed. Obviously the Zaks didn’t kark up badly enough to kill you right away, but… it’s affecting your neurological system. The muscle spasms, the dizziness, constantly feeling cold -- and chances are, your inability to use the Force right now -- they’re all stemming from significant damage to your nervous system.”

Doc sat down in a chair and ran his hands through his neatly-combed dark hair. “If Sha- if Theron had rescued you much later, it probably would have been too late to save you, unless he’d had a cure on-hand to give you the second you were out. As it is, if left untreated…”

Xaja looked over at Theron to see his hazel eyes wide with horror, then back at Doc. She was barely aware of her hand reaching up to Theron’s on her shoulder and gripping his fingers tightly. “But there is a cure for this? It’s treatable, right?”

Doc didn’t answer for a long moment, and Xaja felt a thrill of fear run through her when he finally spoke again, his voice low and heavy. “I can slow down the progression of the damage, maybe stop the symptoms temporarily. But with what I’ve got available to me, I can’t fully stop it or repair the damage that’s already done. There is a cure for carbonite poisoning, but it’s incredibly difficult to make or find. Even before the war, it would have cost millions of credits.”

“And now?” Theron’s voice was tight, almost as tight as his grip on Xaja’s hand.

“Now, you could probably ransom a small moon with it.” Doc looked back up at them and Xaja wanted to cry when she saw the despair in her friend’s eyes. “I can try to make a workaround for this, but with damage this extensive…” He abruptly stood up again and moved to one of the storage cabinets against the wall. “At the least, I can keep the symptoms at bay and slow the damage until we can get our hands on a permanent cure.”

Xaja looked back at Theron, then at Doc again. “What about Force-healing? If we can find a skilled Jedi healer -- or Hells, even a Sith healer -- could they do something?”

“They’d have to be damn good at what they do to fix this.” Doc’s mustache twitched as he thought. “Then again, an exceptionally well-trained healer might be able to undo some of the damage that’s already been done. If we can find any of the Jedi survivors…” He came back around to Xaja’s side with a handful of stims and drugs in hand. “Okay, sit tight, this is probably going to sting a bit.”

“It can’t be worse than the spasms,” Xaja mumbled as she gingerly rubbed her abdomen where the spasm had made her stop breathing only a few hours ago. “Do your worst.”

“With you? Never. What kinda doctor do you think I am?” Doc almost sounded teasing as usual then. “Does the SIS have any leads on where the rest of the Jedi might be hiding?” he asked with a pointed look at Theron.

The spy shrugged. “If they do, I’m not privy to it. I’m not exactly with the SIS anymore. It’s a long story.”

“You what ?” Doc stared up at Theron for a second, then shook his head. “I don’t wanna know. Can you find out about Jedi survivors anyway?”

“I’ll see what I can do.” Theron let go of Xaja’s hand with a final squeeze and stooped to kiss her cheek. “It’s going to be okay,” he whispered. Xaja could tell he was trying to be brave for her. “We’re not giving up, no matter what.” He gave her a small, if worried, smile as he stepped back out through the doorway, already pulling his datapad off his belt.

Doc shook his head again as Theron’s back vanished down the hallway, then started administering the medication to his patient. “Okay, first up’s for the vertigo and the headaches, and then this one’s ‘cause I know the first one will make you nauseous.” There was silence for a few seconds as the drugs were injected into Xaja’s bloodstream, then Doc spoke again. “So… you and him still have that thing going?”

Xaja nodded and tried not to wince as a third syringe was emptied into her arm. “Yeah, it is. He’d apparently been thinking of me the entire time I was gone, and I’m still not sure how he found me to get me out.”

“Hmm. He either makes you smile without caring who sees it, or he’s the reason you stop smiling. No middle ground with this one, hmm?”

“Ziost wasn’t his fault. Neither is this.” Xaja watched as Doc readied another medicine-loaded syringe. “Please tell me that one’s not for my leg…”

“I could, but you never cared for lying. You know the drill. Why you’re with a professional liar still confuses me.”

“Theron’s not -- okay, yeah, he’s a spy, but he would never lie to me.” Xaja lowered her trousers down enough for her hip to be accessible and yelped as the needle found its mark. Doc muttered an apology as he finished administering the medication. “So… two years gone. I’m half surprised there’s no lady around for your affections.”

Doc shrugged and didn’t meet her eyes as he put the empty syringes away. “Had a couple of flings, but nothing felt right. I’ve been keeping myself busy here with the clinic -- there’s always lots of people who need a doctor. Besides, the busier I am… the less I can think. Hurts less that way.”

Xaja reached over and grabbed Doc’s hand, making him freeze in mid-motion. “I thought you all were dead,” she quietly said. “When Theron said he hadn’t been able to locate any of you… I thought I lost my best friends.”

“We weren’t gonna die nearly that easy, not while we had to make sure you lived on somehow.” Doc squeezed her hand and gave Xaja a small, but genuine smile. “If I made it, I’m sure everyone else did too. We’ll find them.”

“The galaxy would have been a worse place without you in it.” Xaja returned the smile. “You’ve always been one of my best friends, Doc -- I’m glad you’re all right.”

“Wouldn’t have minded being more than ‘best friends’, but I’m not looking to get murdered in my sleep by the current boyfriend for trying it. At least he’s better than Kota was.” Doc finally let go of Xaja’s hand and resumed putting away his medical equipment. “Okay, the doses I gave you should hold you for a few days, but I’ll need to keep re-administering it to make sure you stay alive. I don’t know how well you’ll be able to use the Force, but you should be able to function otherwise.”

“Thank you so much, Doc.”

“Anytime, Red. It’s the least I can do to have you back and alive.”

Theron wasn’t expecting to be greeted with several notifications of mail, most of it marked urgent. He frowned and tapped the notification to bring up the messages, putting aside his search for Jedi survivors for the moment. Nobody should have been sending anything to me while I was in hyperspace. Korin knew I was on comm silence, and nobody else knew where I was- why are most of the messages from him or my father, and even one from my mother? Did something happen?

His outbox was blinking too. Theron’s frown deepened. I didn’t send any messages! He tapped on the icon to figure out what was wrong... then saw the cheery notification of his timed messages being automatically sent right on schedule, three entire standard days ago. He felt the blood drain from his face. “ Fuck, ” he whispered as his heart stopped for a second. Oh no. Oh nooooo. I forgot about the suicide notes. Oh, fuck, Korin’s going to kill me if my parents don’t first…

He quickly pulled up the tab to compose a message to his parents and best friend, but was interrupted by the sound of something large and heavy smashing into Kimble’s front door. The datapad went back onto his belt as he ran back toward the entrance of the clinic, nearly colliding with Kimble as the medic hurried in the same direction. “Who’d you piss off this time, Kimble?” the spy asked as he drew a blaster.

“Hey, some of us don’t go around actively getting into trouble, Shan. Everyone in Raider’s Cove loves me… I think.” Kimble poked his head around the corner and winced when he saw how badly dented his front door was. “That’s gonna be an expensive repair bill.”

The door shuddered again as a heavy fist pounded against it. “You got ten seconds to open this door, Doc, or we’re comin’ in!” The voice was rough and loud, with a tone that hinted its owner was quite used to bellowing orders.

“Hey, hey!” Kimble yelled back at the intruders. “I’m happy to give you medical attention, but form a kriffing line and wait your turn, dammit!”

“We don’t want no medical things! We want them two you’re hiding in there!”

Theron exchanged a worried look with Kimble, seeing the doctor’s eyebrows go up as he shouted his response. “Haven’t you heard of patient confidentiality? I’m not clearing my patients to leave my care or have visitors.”

“You think you’re gettin’ a choice in the matter? We’re takin’ the girl an’ the guy with her, an’ maybe we won’t shoot you on the way out. You ain’t worth fifty million credits like they are, but maybe we’ll see if someone wants you dead too.”

Kimble’s eyes bulged as Theron felt his heart thud in his throat. “Wait, how much?”

“Fifty mil. Each . You let us in, maybe we’ll cut you a bit of that.”

There was a moment of stunned silence before Kimble looked at Theron. “Who the hell did you piss off this time?” he lowly hissed at the spy.

“I didn’t even blow anything up, and the Zaks shouldn’t have been able to identify me!” Theron whispered as he started edging backwards. “You got a back exit?”

“What kind of an overly-trusting idiot do you think I am?” Kimble raised his voice. “Gimme a bit. You morons wrecked my door and it’ll be a pain getting it open.”

“We’ll be here, doc. You can buy a whole new door after we’re done.”

“Delightful.” Kimble engaged the secondary lock on the door, then turned and hurried back down the corridor with Theron. “They’re gonna catch on soon,” he muttered. “Down the hallway, in the sublevels, the code to access the basement is 3-7-9-1-2-0. It’ll dump us out on the beach itself. Get Xaja out of here while I grab my gear.”

“How much gear do you need?” Theron asked as they rounded the corner into the clinic. Xaja was sitting up on the cot, already looking less weak and frail, but pale now with worry.

“To keep her alive? A lot.” Kimble opened up one of the storage lockers and retrieved an old rucksack, which he started filling with his medical gear.

“What’s going on?” Xaja stood up from the cot, looking back and forth between Theron and Kimble. “Did the Zakuulans catch up?”

“Someone did,” Theron said as he tossed the Jedi her jacket, then handed her the twin lightsabers. “Either the Zaks or someone else who’d pay fifty million for your head.”

“And yours,” Kimble helpfully added as he dived into another storage unit.

“Wait, what?” Xaja’s eyes went wide as she attached one lightsaber to her belt, but kept the other one in her hand. “Fifty million each?”

“Apparently.” Theron looked over his shoulder at the sounds of another thud against the mangled front door. “How much more do you need to grab, Kimble?”

“How about my kriffing credsticks?” Kimble ran out the clinic door and hauled ass toward his living quarters. He returned in under a minute. “Let’s move before --” He cringed at the sound of the door splintering. “That.”

“I think this is the first time I’ve ever agreed with you on anything,” Theron muttered as he followed the doctor and Xaja toward the sublevel access. The feeling of his datapad bumping against his hip reminded him of his grievous error, but he didn’t have time to call his parents or Korin to reassure them he wasn’t dead. At least he had enough experience with forming messages on the run that he could send a short note through his implant connection. Not dead yet. Can’t talk, will explain later. Sorry. T.

The sounds of booted feet clicking on the floor of the Citadel echoed through the cavernous hallways, red banners on the walls doing little to absorb the echo. Normally Lana disliked the audible sign of her approaching presence to anyone who might be listening, but today, she didn’t care. Her focus was given less to who could hear her coming and more to the news she carried.

She wasn’t stopped by any of Darth Imperius’ guards as she marched into his private office. With he, Vowrawn, and Acina being the only survivors of the Dark Council, she considered him her direct superior. Sith didn’t generally trust others, especially not other Sith, but they also did not generally charge into another’s office in the middle of a Taungsday with homocidal intent. It helped, too, that Lana knew Imperius well.

The tall human looked over from his holocom conversation as Lana entered his office, his brow furrowing in a puzzled frown. He’d all but given up on wearing Kallig’s mask, and he’d pushed his hood back. The light revealed a tired face, long brown hair in a nerftail, and lines under his eyes. “You know the plan and your orders, Andronikos. Contact me with any developments.” The little blue hologram of Captain Revel vanished, and Imperius looked back toward Lana. “I thought you’d left to investigate the new resistance cell that you heard rumours of on Ryloth.”

“I still plan on heading out soon,” Lana said as she extended a datapad, and tried to ignore how her hand was shaking. “But this just came through on Intelligence’s networks… you need to see it.”

“From my father directly?” The man known to perhaps two dozen people in the galaxy as Sorand Taerich accepted the datapad with a frown and pulled open the file.

“No. I haven’t had any updates from your father since he met up with your brother and the resistance cell on Tatooine. I’ve forwarded this to him as well, and I expect he’ll want to take a personal look into it.” Lana clasped her hands in front of her and waited, having to force herself to not fidget like a mere acolyte.

“Huh.” Sorand leaned back in his chair and scrolled through the message. “A terrorist attacking the Spire and running off with the so-called Outlander assassin? I’d thought the assassin was a myth.” He blinked as he read further. “Fifty million credits says apparently not.” He looked up at Lana. “So, it is possible for someone to strike Zakuul deeply enough to spook Arcann. This is good news.”

“Keep reading. The fifty million credit bounty on each of their heads isn’t why I ran back here to show you this.”

Sorand frowned, then tapped the datapad to bring up the rest of the message. Lana watched as the other Sith’s face suddenly fell slack, his eyes bulging, and face draining of all colour. “Impossible…” he whispered. He looked back up, as startled as Lana had ever seen him. “When did this come in?”

“I received it half an hour ago. Our sources date it as only two days old. This intel is fresh.” Lana frowned at the datapad. “I thought your father had said that Theron Shan was dead, according to your brother.”

“So did I. Either Theron’s still alive or he’s got a twin somewhere. But kriff Theron…” Sorand looked back at the datapad, then at Lana again. “My sister’s alive?”

“Unless she has an exact lookalike somewhere, it appears that she is not only alive, but the Outlander assassin herself.”

Sorand set the datapad on the desk and ran his hands through his hair, disbelief and shock and maybe hope revealed on his face. “She…” He abruptly stood up. “I need to contact my father and make sure he’s heard this. You haven’t heard any reports of where they might have escaped to?”

“Not yet.” Lana fell into step beside Sorand as he hurried for the more secure holo console. “But the resistance group on Ryloth is rumoured to have Zakuulan defectors within it -- perhaps they can tell us more about your sister.”

“Good. I’ll let my wife know about the new bounty posting. She may be able to get her people looking for them to protect them.”

“Are you sure there aren’t Mandalorians who would try to collect on one of those bounties themselves?” Lana asked with a concerned frown.

“None with any sort of self preservation instinct. Shara would shoot them for trying, if I didn’t get to them first. I think most of them know that.” Sorand’s smile was predatory in nature. “Confirm the presence of any Zakuulan defectors with the Rylothian resistance. If they’re not with that group, keep looking until you track them down. Let me know if there’s anything you require.”

“A clone,” Lana deadpanned, and Sorand snorted. “Thank you, my lord -- you and your father will be the first I contact with any new information.”

Sorand nodded. “Good luck. May the Force guide you.” He started tapping in the codes for a secure transmission to his father as Lana hurried back down the corridor, and made sure the room was closed and private before the old agent answered the call. “Dad, I don’t know if you’ve seen Lana’s new intel, but it’s big…”

Reanden disconnected the call with his younger son and sat down hard on a chair, running his hands over his face. He didn’t want to entertain the hope that his missing daughter might be alive, years after her disappearance; a second bout with such heartbreak would kill him, or so he felt. It was too risky to assume that Xaja might still be alive. But Lana’s intel seemed to check out, and Sorand certainly seemed to believe it.

The old Cipher pulled up the transcript of the bounty posting and studied the two attached images of the supposed assassin and terrorist, currently leading Zakuul’s Most Wanted list. They weren’t the greatest of images, clearly taken from security cameras as the two fugitives escaped the Spire, but they were clear enough to show faces. Yes, the male did resemble Theron Shan, down to the implants and the stupid hairstyle. Terrorism and attacking civilians isn’t Shan’s style though. Unless he’s actually gone completely off the deep end, not just rogue. His contacts in the SIS had confirmed that Shan quit his job and vanished from Coruscant only a couple of weeks after the siege ended, over a year ago. This was the first solid rumour as to where he’d gone since then. (And oh, how Kothe had been ready to punch the younger agent, ex-Jedi or not.)

The woman with him… The hair was right. The facial structure was correct. The fact that she apparently stood head and shoulders shorter than her male cohort was a point in her favour. The worried frown on her face… it could have been his wife’s expression. Even the armour resembled what she’d reportedly been wearing when she’d been killed. A ghost? No, a ghost wouldn’t show up on a security camera. He couldn’t confirm it without seeing the girl in person, but she resembled his missing daughter so closely, his heart ached within his chest. Xaja…

He needed to see her in the flesh to confirm if this was an impostor or if Xaja had somehow survived the destruction of Darth Marr’s ship. A quick strokes into an encrypted channel sent a ping out to his extensive network of contacts and spies in the galaxy. Attached were images of what looked like the identical twins of Xaja Taerich and Theron Shan, and a message: Need any news on these two for their protection. Compensation will be arranged.

Within minutes, he received answering pings from his contacts on various planets. Nothing seen yet on Nar Shaddaa or Hutta… a possible resemblance on Denon… then one from Rishi. Male target sighted. Inquiring re: medic for wife (?). Unconfirmed sighting of female target.

Shan wouldn’t have gotten married -- the boy’s a diehard bachelor. ‘Wife’ must be a cover. If that is Xaja with him… is she ill or injured? Why would Shan be asking about a medic for her? Reanden’s eyes narrowed in thought, then glanced down at another ping, this one from Corellia. No sighting yet. Targets subject of bounty posting from Zakuul. Advise speed if you want them alive. 50 mil spends well.

Fierfek. Reanden shot to his feet and plugged in Korin’s holo frequency as he started typing in the coordinates for Rishi. “Are you sure Theron’s dead?” he asked as soon as his older son answered the call.

“I tried sending messages to his account. He never answered them or picked up a holocall.” Korin still sounded despondent over his friend’s supposed suicide. “Why do you ask?”

“Take a look at the file I’m sending you.” Reanden sat back and waited while Korin accepted the transmission, pulled open the file on his datapad. The younger man froze, paling visibly. “Breathe, son.”

“How… that’s not… both of them?!” Korin dropped the datapad and raked his fingers through his messy hair, then snatched it back up to stare at the images. “Kriff. That’s him, unless he’s got a twin somewhere. And Xaja…”

There was a sudden series of excited beeps, and Reanden frowned as a familiar looking astromech came into range of the holo. “Is that her droid?”

“Oh. Yeah. I, uh…” Korin shifted uncomfortably. “I may or may not have stolen Tee-Seven from the Order. It wasn’t like Xaja was using him… dammit, that means I’ll have to give him back if that’s actually her.” Tee-Seven beeped his excitement.

“Whether or not they actually are Xaja and Theron,” Reanden said as he shook his head at his son’s actions and prepped his hyperdrive for a jump, “they’re both worth fifty million credits to that half-metal pain in the ass on Zakuul. We need to find them first if we’re going to get our answers.”

“I’ll put out feelers with my miscreant buddies. Pays to know most of the underworld.” Korin put the datapad back down and turned to start plugging at his navicomputer. “I’m due to be making a supply run for the cell soon anyway. Got a friend who considers herself queen of the underworld, so she’ll know things sooner than we will. What’s your plan?”

“One of my contacts claims to have seen Theron on Rishi. I’m heading over to investigate.”

“Yeeesh. Rishi’s not going to be dangerous at all for them with that kind of money on their heads and pirates everywhere.”

“Let’s hope most of those pirates hate Zakuul more than they love credits.” Reanden knew that was a long shot, but it was still a tiny hope. “I should be there within a few hours. Keep trying to raise Theron on comms and let me know if-” He frowned as the cheery ping of a new text message suddenly sounded. “Was that yours or mine?”

“Mine.” Korin opened up the message and froze, the expressions on his face shifting from shock to disbelief to confusion to joy to pure, unadulterated fury in the space of about two seconds. “I’m going to kill him.”


“Dad, would you not say it’s a bit more polite to say more than ‘Not dead, can’t talk, chat later’ when one’s just faked his suicide and then rocked up on the other side of the galaxy? By the way, I can confirm Theron at least is alive, or will be until I get my hands on his kriffing neck.”

“The idiot.” Reanden sighed and shook his head. “I’ll punch him for you if I catch them first.”

“Please do. Good luck.”

“You too. Happy hunting.” The agent disconnected the call and jumped to hyperspace, the Shadow disappearing among the stars. Shan, if that’s actually you, I’m going to sit back and let Korin strangle you to death. Xaja, if you’re alive… I’m coming, baby girl. Stay alive until I get there.

Chapter Text

True to Kimble’s word, the sublevel exit left them on the beach. They were sheltered from the main thoroughfares of Raider’s Cove for a few minutes, but Theron knew they wouldn’t have long before they were pursued. “We need to get off this planet,” he muttered. “My shuttle should be nearly finished refueling -- if they haven’t impounded it yet, I can remotely pilot it to our location.”

“Would the bounty hunters think to capture your shuttle?” Xaja asked as she warily looked around.

“Hard to tell.” Theron took her hand and tugged her back to the relative shelter offered by the palm trees. “There’s still no actual law enforcement here, is there, Kimble?”

“That would require laws to enforce.” Kimble adjusted his rucksack over his shoulder. “But depending how large that pirate crew is and how smart the captain is, they might have sent people back to the docks to figure out which ship’s yours.”

“Wonderful.” Theron whirled, hearing muffled yells from inside Kimble’s residence. “We can argue a plan later. Anyone in the town who might help us?”

“With a hundred million credits on the line?”

“If we get to the jungle,” Xaja interjected, “we might be able to lose them and get the shuttle to pick us up there.”

“Yes, while trying to avoid every single animal in that jungle,” Kimble complained. “Remember the wampas from the last time we were here?”

“The most the animals are gonna do is eat us. They won’t stab us in the back for credits.”

“No, but the spice runners in there might.” Kimble gestured out in the general direction of the jungle with his hand. “The town’s expanded since we were last here, and there’s a whole lot of disreputable stuff that goes on there, even by Raider’s Cove standards. We go that way, we’re as good as dead.”

Blaster fire rang out overhead. Theron swore and dropped Xaja’s hand to return fire at the bounty hunters emerging from the house. Kimble took position to his right. “We’re gonna be good as dead if we don’t get out of here!” he snapped at the medic. “Best shot is to run back for the landing zones and get to my shuttle.”

“Right through Raider’s Cove,” Kimble sarcastically retorted as he nailed one of the hunters with a shot to the head. It was almost disturbing that the man who specialized in healing people was equally as good at killing them when necessary. “That can’t possibly go badly at all.”

“The entire town can’t be looking for us,” Xaja interjected. “Not yet, at least -- kriff!” There was the snap-hiss of a saber blade igniting and a blue swirl in front of Theron. The bolt that would have hit him was deflected back to its origins. Shouts from the hunters changed with the recognition of a lightsaber, and Theron cringed inwardly as he remembered just how many bounties still existed for captured Jedi. “Are the lower docks still accessible?”

“If it’s not high-tide and you don’t mind getting chased by crabs or the odd adventurous pirate, yes!” Kimble shot down another hunter. “Assuming, of course, we get there alive.”

“I’m on it.” Theron blinked a command into his implants, and the interface over his left eye showed him a few vulnerable-looking pipes along the side of the building. He angled his blaster up a hair and fired. The shot hit the pipe, but didn’t make it rupture like he’d planned. “For kriff’s sake --”

The lightsaber suddenly flew past him and zoomed over the heads of the bounty hunters, striking the pipe dead-on. Coolant fluid exploded over the hunters, earning screams of pain and fury; it bought Theron enough time to whirl and catch Xaja as she caught the thrown lightsaber and sagged in his arms. “Oww. ‘Kay, maybe… a small mistake…” she groaned as she shakily attempted to regain her balance. She grasped the lapels of Theron’s jacket just to stay upright, shaking like a leaf and far too pale.

“Two years in carbonite and you still have no self-preservation instincts,” Kimble groaned. “The drugs won’t have kicked in fast enough for you to try using the Force!”

“We’ll argue about that later!” Theron stooped and picked Xaja up. “You know any shortcuts?”

“Yeah, but be ready to drop her and start shooting again.” Kimble started running south along the beach, toward the rocky outcropping that separated the town from the shanty village serving as the marketplace. “This way!”

Any situation that ended with the Chancellor, the Supreme Commander, the Chancellor’s most trusted advisors, and the representative from Zakuul all in one office was a bad situation. Jace tried to ignore the throbbing in his head as he stood at rest behind the seat designated as his, too close to the smarmy-looking git that Zakuul had sent as its representative in the Senate. Several nights of too little sleep and too much brandy as he tried to drown out the pain of his son’s suicide was taking its toll on him. Satele was little better: she’d barely said two words in the days since arriving at his apartment door, face ashen and visibly trying to hold her shattered composure together, and failing spectacularly.

He stood to attention as Chancellor Saresh finally entered the room, flanked by two of the Senate guards. “Ambassador Larill,” she tersely greeted the Zakuulan representative as she sat behind her imposing desk. “I trust you have a good reason for calling a meeting like this on such urgent notice?”

“Indeed, Chancellor. The declaration of war is an urgent matter, is it not?”

Jace’s eyes widened, then narrowed suspiciously at the Zakuulan’s words. What declaration of war? Even if Saresh had been pushing for executive administrative power over the course of the war, any declarations of war (whether by or against the Republic) would have had to have crossed his desk. And he knew that no such notice had come to his attention.

Saresh’s eyes bulged, and her mouth opened and closed twice before she finally snapped back at the Zakuulan. “What do you mean, the declaration of war? The Republic has done nothing but honour the treaty terms your Emperor imposed on us!”

“Have you, then? Then explain this to me, Chancellor…” Larill rested his hands on the desk and leaned forward into Saresh’s space. “Why was there a Republic saboteur laying a plan to attack the Spire’s civilian population?”

“A Republic… what?”

“I know you heard me.” He levelled a cold gaze at the Chancellor. “We have surveillance footage and eyewitness accounts of a reported Republic asset setting highly explosive detonite charges across the Spire. Had he been able to activate them, he would have killed thousands, if not millions, of my people. Sending a spy to my planet with the intention to commit an act of terrorism constitutes an act of war, Chancellor.”

“We sent no spies to Zakuul, and certainly no saboteurs! Civilian-targeted terrorism is beneath the Republic’s standards.” Saresh had regained something of her composure, and her shock had morphed into fury. “If you seek combatants more inclined to attack civilians, you should look at the Empire. Their spies fake my peoples’ accent well enough.”

Larill’s eyes narrowed as a malicious smile spread over his face. “Ah, but would someone from the Sith Empire have attacked my people for the sake of rescuing one of your own?” The smile widened. “Your terrorist was interrupted before he could set off the charges, but he did manage to commit another act of terrorism while he fled: He aided the escape of the Outlander assassin responsible for the murder our Immortal Emperor Valkorion. A former member of your Jedi Order, that woman is potentially more dangerous than even he is.”

“… The Outlander assassin? It’s a myth. No such person from the Republic ever made it onto Zakuul to --”

“Enough of your lies!” The ambassador slammed down a holotransmitter and activated it. The lights formed to show two rotating human faces: one male, one female. “You will surrender the terrorist and the assassin to Zakuulan custody, or we will declare war on the Republic -- and this time, no treaty will save you.”

Jace felt the blood drain out of his face — not at the Zakuulan’s words, but at the two images he saw rotating on Saresh’s desk. The woman he recognized; everyone in the higher-up ranks of Republic Command knew Jedi Master Xaja Taerich, or at least knew of her. He’d only spoken with her over the holo a couple of times, but had been impressed by her courage and her attitude of ‘do what needs doing, figure out the diplomatic questions later.’ He’d been as upset as the rest of the Republic when he heard of her death aboard Darth Marr’s flagship (even if he quietly judged her for being there in the first place). The idea that she could be the infamous assassin was outrageous.

The male face made his heart break, and he stomped out the tendril of hope before it could take root. Theron… it can’t be you. Why you?

Saresh’s eyes narrowed as she studied the faces. “The woman, according to all Republic intelligence, is long dead. Xaja Taerich was killed by your forces immediately before the war broke out. I don’t have the man, but I can identify him for you.” She either didn’t see Jace’s eyes widen in horror, or ignored it. “His name is Theron Shan, and he is a disavowed rogue agent --”

Was a disavowed rogue agent.” Jace almost wasn’t aware that he’d spoken until Larill raised a questioning eyebrow at him and Saresh shot him a murderous glare. “According to my… personal sources, Theron Shan is dead. He was killed several days ago.” Those words still hurt to say, as though every time he spoke them, they were made more real. If he ignored them, perhaps he could imagine that his son still lived…

“Your sources are incorrect, Commander Malcom.” The Zakuulan dismissively turned away from the grizzled veteran. “As are yours, Chancellor. Either that, or you’re lying to me to protect this… Taerich and Shan. Where are they?”

“If I had either of them, I’d give them to you on a platter,” Saresh snapped, and now Jace was convinced she was actively ignoring his glare. She knew Theron had been a personal favourite agent of his, even if she didn’t know of their familial connection as far as Jace knew. “Master Taerich was an arrogant, rebellious traitor to the Republic, and Agent Shan was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Republic military personnel and civilians on Ziost. If they still lived, I would be delighted to hand them over to you and rid myself of two nuisances.”

Theron Shan and Xaja Taerich were two of the best assets the Republic had! Jace silently raged as his fist clenched behind his back. And this is how you honour their memory?!

“Oh, I can assure you that they live still. These images were taken only three days ago.” Larill smirked cruelly. “Emperor Arcann is most displeased with this act of rebellion from the Republic, Chancellor. You will give me the terrorist and the assassin.”

“If I knew where they were, I’d point you right to them! I would hand them over in slave collars!”

“Big words mean nothing without actions.” Larill turned and sauntered out of the office. “You have one standard week to produce the two assets, or Emperor Arcann will retaliate. I wonder what world he’ll burn first… Balmorra? Dantooine? Coruscant itself?”

The door to the office hissed closed, and for a long minute there was silence. Saresh finally lunged to her feet and whirled to face Jace, ignoring the rest of her advisors. “Where is he, Malcom?” she snarled. “I want him -- now.”

“What makes you think I know where Theron is? My last report indicated he was dead!” No way was Jace mentioning that his knowledge came from the suicide note Theron had sent him. “If he actually does live…”

“I expect you to know where he is because he’s your bastard son!” The Chancellor exclaimed. “It’s his life or the entire Republic, Commander. I know which one I would choose.”  She narrowed her eyes at him, leaning across the table. “Find him -- ask his mother, for all I care -- and drag his sorry shebs back here or give me coordinates to give to Zakuul!”

Saresh pushed herself back to stand tall with a huff. “And where you find him, you’ll probably find Taerich. They always seemed to be joined at the hip.” She smirked, giving a snort of derisive laughter. “Like father, like son.”

Jace’s face drained of all colour as the furious Chancellor stalked out of the room, followed by her entourage of guards and advisors. How did she know…? Theron. I need to find Theron. What he was going to do after he found his son, he wasn’t sure yet.

He was pounding on Marcus Trant’s office door twenty minutes later, and sighed in relief when the SIS Director finally let him in. “Finally. I need to talk to you. It’s about -- ”

“Theron? I was just about to call you.” Marcus handed Jace a datapad. “You need to read this. I heard the ultimatum to Saresh about a minute before I saw this.”

“What --” Jace fell back into a chair as Arcann’s broadcasted message scrolled before his eyes. Images of the two supposed rogues that Zakuul was hunting matched what Larill showed Saresh in the meeting — and the male looked so much like Theron that Jace’s heart skipped a beat. It was an identical match, down to the implants and the haircut and the facial expression. Jace was reasonably sure Theron didn’t have a twin brother.

“One of my agents thinks he’s spotted Theron on Rishi, with a woman who might be Master Taerich. That intel’s only come in an hour ago.” Marcus rested his elbows on his desk and watched Jace absorb the news. “Kriff whatever suicide note Theron sent you — he’s alive, Jace. Alive and getting into more trouble than usual.”

“My son…” Jace set the datapad down and raked his hands over his scarred face, grateful for Marcus tactfully turning his head and ignoring the tear trickling out of the Supreme Commander’s eye. He coughed, regaining his composure. “How soon can your people get in contact with him and get him to safety?”

His life, or the entire Republic. Jace felt sick knowing that he was prioritizing his son’s safety over the people he’d sworn to protect… but he couldn’t betray Theron. Not like this. Not now.

“He’s been actively avoiding SIS contact since he left Coruscant,” Marcus grunted in frustration and picked up his half-empty mug of caf. Taking a sip, he frowned, then put it down. “If that is actually Master Taerich with him, we might be able to reach her. I have a report that one affiliate of the Order was last sighted on Rishi fairly recentl --” He paused as a text tone sounded in the office. “That’s not mine.”

“It’s mine,” Jace said. He numbly reached for his comm, recognizing the tone: it was customized for Theron’s messages. The last time he’d heard that sound, he’d screamed his denial of his son’s suicide note and thrown the device across the room after trying to call Theron and not getting an answer…

Not dead yet. Can’t talk, will explain later. Sorry. T.

“For fuck’s sake, Theron!” Jace shouted at the comm, ignoring Marcus choking on his caf.

Thank the Force for low tide, Xaja thought to herself as the trio hurried through waist-high ocean water. Doc was just in front of them, holding his rucksack with his medical gear on his shoulders to keep the bag dry. Theron was only a step or two behind the medic, still holding Xaja in his arms and frequently casting worried glances over his shoulder. Xaja had offered to get down and run on her own when the throbbing in her head from using the Force had eased somewhat, but Theron had only adjusted his grip on her and refused to set her down.

It was probably a fortunate thing for Xaja, if less so for Theron. She was short enough that the water height would have impeded her movements more than it did the men with her, even without the lingering muscle weakness. Doc’s medicines had made her feel much better, but she could tell she wasn’t whole yet.

The trio darted into the shadows that Bootlegger’s Market cast over the water and Doc took a quick look around. “I don’t see any pirates or crabs yet,” he hissed. “How far away’s your shuttle, Shan?”

“On the other side of the market, naturally,” Theron muttered as he finally set Xaja down on her feet and kept an arm around her back to steady her. “You okay?”

“Yeah, better than I was.” Xaja gave Theron a smile, then craned her neck around to look for any signs of pursuit. “Those hunters won’t be far behind us…”

“Yeah. We need to keep moving. I don’t feel like dying today.” Doc resettled his rucksack on his back, well above the water. “Let’s move.”

“If we can find somewhere with a news terminal on the way, so much the better,” Theron said as he hurried alongside Doc. He held Xaja’s hand tightly, half to support her, half to ensure he couldn’t lose her in the darkness under the docks. “I want to find this bounty posting and see who wants our heads this badly.”

“We can narrow that down with who can afford to pay that much for your heads,” Doc muttered. “Good news is, if we turn you in to whoever’s looking for you, we can probably get enough to afford the cure for the carboni --”

“Not an option,” Xaja quickly said, giving Doc a glare. “We’re not turning Theron in, even if they’re offering the cure itself.”

“I was kidding!” Doc protested.

“Thanks, Kimble,” Theron growled. He tugged Xaja closer to his side, frowning back over his shoulder. “They should have been following us by now,” he muttered. “Why aren’t they?”

“I, for one, am not complaining about that,” Doc retorted.

The spy sighed. “will be if we’re walking into a trap,” he hissed.

“There were a few other routes we could have taken to get back to the shore and the town itself once we were off the beach,” Xaja pointed out. “Maybe they think we took one of those?”

“Things never go that easily,” Theron grumbled. “There’s gotta be a trap in here.”

“Besides the spice runners, the odd pirate, and the crabs?” Doc looked around. “I don’t see anything else.”

Xaja frowned, considering risking opening her senses to the Force. The splash of ocean water against her thighs made her look down and frown. Hadn’t that just been at her knees? “Doc, what time does the tide come in?”

“Mid-day, usually around 13:00.”

Theron frowned, then blinked in that strange way that let Xaja know he was interacting with his implants, and his eyes went wide. “Would now be a bad time to let you know that it’s 12:53?”

“Kriffing hell,” Doc groaned. “This is not how I thought today was going to go when I woke up this morning.” He squinted into the darkness. “I think the nearest access to surface-level is this way.”

“I guess now we’re going to find out if all of Raider’s Cove is actively gunning for us,” Xaja muttered as she hurried beside Theron. “Is that better or worse than drowning under the docks?”

“Better, I think,” Theron quickly responded. “We can shoot the bounty hunters and get intel while we’re up there. We can’t exactly do that against the ocean.”

“I dunno, drowning sounds like it would be less painful,” Doc piped up.

“If we’re dying here, I want to die fighting,” Theron grumbled. “Not swimming.”

“Guys, maybe less talk about ways to die and more trying to actively avoid dying…?”

“You started it, Red.”

“And now I’m ending it! I’m not kriffing dying until I’ve found a way to kick Arcann’s ass for freezing me for two years!”

Two run-ins with giant shellback crabs and several long minutes of running through rapidly-rising seawater later, and Theron finally ran up the ramp to the market thoroughfare. He immediately dodged between two buildings and shifted to the side as Xaja hurried up beside him, Kimble right behind her. “I vote we never do that again,” the spy muttered as he bent over and focused on breathing. He was far from out of shape, but running and swimming through water that, by the time they’d escaped the lower dock levels, had been up to his chest was exhausting.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I agree with you,” Kimble said as he looked over his shoulder. “Good news is, the meds are still dry.”

“Good,” Xaja mumbled as she rested her back against the wall and closed her eyes. She was shaking, and Theron didn’t think it was from feeling cold this time. He worriedly frowned, placing a hand on her shoulder. She opened her eyes again and gave him a weary smile. “I’m okay, just drained.”

“I can believe it.” What had been chest-high for him and Kimble had been nearly shoulder-high for the small Jedi, and there had been a moment of panic for the spy when he almost lost her in the dark water. He leaned in and kissed her forehead, half to reassure himself that she was all right. “Keep breathing, okay? Take it easy for a second. Kimble, can you --”

“On it.” Kimble was already moving over to check on Xaja. “Any muscle spasms? Dizziness? Migraines…?”

Theron crept back out of the alley as he heard Xaja’s negative answers to Kimble’s questions, carefully looking around. No signs of pursuit; no prickles on the back of his neck warning him of danger; no pirates suspiciously looking around for someone matching his description. He frowned, slowly nodded, and made his way over to a public data terminal. Let’s see if Xaja’s the subject of any new bounty postings.

It was easy enough for him to slice into the terminal’s files and connect to the HoloNet, but he didn’t even have to go to a specific bounty forum before the broadcast flashed through his vision. What's worse, he wondered, realising we're both going to be hunted by everyone and their mother, or… did they find the explosives? If Xaja ever finds out about that… His face drained of all colour as he mechanically downloaded the broadcast to his implants, then turned and felt his heart leap into his throat when he saw a couple of well-armoured individuals walking down the causeway. More bounty hunters? Or would Arcann have sent agents from Zakuul across the galaxy to find us? He slipped through the crowd and just avoided the hunters’ sight as he ducked back into the alley.

Xaja looked up as Kimble put away his scanner, apparently satisfied with whatever he’d seen in the results. “I was starting to worry, Theron,” she said, then frowned. “Are you all right? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Gotta agree with her,” Kimble agreed as he squinted at Theron. “You sure you’re okay?”

“For now,” Theron said. He cast a glance over his shoulder. “But we won’t be okay if we don’t get off Rishi now.” Making eye contact with Xaja, he grimaced. He hated having to say this to her. “The bounty’s legit. Arcann’s after both of us. He doesn’t have our names yet, but it’s only a matter of time.”

Xaja paled visibly despite the shadowy alley. “Fierfek. Where can we run to?”

“I don’t know,” Theron confessed. “We’ll figure that out when we’re not here.” He took Xaja’s hand and looked at Kimble. “You’re not on that bounty yet, but…”

“If word gets out I’m helping you, they’ll add me fast enough.” Kimble set his jaw in determination. “I’m going with you. Someone's gotta keep track of these meds and keep Xaja alive.”

“Good.” Xaja gave the medic a tight smile and stepped back out to the alley exit with Theron. “We’re close to the shuttle, right?”

“Ish. If we’re lucky we might be able to get off-world before those hunters realize we didn’t drown.” Theron stepped out of the alley after taking another hard look around. No immediate danger— he started hurrying toward the docks with Xaja at his side, Kimble on her other side. Don’t make eye contact; don’t draw attention, he silently repeated in his head, over and over again. Just act casual and maybe nobody will notice. Ten more metres passed underfoot. So far so good. See, the ramp’s just ahead. You’re just fine…

The first blaster shot whizzed by his ear. Theron acted on instinct as he whirled and shoved Xaja down, trying to identify the source of that shot. “Shuttle’s two hundred metres to the left, preflight checks are done. Run!”

“Easier said than done!” Kimble yelled back, opening fire. Theron glanced over, finding the medic taking aim at the pirates swarming the causeway. He squeezed off two shots, taking down two of the pursuers. “What’s your next brilliant escape plan?”

Theron loudly swore and started shooting at the pirates, pressing his back against a stack of crates for cover. “I’m making this up as I go!”

“Oh, isn’t that reassuring!”

“Can you two quit arguing for five minutes?” Xaja snapped as she activated one of her lightsabers and spun the blade, deflecting two shots back to the pirates. One man dropped dead, another staggered from a wound. “If we can’t make it to the shuttle, can it make it to us?”

“As long as nobody’s identified and boarded it,” Theron muttered as he connected to the shuttle’s piloting systems through the implants again. “ETA of forty seconds, we’re making this a running jump again.”

“Great.” Kimble flinched from a shot that bounced off a lamppost beside his head. “There’s no possible way this could go wrong.”

“There’s only room for one cynic in this group, and that’s me, Kimble!”

“For kriff’s sake, you two! Not the time or --” Xaja cried out and fell to her knees, lightsaber deactivating. Theron paled and grabbed her as she sagged, and felt his heart nearly stop when he saw the ugly blaster burn on her left shoulder.

“Hey, ‘s’okay , Red,” Kimble quickly soothed as he crouched on Xaja’s other side behind the crates. He holstered his blaster in favour of pulling the injured Jedi upright. “You know, if you wanted our attention that bad, you didn’t have to get yourself shot to do it.”

Xaja snorted, although the motion made her wince and clutch onto Theron’s jacket sleeve. “Oww. Oh, that hurt.”

“How do you attract the worst sorts of trouble?” Theron asked as he wrapped an arm around Xaja’s waist to keep her upright.

“Traveling with you?”

Theron wasn’t above glaring at the pretty Jedi, no matter how much he cared for her. “Thanks so much for that.” A smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth until the whine of his shuttle engines drew his attention sharply to the right. “Kimble, can you get her on board if I cover you?”

“On it.” The medic grunted as he took Xaja’s weight from Theron, hauling the Jedi’s uninjured arm over his shoulders as the shuttle appeared beside them. “How close can you get?”

“That’s as close as we’re getting before I start hitting the causeway. Jump!” Theron spun to cover the medic and Jedi, both blasters firing to give them cover from the pirates. He heard Kimble grumble incoherently, followed by the sounds of two humans jumping off the causeway. There were no sounds of splashing from anyone hitting the water below. That was good. Edging backward toward the ramp, blaster fire was visible out of the corner of his eye. He’d barely noticed Kimble leaning out of the shuttle and shooting at the pirates before he whirled and took a running leap to the ramp. “Xaja’s on?” he asked as he landed in a crouch and ran into the shelter of the vessel’s interior.

“I’m here,” Xaja’s strained voice answered. The Jedi was slouched in one of the chairs, gingerly trying to wriggle her injured arm out of the jacket sleeve and wincing with every movement. “You’re not hurt?”

“No, I --” Theron cringed as the blaster bolt slammed into the side of his shuttle as Kimble slammed the control for the ramp to raise. “Let’s move! Kimble, see what you can do about that shot while I’m getting us out of here.”

“Already on it! Do you have any sort of decent medical equipment on this thing?”

“First aid kit’s in the first locker on your left,” Theron called over his shoulder as he ran for the pilot’s seat. Okay, where’s close enough for a short jump from here…

“This is almost a worse crime against medicine than Red’s attempts to do anything with kolto,” Kimble loudly complained as he scowled at the depleted contents of the first aid kit.

“I heard that!” Xaja growled, although the words were lost in a hiss as Theron’s piloting made her shift to the left and bump her shoulder. “Oh, kriff…”

“Easy. I gotcha.” Kimble set the kit down; Theron could hear him gingerly removing Xaja’s jacket so he could look at the burn. “Oh, that’s hardly anything compared to what you picked up on Makeb, remember?”

“I try not to remember that entire month-long shit-show...”

The twitch in the back of his mind made Theron look up at the same time that Xaja did. A second later, a turbolaser bolt slammed into the water just to the starboard side of the shuttle, making Theron yell as he righted the vessel. “Kriffing hell, they didn’t wait long to start chasing us!” He gunned the engines through Rishi’s atmosphere and scowled when he noticed no less than three ships on his tail, with more coming up. “Hang on, this is gonna get rough!”

“Why does anyone do anything with you, Shan?” Kimble loudly complained. “Everything you touch becomes a disaster!”

“I resent that!” Theron plugged in nearby coordinates, just enough for a short hyperspace jump to throw the pirates off their track. “Jumping to hyperspace in three…”

Another ship suddenly emerged into real-space just over their heads. Theron barely had time to register the make of the ship as an X-70B Phantom, but didn’t have the chance to wonder why that ship was familiar before he was swerving around it and gunning it for hyperspace.

 “Holy -- !” Reanden pulled up hard on the Shadow’s controls as he came out into realspace virtually on top of a nondescript shuttle hauling ass away from Rishi. And the spy could understand why — he counted no less than three ships, all tagged by local gangs, jumping into hyperspace immediately after the shuttle. Another half-dozen swarmed in the atmosphere.

“I don’t envy whoever’s in that shuttle,” Dr. Lokin dryly remarked as he watched the ships vanish into space. “You don’t suppose…”

“One small ship being chased by two or three pirate gangs?” Reanden’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bounty posting as high as the one Arcann’s put out. If that is Shan’s ship, they’re going to have everyone chasing them across the galaxy.”

“Your daughter’s proving to be more difficult to keep track of than your sons, combined.” Lokin shook his head. “Are we pursuing?”

“Damn straight we are. SCORPIO, calculate where that ship’s trajectory will put them at. We’re going after them.”

The droid gave Reanden what might be described as a condescending look, but she obeyed the order. “The shuttle’s current trajectory puts it in line for arriving in Manda’s orbital path within a standard hour. The pursuing pirate ships will not be far behind.”

“And neither will we.” The old spy quickly plugged in the coordinates, and the Shadow leapt into hyperspace in pursuit of the pirates and their target.

Chapter Text

“I have names for you, Your Majesty.” Larill’s blue holofigure shimmered in the air before the Eternal Throne. “The assassin is a former Jedi Knight named Xaja Taerich; and the terrorist, a rogue intelligence operative, Theron Shan. Chancellor Saresh is not fond of them, and, as a result, was more than willing to give up their identities. Apparently Taerich is a traitor despite being hailed a Republic war hero, and Shan, she believes, is an incompetent idiot.”

“And she did not surrender not the assets themselves?” Arcann frowned behind his mask.

“The Chancellor and her people were convinced that Taerich was long dead, and the Supreme Commander stated that Shan had been killed recently.” He paused. “We may be dealing with rogue, unsanctioned elements.”

“Perhaps Shan was sent to the Spire on a suicide mission,” Arcann mused. “If the Republic’s SIS authorized it, Commander Malcom would have been aware of it, even if he neglected to inform the Chancellor.”

“And thus be surprised to learn of the plan failure and Shan improvising something completely unsanctioned.” Larill stroked his bearded chin in thought. “I do not believe his shock came from a failed plan -- he was nowhere near angry enough. He seemed to be upset over Shan’s reported death, perhaps for personal reasons.”

“The terrorist, connected to the Supreme Commander? That would be important information to determine, Larill.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Larill seemed to glance at a datapad on his end of the call. “Once I received their names, I did some prying into Taerich and Shan’s files. They were not strangers -- they had worked together before on several missions, some classified. Reports indicate that they may have been lovers.”

“Lovers? That might explain why he abandoned his task to set off the charges when he found her frozen.” Arcann tapped his metal fingers against his mask-covered chin. “Get me everything the Republic archives have on them, and their intelligence services’ search for them. And get me everything on Commander Malcom as well.”

“It will be done.” Larill bowed. “Do you have any other commands for me?”

“Given that I do not know how competent the SIS’ remaining agents are, I am sending you a report of a possible sighting on an Outer Rim world, Rishi. Taerich and Shan may have been seen with an accomplice. Find what you can about this man.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Larill vanished, and Arcann stood up to pace in front of the Throne.

Xaja Taerich… yes, that was her name. He still could clearly remember the fire in her eyes as she stood bravely over the corpse of her Sith colleague; the way she’d spat furious words and very creative insults at his father, even though her hands shook with fear in binder cuffs. Anyone who could stand up to Valkorion in such a manner was more than able to kill him, and she’d been more than willing to do the deed. Arcann remembered well being knocked back by his father’s lightning strike, looking up in time to see the Jedi pouncing from on high like an avenging angel, driving her lightsabers through Valkorion’s back.  He had been grudgingly impressed by her courage. Still, that courage all but deserted her in the freezing chamber: her terrified screams still echoed in his mind in quiet moments.

Freezing you to cover up my role in my father’s death was a mistake, Arcann mused. I should have just executed you. You were still weak if you felt fear like that at the end. But he hadn’t brought himself to order the death of the pretty Jedi woman. Something about her was… fascinating. That much fire in her spirit, that much power within her grasp… Arcann wished he’d had the idea to convert her into the Knights of Zakuul before he’d frozen her. She would have been an asset to rival even Vaylin.

And if that spy had worked with her before… any man with an inclination towards women would have fallen for Taerich’s alluring presence. Had they truly been lovers, it was little wonder that Shan risked everything to find and rescue her. He must have been powerful in his own way to sway her to him. Yet the spy hadn’t used a lightsaber during their escape from the Spire; Arcann had seen the footage, watched him using ordinary blaster pistols. He’d also seen the way that Taerich had stayed very close to him, and how the spy had angled himself so as to protect her…

The Emperor snarled. He would not be jealous of a likely-Force-blind spy, of all people.

And if she’s a Republic war hero as claimed, the Supreme Commander would want her back for morale and strategic purposes. I would have, if I had been in his position. Was this a joint effort with remnants of the Jedi Order? Arcann frowned.  Most of the Order itself had fallen on the battlefield. Those that survived were grief stricken and hollow. They scattered to the far reaches of the galaxy and silenced their sabers. A plan to retrieve a hero of the Republic could achieve a moral victory, reigniting their will, and stoking the embers of war yet again.  Was someone -- Commander Malcom -- attempting to push the Republic to the brink of war yet again?

Arcann frowned. It was possible that the Commander knew nothing, that Shan was acting alone. There’s only one way to find out,  he thought. Until Shan and Taerich are found, Malcom will be our only link. I will know the originator of this insult, and they will answer for it.

 The shuttle whined as it exited hyperspace just over the small world known as Manda, verging on the border between the Mid-Rim and the Outer Rim. Theron swooped down toward the planet’s atmosphere, his gaze shifting between the viewscreen and the detection icons around the shuttle. “I’m gonna try and set a new destination before the hunters figure out where we’ve gone,” he called over his shoulder. “How are you doing, Xaja?”

“Shoulder hurts, but I’ve had worse.” Her voice sounded tight with pain, but she didn’t sound weak or frail anymore. That was already improvement. Theron risked a glance back to see her sitting upright on a chair, the jacket pulled back off her shoulder so Kimble could treat the wound. It was a pretty gruesome blaster shot, but Theron could already see that it wasn’t life-threatening, just painful. That was good. That was very good.

The proximity alarm sounded as pursuing ships dropped out of hyperspace just behind them, and Theron swore eloquently as he banked the shuttle hard to the left. It just got worse. “Dammit, hold on! We got company!”

“Can we lose them on the planet’s surface?” Kimble shouted as he stumbled, dropping some piece of medical equipment with the movement.

“Manda doesn’t have much to hide us,” Theron answered as he maneuvered upward and around. For a moment, one of the enemy ships was in front of him; he opened fire and missed, but the shot did force the hunters to adjust their course out of the line of fire. “Our best chance is to jump and try to lose them.”

“Because that worked so well last time,” Kimble sarcastically commented.

“Do you have any better ideas?” Theron snapped over his shoulder, groaning when he saw another late-coming ship enter the fray. Laser fire peppered the sky in front of him, making him jerk hard to the side to not get hit.

“… No,” Kimble grudgingly admitted, “but there’s got to be a better option than --”

Four ships against one shuttle? The odds were never in their favour. Theron grunted as a shot hit the side wing of his shuttle and made the vessel jerk. “Kriffing hell. New plan!”

“Great! What’s the new plan?”

“Step one is to not die.” Theron brought the shuttle around and fired, and counted himself lucky that he managed to get a glancing blow on one of the ships pursuing. “Step two…” He scowled at the system warnings blazing across the console. “We’re not hyperspace jumping, not unless we want to die terribly in the tunnel.”

Xaja let loose with a couple of decidedly non-Jedi-like expletives that made Theron feel at once startled and immensely proud of her. “So now what? Land on Manda and hope there’s another shuttle we can steal if we can’t repair this one?” 

“Assuming we survive long enough to reach the surface, yes --” Theron blinked in surprise as the late-comer ship suddenly swooped over his viewscreen and opened fire. He recognized it as the Phantom -class ship he’d nearly run into while fleeing Rishi, and for a moment couldn’t decide what surprised him more: the firepower of the supposedly civilian-class shuttle, or the fact that it scored a direct hit on one of the hunter vessels, igniting it to dust. “Huh. Competition for the prize?”

“What?” Kimble appeared at Theron’s side and looked over his shoulder. “Looks like someone doesn’t want to share a hundred million credits.”

The fine hair on the back of Theron’s neck stood on end. “Either that or we might have a friend,” he mused, then yelled as another hit nearly tore the controls out of his hands. “Kriff it. We’re going down!” He aimed the shuttle toward the planet’s surface and descended hard, eyes darting between the radar behind him and the viewscreen in front. The three other ships were in close pursuit, although one suddenly disappeared in another ball of flame. He didn’t have time to wonder if the Phantom had been protecting them, taking out the competition, or had just been shot down themselves -- Manda’s atmosphere was rapidly clouding his vision. Maybe landing in the middle of a storm will give us enough cover to escape.  

He’d never been on Manda before, and knew only enough to know that the planet was scarcely populated and supposedly spacious enough for shuttles to land with little problem. Must have picked the one mountainous area to land on, he silently grumbled as he veered sharply around a mountainside, then yelled as a third shot to the back of the ship sent him spiraling further downward, sweeping into a valley.  

“This is gonna hurt! Brace for impact!” he shouted back. Jungle trees swarmed his vision and his poor shuttle ricocheted over and between them. His chest pounded against his yoke, his head smacked the bulkhead. The shuttle finally made contact with the ground -- hard -- and skidded for kilometers, a cleared trail behind them over the rocky terrain.. 

He was still for several long seconds after the crashed shuttle stopped moving, mentally checking to ensure each of his systems responded. He found he had to focus on breathing before he could move. “Xaja? Kimble?” he breathlessly called out. 

“Still here, Theron.” That was Xaja’s voice. Soft and thready, it sounded like she was in pain. When he crawled out of the pilot’s seat and stumbled up to her side, however, she was scrambling to her feet and didn’t appear to have been too badly thrown around. Kimble was there, too, but was slowly sitting up. Blood trickled out of cut somewhere on the back of his head, visible in the nape of his neck. “How bad are we doing?”

“Not sure the shuttle’s fixable,” Theron confessed as he braced himself on the table and crouched to check on Kimble, “but I’ve seen worse. You two hurt at all?”

Kimble cracked an eye open to squint up at Theron. As he did so, the former operative could see his pupils were slightly dilated. “You’re bleeding, Shan.” When Theron frowned and patted at his face, he could indeed feel a trickle of blood streaming down from his temple. “Gimme a sec to get up and I can take care of that.” 

“You worry about yourself,” Theron grunted as he helped the medic sit up. “I’m not the one who was knocked flat.” The sudden whine of another rapidly-descending ship made all three of them look sharply up. Each winced despite themselves at the sound of a nearby crash. “That’s not a good sound.” 

“I hope that was one of the hunter ships and not that other sleek lookin’ ship,” Kimble muttered as he slowly maneuvered himself to a chair. 

“Unless that Phantom is looking to keep the payday for themselves,” Theron grunted as he started slowly making his way to the shuttle entrance. He paused beside Xaja as she knelt beside Kimble and dropped a hand to her good shoulder. “I’ll take a look --”

“Theron!” Xaja grabbed his hand and gave him a worried look. “You’re not going out there by yourself!”

“You’re still sick,” Theron said as he kissed her forehead. “And I’m hurt less than you or Kimble are.” He wasn’t going to admit to how woozy and nauseous he felt -- maybe he’d hit his head a little harder than he’d thought. “I’m not going far, Xaja. We need to know how kriffed we are, though.”

Xaja gave him that too-knowing frown he’d received a lot of on Yavin and Ziost, the one where he swore she knew just how terrible he felt. Given the strange bond they seemed to have, it wasn't impossible. “I’m coming with you --” 

“No, you’re not. Kimble needs someone guarding his back, and I’m not letting you risk getting captured.” All three gave a start at the sound of blaster fire and screams outside. “That’s a ship firing,” Theron murmured, frowning in thought. “One of those two ships still has operational weapons systems and they’re low enough to use it on the ground.” 

“Theron, I’m not the only high-value target they’re chasing! You’re worth just as much to them!”

“Look,” he started, “Kimble can’t exactly go investigate with that concussion, and your shoulder’s still out of commission.” He frowned as the sound of blasters and shouting got much closer. A tell-tale thump against the hull spoke to their proximity.. “I’ll be okay, Xaja -- I’ll come back to you, I promise.” He kneeled to kiss her, then stood and crept toward the shuttle exit. 

When he got the door partially opened, the first thing he saw was rain -- and lots of it. He’d landed in the middle of a downpour, and the pursuers hadn’t hesitated to follow him down. If he squinted, he was sure he could see the silhouette of a downed ship nearby in the rain. There were bodies on the ground too, somewhere close to a dozen humanoid figures with different armour styles that he could just see in the dim light. He frowned when he saw a couple more figures skulking around. There was no sign of the last remaining ship that he could see, and he wondered if they’d just done a few low flybys before taking off.

He scowled and slipped out of the shuttle, cringing as the rain immediately plastered his hair down and started trickling down his neck. Blaster drawn, he crept around the side of his vessel and hunkered down in the shadows. There, two figures that he could see approaching, then a third far to the right -- then the third figure crumpled noiselessly, and Theron thought he saw the glint of light off a durasteel blade. But what --

A heavy fist slammed into his gut and made him reel before he was all but thrown against the side of the shuttle. The bounty hunter’s stealth generator shorted out as he loomed over Theron and grabbed him back up by the front of his jacket. “You’re the biggest pain in the ass of a bounty I’ve ever hunted,” he growled. “Zakuul better be up front with those credits they’re offerin’ for you!”

“Toxicity eight!” Theron shouted as he aimed his gauntlet and squeezed his fist. The dart flew out and just missed the bounty hunter, who growled and punched Theron again, earning a wheeze. The spy grunted and snatched up his dropped blaster, aiming it vaguely upward and firing, and earning a holler for his trouble as the shot hit the hunter’s leg. 

“You kriffing Hutt-spawn!” snarled the hunter as he swiped at Theron again. Head still swimming, the spy only just managed to duck out of the way. “It’s a good thing they don’t care about you bein’ alive, just identifiable. I’m gonna kriffin’ rip out your innards an’ then kark up that pretty lady friend you got --” 

Fury made Theron’s vision go red, but he didn’t have time to react as a bright blue lightsaber blade ignited in the darkness. A scream made him aware of another approaching hunter falling into a heap as Xaja ambushed him from the shuttle entrance. Despite only having one working arm, it seemed she could still wield a blade well enough to kill from the shadows, even if she couldn’t stay out of a fight. It was less endearing a trait right now than it had been on Ziost or Manaan. 

“So she is a kriffin’ Jedi,” growled the hunter. He punched Theron hard enough to make the spy see stars and flop bonelessly on the wet ground, then hurried up to the shuttle entrance with a growl. Xaja had to have seen or heard him coming -- Theron could feel a sudden burst of worry and of anger from the tug in his mind that felt like her. The lightsaber hummed as it spun through the rain, steam rising from the blade as Xaja countered the hunter’s attack. Theron groaned as he rolled to his stomach and struggled up to his knees, seeing two more hunters approaching through the darkness. She can’t hold off all of them, he knew, and raised his blaster to shoot.

He never got the chance. A third figure suddenly emerged from a stealth field behind the hunters, and the guy on the left dropped with a spray of what looked like blood, his assassin spinning a dagger with terrifying efficiency. The other whirled and fired in what seemed to be a panic. The assassin neatly avoided the shot and dove in, nice and close. Theron just saw the blade take the hunter through the ribs and watched the hulking humanoid fall. 

A cry behind him drew his attention and the former operative turned just in time to see the hunter knock Xaja against the hull of the shuttle. She dropped with a strangled cry, her lightsaber deactivating as she fell. Blaster fire immediately followed, aimed at the hunter. Looking back, Theron noted the assassin had drawn a blaster, and focused his attention on the hulking mass.

Snarling at the interfering shot, the hunter ignored his Jedi target long enough to fire back at the assassin. The shot seemed to deflect from some sort of protection field the mysterious figure had deployed, and then the assassin was charging, dagger flying from his offhand. Theron heard the ding as the blade missed the target and hit the shuttle door, followed by  the growl as the hunter jumped at the assassin. “They’re mine! That hun’red million credits is mine!”

The assassin didn’t answer, saving his breath to dodge out of the way and shoot from the hip as he moved. I’ve seen that fighting style before, Theron realized with a frown, rising painfully and raising his arm. Where have I seen that? And the ship… some report… He shook his head in an attempt to clear the addled thoughts. Need a clear shot. Guy with the knives might be a friend. At least he’s probably not gonna kill us right off. With how quickly the assassin was moving around the hulking, well-armoured hunter, it was hard to get a clear line of sight. The hunter roared and swung wildly. When he finally landed a blow, the assassin grunted and stumbled backward a step.

It was just enough for Theron. “Toxicity ten,” he snarled, and this time the dart found its target. The hunter fell in a heap, and Theron sagged against the side of the shuttle, warily watching the assassin as he regained his footing and turned in his direction. I really hope you’re not another hunter out to take out the competition, buddy, he wearily thought as the humanoid figure approached. Because I don’t think I can see straight enough to take you down.  

A hand gently yet firmly gripped his chin, and a light shone from the assassin’s other hand. “Oh, good, you’re not dead after all.” That voice sounded all at once entirely too familiar, and Theron suddenly knew exactly where he’d seen the man’s fighting style before. 

“Cipher,” he grunted, and tried to ignore the pain flooding through his chest where he’d been punched by the hunter. “Don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to see you before.” Xaja, at least, wasn’t going to be turned in for the bounty today.

“You are such a pain in the ass, Rookie,” the older spy complained, and a second later Theron yelped as he was smacked upside the back of the head. “And before I forget, Korin says hello.”

Right. Korin probably would have told his father about his best friend’s suicide note. Theron felt himself inwardly cringe. “Yeah, I deserved that,” he grunted. 

“Honestly, he said to punch you, but there’s nowhere I can really punch you that wouldn’t do more damage.” Reanden Taerich pulled Theron around to the back exit of the shuttle with a strength that a man his age really shouldn’t have otherwise had, then looked around in worry. “Xaja?” he called out. Was that fear Theron could hear in the older man’s voice?

“… Dad?” Movement in the shadows from where Xaja had been knocked down and had dropped her lightsaber. Her voice was faint and strained; Theron could sense both pain and a disbelieving, shocked hope. “Are you?…” 

Reanden pulled himself away from Theron to run in the direction of Xaja’s voice and drop to his knees. “Easy, baby girl,” he murmured as he carefully lifted Xaja’s slim frame off the wet ground. His voice changed from a cocky, arrogant older spy to a terrified father. “Oh, honey, look at me. I’m here, kiddo. Dad’s got you, you’re safe --” 

Even in the dim light, Theron could see Xaja throw her uninjured arm around her father’s shoulders and cling to him, and he swore he could see the one-time Cipher Nine’s back shaking as he held his missing daughter close. The sheer relief and sense of protection and safety that he sensed from her through their bond made his own limbs weak -- or was that his throbbing head and aching ribs?

“Kriffing hells, Shan!” was the last thing he heard before his world went black.

When Theron came to, he was immediately assaulted with the scents of antiseptic and kolto, irritatingly bright lights just overhead. “Ah, welcome back, young one,” said a too-cheerful voice. Cracking an eye open, he was immediately greeted with a smirk and a white beard. “That’s one nasty concussion you gave yourself, Agent Shan. You can count yourself fortunate you didn’t puncture one of your lungs with those broken ribs either.”

Lokin , he thought, recognizing the man from the Revanite incident years prior. He sat up slowly -- with assistance from the doctor -- and groaned with the effort.  It offered his first full view of his surroundings. The medbay was unfamiliar, a single bed with a kolto tank in the corner to the right, a desk to his left. It was sleek and clean, with bright lights flooding the area. Has to be the Shadow, he thought. The cipher agent’s personal shuttle had been mentioned numerous times in the reports. It was the first time he, as a former SIS operative, had been afforded the chance to come aboard. He just wished the reason hadn’t been quite so painful .  “Where’re Xaja and Kimble?” he slowly asked when he felt like the ship wasn’t spinning around him and his lunch wasn’t on its way back up. 

“Over here,” Kimble’s voice sounded. Theron looked over, seeing the other man slouching in a seat with a clean bandage around his forehead. “Why didn’t Xaja ever have a medbay like this on the Serenity ? This place is stylish as hell!” 

“Probably something to do with the Order’s budget restraints,” Lokin suggested with a shrug. “Imperial Intelligence had a bit more leeway with their credits.”

Kimble groaned. “Life is so not fair.” 

“Oh, you kids don’t know the half of it,” the elder doctor said with a grin. He looked back to Theron when the other spy tried sliding off the medical bed. “Easy, Shan. That concussion hasn’t healed itself in the last hour. You’re going to be quite a miserable young spy for a bit here.”

“Wonderful.” Theron rested his arms on his knees and bent over for several long minutes to focus on breathing and not throwing up. “Where’s Xaja?” 

“She’s safe, I promise. She and her father are still talking out in the main seating area. They’ve got two years to catch up on, after all.” Lokin started putting away most of his medical gear. “And Agent Taerich’s quite relieved to have her back, as I’m sure you can imagine.” 

“You have no idea.” Reanden appeared in the doorway to medbay. Now that they were in a dry, well-lit area and not fighting, Theron could see the thinner, more drawn features of the older man’s face; the greater amounts of grey peppering his dark hair; the deeper lines around his mouth and eyes. The last two years had not treated Cipher Nine well. “I rather think I owe you one, Shan, much as it pains me to say it.” 

“Can I get that in writing?” 

“No. The fact that you found my daughter alive is the only other reason why I’m not following through on Korin’s request to punch you.”

“I’ll take what I can get.” Theron craned his neck to peer around Reanden. “Xaja?” 

“I’m okay.” Theron’s heart relaxed when the red-headed Jedi appeared beside her father. New bruises were visible along her jaw and cheek, left arm in a sling, but she offered him a tired smile. “We’re all okay, all things considered.” 

“Yes, for being the subject of the single largest bounty posting I’ve ever seen. Fifty million -- each -- just for information leading to a capture.” Reanden shook his head and protectively wrapped an arm around Xaja’s shoulders. “You two are going to be the two most hunted people in the galaxy, and I don’t imagine information on you will be far behind, Kimble.” That earned a groan from the medic. 

Theron grimaced. “Okay. Then we need to figure out a plan to vanish before other hunters start catching up. We’ll have to see if there’s anywhere safe we can hide out.”

“And new transportation.” Reanden frowned in thought. “Your shuttle might be salvageable with enough work, Shan, but it’s already been tagged. SCORPIO picked up some of the chatter above Rishi before we took off after you. The three ships that jumped after you aren’t a concern anymore, but if they were transmitting their coordinates back to their friends, there’s going to be a lot more activity in this system soon.”

“Great.” Theron sighed. “This just made things a lot more difficult.”

“If you think you can stand up and function well enough to salvage anything you desperately need off that shuttle, we can shoot it and make it look like it disintegrated on impact.” The Imperial gestured in the general direction of the site. “It might slow the pursuit enough for us to get you somewhere safe.”

“Do you have somewhere in mind, Dad?” Xaja tilted her head up at her father, pale face drawn with concern. 

“There’s a couple of options. I know the locations of a few different anti-Zakuulan resistance cells that might be able to hide you. If all else fails, we can change your appearances and hide you somewhere on Tatooine or Taris or Hoth -- somewhere nobody will think to look for you.” Reanden absently ran his fingers along Xaja’s hair and the Jedi visibly relaxed into his shoulder. “Your brothers might be able to work something, too. Korin knows most of the underworld, and Sorand has connections to the Mandalorians or plenty of influence within the Empire.” 

“Are he and Shara still a thing?” 

“Yes. They’re adorable.” A grin tugged at Reanden’s mouth for a moment before he sobered again. “We might be able to get you to Lavisar. The old house is supposedly abandoned, so nobody should think to look for you there. It’s not ideal, but…”

“It’ll be something, and better than Hoth… well, warmer than Hoth,” Theron agreed as he finally stood up, holding onto the table -- and Lokin’s arm -- to stay upright. “’Kay, I’ll grab what I can from the shuttle and wipe what I can’t take with.” 

“And with any luck, the burnt-out wreck should make people think you’re dead at a first glance. It won’t hold to a bioscan, but it might buy you enough time to disappear.” Reanden turned and kissed Xaja’s forehead. “Stay put. We’ll be right back.”

“Yes, Dad.” Xaja gave her father a smile, then slipped out from under his arm and gave Theron a hug as he approached. “Are you sure you’re feeling okay?” she murmured with a worried frown.

“I should be asking that about you.” Theron rested his forehead against hers for a moment. “I’ve had way worse than a concussion and a few broken ribs. I’ll be fine.” 

The Jedi still appeared doubtful for a moment, but finally nodded and stretched up to kiss Theron’s cheek. “Okay. You’ll let my dad know if you’re feeling worse?”

Like hell I will. “Of course.” Theron smiled and gave Xaja a chaste kiss, aware of her father lurking nearby. “Back in a sec.” He finally stepped away from her, toward the exit of the medbay. He felt less shaky and weak with every step he took. Whatever Lokin had given him while he was out, it seemed to be helping with the concussion. 

“Here, put this on,” Reanden suddenly said, his voice surprisingly gruff. He shoved a dark, oversized jacket into Theron’s arms. “Your other one’s still drenched and I don’t need you coming down with pneumonia on top of everything else.” 

Theron supposed the jacket was something of a begrudging thank-you for finding his daughter. The older spy waited while he shrugged on the borrowed jacket, then led him to the exit hatch of his ship. Theron had only a few paces in which to admire the sleek interior of the shuttle, but it was long enough to kindle a bit of envy over the obvious budget discrepancies between SIS and Imperial Intelligence.   Was that real wood inlaid in the floor? Reanden’s voice brought him back to the matter at hand. “Your wreck’s about a hundred metres or so away.” 

“That close?” Theron said as he followed Reanden out into the rain and shivered at the wind on his face. At least this jacket was proving waterproof, and warm. “We didn’t see you come down.” 

“Oh, good, the ship that Intelligence spent millions of credits on does have working stealth systems.” The sarcasm was evident even with his back turned to Theron. “You weren’t focusing terribly hard on trying to track us, for obvious reasons.” 

Theron rolled his eyes as he trudged through the trees to the wreck of his shuttle. “How did you know where we were? I heard what you said about picking up chatter over Rishi, but…” 

“I’ve got contacts everywhere, kid. One of them saw you in Raider’s Cove and sent me a message. I got there just in time to see you hauling jets away from the planet and jumped after you.” 

That made sense, Theron reasoned. He nodded as his shuttle came into view and scrambled in the narrow entrance. Either Kimble had opened the door just enough to let himself out, or someone had forced the shuttle open enough to get him out. “Far as physical items go, there’s not a heck of a lot,” he commented. “Kimble’s going to want his medic bag though… Xaja doesn’t have a lot on board that she wasn’t already wearing.”

“Understandable.” Reanden accepted Kimble’s rucksack as Theron handed it over and set to accessing his computer systems. “Shan… Theron . I need to know something.” 

“Hmm?” Theron looked up at the use of his first name and quirked an eyebrow. “Yeah?” 

“She was missing for over two years. Every scrap of information that I pulled off of Zakuul indicated that she was dead. Even the rumours of an Outlander assassin all came up with false leads and dead ends.” Reanden leaned over and gripped Theron’s shoulder. The younger man paused in his work and turned to meet an intensely piercing brown-eyed stare. “How the hell did you know she was alive and where she was?” 

Theron hesitated for a long second. How much did Korin tell him?… “I didn’t,” he finally admitted. “Finding her was a lucky accident. I had no intel on her either.” 

Reanden’s eyes narrowed. “What were you doing on Zakuul that had you finding her? All Korin told me was that you’d sent him a suicide note from there.” 

“Kriff.” Theron hunched his shoulders and sighed, trying to figure out a way to get out of this. “Korin and I had been tossing around the idea of finding a way to strike at Zakuul where Arcann thought he was safe, so I’d gone in on reconnaissance. Then I found Xaja alive and, well… the rest is history.” 

“Almost, kid. How did that suicide note play into this?”

“I’d had a note programmed to a dead man’s switch in my head, just in case.” Theron tapped at one of his implants and tried not to think about how desperately he hoped the older spy believed his lie. “It malfunctioned, and I didn’t catch it until we were on Rishi.” 

“Hmmm.” Reanden appeared to let the subject drop for the moment. “So Arcann had her as a prisoner this entire time… how the hell did he get her off the flagship alive?” 

“She doesn’t know.” Theron shrugged as he started downloading essential data into his implants. “She got knocked out on the ship, and woke up en route to Zakuul. They took Marr alive too, and he was actually executed. They were going to execute Xaja too, but Arcann freed her long enough for her to kill the old Emperor.” 

“So the assassin rumours were true.” Reanden frowned. “And Arcann imprisoned her to cover up his role in his father’s assassination…”

“It gets better. She swears up and down that Valkorion was Vitiate’s latest form.”

What ?” Fury shot through Reanden’s eyes, mingled with disbelief and horror. “The son of a bitch was on Zakuul the entire time ? Then what the fuck did we see on Yavin and Ziost?” He drew a steadying breath. “He’s actually dead this time, though?” 

“He’d better be,” Theron growled. “I don’t think Xaja could deal with him a third time.”

“I wouldn’t be able to if I was in her boots. Oh, the poor kid…” Reanden raked a hand through his mussed-up hair. “So Arcann used her to kill Vitiate, and then imprisoned her and made the rest of us think she was dead. That bastard’s going to pay for this.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually agree with you on something,” Theron muttered. “I think I’ve pulled everything valuable off of here that I need. Wiping the rest of the data now.”

“Good.” Reanden hiked the rucksack over his shoulder and started poking into the storage bins on board the small shuttle. “Anything else essential you need out of here? Diaries, perhaps? Porn holos?”

“Very funny,” Theron retorted. “Just a sec.” He crouched beside the bunk and opened a secret compartment in the floor, and retrieved three items. The set of old dog tags bearing his father’s combat identification details went around his neck and the worn-looking journal covered in his mother’s handwriting was neatly tucked into his jacket. The one holo of Xaja that he’d been able to preserve from their entire first stint on Rishi disappeared into his pants pocket, and then he stood up. “Good to go.”

Reanden nodded and stepped back toward the shuttle exit. “Works for me,” he replied. “Let’s move. We’ll shoot out the shuttle and take off; figure out our next step from there.” He waited for Theron to shut the shuttle door from the outside, then fell into step beside him as they walked back to the Shadow. They didn’t speak for the short, cold journey, both lost in their own thoughts. Theron, for his part, was too busy pondering their next moves. Didn’t Korin say he was working with one of the resistance cells in the Outer Rim? Reanden’s gotta know  where he is. Hiding out on Tatooine won’t help us find a long-term cure for Xaja, but maybe it’ll give us a chance to- His eyes widened. I didn’t tell him about the carbonite poisoning. Kriff. Maybe it won’t-

The Shadow was a scene of chaos when the two spies reboarded. Reanden’s eyes narrowed as he hurried up the ramp, hand reaching for his blaster pistol. “What the hell’s going on? What -- Xaja?” Theron followed the older agent on board and felt his face drain of colour when he saw Xaja laying on one of the couches in the seating lounge, far too pale.

The Jedi turned her head at the sound of her father’s voice and gave both him and Theron a sheepish look. “Had another spasm,” she whispered. “Took out my entire leg.” Theron could sense how upset she was with this development and her embarrassment at everyone fussing over her. Fear lurked beneath it all.

“And there’s nothing in this medbay that -- oh, good, you got my bag.” Kimble stood up from where he’d been crouching by Xaja’s side and hurried over to take the rucksack from Reanden. “Those meds shouldn’t have worn off so fast,” he muttered as he hurried back over to his patient.

“What are you talking about?” Reanden sounded as anxious as an Imperial-trained spy could. “Shan, what did you not tell me?”

“Fierfek.” Theron shot the older spy a wary look. “I might’ve forgotten to mention that when I found Xaja, she was in carbonite. The Zaks karked up the carbonization process, and Kimble says it poisoned her.”

“All through her nervous system,” Kimble added as he started rifling through his medical gear. “You got anything in that medbay that’ll help with neurological damage, Lokin?”

“Neurological poisoning from carbonite?” Lokin poked his head out of the medbay and winced. “Oh, Master Jedi, you’re in for a world of hurt, my dear. Kimble, show me what you’ve got, we’ll figure something out.”

Reanden turned to glare at Theron. If looks could kill, the younger spy would have been a crispy pile of used-to-be-human on the floor of the Shadow . “You ‘might have forgotten’ to mention that she was carbonite poisoned ? I might punch you after all, Shan.”

“Dad! No punching Theron!” Xaja started to sit up, until the second that Theron saw -- and strangely felt -- the dizzy spell hit her. She fell back against the couch as Kimble swore and Reanden ran to her side. “Please, don’t… no fighting…”

“Okay, baby girl. No fighting, I promise.” Reanden stroked Xaja’s hair even as his forehead creased with a worried frown. “SCORPIO,” he called out to the bridge. “Target the other shuttle until it’s a burned-out wreck, then get us off-world.”

“Understood, Agent,” spoke the feminine droid’s voice from the bridge. The Shadow lurched slightly as it rose up and came around. Theron heard the guns open fire and winced only a little bit as his shuttle was destroyed. SCORPIO emerged from the bridge and surveyed the gathering with what he could only describe as a condescending look.. “And where are we going from here?”

Reanden didn’t answer for a long moment, looking down at Xaja, then at Theron and Kimble. Theron could almost hear the gears turning madly in the older spy’s head until he finally spoke. “Imperial Space. Set course for Dromund Kaas. It’s the last place anyone will look for a Jedi or a Republic spy on the run.”

Chapter Text

The Blaster's Path Cantina was an active hive of activity, the rumble of chatter a dull roar as the dark-haired human stepped into a private room toward the back. Any eavesdroppers capable of picking up his comms in the noise would probably deserve what information they got, he thought, but he still took a moment to secure the room before opening an encrypted channel. “So I can confirm they were both here,” he said once his call was picked up. “They left in a hurry.”

“Any rumours as to where they might have gone?”

“According to one of the pirate gangs here, one of their ships chased his shuttle to Manda. Last word was that he’d been hit and was landing on the planet, but he might have gotten a few last hits in while he was going down. That ship was destroyed not long after making the transmission to the commodore.”

“Hmm. You know where you’re going next then.”

“Yeah, I’ll have my shuttle ready to go soon. One other thing: they met up with someone here, apparently the best medic this pirate town’s ever had. He left with them. I got a visual reference for him; transmitting now.”

There was a moment of silence from the comm. “Archiban Kimble. Of all the planets for him to wind up on, why Rishi?”

“Kimble? Wasn’t he a part of Master Taerich’s crew before the war broke out?”

“Yes, he was.” The voice on the other end of the comm hummed in thought. “Did Theron know he was there?”

“There won’t be any way to tell for sure until we catch up to them. I’ll be en route for Manda within thirty standard minutes, Director.”

“Good work, Balkar.”

The connection closed, and Jonas Balkar shook his head, raking his hand through his dark hair. “Why do you always end up in shit like this, Shan?” he muttered as he exited the cantina.

It was a four-day journey from the distant Outer Rim to the heart of Imperial territory. Theron felt his anxiety growing with every parsec traveled, and took to pacing through the Shadow. Regardless of his and Reanden’s ongoing (and maybe somewhat petty) rivalry, he trusted the older spy to not put Xaja in danger needlessly. If Cipher Nine had any weaknesses, those were his daughter and sons. And Reanden knew Xaja would have fought to protect Theron and Kimble; the old spy wasn’t likely to sell him out.

But this was Dromund kriffin’ Kaas that the Shadow  was racing toward. No matter that Theron himself had been here before (twice, on very classified missions), or that Xaja and Kimble had both survived infiltrating the planet before to kill Vitiate the first time, or even that the Commander of Sith Intelligence said he had a plan to sneak them to relative safety — the heart of Sith territory was not a safe place for a Jedi on the run. Especially not a Jedi too sick to defend herself.

He is right, though. It’s the last place anyone will look for us. Theron frowned as he meandered through the ship, letting himself admire the vessel, one arm cradling his healing ribs. Eventually he let himself into the meeting room, adjacent to the medical bay. We can’t endanger the Republic by running back there. He paused when he saw Reanden standing in front of a display monitor. “Sorry, am I interrupting?”

“Yes, but you should probably see this, anyway. I was about to yell for you.” Reanden turned to face Theron, and now the younger man could see the deep frown. “This just came across Intelligence’s networks.”

No sarcastic comments? Something had to be terribly wrong to make Reanden Taerich this serious. Theron cautiously stepped forward until he was beside the other man and could see what he’d been grimly staring at. “… That’s a Republic broadcast. From the Chancellor’s office.”

“Yeah.” Reanden glanced at him— was that pity in his gaze? “You’re not going to like this, kid.”

Theron frowned as he read the bulletin from Saresh’s desk. He felt the blood drain from his face. “Oh, no…”

The Office of the Supreme Chancellor of the Republic is offering a reward for the capture of two individuals: Theron Shan, disavowed rogue agent, to be considered armed and dangerous. Xaja Taerich, former Jedi Knight, also considered armed and dangerous. Both are wanted in connection with acts of terrorism, murder, sabotage, and treason against the Republic, as well as war crimes against Zakuul. The Office of the Supreme Chancellor is also offering a reward for any information concerning Doctor Archiban Kimble, who may be conspiring with Taerich and Shan. Last seen in the…

“Arcann has to have your names by now,” Reanden said quietly as Theron stared in mute horror at the holo-images of himself, Kimble, and Xaja attached to the notice. Saresh’s people had pulled those images from their official identicards -- they were far clearer than the already-too-recognizable stills taken from Zakuul’s security feeds. “Forget not endangering the Republic; you’ll be in even more danger yourself if you try to go home.” Yep, that was definitely pity in the older spy’s gaze as he rested a hand on Theron’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Theron.”

“Kriff.” Theron tore his gaze away from the notice to stare at the desktop. His lunch churned dangerously in his stomach. “Is there any way that… damn it… my birth father’s in Republic High Command, or the Director —”

“Marcus can’t do anything to protect you beyond removing the ‘dead or alive’ notice. And the Supreme Commander’s hands are even more tied than his.” Reanden met Theron’s gaze steadily when the younger spy looked over in surprise. “You look too much like Jace Malcom to be anyone else’s son, to the people who know what to look for.”

“… Oh.” A frown flickered across his features. Wait a minute, since when is an Imperial spy on a first name basis with the director of the SIS?

“There’s worse people to have for a father, kid.” Reanden looked back at the notice and sighed heavily before Theron could ask about his apparent familiarity with the Director. “I’ve got a few contacts in the SIS, but no guarantee that they’d be willing to lie for you. If Saresh is posting a notice like this, she’s probably being pressured by Zakuul into giving you two up. Most of those operatives I know would prioritize the safety of the Republic over the protection of two accused traitors. Best thing right now is for both of you to just stay the hell off the SIS’s radar.”

Theron raked a hand over his face, feeling cold dread clamp itself around his heart. The question about Marcus would have to wait. “Has Xaja seen this?”

“Not yet. This came in literally ten minutes ago. I’m not surprised Kimble’s already wanted, but I had hoped he would at least have a few more days of anonymity. Saresh really does have people everywhere.” Reanden chuckled and shook his head, although the sound was dry and mirthless. “Who would have thought that Dromund Kaas actually would be the safest place for a Jedi and a Republic spy?”

“And if we’re seen and identified there?” Theron asked.

“Saresh will take it as confirmation that you’re traitors, and it’ll probably throw the entire galaxy into war again when she demands that Empress Acina hands you over... if Zakuul doesn’t get wind of it first. Acina fears Zakuul far more than she fears the Republic. She’d probably hand you to Arcann and tell Saresh to kriff a rancor and, even if I’d love to see it, that would go over about as spectacularly as you’d think. My son would -- and will -- protect you to the best of his abilities, but I’m not sure about Vowrawn. I suspect he would see a greater strategic value in handing you to Acina or Arcann if he finds you, for the preservation of the Empire. And this is only if Zakuul doesn’t decide to ‘punish’ anyone they suspect of having sheltered you.” Reanden’s jaw tightened grimly, and he gave Theron’s shoulder a squeeze before dropping his hand. “We’re in for a rough ride.”

Theron sighed and braced his hands on the desk, letting the structure take his weight for a minute as he processed this disturbing new development. “We’re kriffed.”

“Not yet, you’re not. I know this is typically the last thing you should listen to from another spy… but trust me, Theron. I’ve got a plan to get you onto the planet without being identified. Worst comes to worst, they’ll have to take you three over my cold, dead body.” The grim smile on Reanden’s face was almost predatory. “Leave it to me.”

Theron slowly nodded at the older agent’s assurances. “Not like we really have an option right now anyway, right?”

“Nah, not really. Besides, she’s my daughter, and she cares about you and Kimble. Like hell I’m letting that half-metal bastard or that schutta get their hands on any of you.” Reanden transferred the bulletin onto a datapad and sighed. “On the list of conversations I never wanted to have with my daughter…”

“Do you want me to tell her?”

“No. This should come from me.” Reanden started walking out of the meeting room, his footsteps heavier than usual. “If we’re very lucky, they’ll find the shuttle wreck and assume you’re dead before the powder keg we’re all sitting on explodes.”

“Could we be that lucky?” Theron muttered as he followed the older agent out of the room and lingered by the door as Reanden crossed to the couch where Xaja was sitting. She’d been effectively ordered to engage in as little activity as possible with the risk of another muscle seizure or dizzy spell, and currently was sitting upright, drilling SCORPIO for further details as to the galaxy’s current state. The conversation died as Reanden knelt beside her, murmuring something too quiet for Theron to clearly make out. The older man handed her the datapad before squeezing her shoulder in what looked to be equal parts pity and apology.

Xaja frowned as she took the datapad and started reading. Theron watched her eyes widen as she read through the bulletin, then went back up and read it through again as though trying to make sense of the words on the screen. She finally lowered the datapad and stared at an invisible point somewhere in front of her as her shoulders slumped. “Shit.”

The Shadow's engines slowed and finally quieted as the sleek ship touched down. One of the nicer perks to Reanden's rank as a Commander in Sith Intelligence was a reserved hangar in a private spaceport just outside of Kaas City. And, with the absence of Minister Beniko -- in the field on a "classified assignment" -- his role as officer-in-charge ensured they passed through Imperial Customs with no questions asked. "This hangar is reserved for Darth Imperius and the select few he authorizes to access it," the old spy explained as he completed his shutdown procedures. "Right now, that's me, Lana, Shara, and any of his own crew when he sends them downrange. One of Darth Mortis' people tried barging in here during the war, and your brother nearly fried them himself. The war was almost over by the time they got out of kolto."

Xaja frowned. “Sorand’s not the type of person to hurt people like that, though…”

“He’s had to embrace the Sith persona a bit more closely. Overseeing four spheres of the Empire when he was only supposed to have one… it’s made his temper a little short, too. He all but inherited Marr’s job, and somewhere he’s found the time to secretly support the resistance. Officially, Intelligence knows nothing about that, therefore it doesn’t exist.” Reanden gave the Jedi a comforting smile. “He’s still your little brother behind closed doors, when he doesn’t need to be wearing Imperius’ personality. You know Shara would have kicked his ass by now if he’d actually started going fully Sith-like in private too.”

That got a soft snort of laughter from the Jedi as she thought back to meeting her youngest brother’s Mandalorian girlfriend during the Revanite crisis years ago. Shara had zero verbal filters; an opinion about everything; a ‘jump first, ask questions later’ personality that made Theron look like a perfectly reasonable adult; and could earn a sappy, loving smile from Sorand by doing virtually anything. Xaja still had no idea how the bounty hunter had gotten a Sith Lord wrapped around her finger like that… but they had been adorable then, and her father assured her they were still cute now. “Lana’s still with Intelligence, right? Just not here at the moment?”

“Correct. If anyone asks, she’s on a classified investigation from Imperius. But between us, she’s looking into anti-Zakuulan resistance in the Outer Rim.” Reanden winked. “So, technically still on a classified mission from Imperius.”

Xaja smiled at that. “Pity. I would have liked to see her if she was in the system.”

“She would have wanted to meet up with you, too,” Reanden agreed. “She was the first one to find the initial bulletin from Zakuul and came running to tell your brother, who called me in something of a panic. I think she’d like to see you and Theron both, if for no other reason than to smack both of you upside the head.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“We keep you two alive long enough, you might still meet up with her somewhere. If Dromund Kaas becomes unsafe for you, I’ll find a way to get you to a resistance cell to hide you. She and Korin know where most of the big ones are.” The old spy got to his feet and gently patted his daughter’s shoulder. “Come along. SCORPIO should have found the disguises by now.”

Xaja obediently followed her father out of the bridge, holding onto his arm for support. She blinked in surprise when she saw the two armour sets and the pile of robes in the middle of the seating lounge. Theron and Doc were both already halfway through getting changed into said armour. “So… any particular reason why you have Imperial trooper armour sets and Sith robes just in storage on your ship, Dad?”

Reanden shrugged and blinked innocently. “What, nobody else does?”

“Nobody sane ,” Doc grumbled as he adjusted the chestpiece he was putting on. He’d clearly never worn armour like this before— Lokin seemed to finally take pity and move over to help the medic properly get the armour on. “Nobody died in this, did they?”

“Not to the best of my— well, maybe that set. Or was it the set Shan’s wearing?…”

“Very funny,” Theron muttered as he tightened the bracers over his arms. “If it was this set, I think it’s haunted. It’s already starting to chafe.”

“There’s no pleasing some people.” Reanden’s eyes twinkled in amusement. “By the way, your belt’s upside down.”

“It is not -- !” Theron looked down and muttered a couple of interesting expletives. “Dammit.”

“Guys…” Xaja sighed and started rifling through the black robes. Their last owner had been a few inches taller than she was and significantly bustier— the fabric seemed to hang off of her. At least it would cover her clothing underneath and help keep her warmer. Even with the new drugs that Lokin had given her, she still felt a chill over her skin, and knew it would only get worse when she stepped out into the constant Dromund Kaas rain. Despite being all but ordered to not actively use the Force, she could still passively sense it around her. The Dark Side was every bit as suffocating and nauseating as she remembered. “Is there a mask for this outfit?”

“No, unfortunately. You’ll need to keep that hood on and drawn over your face. Good news is that Sith can generally get away with that. The odds of someone demanding to see your face aren’t high.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course. It’s pretty well-known that impersonating a Sith in Imperial Space is punishable by a slow and painful death.” Reanden patted Xaja’s arm as he came over to fix the twisted tabards against her back and ignored the look she gave him over her shoulder. “Nobody does it for just that reason. As long as you don’t say anything and let me do the talking, you’ll be okay.” He offered her a small smile when he saw her doubtful look. “It’ll help if you keep your lightsabers visible. They don’t look overtly Jedi as long as you don’t activate them. Just stand behind me and look somewhat menacing.”

Xaja suddenly sensed Doc, Theron, and Lokin all looking at her incredulously, and rolled her eyes at them. “Not a single midget joke out of any of you,” she growled as she wrapped the black leather belt around her hips and clipped her lightsabers to it, then reached for the leather gloves. “I can so look menacing.”

“Of course you can,” Lokin said with a nod that only felt a little bit patronizing. “I feel fearful of you already.” His eyes widened when Xaja shot him a glare. “And now I actually do feel a little scared. You are your father’s daughter, young one.”

“Damn straight.” Reanden vanished into his room for a moment, and came back out adjusting his uniform jacket and officer’s cap. “Besides, the… third most terrifying Sith I’ve ever encountered was a woman who stood only a few centimetres taller than you, Xaja. That little psychopath was something else. Very lightning-happy.”

“Wonderful,” Theron remarked. He’d fixed his belt and slung his borrowed blaster rifle across his back. He now leaned against the desk, holding his helmet. “What about the other two?”

“Number two was Darth Maglion, and he was a little shorter than me. Number one was Darth Jadus -- he was a hair taller than even Sorand.” Reanden shook his head. “ The less said about either of them, the better. Ready to go?”

“Yep,” Doc grunted as he finally slid the helmet on. “You sure about this?”

“For lack of any better options, yes.” Reanden started walking to the exit hatch of the ship. “SCORPIO, lock down the ship once we’re off. Standard high-security protocols. Not a word about our passengers to anyone.”

“Very well, Agent.”

For the first time since Theron’s (supposedly misfired) suicide note had come to her datapad, Satele felt a tug in the Force. She frowned in her meditation, focusing. That nudge didn’t feel quite like her son, or even Master Taerich. But it felt… connected to them somehow. She was far too distant to sense Theron, and while Xaja Taerich had had a strong, vibrant presence in the Force that could turn the heads of everyone who sensed her, she was also too far away to be felt. Would you feel her even if she was in the system? You’ve been convinced of her death for two years.

The former Grand Master opened her eyes and looked down at the bounty posting from Zakuul that Jace had showed her only last night, focusing on the images of the two wanted fugitives. Even though the stills had clearly been taken from security footage as the pair fled the Spire, they were clear enough to show facial details. Satele felt her heart lurch again in her chest as she studied Theron. It had to be her son. To her, Theron was unmistakable, even when he’d forfeited his favourite red jacket in favour of something Zakuulan-styled, presumably to help him infiltrate the Spire and rescue Master Xaja.

And the girl with him… Satele had watched Xaja Taerich grow from a young, feisty Padawan into a confident, self-assured Jedi Master who all but radiated deadly grace. A smile flickered across her features.  Perhaps ‘grow’ wasn’t the correct word to use as the young Jedi barely capped out at five standard feet of height and probably couldn’t have gained weight if her life had depended on it. Still, Satele had seen that exact worried frown on the woman’s face so many times — on Corellia, on Makeb, on Yavin IV, and while debriefing from the nightmare that had been Ziost. Master Orgus’ last Padawan had gotten herself into a world of trouble again, and this time Satele’s son was in neck-deep beside her.

The only thing that didn’t surprise her, after accepting the news that Xaja Taerich was indeed alive and that Theron hadn’t actually committed suicide, was that they were together. She’d had her suspicions for years, stemming from her first interactions with both of them on Rishi. The looks they’d subtly shared, the way they’d always found a way to be near each other on Yavin IV, the fierce way Master Xaja had defended Theron to Chancellor Saresh’s face after the destruction of Ziost… Satele had been able to hear that argument from down the corridor. There’s hardly any Order left to enforce the Code on you, is there? She sighed. I’m hardly in a position to cast judgement.

She rose to her feet and set the datapad back on the table as Jace emerged from the ‘fresher. “Did you get any rest?” he rumbled. For a moment, Satele felt a flash of memory from their brief time together on Alderaan, when Jace had dropped the tough act around her to be gentle and thoughtful. The flashback lingered when he settled his broad hands on her shoulders with a lighter touch than most people might have believed him capable of.

Satele let herself relax into the touch for a brief moment. “I got enough,” she replied quietly. She reached her hands up and let them settle on his forearms. “Jace, I… I need to leave.”

Jace frowned. “Has Saresh or her people been harassing you? Is it me? Satele, am I making you uncom-”

“No, it’s not that, not at all.” Satele gave him a small, tight smile, a hint of warmth lingering behind. “There’s just… something in the Force is calling me away, Jace. I feel like it might be connected to Theron, even if I can’t tell where he is. But it’s… insistent.” She looked away from his gaze, her eyes fixing on a fold in his shirt. “I’m needed elsewhere, and soon.”

Jace didn’t understand — he never fully would. Satele felt him shift his hold on her to gently take her hands and hold her palms together in front of his chest. “What can I do to help?” he asked.

Satele hesitated as she looked up to meet Jace’s eyes. His forehead was creased in a concerned frown, but his eyes… gentle and warm, like what she’d fallen in love with so many years ago, and what she’d tried to ignore at every opportunity since. She bit her lip in thought. “My supplies are stocked; my ship is fuelled and ready to leave… could you help me leave Coruscant without being stopped?” Saresh’s ultimatum concerning Theron still made her feel nauseous, aggravated by the revelation that the Chancellor knew of the spy’s true parentage. The last thing she needed was to be stopped by the Chancellor’s people while trying to leave in order to find him.

“I can do that.” Jace nodded. “My clearance should get you through customs without being stopped.” He hesitated. “If you… if you find Theron… don’t bring him back here. I’m not letting Saresh turn him over to Arcann. Just… let me know that he’s alive?”

“I will.” Satele’s hands turned in Jace’s hold to squeeze his fingers back. “I’ll protect him and Master Xaja, if I find them. Saresh was right about one thing — they likely will be together.” And her father and brothers will probably be looking as frantically for her, she silently thought, but didn’t voice. Jace had never been fond of any Imperial-aligned personnel, and she didn’t know if he knew the Jedi Battlemaster’s father had been a notorious Imperial spy, much less that her younger brother was on the Dark Council. They’d never admitted it, but she’d seen the Sith’s face on Yavin… he looked far too much like his sister, and they shared enough traits with Cipher Nine and the Voidhound that Satele strongly suspected they were all close kin. Darth Imperius still lived, didn’t he? “If I can get them in touch with a resistance cell, I’ll let you know.”

“Good.” Jace’s broad shoulders relaxed. “The resistance will likely be their best shot at hiding, unless they can disappear in Hutt Space. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the Republic’s not safe for them anymore.”

“Not as long as they’re wanted,” Satele quietly said. “I’ll be gone within an hour.” She saw Jace nod in solemn understanding and let go of her hands, leaving her feeling cold. A sudden compulsion made her stretch up on her toes to kiss Jace’s scarred cheek. “Be careful.”

“You too, Satele.” A smile pulled at the scars on Jace’s face, sad and worried though it was. His hand cradled her cheek for a long moment before he withdrew it, clenching it to a fist as he lowered his arm to rest at his side. She could sense his reluctance to let go. “May the Force be with you.”

The former Grand Master gave him a quiet smile in return and slipped out of the apartment. True to her word, she was taking off from Coruscant in less than a standard hour, using a classified Republic military code that fast-tracked her through security before Saresh’s people could interfere. She couldn’t see Jace standing in his office, but she could feel his heavy gaze as she aimed her ship in the direction of the Force’s pull and jumped into hyperspace.

Manda was an almost-deserted little planet with virtually nothing here beyond smugglers’ hideouts. It wasn’t too difficult to find the crash sites, not when there was a skid trail several kilometres long. Jonas winced as he circled over the trail. If the shuttle occupants had survived that crash, they had to be in a world of hurt.

He landed near the end of the cleared strip of jungle and hunched into his leather jacket as he exited his shuttle. It was daytime, with only a faint lingering drizzle in the air, but the breeze was still cold. He made a face at the too-familiar stench of dead bodies, then blinked when he started counting just how many corpses laid in the clearing. Most of them looked like they’d been killed by a ship’s laser fire — and that fire certainly hadn’t come from the wreck of the pirate freighter nearby. Jonas didn’t need to be an expert mechanic to know that ship was beyond salvaging.

But some of the corpses had been killed up close and personal. He frowned and knelt beside one, gingerly turning the dead man over. That was a neat little bit of bladework through the pirate’s ribcage. Whomever his executioner had been, they’d been damn good with a knife. So ship fire and knives. Given these wounds, close quarters combat. How did they get so close? A stealth generator? When he looked around, the corpses seemed to all be somewhat uniform in their garb. They were likely all from the same pirate crew — none seemed to stand out as an outsider. And so far, the killer looks like they survived.

Against a copse of trees at the end of the skid trail, his eyes caught sight of a carbon-scored wreck and he felt his stomach sink. Oh, no… The shuttle matched what Theron had been reported to be hauling ass off Rishi in, with Master Taerich and Doctor Kimble. To Jonas, it looked like the shuttle had crashed hard into the trees, and then been shot to hell by another ship. Overkill much? He started to approach the destroyed shuttle, then frowned at two more corpses. One had a toxin dart embedded in his neck; the other sported an obvious lightsaber wound across his chest. Theron uses this style of dart. And Master Taerich was clearly alive and able to fight at the time of the crash. What happened?

The shuttle door was closed, and that made Jonas frown. He could have bypassed the lock and sliced his way in, if the shots fired at the shuttle hadn’t destroyed the locking systems. Why would you make it easy? He sighed and pulled a miniature laser cutting kit from a pouch on his belt. Fifteen minutes later, the door creaked as it finally gave, and the spy forced it to slide open enough to let him in.

There were no bodies in the vessel. Jonas took a moment to sigh in relief — whatever had happened, Theron was probably still alive. Unless the other ship that took down those pirates was Zakuulan or another set of hunters, he thought, and that immediately sobered him. He carefully crept through the wreck until he got to the computers, slicing his way in. Hmm, Theron might actually have been conscious when he left here. Everything’s wiped from the systems, the navicomputer, the comms… it all reads like he set this up as a diversion. Or did someone else slice into the systems? Were he and Master Taerich captured?

He frowned in thought. He’d seen holos of Master Taerich fighting before; even battered and looking like she’d gone nine rounds with a rancor, she was a deadly force to be reckoned with. She would have taken down far more than just one hunter if she’d been forced to defend herself… and that was without any emotional entanglements. Jonas suspected she and Theron had had a thing going before the Zakuulan invasion broke out and she was reported killed. He knew a sappy lovestruck look when he saw one, and Theron had had it bad, no matter how much he’d tried to hide it. If the Jedi had returned his feelings at all, she would have likely fought tooth and nail to protect Theron if he’d been in danger. And that was without mentioning that Kimble had been one of her crew, and by all accounts one of her best friends.

So either she was taken out by somebody really good before she could kill more than one attacker and Theron and Kimble were captured with her, or they went willingly with a rescue. We probably would have heard by now if they’d been caught. Jonas frowned to himself as he did a quick scan around the shuttle, confirming there had been no personal effects from any of the occupants left behind — a couple changes of clothes that looked like they’d fit Theron, but not much else. Satisfied, Jonas let himself back out and secured the door behind him. He then set off to look for signs of any other vessel. All he found was flattened out foliage from another ship landing; that pilot was long gone. And it was likely that Theron, Master Taerich, and Doctor Kimble were on board.

Jonas frowned into the sky, wishing he could determine the course of the other ship’s hyperspace route. Knowing he wasn’t going to glean any more intel here, he sighed and took documenting holoimages of the crash site, before trudging back to his own shuttle. He keyed up his encrypted comm. “So, I’ve got news, and it’s not great…”

“What is your latest update?”

“We still have no sightings of Master Taerich or Agent Shan on Corellia,” Cole Cantarus informed the translucent blue image of one of the resistance leaders. They had obscured their body with a large, dark robe and had a hood pulled low over their face, and used a scrambler to hide their true voice. Cole still suspected the person known only as “Thunder” was male and humanoid. “According to everything we’ve heard, they vanished after escaping Rishi.”

“I’ve heard a report of their ship being traced to Manda,” said another person on the call. Corso Riggs hadn’t bothered to hide his identity. “But the pirates that shot them down got blasted out of the sky, too.”

“By Shan’s ship?” Thunder sounded skeptical despite the voice scrambler.

“No, Thunder. Apparently another ship came swooping in and shot down the pirates before they could chase Shan down. No word on what the other ship’s make was.”

“So Shan and Taerich might have an ally,” Cole mused out loud.

“Or it might be competition,” added another voice. Cole shouldn’t have liked Torian Cadera -- the Mandalorian was too… well, too Mandalorian . But the kid was all right, he guessed. “Lots of hunters going to be looking for them.”

“Which is why it’s imperative that the resistance finds them first,” Thunder finished. “Master Taerich is one of the greatest Jedi I’ve ever met, and Agent Shan is probably the most clever spy the SIS has ever produced. We need them.”

“So this isn’t just to piss off Arcann?” spoke a female voice. Kaliyo Djannis… now that was a person Cole could immediately agree that he didn’t like. But she got stuff done -- and more importantly, she was on Nar Shaddaa and not in the Corellian system near him. “Damn.”

“Annoying Zakuul and the Republic Senate is merely a bonus.” Thunder sounded faintly amused. “Of course, considering that Saresh will hand them both to Arcann if she finds them, we’ll need to hide them from the Republic’s loyal forces.”

“Is the Empire gonna be a concern?” Corso asked.

“Leave the Imperial reactions to me. It is fortunate for us that the Empire does not have the same… motivation to find them as the Republic or Zakuul.” Thunder crossed their arms in thought. “If you were Agent Shan or Master Taerich, with the knowledge that you can’t return home, where would you hide?”

“Tatooine,” Corso immediately said. “Giant sandy wasteland like that? They can hide in caves for years, if the Sand People don’t shoot ‘em.”

“Or if they don’t die of heatstroke,” Kaliyo added. “I’d hide on Nar Shaddaa. A moon like this is where folks come to hide.”

“Too many people looking for them. Nar Shaddaa’s full of hunters,” Torian disagreed. “I’d hide somewhere smaller and quieter. Asylum, maybe?”

“It’s too close to Zakuul,” disagreed the only identifiable Sith in this call. Lana Beniko shook her head at Torian. “Master Taerich would want to get as far away from Zakuul as possible. It’s probably why she and Agent Shan wound up on Rishi. I, personally, would head for Voss. It’s neutral territory still.”

“But Voss is hostile to outsiders,” Cole argued. “Master Taerich at least has friends on Corellia who could help hide her and Agent Shan. I’m one of them.”

If they could continue to avoid the Chancellor’s agents,” said the last person on the call. Vector Hyllus’ disconcerting black eyes looked at Cole through the holo. “As a Core World, Corellia is too close to Coruscant, and so, remains within her reach. We believe that Imperial Space might be the safest place for them to run.”

“Imperial Space? They’d have better luck on Nar Shaddaa or Nal Hutta, bugboy,” Kaliyo retorted.

“Any fugitive would hide there. Nobody would expect a legendary Jedi or a Republic spy to hide in the Empire. If they stayed away from Dromund Kaas, they might have a chance.” Vector had a point, Cole had to admit. But how the hell would a Jedi Master blend in to Imperial Space without being recognized?

“If Imperial Space is an option,” Lana muttered, “they may as well hide on Rakata Prime or Hoth. What were you saying about desolate wastelands, Corso?”

“All right, so there are options,” Thunder interrupted. “Torian, Kaliyo, Lana, Cole -- have your people watching for anyone matching their descriptions. Vector, Corso --  I do not foresee them trying to hide on Alderaan or Dantooine, but keep your eyes open -- and the hivemind in your case, Vector.”

Vector bowed. “We will do as you direct. Have you any further directions?”

“Not at this time. Continue cell operations and keep me apprised of Republic or Zakuulan movements. If Master Taerich and Agent Shan make it to your cells, let me know. Any questions?” At the general response of headshakes and negative comments, Thunder nodded. “The storm is brewing. Be ready.”

Sorand Taerich disconnected from the call and sighed heavily. If he was ever outed as a resistance leader, and the one with the deep pockets who kept the cells in business at that, he was going to die a slow and terrible death at Acina’s hand... if Arcann didn’t get him first. It was why Lana and Torian were the only ones on that call who’d known his real identity. Thunder was the name everyone else heard.

My parents didn’t raise me to passively stand by and do nothing… or to bow. He nodded to himself as he lowered his hood and discarded the extra robes he’d worn during the holocall to hide his figure, then scowled as he felt the ball of anger approaching his sanctum within the Citadel. And speaking of our resident overlords, what does the Exarch want now...?

Chapter Text

Yep. This planet was miserably cold and wet, and Xaja still hated it. She hunched her shoulders under the borrowed black robes and followed her father out of the hangar to the speeder station. She was thankful for the double dosage of stims given her by both Doc and Dr. Lokin before leaving the ship, keeping the poisoning symptoms at bay. Behind her, she could hear Doc and Theron as they walked in something vaguely approaching unison, their armoured footsteps enough to drown out Dr. Lokin’s footfalls behind them. Somehow, the knowledge that she couldn’t speak to her father or friends, or that her father wouldn’t risk their lives by breaking character to give her any sort of reassurance, made her feel even more small and afraid. Reanden’s last direction had been to not say or do anything without his lead until they were safe within the Citadel and in her brother’s company — there were eyes and ears everywhere, not all of which reported to him. “Acina and Vowrawn have their own spies in the city, not to mention people taking credits from Zakuul or… certain individuals in the Republic. Assume everyone’s directly reporting to either Saresh or Arcann.”

“Even the droids?”

Especially the droids.”

Xaja kept that in mind as she boarded the speeder taxi to the Citadel. The pilot droid gave all of its passengers a cursory look, but didn’t voice any questions, merely accepted her father’s orders. This wasn’t her dad talking though: this was the Sith Intelligence Commander, his voice cold and emotionless as any Imperial spy might have been expected to sound. If she hadn’t known her dad to be caring and gentle and protective behind closed doors, she would have been intimidated by him. She still felt a shudder down her back, as it was. Little wonder Cipher Nine is still feared in the Republic — and across a good bit of the Empire. Even Acina’s still letting him do whatever he wants. Does she fear him, too?

The taxi wound through Kaas City, landing on the pad before the Sith Sanctum. Glancing to the right, Xaja could see the entrance pad for what her father had informed her was Intelligence’s headquarters; to the left, the nearly-deserted Mandalorian Enclave. Most of the bounty hunters in the service of the Empire had been recalled by Mand’alor the Avenger, the newest leader of their people. The few remaining were either token representatives, or not Mandalorians at all. Either way, it certainly was not somewhere that Xaja wanted to visit.

Of course, the kriffing Sith Sanctum wasn’t somewhere she wanted to be either. But it really was their best option right now, between the element of surprise and the hope that her brother could protect her, Theron, and Doc. She didn’t need to be a spy like her father to know that if she showed fear now, all five of them were probably going to die as their covers were blown. The arrogant Sith Lord walk isn’t too different from a Jedi’s stride. Just act like you own the place. You’ve spent enough time around Scourge. Just mimic how he stood and walked… but, y’know, shorter. She fell into step behind her father as he started walking in, sensing Theron, Doc, and Lokin retaking their positions behind her. To anyone observing, they hopefully would look like an escort for a Sith visitor for Darth Imperius — and if the Commander of Sith Intelligence was walking with them, who was going to question it?

“Ahhh, Commander.” Okay, apparently someone was going to question it. “Finally had your fill of gallivanting around the galaxy, hmm?”

“Are you now trying to keep track of my schedule, Lorman?” Her father sounded like he was trying to sound polite, while keeping himself from strangling this newcomer. “I’m flattered that you’re following me, really.”

“It’s Minister Lorman!” Xaja raised an eyebrow under her hood at the furious sputter from this Lorman. “Is that really so difficult to remember, Commander?”

“My pardon. My mind gets so consumed with things of importance like the security of the Empire and doing my job… oh, and remembering what groceries I need to pick up on my way home.”

More angry sputtering. “Why I -- the nerve -- Empress Acina will hear of this!”

“Yes, I’m sure she will. Doesn’t the Empress have a pair of boots for you to lick, Lorman? If you’ll excuse me…”

“It’s Minister Lorman! Minister!”

“Yes, you’ve said. Move. I need to speak with Darth Imperius immediately.”

“Darth Imperius is otherwise occupied at the moment,” Lorman said through gritted teeth. “If you’ll pass along your message to me I’ll make sure it gets to him—”

“The only message I have for you, Lorman, is one that isn’t repeatable in polite company. The important message is for Imperius’ ears only. Unless you’ve been hired on as his new secretary? If I’d known he was looking for one, I’d have offered him a protocol droid.”

Lorman sounded too angry to speak for a moment, and Xaja almost grinned under the hood. Only the reminder that her lips were still visible kept her expression still. “Your position does not make you invincible, Commander! I am the Minister of Logistics! I still outrank you!”

“And I know your HoloNet passwords, the names of your pets, and where you sleep. By the way, your taste in music is terrible.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“You’re asking that of the man escorting Imperius’ newest apprentice?” Reanden’s feet shifted in front of Xaja’s vision as he seemed to move closer to Lorman. “… How did your brain learn human speech, Lorman? I’m just so curious.” Xaja felt a tug in her mind from the little knot that felt like Theron, warm and bright and comforting — it felt like he was desperately trying to not laugh.

“It’s Minister!”

“I would have named my childhood neighbour’s cousin’s pet gizka as a minister instead of you. Acina really must be desperate.”

“You -- ! You would compare me to a gizka?!”

“… No, you’re right. The poor gizka deserved better.” Xaja wanted to laugh at how much her father was taunting this so-called minister. She could feel Theron’s grin under his helmet through their bond.

“You insolent -- ! You would insult me like this in front of a Sith?!”

“Acolyte Xalia seems quite amused by this. If she wasn’t, you would probably already be dead or wishing you were.” Xaja could almost hear the smug smile in her father’s voice. “Bit of a psychopath, this one. Doesn’t talk a lot, although she doesn’t really need to, as far as I’ve seen. I think she comes from a group of cannibals.”

Dammit, Dad, you’re having far too much fun with this.

“… So, he picks ex-Jedi and aliens for his apprentices, and now… cannibals?” Lorman sounded a little bit squeamish. The tug that was Theron fairly vibrated with his amusement.

“I value my life enough to know not to question his choices in apprentices. I’d be careful though, Lorman. This one’s also got the patience of a Jawa on stimcaf and…” Reanden turned, and Xaja wasn’t sure if the sudden shift to his voice was supposed to be nervousness or suppressed laughter. “… Doctor Lokin, do you remember the last time she ate anything?…”

“About four hours ago, sir. She, uhh… might be getting hungry again --”

Xaja couldn’t resist. She turned her hooded head in the direction of Lorman’s voice and gave him what could be best described as a maniacal grin, knowing her mouth was still visible, and was rewarded with a stifled yelp of terror. Even her father shuddered. “Oh, bloody hell, not right now, Acolyte, please don’t make me have to file more paperwork…” he muttered under his breath, just loudly enough to be audible.

“She’s mad, Commander! And Imperius must be insane if he’s picked this one as his newest apprentice!”

“Like I said, I don’t question Darth-kriffing-Imperius. I’m just grateful he gave me the warning to keep her under armed guard. Any more questions before she completely runs out of patience and I have to pay to have you cleaned out of my uniform?”

“… As you were, Commander.” Xaja heard what sounded like boots scrambling for purchase on the smooth floor as Lorman beat a hasty retreat.

“Thank you, Lorman. Come along, Acolyte, and please remember your master said to not eat these guards, or me…”

“It’s Minis --!” Xaja turned her head in the direction of Lorman’s voice and emitted a tiny hiss around her grin, and heard him yelp as he ran. She heard something that sounded like Doc trying not to choke on his own laughter behind his helmet and felt Theron’s amusement through their bond — if he hadn’t been undercover, he probably would have been on the ground laughing.

Reanden led the group to one of the turbolifts down a corridor and, once everyone was on board, entered the command for the lift to rise a few storeys. A few moments later, the turbolift opened on the destination floor, and Xaja could never figure out how her father mastered the stride of someone acting like he was hustling out of a confined space with a questionably-sane Sith without looking like he was trying to escape. She followed with an almost lazy stride, and Theron, Doc, and Lokin all exited after her. This area of the Citadel had been decorated with a much more luxurious hand: Red banners adorned the walls, proudly displaying the Sith Empire’s crest; echoes bounced around the corridor as their footsteps sounded on the black marble floor. She shouldn’t have been surprised her father knew his way; he lead them down the hallway, around a corner, and through a door without bothering to knock.

The Kaleesh standing in the atrium turned and inclined his head minutely. “Commander,” he said in a deep voice, his words clipped and sort. “You have returned sooner than expected.”

“There were… developments that required an in-person report sooner than later,” Reanden answered. “Is your master in, Xalek?”

The alien Sith glanced toward the closed door leading deeper into the chambers. “He, and the ambassador from Zakuul. They have been speaking for some time.” He paused. “My master’s patience is growing thin.”

“Yes, well I don’t blame him,” Reanden growled quietly. “That moron has got the worst timing.”

“Yes. Any timing.”

“Ha! I knew you had a sense of humour in there.”

“My master is training me well—” Xalek looked sharply at the door as Xaja raised her head slightly, sensing a burst of frustration. “And another lesson.”

“And what lesson is that today?” Reanden asked. “How to diplomatically tell someone where to go and how to get there, and what they can do with a rusty hydrospanner and an angry kath hound on the way?” Xaja could feel Theron and Doc both wincing behind her.

“That was last week.” Xalek looked back at the spy, then at the door again. “Today it may be how to verbally skin someone alive.”

“… I’ve never wished for Minister Beniko to be around as I do right now.”

Xalek didn’t get a chance to respond, as the door slid open with perhaps a bit more emphasis than was strictly necessary. A golden-armoured figure stormed out of the inner chamber, radiating fury. Xaja sensed Theron tensing behind her as he recognized the Zakuulan armour. “You will reconsider this, Imperius!”

“They are Republic assets, not Imperial. What interest should I have in this?” Xaja nearly cried when she heard her baby brother’s voice. He’d definitely embraced the Sith persona, his voice low and arrogant and all but dripping in anger. Darth Imperius had come into his own. “This is Zakuul’s mess, Exarch. Surely you can sort out your own problems with the Republic. Three people can’t be that difficult to find.”

“The terrorist and the assassin, and their accomplice on Rishi, have vanished. You must deploy your agents to find them!”

“It’s hardly my fault if your agents are so inept as to lose three people, one of them a bloody Jedi. You still can’t have any of mine.”

“Your insolence is noted!”

“As is your idiocy. Do you honestly think that I am going to divert Imperial resources to hunting three of your problems?” Imperius rolled his eyes as the Exarch opened her mouth. “ If my agents happen to come across anything, I will inform you with all due haste. But I am not retasking my people to fix your damn problem.”

The Exarch stayed quiet, breathing through clenched teeth. “Izax damn you,” she finally hissed. “Fine. We will be waiting for your intelligence reports. If your agents are half as good as you claim, they will find something useful soon.”

“Of course,” Imperius said through gritted teeth. His molten eyes glanced over at Reanden, then at his escorting company. Xaja didn’t feel any sudden jolt of recognition from her brother, even when his brief mental probe touched her mind with a soft brush. “If the Jedi and her accomplices are foolish enough to show up in Imperial space, on my bloody doorstep even, I’ll deliver the news to you myself. But might I add they are Republic assets, all of whom seem to have enough survival instincts to avoid my people’s territory.”

“I am aware they are not Imperial,” growled the Exarch as she turned to stalk out of the room. “Consider this, Imperius: if they can attack my people like this, what’s to stop them from going after yours? Are they still not your problem?”

“If your Emperor wants them that badly, he’ll find them before they’re a threat to my people.” Imperius smirked coldly. “And my people can defend themselves against a mere terrorist. Are yours so weak?”

“You play a dangerous game, Sith. I will be waiting.” The Exarch finally stormed out and shut the door emphatically behind her. For a few seconds, nobody moved or spoke.

Reanden finally shook his head and sighed. “I’m so glad she was too mad to remember what my job is. Good job not actually frying her, kid.” Xaja glanced sharply at Xalek as the Kaleesh relaxed against the wall. Right, her brother’s apprentice had already known about her after Ziost -- it was only reasonable that he would know about his master’s father by now.

“Mum’s influence is still lurking, all those years later,” Imperius said as he seemed to deflate with relief. The voice changed — this was Sorand Taerich talking now. “This isn’t… it can’t actually be… Xaja?”

It was clearly safe now. And Sorand had recognized her Force-signature after all. Xaja pushed her hood back and watched her brother’s eyes bulge, amber fading to dark brown like their father’s… then his mouth turned upward in a delighted smile, and a second later she was being hugged tightly enough to be lifted off her feet by her much-taller sibling. “Oh, kriffing hell, you Jedi pain in the ass, I thought you were dead! And you come back by pissing off Zakuul?!”

“You should know I don’t do anything without causing a commotion! I wasn’t about to leave you alone in the galaxy without me to pester you, little brother.” Xaja laughed as she clung to her brother’s shoulders, so grateful to have at least one of her siblings alive and well. She glanced over when she heard the sounds of Theron and Doc removing their helmets and felt Sorand’s Force-presence stutter in surprise. “Uhh… this isn’t going to be a problem, is it…?”

Sorand looked back and forth between the fugitives for a second, then grinned and shook his head. “Not in the least. Oh, the Exarch is going to be livid if she realizes you’re under her nose like this and I conveniently forget to tell her… Xalek?”

“I have seen nothing, Master. The Intelligence Commander merely had a new report for you. The fugitives were never in Imperial Space.” The Kaleesh almost sounded innocent.

“Excellent, apprentice.” Sorand looked back over at his father. “Uhh, what is their cover story here, Dad? I figure Theron and… Doctor Kimble, wasn’t it?… are nameless soldiers in here…”

“Oh, yes. This is your new apprentice, son. She’s a psychopath that may or may not have been affiliated with the Red Hulls — y’know, cannibal and all. Probably crazy enough to scare even your uncle if he’d ever met her.”

“A cannibal? Really?” Sorand sighed, then looked at Xaja. “Did Dad actually call you a cannibal psychopath to give you a cover here?”

Xaja just gave her little brother the same grin she’d shot at Lorman. “Rawr. I ate the competition on Korriban. Or something. Fear me.”

“… I’m having flashbacks to Rishi.” Sorand groaned and looked up at the ceiling. “Dad’s created a monster.”

“My finest work yet.” Reanden leaned against the wall for a moment and smirked. “Lorman’s scared shitless of her.”

Sorand burst out laughing, the sound lighter and easier than one might have expected of one of the Dark Council. “Please tell me you got holos, Dad. I want details!”

“I’ll tell you the full story. But you might want to sit down — we’re going to be here a while, son.” Reanden started walking back into the inner sanctum, sobering. “And for obvious reasons, this is top security.”

“Of course. Shall I summon Talos so we don’t have to explain this multiple times? I believe Mako’s around while Shara’s in a meeting in the Enclave.”

“Mako’s here? Excellent, get her in here — we could use a genius little slicer like her. If you trust Talos to stay silent, we’ll brief him too. Shara obviously will need to know about this — any idea when she’ll be out of that meeting?”

“She’s busy kicking the collective asses of one of the hunters’ guilds, so Force only knows how long that will take…”

Xaja did try to focus on the conversation between her dad and her brother, right up until the point that the headache resurged in her head, painfully enough to make her wince. She didn’t even have to be moving for her balance to suddenly give out, and if Sorand hadn’t still been hugging her, she likely would have wound up in a heap on the floor. As it was, the young Sith squawked in alarm as she sagged with a strangled moan. “The hell?!” he exclaimed. “What’s wrong? Just being on Dromund Kaas shouldn’t be hurting you like this, no matter how much of a Jedi you are!”

Xaja wanted to answer, but couldn’t seem to focus enough on coordinating her mouth and lungs and vocal cords all at once to speak — it was enough effort to not completely collapse, even with Sorand practically holding her up until Theron had lunged forward to grab her by the waist and her father came running back. She could only count herself very, very fortunate that the stims hadn’t worn off sooner.

“And that’s a big part of why we’re here and not hiding on Tatooine or Hoth,” Theron finally said as Sorand looked up at him while Lokin hurried around them to get to Xaja’s side, syringes of drugs already coming out of his satchel. “She’s been carbonite poisoned by the Zaks, and it’s bad.”

Sorand’s eyes widened in shock — Xaja felt dismay and fear pulse off of him for a second. He apparently already knew what that meant. “... Shit.”

Chapter Text

Korin hunched his shoulders into his leather jacket and skulked into a dark alleyway on Nar Shaddaa, frowning up at the thickly polluted sky. For the last three hundred years, this moon had been the ideal place for people looking to disappear, or close clandestine deals. Such things still happened, of course, and the Hutts only looked on until they’d gotten their share of the profits.

The looming space station in near orbit just made such things more difficult. Korin wasn’t sure exactly how the Star Fortresses worked. He knew only that they were Zakuulan-made; had enough firepower to decimate a heavily-populated world like Nar Shaddaa; and they were popping up across the galaxy. As far as he heard, there were two structures no longer showing signs of being under construction: the station looming over Alderaan, and the other that cast its shadow right over his head. The chatter he’d picked up hinted that more were being constructed over Tatooine and Voss. That made him scowl. The resistance cell on Tatooine really didn’t need an immense, looming, planet-killing orbital station right over their heads. He’d heard a rumour that the framework of another fortress was en route for the Core, possibly heading right for Coruscant itself.

That’s gonna be a disaster, the smuggler mused to himself. Turning another corner in the alley, he glanced over his shoulder to ensure no one was tailing him, then quickly typed an access code into the door panel. It rattled open and he slipped inside. He found himself standing in a derelict-looking apartment complex in the Red Light district. The smell of old garbage and stale urine permeated everything in this block, but kept the resident overlords away. Only the truly insane would willingly enter such a place as this.

Korin had already been accused of being insane more than once. This was just further evidence.

The whirring and beeping from his little companion made him look down and give the droid an exasperated look. “What do you have to complain about, Tee-Seven? You can’t smell anything down here!”

//Hideout = polluted = sticky. T7 treads =/= easy movement in sticky.//

“Ugh. Okay, point. Just stay behind me, buddy.”

//Master Xaja =/= bring T7 to a place like this.//

“You’re totally gonna tattle on me if-- when we find her, aren’t you?”

Tee-Seven whistled in what could almost be described as a gleeful manner, making Korin scowl. “Fine, I’ll get you set up with an oil bath when we’re out of here. That gonna buy your silence?”

//Oil bath = acceptable bribe. T7 = still telling Master Xaja about Captain Korin stealing.//

“Hey, you came along willingly when I offered to spring you off Coruscant! That doesn’t count as stealing you!” He shook his head as he poked his head around a corner and nodded at the two occupants of the room. “Vette, Zenith. Either of you two seen Hylo around recently?”

Vette waved at Korin and gestured further down the hallway. “Yeah, she’s here. Just got in a few hours ago with all the new chatter about that giant bounty from Zakuul.”

“I recognized Master Taerich and Agent Shan from that posting. She was a friend of yours from before the war, and Shan was with another resistance cell, right?” Zenith asked as he looked up from reassembling his blaster rifle. “You got any news on where she might be?”

“Not yet,” Korin said. That was a lie: he had received a short, coded message from his father a couple of days ago. Found them. Hiding. But better to not risk being identified as someone in the know as to where Zakuul’s Most Wanted might be. “I was hoping Hylo and I could brainstorm an’ see if we get anything.”

“Good luck,” Vette said, then suddenly froze, her violet eyes widening. “Whoa! What’d you do to your hand?”

“Hmm?” Korin glanced down and raised his broken hand. His father had done a good enough job with setting it that he’d almost forgotten about the wound, and there’d been enough kolto applied to it that it was mostly healed after a week. But the bandages were still quite prominent. “Got in a fight with a wall. You should see the other guy. And completely unrelated, we gotta find those bounty targets first so I can punch Theron Shan in his kriffing face.”

Zenith snorted in amusement. “You’ll be gunnin’ it to get ahead of Zakuul, and everyone else in the galaxy who’d like fifty million credits or so.”

“Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.” Korin waved in farewell to the two Twi’leks, then continued down the hallway and poked his head into what served as the headquarters in this dingy apartment. “Oi, Hylo!”

There was a muttered expletive, and then a Mirialan poked her head up from beside the computer terminal. “If it ain’t my favourite Voidhound pain in the ass. Make yourself useful and come fix this stupid thing, will ya? Gault’s off doing something I don’t wanna know the details of.”

“I’d better be the only Voidhound pain in the ass around here. Ain’t no good being legendary if there’s another one of me around,” Korin retorted as he meandered up to the computer, his stolen/borrowed droid trundling along after him. “Tee-Seven, see what sorta magic you can work on this thing.”

//T7 =/= miracle worker.// But the little droid obediently plugged into the computer as Korin typed in a couple of access codes and started manually troubleshooting.

“And you two’ve earned your keep for the next week or so.” Hylo grinned, tugged Korin down for a playful kiss on his cheek, then walked over to the table and started pouring a couple of drinks out. “So how’s Tatooine?”

“Hot. Sandy. Full of Jawas.” Korin frowned at the diagnostic readout, then knelt and started shifting wires around. It was a harder task to do one-handed than one might have thought. “The cell’s okay, all things considered. We’re trying to figure out what we’re doing about the orbital station going up over the Outlaw’s Den.”

Hylo scowled at the mention of the orbital stations and cast a dark glare up at the ceiling, where Nar Shaddaa’s own satellite lurked. “Our benevolent overlords are throwing the damn things everywhere. How the hell are they making all of them at once?”

“And where are they gettin’ the supplies an’ credits from? I got so many questions.” Korin grunted as he got a mild shock from the wires. “You let womp rats in here t’chew on things?”

“I haven’t seen a single womp rat in here!” Hylo leaned over Korin’s shoulder and frowned. “Oh. I see whatcha mean. Is that a mynock nest in there?”

“Yeah, I think I found your problem. You’re probably gonna want to replace all these components sooner ‘n later.” Korin sat back and accepted one of the drinks Hylo offered. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” Hylo leaned back against a chair and sipped at her own glass. “You didn’t come haulin’ ass into Hutt Space just t’ fix my computer, Cap’n. What’s up?”

“Dunno how up on the news you are, but you see that thing what just came out of Zakuul the other day?” Korin got to his feet, brushing dust off his clothing.

“Everyone and their mother’s seen that thing. I don’t envy either of ‘em.” Hylo ran her finger over the rim of her glass. “You got some sorta interest in ‘em? The girl looked familiar, like that Jedi you were workin’ with on Rishi way back when. Wasn’t her name Taerich-something? And the Shan kid… damn, wonder what the twit got himself into now.”

Korin hesitated before he nodded. “Her name’s Xaja, and she’s my sister. The sister I thought was killed years ago. For obvious reasons, I’d kinda like t’ find her alive before the Zaks do.”

Hylo’s eyes widened. “That Jedi girl you were workin’ with back with that whole crazy cult business was your sister? I thought you were just tryin’ to get in her robes!” She shook her head and laughed. “Of all the folks to have a Jedi sister, would never have pegged the loudest an’ proudest delinquent I know.”

“Any other pretty Jedi girl an’ that answer would be an emphatic yes, but with her… euch.” Korin shuddered. “Movin’ on... Your people haven’t heard any rumours of where they might’ve shown their faces?”

“There’s chatter all over the board, kid. Folks are claimin’ to have seen ‘em everywhere — here, Hutta, Ord Mantell, Brentaal, Jedha, Port Nowhere, even Coruscant. A couple of ‘em might be legit though. One guy got a look at a girl who might look like your Jedi sister on Corellia, although he lost her pretty fast. An’ another one of my buddies swears he saw both of ‘em on Rishi about thirty seconds before they were haulin’ ass offworld.”

“Hmmm.” Korin frowned into his drink. “One of my friends says he saw somethin’ on Rishi too. But if they’re gone from there already…”

“No tellin’ where they might be now. Sorry, kid.” Hylo reached over and patted Korin’s shoulder. “I’ll keep an ear open though. We might get somethin’. You’ll be the first person I tell if anythin’ looks interesting.”

“Thanks, Hylo. I really appreciate it.” Korin gave the Mirialan a tired smile as Tee-Seven beeped his agreement.

“No problem, kid. But be ready to move fast if somethin’ does come up. There’s a lot of folks who’ll do a lot for that many credits.”


“… You lot are damn lucky my honour’s worth more than two hundred million credits.” Shara Verhayc sighed and rested her palm against her forehead. “That story’s so insane, there’s no way it can be a lie.”

“Two hundred million, plus another two million added the other day for Doctor Kimble, cyar’ika,” Sorand corrected as he stared at his datapad again. “If you’d had any hopes of staying anonymous, Doctor, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. I would have thought you might have had a few more days before being identified…”

Doc just scowled at the datapad. Apparently anonymity was not his greatest concern. “Two million credits? I was at the top of my graduating class from the most prestigious university in Republic Space. I can cure anything, and Arcann’s only offering a measly two million credits for my head when Agent Walking-Disaster is worth fifty million? It should be at least twenty-five million for my healing hands alone!”

Xaja shook her head in exasperation as Sorand looked down and away, but not before the Jedi saw his lips twitch upward in a grin. To her left, Reanden just sighed and looked up at the ceiling, muttering something incoherent under his breath.

“Yeah, cure everything except carbonite poisoning,” Theron snarked at the medic from Xaja’s other side, well out of retaliation range. Not for the first time, the Jedi wondered why she always wound up stuck in the middle when her lover and her friend were sniping at each other.

Doc’s eyes narrowed in a glare. “Only because I don’t have the components I need for the cure, Shan. And I’ve still been more useful in dealing with it than you.”

“Yes, because sneaking into the Spire, finding her in carbonite and breaking her out, and escaping without getting her or me killed was something you could have done --”

Sorand raised his head back up and looked at Xaja. “Have they been doing this the entire time that they’ve been within breathing distance of each other?”

“Yes.” That was Xaja, Reanden, and Lokin all answering in the same breath. Doc scowled while Theron gave him a sidelong glare, but they finally quit bickering for the moment.

The Sith looked back and forth between the spy and the medic for a moment before returning to the subject at hand, satisfied that they could at least act like mature adults for a few minutes. “Okay. Dad was right when he said this will be the last place anyone would think to look for any of you, especially Xaja, and I’m happy to hide you for as long as I can. But this is Dromund Kaas. There are a lot of people here who don’t mind our benevolent overlords when there’s that many credits up for your heads. Others here hate Zakuul with a passion, but those same people also tend to be proponents of the Empire’s glory days around the time of the Treaty. They might not turn you over to Zakuul, but they also aren’t going to say no to a chance to kill a Jedi, or a Republic spy.”

Xaja nodded and sighed. “We’re not exactly big on options, brother. The Republic’s hunting us too — you saw that posting from the Chancellor.”

“Was this the same person you got into a yelling match with over the holo on Ziost?”

“Oh yes. That conversation continued when I got back to Coruscant. Saresh… isn’t fond of me, and the feeling’s mutual.”

Sorand shook his head and smirked. “Oh, I would have paid dearly to hear that.” He sobered again. “She might be afraid of Zakuul’s possible retaliation if the Republic’s accused of sending Theron in, especially if Arcann’s accusing him of setting up some plan to attack civilians — I know that’s a load of bantha shit, Theron, terrorism’s not your style.” Theron gave the Sith a tight smile, and Xaja felt a sudden sick feeling over their bond. I’d feel sick too if somebody had accused me of planning to murder civilians. “Although if she’s as… emphatically not fond of you as you say she is…”

“Hey, you heard that shouting match,” Theron interjected. “And she hates me. She’d sell us both for a cookie if someone offered.”

“Oh, don’t think so lowly of yourself, Shan.” Xaja looked up to see her father’s lips twitching in a smirk. “You’re worth at least two cookies. Granted, they’re both raisin cookies…”

“Wonderful. I feel so special. Thanks, old timer, I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

“For kriff’s sake, Dad,” Xaja muttered as she dropped her face into her hands. “You are not helping!”

“Okay, we’ve established the Chancellor hates both of you, probably Doctor Kimble by association, and won’t try to save your collective shebs from Arcann,” Sorand quickly spoke before another squabble-fest could break out. “Is there anyone else in the Republic High Command or the Senate who might help you?”

“Saresh has her fingers everywhere,” Theron admitted with a final sidelong scowl at Reanden. “While there might be a couple of people higher up in the SIS or High Command who would be willing to hide me or Xaja, they wouldn’t be able to without being caught.” He and Xaja exchanged a quick glance before he continued. “We can’t risk their necks like that. You know if Saresh finds out about anyone helping us, they’ll wind up on Arcann’s bounty posting too.”

Sorand nodded and sat back, tapping his gloved fingers against his chin. “Hmmm. Acina and Vowrawn have their people all through my spheres — I’ve got my own people watching them too. We’re Sith, it’s expected. — but if I get you three out of public sight, they won’t be able to watch you. It’s pretty well-known that I’m the recluse of the Dark Council and personally vet everyone who gets invited to my residence. That list is… not much longer than the list of people in this room.”

“It won’t be a permanent solution,” Xaja quietly said. “How long do you think we would have?”

“A few days, for certain. If we’re lucky, a few weeks.” Sorand frowned. “Dad can probably arrange for false identities and disguises, so that might extend your time here. And between Shara, Dad, and I, we know where a few of the resistance cells that might be able to shelter you are. But we’re on borrowed time now.”

Xaja nodded, then suddenly cringed as a muscle spasm hit her right arm, hard enough to make the limb’s twitch visible through her robe. Sorand’s frown deepened as he watched Theron take Xaja’s arm and gently try to loosen the muscle. “And that’s another problem.”

“There is a conventional medicinal cure for carbonite poisoning,” Reanden said as he turned to take Lokin’s satchel while the older doctor moved to give Xaja another dose of medicine. “But it’s hard to come by, and expensive. It’s the other reason I didn’t take them to a resistance cell straight off.”

“Kriff.” The Sith sighed. “How bad is the damage?”

Reanden didn’t say anything. Xaja looked up to see her father’s gaze, and felt her heart break when she saw the grief in his eyes. Doc lowered his head and sighed; Theron squeezed her hand tightly, and Xaja was nearly drowned by the fear she could sense from him.

Lokin finally finished giving Xaja the medicine and turned to look at the rapidly-paling Sith Lord. “Your sister’s dying, Imperius,” he quietly said. “If she hadn’t been so fortunate as to meet Doctor Kimble on Rishi, she would probably already be gone.”

Sorand didn’t move or say anything for a long minute, then dropped his head into his hands. “With your and Kimble’s combined skill, assuming you have every drug you need to treat the symptoms, how long…?” Shara perched herself on the edge of the desk and reached a hand over to the Sith’s shoulder, worry creasing her brow.

Xaja watched as Lokin and Doc exchanged a sombre look. “Perhaps a month, at the outside,” Lokin finally said. “The poisoning is severe, and centered around her nervous system. She’s losing access to the Force too. At this stage, even if we had the cure on hand this minute, the damage that’s already been done is likely permanent.” She had already known that, but that didn’t stop her from gripping Theron’s hand back as tightly as she could and leaning into her father’s touch when she felt his hand on her shoulder. There is no death, only the Force… but that didn’t mean she wanted to die. I can’t. Not like this. I can’t leave Theron and Doc and my family alone, not like this!

There was a long moment where Sorand didn’t say anything — and when he did, the voice wasn’t that of a Sith Lord. It was that of a worried little brother. “Fierfek.” He looked back up. “You two compile a list of everything you need for that cure, and I will find a way to make sure you have it, and kriff the cost of it.”

Doc quickly nodded. “We’ve got a list already. Give us a second and we’ll get it transferred to you.”

“Good. Time’s of the essence. Talos, Xalek.”

“Yes, my lord?” The archaeologist and advisor to the Sith had been standing in a corner, mostly unnoticed; now he stepped up beside the Kaleesh apprentice.

“Go and make sure my residence is secure -- discreetly. In the event of a worst-case-scenario, I want the Raven fully fueled and ready to fly at a moment’s notice.” He glanced up at Shara, got a nod, and continued. “Shara will have her ship ready to go as a backup option.”

“I’ll come with you,” Reanden spoke up. “And I may need to steal Mako, Shara. I need all ears available listening for any chatter about these three.”

“Sounds good. I’ll see what sorta false leads I can set up in the guilds.” Shara gave Xaja and Theron an apologetic look as she hopped off Sorand’s desk. “With you two bein’ worth that much, I can’t keep ‘em from goin’ after ya, but I can at least slow ‘em down.”

“We appreciate everything you can do… all of you.” Xaja straightened up in her seat to look around at everyone who’d just sworn, either for themselves or on orders from Sorand, to protect them. “We understand the risk that you’re taking for us.”

“I am not going to ever be accused of being a kinslayer, which is what I would be if I just sat back and didn’t help you,” Sorand said as he stood up and came around beside Shara. “I’ve only got one sister in this galaxy, and I’d rather like to keep her around as long as I can.” He gave Xaja a grin. “The fact that I get to spite our dear overlords at the same time is just a bonus.”

“Anything that hampers Arcann and his minions is good for us.” Reanden gave Xaja’s shoulder a final squeeze and bent to kiss her hair before he moved away. “Mako, Talos, Xalek: come along. Time is precious.”

“Yes sir, Mister Commander, sir!” Shara’s companion, a petite human girl with impressive cybernetic implants on her face, cheerfully followed the older agent and the archaeologist out of the room.

“Brat.” Reanden just shook his head, then put his officer’s cap back on — Xaja could see the second where Reanden Taerich disappeared and the Sith Intelligence Commander returned.

“It will be too risky for Doctor Kimble to check the Citadel’s stores on medicinal ingredients,” Lokin said as Reanden vanished down the corridor, “but he can brief you on the details of what we need while I go investigate. A significant amount of what we need should be available in Intelligence’s storage.”

“Good. Keep me updated.” Sorand watched the old doctor leave, then gave Xaja a contemplative frown. “… Do you trust me?”

“Dumb question, little brother.” Xaja raised an eyebrow at the Sith. “If I didn’t trust you, would I be sitting here?”

“Good point. Sit still for a minute.” Sorand approached and extended his hands to hover on either side of Xaja’s head. “This might be uncomfortable, considering how deep the damage is…”

Theron frowned worriedly as he watched Sorand move up. Xaja felt him squeeze her hand again. “Do you think you can heal it entirely?”

“Maybe. At the very least, I should get an idea of just how bad it is. A scan only does so much.” Sorand paused, then Force-called another chair to himself and sat down. “This might take a while.”

Xaja shuddered at the first sensation of cold trickling down from Sorand’s hands, under her skin and through her muscles, into her bones themselves. “Sorry,” Sorand muttered as he felt the shiver. “Jedi aren’t fans of Dark Side healing, are they?”

“I can’t afford to be picky, brother. Do what you need to do.”

“Okay.” The cold shifted, sinking further into her muscles and centering around her spine.  It then crawled up the column, seeping into her brain, where she  winced as it flooded over the inside of her skull. Sorand paused briefly over the bright point that was Theron. “Hmm, that’s interesting,” he mumbled as he continued his examination. “Not connected, but… huh.” He left the bond untouched, brushing against an area of Xaja’s mind that was dark and locked — all the memories that she had pushed away, shoved down where they couldn’t hurt her. But even the brush was enough to make her feel the terror of a seven-year-old girl as the Jedi Temple fell around her; the horror of a child pulling the trigger on a blaster and feeling a life in the Force vanish; the rage and fear and grief mingled from Vitiate’s station… Even the echo of the old Emperor’s presence made her shudder, a tear escaping her eyes. She felt Theron lift her hand through the fog and gently kiss it, his worry a tendril in the Force that she grasped and clung to for her own sanity.

“Sorry,” Sorand muttered again. The cold backed away from that part of Xaja’s mind, then went crept down her spine, spreading out through her nerves. “Whoa… that’s not good.” The Jedi hissed in pain as she felt what could be best described as a pinch, deep within one of her back muscles. “Okay, yeah, this is really going to hurt. I’m sorry, Xaja.”

And then her world erupted in pain. Starting at her spine and spreading outward like a terribly cold fire, it twisted everything it touched. Xaja couldn’t tell if the agony was due to the poison in her body, or the Dark Side being used so deeply within her, no matter how benevolent her brother’s purpose -- possibly some combination of the above. She bit down hard on her lip and tasted blood, tears trailing down her face. It was the pain of the Force-heals offered by Sorand or Lana on Rishi and Yavin, amplified numerous times over. She almost would have rather taken the carbonite poisoning seizures over this attempt at healing.

“Hold on.” Sorand’s voice sounded strained. “Think I might’ve found… something?…” There was a new burst of cold flame at the base of Xaja’s skull, drawing a whimper of pain. “If I can… oh, shit…”

Purple fire exploded across her vision, followed by blackness.

When she opened her eyes again, it was to Theron kneeling in front of her, hazel eyes wide with panic. “Kimble, I think she’s conscious,” he said as he frantically brushed his hands through her hair and over her face. “C’mon, sweetheart, look at me. Give me something, Xaja, please…”

“Theron?” Why was that one word so hard for her to say? Her entire mouth felt like it was made of heavy durasteel, and that was still preferable to the pulses of pain up and down her spine.

Theron sagged in relief, and was immediately shoved to the side as Doc knelt beside him. “Look at me, Red. How many fingers am I holding up?”

Xaja squinted around the pounding in her head. “… Three?…”

“Attagirl. You know where we are?”

Black walls and ceiling. Red accents everywhere. A woman in green beskar’gam crouching beside a tall, lanky man in black robes. Xaja blinked. “Dromund Kaas. Sorand… tried to heal me… carbonite poisoning…”

Doc sighed, the strain easing out of his shoulders somewhat. “Oh, good, you’re still with us. You’ve been unconscious for the better part of twenty minutes, and your brother only just came to a bit ago.”

“Told you it was gonna hurt,” Sorand interjected from his chair. He wearily sat up straighter, still looking like he was carrying the weight of the entire Empire on his shoulders, and seemed grateful for Shara helping him up. “Just didn’t think it was going to hit both of us like that.”

Xaja winced. “Sorry --”

“Don’t you even start. My idea, remember?” Sorand sighed and raked his hands through his hair. His nerftail had come loose, leaving his long dark hair free on his shoulders. “Don’t let me have ideas again.”

That earned a tired smirk from the Jedi. She gratefully leaned into Theron’s shoulder as the spy moved beside her and tried to grab for his hand, then paused when she saw the still-red marks on her skin. “What…”

“Yeah, you were holding onto Theron’s hand tightly enough that his gloves kinda left indents in your skin. I’m pretty sure he might’ve lost feeling in a couple fingers.” Doc offered a tight, worried smile.

“My hand’s fine,” Theron quickly said, and made a point of gently holding Xaja’s own hand in his palm. “Don’t worry about me, Xaja. I’m more concerned about you.” He looked at Sorand, his forehead creased. “What’d you figure out while you were in there?”

“So… bad news.” Sorand finally seemed to be regaining his composure. “It’s… yeah, it’s bad, beyond my skill to heal. I’m sorry, Xaja — I wish I could fix it all for you.” He grimaced at her in sympathy. “But, there’s a bit of good news: I think I might have slowed down the progression of the toxins, at least for a little while. And the damage is such that, in theory, if we had strong enough healers -- maybe a group of them -- we might be able to reverse it.”

That burst of hope almost made Xaja forget about the lingering pain. “Really? It’s reversible?”

In theory. And we’d need a group of healers at least as strong as me, if not more so. It’s too much for one healer to fix on their own.” Sorand offered her a small smile. “We’ll find that group. I don’t care who I have to blackmail or order into it.”

If we can find any Jedi healers still alive…” Theron muttered in thought as his other hand started stroking through Xaja’s hair. “I can’t see many Sith being willing to heal a Jedi even if ordered to.”

“There’s the Voss as an option. Or some Zakuulans have defected and turned traitor against the Eternal Throne. Perhaps there’s healers hidden there.” Sorand finally stood up, using Shara as a support. “We’ll find something, Xaja. I promise.”

Chapter Text

It wasn’t often that Jace had the chance to see the soldiers that made up the newest incarnation of Havoc Squad. Despite his fondness for his old squad, his duties as Supreme Commander usually kept him behind a desk on Coruscant. Havoc, in the meantime, typically ran through the entire galaxy like bats from hell — even more than usual with the Zakuulan invasion. But now, with the siege ended and the galaxy under a forced, uneasy peace that felt akin to sitting on top of a crate of unstable explosives, Havoc had been recalled to Coruscant, much to the displeasure of the current commanding officer.

Fortunately, this was one of the rare situations where Saresh’s deeds worked in Jace’s favour, provided that he acted quickly.

He was sitting at his desk when Aric Jorgan marched into his office and sharply saluted. “You wanted to see me, sir?” The Cathar had never been a jovial man, but now was even more sombre than he had been in the wake of Tavus’ defection, or after Major Kota had been injured badly enough to be permanently retired from active duty. Zakuul had taken a toll on everyone.

“Yes. Take a seat, Major.” Jace pressed a button on his desk to lock his office door, grateful that Marcus had taken the time earlier to sweep the room for hidden transmitters. “We have matters of a sensitive nature to discuss.”

Jorgan’s stoic expression cracked with a raised eyebrow. “Is this about Vik losing his temper on Senator Borsani?”

A smirk almost showed itself on Jace’s face. “No, although I do wish I could give him a commendation for that. Unfortunately, what I have to say does not concern Captain Dorne or Forex, either.” The ex-Imperial soldier had proven herself quite a valuable member of Jace’s personal staff — it was an idiotic decision on Saresh’s part to force her out of Havoc, almost as stupid as reassigning Forex to the Morale Initiative. “But before we go any further into this conversation, Major, I need your agreement to maintain operational silence. None of this discussion leaves this room.”

Jorgan’s other eyebrow raised to join the first. “Understood, sir.”

“Good.” Jace reached down into a drawer in his desk and withdrew a datapad, which he handed to Jorgan. “I assume you’ve seen this?”

“The Chancellor’s bounty posting and Zakuul’s Most Wanted?” Jorgan very nearly snarled. “It’s a load of bantha shi— uh, it’s a crock, sir. Even if Master Taerich’s still alive, she was far too much of a Jedi to be a murderer. And I’ve met Agent Shan. He’s the furthest thing from a terrorist.”

“And neither of them would betray the Republic, despite what certain individuals believe. If anything, they’re probably the Republic’s best shot at getting out from under Zakuul’s grip… assuming they aren’t handed to Arcann on a platter.”

Jorgan’s eyes narrowed. “What are you suggesting, sir?”

“Something that, to certain individuals, may be considered treasonous.” Jace carefully watched the sniper’s bright green eyes. “If we do what those certain individuals want in regards to handing over Master Taerich or Agent Shan to the Zakuulans, we’re throwing away what I believe are our best hopes. And I think you and I both know how well those same individuals will take our suggestions for an alternative solution.”

The Cathar slowly nodded. “Those particular individuals haven’t been fond of Master Taerich since she tore Sar -- one of them a new one after the Makeb incident; they’ve had it out for both of them since Ziost. Everyone in the armed forces and their mothers heard about that.”

“It’s true. And the leader of these individuals would sell both of them for a scrap of flimsi to Zakuul.” Jace leaned forward over his desk and watched Jorgan as the soldier absorbed the conversation. “Now, if you truly believe your conscience demands that you follow the will of the Republic, I’ll respect that and swear you to absolute silence on this conversation.” He wasn’t going to mention that Marcus would have agents following the Cathar’s every move. “However, if you would rather see the galaxy free again —”

“I’m in, sir.” Jorgan’s fangs bared in a grin. “Where is Havoc going?”

That was a weight off of Jace’s chest. He gave Jorgan a small, conspiratorial smirk. “Officially, Havoc Squad is on leave as of right now; where you take your squad on leave is none of my concern. But if you’ll take the advice of an old soldier, Alderaan is lovely this time of year.”

“Alderaan, hmm?” Jorgan crossed his arms in thought. “You haven’t given us bad advice yet, sir. Any recommendations for where we should visit on the surface?”

“If I was still Havoc’s CO, I’d make sure to visit Organa Castle and catch up with some old war friends. Charle Organa’s an old friend of mine and still quite fond of Havoc. I’m sure he’d be delighted to meet the newest CO.” The fact that Marcus had intel suggesting the Organas were sheltering members of the resistance, if not outright joining the resistance themselves, was a bonus.

Jorgan slowly nodded, a smirk crossing his face. Jace could see carefully-restrained glee in the Cathar’s eyes. “The Organas are good people. Yuun will probably find something tracker-related in their archives, and Vik… I’m sure he’ll find some way to keep himself occupied.”

“Good. Your Thunderclap will be ready for departure soon.”

“Yes, sir.” Jorgan’s smirk widened. “And if anyone asks, we’re on Nar Shaddaa.”

Jace grinned. “Excellent. Dismissed, Major — good luck.”

Jorgan sharply saluted and departed from the office, his stride far more purposeful than it had been when he’d entered the room. Jace sat back down as the Cathar vanished from sight and sighed to himself. There was no turning back now. Treason against the Republic, or betrayal of your son and the entire galaxy… there was only one right answer.



“So, good news and bad news,” Kimble said as he took one of the seats around the table and glanced around at his surroundings again. Despite Sorand’s best efforts to accommodate his Republic visitors, the black walls and red banners proved disconcerting and uncomfortable for them. Still, he couldn’t change all the decor of his apartment on the outskirts of Kaas City. “Which one do you want first?”

Theron looked over as Xaja glanced back at him, then at Sorand leaning against the back of Shara’s chair, then back to Kimble. “The good news.”

“Most of what we need for the cure is available in Intelligence’s stores. Doctor Lokin’s bringing back what we need to create the serum in your brother’s laboratory downstairs.” Kimble had to glance over at Sorand at that. “Do I want to know why a Sith Lord has a fully-decked-out science lab in his residence?”

“Long story involving an ancient Sith artifact leaking mind-controlling poisons into the air. You really don’t want to know the details. Talos still gets headaches going in there.” Sorand shook his head. “I’m pretty sure the ghosts of a few of my old masters came back to slap me upside the head for that…”

“Ooookay.” Kimble shook his head. “It is all cleared out though now, right?”

“Yes, it is. Xalek and Ashara cleaned it out once I had the poison contained.”

“Okay, good.” Kimble nodded, then looked back at Xaja. “With what we’ve got onhand right now, we can form the base serum. Carbonite poisoning’s apparently enough of a problem that a cure has been developed.”

“But it’s not so frequent that anyone just keeps it readily on-hand,” Reanden interjected as he meandered into the room. “It’s the only thing that’s been confirmed to save a poisoning victim, if the serum is given to them in time.”

Kimble grimly nodded. “Unfortunately, the one component that we’re missing is the one that’s critical for the serum to work… and the reason why most victims don’t survive.”

“What is that?” Theron asked as he saw Xaja’s brow crease in worry. Under the table, his hand reached out and found hers, and he felt her cling back to him like her life depended on it.

The medic looked down at his datapad. “Quesh venom. We need it to create a chemical called dimalium-6. For a while, Imperial Intelligence was the only group that had that particular chemical.”

“Even then, there was never very much.” Reanden added; Theron saw the old spy’s mouth tighten like his knowledge had a sour taste to it. “Intelligence used it in the process of developing a mind control serum.”

“And you want to give a mind controlling substance to your daughter?” Theron frowned. “How does that help with the poisoning?”

“The mind control serum was one of the uses of dimalium-6. And I’d sooner cut off my arm than force a mind control like that onto anyone.” Reanden shot Theron a dark glare before looking back to Xaja. “In any case, Intelligence scrapped the mind control project years ago, and the chemical now been classified as a controlled substance, ever since the Hutts found out that it’s a spice enhancer.”

“Potential side effects include kriffing with one’s memory and affecting one’s mood,” Kimble added.

Shara lowly whistled under her breath. “So that’s what that osik is. It’s been makin’ rounds through the underworld, apparently it’s behind the newest and greatest forms of glitterstim. The Hutts have been makin’ a killing off if it on Nar Shaddaa.”

Sorand frowned. “So how does a potentially-mind-controlling spice enhancer help Xaja?”

“There is typically a barrier between one’s brain and blood,” Reanden slowly said. “Most human or humanoid species in the galaxy naturally have one. The dimalium-6 works by breaking that barrier — something to do with the properties of Quesh venom. It’s how it opens up the mind for outside controlling influences, or makes spice hit one harder… or we can create a derivative of the venom similar to the dimalium-6 to open up that barrier for treatment of neurological poisoning.”

“Which is why it’s the last critical ingredient we need for the serum,” Kimble finished. “Otherwise, what we’ve got is an expensive method of symptom control that really won’t do much to help you otherwise.” He sat back in his chair and ran both hands through his hair. “So, in conclusion, Xaja is the most high-maintenance lady, Jedi or otherwise, that any of us have ever met.”

“Thanks, Doc.” Xaja rolled her eyes, then looked back at her father. Her fingers hadn’t yet loosened their grip on Theron’s hand yet. “So if this is a controlled substance, how do we get our hands on it?”

“Affording the credits for it won’t be a problem,” Sorand mused. “Assuming, of course, we can access it. Dad, is there a way that we can get it in here without questions being asked?”

“Any other substance and I could just pull strings to get it here.” Their father tapped his fingers against his chin in thought. “Unfortunately, given how controlled and restricted it is, it’s hard even for Intelligence to get access to it. And it’s not something that can be traded for on Nar Shaddaa, when we need the venom in its unaltered state to make the serum.”

“I can get onto Quesh,” Shara volunteered. “And I don’t have to trade nicely to get it. Skadge is useful for exactly one thing.” She grinned evilly. “I can steal it and get it back here.”

“Without being caught or questioned?” Theron frowned. “If you’re already known to be Imperius’ personal favourite bounty hunter, wouldn’t —”

“They won’t see me. They’re just gonna see a hulking brute of a Houk bashing heads until he gets it and then lighting out.” Shara’s grin got wider. “Like I said, Skadge is useful for one thing.”

“Well, two, if we count the meat-shield usage,” Sorand commented.

“Good point, cyar’ika.” Shara beamed up at the Sith, then looked back at the rest of the conspirators. “What’s the deadline for getting the venom back into your hands, Doc?”

“The sooner the better, obviously,” Kimble said. He glanced at Xaja, then at his datapad again. “With how badly Xaja’s slipping downhill, she might be beyond the point of saving in less than three weeks.” Theron’s grip back on Xaja’s hand tightened, and he felt his jaw clench in stubborn determination as he felt anxiety from her along their bond. Not happening. I don’t care what I have to do. You’re not dying like this.

“Hooo boy, and you’re gonna need time to make the cure when I get it back here. Jetiise, always making my life complicated.” Shara stood up from the table and paused long enough to kiss Sorand’s cheek. “I’m headin’ out now. I’ll letcha know when I’ve got the venom.”

“Good luck!” the Sith called after the departing Mandalorian’s back, then turned back to his houseguests. “Doctor Kimble, you and Doctor Lokin have full access to the laboratory — let me know if there’s anything you’re missing from there and I’ll get it for you. Theron, when you do inevitably get bored and slice into my computers, please just leave the files labeled Dark Temple or Spectres alone. You really don’t want to know.”

Theron had the grace to look a little abashed. “If it makes you feel better, I wasn’t planning on looking through your files. I’m planning on tracking communications regarding the hunt for us.”

“That’s fair. I’d be doing the same thing. Xaja, since you shouldn’t be using the Force here even if you weren’t sick, I’ll just show you where my library is. I promise it’s not all Sith texts.” Sorand looked around the room. “Is there anything else you need at the moment?”

“Nothing that comes to mind. I owe you for this, little brother.”

“Survive this and kick Arcann’s ass back to Wild Space where he and his ilk belong, and we’ll call it square.” The Sith came around the table and offered Xaja his arm. “C’mon, I’ll get you oriented with the apartment before I have to return to the Citadel.”

Theron finally let go of Xaja’s hand as she stood up, trying to be subtle about taking her brother’s arm for support. The spy watched as both siblings meandered out of the room, Sorand notably shortening his long stride for his sister. Without seeing them together, one might have never suspected them to be related. When beside each other, however, the similarities were clear: despite Sorand inheriting Reanden’s brown eyes and Xaja their mother’s green, they shared the same eye shape, the same facial structure. Their hair, also of widely differing color, shared the same thick, poker-straight texture, capping off the same slender frames… even if Sorand did stand almost a foot taller than his sister. This was all without taking into account their respective strengths in the Force. Korin had once even tried to describe the similarities between their Force-signatures. It was a description lost on the all-but-Force-blind spy. As they turned a corner, Theron could see they had the same smile, Sorand apparently having made some sarcastic joke that he couldn’t hear at their current volume to make Xaja laugh, and apparently succeeding.

Settling back into his seat as both Sith and Jedi vanished down the hallway, Theron rubbed his hands over his face. Xaja was scared, no matter how much she tried to hide it, and he was terrified under the brave face he was putting on for her. I can’t lose her, not again, not like this…

“She’ll be okay.”

Reanden’s hand dropped onto his shoulder as the old spy paused behind his chair. Lokin and Kimble were already leaving the room for the lab, talking between themselves about chemical components and the creation of serums and symptom management until Shara got her hands on the venom. “Lokin and Kimble are two of the most brilliant doctors I’ve ever met,” he continued. “Sorand will move planets if he thinks it’ll help his sister. And you know how stubborn Xaja is. She won’t lie down and die like this.”

“You’re not wrong,” Theron admitted as he looked up at the old Cipher. “I might even believe you, if you didn’t sound like you were trying to convince yourself of that.” He could see the stoop of Reanden’s shoulders and noted just how drawn and worn his face looked at that moment.

“She’s my daughter, Shan. I’m going to worry no matter what.” Reanden sighed and squeezed Theron’s shoulder in a surprisingly almost-affectionate gesture before he continued walking. “You have enough common sense to not do anything stupid while you’re slicing into the computers. Let me know if anything happens.” He lingered long enough to see Theron’s nod before he left, leaving the spy alone with his thoughts.

Closing his eyes, he reached for the bright point of light in his mind that was Xaja. I’m going to save you, no matter what it takes. I promise.



Jedha’s winds were cold, even in the middle of the Holy City, the maze of low-lying buildings acting almost as wind tunnels. Satele drew her robe tighter around herself as she walked through the streets to reach the Temple located here, feeling rather relieved that Darth Marr's ghost wasn't currently lurking over her shoulder. She had no idea where the Sith’s apparition had disappeared to, but it felt… wrong… somehow to even contemplate bringing him here. It was ancient, almost as old as the ruins on Tython, and had been more frequently inhabited since Tython was abandoned thousands of years ago — although now, with the Jedi all but gone, no Knights or Masters could be found here.

Yet the Force had guided her here to this location. The former Grand Master’s eyebrows drew together in a frown. From what she could sense, Master Xaja was definitely not on Jedha; and if she wasn’t here, Theron would have little reason to be. She hadn’t seen anyone matching her son’s description either. A spy he may be, capable of vanishing into the crowd, Theron wouldn’t be so heartless to not reassure her that he was all right if he saw her… right?

Not dead yet. Can’t talk, will explain later. Sorry. T. That was hardly a sufficient apology note for scaring one’s mother to death. Theron, where are you? Are you and Master Xaja safe, at least? No, that was a stupid question: nowhere in the galaxy was safe, not with that bounty on their heads. Satele supposed that safety was relative.

She let herself into the abandoned Temple through a side entrance and slowly walked through the corridors, brushing her fingers against the softly glowing kyber crystals set in the walls. She had come here once as a Padawan with Master Zho, and had been awestruck by the Temple then; even as an older, wiser Jedi Master now, this place was still beautiful and awe-inspiring. The ancient Temple was still a marvel, even if empty and —

Her blue eyes narrowed. No, it wasn’t empty. She could feel another presence in the Force — not light like a Jedi, nor dark like a Sith. Balanced, like… the Knights of Zakuul. On quiet feet, Satele crept further into the Temple, mouth set firmly at the idea of the Zakuulans in this place.

The Zakuulan in question was a woman wearing a white cloak with a hood, not quite pulled forward enough to hide her steely grey hair. Underneath, Satele could see white and grey armour in the style of the Knights, and a lightsaber hanging from her belt. The stranger had her hands clasped in front of her and appeared to be admiring the Temple, until she turned to see Satele standing at one of the corridor entrances. There were several long seconds of a tense silence before the intruder spoke. “This place is magnificent.” Her voice was lower pitched and quiet, but still strong — this was a leader among the Zakuulans.

Satele inclined her head in agreement. “It is a sacred site for the Jedi. It was one of the first Temples, and is at least as old as the Republic itself.”

The Zakuulan nodded. “You are — you were one of them?” Startlingly pale blue eyes glanced at the saber-staff hanging from Satele’s belt, then back up to her face.

“Yes.” Satele shifted her weight slightly between her feet. “What brings a Knight of Zakuul into the Jedha Temple and the Holy City?”

“Would you believe me if I said the curiosity of a tourist?”

That got a raised eyebrow and the patented Grand-Master-Shan-disapproves look. “Are the sacred places of my people now tourist attractions for yours?”

“No. My apologies, Master Jedi.” The Zakuulan offered a shallow bow. “There has been a call within the Force, one that will not rest. It has led me here, but…” She took another look around the room. “I had hoped to find answers in here.”

Oh, blast it. The Force nudged at Satele — this was who she had been led to. “Strangely enough, I also was called here. I had hoped to find news of my son and his — his partner.”

“They are missing?” The Zakuulan sounded concerned.

You would not be nearly so concerned if you knew their names. “Yes, and have been for some time. She went MIA during the war, and he… didn’t take the news well. I haven’t seen him since he ran off on some damned-fool mission to find her.”

“I am sorry.” Pity softened the Zakuulan’s eyes. She looked away from Satele and back to the ancient architecture around them. “… The Jedi were healers as well as warriors and diplomats, were they not?”

“Some were,” Satele cautiously acknowledged.

The Zakuulan nodded. Her facial expression shifted, hinting at a terrible pain behind her eyes. “I had hoped to find anything in the Jedi teachings for… for healing a broken mind. My son and my daughter… their father did horrible things to their minds, twisted them so that I can barely recognize my own children.” She took a shaky breath. “I would do anything to see them healed and restored to what they were.”

“I’m sorry.” Satele felt a burst of compassion in her heart for the hurting mother in front of her. “Their father is no longer in a position to harm them?”

“No. He was killed two years ago, and I still do not know if I am relieved or grieving.” The Zakuulan sighed heavily. “If I had known he would do that to them, I would never have…”

“The future is always in motion, and not even the wisest can see all paths.” Satele took a step closer to the stranger. “You could not have known what was to come.”

“No, I suppose you are right.” The Zakuulan blinked rapidly as though hiding tears, then turned back to Satele. “I am sorry — I ought to introduce myself. I am Senya Tirall.”

“Satele Shan,” the Jedi answered with a slight bow.

Senya’s eyes widened. “Not the same Satele Shan who was hailed as the leader of the Jedi Order?”

“The very same, while there was a Jedi Order.” Satele carefully watched the Zakuulan’s eyes. “Is that a problem?”

“… Not at all, Master Shan.” Senya inclined her head. “If it means anything… I am sorry for what happened to your people. The Jedi should not have had the fate they suffered.”

Satele nodded in acknowledgement of the apology. “There are enough of us who survived. The Order will endure — it always has.”

“That… oddly reassures me.” Senya’s mouth twitched in a small smile. “It’s an honour to meet you.”

“The pleasure is mine, Knight Tirall.” Until you find out who my son is and who he’s with. “Come, let us find somewhere more comfortable to talk than here.”

“Please, call me Senya.”

“Then I must insist on Satele.”

Chapter Text

Zakuul did not make idle threats. True to Larill’s word, Coruscant awakened one morning a week after the demand for the two missing Republic assets to see the Eternal Fleet surrounding the capital planet ominously.

In the quarters of the Supreme Chancellor, Saresh paced back and forth before the window, staring out at the ships through the transparisteel. Though she would never confess it to any followers or rivals, fear clenched around the Twi’lek’s heart. She remembered too vividly the initial siege of Coruscant during the war two years ago. The damage had been catastrophic, the casualties horrific. Even without the heavy tribute the Republic currently paid to Zakuul, the recovery process from that war would have been slow and painful. The tributes ensured it progressed at a crawl.

It went against the Republic’s principles to surrender their assets and war heroes to their enemies, but Saresh had more than two people to think about. She had trillions of lives at stake now, under her leadership. For that reason alone, she dearly wished she had either Shan or Taerich to surrender over to Zakuul. Better to let two people die, she thought, than to let civilians come under fire, even if one of those people was a Jedi Master. She shouldn’t complain about that, though. Don’t Jedi go on and on about sacrificing themselves for the good of the many?

And Shan -- the man was damned good at his job, Saresh had to admit, even if he was an idiot. The SIS was going to hurt without him. The SIS is already hurting without him. And Master Taerich’s absence was already a blow to the Jedi Order’s remnants.

They can’t rebuild the Order or save the Republic. I need to save my people. Saresh scowled and stormed out of her quarters. It was past time for a sit-down with Director Trant and Commander Malcom: She had to try and drag Shan’s location out of either of them. Even if she only found one, it was likely the other would be nearby; if they were separated, having even one of them in Zakuul’s clutches might be enough to loosen the stranglehold on the Republic. She was certain that either Trant or Malcom had leads to Shan’s location — the hardest part would be dragging the information about Malcom’s bastard son out of him.

She paused, pursing her lips. The absence of Shan’s mother, the respected former Grand Master, was conspicuous. It also made Saresh more than a little nervous: If she and Malcom were working together, it would not be the first time the two had colluded against her. Was she supporting her son? The rebel movement? Had the losses finally caught up with her and sent her as crazy as her own master? Saresh had no way of knowing. For that reason alone, we should get intel on Master Shan’s location, she mused. If Malcom legitimately doesn’t know where his son is, maybe she will. And if she’s given her son up once before for the good of the Republic, perhaps she’ll do it again.


When Xaja had been fifteen, she’d come down with a terrible case of pneumonia that left her bedridden for over a week and made Master Allende fret like she’d never seen the older woman worry before. Then, she thought that was virtually the worst illness anyone could experience and still survive it.

Xaja could still vaguely remember the feverish misery of being ill then, and when compared to her current peril, decided that her teenaged self had had it lucky. The poison slowly killing her hurt far more. This time, she didn’t have a Jedi sitting at her bedside trying to help her meditate the discomfort away and patiently administering medication to her ill student, safe within the Dantooine Enclave. This time, she was relatively secure on Dromund Kaas, under the protection of one of the Dark Council and the commander of Sith Intelligence. Even if her father and brother’s pooled resources couldn’t save her life, she was at least safe and protected for now, and Theron and Doc would be safe, no matter what.

She gingerly stretched out her back and winced at a twinge to her muscles. Only a minor one this time, but still worrying enough for the ill Jedi. She stayed still a moment, long enough to confirm her back wasn’t going to seize up again, then settled back down with the novel she was reading. Over the last two years, her favourite author had finally updated his epic saga; it was fortunate Sorand also loved the Throne Games and obsessively collected the holonovels, and had all but shoved the latest edition into her hands before he could risk dropping a spoiler.

“Still doing okay?” Theron’s voice rumbled his chest beside Xaja’s ear. When she glanced up, he was looking down at her with worry in his hazel eyes. The hand that wasn’t holding a datapad on his lap gently smoothed over her shoulder. “Do I need to yell for Kimble or Lokin?”

The two doctors were already running themselves into the ground, trying to find a workaround for the cure in case Shara couldn’t get the venom in time. Xaja shook her head and snuggled into Theron’s shoulder. “No, I’m okay. It felt more like a normal knot than anything else.” Perhaps not quite true, but she found no point in lying to him about that.

Theron raised an eyebrow. “You sure about that?” He gently tapped at her forehead; Xaja remembered belatedly that he could feel her through their bond as well as she could sense his presence in her mind, warm, bright, and soothing. “That felt worse than a knot.”

“But not as bad as some of the other ones.” Xaja tugged Theron’s hand down from her forehead and gently squeezed it. “I’m alright, I promise. I’d tell you if it was bad.”

“I get the feeling you wouldn’t have a say in the matter if it was that bad,” Theron finally acquiesced. He gently kissed Xaja’s hair, but his frown lingered. “Did we ever figure out what this…” he gestured again between their foreheads. “… was? Or how it formed?”

Xaja shook her head. “I don’t know. All I remember is reaching out to find you on Rishi, and then lost my control on the Force when…”

“Hmmm. I remember that.” Theron made a face and started carding his fingers through Xaja’s loose hair. “Surprise migraines aren’t fun for anyone. I was so confused…”

“Yeah… sorry.” Xaja winced. “If you want, Theron, I… well, I might not be able to break the bond right now, but I could—”



“No, I don’t want this bond broken. It was a surprise, but when I know it’s you on the other end, I don’t want to lose this.” Theron hesitated, his hand briefly pausing in her hair. “But, if you want rid of this —”

A rush of relief that Xaja hadn’t known she was waiting for suddenly washed through her in a burst. She snuggled into Theron’s chest and rested her hand on his stomach. “Not in the least. You being connected like this to me makes it hurt less.” She wondered if Theron could sense the times that she’d reached for their bond and clung on tightly to his light while she struggled through the pain of another muscle seizure.

“I’m glad,” Theron murmured as he kissed her hair again. The arm he had around her shoulder tightened, and Xaja felt a wave of something warm and gentle and intoxicating that she wanted but couldn’t name drifting out from him. “I’ve already lost you once. I’ll do anything to keep from losing you again.”

“Theron…” Xaja snuggled closer to him, for a second desperately needing the security his solid, warm figure gave to her. She knew it was a terrible risk right now, that her life was in the balance, and the only thing between her and death was Shara’s speed and luck in finding the Quesh venom. “If this… if everything here fails and I don’t make it—”

“You will.” Theron put his datapad down and shifted so he could face Xaja directly, cradling her face in his large, callused hands. She sighed as she absorbed the warmth of his skin, felt the gentle tug of his thumbs as he ran the pads over her cheekbones. “Xaja, please. We’re gonna get that venom and make the serum to save you. Just hold on for us — for me. I need you.”

“You don’t need me, Theron.” Not as much as I need you. Xaja slid her hands up Theron’s chest to rest behind his neck. “Even if I don’t… if this fails, you’ll recover, move on.”

“No. I didn’t the first time I lost you. I can’t now. I wouldn’t be able to move on and find someone else if…”

She’d always wondered if he’d met someone else during those two long years that she had been a prisoner, presumed dead by the rest of the galaxy. But if he knew where you were and was planning on getting you… did he know you were alive? “It was over two years, Theron. There wasn’t anyone else who… not even a one-night-stand or…?”

Theron shook his head. “I couldn’t even look at anyone else, not while I didn’t have you. Nobody else was you, Xaja. Nobody else ever will be you.” He pressed his forehead against hers, and Xaja felt a wave of emotions flood from him into her mind — griefpainlovesorrowlovewantlove. “And when you’re the only one I want… nobody else will ever be good enough.”

If the emotions she felt weren’t enough to take the breath from her lungs, his words certainly were. Xaja blinked against the sudden hot sensation behind her eyes, all ability to speak stolen away from her. She contented herself with pulling his head down lower and pressing a kiss against his mouth, one he willingly responded to. Her mental shields slipped away and she let her own feelings push back into his mind — loveaffectionsadnesslovegratefulnesslove. “I love you too, Theron,” she whispered against his lips, a second before Theron had pulled her closer against him and kissed her harder. Even if he couldn’t say the words audibly, he could still make them undeniably clear in his actions as he lowered himself back into the bed, pulling her along with him.

The seizure hit her back again as they moved, enough to make her yelp in pain. Theron quickly pulled his mouth away from hers, eyes wide. “Shit, where--?” His hand rested on the epicentre of the pain and started gently massaging the muscles there. “I'm sorry, did I hurt you? Do you need one of the doctors?”

Xaja tried to shake her head, but the pain flared again, hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. She almost didn't hear Theron grab his comm, or feel Doc enter the room and carefully roll her over to inject another dose of drugs into her arm. She barely was aware of Theron gently stroking her hair and soothingly murmuring gentle words as she faded into unconsciousness, his fear the last thing she sensed.

It was almost two days later. Theron sighed worriedly as he tugged a blanket up higher over Xaja’s thin shoulders, watching the sleeping Jedi tremble from a cold only she could feel. She’s running out of time. No matter that she’d promised Theron she’d keep trying to fight, or that he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt now that she cared for him, maybe even loved him as much as he loved her… the willpower of a sick Jedi only went so far.

Even combining her stubbornness with the medical knowledge of two highly-trained doctors, the healing abilities of one of the strongest Sith alive, and Theron’s own desperate need for her to survive, it wasn’t proving to be enough. She’s running out of time. If Shara wasn’t back within the next day, it would be too late for anything short of a miracle.

The spy stepped back as Kimble knelt next to the couch, running a scanner over Xaja’s dozing form. He didn’t need to read the results of the scan to see the medic’s shoulders slump, as disheartened as Theron himself felt, and couldn’t even feel jealous when the other man gently rubbed Xaja’s shoulder. “Hang in there, Red,” he muttered as he slowly stood back up. “I know being in Sith Central can’t be helping on the Forcie end of the spectrum…”

“Would even being on Tython help at this point?” Theron quietly asked.

“Probably not.” Kimble shrugged tiredly. “But all the Dark Side… stuff…” He waved his hand in the air as though to indicate the Sithly influence on everything that made up Dromund Kaas. “It can’t be comfortable for a Light Side user like her. She had a headache for two kriffing days the last time we were here.”

“And you were here for what, three hours? If not less?”

“Somethin’ like that.” Kimble sighed heavily. “Get some rest, Shan. I’ve got enough with one patient, I don’t wanna have to look after a second if you keel over from exhaustion.”

“And you’re not about to yourself?” Theron retorted. The medic looked awful, with dark bags under his eyes, a pale pallor to his cheeks, and an unkempt amount of stubble on his face. Apparently there were, in fact, a few things that required Kimble’s attention more than his appearance.

“I got a nap in earlier.” Kimble shrugged. “Besides, she won’t be happy if you pass out.”

Theron signed in defeat. “Fine, I’ll take a nap.” He waited for Kimble to nod and step away from Xaja’s side, then moved back to the couch and carefully squirmed between her and the back of said couch. Xaja stirred slightly with Theron’s motions, but didn’t awaken, even when Theron slid his arms around her and gently tugged her against his chest. The spy kissed her hair, then looked up to see Kimble’s disbelieving expression. “What?”

“That wasn’t --” Kimble threw his hands up in defeat. “I give up. Yell if something happens.”

“Will do.” Theron snuggled in as Kimble finally moved out of the room, slowly stroking his fingers through Xaja’s hair and fighting the urge to just close his eyes. She’d already had one severe seizure that morning, targeting her abdomen again, and Lokin had had to fight to keep her alive when she'd stopped breathing for a few minutes (Theron suspected Reanden was still shaking. He hadn't needed the Force to feel the old man's panic.). If she had another attack and he was asleep for it… I can’t lose you. Not again, Xaja. Theron pressed his lips against her temple. It was so cruel that the Force should give her back to him after two long years, only to threaten to rip her away from him again so soon. I need more than a month with her. Years… decades… a lifetime. He gently kissed her hair again and rested his hand over her reassuringly-beating heart. Please… please....

Doc scowled down at the table in the laboratory, and the half-empty vial of serum resting on the flat surface. It was hard to tell if his glare came from Theron being… well, being Theron, or from the continued failures of his and Lokin’s combined geniuses to find a workaround for the absent, desperately-needed cure. This last batch had only held off Xaja’s symptoms for a couple of hours before they resurged, worse than ever. Lokin suspected there had already been permanent damage done to the Jedi’s nervous system. At this point, it was simply a fight for her life -- fixing the long-term effects would be a bonus.

If, of course, they could find some damn accidental cure that didn’t need the Quesh venom. Of course you would have the most difficult medical condition that would need the most rare ingredients for treatment, Red, he silently griped. Like being kriffing dead for two years wasn’t enough.

“If Tatooine wasn’t so far away, I would suggest perhaps looking into sarlacc venom,” Lokin mused, off to Doc’s left. Despite their differing origins and affiliations, the two doctors had found a common ground and a companionable working relationship -- not quite friends, but hey, Doc would take what he could get. “There has to be something in the venom to force victim longevity…”

“Would that be a cure, or would that just force her to keep living in pain like this?” Doc stroked a hand over his mustache in thought. “I think she would hate living like this more than dying.”

“She would hold on if her father convinced her to, or Agent Shan.” Lokin shook his head. “It’s an irrelevant point anyway. Intelligence’s stores don’t have the sarlacc venom, and not even Agent Taerich can fly to Tatooine and back in enough time to save her.”

Doc sighed, ran his hands through his hair, and let loose with a long and colourful stream of expletives he’d picked up while working with the Balmorran Resistance, all those years ago.

“I agree.” Lokin frowned in thought. “Perhaps if we adjusted the amounts of --”

The front door of the apartment slid open, and a crash echoed through the residence. “Hey, I’m gonna need a hand with this!” came a familiar, and welcome, yell from down the hallway.

“Shara?” Doc whirled and hurried to the foyer of the apartment, only remembering he was supposed to be hidden when he saw the enormous Houk lugging a canister along behind the Mandalorian. He darted back out of sight as Lokin pushed past him -- hopefully the Houk hadn’t seen him, distracted as he was with the canister.

“You’re a welcome sight for sore eyes, Ms. Verhayc,” Lokin agreed as his footsteps moved in Shara’s direction. “Is that…?”

“One jar a’ Quesh venom, pure as the day it got pumped outta the atmosphere.” There was the sound of what sounded like a helmet being plunked on a table. “Your victim still breathin’ and all?”

“Yes, for the moment. You’re not a day too soon.” Lokin sounded almost gleeful as Doc hurried back to the stairs leading up to the living area, and to where Theron was probably fretting himself into ulcers over Xaja. This was desperately-needed good news, and he could feel a jolt of hope rush through his chest despite Dromund Kaas’ ever-present darkness.  “Would you terribly mind contacting Darth Imperius and letting him know? We have a cure to synthesize!”

“How many places could they appear at in a week after vanishing into thin air?” Koth Vortena stretched out in his chair and scrolled through the latest updates on Zakuul’s Most Wanted. “They’re three humans, not time travellers.”

Lana shook her head as she followed the reports on her own datapad. She’d gotten the encrypted message from Reanden Taerich a few days ago and knew that all three fugitives were secure with the Sith Intelligence Commander, possibly somewhere in Imperial Space; but she couldn’t say that. “This one from the Telos colony is dreadful. It’s like they didn’t even look at the images.”

“Yeah, I think this one got mixed up as to who’s got red hair and who’s got dark hair.” Koth lowly whistled through his teeth. “Here’s another one from Bespin — I don’t even have to know them to know that’s wrong.”

Lana craned her neck to look at the report in question. “Yes, no, the redhead doesn’t have a mustache.” She sighed. “I can almost hear her reaction to that…”

Koth paused in his reading and looked at Lana. “You said you knew all three of them from before the war broke out. Are they… do you think the charges on them are true?”

“I only really knew Doctor Kimble in passing,” Lana said. “He was one of Master Taerich’s friends — it’s only reasonable that he would be helping them. But as for the others — I don’t believe Theron Shan could be a terrorist if his life depended on it. He’s always had a bit of a weak spot where the risks of civilian casualties were concerned.” She paused for a moment in thought. “Doing idiotic things to rescue or protect Master Taerich, on the other hand…”

“They were a thing?”

Lana briefly smiled. “For being a spy and a Jedi, they really weren’t that subtle.” She’d had her suspicions on Rishi, of course, even before she’d walked in on the pair kissing after the joint meeting with Master Shan and Darth Marr. Those suspicions had been confirmed when she’d noticed their absence for a significant amount of time after the battle with Revan. For Theron, a self-professed workaholic with no time for relationships, to obviously be holding a flame for the pretty Jedi two years after her presumed death… yes, they most definitely had been a ‘thing’, and a serious one at that. “They were worse than a couple of teenagers.”

Koth snorted in amusement. “Okay. So he’s got false charges drummed up against him. What about her? Is she really some sort of an assassin?”

Lana rested her elbows on the table in front of her and crossed her fingers under her chin. “She has the skill to be one, certainly. I’ve never seen anyone fight with a lightsaber like she could. But the Jedi Order that she belonged to did not use such measures as assassinations, and she herself was too honourable of a warrior. If she did kill Valkorion, she would have had a reason to do so — and he would have been awake, facing her, and armed.”

“Why would she have killed him though?”

“Considering she’d apparently just been captured by his forces… perhaps she panicked.” It was unlikely for the petite Jedi, but possible. Lana frowned in thought. Had Xaja Taerich’s presumed death been connected with the sudden burst of dark energy from Wild Space that had felt like Vitiate’s destruction? Perhaps Valkorion was a host… no, that’s not possible. He wouldn’t have known about Zakuul. Nobody else did two years ago. “But regardless, she’s not a murderer, and wouldn’t kill without a solid reason to do so.”

Koth frowned and stroked the hair on his chin that he looked to be trying to grow into a goatee. His genes were not in his favour there. “Even if she is… do you really think she’s strong enough to take down Arcann?”

Lana turned to look Koth dead in the eye. He was finally getting used to her unnatural golden eyes, but maintaining extended eye contact seemed to intimidate him. “I watched her take on a demented madman, a legend among both the Jedi and the Sith, where not even our strongest warriors could have beaten him, and walk away victorious. I saw her dance her way through hordes of armed enemies trying to kill her, and come out on the other side with barely a scratch on her, a high kill count behind her. And I watched her fight an incredibly talented Jedi Master who had been possessed by the planet-consuming monster of a Sith ghost, and fought hard enough to both win and break his hold over the Jedi in question. Yes, Xaja Taerich can face Arcann in a fight, and I’m confident that she can beat him.”

Koth didn’t seem to fully believe Lana at her word, but he still nodded. “Okay. So we find these three and get them to the resistance, then work on a plan to get her in so she can take down Arcann, maybe Vaylin too. But first we’ve gotta find them.”

Lana nodded and looked back down at her datapad. She didn’t dare ask Reanden for an update or a location for the fugitives, not when there was too great a chance of messages being intercepted. All she could do was hope that the old spy could keep the three of them safe. Because Xaja Taerich is our best hope for defeating Arcann. What part does Theron play in all of this?

Only hours later, Doc returned to the couch that Xaja had all but claimed as hers. For once, she didn’t notice any tensing of his mouth or a flare of longing when he saw her laying still, her head on Theron’s lap. With this angle she was positioned in, she couldn’t see Theron’s face, but she could feel his weariness over their strange bond, all but see the lines of fatigue streaking through his Force-signature. Her poor spy deserved so much better than this. “Okay, Red,” Doc said as he approached the couch and sat on the edge of the caf table, interrupting Xaja’s musings. “We’ve got it. Your first dose of carbonite poisoning antidote.”

Xaja craned her neck to look at the syringe Doc was holding in a secure container. It looked so innocuous, and yet it was her last hope for survival. “First dose?” she quietly asked, her eyebrows twitching in a frown.

“You’re an advanced-enough case that we think you’re going to need a few rounds of this. Doctor Lokin and I have enough serum for twelve doses… hopefully it shouldn’t take that much.”

“If you’d been given the antidote within an hour of being thawed out,” Lokin explained as he meandered into the room behind Doc, “you would have only needed one dose. There aren’t many reports of a victim surviving as long as you have, Master Taerich, so we’ll monitor your condition and give more treatments as necessary.”

Xaja nodded, glanced up as she felt Theron squeezing her hand reassuringly, and looked back at Doc and Lokin. “How many people have survived this late stage poisoning?” she whispered.

The two doctors looked at each other askance; Xaja felt Theron tense underneath her head. “… You’re the first Jedi to be diagnosed with this severe poisoning,” Lokin finally said. “We don’t have other Force-users to gauge your illness and recovery from.”

“That’s not a reassuring answer,” Xaja muttered.

“Yeah, we know. Sorry.” Doc carefully set the container down beside him and opened it, drawing the syringe out. “So, there’s no nice way to say this, Red: this is going to hurt.”

Xaja made a face at that. Above her, Theron sighed. “And of course, you can’t give her painkillers because it’ll neutralize the antidote,” he grumbled.

“Yep.” Doc’s lips popped the ‘p’ sound. “Like Doctor Lokin said, there haven’t been any other Jedi recorded with this stage of poisoning, but the other accounts of survivors and their medics indicates that it’s going to feel like all of your nerve endings are at once experiencing growing pains and burning.”

“Not too far off from the Force-healing,” Xaja mumbled, remembering the sensation of freezing burns racing up and down her spine. She glanced in the direction of Sorand’s Force-signature. He was nearby, leaning against the wall and worriedly watching the proceedings, a bone-weary Shara beside him. “It’ll be a nice change from ‘always cold’.”

Doc smirked tiredly. “Yeah… you might not think so when this kicks in. Remember how you said you wished you didn’t know me after that incident with the nexu and I had to give you a vaccine, and those antibiotics that we didn’t know you were allergic to, and reset your entire left arm? You’re going to straight-up hate me after this.”

“Not you, Doc.” Xaja gave the medic a tiny smile. “You didn’t poison me.”

“I also didn’t dislocate your arm or offer you as lunch to an angry nexu…”

“… to be entirely fair, wasn’t I sick as hell from those drugs and grumpy because you wouldn’t let me sleep?”

“Yes, and you turn into a walking red-headed nightmare demon when you’re sleep-deprived and in pain.” Doc winced as he prepared the syringe. “Doesn’t bode well for this treatment round.”

“… Sorry.”

“Wait, what was this incident with the nexu?” Theron looked down at Xaja, then at Doc, a frown marring his face. When Xaja glanced away from her lover’s eyes, she could see Sorand tilting his head curiously.

“Ask her about it sometime. I’m sworn to silence on the entire matter, on pain of having the left half of my mustache shaved off. While you’re at it, Shan, can you get her on her stomach? I need access to her back.”

“Can do.” Theron slipped out from under Xaja’s head and stood up from the couch. She felt his warm hands on her as he gently rolled her over and crouched at her head, holding her face in his palms. She reached up and gripped his wrist as she felt Doc carefully lift the hem of her tunic so he could access her back, sure fingers pressing against her spine. Theron gently pressed his forehead against Xaja’s; it almost distracted her from the prick of the needle into her back. “I’ll be right here,” he whispered, his voice taking on the low, gentle pitch that she’d never heard him use for anyone besides her. “Keep holding on to me if it hurts, sweetheart.”

I don’t deserve him. Xaja managed to give Theron a small smile. “What would I do without you?” she murmured.

“… Probably still be frozen.” Theron kissed her cheek. “I’m not going anywhere.”

The Jedi smiled and nuzzled her nose against his for a moment before the first twinge of discomfort started, racing up and down her spine. Then another, and another; she could feel it in her limbs, her spine, her brain. It’s not too bad, just uncomfortable was her first thought when the pain started — but then the pulses got faster and faster until it was just one terrible blur of pain, and she couldn’t tell where the epicentre of it was. It was in her back, when she tried to move anything… it was in her hands, when her grip on Theron’s wrist tightened… it was in her lungs when she finally had to breathe despite the pain.

There was only one spot that wasn’t consumed with pain. Xaja flailed around in her mind until she found Theron there, his presence warm and worried but so soothing, and she clung to him in a desperate attempt to escape the agony. Breathe… breathe… Was that her talking to herself, or was that Theron’s low voice? She didn’t feel his thumb brushing away the tears she didn’t know she was shedding. If the seizures had hurt, this healing was agony. She clung hard onto Theron to try and ground herself in the middle of the pain, the pulse of light in her mind that was his presence the only stable warmth she could grasp onto. Breathe… 

Chapter Text

The night was alive with the sounds of various nocturnal creatures and prowling savages when the side door of the ancient stone temple cracked open. A once-muscular human frame slipped out of the opening and pressed itself into the shadows. He moved gingerly, as though too much strain would cause him pain. One hand pressed against an old wound in his midsection, a severe wound that should have killed him years ago.

His gratitude for being alive was perhaps the only reason he hadn’t killed his rescuers-turned-captors while escaping their extended hospitality.

Pale blue eyes squinted into the darkness of the jungle, illuminated only by the reflected light off the red gas giant overhead. Whispers from the Scions, when they’d thought he couldn’t hear him, spoke of the fearsome wildlife on this world, and the terrifying native species, no less deadly for their primitive civilization. Massassi, whispered a voice from his memory. Once before, the rumours of those aliens would have made him shrug and accept a challenge… now he eyed the jungle warily. Even if he had been armed, he was in no condition to fight anything, much less a giant cannibalistic savage.

A soft glow to his right made him glance over. He recognized the translucent form of his rescuer, the departed spirit who had come to him in his visions. “Will the Massassi be a threat?” he asked, his voice quiet and hoarse with disuse.

“No,” the ghost answered. His voice was low, yet still filled with power. “Our ally has deterred them from coming near this place until after you are well away. He will get you offworld… and to the answers that you seek.”

The prisoner nodded, then glanced forward again as another figure emerged from the shadows. This one was corporeal, his black armour blending into the darkness and contrasting vividly with his crimson skin: Sith, both in species and in affiliation. The prisoner had met his kind before, although he’d never met a man quite like this one. Golden eyes narrowed as the Sith looked him up and down in close scrutiny. “Hmmm,” he finally intoned. “For your sake, I hope you are nothing like your father, boy.”

The prisoner bristled at that comment. “I ceased to be a boy long before I was fully grown,” he hissed. “You may credit my father with that.” The fire in his eyes faded as pain resurged in his abdomen again, making him wince. “And no… I carry my father’s blood and strength, but little else from him.”

“Good.” The Sith still hadn’t eased his scrutiny yet. “Come. It will not be long before your absence is noted.”

“Go with him,” the ghost added, turning his masked face toward the prisoner. “Scourge has spent three centuries seeking out answers. What he has uncovered should provide you with answers of your own.”

Or leave me with more questions, the prisoner silently added. “And where will you be?”

“I am needed elsewhere. I must seek my own answers.” The ghost turned his head to the gas giant, and the sky beyond the planet. “Primarily concerning the location of the accused assassin and terrorist. That blasted Jedi has some explaining to do.”

“For both of us, if you ever find where she is,” grumbled Scourge. “Come, boy, before the entirety of the Scion enclave comes in pursuit of us. My ship is still a distance away.”

Thexan Tirall watched as the ghost of Darth Marr faded away, then pulled his stolen black robes tighter over his frame. He turned and followed Scourge into the darkness. If the madness of Arcann and Vaylin; the death of Valkorion; and the chaos overwhelming the galaxy were anything like the Scions had whispered about, he needed the answers about Valkorion that Scourge claimed to have. And he did want to find out the story surrounding this supposed Jedi assassin and Republic terrorist he’d heard rumours of…

But he would not be bound to the Scions’ prophecies when he did so. He would uncover the truth without their interference.


 It had been fourteen hours since Kimble had given Xaja the first injection of the life-saving serum. Theron could confirm that Xaja had been in agony ever since; the bond connecting between them had been all but burning ever since the first dose of the antidote. He was exhausted, but he couldn’t complain, not when she was suffering like she was. Just as the pain began to subside, Kimble or Lokin appeared with another dose, and the pain sparked anew.

Lokin had described the serum as burning out the toxins from the carbonite — the pain was supposedly worse because of how it had focused on the Jedi’s nervous system. He at least seemed satisfied with the progression of the cure, even if Theron was skeptical. Kimble, himself, wasn’t panicking, just worried, so the spy took that as a good sign. He just wished the treatment would work faster, for Xaja’s sake.

He slowly blinked, then startled when he realized he’d fallen asleep despite his best efforts. Someone had hauled him onto a chair instead of leaving him on the floor beside Xaja, and he supposed he owed them for saving his back. He gingerly stood up from the surprisingly comfortable chair and looked around. It was dark, even by Dromund Kaas’s standards. Night time, he realized when he looked at the chronometer. How was I asleep for almost three hours? Xaja was still curled up on the couch, her eyes closed and the odd shiver racking through her thin frame. Their bond hinted that she was dozing, and Theron wasn’t sure if that was the result of a drug given to ease the pain or if she’d finally just become so exhausted that she passed out.

She wasn’t alone, he noted: Reanden was slumped in a chair beside her, gently rubbing a hand over his daughter’s shoulder. The elder spy looked older and more haggard than Theron had ever seen him, obvious worry lining his face. Anyone who’d ever doubted that Cipher Nine cared for the daughter he’d given to the Jedi as much as he loved the sons he’d been able to raise himself would have had their accusations silenced.

The older man looked up when he heard Theron moving around. “Welcome back to the living,” he quietly said. “You feeling okay?”

Theron shrugged. “I’m fine. How is she?”

“Kid, you’re not fine. You passed out hours ago — I’m pretty sure an orbital strike could have hit and you would have slept through it.” Reanden looked back down at his daughter and sighed. “All things considered, she’s alive, and the docs are pleased with her progress. Kimble thinks we’ll be done with treatments in two or three more doses.”

“So nine more hours.” Theron gave his own sigh and looked down at Xaja. “She doesn’t deserve this.”

“No, she really doesn’t.” Reanden stood up and stretched; Theron winced when he heard the older man’s knees and back cracking. “Good news is that they think the worst of the pain is done with. She can only get better from here.”

“And it’s actually working like it’s supposed to?”

“Apparently. If we stopped the treatments now, she would probably survive it, but there would be no guarantee the remaining damage could be fixed later.”

“And she would hate to live a cripple.” Theron stepped over to the couch and looked down at Xaja. “Did they give her something to let her sleep?”

“No.” Reanden gestured with his head. When Theron turned, he saw Sorand sitting cross-legged on a meditation cushion, deep in a Force trance. His eyes were closed, his brow furrowed in discomfort, and Theron could see sweat beading on the Sith’s skin. “I don’t fully understand whatever Force-thing he’s doing, but he’s apparently transferring some of the pain to himself so she’s not feeling the full brunt of it. Seems to be letting her get some rest.”

“That’s something, for as long as he can hold that without hurting himself,” Theron agreed. “If you need a break, I’m good to stay up for a while.”

Reanden frowned. “Shan, you’re on two and a half hours of sleep. That’s not adequate —”

“And how much are you on, old timer?”

“… When did you become my handler?”

“You’re stressing out over at least two of your offspring, and still running Sith Intelligence Command out there. If it’s anything like the upper echelons of the SIS, you’re working every waking hour, and some sleeping hours.” Theron raised an eyebrow at the older man. “And you’re old enough to be a retiree.”

“Brat.” Reanden sighed and stepped back from the couch. “I’d argue, but I’m too damned tired. Yell if anything happens.”

“Will do.” Did I actually just win an argument with Cipher Nine? Theron felt a brief burst of smugness at that realization, tempered by his deep fatigue and worry for Xaja. As Reanden made his way away from the couch, Theron carefully sat on the edge beside Xaja’s hip and ran his hand through her tangled hair. She stirred slightly at his touch, but didn’t wake. “You deserve so much better than this,” Theron whispered as he kissed her cheek, then gave the space between Xaja and the back of the couch a contemplative look. It was enough for him to carefully squirm down against her back and snuggle her against his chest. Even while asleep, she shifted back against him and quietly sighed, her hand finding his and clinging to him. Theron frowned worriedly and gently kissed her shoulder, then flinched at a prick in his neck. What…

“Twit. A good intentioned twit, but still a twit.” Reanden returned and sat back on his chair, holstering his stun dart launcher back against his hip. “Not my first rodeo with staying up all night, kid.”

Son of a bitch… Theron managed to flip off the older agent before he fell back asleep, his face buried in Xaja’s hair. The last thing he heard was a weary chuckle.

Dragging herself into consciousness, Xaja slowly cracked first one eye open, then the other. Sorand’s apartment in Kaas City hadn’t changed overnight, except to perhaps become even darker. Her gaze found the softly glowing red numbers of the chronometer — it was near dawn. She looked away and let her gaze drift across the rest of the sitting room, coming to rest on the figure of her father sprawled out in another chair. He was, to all appearances, out cold. She didn’t blame him — he’d been worrying enough about her to rival Theron over the last week. But oh, how the old spy’s back was going to ache when he woke up, to judge by that position.

She slowly turned her focus inward, taking stock of her battered body and the warm pulse in her mind from the man holding her against his chest. Theron was peacefully asleep, heavy arm draped over her waist. The warm puffs of air coming from his mouth nudged at her loose strands of hair, brushing them over her cheek and nose. Even without their bond, his presence would have been comforting: Xaja felt safe and warm and cared-for, the bond lowly humming with weary contentment and concern and love. She slowly turned her head to see his face, and felt her brow crease with worry when she saw the heavy lines under his closed eyes. Guilt gnawed at her when she realized he hadn’t slept much, with how much he’d worried over her, and she quickly had to smother the emotion before it could awaken him.

As far as the rest of her felt… sore. Drained. As though she’d run laps of Kaas City -- or the length of the Elarian Trail, as she had while still a padawan. But when she slowly tensed and relaxed her muscles in a slow circuit, she felt no spasms, no bursts of pain. It worked? She pried one arm free of the blankets and Theron’s hold on her, carefully stretching it out in front of her, then tried the other. When she felt no muscle seizures, she tested the same thing on first her right leg, then the left. Nothing there, beyond the ache of sore muscles.

The Jedi grinned excitedly, quickly smothering her elation to keep from waking Theron. The poor man didn’t sleep nearly enough as it was, she reasoned, and slowly wriggled free of his arm. He stirred, but didn’t wake, not even when she gently tucked his hand back under his head and slowly sat up beside him. No lightheaded dizziness — the only thing she felt was what felt like the mother of all caffeine headaches, but that was comparatively minor. Glancing around to make sure both Theron and her father were still asleep, she then carefully stood up. It was all she could do to contain a victorious screech when she could stand without pain or further vertigo. And she wasn’t shaking with the cold, or gritting her teeth against more muscle spasms — she was all but cured entirely!

Only one thing left to test. She looked around, saw a datapad on the caf table, and stretched her hand out. The datapad wriggled on the tabletop, but refused to move otherwise.

Xaja scowled as the pounding resumed in her head, sharp and irritating and impossible to ignore. She released her hold on the Force, then reached out again. The datapad wriggled again, then slowly hovered a couple of inches into the air. Xaja grinned despite the strain as the device floated slowly toward her, inch by inch —

And then her control slipped and the datapad clattered to the floor.

Shit. Xaja winced as she felt Theron jerk upright behind her and, in her peripheral, saw her father nearly fall out of his chair. Adrenaline shot through the room on currents strong enough that no Force-user could have been able to ignore them. Reanden was the first to wake fully, looking at Xaja, then at the room, before sagging back into his chair and groaning. “There are far easier ways to wake me up if you need something, baby girl…”

“Sorry.” Xaja sat back down on the couch and immediately felt Theron grab her, like he was afraid of her fading away from him or falling. “I’m okay, Theron, really…”

“That headache you’ve got says otherwise,” Theron muttered as he tugged her closer and buried his face in her hair for a moment, then sat back and lightly ran his hands over her limbs. “Any pain? Spasms? Are you too cold?”

Xaja shook her head to his questions, just barely noticing her father suddenly perk up when he heard Theron’s words, a frown darkening his face. “This is the best I’ve felt since we landed on Rishi, honest. I just ache a bit.”

“Aching?” Theron’s eyes narrowed. “Are you sure that’s not—”

“Probably just because the cure took as much of a toll on her as the poisoning did,” Reanden interjected as he got to his feet and crossed to the couch. Xaja felt her father gently take her face in his hands and tilt her head so he could look at her better. “You do look better, kiddo. Hang tight, I’ll get Lokin and get him to give you a once-over.” He stooped to kiss her forehead, then quickly left the room, leaving Xaja to lean back against Theron. If Xaja strained, she could sense his presence moving down the hallway, closer to the room that Lokin had commandeered for himself, then a burst of sudden awareness from the old doctor and the general feelings of someone going from a dead sleep to alert wakefulness.

She was distracted by the feeling of Theron’s hands settling back on her shoulders. “You sure you’re feeling okay?” the spy quietly asked, worry in his gaze. “The cure…”

“It worked, Theron.” Xaja beamed in excitement as Theron moved his hands down her arms. “I’m finally kriffing warm and I can move without pain.”

“… You’re not hurting,” Theron finally said. Xaja felt a slight push against their bond as Theron seemed to focus, taking stock of what he could sense from her. “You’re not dying.” The worry in the spy’s eyes faded, replaced by joy that she could feel through the bond, a joy so intense that it stole her breath away. “Oh, kriffing hells, Xaja… this is…” She felt his hands move up to cradle her face, his thumbs brushing over her cheeks before he captured her lips with a fierce, desperate kiss, as though trying to ensure every means of making sure she could feel his relief and his joy. She felt her fingers tangle in his mussed hair and tried to pull him still closer to her, revelling in feeling alive for the first time in far too long--


Xaja gasped as she and Theron jerked themselves away from each other, and glanced upward to see her father’s crossed arms and raised eyebrow. “Come on, Dad,” she groaned as she tried to regain her breath. “I just nearly died, give me a break.”

“Still doesn’t mean I wanted to see that, kiddo,” Reanden muttered as he shook his head. “Or think about it…”

“They’re just kids, Agent,” Dr. Lokin said as he finally emerged from behind the spy and came around to sit on the chair. “All right, young Master Taerich, sit tight for a moment. Let’s make sure the serum got everything it was supposed to…”

Xaja sat obediently still as the old doctor started running a scanner over her. “It worked, I’m sure of it. I haven’t been this long without a dizzy spell or a spasm since before we landed on Rishi.” She smiled as she felt Theron’s hand settle on her hip and gently tug her closer to him. A new presence made itself known to her senses, and she looked up to wave as Sorand meandered into the room, yawning and tugging his dark robe tighter around his lanky frame. “This is the best I’ve felt since… probably since being thawed out.”

“Good. Then it was worth it—” Sorand’s words were interrupted by a yawn as he unceremoniously flopped into another chair. “’Scuse me,” he mumbled. In a flash, Xaja was reminded just how young her little brother was, that he hadn’t grown out of some teenage habits either.

“Hmmm.” Lokin raised an eyebrow at the scan results, then looked back at Xaja. “Everything looks mostly good, young one. Try pulling that datapad over to yourself.” He gestured with his head at the same datapad she’d dropped minutes ago.

Xaja narrowed her eyes at the device and held her hand out, forcing herself to shut out the feeling of Theron holding her. Focus, focus… come on… The datapad shakily rose a few inches, then fell back to the tabletop as Xaja lost her concentration in the sudden resurgence of the headache. She groaned and slumped, scowling in defeat at the offending datapad. Apparently she wasn’t quite as fully healed as she’d hoped.

At the least, the failed test seemed to wake Sorand up fully. He sat up and frowned at Xaja, then at the datapad, then at his sister again. “That shouldn’t be happening…”

The Force whispered in the cold winds of Jedha as Satele knelt on a rocky outcropping, fingers wrapped securely around a warm mug of stimtea. She paused, tilting her head as she listened. No, it still wasn’t the absentee ghost of Darth Marr -- and blast it, his continued absence after his abrupt disappearance perplexed her. Instead, it felt like… crisp air, grass under her feet, red and orange leaves, ancient stone monuments accented with green lights. Voss? It felt like an insistent tug to her mind.

And for a brief second, Theron’s features floated before her, shadowed by the imposing ancient sculptures. Satele frowned, deep in thought as the vision faded away. She had no way of knowing if her missing son and Master Xaja were on Voss right now, but if the Force’s whispers were any indication, her time on Jedha was drawing to a close. The strange alien world of Voss would be her next step.

Her musings were interrupted by the awareness of another presence settling down beside her. Satele glanced over as Senya took a sip of her caf. “Did you rest well?” the Jedi asked as she settled down more comfortably, legs crossed under her. Despite what should have been a terrible animosity between them, the two women had struck up something of a friendship during their time together in the Holy City, bonding over worry for their respective offspring.

Senya nodded. “Yes, thank you.” She smiled, but the gesture was small and tight, doing little to mask the shadows under her eyes. She gazed down into her caf; Satele didn’t push yet, sitting back and sipping at her tea. For a few moments, there was silence between the two, broken only by the wind.

Senya finally sighed. “It appears the rest of the Jedi took their lore and relics with them when they left Jedha. There is nothing here to help me -- nothing that I haven’t already seen on Tython or Coruscant.” She frowned despondently into her caf mug, lips pressed thin. “There seem to be no secrets left of the Jedi healers left.”

Pity tugged at Satele’s heart as she twisted to more directly face her friend. “You have not had luck in contacting other Jedi survivors?”

That got a bitter laugh. “And how many survivors would wish to speak with a Zakuulan Knight?”

“A fair point,” Satele conceded. She looked down into her tea, frowning in thought. Ilum’s ruins had nothing for healers… most of what had been left on Taris had already been looted or destroyed… “Have you tried Alderaan? There are collections of Jedi lore and artifacts in the care of House Organa.”

Senya tilted her head in response to Satele’s words. “I had not thought to look at Alderaan,” she confessed. “Will I need to be worried about hostilities from the Organas? They are staunch Republic loyalists, and not fond of Zakuul…”

“I can provide you with authorization to access the Jedi relics,” Satele assured her. “Duke Charle is an old friend, and my word still holds some sway there.”

“You will not come with me?”

Satele slowly shook her head. “I would… but I feel a call elsewhere.” She looked up to the distance. “I have found no sign of my son on Jedha, but the Force… it’s calling me to Voss.”

“That is no short distance.” Senya frowned. “Why would the Force call you here, only to lead you to the other side of the galaxy?”

“Who knows the ways of the Force?”

“Who indeed.” Senya smiled. “Perhaps we were both lead here to meet each other -- for what purpose yet, I do not know. But the idea of the Force drawing us together in the same place, even if not for the purposes we intended, is hopeful.”

“It is,” Satele agreed with a smile. She reached a hand out and took Senya’s rough, worn fingers in her own. “Whatever happens, it has been an honour meeting you, Senya.”

“The honour is mine.” Senya squeezed Satele’s hand back as she got to her feet. “I will head for Alderaan today. May Voss hold the answers that you seek.”

“And may you find what you’re looking for on Alderaan.” Satele gave her friend a smile as the Zakuulan vanished, then got to her feet and finished the last sip of her tea. Voss was, indeed, a long distance away, and her ship still needed refuelling.

 In a dark back alley, far from the main thoroughfares of Kaas City, a small holotransmitter cast a tiny blue glow over the hulking form of its bearer. The light took the form of a little blue human, who seemed to visibly start when he saw the form of the caller. “… Erm, to what do I owe this… pleasure?”

Puny little runt, Skadge grunted to himself. “What’re your people payin’ for information?” he asked.

“That depends on the information and its accuracy. What information do you claim to have?”

Skadge’s beady eyes narrowed as he thought back to what he’d overheard on Verhayc’s ship. She and the Sith runt had been quietly talking before they’d flown off for Quesh — Skadge had heard whispers of ‘she doesn’t have long’ and ‘carbonite poisoning’. The venom Verhayc had been sent to steal from Quesh was a hard one to get, and that had made Skadge think. Imperius wasn’t into spice manufacturing, which meant he needed the venom for something else… hadn’t Verhayc said something about this being a mind controller? Or something for a carbonite poisoning cure?

He’d even been bullied into lugging the huge canister of venom into Imperius’ apartment, before the Sith runt had returned from the Citadel with his pet Dashade. But it had been useful -- he’d seen a man who looked suspiciously like the doctor on Zakuul’s bounty posting within the apartment, swore he’d heard a strange male voice that he knew didn’t belong to Lokin. If he was under Imperius’ protection, then the pretty Jedi girl and the Republic spy were possibly here too. Skadge would have gleefully sold Imperius and Verhayc out for free, but if he could get two hundred and two million credits…

“That girl on your bounty posting,” he grunted out. “Was she in carbonite when the spy busted her out?”

“She was,” the human slowly acknowledged. “You have information on her whereabouts?”

“I ain’t seen her, but I might’ve seen the doc they picked up on Rishi. More important, me ship got contracted t’ haul some specialized Quesh venom t’ make a cure for carbonite poisoning.”

“That’s circumstantial evidence --” the human began.

“Contracted by the same person what’s hiding the doc. An’ where the doc is, your assassin an’ terrorist will be too.”

The blue form leaned closer to the holocam. “Who contracted you?”

Skadge’s wide mouth pulled tight in a cruel, evil grin. “Darth Imperius, on Dromund Kaas.”

Chapter Text

“You wanted to see me, Chancellor?” Jace stood at parade rest, warily observing the Twi’lek who stood behind the imposing desk. He suspected he already knew what this conversation was about, and his answers hadn’t changed. He swore he could feel his hair turning more grey every time Saresh or Theron crossed his thoughts.

“I did, Commander Malcom.” Saresh rose to her feet and crossed to the large panel of transparisteel that let her view Coruscant’s cityscape. “Tell me what you see.”

Raising an eyebrow, Jace followed the Chancellor to the window and gazed out over the city. “Galactic City, the main spaceport, the Jedi Temple ruins —”

“And above it all, the Eternal Fleet.” Saresh turned to glare at Jace, lekku all but twitching with frustration. “We are in a critical situation, Malcom. Zakuul is poised to reduce Coruscant to slag if we don’t give Emperor Arcann what he wants. I cannot allow trillions of citizens to die because of two people.”

“And, just like the last half a dozen times you’ve asked me for information, I still have no idea where the hell Theron is.”

“I know you’re trying to protect your son, Malcom. But it has come down to his life, and Master Taerich’s, over the entire Republic. And I will not lose my people to the actions of two rogues.”

“The last contact I had with Theron was a Force-damned note from a dead man’s switch,” Jace exploded. “And you and I bothknow that Director Trant’s last knowledge of Theron’s location was his shuttle being shot down by hunters over Manda after he tried to escape from Rishi. As far as either of us knows, Theron is dead.” He clung to Marcus’ hope that Theron had survived the crash and somehow escaped Manda, but he wasn’t about to let Saresh know that.

“No bodies, no proof. Until I see a corpse myself, Agent Shan still lives — and if he survived, Master Taerich did as well.” Saresh’s eyes narrowed. “Where is his mother? I know Satele Shan was with you. Still trying to woo her back, are you?”

Jace felt his blood pressure mounting at the realization that Saresh had had people tailing Satele, and himself. How much does she know? For a second, he dearly hoped that Satele had lost the people following her and was able to work in peace. “I don’t know,” he growled out. “She said nothing to me before leaving.”

“Leaving to rendezvous with your bastard lovechild, you mean. Or meeting up with a rebel cell or the Jedi remnants.” Saresh’s eyes flashed sparks. “Is the resistance movement sheltering them?”

“How should I know? I’m not with the resistance!”

“But in league with them, considering your continued refusal to cooperate. Tell me where they are, Malcom, before your join your son and his mother on a list of traitors to the Republic! Or are you already working with Sith Lords like they do?” Saresh smirked coldly. “Is this a treasonous family enterpri—?”

A deafening crash echoed through the office as Jace put his fist through the top of the Chancellor’s desk. For a few heartbeats, the only sounds were of heavy, angry breathing before the old soldier finally spoke. “If you were anyone else,” he growled, his voice low and threatening, “I would put you in a medical ward for that insult. Consider yourself fortunate that I hold too much respect for this office, if not the person occupying it right now.”

Saresh seemed to recover her wits enough to draw herself up and sputter furiously at the Supreme Commander. “What— how dare—! I am the Supreme Chancellor of the Republic. You will notspeak to me like this!”

“I just did,” Jace snarled as he withdrew his fist from the impressively-sized hole in the desk, ignoring the new cuts and the blood trickling over his tan skin. He stalked to the office door, ignoring the frightened clucking he could hear from Saresh’s lackeys in the seating area, and paused before he could leave. “Even if I knew where my son or Master Taerich were, I would not betray them to the likes of you.”

“You do not have the right to make that decision! You answer to me, Malcom!”

The door opened as Jace slammed his hand on the control panel and turned to glare at Saresh over his shoulder. “I quit,” he growled out before resuming marching out of the office.

The red haze finally faded out of his vision after he stormed into the turbolift and descended to the ground floor of the Senate Tower. Saresh would almost certainly enact retribution on him for his actions, and resignation from his post left him all but defenceless against the political machinations. He glanced upward to where he knew his ship waited and smirked to himself. It had been a long time since he’d left Coruscant, and he was sure the personnel loyal to him would be delighted to get off-world as well, even if they were jumping into the resistance…

He pulled his comm out of his pocket and keyed in Captain Dorne’s frequency. The sooner his people were offworld and en route to join the resistance cell sheltered by Charle Organa, the better.

An hour of poking and scanning Xaja had not provided anyone in the apartment with answers for the strange block from the Force that she was still experiencing. “This doesn’t make sense,” Sorand muttered as he paced through the room, scowling at the datapad in his hand. It displayed all the medical data collected on her. “You’re showing fine on all counts from a medical perspective. Why are you still Force-blocked?”

“Don’t look at me,” Doc muttered with a yawn as he set down his own scanner and stretched. “I understand medicine, not Force stuff. That’s your department.”

“What makes you think we understand Force business?” Xaja dryly commented as she rubbed at her temples. She still had a pounding headache from her last attempt to use the Force, and the painkillers Lokin had given her still hadn’t kicked in fully. “We make this shit up as we go and hope for an explanation that sticks.”

“She’s not wrong.” Sorand shook his head in agreement. “Do you feel okay otherwise, Xaj?”

“My brain feels foggy and I’ve still got a headache, but I’m otherwise okay.” Xaja frowned at the tabletop as Theron soothingly rubbed her back. “I feel like a kriffing Padawan again.”

“So, almost as legendary as normal for you.” Theron smirked reassuringly. “Still kicking ass and being a hero. Who was that fallen Jedi you defeated on Tython before even being Knighted?”

“Him? He was…” Xaja frowned. She could see the Nautolan’s face in her mind, hear his baritone voice, even remember her fury and her fear when she saw him moving in to kill Master Orgus… She could remember the way he’d jumped into a skirmish to guard her back on Corellia, years later. Why the hell couldn’t she remember who he was? “… Kriff, I know his name…”

“Maybe you just need some caf,” Theron suggested, still rubbing her back. He appeared to be quite reluctant to stop touching Xaja after almost losing her.  “You’ve had a few stressful days, and last night didn’t help much with that.”

“And your memory’s not the greatest before you get caffeine,” Doc added with a mutter. “Anyone else want some while I’m heading that way?”

“Sure, if you’re offering.” Sorand sat on the caf table in front of Xaja and raised his hands up to her head as Doc meandered out of the room, probably going to join Reanden and Lokin in the kitchen. “Trust me to do another Force-scan? It shouldn’t hurt like last time.”

“Go ahead.” Xaja’s hand drifted to the side, feeling around until she found Theron’s fingers and squeezed. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Some sort of weird cataclysm in the Force that warps the boundary between Dark and Light Side and burns the Force out of both of us?” Sorand shrugged at the bemused looks he got for that. “Hey, you asked!”

“Very funny,” Xaja muttered as she felt the first brushes of cool darkness against her mind. She shuddered as the cold trickled down over her spine and up over her brain, but at least this wasn’t burning again. She stayed still as the current paused at the bright point that was Theron’s bond with her, curiously poking at it. Later, she silently promised, and felt Sorand nod as he continued his examination. The cold drifted away from the bond, passing over the rest of her mind, brushing over the dark, locked portion where her worst memories lurked —

Golden eyes. White beard. A rage and hatred so intense that it made Xaja nauseous. And a cold, cruel laugh echoing through her mind…

The cold retreated from her mind fast enough to give her a sensation of whiplash, and she felt Sorand’s alarm thrumming on powerful currents through the Force. “Theron, leave us for a minute,” the Sith said. He was trying to sound imposing and properly Sith-like, Xaja noted, but she could hear a note of fear in his voice, mingling with the sound of her pulse roaring in her ears.

“Like hell!” Xaja felt Theron’s hand in hers tighten almost painfully as his other arm wrapped around her back. “What the hell did you find in there?”

“I’m trying to figure that out,” Sorand growled, “and I can’t kriffing do that when you’re sitting right here panicking!”

“I’m not panicking!”

“How did a terrible liar like you end up in the SIS? I can feel your fear, Shan.”

“I’m not –! You look like you’ve just seen a ghost, and Xaja’s spooked badly.” Xaja could hear the note of fiercely protective anger in Theron’s voice as he tightened his hold on her. “You found something that’s scaring you both and you won’t tell me!”

“And I would be able to find a way to fix it if you weren’t sitting here distracting me!”

Xaja opened her mouth to get her brother and her lover to quit arguing, but the words stuck in her throat. How could she voice the horror that was in her head when she couldn’t even come to terms with the terrible possibility that the monster who’d tortured her, raped her mind for months, forced her will to bend to his, and wiped all the life from Ziost was — no, he can’t be. It’s impossible, right? It can’t be. This isn’t happening to me. It can’t be… What would Theron do if he knew? Fear lodged itself into a hard lump in her throat, and it was an effort to speak past it. She swallowed hard and tried to speak again. “It’s okay, Theron,” she finally managed to get out, and felt like choking on the lie. “Sorand’s right when he says he needs to be able to concentrate…”

“On something that’s scaring you – badly.” Theron’s lips tightened in a frown. “I don’t like this, Xaja…”

Me neither. “I know, love.” Xaja squeezed his hand and forced a small smile for him. “If he can’t fix it, I’ll tell you, promise.” Fear at the idea of telling Theron about the monster in her head made her heart lurch, and she tried to shove it back down. She hated it already, but what would he do? Visions flashed through her mind of him walking away from her or striking her, and those scared her almost as much as the terrible reality she faced now.

Theron reluctantly nodded and kissed her cheek. “Fine. I needed caf anyway. But… will one of you tell me what the kriff is going on?”

“Yes, if you ever give me a chance to figure it out myself,” Sorand muttered as his eyes flashed amber for a moment. “Shoo!”

With a scowl, Theron finally left the room — Xaja listened to the sound of his footsteps descending the stairs to the kitchen. As soon as he was out of earshot, she looked back at her brother, her fear openly displayed on her face. “What the hell was that? How can a memory hurt me like that?”

“That wasn’t a memory, Xaj.” Sorand’s expression had shifted from frustration to worry and fear. “I’ve dealt with enough Force ghosts to know what one looks and feels like, and to know what it’s like when there’s one sharing brainspace with a live being. It…” He paused, swallowed hard, tried to speak again. “… Vitiate’s dead, or Valkorion, or whatever bloody name he’s using. But his spirit’s still around, and it… it picked your head to linger in.” He raked a hand through his long hair, openly nervous. “The Emperor’s ghost is stuck inside your head, Xaja. I… kriff, I don’t know how to get rid of him.”

Xaja buried her face in her hands, feeling herself shaking. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to scream, or cry, or throw up, or just curl up in a corner and not move again until the monster was out of her head. She wanted to run and hide — but how could she hide from the demon in her skull? Sorand’s hands grabbing onto her arms and providing her some support helped to ground her to the present moment, but did little to ease the panic racing through her. “What am I going to do?” she brokenly whispered, and felt her brother’s hands tighten reassuringly.

“I don’t know,” Sorand confessed. “I’ve dealt with some powerful Sith ghosts before, but none as stupidly powerful as this psychopath. I wonder if he’s the reason you’re struggling to use the Force now.”

“Maybe?” Xaja shook her head, then looked up at her brother. “You know about Sith ghosts, don’t you know how to get one out of someone’s head?”

“My expertise in ghosts involves absorbing them and stealing their powers, not in performing exorcisms.”

That was enough to jolt Xaja out of her blind panic. She jolted upward, eyes widening in shock. “What?!”

Sorand shifted guiltily before her. “In my defence, I was seventeen and on Darth Thanaton’s shit list for no reason other than being Darth Zash’s surviving student and kinda desperate to, you know, not die terribly! Seventeen-year-olds make poor life choices when they’re terrified!” He raked a hand over his face as he stood up. “Just… don’t tell Dad I told you that. He… thinks I used a holocron.”


“What? There were holocrons involved!”

Xaja dropped her face back into her hands, more out of frustration with her brother than from fear now. “How can somebody as smart as you be so dumb?!”

“Let’s go back to ‘seventeen and scared’!” Sorand scowled as he paced in front of Xaja. “Or, better, let’s go back to the current problem and not one I resolved years ago.” For several minutes, silence lingered, broken only by breathing and the soft tread of his feet on the carpet, and Xaja’s internal monologue of panic resuming as she thought about the parasite in her head.

Eventually Sorand sat back down on the caf table, forehead creased in a frown. “Might be a long shot,” he finally said, “but, unless there’s Jedi healers out there I don’t know about, I can think of one thing that might help. How familiar are you with Voss Dreamwalkers?”

Theron scowled as he made his way into the kitchen, the frustration at being kicked out gnawing at him. So maybe he wasn’t a legendary Force healer like Sorand was, or knowledgeable in the ways of the Force itself, but he knew when something was wrong. Anything that made Xaja as scared as he’d sensed was bad news. And Sorand might have tried to brush off his own anxiety, but Theron knew how to read body language – the Sith was as spooked as his sister. Worse, neither of them would say what was wrong, which frustrated Theron even further.

Bloody Force-users, he silently grumbled as he poured himself a mug of caf and took a sip. He leaned back against the counter as he surveyed the kitchen: Kimble and Lokin were sitting at the table, looking over a datapad and discussing something in medical jargonese that Theron didn’t understand. Xalek stood at the window, hands clasped behind his back as he surveyed the rainy dawn of Kaas City. Theron wasn’t sure where the enormous Dashade was, but as long as Khem Val wasn’t stalking him or Xaja, he decided he was okay with not seeing the monster of a alien around.

Reanden stood behind Lokin’s chair, observing the doctors’ chat with a raised eyebrow; he noticed Theron and made his way over to the younger spy. “I’m rather surprised you’re not still up there with Xaja,” he murmured as he took a sip of his own caf.

“Not by choice,” Theron grumbled. “They kicked me out of the room.”

That got a double-take from the older spy. “Wait – you got kicked out?” Reanden looked almost… concerned. “What happened up there?”

Theron shrugged. “Sorand was doing some sort of Force-scan on Xaja to figure out what’s blocking her access to the Force. I don’t know what he found, but whatever it was scared both of them badly. I got kicked out without either of them telling me what’s wrong.”

“That’s concerning.” Reanden’s mouth tightened in a grim frown. “If whatever’s scaring them is bad enough that Xaja’s not saying anything to you…”

“Okay, good, it’s not just me that thinks something’s wrong with this,” Theron muttered into his caf mug. He glanced up long enough to wave as a sleepy-looking Shara made her way into the kitchen and lurched toward the caf pot, then looked back at Reanden. “You know him better. What would scare him like that?”

“His uncle, Maglion. But Maglion’s never met Xaja, so he wouldn’t have any connection to her to scare her.” Reanden frowned in thought. “No one else living that I can think of. Maybe some sort of Dark Sided… curse or something that got to Xaja while she was ill?” He shrugged. “I know as little of the Force as you.”

“Hmmm.” Theron scowled at his caf. “If it was a carbonite-related problem, it would just piss them off, not scare them, so that rules that out. Maybe the Zaks did something to her with the Force before freezing her?”

“It’s possible,” Reanden slowly acknowledged, “although I don’t know why it wouldn’t have been found before now.” He set his empty mug on the counter and gestured with his head. “C’mon. This is worrying me as much as it is you.”

Theron followed the older spy, still clutching his half-empty mug of caf. “So Sorand isn’t usually all… snippy with his information when it’s a worrying priority?”

“Not typically, no. If he’s acting short-tempered and scared, something’s very wrong.” Reanden frowned as he lead the way to the stairs, pausing to look over his shoulder. “And you can’t tell if anything’s wrong?”

Theron shook his head and frowned. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m not so old that I’m senile, kid. You could tell she had a headache earlier. Did you suddenly miraculously develop Force-sensitivity and all the skills of a Jedi Master?”

Theron blinked, then shrugged, caught in the truth. “No. We… we somehow formed a Force-bond on Rishi, neither of us is sure how that happened. But I can feel her emotions, maybe tell if she’s in pain or not… I think she can do the same with me.”

“Huh.” Reanden paused to give Theron a critical look. “Could be useful, that. I’m not too familiar with Force-bonds, but in concept, it could be a good thing.”

“I think it is. It’s… reassuring to be able to sense her like this,” Theron admitted to the older spy before he could catch himself. “Reminds me she’s still here and not frozen or…” He trailed off, unwilling to give voice to the other alternative.

The sudden pounding on the apartment’s front entry a second later jolted him from his musings on Xaja and their odd bond. Theron froze, alarm racing through his veins as Reanden’s eyes widened. Some deep instinct started screaming at him of immediate danger — nobody would have been banging on the door like that for a friendly social call with Darth Imperius. Was this a rival seeking to take his place on the Dark Council, or had someone found them?

“Upstairs,” Reanden hissed, urgency in his voice as he grabbed Theron’s arm and gave him a firm yank up the stairs. Theron started following the older man, then darted to the side as Sorand came flying down the stairs to his right, eyes wide and mouth set grimly. He just saw the glint of a lightsaber hilt in the younger man’s robe before being hauled back up the stairs and into the sitting room.

Xaja was on her feet already, eyes wide with worry. “Dad? What’s going on?” she asked as the two spies ran into the room. “The Zakuulans?”

“Shh! I’m not sure yet,” Reanden hissed as he pushed Theron at the Jedi, then hurried into the next room. He returned with Theron’s blasters and Xaja’s lightsabers in his hands. “You know how to use a stealth generator, Shan?” he whispered as he handed the younger adults their weapons. Theron nodded, and immediately had Reanden’s personal stealth generator shoved into his hands. “Turn that on and hold onto each other,” the older spy tersely ordered. “It won’t cover more than two people without overcharging, and you’ll be seen if you let go.”

“What about you?” Xaja hissed as she grabbed Theron’s arm once the spy had the generator secured on his own belt.

“Don’t worry about that.” Reanden winked as he snatched his jacket up from a chair and shrugged it on, and a second later he was replaced with a standard-model loader droid. Xaja squeaked in surprise as her father transformed in front of her; Theron couldn’t quite stop a jump of his own. “I’ve been in here long enough to learn a few tricks, baby girl. Just stay quiet and out of the way.”

I have got to learn how he did that, Theron inwardly vowed as he pulled Xaja into a corner of the room. He switched on the stealth generator, barely daring to breathe as Reanden took up a casual-looking position by one of the archive units in the wall. Not knowing details of what was happening downstairs frustrated him though, and he groped behind him until he found Xaja’s hand and clung to her tightly. What the hell is going on down there?

Sorand came flying down the hallway as the pounding on the door became more incessant, fear spiking through his veins despite his best efforts. “Khem!” he called out as he tried to channel his anxiety into frustration and displeasure, as befitted a Darth.

I hear, little Sith.” Sorand was pretty sure at this point that the name Khem Val reserved for him, once an insult, had now become something of a term of endearment for the stubborn teenager who’d fought his way from the slave pens to the Dark Council. He remained still as he heard the Dashade’s heavy footsteps approaching the front door, followed by the menacing growl. “What do you wish of my master, Zakuulan?

“… Your master is Darth Imperius, yes?” The Zakuulan-accented voice of the Exarch sounded shaky at first, as though she hadn’t expected to be greeted by an eight-foot-tall monster of an assassin. “Good. He is wanted for aiding and abetting war criminals guilty of terrorism and murder against Zakuul.”

Shit! Sorand wasn’t sure how the Exarch had gotten enough information to be suspicious of him, but that was a question to answer later. Staying out of sight of the foyer, he leaned into the kitchen and frantically waved his arm. He needn’t have been worried about that — Lokin had already heard the Exarch’s accusation, and was hauling Kimble out of the kitchen toward the hidden back exit of the apartment, the younger doctor’s face worryingly pale. Shara had vanished up the stairs, presumably to grab her gear in case of a fight. Xalek lingered, a hand on the hilt of his saber-staff and yellow eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Call Talos,” Sorand hissed to his apprentice, then made eye contact with Lokin and Kimble. “Get to the Raven.” With Talos aboard, and the security systems Andronikos installed before departing Dromund Kaas for Tatooine, his ship should be secure. It could hide a fugitive medic from the Zakuulans… right?

A snarl from the foyer made Sorand’s jerked his attention back toward the entranceway. With a scowl, he started making his way over, pausing only long enough to send a mental nudge of warning through the Force to Xaja before going to greet his visitor. “Enough, Khem,” he said as he strode into the chamber, six-plus feet of flowing black robes and annoyed scowl. “What is the meaning of this, Exarch?”

The golden-haired Exarch had been backed into a corner by a very angry Khem, along with her escort, two Zakuulan Knights and a pair of terrified Imperial soldiers. She straightened as she regained her composure. “You, Imperius,” she haughtily said. “A reliable source has informed us that you yourself are sheltering the terrorist and assassin, Shan and Taerich, and the accomplice they picked up on Rishi—”

“You dare?” Sorand might have a reputation of being the quiet, diplomatic member of the Dark Council, but he also had a reputation of a terrible temper with angry. “You dare to barge into my home and accuse me of harbouring Republic assets?” The fear he felt for his sister and Theron (who he had started to think of as a friend on Rishi) manifested as rage, and he allowed himself a moment to revel in it, feeling his eyes turn sulphuric yellow as the heat of the Dark Side flowed through him. The two Knights suddenly found themselves blasted to either side, knocking over the Imperial soldiers as they were thrown; the Exarch didn’t get a chance to move before she was twisted in a nexus of Dark energy that threatened to drain her very life essence. “You clearly require remedial lessons in how to properly address one of the Dark Council, Exarch. I will not tolerate such rudeness.”

The Exarch’s blue eyes widened in fear and anger as the dark cloud descended around her. “Do not forget which throne I serve, Sith,” she snarled around her fear. “I have every right to speak to a subjected people like —”

Lightning crackled around her as Sorand’s temper flared. “The Sith Empire is still sovereign, interloper. Do not forget into whose realm you are trespassing. Or do your people hold a tradition of marching into other’s homes and accusing them of treason, aiding and abetting war criminals?”

“Emperor Arcann will hear of this —!”

“Certainly. Let him get his sorry shebs* off his damn throne and come talk to me himself if he has a problem… if he can be torn away from the bloody Jedi he’s hunting. I fear him not.” He let the Exarch squirm in the cloud for a moment longer before loosening his grip slightly. “Consider your next words carefully, intruder, lest they be your final words.”

The Exarch opened her mouth, took a glance at the shifting, malevolent Dark energy swirling around her, and seemed to decide that Imperius had earned his place through ruthlessness as much as cleverness. The Dashade lurking behind the human Sith did nothing to allay mounting her fears, and she swallowed hard before speaking again. “We… are investigating reports that an associate of the assassin and the traitor was seen here. We, uh…” She glanced back at her stunned escort, then looked back to Sorand. “We would like to, umm… verify your innocence in the matter… my lord?”

For several long heartbeats, silence lingered in the foyer before Sorand finally said “Better, Exarch,” and released the cloud. He didn’t release his anger though — he could feel his eyes burning with the Dark Side. “We will not have this discussion again.” Behind him, Khem growled with what Sorand had learned to recognize as anticipation of a meal. It was certainly enough to make the Zakuulans flinch as they scurried past him into the main portion of the apartment, almost right into an older-model worker droid.

“For pity’s sake,” Sorand growled, still in his Imperius persona as he scowled at the ‘droid’. He’d seen his father pull this disguise before, knew the old spy was making a desperate effort to get Xaja and Theron safely out of the apartment… but where the kriff was his sister? “Where in the blazes is your —”

“Sorry, cyar’ika*.” Shara appeared a few paces behind the droid, all kitted up in her green beskar’gam*. She sauntered up to him as the droid lurched its way over to the lift. “I’m gettin’ Bolts outta here… if this damn thing ever moves more than a step a minute…”

The Exarch turned with a frown to regard Shara as she lazily followed the droid. “You’re the one they called the Champion of the Great Hunt. What business do you have here?” Suspicion narrowed her blue eyes, swiftly followed by alarm as lightning crackled threateningly around Sorand’s hand.

Shara paused in her steps, exchanging a sidelong glance with Sorand. She then looked back to the Exarch, giving a sneer. “Don’t you know? I’m Imperius’ favourite.” She tossed a smirk over her shoulder. “I mean, if you really gotta know details, he’s damn good in bed. Didja know the Force is good for —”

“Let’s not spill all our secrets, Shar’ika.” It was with great effort that Sorand didn’t blush as Shara’s grin got wider. He looked away from the embarrassed Exarch and returned the grin, switching to Mando’a. He desperately hoped the Zakuulan hadn’t bothered to learn the language. “Tsikador te Shereshoy. Mhi ret linibar bas’lan shev’la.*” Better safe than sorry.

Kih’parjai, darjetii.” Shara winked at him as she entered the lift with the droid, standing well away from the back wall, almost as if she was making space for two others hiding under a stealth generator. “Cuyir ulyc*.” Sorand just caught a glimpse of real worry in the Mandalorian’s eyes as she slid her helmet onto her head. The door slid closed and she vanished from his sight, her Force-presence rapidly descending… and not alone either.

Satisfied that his wife had gotten his father and sister, and her partner to relative safety, Sorand turned back to the Exarch and raised an eyebrow. “Come, let us get this farce of an investigation over with, before I find more reason to feed you to my Dashade.”


Chapter Text

It paid to know veterans of Imperial Intelligence, Doc decided. Lokin might not have been able to get people to clear out of his path like Reanden Taerich could, but he didn’t need to. He knew the back routes through Kaas City that kept them far from the main traffic thoroughfares, away from the people who might recognize Doc’s face from the Republic’s bounty posting. Still, the medic’s heart stayed firmly lodged in his throat, beating loudly enough that he swore it was audible a couple paces away.It was not until they finally entered Darth Imperius’ personal hangar that the near-panic abated. Apparently the Sith berthed his ship on the side of Kaas City opposite from where his father parked the Shadow . A beat-up looking Mantis -class ship rested beside the sleek Imperial vessel — Shara’s personal ship.

There was a brief flash of motion at the entrance hatch to the Fury -class Interceptor before Talos Drellik showed his face, slowly lowering his blaster pistol. “Xalek commed ahead,” the quirky archaeologist said as the two doctors hurried up to the Raven ’s ramp. “What’s going on? He only mentioned Zakuulans getting involved.”

“Someone sold Imperius out for hiding us,” Doc growled as he hurried to safety in the ship. He was starting to get sick of seeing red and black everywhere he looked, but at least the Raven was safe for now. “We didn’t expect the bloody Zakuulan Inquisition to come knocking on his doorstep.”

“Who the hells would have even known?” Talos shook his head as he secured the Raven ’s exit hatch and returned to the central area of the ship, worriedly eyeing the holoterminal. “Us three, Imperius and his father, Shara, Khem, Xalek…”

“Khem and Xalek are both loyal to their master though,” Lokin frowned. “And they hate the Zakuulans. They would not betray Imperius or his sister.”

“What about SCORPIO?” Doc asked as he flopped into a seat. “That droid could have sent a notice out, couldn’t she?”

“Her programming won’t allow her to break any orders from Agent Taerich, and he ordered her to stay silent—” Lokin startled at a knock on the Raven ’s entrance hatch. “Nobody followed us…”

Talos quickly checked the ship’s external camera and nodded. “It’s just Mako. She probably saw you.” He hurried to the hatch, and a minute later returned with the petite slicer in his wake. “What’s the word?”

“Shara says we might be pulling what the Mandalorians might call a ‘strategic retreat’. The Shereshoy ’s ready to fly on her word.” Mako waved at Doc as she sat on another couch and drew her knees up under her chin. “Or it will be when Skadge shows his miserable face again. No idea where he is.” She shuddered, then looked at Doc. “Your Jedi and her spy pissed off most of the galaxy, it seems. The HoloNet chatter I’ve been picking up has been insane over the last week. Did Master Taerich actually kill the old Sith Emperor AND Valkorion AND half the Dark Council?”

“Emperors plural, yes. Dark Council, no.”

“And not while riding a tentarak either? Darn.” Mako nodded at Doc’s blink. “Yeah, that’s a really popular rumour floating around the HoloNet, right along with her seducing Darth Marr and Arcann at different times, and apparently Marr is the real power behind the Eternal Throne and Arcann’s just a puppet, and Agent Shan is —”

“I don’t think I want to know,” Doc muttered as he dropped his head into his hands.

“Okay, I’ll tell you later.” Mako grinned impishly, then turned serious again. “They’re still with the old man, right? Where are they?”

Lokin frowned worriedly at the entrance hatch of the ship. “I don’t know, young Mako. Nor do I know where Imperius and Shara are, or his people. And that worries me.”

“Almost as much as the realization that the Zaks will be looking here next when they don’t find you or Master Taerich and Agent Shan in Imperius’ residence.” Talos frowned in thought. “But if we run now, it’ll alert the Zakuulans of something suspicious…”

“Not if the logs show you leaving two days ago. I can get in and alter that. The old man showed me a bypass.” Mako grinned, then glanced to the side as Talos’ datapad chimed. “Updating from the darjetii ?”

Talos snatched up the datapad, and Doc watched his face pale. “Alter the logs, Mako. He’s telling us to run.”

“Hoo boy. I’m sticking around until Shara tells me to go.” Mako jumped back to her feet and ran to the Raven ’s exit. “Good luck!”

Doc heard the sound of the airlock resealing as Mako left Sorand’s ship, and staggered back to his feet to follow Talos to the bridge of the transport. The other man quickly slid into the pilot’s seat, fingers flying over the control panels with practiced efficiency. He glanced down at another message from the Sith. “Blast it,” he muttered, “I haven’t scratched your ship yet and I don’t plan on starting now!” Pulling up on the controls, the  Raven rose smoothly from the hangar and fled through Dromund Kaas’ storms before the Zakuulan forces could reach the ship, vanishing into hyperspace.

Xaja barely dared to breathe as the lift descended, her fingers curled into Theron’s jacket tightly enough to start cramping. Under cover of the stealth generator, they’d managed to creep along after Reanden through the apartment, Shara only a step behind them. The Jedi’s heart had lurched into her throat every time one of the Zakuulans or Imperial troopers had looked their way; she’d felt Theron’s grip on her arm tighten as his own fear pulsed through their bond. Could they have fought? Perhaps. But the Exarch had a fearsome reputation as a skilled fighter, and Sorand and Reanden both would have been compromised or killed for protecting them. And Xaja wasn’t sure she was up to a fight now.

She looked to the side as the ‘droid’ flickered and was replaced by Reanden, worry darkening his eyes. “Stay under that field,” he whispered as he pulled his comm up to his mouth. “SCORPIO, prepare the ship for departure. Have there been any Zakuulans in your location?”

“Negative, Agent,” came the cool answer from the comm. “I will notify you if that changes.”

“Good.” Reanden looked back at Shara as the Mandalorian touched a hand to her helmet. “What’s your latest?”

“I’ve warned Mako and she’s prepping my ship to fly. I’m parked right beside Sor’ika’s ship. She’ll be in contact with Talos and keep me posted.” Shara turned the T-visor to the old agent, and the empty-appearing space that Xaja and Theron occupied. “What’s the plan?”

“Lokin will get Doctor Kimble out of danger. It’ll help that Kimble’s not the high priority target.” Reanden’s mouth tightened in a frown. “If the Zakuulans got word of Sorand sheltering them, they’ll be investigating his ship and hangar. I’ll get them to my ship and get off-world.”

“You gonna need a hand with that at all?”

There was a sigh as Reanden contemplated the options. “No, you being seen in my company will cause too much attention. Head back to your hangar and get your ship prepped for a hasty retreat. If shit goes sideways, you’re Sorand’s last option out of here.”

“Got it.” Shara’s helmeted head moved in a sharp nod. “Be careful… all of you.”

“You as well. I’d expect the Exarch to be looking into you more closely now — be wary.”

“Great.” There was the hiss of an exaggerated sigh under the helmet as the lift stopped moving and slid open. “I’ll look forward to a visit from our benevolent overlords.” The bounty hunter stepped out and down a corridor; Reanden waited a moment before following her, as though he was on his own separate business. Xaja crept out after her father, Theron right beside her, close enough that she could feel his body heat through their clothing.

The door to the exterior opened, greeting them with a cool burst of wind and the sound of ever-falling rain. “Bloody typical,” Reanden muttered out loud as he stepped into the drizzle, hunching his shoulders into his jacket. “Quickly,” he hissed as he started walking, acting for all the world like this was an ordinary errand he was on.

Xaja followed after him on shaking legs as Theron’s hand slid down to find her own, fingers tightening around hers enough to be almost painful. But she could withstand that discomfort — and really, she didn’t blame him, not when she could hear her own pulse roaring in her ears. He was every bit as alarmed and nervous as she was. And through the Force, Xaja could pick up slight pulsings of her father’s Force-signature, despite his mental shielding and his flawless pazaak face: Reanden was worried too, both for the daughter he was smuggling out and the son he’d left behind. If Sorand was implicated in sheltering three of the galaxy’s most wanted fugitives…

Sorand’s smart though. He’s clever and powerful, both in rank and with the Force. He can look after himself, can’t he? He won’t let the Exarch shove him around. Xaja almost felt a little better until she remembered that Arcann or his sister Vaylin could come to investigate the reports themselves, and that sent her anxiety skyrocketing again. He’s not that strong… is he? He’s not like Korin where he would likely say something to escalate the situation… right? Theron’s hand squeezing her own helped bring her back down to the planet’s surface — he could feel her fear as clearly as she could sense his. Focus, focus. You can worry about your brother once you’re not within sniffing range of half the bloody Empire. “How far is the hangar?” she whispered at her father’s back.

“Several minutes’ walk,” Reanden answered, his voice low enough Xaja had to strain to hear it. When he turned his head to look to the side, she could see his lips barely moving. “There’s a shorter route, but it goes through a main thoroughfare. Too many Sith that way.”

Great . Xaja worriedly glanced around as Kaas City’s avenue passed under their feet, shuddering at the feeling of cold rain trickling down her back and neck. Blast it — even if her Force-usage was only passively sensing things around her, she was still too visible in the Force’s currents. Even with her best efforts at mental shielding, she feared she would stick out like a bright spark against Dromund Kaas’ darkness. Maybe the monster in your head will shield you , she mused.

And maybe Vitiate… Valkorion… whatever the kriff his name was would do the rest of the galaxy a favour and slink out of her head to fade out of existence somewhere outside the reaches of the known galaxy.

She stumbled over her own feet, nerves stealing her coordination when a couple of ensigns appeared from around a corner. She heard a muffled grunt as Theron walked directly into her back, spurring her back into motion to keep up with her father. She glanced at the two officers, desperately hoping they hadn’t heard or sensed anything out of the ordinary…

Neither of them so much as looked at the couple hidden under the stealth field. They just glanced at the Intelligence Commander before hurriedly averting their gazes and continuing on their way. It was fortunate the memories of Imperial Intelligence were still strong among the Empire’s population, and Reanden barely had to raise an eyebrow to apparently remind people of how easily he could make them disappear. For once, Xaja found herself grateful for Intelligence’s fearsome reputation as the two ensigns continued on their way… then a woman in civilian garb walked by at a hurried pace, open wariness in her gaze… Dad, just what the kriff have you done to earn this type of reputation? Or are you just reaping the benefits of Intelligence’s history? Perhaps not knowing details of her father’s career history was for the better.

But it couldn’t have lasted. A tall, broad-shouldered Pureblood Sith marched down the street, seemingly not caring about the Sith Intelligence Commander in his walking path. “Agent,” he growled out at the human spy. “Skulking in back streets like the rest of your kind?”

“And you just enjoy strolling off the main roads yourself?” Reanden asked with a raised eyebrow, not breaking his stride.

“Know your place, spook.” The Sith’s golden eyes narrowed menacingly. “You will address me properly.”

“Certainly… acolyte . Or did you graduate, or whatever the proper term is for Sithlings in training?”

The Sith spat at Reanden’s boots, a sneer cutting across his face. “Watch yourself. Being one of Imperius’s favourites does not grant you immunity from the Empire’s Wrath. My master will put you back in your place if —” He trailed off, eyes narrowing as he looked around. “… if he finds a reason to…”

Dread clenched itself around Xaja’s heart as Theron’s grip tightened on her. She could feel the Sith’s mind reaching out, probing the Force, saw her father tense in a ready stance —

The cloud of darkness pushed against her mental shields, followed shortly by the Sith’s delightedly cruel grin as a very physical Force-push sent Xaja flying backward into Theron and knocking them both over, the impact on the ground hard enough to knock out the stealth generator. “What have we here? The same bloody Jedi and Republic spy that the entire galaxy’s looking for, in Kaas City?” A blood-red lightsaber snap-hissed to life with a menacing hum. “My master will be very interested to hear of this —”

There was a flurry of motion. Xaja felt herself being pushed down as she reached for her own lightsaber as Theron drew a blaster, covering her with his own body as he aimed to fire before his weapon was thrown away with the Force, skittering down the duracrete. The Sith’s sneer suddenly disappeared in a shocked expression and a gurgle, however, as a vibroblade was driven into the back of his neck and out through his throat. Dark red blood spurted from the fatal wound, staining the black armour the Sith wore. Reanden swore a blue streak under his breath as he struggled to lower the larger Sith quietly to the ground. “Shit. No way this is ending quietly now.”

“Who was he?” Theron lowly asked as he got back up and turned to give Xaja a hand up before hurrying to retrieve his blaster.

“Only one of the bloody Wrath’s apprentices. And if Maglion knows you’re here, in my company…” Xaja didn’t need a spy’s training to see the fear in her father’s eyes. He dragged the Sith’s body behind a refuse bin and scowled at the blood staining his jacket, a colourful assortment of various alien curses pouring from his mouth. Xaja had to blink -- she hadn’t known her father could swear in that many languages. “Blast it. You two all right?”

“Maybe some bruises, not worth worrying about.” Xaja frowned down at her damp clothing, then looked back at the shadow of the Sith’s corpse. “Will the Wrath be nearby?”

“If he is, we’re already dead. You two better start praying he’s not in Kaas City right now. He’ll have probably sensed that.” Reanden swore under his breath again as he cautiously looked around for other witnesses. Fortunately, everyone else seemed to have cleared out even faster when the Sith had first appeared, and the alley was empty. “We need to be gone before someone finds the body. Get that stealth field back online, quickly. You need to be offworld ten minutes ago.”

A pair of eyes narrowed suspiciously as the Imperial trooper looked around the apartment. Imperius lived by surprisingly-modest means: Most of his budget seemed to go toward books and not decor. But that wasn’t what set the soldier’s senses on alert. It was the rumpled beds; the excess of blankets left on the couch in the upper sitting room; the abandoned half-mug of caf on the table. He surreptitiously swiped the mug, emptying the still-warm caf down the ‘fresher drain before slipping the object into his belt pouch. Perhaps it only had Imperius’ DNA signature on it, but it was worth investigating.

Keen eyes picked up on other tells that the Exarch missed while she was cowering from a very-pissed-off Imperius. A novel, left out of place on the table… a dark robe, too small to fit Imperius, hanging on a clothing rack… a strand of long red hair left behind on the couch. Imperius’ hair was about that long, but far darker, and the Mandalorian woman’s hair was brown. But Master Taerich’s hair was about that long… The hair was plucked off the couch and secured in another pouch.

It was some time later that Agent Kovach stood in the Intelligence laboratory, still in his guise as an Imperial soldier, staring in mute shock at the DNA results from the hair and mug he’d stolen. That was Theron Shan’s genetic code on the mug, and Kovach was indeed pleased to know the rival spy was still alive and had been here. But the hair -- it flagged in both Imperial and Republic databases. Xaja Taerich had been here indeed, and she’d happened to pick a former associate from the Revanite and Ziost crises to hide with…

Kovach pulled up Taerich’s face as well as Imperius’, and stepped back to study both humans. Both powerful Force-users, although that didn’t necessarily mean anything… both claiming Lavisar as a homeworld, and Corellian heritage from a deceased mother… eerily similar eye shapes, smiles, and slender builds…

He looked down at the DNA comparisons and shook his head. And they shared parents.

A series of flurried typing into the secure holoconsole brought up his own direct line to Chancellor Saresh’s office. “Pardon the interruption, ma’am,” he said as the Twi’lek appeared, “but you’re going to want to know what I just found out about Master Taerich…”

Several minutes of hurried walking later, and one close call with a routine patrol, passed before the hangar door finally came into view. Theron breathed out a small sigh of relief as the door slid open, revealing the waiting Shadow . “I’ve never been so glad to see that ship in my life,” he muttered as he hurried toward the vessel behind Reanden, Xaja tightly holding onto his hand.

“Don’t get too comfortable. We’re not out of the woods yet, kid.” Reanden glanced over his shoulder as he remotely activated the entry ramp for the ship. “Get on board and out of sight. Hurry!”

The stealth field generator deactivated with a click as Theron ran up the ramp with Xaja, the tension in his back only slightly easing in the safety of the shuttle. As Reanden hurried up after them and turned toward the bridge of the Shadow , the spy’s two passengers followed him down the narrow corridor, pausing before reaching the door. “Any updates from Sorand?” Theron asked as he wrapped his arm protectively around Xaja’s thin shoulders. She leaned into his side, but he could still feel her shaking against him, and he didn’t think it was from the cold rain.

“The Exarch is still rooting around his apartment,” Reanden absently responded as he started briskly tapping commands into the console of his ship, glancing at a datapad. “He sent Talos offworld with Lokin and Kimble, no reports of his ship being stopped. It appears your friend made it offworld safely, Xaja.”

“That’s good news.” Xaja sighed in visible relief, her shoulders relaxing slightly under Theron’s arm. “Shara?”

“No word yet, but she should be prepping her ship to leave in a hurry. She’s Sorand’s last option out of —” Reanden jerked his head up at a beeping from his console and swore. “Fierfek.”

“What?” Theron leaned in to squint at the blinking light on the console. “What’s wrong?”

“Patrol coming through the hangar. Imperial, looks like it’s routine, but considering we just killed a Sith, I’m not taking any chances.” Reanden straightened and spun to shoo his two passengers back down the corridor. “In the stern cargo holding area, there’s a compartment under the floor. The hatch is located beside the storage locker. It’s big enough for two people to hide. Get down there and stay put until I come and get you.”

Xaja frowned in confusion. “Why the kriff do you have a hidden compartment that —”

“Long story, baby girl. We get offworld alive, I’ll explain later. Hurry!” Reanden turned back to call to the bridge. “SCORPIO, how close are we to being able to fly?”

“If the spaceport authority does not hamper our takeoff, we can be offworld in minutes…”

Theron didn’t hear the rest of the droid’s words as he hurried through to the back of the ship, Xaja’s hand held tightly in his own. True to Reanden’s words, when he felt around the deck below the large storage locker, he found a concealed lever for the hatch and lifted it with a grunt, holding it open long enough for Xaja to slip inside before he followed her and lowered the deck plating over them. The compartment was nowhere near spacious or luxurious, but it was enough for him to stretch out without his legs or back cramping. In the blackness, he felt Xaja press herself against him — and now the shaking was even more pronounced. He squirmed until he could roll over and tightly hug her. “Shhh,” he murmured into her hair. “Are you okay?”

Xaja shook her head into his chest, her thin fingers tangling in his shirt. Theron felt her hesitate for a moment before she finally mumbled “It’s the darkness, and the cold, and…”

She wasn’t frightened of the dark before being shoved in carbonite. Theron tightened his grip on her, soothingly rubbing her back. “It is freezing down here,” he grumbled in agreement. “Hopefully your dad comes to get us out soon.”

“If he doesn’t get shot first,” Xaja whispered, and now Theron could sense the tendril of fear tracing a line through their bond. “Or if the Zaks don’t connect him to us, or…” The fear blossomed into full-fledged anxiety.

Shit . Panicking Jedi was not something Theron had ever found himself good at dealing with. But a panicking Jedi around any sort of enemy Force-user would get them killed, and he had no way of knowing if there was a Sith in that patrol. “Shhh,” he murmured again, kissing her forehead as he tightened his hold on her. “Your dad is the single most stubborn, conniving asshole I’ve ever met. He’s not going to get himself killed -- or us.”

Xaja made a sound that most closely resembled a strangled, somewhat-hysterical laugh. “In case you hadn’t noticed, my dad can piss off entire planets as easy as breathing.”

“And have them eating out of his hand in the next breath. You know he’s damn good, sweetheart. He won’t let us get killed and — dammit, I can’t believe I’m saying positive things about your kriffing dad , of all people.”

That earned him a light swat on the arm, but Xaja seemed to have been brought back down off her anxiety for the time being. Theron forced himself to smile as he kissed her hair before the pair settled in to quietly wait. There were the sounds of muffled voices from above… heavy bootsteps walking… someone moved into the cargo hold area, standing directly on top of the two hiding fugitives before moving on. This was hardly Theron’s first experience with hiding in a storage compartment to be smuggled in or out of somewhere, but this instance was making him almost as fearful as the Jedi he was protecting. He barely dared to breathe as he slowly positioned himself over Xaja protectively, straining his ears to listen for the patrol moving around, and swore under his breath when the ship’s engines suddenly kicked in, loud enough to drown out every other sound. But the Shadow was moving, and Reanden wouldn’t have taken off with intruders still aboard his ship, would he? Another thought came to mind that made Theron frown. The old bastard wouldn’t jump to hyperspace with his passengers still in the compartment, would —?

The panel was suddenly lifted away, with a rush of cool air and blinding light that made both Theron and Xaja wince. “Sorry about that,” Reanden said as he reached into the compartment to help Theron out. “Nosy bastard in charge of that patrol. I’m not taking chances with you two.”

“Appreciate it,” Theron grunted as he accepted the hand out, then turned as Xaja was pulled out next. “Where are we going?”

“I’m not sure yet. We have to discuss what few options you two have.” Reanden started walking back toward the main area of the ship, but not before Theron saw the worried crease in the old man’s brow, or the hunch of his shoulders. He was every bit as worried as they were. “Come.”

Saresh stared down at the files that Kovach had transmitted, shock coursing through her at this new revelation. The legendary Master Taerich, Hero of Tython, Commander of the Jedi Forces on Corellia, Battlemaster of the Order, and the single most stubborn, infuriating Jedi the Order had ever produced, was the sister of Darth-bloody-Imperius. She still had no idea what the Sith’s birth name was, but apparently his surname had once been Taerich, and the siblings had been close if the Jedi had run to him for help on Dromund Kaas. She absently wondered which sibling was the elder.

They worked together during the Revanite incident, Saresh mused to herself as she stared at the images of Imperius and Master Taerich’s faces. Yes, now she could see the resemblance between the two. And they were cooperating on Ziost with Shan and that privateer. I wonder how that smuggler’s connected… She would have to look into the identity of Captain Korin, last name unknown, later, and perhaps look into Cipher Nine, if any information could be gathered on the Imperial spook. He’d been there during the Revanite incident as well. But right now, this stain on Master Taerich demanded her attention. If she was working with Imperius on Ziost, perhaps the fault can’t all be laid on Shan for that disaster. If she compromised the Republic to appease her brother… who else has she betrayed on his behalf? The Twi’lek frowned in thought. Or had the Sith compromised the Empire for his sister? No, Marr or Acina would have killed him. But Marr was working with Taerich too. That’s two of the Dark Council who kept her in their confidence, yet Shan and his mother worked with them on Yavin, too. Was this a joint effort of treason, or was Taerich acting on her own to help her brother?

A slow smile started to spread across her face. If the image of the venerable Jedi war hero was tainted by a close familial connection to the Dark Council, Taerich and Shan would be unable to skulk under the radar should they return to Republic Space, with fewer people willing to hide them. If Zakuul knew of Taerich’s family connections, it could be what took the pressure off the Republic to produce the Jedi and the rogue spy in her company. And if the Empire was the one under threat from the Eternal Fleet, perhaps the Republic finally had a shot at taking the Sith down, once and for all.

Saresh pressed a button on her desk, and moments later one of her aides appeared before her. “Arrange for a direct call to Emperor Arcann,” she ordered. “I have news regarding the assassin that he will want to hear.”

Chapter Text

Most Republic-friendly visitors to Alderaan were obliged to go through the public spaceport. One mention of his name, however, and Jace Malcom was granted access to Organa Castle’s private hangars, far out of reach of the ordinary rabble. Even without the clearances of the Supreme Commander, his friendship with Charle Organa -- and reputation among the citizens of Alderaan -- still held strong enough to get him through customs quickly and relatively anonymously.

He marched down the ramp of his personal ship, Captain Dorne trailing along in his shadow. The private hangar was reasonably devoid of other personnel, but he still saw a handful of figures waiting for him by the entrance to the castle itself. A grin spread across his scarred face as he hurried across the hangar to greet his host. “It’s been too long, Charle.”

“This is what it takes for you to leave Coruscant and come visit, Jace? A shouting match with the Supreme Chancellor and getting fired?” Charle chuckled as he clasped hands with Jace.

“I didn’t get fired, I quit,” Jace retorted good-naturedly as he nodded to the saluting Cathar soldier behind the Duke. “Good to see you made it here without problems, Jorgan.”

“No complications whatsoever, sir.” Jorgan settled into parade rest, one side of his mouth tweaking in a grin. “Did you actually punch a hole through Chancellor Saresh’s desk, sir?”

Jace raised his bandaged right hand as evidence. “Been wanting to do that for months now.” He smirked as Jorgan’s grin broke through fully for a second before quickly disappearing behind a reasonably-blank pazaak face.

Charle chuckled as he clapped Jace’s shoulder and led him into the castle. Behind them, Jorgan fell into step with Captain Dorne — Jace glanced back long enough to see both former squadmates grinning at each other. Yes — no matter how else he’d kriffed up, there was at least a pair of friends reunited. Charle’s voice brought him back to the present. “Unfortunately, things are more… complicated than Major Jorgan’s reports might suggest, my friend.”

“The Star Fortress?” Jace scowled. “We did see that while we were coming in. Have the Zakuulans been giving your people trouble?”

“Not yet,” Charle grimly muttered. “We’ve only had one Zakuulan come into Organa territory in the last several months. One of their senior Knights, as I understand it.”

“A senior-ranked officer with the Knights of Zakuul? On Alderaan?” Jace snorted. “What is he, an overlord sent to ensure our compliance?”

Her presence,” Charle corrected, “seems to be unsanctioned. She’s been worried enough about being recognized by her own kind that I wonder if she’s not a defector.”

“A defector? From Zakuul?” Jace frowned in confusion. “Is she still here?”

“Yes, and her story gets even better. She swears that Master Shan sent her to us.”

Jace stopped dead in his tracks, ignoring the scuffle of booted feet as Dorne scrambled to not crash into his back. “Master Shan sent her? What the kriff was Satele doing running around with a Knight of Zakuul?”

“Your guess is as good as mine, old friend.” Charle took a left down one of the castle’s many corridors — Jace lengthened his stride to keep up. “Come. She’s being lodged in the lesser guest quarters.”

Damn it, Jace thought, he almost liked the stranger, despite her Zakuulan heritage. Bright blue eyes that seemed to stare through him, a proper military-rest stance, and she still insisted on addressing him as “Commander Malcom.” Leaning back against the table in the guest quarters, he watched the Zakuulan Knight through suspiciously-narrowed eyes. No matter how polite or respectful she was, she was still an enemy officer. “And you say Master Shan sent you to us? Where did you meet her?” And where is she now?

“We met on Jedha, in the old Jedi Temple there.” The woman, who’d identified herself as Senya Tirall, crossed her hands behind her back. “We both felt the Force calling us there. She was looking for news on her son, I was seeking Jedi lore or teachings for healing broken minds.”

So Satele was still looking for Theron, and presumably for Master Taerich as well. What the kriff had led her to Jedha, of all places? Jace was reasonably sure Theron had no interest in ancient Jedi temples or kyber crystals. “Why would a Zakuulan need Jedi knowledge? Your people don’t have their own healers?”

“Most of our medics tend to be droids; we have very few people skilled in healing with the Force.” Tirall broke eye contact and looked down at her boots for a moment. “A Force healer might be the last hope for my son and daughter.”

“What happened to them?” Jace asked before he could stop himself. He had a feeling he was the one to be blamed for Theron’s lack of verbal filters.

“Their father happened,” Tirall flatly answered. She clearly did not want to talk about that.

Ouch. Jace winced to himself, and didn’t need the Force to feel Charle’s glare at the back of his head. Sore subject there and a definite broach of Organa hospitality. He was, after all, an honorary member of the family. “I am sorry,” he apologized, inclining his head. “That was insensitive of me.”

“Apology accepted, Commander.” Tirall took a deep breath, then raised her head, allowing her eyes to meet Jace’s again. “Master Shan helped me search the Jedha temple for anything left behind that might help. That was after we confirmed that her son wasn’t in the system. When we found nothing, she suggested that I come here and look into the Jedi relics that House Organa still has in its keeping.”

“And she didn’t come with you?”

“No,” Tirall said, shaking her head. “She felt a call in the Force to Voss, and felt that it might have been connected to her son.” She glanced over at Charle. “She gave me an authorization note, which the Duke has in his keeping. He has allowed me to look through some of the Jedi records that the Organas and the Aldes still possess.”

Jace pursed his lips for a moment, then slowly nodded. Satele wouldn’t have trusted a Zakuulan Knight without just cause. “Anyone who Satele Shan respects is worthy of my respect as well, Knight Tirall. I obviously have no knowledge of the Jedi teachings myself” -- beyond the rules about attachment and keeping surprise offspring from illicit relationships, anyway, he thought -- “but if there is anything I can do I’d be more than happy to assist. And… if you have any news on Master Shan....”

Tirall seemed to slump in relief. “I will be more than happy to pass it on,” she replied. She inclined her head. “Thank you, Commander.”

They were well out of the Kaas system by the time Xaja’s heart rate settled down to something approaching healthy. But nothing could quite settle the nauseous feeling of dread settled deep within her stomach, or the fear that had an iron grip around her heart. She and Theron couldn’t hide in the Empire anymore (honestly, she was amazed they’d been able to stay hidden for as long as they did); she wasn’t sure where the kriff Doc was; she didn’t know where in the galaxy they could hide; she was terrified of Sorand suffering for his actions in hiding her…

A shift rippled through the back of her mind, like a cold, malevolent shadow. And then there was that problem, she thought. Memories of her time aboard Vitiate’s station as a captive Jedi-turned-acolyte flashed through her vision, and she fought back the rising nausea. Kriff, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a panic attack this terrible — after Ziost, maybe? Further back, even?

A warm hand settled on her tense back and gently rubbed in slow circles, a familiar light pulsing through her mind. It blocked out the shadow somewhat. Xaja managed a small smile for Theron as she leaned into his touch, absorbing the strength he offered. He probably had no idea how comforting his presence alone was to her. Her breathing settled to match his as she leaned against him and rested a hand on his knee, a ripple of warmth fluttering through her as he kissed her hair.  Warm, solid, comforting, strong… what did I do to deserve you, Theron?

Footsteps drew her attention upward as her father left the bridge of the Shadow in SCORPIO’s capable hands. He seemed to pause at the position he saw his two passengers in before appearing to shrug and continue walking toward a seat. Pulling his chair over, he sat in front of the couch and rested his elbows on his knees. “So, we’re short on options,” he finally said, his face drawn and grim. Xaja had never known her father as a young man, but right now, Reanden appeared far older than his actual almost-sixty years of age. “The Empire’s going to be on alert status, and you already have very few options in the Republic.”

“Hutt Space, maybe?” Theron raked his free hand through his hair. “Hutta’s not the most ideal place to hide out, but if we can get to the swamps—”

“Then you can either be caught by bounty hunters or die from chemically-mutated animals,” Reanden muttered. “I might be able to get you two onto Nar Shaddaa — there’s enough slums that two humans theoretically should be able to disappear, if we can’t get you two to a resistance cell.”

“Theoretically,” Theron retorted. “But you know as well as I do that people in those slums would turn in their own mothers for enough credits to get out of there. Anyone with HoloNet access is going to know about us.”

“You’re the one who suggested Hutt Space, kid,” Reanden growled. “My next idea’s Hoth—”

“Voss,” Xaja finally spoke, interrupting the building argument between the two spies. They blinked, looking to her and she felt their focus keenly. “The Voss don’t get involved with the greater galaxy’s affairs, and I have a contact with the Mystics. We… we might be able to get there.” The fact that her conversation with Sorand, only minutes before the Zakuulans had come knocking on his door, concerning the possibility of Voss Dreamwalkers healing her Force connection and exorcising the demon in her head, was irrelevant, right?

“Voss, hmmm.” Reanden sat back, folding his arms across his chest as his lips thinned. “My only concern is that two humans there are going to stick out like rancors on Coruscant.”

“If we stayed away from Voss-Ka and away from the other offworld visitors and diplomats, we might have a chance.” A too-familiar sick feeling surged in the pit of Xaja’s stomach again, and she looked away from her father’s suddenly-sharp gaze to study the deck under her booted feet. Kriff, what if they decided to go elsewhere than Voss and she was left unable to use the Force? Or if that monster grew strong enough to take her over? Or if they were found?

She didn’t see Theron frown at her, then look back at Reanden and mouth ‘She’s scared’ to the older spy with a worried look, but she did hear the sound of her father getting up and crossing the deck. His worried expression appeared in her line of sight as he knelt before her, taking her hands in his own. “Voss wouldn’t normally have been your preference, kiddo,” he said quietly. “I’m not judging, just… surprised by that is all.”

Xaja shrugged under Theron’s hand on her back. “Sorand suggested it,” she admitted. “He thinks the Voss healers or a sect of what they call Dreamwalkers might be able to fix the— the problems with my Force connection.” Or the ghost in my head.

“That what you two were talking about this morning?” Theron’s hand hadn’t stopped moving in a gentle circular pattern across her back, even as he spoke. “What did he find in there that scared you both so badly?”

Shit. There went Xaja’s hope that in all the panic of fleeing Dromund Kaas, Theron had forgotten about this morning. She glanced to the side where his jacket filled her vision, then back at her lap and her hands in her father’s own, fear coursing through her veins again. You are a Jedi Master, she inwardly snapped at herself. You are not controlled by fear, dammit!

Having the bloody Emperor in my head wasn’t exactly covered by Master Orgus’ training! she retorted at her own mental voice. She risked a glance up at her father’s concerned dark eyes. “… Would you believe me if I said it’s a block that might be permanent?”

“Not when you say it like that, sweetheart.” One of Reanden’s eyebrows arched pointedly. “Xaja, if we don’t know what’s wrong, we can’t help you figure out a solution.”

Xaja looked away from the old spy’s gaze again, staring intently at her hands in his own before squeezing her eyes shut. They’re not going to let you refuse to tell them. They’ll keep pushing until you think of a better lie. And she knew just how poor of a liar she was. But she couldn’t get the words out, not with both of them sitting here like this, waiting expectantly for her to say what was wrong when it was the worst thing she could imagine…

“Breathe, honey.” Reanden’s hands gently tightened on her own. “Would you feel better just telling one of us?”

One. She could do one. It was less pressure. Xaja hesitantly nodded and squeezed her father’s hands, not looking up as he and Theron seemed to have some sort of non-verbal discussion over her head for a minute. She didn’t see her father nod toward the bridge, or see Theron scowl until Reanden mouthed ‘I’ll tell you later’, but she did feel the younger man kiss her hair before getting up and walking out of the room.

It still took a long moment after Theron left for her to force the words from her mouth. “Daddy… Vitiate’s ghost is in my head,” she brokenly whispered, and watched as the blood drained from her father’s face. That was real, open horror in the old spy’s gaze. His grip on her thin hands tightened to be almost painful as he shook his head in desperate denial of what she was saying.

Saying the terrible words seemed to solidify them, making her horrible fate true, but before Xaja could do more than drop her face into her hands, she was being pulled to her feet and her father was holding her like a lifeline, as if he could protect her from the monster in her head by holding her. “Oh, sweetheart,” he whispered as Xaja buried her face in his shoulder and finally let herself cry, the willpower of a strong, confident Jedi Master crumbling away in tears and panic. “It’s not your fault, baby girl. We’ll find a way to get this bastard out of your head. It’s not your fault… it’s not your fault…”

Theron fell back against the wall just out of sight, nausea roiling in his gut at what he overheard. Hasn’t she gone through enough?! he silently shouted at the Force, or destiny, or whatever power had just decided that his Jedi love wasn’t done suffering yet. He would have preferred the possibility of a permanent block on her Force-abilities than this terrible reality. Vitiate had made Xaja hurt so much before…

At least now he understood what the surge of darkness he’d felt from her mind during Sorand’s examination had been. And he definitely understood the fear that had thrummed under the surface of their bond ever since. Kriff, he’d have been a motionless, terrified wreck if he’d been Vitiate’s chosen victim like that. He had no idea how Xaja was still somewhat functional, anxiety notwithstanding. If there was any reason for a Jedi to have feel panic, this was it.

Fury and hatred of the monster tore through his veins at the idea of that demon lurking in Xaja’s mind, doing Force-knew-what to her where he couldn’t help her. It was a fury replaced by concern when he felt a sudden spike of terror from her. He belatedly remembered that she could still sense him as clearly as he could feel her… she must have felt his anger at what had happened to her. With an effort, he forced his anger down and reached for her along their bond, letting her sense his worry and love. I’m not leaving you. I’m fighting with you.

Her fear faded a bit, and he felt her reach back for him, her light clinging to him like he was the only thing keeping her sane. Ignoring the hint of shadows he could sense from the interloper in her mind, Theron focused on pushing love and reassurance at her. He shoved his own fear and anger down to process later, when she couldn’t sense it. Right now she needed him to be strong for her. I’m not leaving you. We’ll find a way.

Theron slipped back out of the hallway and watched worriedly as Reanden looked up at him over the top of Xaja’s head. No matter that Cipher Nine and Technoplague should have been mortal enemies, and still had a rivalry going, the petty grudge match was being pushed to the side in favour of protecting the woman who connected them both. Theron saw the worried dread in Reanden’s eyes, and knew the older man was just as scared as he was. Kriff, if the Voss can’t help her, what are we going to do?

Several kilometres from the nearest outpost, a Corellian XS-class light freighter swooped into one of Tatooine’s numerous canyons and vanished into a deceptively-small cave. The ship landed on the rocky ground, sand billowing around the struts as the entrance ramp lowered, allowing for three people and a droid to descend. They were greeted by a Zabrak woman with dark red skin and black tattoos, one eyebrow raised incredulously. “What did you do to your ship this time?” she asked by way of greeting.

Dancer’s good for asteroid fields, meteor showers, and pissing off Imperial patrol craft,” Korin answered as he looked back up at his battered ship, “but she ain’t the best with sandstorms. My poor baby…” He rested the flat of one hand against the hull of his ship, ignoring the Zabrak rolling her eyes behind his back.

We’ll patch her up,” Bowdarr interrupted, clapping Korin on the shoulder as he walked past the smuggler. “Come on, Tee-Seven. I could use a hand with this.

The astromech beeped and followed the Wookiee around to the back of the ship, leaving Korin and Zenith to walk down with Akaavi. “Been a while,” Korin said with a grin as he slung an arm around the Mandalorian’s shoulders and got an elbow to the ribs for his trouble. “How’ve ya been keepin’?” he added around a pained wheeze.

“The cell remains strong,” Akaavi answered, shrugging off Korin’s arm and ignoring Zenith smirking behind them. “The Zakuulans remain busy with their new Star Fortress tower, but have not come looking for us yet. Mandalore the Avenger keeps us well-supplied, but she spends much of her focus protecting our own worlds. What news from the rest of the network?”

“Nar Shaddaa’s about the same, and I haven’t been near Corellia or Alderaan recently. The Republic’s tearing the galaxy apart almost as much as Zakuul, tryin’ to find my sister an’ Agent Shan, but I dunno that the Empire’s involved yet. No word’s come down the line about either of ‘em?”

“They have all but vanished from the face of the galaxy. It was wise of them to lay low like this with both the Chancellor and that hut’uun on his throne hunting them.”

I got the feeling they won’t be able to hide for much longer, Korin silently added as the trio walked through the labyrinth of tunnels. Sheltered from the twin suns, the caves were almost cool, and located right over a hidden cistern of fresh water. It was an ideal place to hide a well-armed resistance cell. Most of the rebels hiding out here wore Mandalorian armour like Akaavi — Torian Cadera walked past, clad in his clan colours, waved and got a nod and a grin in return. But there were more than a few non-Mandalorians here — he cheerfully flipped off Andronikos Revel and got an equally-rude gesture and a smirk in response, then nodded to Fideltin Rusk as the soldier crossed his path. “Nice seein’ ya again, Sarge,” he said in greeting.

“You as well, Captain.” Rusk shrugged his blaster rifle over his shoulder, offering a nod to Zenith, then looked back at Korin. “You have good timing. We’re planning an attack on the Star Fortress tower, and could use some extra blasters.”

“Might even be able to use that astromech a’ yours to slice their files and pull more data about the Fortresses,” Andronikos added as he meandered up, lightly shoving Korin’s shoulder. “Thunder will wanna have their hands on everything we can pull.”

Yeah, he will, Korin silently added. He, Andronikos, and Torian all knew “Thunder’ was actually his own kid brother, but he wasn’t about to go blabbing that where just anyone could hear it. “Works for me. Zenith?”

“I’m in.” The Twi’lek offered a dark grin, lekku twitching slightly with anticipation. “What’s your plan so far? Catch us up on your intel for the tower.”

It was late, and despite Xaja’s exhaustion, she couldn’t rest. She tossed and turned on the bunk she’d claimed as hers for the duration of the journey to Voss, staring at the ceiling or the walls in the dim light. Every time she closed her eyes, she could see Vitiate’s sadistic, glowing golden eyes in the darkness, or hear his malevolent chuckle as she’d impaled him on Zakuul so long ago… images of faceless monsters in Zakuulan armour chasing after her, or taking Theron from her…

Groaning and giving up on sleep, she stubbornly kept her eyes open so she wouldn’t have to see the terrible mental image of Theron morphing into a monster that resembled her ex-lover. Major Darren Kota had threatened, then abandoned her after she escaped the Emperor’s station after months of captivity, convinced she had fallen and become a Sith. Some part of her was still amazed that Theron hadn’t called her worse for having the bloody Emperor himself inside her brain.

Xaja turned her attention to her bond with the Republic spy, and frowned when she realized he hadn’t gone to bed yet: He was still up in the main area of the ship, working through his turbulent emotions.  Anger, fear, desperation, and worry -- they echoed through their bond, despite his attempts to shield her from the worst of it. Xaja sighed and shook her head — her spy would try to hide his own emotions, trying to be strong for her. What does he think his fear do, make mine worse? I don’t know that it can.

She gently nudged at the bond to get his attention, and felt him mentally freeze at the touch. His awareness drifted down the bond to meet hers, bringing with it a feeling of apology, presumably for waking her up with his worry. She shook her head and nudged him back with a soft burst of reassurance.

His next nudge felt like a query. Sleep? Again, she shook her head, a tendril of her fear trailing back to him. Scared. She hesitated, then tugged at the bond in a request. Come?

A minute later, her door slid open and Theron silently stepped inside the small cabin, making his way over to her bunk. Xaja scooted back against the wall as the spy shrugged off his clothing before crawling in beside her, slipping under the covers and wrapping his arms tightly around her. “Was I keeping you up?” he softly asked once she had settled against him, her head pillowed on his chest.

“No.” Xaja shook her head as she mumbled the word. She shivered despite Theron’s tight hold on her. “It’s just… every time I close my eyes, all I see is… is him.

Anger sparked on Theron’s end of the bond before being quickly smothered again. “And that’s why we’re going to the Voss for help,” he soothingly said. It was to convince himself as much as her. “We’re going to get that bastard out of your head before he can hurt you more.” He paused, his fingers trailing a pattern on Xaja’s shoulder. “… Is he hurting you now?”

Xaja shook her head again. “He’s not doing anything that I can tell, not yet anyway. But he’s still there, and lurking, and…”

“Shhh.” She felt Theron press a kiss into her hair and tighten his embrace. “You’re stronger than he knows, Xaja. You can beat him -- you have beaten him, and I’m going to do whatever I can to help you do it again.” Another kiss was left on her forehead. “I dunno how much help a Force-blind Jedi dropout is gonna be, but I’m not going to leave you alone to fight him. I promise.”

A suspicious burning sensation behind Xaja’s eyes made itself known, and she turned her face into his shoulder to try and mask it. “Theron… what did I do to deserve you?” she whispered against his skin.

“What did you do? Well, you did whatever heroic, clever, beautiful Jedi typically do on a given day, I guess…”

That earned a small laugh from her as she reached up to kiss him. “Smart ass.”

“And I’m pretty sure you like it,” Theron grinned against her lips as he kissed her back. Xaja felt his hand drifting down from her arm, over her side to caress her hip. “I rather like this ass, myself…”


“What? I’m trying to shamelessly distract you and help you get tired enough to sleep anyway.” Theron smirked, although he hesitated before kissing her again. “… Does he… is he watching this?”

Xaja frowned and cautiously probed the darkness in the back of her mind. The shadow stirred, like a sleeping dragon, but didn’t do anything else. “I… I don’t know,” she murmured. “I… don’t think so?”

Theron paused, considering it before he shrugged. “Works for me… if you want this,” he added, pressing kisses against her jaw.

She didn’t need to think about that answer. “Stars, yes,” she murmured as she turned her face to meet his lips with her own again, his fingers greedily seeking her skin out under the blankets. At least, even with all of the danger they were in, she had Theron with her, all warmth and comfort and stability and — he brushed against her just so and she moaned in response to his touch. Yes, she could forget about her worries for a little while now. Theron was very good at making her do just that.

Darth Acina, Empress and Wisest of the Sith, felt herself shaking as the holocall with Arcann ended. When was the last time that she had trembled from fear? No… this wasn’t fear. This was anger — no, rage, a fury that made her see red. Traitors to the Empire were supposed to be taken care of early on in their careers of treason, not be permitted to ascend to the bloody Dark Council!

Simply having a sibling among the Jedi didn’t make Darth Imperius a traitor, she supposed. After all, who could choose their families? Was Imperius a Republic citizen by birth? Had Master Taerich been born Imperial? Those were questions for another time, she supposed, promising herself to research their parents when the immediate crisis was over. Even Imperius cooperating with the Jedi during the Revanite crisis, during which his actions had apparently been sanctioned by Darth Marr, wasn’t too terrible a blow to the Empire. But for him to know of a sister in the Jedi Order, a Republic war hero no less, and make no apparent efforts to kill or turn her… that was unacceptable. And that was before knowing that he had worked with her in Ziost’s final hours. The Republic had invaded the soon-to-die world, and he hadn’t gotten involved against his sister leading the enemy forces!

Now the news that the same Jedi sister was the galaxy’s most wanted woman -- that Imperius had sheltered her in the heart of the Empire itself! -- made Acina’s blood boil. The fugitive Jedi and her SIS partner were supposed to have been the Republic’s problem, and yet Arcann had all but accused her of harbouring the assassin and terrorist. She repeatedly swore she had no knowledge of Imperius’ actions, but Arcann clearly didn’t believe her. The Eternal Fleet had to be en route for Dromund Kaas instead of Coruscant, she mused, and Arcann would burn the planet to ashes to find the Jedi, the spy, and the traitorous Sith who had sheltered them both.

Then again, if she got her hands on Master Taerich or Agent Shan in Kaas City, she would personally hand their heads to the Eternal Empire on a platter. Chancellor Saresh -- well, she would be the unwilling recipient of a slave collar. The Sith Empress grinned, imagining her pleas for death. As for Imperius… hadn’t he started his career as a Sith as a conscripted student from the slave pens? Perhaps Acina should throw him back in with the slaves from which he had come.

No, she decided, shaking her head. Imperius was too clever by half for that. Left alive to rot in a slave pen, he would find a way to escape and bring the galaxy -- and her -- to their knees. There was only one way to deal with a rogue Dark Lord of the Sith, especially one as clever and powerful as he was: Darth Imperius had to die.

Acina snatched up her comm and keyed in the frequency for the captain of her guards. “I have deployment orders for your squad. Bring me Darth Imperius’ head… preferably attached to the rest of him.”

Chapter Text

In the shelter of the Shereshoy, Mako paled at the newest alert on the supposedly-secure channels of the Imperial Guard: a warrant for the arrest of Darth Imperius had been issued by Acina herself. It wasn’t public yet, of course, but it was only a matter of time. Why it was issued was unclear – whether because he’d been confirmed an accomplice of Master Taerich and Agent Shan, or because his blood connections to the Jedi had been found out. Details were something to be sorted later. For now, she had to warn Imperius himself.

She snatched up her comm and keyed in Sorand’s frequency. “Acina knows,” she said as soon as the Sith answered the call. In her peripheral vision, she watched  Shara drop her helmet, open fear distorting her features. “She just issued a warrant to her hit squad. Get out of there!”

Fierfek.” Sorand didn’t bother answering Mako as he ran back into his study, dread coursing through him like he hadn’t felt in years. Khem and Xalek were both there, going over an ancient text pertaining to the Sith Emperor; the studies were interrupted when Sorand slapped his hand on the door frame. “They know about our visitors. Let’s move!”

Let me feast upon your enemies, Master,” Khem growled as Xalek wordlessly hurried past him, yellow eyes wide behind his bone mask. “We do not show fear to the rest of the Sith—

“We also don’t show suicidal tendencies. Getting out of here alive is a bit more important for the resistance than fighting here. Hurry!” Sorand barked out the final order as he ran to the front foyer. After setting up Thunder’s network over a year ago, he’d set up a trap in here with Andronikos’ help— now was the time to ready it. A few buttons pressed armed the trap, and then the Sith was running back through his apartment.

Xalek and Khem, between them, would collect the most important relics pertaining to the Sith, or the few Zakuulan items he’d managed to get his hands on. But there were a few tasks he had to take care of himself. Running into his bedroom and kneeling beside his bed, he reached into a secret compartment. The warmth of the Light Side of the Force hummed through him as his fingertips brushed against his targets: two datacrons, liberated after the Tython invasion all those years ago, and a lightsaber, powered by a green Ilum crystal. If anyone had ever found out he had Jedi relics hidden here, he would have died a long time ago, despite any claim he’d stolen them from the Temple. Now, the two datacrons went into a pouch on his belt, and the green-bladed backup lightsaber was tossed onto the bed for a moment.

Sorand squirmed to remove his bulky outer robes. The heavy material dropped, revealing a dark green set of beskar’gamunderneath. It paid to have a Mandalorian for a wife, and especially one with connections to armoursmiths among her people. He still owed a couple of favours for this.

He withdrew a blaster pistol from the compartment and slid it into his thigh holster, followed by a vibrodagger into his boot, then attached the Jedi lightsaber to the back of his belt. His normal red blade claimed its normal spot over his hip before he hurried to the wardrobe and pulled out a heavy duster to go over everything. Once he tied his long hair back and put the matching helmet on, he would look no different than the average Mandalorian bounty hunter, and more importantly, nothing like a Dark Lord of the Sith… at least as long as no one noticed the two sabers on his belt, anyway.

Disguise mostly complete and his forbidden relics secured on his person, only one thing remained to do. He snatched up his secure datapad as he left the room for the last time, sliced into the apartment’s locally-held files, and wiped everything on the resistance, his family, and his own identity from the files. The files were backed up with his father, and he knew Reanden wouldn’t allow the files to fall into enemy hands. He smirked to himself as the files were deleted, then tapped in another series of commands to the datapad. The coffers of the Spheres of Ancient Knowledge and Intelligence were immediately drained, the funds transferred into his personal accounts. Those credits were then laundered through a series of other accounts until they were funnelled to different resistance cells. Sorand then saw the transfer data wiped, pocketing the datapad. There remained nothing to link him to Thunder, the notorious shadowy leader of the anti-Zakuulan resistance, and no solid evidence that he knew of to connect him to Xaja Taerich. The embezzlement of funds alone remained. If Acina wasn’t going to kill me before, she will now, he thought to himself. A wan smile tugged at the corner of his lips as he rounded the corner for the stairs.

“My lord!” Xalek’s call came from down the stairs as Sorand all but flew down to the main level. “The Empress’ guards are coming, lord. And the Exarch is with them.” The Kaleesh looked up from the security holos as the human Sith hurried over. “Shall we escape by the rear exit?”

“Yes, and hurry!” Sorand shooed his apprentice toward the concealed exit, one that opened onto one of the darkened alleys of Kaas City. He followed a step behind the assassin, waiting as Khem opened the secret door to the exit and vanished down the narrow corridor. The last one to leave the apartment, he pulled the door closed behind him. He then dashed to the hidden lift with his apprentice and servant.

Minutes later, the captain of Acina’s guard, accompanied by the Zakuulan Exarch, forced open the front entrance to the apartment. The trap was sprung: explosive charges wired throughout the residence detonated all at once. Both the guard captain and Exarch were killed in the blast as their prey slipped out into the rain and pulled his helmet over his head. Darth Imperius would be presumed dead by explosive suicide – at least until Intelligence could get their investigators into the ruins of the apartment to verify his presence.

The armoured man known as Rand Verhayc started walking, the Dashade and cloaked Kaleesh hurrying to the Shereshoy in separate directions to divert attention. No one would be looking for a Mandalorian.

The back alleys of Kaas City were not busy thoroughfares on the best of days, and certainly not when the explosion from Imperius’ penthouse apartment had stolen the attention of most of the city. So hearing a deep, guttural voice around a corner made Sorand frown behind his helmet. He knew that voice…

“… telling you, he was hidin’ the medic!” Skadge sounded more pissed off than usual, which was saying something about the Houk. “He kriffin’ had ‘em!”

“Our investigative team found no evidence of Shan or Taerich’s presences in Darth Imperius’ residence,” retorted the voice from the other end of the comm in Skadge’s meaty hand. “The reward is only for information leading to their capture.”

“So then why’s there an Imperial goon squad blowing up Imperius’ apartment?” Skadge ranted at the comm, unaware of the man himself standing only paces away, fury rushing through him powerfully enough to turn his eyes yellow with the Dark Side. “Imperius knew the girl from years ago. He was hidin’ her.”

“What Darth Acina chooses to do with her peers is not our concern,” retorted the other person, presumably a Zakuulan. “Until you can provide solid evidence beyond your own eyewitness account of Imperius hiding Taerich, or Shan, or Kimble, we will not pay out any reward money.”

The call abruptly cut out, and Skadge growled as he furiously crushed the little device in his hand. “Puny runt,” he snarled at the air. “I’ll fuckin’ show ‘em all who—”

Lightning crackled, and Skadge screamed as he was caught in a strong burst of it. He was thrown forcefully against a wall, and writhed in agony on the ground as Sorand approached, rage making him see red. “You coward,” he hissed as he removed his helmet, letting Skadge see who was attacking him. “You despicable excuse for a lifeform.”

Skadge spat blood as the lightning finally eased for a minute, his body trembling from aftershocks as he tried to move. “Little bastard,” he retorted. “You was hidin’ ‘em an’ I know it. I’m gonna—” Another burst of lightning made him wail in pain again.

“Shara should have killed you on Belsavis and left you to rot.” Sorand reached under his duster and drew his lightsaber, the red blade lighting up the alley around him. His free hand extended in front of him once he’d attached his helmet to his belt, lifting Skadge in the air. “But you want to know something, Skadge?”


“For once in your miserable life, you were right.” Sorand felt his eyes glowing with the Dark Side as Skadge blanched in fear, knowing what was coming. “Of course, it’s the last time you ever will be right. And do you know what else?”

“… L-lis’en, Sith, I—”

“Oh, we’re beyond the point of listening, or the point where you might have survived this encounter. Nobody else will ever know just how correct you were.” Sorand’s mouth tightened in a dark smile as he drove his lightsaber through Skadge’s neck, holding the Houk in place with the Force until he stopped moving and his life force blinked out into nothing. “And good riddance,” the Sith muttered as he dropped Skadge’s corpse carelessly, looking around as he hid his lightsaber away again. Although he’d have to tell Shara that he’d just murdered one of her crew for a very good reason, the Houk wouldn’t be mourned. Eventually, however, someone was going to find the corpse and raise questions as to who had killed him. Considering that Sorand Taerich was now supposed to be dead, it was long past time for him to be off Dromund Kaas and en route to the resistance.

He nodded to himself as he slid his helmet back on and resumed walking toward the hangar he shared with his wife. The sooner he was gone, the better.

Compared to Dromund Kaas’ constant rain and cold, Voss felt almost uncomfortably warm. Xaja watched through the viewscreen as the Shadow descended to the planet, landing in a valley sheltered by ancient ruins and trees. “I’m surprised they let us land on the surface,” she quietly admitted as the ship stopped moving. “Last time I was here, they made us take a shuttle from the orbital station.”

“The station took a lot of damage during Zakuul’s invasion,” Theron answered as he watched Reanden go through the process of shutting down the engines. “And for obvious reasons, the Voss were a bit more concerned with stabilizing their own city than repairing the outsiders’ satellites. That new structure going up in orbit though — that’s new.”

“It’s Zakuulan,” Reanden supplied, a grim set to his mouth. “As far as Intelligence has been able to determine, it’s one of the new Star Fortresses they’re putting up around strategically-important worlds. They’ve completed two over Nar Shaddaa and Alderaan, and rumour has it they’re building more at a stupidly fast rate. Reports suggest they have enough firepower to decimate a small moon.”

“Wonderful.” Theron frowned in the general direction of the satellite. “Let’s hope what’s up there right now doesn’t have any more firepower than a holdout pistol.”

Xaja sighed, then meandered back out of the bridge of the ship, Theron a step behind her and squirming as he tried to adjust to his newest disguise. She wasn’t sure why her father just happenedto have robes on his ship that suspiciously resembled Jedi apparel, but the robes and hoods would obscure her and Theron’s identities long enough to get into the Shrine of Healing. She still lightly tugged at the sleeve of her own borrowed robe, a rich dark grey with green accents. “Do I want to know why you have Jedi robes on your ship, Dad?”

“Theron’s was one I… borrowed for a infiltration mission years ago and conveniently forgot to return.” Reanden glanced back at her, and the sad smile on his face made Xaja pause for a moment. “Yours… it was your mother’s. She wasn’t much taller than you, baby girl.” He sighed and resumed walking back to the exit of the ship. “I knew I kept some of your mother’s things for a reason…”

This was Mom’s? Xaja slowly ran her fingers over the worn, soft fabric, almost reverently. She’d never known her mother — her parents had given her to the Jedi as an infant, and she’d been a teenage Padawan when Airna Drallig-Taerich had been killed. But the knowledge that this article of clothing had been owned and worn by her mother, years ago… she could have almost sworn that she could feel a trace of a strange yet somehow familiar presence in the Force, old echoes of her mother’s signature left on the robe. She drew the hood up over her bright hair, and impulsively drew the fabric over her nose, and was almost disappointed when the robe only smelled like an old storage cabinet.

She looked back over as Theron took her hand, and gave him a smile that was only a little bit wobbly, dammit. There really wasn’t any way to try articulating the sudden, desperate desire to have a connection to her mother beyond just her appearance and her Corellian heritage. Normally she didn’t feel much toward the mother she’d never known, but right now… I wish I’d been able to know her. She sighed, squeezed Theron’s hand, and walked out of the ship.

The ramp raised again as SCORPIO locked down the ship, leaving the three humans in the sunlight and warm breeze. When Xaja looked around, she could see mountains and old stone monuments surrounding the ship. Perhaps a kilometre away, she could see the top of a building carved into the side of a mountain. “The Shrine of Healing,” she said, squinting at the silhouette rising against the orange sky.

“Your best shot at being able to use the Force again and having your own headspace,” Theron confirmed, his grip on her hand tightening. “Hopefully there aren’t too many offworlder pilgrims in the shrine today.”

“Even if half the population of Coruscant is here,” Reanden muttered, “we don’t really have an option. You two keep your heads down and let me do the talking until we’re inside. Let’s hope the Voss are still sticking to their policies of not getting involved with galactic affairs.”

There were a couple of non-Voss visitors to the Shrine, but fortunately none of them seemed particularly nosey. Xaja still kept her head down, her face hidden in the shadows of her hood as she walked into the cool stone building with Theron at her side. All seemed to be going well, she thought. Next step was to either inquire with the healers of the Voss as to if they could fix the problem with her Force-connection, or ask about the mysterious Dreamwalkers. She’d been warned that the Voss did not like to admit the Dreamwalkers existed — it was something of a blasphemy in the Voss religion, or so she’d understood from Sorand. But if they’d helped him keep his mind intact when he’d absorbed too many Sith ghosts himself (on purpose. The kriffing idiot!), maybe they could help her get rid of her parasite. For lack of any better options, she reasoned.

Ahead of her, Reanden came to a stop as two Voss commando guards stepped in front of him. “Outsider,” spoke the one on the left. “You are not permitted beyond this point without an escort. Your presence has not been authorized.”

“It’s an emergency,” Reanden quietly answered. “My daughter is in need of healing, and the Shrine is her last hope—”

“Outsiders are not permitted into the inner sanctum without authorization,” the guard stubbornly insisted. “You must depart.”

Damn the Voss and their stubbornness regarding offworlders. Xaja sighed and reached up to nudge her hood back, ignoring Theron sharply looking at her or Reanden shifting his weight back to step on her foot warningly. She raised an eyebrow and opened her mouth, fully prepared to tell the Voss guards to find the Mystic she’d worked with all those years ago. If Valen-Da was still alive, he owed her a damn favour or five for—

“You are the one foreseen.” The second guard straightened as he caught sight of her face. “The Mystic Sana-Rae has seen your need, Xaja Taerich, and your arrival to the Shrine.”

The first guard stepped to the side, lowering his techstaff. “You will come with us.”

The guards led them deep into the inner sanctum of the Shrine, where it appeared that not even the regular Voss were permitted. “This is a restricted area,” one of the guards confirmed as he led them down a wide corridor. “Few are permitted here but the Mystics, the interpreters, and those who are gravely ill.” He shot an askance glance at Xaja, who to an outsider looked to be the perfect picture of health, then continued. “There have only been four offworlders since the beginning of the war who have been granted access into the inner sanctum, not including you.”

“Who were those?” Theron curiously asked, and got a flat stare in answer. “Right – classified. Got it.” He was aware of Reanden rolling his eyes, just off to his left, but didn’t give the older spy the satisfaction of looking over and scowling. He could be an adult about this petty rivalry thing.

“One of those visitors is still here,” the other guard volunteered as they kept walking. “She only arrived a day ago, and was granted access by the Mystics. Sana-Rae saw her in the same vision where she saw you.” They arrived at a large double-door, and the guard pressed his hands against the intricately-carved stone. “Another one of your Jedi Order, Master Taerich. The Jedi frown on our ways, and yet we have had two survivors of the Order come to us.”

“Another Jedi?” Xaja frowned as the door was pushed open, and the small group stepped through into the spacious chamber. “Who else from the Order—”

She abruptly stopped dead in her tracks, her words trailing off into nothingness. Shock radiated from Theron’s bond with her, shock and disbelief and joy and— was that a little bit of guilty nervousness he could feel? The spy frowned and stepped around her, squinting into the shadows of the chamber, for a moment only seeing the bright skin of the Voss and—

Theron felt his heart drop into his stomach as Satele Shan turned to face them, looking not unlike she was seeing ghosts. Shit. Of all the people he’d expected to see here, his mother had not been among them. He had tried to contact her after leaving the SIS, of course. It certainly wasn’t his fault she never responded to his message. In fact, the only time she’d responded to his communications attempts at all was — oh. That would have been right after she’d received his misfired suicide note when he’d rescued Xaja.

Inwardly, the former SIS operative winced, knowing full well that her pale face and startled expression were most likely his fault. She had an impressive set of lines under her eyes, he noticed as she approached them, and something about how her robes hung off of her hinted that she hadn’t been eating well. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed when she spoke to Xaja first. “It’s good to see you alive, Master Xaja,” she said. Her voice sounded almost normal, save the slight waver Theron felt almost as much as he heard. “Hearing of your death was… disheartening.”

“It’s good to be alive, Master Satele,” Xaja answered as she habitually bent at the waist in a bow for the woman who had overseen her training under different teachers for years. “I’m glad you’re all right as well. When I heard of the Order being scattered…”

Satele’s face drew tight with old pain for a second. “We lost many of our finest, you among them.” She took a deep breath to compose herself, then continued. “But there are more of us who survived and hid away from Zakuul’s reach. There is always hope.” A ghost of a smile glimmered on her lips. “And your continued insistence on surviving brought more hope to us.”

Xaja smiled, although to Theron’s eyes the gesture looked tired. “I’m glad to do my part, Master.” She paused. “Do you know if my Padawan and my crew are all right?”

“The last I saw of Knight Carsen, she was fine.” Satele’s smile was almost indulgent then as she patted Xaja’s shoulder. “She went with one of the groups of survivors to establish a new enclave. Unfortunately, I do not know the whereabouts of Scourge and Rusk — although I understand Doctor Kimble was with you recently.”

“He was,” Xaja confirmed, “and the last I heard, he was okay. I’m glad Kira at least is all right.”

Satele nodded, then dropped her hand from the younger Jedi’s shoulder. “I believe the Mystics wanted to speak to you personally.” Bright blue eyes shifted to Theron, an unreadable emotion filling them. “And if you’ll excuse me, I would like a word with my son.”

Worry settled in the pit of Theron’s stomach as he watched Xaja nod, stepping back from Satele. The redhead gave him a small smile before she walked on to join the Voss, her father beside her. Was that a pitying look Reanden shot him as they walked away? Then father and daughter were out of range, and Theron was left to face his mother alone.

He was prepared for a Jedi-esque lecture, or for her to tell him off for abandoning the Republic, or really, for almost anything… except her grabbing his shoulders in a vice grip and giving him a small shake. “What the hells were you thinking?!” she hissed at him, her stoic Jedi mask crumpling as her brow creased and her eyes filled with a mixture of tears, frustration, and relief – the most emotion that Theron had ever seen her show. “When I received that letter, I…”

Theron’s shoulders slumped despite his mother’s tight hold on him. When he wrote the suicide notes to his parents and Korin, he hadn’t been thinking about anything except his own pain and how he’d been planning to make it all stop… for him, anyway. It had been damned selfish of him to not think about how his actions might have broken up the people he cared about. The letters seemed to have done enough. “I wasn’t,” he quietly admitted. “It… it was supposed to have been a last-resort option, but the dead man’s switch malfunctioned—” It was a more merciful lie than the truth, that he’d had everything timed to the minute, and only the discovery of Xaja in carbonite had altered that plan.

“A last resort option? Blast it, Theron, you went into one of the most dangerous cities in the galaxy with no backup and no plan beyond a ‘last resort’ suicide letter?!” A tear spilled from blue eyes and rolled down her cheek. “Did you think about what that letter would do to your father, or to me?”

Guilt grabbed at him, chest tightening. He, Theron Shan, had made the legendary Grand Master of the Jedi Order cry. For all his previously-held beliefs that Satele would have been stoic and shoved everything behind a Jedi mask like she always did… he felt awful for hurting her like this. She hadn’t exactly been a great hands-on parent, but damn it, she was his mother. Sons, no matter how estranged, weren’t supposed to do this to their mothers.

He awkwardly wrapped his arms around Satele’s shoulders, and felt her hesitate before she lowered her own arms to wrap tightly around his ribs in the first hug he could remember ever feeling from her. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, feeling wisps of her greying hair brush against his face. “I didn’t think about how much it would hurt you. Or Jace.”

Satele took a shaky breath and tightened her grip on her son. Theron was pretty sure he was going to risk having bruises over his ribs later, but he really didn’t feel like he could complain. “Don’t ever do that again,” she whispered as she finally pulled back, letting go of him long enough to brush the sleeves of her robe over her eyes. “Theron, I… I know I haven’t been the mother you deserve, but… when I thought I’d lost you…”

“You didn’t lose me, and I’m sorry I made you think that.” Theron found his voice hard to muster around the lump in his throat, and had to swallow a couple of times before he could talk. “I’ll never do that to you again. Promise.”

While Theron was speaking to his mother, Xaja had been guided to sit on one of the Voss beds. She allowed her feet to dangle over the side, watching as Master Satele drew the spy into a tight hug. Ripples through the Force indicated he would be in for quite a scolding later, but for now, the elder Jedi was simply glad he was alive. The rest, it seemed, could wait until later.

The Jedi then drew her legs up, now sitting cross-legged as Voss healers knelt around her, probing through the Force and nudging deep within her. It felt uncomfortable, the same strange cold sensation of Force-healing that she’d felt from Jedi and the rare friendly Sith before, namely Sorand and Lana. She was aware of her father leaning against a pillar nearby, with nothing to contribute to the diagnosis or healing process beyond his worry.

She glanced up as more soft footsteps walked in her direction, footsteps belonging to a beautiful red-skinned Voss woman in elaborate robes. “It is a rare honour to meet you, Master Taerich,” the woman said as she studiously examined the human Jedi. “As you were seen, you have come — fire, bound to starlight and touched by shadows.”

Xaja inclined her head in response to the Voss. “Sana-Rae, I presume? I take it I have you to thank for us being allowed in here.”

“I merely saw you. The interpreters determined who you were and your need.” The Mystic shrugged slightly. “You were foreseen, and the visions do not lie.”

That was the Voss that Xaja was used to. She nodded in polite acknowledgement of Sana-Rae’s words, then shifted her attention as Theron and Master Satele approached. Her gaze darted over to her former mentor’s face, noticing the red-rimmed eyes. She quirked an eyebrow at Theron as she nudged at their bond. Okay?He gave her a small smile and nodded.

Master Satele’s eyes widened as she looked first at Xaja, then to Theron, before turning back to Xaja again. “You’ve bonded to each other,” she breathed out, a statement more than a question. “And strongly. When did this happen?”

Xaja knew her bond with Theron was stronger than any other bond she’d felt before. She hadn’t, however, realized it was strong enough for an onlooker to sense it without prying around in one of their heads — although, she supposed, Master Satele was strong enough with the Force that she could pick up on the slight fluctuations within it. She glanced over at Theron, then back at Satele. “It formed on Rishi,” she confessed. “About thirty minutes before we found out I was dying of carbonite poisoning complications.” She felt lingering anxiety from her father flare at that reminder, although it was almost drowned out by Satele’s shock before the older Jedi regained control over her mental shielding.

“The complications are no longer lethal,” interrupted one of the Voss healers as he rose from his kneeling position. “The medical treatment you received has done its role in preserving your life. However, it cannot fix the scarring left on your Force-presence.”

Dismay settled into Xaja’s chest as she looked up at the tall Voss. “Can anything be done?” she asked, trying to keep a note of desperation out of her voice.

“Voss healers can repair the damage and restore your connection to the Force,” the healer slowly said. “However, we suspect that your block keeps the malevolent ghost in your mind at bay. If we heal you, there is the risk of the spirit regaining power.” Xaja watched as Satele frowned in confusion, only to grow pale as Theron bent to quietly tell her just what manner of ghost the redhead had trapped in her brain. The older woman sighed and seemed to visibly deflate, worry tightening her mouth and brow like Xaja hadn’t seen in years.

“Can’t you just get rid of the ghost?” Reanden interjected as he pushed off the pillar and walked over, a frown marring his face. “That’d be the simplest way to deal with it and restore my daughter’s Force-connection.”

“The ghost is more powerful than you realize,” the healer answered. “We cannot exorcise it.”

Hope faltered in Xaja’s heart as the healer’s words sunk in. She slumped as Theron made his way over to her and sat down beside her, wrapping one arm around her thin shoulders. “What about the Dreamwalkers? I was told of them by another–”

“The Dreamwalkers?” The healer’s face twisted like the word was distasteful. “You should not have known of their existence. I suppose the Sith called Lord Kallig told you of them – he was the last outsider to know of them. They were considered blasphemous to us.”

“… Were?”

“The Dreamwalkers were wiped out by Zakuul’s forces.” The healer shook his head at Xaja slumped further in dismay, Theron’s grip on her shoulders tightening and worry coursing through the bond. “They were powerful, but I doubt even they could have affected the  ghost.”

“But,” interjected another healer, this one a tall scarlet-skinned woman, “the ghost is… blocked, for now, by your weakness to the Force, and your… how do humans say it… husband? Partner?”

“Partner is good,” Xaja quickly said. Heat rushed to her cheeks, the gentle contours shading the colour of Theron’s jacket as her father choked on his own breath. Beside her, Theron flushed brightly, becoming very interested in the stone floor beneath his feet and not looking at her father, or his mother.

“Partner.” The healer nodded. “Very well. Your partner bond blocks the ghost for now.”

Her bond with Theron was blocking Vitiate’s influence on Xaja and preventing the mad Sith from taking over? Xaja looked over at the spy as he looked away from his study of the floor, noting how shocked he appeared. Apparently he hadn’t thought he could be of help, with his lack of a strong connection to the Force. She looked back to the healers. “For now? If you heal me, will the block be disabled then?”

The healer frowned. “No, but the ghost may… steal your Force and become strong. We can maybe protect your mind with your partner bond by… melting? Blending? Joining your spirits. This could make the block stronger, but the bond… it would be… what is the word? Eternal?”

“Permanent?” Xaja supplied, even as she looked at Theron again. A permanent bond with him… she hadn’t fully considered it, even after he’d assured her on Dromund Kaas that he didn’t want it broken. Something like this was significant and life-changing. He would essentially be her husband at that point, though a permanent bond such as they were suggesting was more solidifying than any vows said before an officiant. She thought about it for a moment, and was surprised to realize that she was not only okay with it — she wanted it, wanted Theron connected to her for the rest of their natural lives. Even if her life, her Force-connection, and her sanity hadn’t been at risk, she wanted this. But Theron had always been a little skittish around the idea of permanency, and with two years missing from their past…

He slid his hand down from her shoulders to find her own and squeeze tightly. His other hand came up to caress her cheek as he rested his forehead against her own. Nervousness flooded through the bond, threaded through with resolution, and determination to save her.

He still hesitated, then nodded, as though to himself, and looked up at the Voss healers. “Do it.”

Darth Maglion, Wrath of the Empire and Dark Lord of the Sith, hadn’t cared much for his apprentice  — he hardly cared about anyone except himself and his own ambitions, but having a Pureblood Sith as an apprentice was an honour, a mark of prestige. For said apprentice to have been murdered in a Kaas City back alley was as insulting as it was infuriating. Worse, the Sith had been stabbed in the back, from the looks of it, and not by another Sith. It wasn’t a lightsaber wound that stretched from the back of the man’s neck to the curve under his chin. 

He wondered first if Darth Imperius, recently-discovered as a traitor to the Empire, had murdered the apprentice while escaping Kaas City. But no, the man had died before the explosion had torn through Imperius’ apartment. For all his other crimes of hiding a Jedi and a Republic spy, Imperius hadn’t been responsible for the apprentice’s death. 

“M-my lord Wrath?” Maglion turned when he heard the stuttering words of one of the Sith Intelligence agents. The spies of the Empire prided themselves on being able to make even problematic Sith go away, but this one still trembled, pale as she handed over a datapad. “I, er, we’ve taken the liberty of pulling up the surveillance recording of the alley where your apprentice—”

“Enough of your stammer.” Maglion snatched the datapad from the woman, glad that they had, at least, dispatched a human this time. The last messenger they’d sent to him had been a blasted Chiss. Disgusting non-human creatures, he thought.

Accessing the recording, he watched for a moment as only civilians and off-duty soldiers hurried along the street. He dragged the time stamp forward with a huff, about to comment on the waste of time when a familiar form strode into the frame. Was this –? The Wrath arched an eyebrow. How was it possible that his embarrassing, Force-blind older brother had survived? He honestly expected Reanden Taerich to have died long ago, drowning himself in whiskey as he crawled from cantina to cantina for the past decade. Why his brother continued to mourn that Jedi whore was beyond him. He had, after all, done Reanden a favour, cutting the wench out of his life. Such continued snivelling was an embarrassment. 

Maglion frowned. There was his apprentice, approaching Reanden from the other end of the alley. Unable to hear any dialogue from the silent recording, Maglion could only watch as his apprentice sneered at the insubordinate spy, then, suddenly alert, whirled and Force-pushed at an empty space. A man and a woman appeared from the air with the tell-tale flicker of a disabled stealth generator. Both landed hard on the ground, the man immediately trying to protect the woman despite being disarmed. The apprentice barely had time to activate his lightsaber before Cipher Nine stepped behind him. His vibroblade glinted in the grey light as it slashed cleanly through the neck.

That explains the lack of lightsaber marks, the Wrath mused to himself, scowling in disappointment at the image of his apprentice’s corpse. It was sloppy to have been murdered so easily by a Force-blind man. Yet another disgrace.

The furrow in his brow deepened as he zoomed in on the stealthed couple Cipher Nine was apparently protecting. His sulphuric yellow eyes widened in shock as he recognized the image of the girl. Everyone in the blasted galaxy knew the girl’s face — even the slaves knew of Zakuul’s Most Wanted. The bloody Jedi had been on Dromund Kaas itself, in the heart of Kaas City, escorted by the Republic spy and… 

Taerich. It wasn’t a common name in the galaxy. And when Maglion focused on Xaja Taerich’s face, resemblance to the Jedi whore he murdered leapt out at him. They claimed their daughter died as a baby – but they lied to me! They betrayed the Empire and sold her to the Jedi…

He snarled as he watched his brother haul the Jedi and the enemy spy to their feet, looking around warily as they vanished back under the stealth generator. So, the Commander of Sith Intelligence was a traitor to the Empire he served, as bad as the Dark Lord he worked for. Or did Darth Imperius serve his father’s will?

Maglion pulled up another file to glare at the boy’s face. When he had thrown his young nephew at the slavers after murdering the boy’s mother, he never expected the brat to rise through the ranks of the Sith to the Dark Council, or to betray the Empire. I should have killed you with your mother. Your Jedi blood is a blight to the Sith Order. Slaves were bad enough, but the sons of traitors deserved death. And knowing his luck, the other nephew was probably still lurking somewhere in the galaxy, raising hell and making things difficult.

The Wrath whirled and left the Intelligence office, lingering only long enough to grab the human agent. “Issue a warrant for the arrest of the Sith Intelligence Commander,” he growled, ignoring the woman’s stifled shriek of terror as she felt a clawed glove dig into her back. “I will execute Reanden Taerich and Sorand Taerich myself.”

Kinslayer, a voice whispered as he stalked away. He growled and shook his head, shoving the memories of his parents and his sister-in-law’s murders out of his mind. He would do whatever it took to strengthen the Empire and weed out the weaklings and the traitors. If you want something done properly, he thought, sometimes you must take matters into your own hands. 

Chapter Text

“So remind me why we’re heading to Organa territory in an Imperial ship, and not Thul?” Doc asked as he watched Alderaan come into view. “I mean, not that I’m terribly fond of House Thul after hearing some of Red’s stories, but…”

“Organa has been supporting the resistance more than Thul has,” Talos answered as he guided the Raven down through Alderaan’s atmosphere. “There’s a series of authorization codes that Thunder’s network uses to identify themselves to other members of the resistance, which I’m transmitting to Organa Castle now. It won’t let us into the spaceport, but we’ll be able to use a landing area in the mountains without getting shot down.”

“Not getting shot down’s definitely preferable,” Doc muttered as the ship swooped down over the forest, the silhouette of Organa Castle disappearing somewhere off to his right. “Thunder’s got friends everywhere, it seems like.”

“Right up there with the amount of people trying to kill them,” Lokin agreed. “Thunder has made it a point of being connected to as many separate resistance cells as possible. Alderaan’s cell has been one of the most valuable for intelligence gathering and supplying the rest of the network.”

“Well, hopefully none of the folks out for Thunder’s head are gunning for us too.” The Raven came to a gentle stop in a valley, surrounded by mountains and trees and what looked like half the Organas’ forces appearing from the forest to meet the ship. That wasn’t at all threatening, the medic thought as he followed Talos and Lokin back through the ship to the exit hatch.

A tall woman wearing a captain’s badge over her armour waited at the bottom of the ramp for the Raven’s passengers to descend, arms crossed and blonde eyebrow raised. “Didn’t expect Thunder to be using an Imperial ship like this to come through our territory,” she said, open suspicion in her voice.

“It wasn’t Thunder’s first pick either,” Talos assured the captain as he slowly descended the ramp, hands raised placatingly. “But, when one is in a hurry to get one of Zakuul’s Most Wanted to safety because their current position has been compromised, one uses whatever might be available.”

“Zakuul’s Most—” The captain’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “Which one of them do you have with you? Or both?”

“Neither one of the top two,” Talos admitted, “but we have Number Three with us.” He gestured with one hand, and Doc stepped into view, Lokin behind him. “And we figured Arcann might wish to talk to him a touch too much.”

The captain raised her eyebrows practically to her hairline. “Doctor Archiban Kimble, friend of the legendary Master Taerich herself. Yeah, the Zaks would get their claws on him in a heartbeat. C’mon, the tunnel entrance is nearby.”

Doc frowned, mustache twitching as he descended the ramp. “Wait. Did you say ‘tunnels’?”

The captain looked back and grinned as a pair of killiks appeared from the trees, seemingly ignoring how most of the armed troopers seemed to visibly shudder and inch away from them. “Yup. Tunnels.”

The Voss moved quickly and skillfully with their craft. Minutes after agreeing to the permanent bond, Xaja sat cross-legged on the bed, Theron mirroring the pose in front of her. The flutterings along their existing bond and the clammy dampness of Theron’s hands were the only indication of how nervous he was, and Xaja couldn’t tell if it was due to the high stakes nature of the healing ritual, or to the idea of being bound to her forever, his Force-signature woven into her own in a desperate attempt to keep Vitiate restrained. If this binding succeeded in joining them permanently, but failed to keep the mad Sith at bay…

Theron’s hands squeezed her own in his grip. “It’s going to be okay,” he whispered. “I’m with you, whatever happens.”

Xaja smiled up at him as she ran her thumbs over his hands. If Theron was nervous, she was terrified, but trying to hide it for him. No reason to make him worry more than he already was. “Thank you,” she murmured, and felt herself relax a bit when he leaned in to kiss her forehead.

“I wasn’t gonna let you go through this alone,” Theron quietly answered. “Told you I’d do anything I could to help, even if that means a lifelong bond.” He rested his brow against hers, although Xaja half wondered if that was to avoid looking at Master Satele. The older Jedi was a few paces away, quietly talking to Reanden; she could sense the older woman’s worry with the entire situation. It wasn’t clear if Satele was more concerned with the ghost in her head, or how readily Theron was signing himself up for a permanent bond with the host. Aside from a worried frown, however, the other Jedi hadn’t said anything in protest.

Xaja closed her eyes and allowed herself a moment to lean into Theron before the approach of the first Voss healer drew her back to look up at him. “We are ready to begin,” the tall alien solemnly said. “Vala-Reh is our best healer for ailments of the mind and spirit such as this. She will lead the healing process.” He looked down at the two humans. “I must inform you that this may be uncomfortable.  Once it begins, we will not halt the healing process until it is complete.”

Why must everything healing-related be unpleasant? Xaja squeezed Theron’s hands and nodded at the Voss. “We understand. Do what you need to do.” She sighed and shook her head. “It’s not like we have a lot of other options.”

The Voss healers circled the bed, the Force surging around them. Xaja closed her eyes again as the glow brightened. Before her, Theron tightened his hold on her fingers, straightening into a proper meditation pose. She felt the Force nudge against her, not unlike Sorand’s previous scans, though this seemed more invasive in nature. Focused on her mind, it pulled at her bond with Theron and brushed uncomfortably against the darkness that was Vitiate, before awareness suddenly faded from her…

This was not how this was supposed to go. Latching onto the Jedi girl’s fiery spirit after she had struck him down, Vitiate intended to hollow her out and use her body for his own means. His current form was old and worn now; the spirit possessing it didn’t often get a chance to take control over a pretty woman. Her strength with the Force and her connections to the Republic were bonuses.

Vitiate began the slow process of breaking down the girl’s strong spirit while frozen in carbonite. She was strong and stubborn, of course — a challenge. Vaylin had broken far too easily, a little wreck of a girl, screaming on Nathema. Xaja Taerich would be a more interesting thrill. And watching the horror in those bright green eyes as she had stumbled through the nightmarish visions he’d given her – even while she’d snarked at him the entire time – had been worth it. She would go down kicking and screaming, and he would relish every moment of her suffering. He would enjoy making her grovel.

But then she’d been pulled out of carbonite before he could finish his task by that blasted Republic spy. Even with three hundred years and ten generations separating them, Vitiate could still sense Revan’s blood running through Theron Shan’s veins. No matter, a Force-blind spy wouldn’t be a hindrance to his plans —

And then the girl had been robbed of the Force herself from the carbonization poisoning. That had been a handicap for them both, and Vitiate had only been able to watch as if through clouded glass as the Jedi and the spy had fled across the galaxy, picked up by Cipher Nine and taken to the heart of the Empire itself. The old spy was smart, Vitiate had to admit, hiding the Jedi in her enemy’s capital. If he had still cared about the Sith Empire, he might have been offended that Darth Imperius had sheltered them himself. He was certainly angry enough that the Sith, barely an adult himself, had found his presence in the Jedi’s mind before he could continue his plans to break her spirit, once he could use her Force-connection again. Still, the boy was quite formidable, his signature echoing with power absorbed from numerous ghosts, no small feat. He would be the first — no, the second person he would murder while wearing the girl’s skin as his own. The girl’s spy lover would be the first. That way, should something go wrong, he might possess the upstart Sith as a contingency.

But now, with the Voss performing their rituals, Vitiate found himself unable to delve into the girl’s mind. Her loss of the Force had formed something of a barrier, although he could break through that easily enough, now that she was healed. But could he break through a strong mind, woven through with another will to match her own? Her bond with the spy already hampered his plans with the Jedi — isolating her to break her was harder when she had that damn light to fixate on. And he could only watch in growing rage as the spy’s spirit was melded to the girl’s by the Voss ritual, a weave that not even he could split apart.

He could steal the Force again, leeching off of her connection, but burning out the intruding bond would be almost impossible. Still, he would break Xaja Taerich’s spirit and will, hollow her out to be his new vessel. And the process would either kill Theron Shan or leave him more a drooling, vegetative idiot than he already was. But such action was going to be much more difficult now.

Damn Revan’s entire bloodline, Vitiate snarled. He skirted the Jedi’s consciousness as the girl’s Force connection was restored and the spy’s spirit pulsed in tune to hers, perfectly synchronized. He would not be beaten by a Jedi and a spy with virtually no connection to the Force. All he needed was to find a weak spot in the bond to get in to the girl’s psyche. There was always a weak link.

Theron Shan might have been Xaja Taerich’s borrowed strength, but he was also her painfully obvious weakness.

Reanden was the first to admit that, while he knew more of the Force and its ways than the average Force-blind person, he didn’t understand healing rituals or mental processes or ghost possession… issues like this. He was fortunate that he understood anything of the Force from his judgemental Sith mother, and his ever-patient Jedi wife. Of course, the ways of the Voss were completely foreign to both Jedi and Sith, but considering that neither Xaja nor Theron seemed to be in distress, and the Voss healers didn’t appear to be concerned, the spy reasoned everything was all right.

He looked over at the one-time leader of the Jedi Order. Satele Shan had aged since the Yavin stunt, her hair a lighter shade of grey and care worn into her face. Jedi, as a rule, aged slowly, and the Shan line seemed to be particularly youthful even by Jedi standards. Despite this, Master Shan looked much older.

Reanden snorted to himself. He knew he hadn’t exactly maintained a youthful vigour over the last two years, had he? The current fiasco wasn’t helping matters. I’m getting too old for this shit, he thought.

Bright blue eyes flickered in his direction before Master Shan spoke. “How did you find them? Where were they?”

“Rishi,” Reanden answered her second question first. “Or hauling ass out of the system, anyway. Caught up to them and helped them hide for a while.” He lightly shrugged. “As to the ‘how’… I can’t give away all my secrets of the trade, Master Jedi.”

Master Shan raised an eyebrow at his smirk. “Is it another ‘secret of the trade’ for you to tell me where they’ve been hiding?”

“No, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want to know.”

“Humour me, Agent.” Worry flickered through the Jedi’s eyes. “Where was my son?”

Reanden sighed as he finally turned to face the Jedi directly. “I hid them in the most unlikely of places where one would think to hide a Jedi Master.”

“Surely not Korriban?”

“Close.” Was it his imagination, he wondered, or did the Grand Master just pale at that suggestion? “Dromund Kaas was a marginally safer option for a sick Jedi than Korriban. And Xaja wasn’t exaggerating about the complications from carbonite poisoning.” Reanden looked away from Master Shan’s stare to worriedly frown at his daughter. He still felt sick, knowing how close he’d come to losing her again. “The Zaks froze her and karked up the freezing process. It’s a miracle she survived long enough to reach Dromund Kaas for medical treatment at all.”

“I see.” Master Shan’s brow creased in a frown as she also looked at the younger Jedi and spy in the centre of the healing ritual. “And Theron…”

“Came along for the ride.” Reanden raised an eyebrow in turn. “He and Xaja didn’t want to be separated and, honestly, it was easier for security purposes. I’m not so much of a heartless bastard that I’d leave him to twist in the wind.” Never minding that the Shan kid would have gotten himself killed in the process.

“I never said you were, Agent Taerich.”

“No, but I’m aware of my reputation among certain circles in the Republic.” And Reanden knew that if those same circles knew how long he’d been working for the SIS as a mole in Imperial Intelligence, there would be an epidemic of aneurysms and heart attacks. The thought nearly made him grin. Instead, he kept a carefully-blank pazaak face for Master Shan to see. “And it’s a mother’s prerogative to worry about her son, Jedi or not.” A smile ghosted around his lips. “Don’t worry: Theron was in good hands, even in Kaas City. Baffles the mind, really, but I dare say Darth Imperius is rather fond of him.”

Master Shan blinked, then shook her head. A wry smile appeared on her face. “I hardly think he would have a say in the matter, with his sister involved.” The smile faded into seriousness again. “Where are you going after this? Surely you’re aware that the Republic is no longer safe for them.”

Reanden nodded slowly, lips pursed. “I’m aware.” He sighed as he watched the Voss performing the complicated ritual. “After fixing the issues with her Force-connection, we haven’t figured out a plan for—” He glanced down sharply as his comm suddenly went off, SCORPIO’s call signature displaying on the device. “Excuse me a moment, Master Shan?”

At the Jedi’s nod, the old spy stepped away to the far side of the chamber where his conversation wouldn’t disrupt the healers’ work. He pulled the comm to his mouth as he turned back to watch Xaja. “What’s wrong?”

“A report has just come in from Dromund Kaas,” SCORPIO’s cool voice answered over the comm. To Reanden, the droid almost sounded… worried. “You and Imperius have both been identified by name, Agent.”

“Shit.” Reanden sighed. “By who?”

“The Wrath. He’s coming for you, and your daughter. He is aware that you’re the one who killed his apprentice, and that you helped your daughter and Agent Shan flee Imperial Space. Officially, you’re wanted for questioning regarding your participation in their exit.” SCORPIO paused for a moment. “As distasteful as it is, I believe our best response would be to avoid confrontation with him. A retreat to the Republic may be the safest option—”

“The Republic’s not an option. Saresh would have their heads almost faster than Maglion would,” Reanden hissed as he watched the healers moving, apparently done with their ritual. One gently lowered an unconscious Xaja back to the bed she was seated on, while two more moved Theron to lie beside her; Master Shan was already moving to check on them both. The old spy turned his attention back to the comm, satisfied the kids were in good hands. “When did this report come through?”

“I received it only now. You may also wish to know that there was an arrest order for Darth Imperius… it was rescinded after an explosion at his residence. Should they learn he is alive, he will be wanted for sheltering Master Taerich and Agent Shan.”

Reanden felt his heart lurch into his throat and swore in no less than three languages. “He wasn’t in the apartment, was he?”

“Intelligence has not yet determined that information. But theShereshoy departed Dromund Kaas minutes after the explosion. I expect Imperius to be on board.”

That was something, at least. Sorand was damned smart, and Reanden had known about the explosives trap in his apartment for months. His son wouldn’t have set off the trap without giving himself an escape option. “Anything else you can tell me?”

SCORPIO went quiet for a moment. “It appears that Darth Acina and Chancellor Saresh both know about Master Taerich and Darth Imperius being siblings. I would not expect information on you or Captain Korin to be far behind. It won’t take long for your ship to be identified.”

And that was an opportune moment for two more languages of curse words. “Thanks for the heads-up. I’ll figure… something out. Let me know if we get pinged in the system.” Reanden closed the connection and worriedly looked back at the cluster around the bed, focusing his gaze on the red haired Jedi in the centre of the chaos. Your mother would kill me for letting you get into this much trouble to begin with, honey. I’m so sorry.

Master Shan looked over, then stood up and made her way over to him. “The healers say the ritual went well,” she softly said. “They’re expected to awaken soon.” She frowned up at the spy’s worried look. “What’s wrong?”

Reanden didn’t answer for a second, only sighing heavily as he looked away from his daughter. “Do you have a ship of your own, Master Shan?”

“Yes, a Defender-class Corvette. She’s a little old, but she flies well.”

“Good. Do you have somewhere secure you can hide yourself and two other people?”

“Something has scared you. What is going on, Agent?”

Reanden looked back at the Jedi’s piercing blue eyes. “I’ve been compromised. I’ll need to draw the Imperials away from my daughter and your son. Do you have anywhere safe you can take them?”

Master Shan thought for a moment, then nodded.

It was unusual for the surviving members of the Dark Council to meet anywhere other than their secured chambers on Dromund Kaas or Korriban. But yet, here stood the remaining three Sith leaders of the Empire in the ruins of Darth Imperius’ private residence, all smelling of smoke and lingering detonite and wet from the rain dripping through the damaged roof.

None of this did anything to improve Acina’s mood. Nor did the reports from Sith Intelligence’s forensics team that she was currently staring at. “The bastard,” she hissed. “The Force-damned, Jedi-loving, traitorous little… bastard!” There wasn’t a word in any of the galaxy’s commonly-known languages to adequately express her anger with the fourth missing from their number.

“I haven’t decided what’s worse,” Darth Mortis growled as he paced through what had been Imperius’ upper sitting room, eyes glowing red with anger. “That he should have sheltered a Jedi and a Republic spy, or that he robbed the Empire before fleeing like a coward.” He paused. “He did survive and escape?”

“Neither his body, nor those of his apprentice or his pet Dashade, were found in the ruins,” Darth Vowrawn supplied. “I suspect he had been planning this for some time. Perhaps he was working with Shan and Cipher Nine to rescue Master Taerich from Zakuul.”

“Just how long had he been betraying us?” Acina whispered to herself as she stalked through the sitting room, glaring into what had once been Imperius’ bedroom. A concealed compartment in the floor beneath his bed lay open, apparently accessed by the traitorous Sith before fleeing. The three survivors were disappointed to find it empty, with no trace of the original contents. “Where did he – and those credits he stole – go?”

“The Republic,” Mortis spat out. He looked up, almost sensing the sharply raised brow of the Empress. “He’s the brother of a bloody Jedi Master. Of course he would defect to our lifelong enemies and join the ranks of the Jedi Order.”

“What Jedi Order?” Vowrawn asked, raising his own brow-ridge. “The Order’s survivors are scattered, and Chancellor Saresh is hunting for Taerich and Shan as much as the Eternal Throne is. It does not benefit Imperius to flee to Coruscant or Tython.” The Pureblood slowly turned, pondering the destroyed apartment. “If I was a young, bright Sith Lord on the run, where would I go…?”

“Hopefully the lowest circle of hell,” Mortis snarled.

“Ah, you’re just fuming that he’s smarter than all of us, Mortis.”

Acina whirled and glared at Vowrawn’s tiny smirk, knuckles turning white on the datapad clutched in her hand. “You find this amusing, do you?”

“Not at all, my Empress.” Vowrawn raised a hand placatingly. “But I must admit, I’m rather impressed by the ingenuity of it all. Imperius had this trap rigged for some time, indicating he knew he would need to use it. To have enough time to develop an escape plan, he must have been working behind all of our backs for well over a year now.” He chuckled and shook his head. “He had all of us eating out of his hand. Not even Jadus could hide his intentions and cover his tracks so cleanly. Imperius, you clever boy — always did like that one.”

Acina glared at Vowrawn for another moment, then turned and stalked back toward Imperius’ library. At least he’d fled quickly enough that he hadn’t had time to take all of his tomes and relics. “So tell me, Vowrawn, since you seem to know the ‘bright young Sith Lord’ so well, where would he go?”

“Clearly he needs to be hell and gone from Imperial Space,” Vowrawn answered. “He’s not an idiot — he knows he’ll be hunted. But, considering his surname and his dear big sister, he won’t be welcome in the Republic, either. If Saresh didn’t kill him outright for being a Sith Lord, she would try to pump him for information on Master Taerich’s location… among other things. He knows this.”

“Then where?” Mortis growled. “Would he have gone with that Mandalorian girl he kept around? Or fled to find his father?”

“It is possible he may have fled to Mandalorian Space,” Vowrawn slowly said. “But I suspect he would consider that too obvious a choice, as well as his homeworld of Lavisar. And the Emperor only knows what Cipher Nine is thinking. But what group would want Master Taerich or Agent Shan alive and safe at all costs?”

“The remnant Jedi Order,” Acina answered, “or… the resistance.”

“The Jedi would have little use for Shan beyond perhaps keeping him on Taerich’s behalf. And Imperius wouldn’t have gone to the Jedi. But the resistance…” Vowrawn grinned. “I dare say the boy’s been working with the resistance ever since Zakuul invaded, perhaps even working with the legendary Thunder. If I was that same bright young Sith Lord on the run, that’s where I would go. And who knows how many boltholes the resistance has, or many friendly contacts Imperius has?”

“I can name one unaccounted for,” Mortis hissed. “We need to put an alert out for Minister Beniko. Imperius and his father both had her in their confidence.”

“And she worked with Taerich and Shan on Yavin IV and Ziost, albeit on Marr’s orders,” Acina mused. “What is her last known location?”

“Classified, according to Intelligence,” Vowrawn commented. “Imperius sent her on a secret mission the day we learned of Taerich’s survival and escape from Zakuul. Not even Intelligence is sure where she is, and I suspect even Cipher Nine would be uncertain. Imperius may be the only person who knows.”

Acina allowed herself a moment to indulge in some choice expletives that made Vowrawn raise both brow ridges, then nodded. “Dispatch Koli’arr after them. He has not failed to bring in a target yet — and he has a higher chance than the Wrath of bringing them back in alive and reasonably intact.”

“I’ll send for him immediately,” Mortis nodded, a frown darkening his face further. “You wish Imperius and his ilk to be brought back alive?”

“I will have my answers from them, if I have to wring them out of Imperius’ neck myself,” Acina growled as she whirled to stalk out of the apartment. “Vowrawn, look into their family history — identify any other relatives or allies that bloody family might have to fall back to.”

“Of course.”

Awareness returned slowly to Xaja. She didn’t open her eyes at first, focused on what she could sense from around her. The sounds of the Voss lowly murmuring to each other as they moved around the bed flowed over her, soothing and almost drowning out the worry she could sense from her father. And that was the clearest she’d been able to sense anything since she’d been rescued from Zakuul. That was a good sign that the ritual had worked, right?

The feeling of another awareness, almost uncomfortably close and intrusive, pulsed through her mind like a living organism itself. Theron felt so tightly connected to Xaja now, almost like an extension of herself — and yet still separate, his own person, while joined to her. She didn’t need to relax her mental shielding to feel his mind so intimately, his awareness drifting to meet her own psyche as he slowly regained consciousness. His hand reached down and found hers without needing to feel around on the bed for it, and she squeezed his fingers in return, feeling a burst of relieved affection and joy coursing through her for a moment.

She finally opened her eyes and looked around, noting Theron still had his own eyes closed. One of the Voss healers saw her slowly moving and made his way over. “The ritual is complete,” he intoned. “We have restored your connection to the Force, and we believe the ghost in your mind has been restrained by your bond. How do you feel?”

“Good.” Xaja gave her head a light shake as she sat up, adjusting to the feeling of a bond in her mind like this. Not even her training bonds with Kira or Master Orgus had felt like this, so closely connected that she felt she was aware of Theron’s every breath. Warmth pulsed through their minds; despite the strange closeness of the bond, Xaja felt completely safe. “I feel… fine. Probably the best I’ve felt in weeks.”

“This is good.” The Voss nodded toward a paper book resting on a nearby bench. “You were unable to lift items before. Try to do so now.”

Instinctively bracing herself against the too-familiar migraine, Xaja reached out her free hand toward the book and focused. Her eyes widened in delight as the book immediately rose a metre into the air and the headache did not make an appearance. “It worked…” she whispered, joy coursing through her as she slowly rotated the book in the air. “It worked!” She felt not unlike a Padawan who had finally mastered a difficult task set by a Master… even if merely lifting items was part of early Jedi training.

Beside her, Theron stiffened, his grip on her other hand tightening. Frowning, Xaja lowered the book back to the bench and turned to look down at him. He was still laying on the bed, eyes wide with shock and awe, seemingly not looking at anything above him. “That’s what it feels like?” he whispered. Xaja could feel his consciousness pressing against hers, his bewilderment and awe overwhelming her senses.

He can feel me using the Force, she realized as her own eyes widened. He’s never felt it before, not like this. He’s never felt more than my own emotions. Xaja focused, but allowed her mind to dance in the invisible currents around the chamber. Even when she wasn’t telekinetically lifting anything, he still lowly gasped at the feeling of touching the Force for the first time in his life, even if second-hand. She could feel him struggling to not be completely overwhelmed by the sensation, falling back to his old Jedi mental training to absorb the immense power of the Force flowing through her. Yet, beneath the shock, there was joy, mingled with a bittersweet envy that he’d missed out on this for thirty-odd years. I wonder if he can learn to use it when he feels it through me like this…

She looked away from Theron at the approach of soft bootsteps. The Voss healer stepped away, apparently satisfied with Xaja’s wielding of the Force without complications, as Master Satele stopped beside the bed. “You look better…” she started to say, before her gaze focused on Theron. A perplexed frown creased her forehead — Xaja could feel the gentle mental nudge from the older Jedi as she carefully prodded at the bond, and at Theron’s Force-signature, now brighter than it had been only an hour earlier. “Impossible,” she whispered, shock coursing through her on waves strong enough for Xaja to feel. “After all these years…”

The moment was interrupted by Reanden approaching beside the Jedi Master, unaware of the changes in the Force around him. “I saw a book flying around,” he said, his tone strangely hurried and brusque. “Are you feeling better, kiddo?”

Looking away from Satele, Xaja gave her father a frown. What was that new, heightened anxiety she could feel around him? “Yes, the ritual worked perfectly, Dad. I can use the Force, and the parasite’s still contained, as far as I can tell.” She could feel Vitiate’s unwelcome presence in her mind, clearer than it had been before, but he still felt subdued and drowned out by the bond. Reassured the mad Emperor wasn’t going to surge out and consume her spirit, she focused again on her dad. “What’s going on?”

Reanden raked a hand through his greying hair, worry darkening his eyes. “Someone connected us to the apprentice killed on Dromund Kaas and the Wrath turned over my name and your brother’s to Sith Intelligence. Acina’s ordered a hit out on us both” Beside Xaja, Theron practically shot upright, his awe over touching the Force temporarily taking a back seat to his alarm.

That was spectacularly bad news. Xaja knew Sorand had hidden his birth name from everyone he didn’t closely trust, and her father’s own name was considered classified. “Wait, if they know your names, then…”

“They know you’re related to both of us, and I don’t expect it to take long for them to find our connection to Korin, either.” Reanden raised a hand as Xaja started to get up. “Sorand escaped before he could be arrested. He and Shara will be heading for a resistance cell where they can disappear for a bit.”

“And what about you? Or Theron and I?”

Reanden’s mouth tightened in a thin line. “The last anyone in Imperial Space saw of me, I was with you. If I’m seen elsewhere, it’ll keep the attention off of you for the time being. Master Shan is going to take you both to another resistance cell while I’m causing a diversion. It should buy you two enough time to disappear—”

Xaja felt the colour drain from her face. “Dad, you’ll have the entire galaxy coming after you! If they catch up to you, they’ll—”

“Try to interrogate me for information about your whereabouts, which I very purposefully won’t know… if they catch up to me.” The old spy rested his hands on his daughter’s shoulders and squeezed reassuringly. “It’s not the first time I’ll have too many people looking into my personal affairs, baby girl. I’ll be fine. I know how they play. Hells, I practically wrote the rule book! I’m more worried about making sure you two aren’t caught.”

Dread settled into Xaja’s stomach, clenching despite Theron’s steady presence beside her. She reached up and squeezed her father’s wrists, already dreading being separated from him after he’d finally found her again. “When?”

“Probably best for everyone if we’re off Voss within the next few hours. Keep moving, keep your heads down, and stay out of populated areas as much as you can.” A kiss was dropped into Xaja’s hair. “You still have friends out there, kiddo, and they’ll be able to help you vanish. I’ve got my own contacts who can get me underground. It’ll work out.”

If the oldest spy in Sith Intelligence was even somewhat hopeful about their outlook, it had to mean something. Xaja finally nodded in answer and took a shaky breath. “Okay.”

Chapter Text

It wasn’t unheard of for Lana to go days, or even weeks, without updates from Agent Reanden. But a week of silence from Sorand was unusual… and, when paired with the unsettling nudges she felt in the Force, she suspected the lack of communication was indicative of a problem. When she realized that his sister, Xaja Taerich, was the most wanted woman in the galaxy, it suddenly made sense.

She frowned as the currents of the Force drifted around her, warnings rippling through the elements, but no clear answers as to the ‘what’. Sorand’s face appeared before her mental eye though, as clearly as his Jedi sister’s. Whatever was wrong, Lana suspected that it was connected to both siblings — and was their brother involved? Or their father? Surely Theron had to be connected to this—

“Uhh, Lana?” Koth’s voice broke through her meditations. “You, uh, probably want to come see this. Who’s that Sith you served under again? Imperius?”

“Yes,” Lana answered as she rose to her feet and stepped through into the next room of the safe house. “Why, what’s wrong?”

“Oh, nothing,” Koth answered as he handed over the datapad in his hand. “Just an arrest warrant for him and Cipher Nine from the Sith Empire. It’s got what’s either their real names or a couple of alter-egos in there too. I didn’t know they were relatives of Xaja Taerich—”

“What?” Lana snatched the datapad and dropped onto a chair to read it, her already-fair face draining paler with every word. “Darth Imperius, also known as Sorand Taerich, is wanted by Empress Acina for aiding and abetting Republic assets considered fugitive war criminals by the Eternal Empire of Zakuul – and for treason against the Sith Empire. Cipher Nine, Commander of Sith Intelligence, known as Reanden Taerich, is wanted for aiding and abetting Republic assets…” Lana scrolled to the end of the alert and frowned when she saw the attached images of both father and son. “Shit,” she muttered as she dropped her head into her other hand.

“Are they actually all related?” Koth asked as he looked over Lana’s shoulder at the datapad again. “Imperius kinda looks like the girl…”

“He’s her youngest brother,” Lana confirmed, “and Agent Taerich is their father. I’d had confirmation that he was protecting his daughter and Theron, but I hadn’t imagined that he would get his son involved. Imperius rarely leaves Dromund Ka—” Her amber eyes widened as she realized what that meant. “He can’t have brought them onto Dromund Kaas itself! That… that’s madness!”

“If Master Taerich’s any indication by herself, I’d guess that entire family runs off madness,” Koth commented.

“They all claim they run solely off caf, whiskey, and pure spite,” Lana grumbled. “I’m fairly certain insanity must run in the family.” She sighed as she looked back down at the datapad, her mind racing. With Thunder on the run, the resistance was going to be lacking in leaderships until the younger Sith found a new hideout. The report indicated he was with the Champion of the Great Hunt. He was at least in good hands, she thought. Shara Verhayc had plenty of her own resources to use for hiding purposes.

Cipher Nine – Reanden Taerich – had last been spotted in the company of both his daughter and Theron Shan, ostensibly escorting them off world.  She had no idea where the old spy would think to take the galaxy’s most wanted fugitives, but she was reasonably sure he’d be hauling ass out of Imperial Space.How many places are there for an Imperial spy to hide a Jedi Master and an SIS agent who can’t return to the Republic? Maybe he was planning on taking them to Hutt Space, or deep in the wilderness of the Outer Rim, she mused. But Rishi, on the edge of the galaxy, had already failed Xaja and Theron (and Doctor Kimble — and where the kriff was he in that posting?). Where else could they go?

She suddenly groaned and dropped the datapad on the caf table, running her hands over her blonde hair. The Empire would be following every possible lead, scouring the galaxy for their missing traitors… and she had worked with and for both of them. Even if she didn’t have a reputation for being one of the only people Agent Taerich didn’t snark off to (much), she was still one of Imperius’ most trusted advisors. And she’d worked with Zakuul’s Most Wanted before, too. She swore again loudly as she raised her head to meet Koth’s gaze. “I’m one of Imperius’ top advisors. They would be fools to not be looking for me. There’ll be a notice for my detainment soon.”

“Great.” Koth sighed. “So what’s our plan now? Hide out on Asylum until the fire cools off?”

“That’s not an option. Imperius is going to need my help sooner than later. Besides, I don’t foresee Theron or Xaja trying to come out this way, so close to Zakuul.” Lana got to her feet and snatched up the datapad. “Let’s prep to move out of here. It’s about time you met some other non-Zakuulan members of the resistance.”

The orbital station over Voss was still a skeletal work in progress. The miniature sun reactor in the heart of the Star Fortress was newly completed, and construction droids and Skytroopers swarmed over the frame of the station, preparing it for the human Knights of Zakuul who would be stationed here, and any of the primitive local species the Zakuulans could capture for study. Weapons systems were still inoperable, but the shields were up… as were the station’s planetary monitors.

The passing of an X-82 Phantom-class shuttle from the Empire raised a ping on the surveillance monitors, and the cameras watched as the ship descended to Voss’s surface, near the temple known to locals as the Shrine of Healing. A record of the ship’s image and transponder ID were sent to Overwatch, to be analyzed by intelligence personnel and cross-referenced with any persons of interest on Zakuulan radar.

Minutes later, a console sounded, alerting the watch that a match had been found, courtesy their forced collaboration with Imperial intelligence: The Phantom shuttle was a match to the ship owned by one Reanden Taerich, otherwise known as Cipher Nine, disavowed Commander of Sith Intelligence… and last seen in the company of the assassin and the terrorist on Dromund Kaas. Even without taking into account the spy’s shared surname with the Jedi assassin, he was certainly a person of interest.

Fortunately, the ships of the Eternal Fleet were nearby. Two arrived in Voss Space by the time the Phantom was exiting the atmosphere.

“Blast it,” Reanden breathed out as he saw the two Zakuulan ships drop out of hyperspace. For all that the old spy prided himself on having a contingency plan for every situation, this was something he hadn’t been expecting. He’d hoped to have even a little bit more time before the Empire came after him — but having Zakuul on his ass already was a complication.

“I do question the merits of your martyr-like plan, Agent,” SCORPIO commented as she plotted a flight course away from Voss. “Or did you account for Zakuul tracking you already?”

“I haven’t pissed Zakuul off yet, that they know of anyway,” Reanden grumbled, thinking back to the few infiltration and sabotage missions he’d pulled against the Eternal Empire. “They might be here on a routine patrol. Just… fly casual. We look like a civilian ship.”

No sooner had he spoken than the two Zakuulan ships started turning to track the Shadow.

“And what is your next brilliant plan, should ‘flying casual’ not work?” SCORPIO dryly asked.

“Fierfek,” Reanden swore under his breath. “Are they trying to hail us?”

“No, Agent.” SCORPIO looked up at the enemy ships. “They are targeting weapons on us.”

The Shadow dropped as blue ion beams streaked through the space where it had been only seconds before. Reanden spun the ship in a fast dive, then angled back upward before the Zakuulans could get another lock on him. “Odd,” he mused as he streaked underneath the ships, “usually persons of interest are taken alive, not blasted into space.”

“Their weapons are firing at reduced capacity. Those are shots meant to disable the Shadow, not destroy it,” SCORPIO analyzed as she adjusted the shuttle’s deflector shields. “And the ship on the Rimward side is preparing a tractor beam. They are attempting to capture us.”

“Key word being ‘attempting’,” Reanden growled. “Is the hyperdrive warmed up yet?”

“In T-minus fifteen seconds, Agent.” SCORPIO turned her unblinking orange photoreceptors to Reanden. “Direct evasion does not seem to be working. Do you have another location where you might conceal yourself?”

“We’re going to need some backup,” Reanden muttered, mind racing as he piloted through the Zakuulan fire, cutting a bit close to the old Voss orbital station for temporary shelter. “I think it’s past time we paid some old friends a visit. Set course for the Hutta system.”

“Coordinates set.” SCORPIO looked back toward the viewscreen as the Shadow spun through the void of space. “I hope this plan for hiding is more successful than your last idea, Agent.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Reanden grumbled as he righted the ship for barely a second. “Punch it!”

The Shadow vanished into hyperspace only seconds before the Zakuulan ships’ cannon fire peppered the empty space where it had been.

Engines blinking into the darkness, the Phantom-class ship escaped, following an impressive display of piloting skills. The Knight-Captain overseeing the skeleton crew on her ship had to admit she’d seen very few Core Worlders who could out maneuver the Eternal Fleet’s ships. But the shuttle’s flight only confirmed for her that that had, in fact, been Agent Taerich on board… and he had something to hide. The assassin and the terrorist.

“Track that Phantom’s trajectory. Find out where they’re going,” she barked out to her crew. Dreams of glory flitted through her mind’s eye for the moment, where she was the one to hand over the loathed assassin and terrorist to High Justice Vaylin, or to Emperor Arcann himself. Perhaps that would be what earned her promotion to the rank of a Paladin or —

“Captain.” The GEMINI droid piloting the ship summoned the Knight’s attention. “There is a second vessel leaving Voss.”

“And this is news… how?” The Knight questioned as she turned to approach the droid. “Voss is isolationist, but not cut off from the galaxy.”

“The ship leaving is a Defender-class corvette, a ship commonly assigned to members of the Jedi Order.”

That was interesting. So few Jedi remained in the galaxy that the Knight had to come see the ship. “Interesting. Apparently some of the Jedi still roam the galaxy.” The Jedi weren’t well-regarded by Zakuul, considering Emperor Valkorion’s murderer had been one of their Order, but there were no standing orders to exterminate surviving members.

“Some of note.” The GEMINI’s eyes flared red as she communicated with the network linking her to the rest of the Fleet, and to Overwatch’s central intelligence. “The ship is registered to the former Grand Master of the Order, Satele Shan. Intelligence from the Republic indicates that she may be related to the terrorist Theron Shan — rumours suggest they are mother and son.”

That was definitely a lead worth pursuing. The Knight pursed her lips in thought, torn between chasing down the last known person to have been seen with the fugitives, or hunting down a Jedi war hero with a possible blood tie to the terrorist. Although, wasn’t Agent Taerich rumoured to have a blood tie to the assassin?

This entire business of hunting families and kin was becoming complicated.

“Have the other ship pursue the Phantom,” the Knight ordered, briskly marching through the bridge of the ship. “We will pursue the corvette.”

“We have an assignment for you.” Acina looked down from her throne at the broad-shouldered human man in the middle of the chamber. The bounty hunter known as A’den Koli’arr – if that was even his real name – had a fearsome reputation among the agents of the Empire as a hunter worthy of being Shara Verhayc’s rival. Given the scars running down his face, and the stains of battle on his red-and-black armour, Acina suspected what his preferred methods to take down a target were, and they didn’t involve poisoning a drink or peaceful negotiations. He knew how to handle the assorted weapons he carried, and use them well. “How familiar are you with the current situation concerning Darth Imperius?”

“Heard something about him protecting a Jedi sister of his, yeah.” Koli’arr chuckled and shook his head. “I didn’t think the bookish little sod had it in him.”

“None of us did,” Vowrawn commented from his own seat. “Bright lad, that one. He’s got moxie I’ve yet to see in anyone else —”

“You’re spouting an awful lot of praise for a traitor,” interjected the growling voice of the Wrath. Darth Maglion stood by Acina’s throne, a permanent scowl darkening his face and highlighting his red eyes. “Remind me why we need a Mandalorian to hunt down a traitor Sith, Empress.”

“Because Koli’arr has a better record of bringing back his targets alive and intact,” Acina answered, “and I will have my answers from Imperius before I kill him myself.” She levelled a gaze at Maglion before she looked back at Koli’arr. The hunter offered a mildly raised eyebrow over his auburn beard, but no other visible reactions. “You have experience hunting Sith Lords, I presume?”

“I’ve hunted a few.” Koli’arr shrugged. “It’s not much harder than hunting Jedi. Just have to know where to strike to hurt them.”

Acina forced herself to not shudder at the cold smirk tugging at the Mandalorian’s mouth at his words. “Good. Imperius will be a new challenge for you. He is unusually powerful with the Force, and exceedingly clever and resourceful. He is suspected to be either with Cipher Nine, or with the Champion of the Great Hunt. Do whatever you need to do to bring him back to us alive and coherent enough to talk. If you can find Cipher Nine or Lord Beniko in your search, return them to us as well.”

“I’m glad you’re confident in this Mandalorian’s abilities,” Maglion muttered. He shifted to face Koli’arr directly, his glare darkening. “I trust you understand the consequences of failure, hunter. Do not fail us.”

Koli’arr’s eyes glinted in the light. “Have I ever?” He turned back to Acina and inclined his head. “I’ll leave now. Have the intel on Imperius and Cipher Nine sent to my ship computers, and I’ll track them down.”

“It will be done.” Acina returned the nod. “Dismissed… and good hunting.”

The Mandalorian nodded and turned to depart the chamber, unclipping his helmet from his belt and sliding it on over his head as he walked. The visor hid his face from the galaxy, the helmet’s soundproofing did the same for his voice. “Blasted hells, Sor’ika,” the bounty hunter known to his friends as Corey Black muttered to himself. He stalked toward his starship, purposeful stride devouring the distance. “Was pissing off the entire Empire reallynecessary?”

For a planet with two suns, Tatooine got unreasonably cold at night. This, as far as anyone from the Core Worlds could determine, was not something ever seen on Zakuul, where the civilized Spire was perfectly regulated for weather, and only the swamps were a chance shoot on the best of days. They certainly didn’t hit the freezing temperatures that swept through the desert, making the Zakuulan Knights and scientists responsible for the shield generator within the Star Fortress tower shiver in their sleep.

It was at the coldest point of the night, perhaps an hour before the first sun would creep over the horizon, when two figures crept around the back of the tower on silent feet, lurking in the shadows. The light of the distant stars didn’t do much to illuminate their path, but it was just enough for them to see where they were going. At this angle, they hopefully wouldn’t be noticed by the one functional turret in front of the tower – one with enough firepower to cause catastrophic damage, as one unfortunate group of Sand People had discovered first-hand. The other turret was perhaps a day away from being fully operational. If there was a time to strike, it was now.

The maintenance panel on the bottom of the operational turret was pried open by nimble fingers, revealing crucial portions of the turret’s inner components. The person grinned in satisfaction, then reached to his belt and pulled out a couple of powerful ion charges. He extended his arms back into the turret, setting the charges to do the most damage within the machines via muscle memory and touch alone. The explosives were armed, and the saboteur withdrew from the turret’s innards, replacing the panel as he did so.

He looked over at the other turret, noting that his fellow saboteur was just finishing his own sabotage objectives. In the brightening dawn, he watched the Twi’lek replace the panel door, turning to him. He then flashed a thumbs-up.

Andronikos Revel grinned, teeth flashing white in a feral grin as he crept back into the shadows with Zenith.

Once a hundred metres or so distant from the tower, the two positioned themselves behind an outcropping of desert stone. Zenith tapped a code into his wrist-mounted comm; the answering code from their contact was quickly received. Seconds later, the turrets exploded in flames as the ion charges detonated, the fire painfully bright against the sky. Skytroopers started to swarm out of the tower, only to be mowed down by the Mandalorians hiding in the rocks around the tower.

Zenith carefully peeked over the top of their sheltering rocks as the amber glow of lightsabers started to appear. The Knights of Zakuul were finally awake. “Wonder how many of those Mandos specialized in killing Force users,” he muttered as he rested his sniper rifle on the rock, looking down the scope.

“Fair number of ‘em, if I heard right,” Andronikos answered as he drew his blaster pistols. “But those Knights aren’t immune to gettin’ shot at.” He grinned as he set his own sights on one’s back, fingers smoothly squeezing the triggers. Red bolts of energy pierced the targeted helmet and the Knight crumpled like a house of sabbac cards in a light breeze. His grin widened, sliding into a smirk. “… Especially when they ain’t expecting it.”

Zenith smiled grimly – if the twitch of his lips could be called a smile. The dangerous gleam to his eyes was unmistakable, however. “Finally some payback for what they did to the galaxy.”

Bolts of light streaked through the air as Korin shot down another Knight and crouched behind his own outcropping of rock, narrowly avoiding a retaliating hit. Some days, it really did pay to have the honed reflexes of a barely-trained Force user. “How we doing, Bowie?”

The Skytroopers are dropping like flies,” the Wookiee roared back, swinging his vibrosword and decapitating a Skytrooper who got a little too close. “The Knights are proving more of a challenge, but they were not expecting Mandalorians like this.

“I love the element of surprise,” Korin happily sighed as he came back up over his outcropping and opened up an arc of sweeping blaster fire, taking out two more Skytroopers and a human soldier. He held his fire for a second as he found Akaavi’s familiar presence in the Force near his firing range, her tech staff whirling too fast for even his eyes to track. He glanced to the side, taking stock of how the rest of ‘his’ forces were doing, and wondering not for the first time how he had wound up being one of the leaders of this motley crew. Rusk was still up, mowing down Skytroopers with his blaster cannon and – as far as Korin could tell – appearing to have the time of his life, though the big Chagrian was hard to read at the best of times. From higher ground, Torian was taking out the reinforcements trying to come from the tower with some damn good sniper shots; and Whatsisface from Clan Fett was rallying his fellow Mandalorians to go after the Knights –

Captain! Behind you!

Korin swore a blue streak as he dropped back down, rolling out of the way of a saber strike that probably would have bisected him. One of the Zakuulan Knights had managed to sneak around and attack from the side, much to Korin’s chagrin. He ducked another swipe with the pole staff the Knight wielded and fired off a shot from the hip as he moved, scowling when the bolt only glanced off the golden armour. For once in his life, he wished he knew how to use a lightsaber like his brother and sister. “Missed me!” he taunted at the Knight, and dodged a stab.

“You’ll pay for this, Core Worlder,” snarled the Knight as he jumped at Korin again, close enough that Korin could feel the heat of the saber blade against his skin. “You upstart rebels cannot resist the Eternal Throne!”

“Listen, buddy, two of us already did,” Korin retorted as he fired at close range again, and scowled when the bolt glanced off the armour again. “Right out from under your Emperor’s nose. He still hasn’t caught ‘em, has he?” He couldn’t resist the impish grin as he sensed the Knight’s spike of insulted fury.

“It’s only a matter of time before Emperor Arcann makes an example out of Shan and Taerich.” The Knight swung his pole staff as Korin bent backwards to dodge it. “A pity you won’t be alive to witness it, rebel.”

“I’m gonna show up just to spite –” Korin grunted as the Knight Force-pushed him hard against a boulder, the impact knocking the breath from his lungs. His blasters fell to the sand as he groaned, every part of his back hurting from that throw. “… Ow.” In the darkness, he could just see Bowdarr whirling to come back for him, only to be halted by the need to fend off two more normal soldiers.

The Knight strode up to Korin, spinning his pole staff as he approached the downed smuggler. “What was that, rebel? You’ll be there at Taerich and Shan’s executions out of spite?” Smug arrogance and hatred streamed from him in the Force. “Perhaps as a ghost.”

Korin glared up at the golden-armoured bastard as he tried to Force-call a blaster back to his hand. “Then I’ll see you in hell,” he growled out, determined to go out without fear.

The Knight raised the pole staff – then screamed as he was caught in a furious blast of blue and purple lightning coming from somewhere over the smuggler’s head. Korin blinked and craned his neck to look up at his apparent saviour as the Knight was thrown against another rock, hard enough that the spacer heard the snap of his neck, even at this distance. Blaster fire sounded from behind him, along with a terrifying animalistic growl and the snap-hum of lightsabers. A cloaked figure jumped into the fight, red saber-staff spinning as its wielder took out two Knights with terrifying efficiency. Korin squinted as he saw another huge, lumbering shadow leap into the fray behind the saber staff user, vibrosword swinging and –

“The legendary Voidhound, folks. Getting his ass handed to him by a Zak.” Sorand jumped off his rock, dark beskar’gam reflecting the glow of his lightsaber. Even in the darkness, Korin could see his little brother’s grin. “You’re welcome, by the way.”

“… I had that sorted, Your Darthliness,” Korin protested as he got back to his feet with Sorand’s help, trying to shake the sand out of his jacket. “I was just waiting for the opportune moment, which you just stole, slowpoke.”

“Uh-huh.” Shara appeared behind Sorand, smirking. “Next time you get that idea, Cap’n, you might not wanna wait so long for your dramatic heroism to show up.” She looked back toward the tower as the last Skytrooper fell with a clatter. “Looks like we got here at the last minute.”

“It’s called a fashionably late entrance.” Sorand blinked innocently at Korin’s snort, then looked back at the tower. “That’s one of the Star Fortress shield generator towers, right?”

“Yep.” Korin bent down to retrieve his blasters and slid them back into their holsters. “Been trying to get a read on Zakuulan tech and communications for a while now, figured this was our best shot.” He turned, looking in the shadows. “Tee-Seven?” he called out, and was rewarded with a whistle. “Coast is clear, buddy. Go in and do your magic.”

“I’ll go with him,” Mako volunteered as she appeared beside Shara. “Always wanted to slice into their systems without getting immediately skewered by an angry Knight.” She flicked a cheery wave as she hurried off with Tee-Seven toward the tower.

Korin watched the younger slicer head off, waved as Shara went to rendezvous with her clan members, then turned back to Sorand and clapped the younger man’s shoulder. “So, not that I’m not glad to see you, little brother, what the hell has you out here and not in Sith Central?”

“You haven’t heard the news yet?” Sorand asked, eyebrows creasing in a frown.

“I’ve been kinda busy organizing an op, in case you couldn’t tell.” Korin pointed a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the conquered tower. “What news?”

“Oh, nothing much, Acina just wants my head.” Sorand lazily shrugged as Korin choked on air. “By the way, Dad and Xaja say hi. Theron, too.”

Korin froze, his eyes bulging. “Wait. If you saw them, they weren’t on… They were in Kaas City?

“Yep. It’s a long story.” Sorand sighed, then nodded to Rusk as the Chagrian approached the brothers, having been drawn by the name of the Jedi Master he had served under. “C’mon, I’ll give you the run-down on what the kriff happened… although you might want a stiff drink for this.”

Korin reached up and pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He could practically feel his hair turning grey to match his father’s. It was way too early in the morning for this.

Thexan shivered in the cold breeze, ashes shifting under his feet. He had thought that Nathema was the worst place in the galaxy for a Force-user to be – the corrupted, sickly currents of the Force made him feel ill every time he’d been in the system to see Vaylin, and he knew it had made Arcann sick too. It was little wonder that his sister had gone mad, by all accounts.

But even Nathema was preferable to Ziost. The Force here wasn’t corrupted… it just wasn’t there. Thexan could feel the void where the Force should have been, and it made him tremble even more in the cold. Get yourself together, he silently berated himself as he tried to master his injury-weakened body’s reactions, and almost succeeded.

“We watched him destroy this place.” Beside him, Scourge glared out over Ziost’s grey and black landscape, ignoring the ashes staining his billowing cloak. “Millions of people, powerful Sith Lords, civilians, soldiers… all wiped out in seconds. This was once the capital of the Sith Empire, and now it is ashes.”

“All to feed his own immortality…” Thexan gazed at the scene of destruction that his father’s spirit had caused. “Whenever Valkorion withdrew from the public eye on Zakuul for meditative seclusion… he was here?”

“Or somewhere in the galaxy as Vitiate,” Scourge grunted. “He convinced both your empire and mine that he was a god.” The glare seemed to darken, his golden eyes igniting in the polluted sunlight. “He is nothing more than a Sith Lord with access to powerful rituals.”

“And you’ve known this for three hundred years.” Thexan frowned, looking down at his ash-stained boots in thought. “… You use the present tense to speak of him.”

“I was bound to his will for three centuries, waiting for the one who could destroy him. And apparently, she failed.” Scourge looked over at Thexan. “Vitiate’s spirit still survives. I can sense him – faint and distant, but not destroyed.”

“Izax damn it.” Thexan crossed his arms as he considered this information. “Do you know where he is, or what he plans?”

“No… but we need to find him before another world ends up like Ziost.” Scourge started walking toward the ruins of an old temple; Thexan hurried to keep up with the Sith’s long stride. “He chose to destroy this planet for a reason. This used to be a temple dedicated to him. We may find clues to his ultimate weaknesses here.”

“If he has any weakness, it is vanity and power,” Thexan muttered as he followed Scourge to the ruins. “He would destroy anyone in his path who tried to threaten him… although there are few who could do such a thing. My sister, perhaps, or my brother…”

“I can think of one whom he would consider to be a great threat,” Scourge answered – Thexan thought he could hear worry in the other man’s voice. “The one who has already struck him down twice. His first target when he regains his strength will not be your sister or your twin – it will be Xaja Taerich.” He shook his head as he entered the ruined temple. “Foolish Jedi. She will need to do something beyond simply killing every new body he inhabits to destroy him fully.”

I need to meet this Jedi, Thexan mused to himself as he stepped through the temple doors into shadows. 

Chapter Text

Frowning as he quietly paced the Defender, Theron took solace in the steady hum of the engines, the solid feel of the deck beneath his feet even as his mind struggled to grasp his new reality. Xaja was also struggling, he knew: He could feel anxiety lingering under her attempts to squash it, laced with fear for her father and brother. Not that Theron could blame her. Darth Imperius and Cipher Nine being identified by their birth names was, well, bad. And now, not only were they targets in their own right for sheltering the galaxy's most wanted, but their exposed relationship to the former Battlemaster of the Jedi Order left all three vulnerable.

With a sigh, he tried to project a feeling of reassurance to Xaja — something else requiring adjustment. He spent his entire life trying to reach the Force, wondering what it felt like to be superhuman. Yet all the imagination of a struggling Jedi initiate, dreams he’d been forced to abandon at thirteen years of age, couldn’t prepare him for the reality of what he felt now. The warm, soft currents of energy swept around him and through him, yet seemed somehow he was looking through a veil. So I’m still not Force-sensitive, I’m just feeling it through her, he mused. Still, it was a sensation he wasn’t used to, and despite the danger they were in, he couldn’t stop himself from marvelling at what every Jedi or Sith took for granted.

He felt the subtle shift as the ship jumped to hyperspace — Satele must have already had a destination in mind when she took them under her wing. The sounds of approaching footsteps on the deck plating made him turn to see his mother walking beside his -- kriff, what described Xaja now? Girlfriend felt too casual, wife didn’t feel right, lover felt too distant -- beside his partner. Both Jedi were in conversation, Satele’s frown deepening with every word. “You’re certain? Valkorion was Vitiate himself?”

“Dead certain. Marr could sense it too. I have no idea how the Zakuulans got us both off the ship alive.” Xaja raked a hand through her long hair, hanging loose on her shoulders instead of tied back in a nerftail. “But when they hauled us to Zakuul, we got one look at him and we knew.”

“And he… relocated himself to your mind when you struck him down.” Satele gave the younger Jedi a scrutinizing look. “Are you certain the Voss ritual will keep him contained?”

“As sure as I can be. I can feel his presence still, but it feels… muted. The parasite’s being held back, either by Theron’s bond with me or a block the Voss built. Maybe both.” Xaja looked away from Satele to give Theron a smile as she made her way over to him, slipping her hand comfortably into his.

Theron felt a whisper in his mind, like a soft brush against his skin instead of a poke. Okay?

Smiling down at her and nodding, he squeezed her hand. Okay, he thought. He  looked up to see Satele watching them. She glanced away quickly, but not before he caught a vague sense of… nostalgia? Wistful memories? Regret? Whatever it was, the former Grand Master shielded it before he could properly identify it. “And you feel all right, Theron?” she asked, her voice steady and calm -- once again the perfect Jedi. “You don’t feel… him?”

Theron shook his head. “Not really. The most I can feel is a bit of pressure. I’m fine.” The toxic, oily darkness pressing against Xaja’s mind barely registered, though they knew the bastard was still trying to find a way in. Images of Master Surro, possessed and controlled as she burned a path across Ziost sprang to the front of his mind. The thought of his flame-haired Jedi suffering like Master Surro made him feel sick and fiercely protective at once. He tightened his hold on Xaja’s hand as she looked up at him, resolute in his silent promise to her. Nothing would harm her as long as he could interfere with it somehow, not even Vitiate himself.

Satele remained quiet for a moment longer, looking between her son and her former student, before nodding and walking on. “Come, we have much to discuss.” She led them through her ship to the small galley on the lower deck, directing them to sit while she started making tea.

Xaja slid onto the bench beside Theron and drew her feet up comfortably on the seat. “Where are you taking us, Master?”

“Dantooine.” Now that they weren’t at risk of being overheard, Satele had no reason to be vague with the answer. “There’s a hidden Jedi Enclave there, a kilometre or so from the old ruins. The Zakuulans have been reluctant to dig through the kinrath tunnels, which suits us perfectly fine.” She turned back toward them, setting two mugs filled with tea on the table. A wave of her hand brought a third mug to her as she sat down. “This cell is also affiliated with the resistance movement — I assume Agent Taerich told you about that?”

“Some,” Theron confirmed. He and Korin had both been working with the resistance before he’d left for Zakuul, but he hadn’t been as close to the inner circle as his cohort apparently had been. “Another one of Thunder’s cells?”

Satele nodded confirmation, then looked over at Xaja. “Did your father tell you about Thunder’s network?”

“Otherwise called the ‘storm system’? Hidden enough that the Zakuulans can’t figure out who’s involved, but loud enough to be a nuisance and put Thunder a step or two below us on the Most Wanted list?” Xaja nodded. “Dad’s in the system somewhere, too.”

“That doesn’t surprise me.” Satele wrapped her fingers around her mug. When Theron inhaled the steam from his own tea, he could recognize the earthy, savoury aroma of Master Zho’s favourite blend. “Thunder has an expansive network set up, between the cells and individual agents. I only know the locations of two full cells, Dantooine and Alderaan. Rumour has it there are more scattered throughout the galaxy. We have a contact in the Enclave who knows the locations of all the cells, and can have you moved to another location if Dantooine becomes compromised.”

“Have any other cells been compromised?” Theron asked, frowning as he took a slow sip of his tea.

“There was one on Balmorra, before some of the locals grew a little too vocal in their opinions. That cell scattered before the Zakuulans could catch them, although they picked up the name ‘Thunder’ from that.” Satele shook her head. “Since then, Thunder has kept a closer eye on the cells and keeps their identity hidden.”

“Thunder, storms, cells…” Xaja rolled her eyes over the rim of her mug. “At least they’re consistent with the theme they’ve got going on.”

Satele’s eyes twinkled for a brief second. “They aren’t wrong. A storm has been brewing for the last two years, and your escape from Zakuul seems to have hurried its arrival. I suspect it will be a full hurricane by the time it hits.”

Xaja frowned down into her tea; Theron sensed her mood become pensive as she thought about the rippling effects of her escape. “What has Zakuul been doing since Theron rescued me, besides offering an obscene amount of credits for our respective heads?”

“I’ve heard rumours that Arcann is breathing down Chancellor Saresh’s neck, and she’s becoming more frantic with every day that she can't turn you in.” Satele’s forehead creased in a frown. “I assume you know she’s put out a posting for you two, and for Doctor Kimble?”

“We saw it,” Theron confirmed. “Imperius was keeping the Empire from hunting for us, although now that he’s on the run as well, we’ll have to assume that everyone in the galaxy wants our heads.”

“Not quite everyone, but yes, a substantial amount of people. I have heard that Thunder is looking for you as well — less for the credits, and more to give the resistance an edge on Zakuul.” Satele’s mouth tightened in a small smile. “A Jedi Battlemaster and a highly skilled SIS agent are valuable assets, for more than just the morale boost. You might be the push the resistance needs to start striking back at Arcann.”

“Does Thunder have a plan to go after Zakuul directly?” Xaja asked.

“If they do, I haven’t heard it.” Satele sipped at her tea before changing the subject. “We still have a day’s worth of travel to Dantooine, and I have my own questions.” Her gaze shifted from her son to her former student, then back again. “I have heard a thousand different stories about you two in the last month, and all I know for certain is that you were on Dromund Kaas recently. What happened?”

Theron glanced at Xaja, took a bracing draw from his tea, and started relaying the story to his mother.

The Shadow whined as it exited hyperspace just within Nal Hutta’s orbit, only kilometres from Nar Shaddaa’s polluted atmosphere. The ship might have been on the nighttime-side of the moon, but one would never have been able to tell, from the bright lights glowing under the smog. Reanden piloted his ship down to the moon, dark eyes darting between his scanners, the viewscreen, and SCORPIO to his left. “Any signs of pursuit?”

“I see none yet,” the droid answered. “But the Zakuulans will be tracking you, and this ship. And I doubt that even Nar Shaddaa will hide us so well.”

“We’ll see,” Reanden muttered as he tapped a series of codes into his comms systems, hopefully getting the attention of his contacts on the surface of the moon. “Do you recall the Shapeshifter Maneuver?”

If SCORPIO could have groaned, Reanden suspected she would have done so. “Surely you have a better idea than that, Agent.”

“I haven’t heard you come up with any alternatives,” Reanden grumbled as he swooped down through the orange clouds to the spaceport. SCORPIO’s sullen silence lead him to believe that he was correct in not having a better option. “Start changing the navicomputer history once we land, have us coming from… I don’t know, Corellia. I’ll work on the transponder cards.”

“Understood, Agent. And which ship identity are you changing us to?”

Reanden thought for a moment as he landed the ship with a soft thump on the durasteel plating of the hangar. “Duchess, I think. That ID shouldn’t be flagged anywhere.” He jumped out of the pilot’s seat and ran to the back of the ship, making a quick detour to another floor compartment near the one where Xaja and the Shan kid had hidden while fleeing Dromund Kaas. Four transponder cards gleamed up at him in the dim light, each one worth its weight in gold, and definitely worth the ridiculous amount of credits he had paid for each one. It always paid to have a card up his sleeve that nobody else knew about.

He selected the transponder card for the Duchess and hauled it out with a pained grunt — the cards were stupidly heavy, and his back protested the lift. I’m definitely getting too old for this shit, he silently grumped as he picked up the card and started hauling it back to the engine room. Maybe I should have let SCORPIO do the heavy lifting with this.

Heavy footsteps sounded on the deck plating of the Shadow, effectively interrupting his musings. Reanden whirled and drew his blaster, only to relax when a familiar bald head appeared. “The fuck you get yourself into this time, old timer?” Kaliyo asked as she strolled into the engine room, grinning. “You weren’t even in this much shit on Hutta back in the day.”

“Offspring,” Reanden grunted in answer as he shrugged off his leather jacket. “Took you long enough to get here.”

“Had to bring along some help.” Kaliyo gestured behind her as a second head appeared, this one blue and sporting lekku. “Vette wanted to come say hi. She’s a tough cookie.” From Kaliyo, that was high praise.

“Thanks.” Vette grinned and waved at Reanden as she meandered in behind Kaliyo. “So who’d you piss off this time? It wasn’t… him, was it?” For a moment, fear flashed behind her eyes — Reanden couldn’t blame her. Maglion had owned the pretty Twi’lek as a slave for over four years before Reanden had helped her escape. Frankly, the spy was impressed she’d managed to survive that long. Aliens around his xenophobic brother tended to not have long lifespans. 

“Not yet, as far as I know,” Reanden assured her as he started rolling up his sleeves. “Just the Zakuulans this time.”

“… What’d you do?” Kaliyo asked with a grin.

“Showed them up on their piloting abilities. I expect they’re after me for flying lessons.” Reanden crouched to access the Shadow’s original transponder ID, then looked up at the two women. “… I could use a hand here, if either of you are bored.”

“Sure, got nothin’ better to do.” Kaliyo knelt beside him and started detaching the transponder’s connections to the ship’s computers. “Besides, wouldn’t want you to throw your back out again, old man.”

“Not that old,” Reanden growled, and tried to ignore Vette snickering. Between himself and Kaliyo, they managed to pull out the Shadow’s transponder card, dragging it out of the way enough to slot in the Duchess’s. “Kriffing hells,” the old spy muttered, “the hell do they make these out of? Bloody beskar?”

“Might be why they cost an arm and a leg, even before the war,” Kaliyo grunted as she started dragging the transponder back to the hidden compartment. “Pretty sure you could buy your own planet with one of these now.”

“Excellent. My retirement is funded. Or would be, if I didn’t need these to make it to retirement.” Reanden turned to help Vette push the new transponder into place, then looked up with a frown as an alert started coming through on one of his cybernetic implants. “SCORPIO?” he called out over the ship’s intercoms. “What’s happening?”

“There is a Zakuulan patrol moving through the spaceport,” SCORPIO answered. “I cannot intercept their communications, but I have sliced into the spaceport security cams. The patrol is moving too quickly to be routine, and they’re headed this way.”

“Shit,” Reanden whispered as he pushed the transponder card into place. “Vette, you got that?”

“Yessir.” Vette promptly squirmed down into the mass of wires and connections under the console, nimble blue fingers connecting the transponder to the ship as if it had always been there. “Go make yourself scarce!”

Reanden snatched his jacket back up from the floor and shoved his arms into the sleeves as he hurried back to the bridge of the ship. “How close is the patrol?”

“Close enough that you will be caught if you attempt escape,” SCORPIO commented, stepping to the side so Reanden could see the small monitor. “Are you planning on using the storage compartment again?”

There was a pause as Reanden thought for a moment, then accessed another one of his implants and, with a blink, turned into the loader droid again. “Less suspicious than a lifeform trying to hide under the floor,” he muttered, wishing that Watcher X’s implant into his back had given him a way to disguise his voice as well.

“I do hope you have a plan, Agent,” SCORPIO commented as she turned back to the console.

“Of course I have a plan. It’s just... being altered as I go.” 

“By which you mean you are making it up as you go.”

“That’s what I said!”

“That is not a plan, Agent.” SCORPIO shook her head disdainfully. “But it does explain the questions I had regarding your offspring and their lack of self preservation instincts.”

“Thanks, SCORPIO,” Reanden muttered as he turned, altering his stride to the lurching steps of a hauler droid. And not a moment too soon, as he could see the Zakuulan patrol entering the hangar and making a beeline toward his ship.

The ramp was lowered obediently. Moments later, the patrol consisting of a Knight-Captain, two human soldiers, and four Skytroopers, entered the ship. “Where is the captain?” barked out the Knight-Captain, thumping the end of his polesaber on the wood inlaid into the floor.

“That’d be me, champ.” Kaliyo strolled out of the back of the ship lazily, all smooth, confident arrogance. “What can I do for ya?”

“You’re the captain?” The Zakuulan eyed Kaliyo up and down disdainfully -- her rough looks were a jarring contrast to the sleek shuttle. “How long have you had this ship?”

“I dunno, a few months? Won her in a pazaak game.” Kaliyo grinned. “Although with how much fuel she uses, maybe I should have gone for the slave that Arkanian was offering.” 

“I’m glad you didn’t,” Vette retorted as she meandered back out, lounging against the wall. “That was my kriffing cousin he was offering as collateral.”

The Knight’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Vette. “And who are you?”

“Lia. First and only mate on this ship.” Vette flicked her fingers in a wave. “Who are you?”

The Knight glared. “Mind your tongue, alien. I ask the questions here.” He looked away as Vette’s eyes flashed with stifled anger. “This ship matches the description of one seen leaving Voss several hours ago — the Shadow, owned by one Reanden Taerich.”

Shadow?” Kaliyo snorted with laughter. “Who came up with that name? That’s almost worse than its owner’s name!” Reanden had to bite his tongue to not growl at Kaliyo, but did glare at her through his disguise.

“Sir…” One of the soldiers hesitantly spoke up before the Knight-Captain could respond, as she stared at her datapad, scanning the ship’s identity. “… This isn’t the Shadow, sir. Same class and make, but this ship’s registered as the Duchess.”

“Reminds me I gotta think of a better name for her,” Kaliyo mused. “Maybe the Loose Schutta.” Vette winced at that.

The Knight’s glare darkened. “Search the ship!” he barked out to his squad. “And what the hells is with that Izax-damned loader droid?”

“That? It’s a delivery for a buddy,” Kaliyo said with a shrug. 

“A delivery for who?” the Knight growled.

Kaliyo opened her mouth, but before she could answer, another voice broke into the fray. “Me.” The newcomer, an older man with short-cropped grey hair, strode up the ship’s ramp and nodded to Kaliyo. His voice was gruff, a match for his expression. “Took long enough getting here, Captain.”

Kaliyo covered her surprise with a smooth shrug. “Got stuck in traffic. Got my pay?”

“I’ll transfer it to you when I know this droid isn't going to explode in my face the first time it tries picking up a crate… again.” The human stepped around the Zakuulans and gestured to Reanden. “C’mon, you rust bucket. Hopefully you move faster than the last one too.”

His dignity already smarting, Reanden lurched toward the human, skirting the Zakuulans and making his way down the ramp. The human walked with him, keeping pace as they approached the exit to the hangar. “You’re a dick, you know that?” the old spy muttered under his breath.

“Learned from the best, Legate.” The human smirked. “Come on, we don’t have all day, and the resistance wants a word with you.”

Reanden rolled his eyes as he followed Ardun Kothe out of the hangar, grumbling uncomplimentary things about Jedi-turned-spies under his breath.

Xaja had spent a significant portion of her teenage years on Dantooine, as Master Allende had traveled between the agricultural planet and Tython regularly. It had never been ‘home’ for her, but it still held no small amount of fond memories. She watched through the viewscreen as the green planet grew larger as the ship closed the distance. “What happened to the last Enclave here? The one Master Allende trained me at?”

“It was evacuated during Zakuul’s first wave of attacks,” Satele answered, guiding the ship down into the atmosphere. “The Younglings and Padawans being trained there are now hidden elsewhere, and Zakuul believes Dantooine to be abandoned by the Order. However, most of the resistance cell located here is Jedi, or friendly Force-users.”

Xaja watched, hanging onto the back of a chair as the ship soared over Dantooine’s plains and grasslands. A burst of nostalgia swept through her: She remembered running through those same fields on training exercises, like Master Allende’s task of searching for a small Force-sensitive crystal in the brush, or meditating in the sunlight and the wind. She sighed, then felt Theron’s hand rest on her hip as he moved to stand behind her. He’d been skittish about showing too much affection in front of his mother, though the former Grand Master hadn’t said anything on the matter. Now, Xaja let herself lean back against his chest, drawing strength from him as the planet where she’d grown up brought a rush of memories, some bittersweet, to her mind.

Satele piloted the ship low, sweeping past the burned out, ancient ruins of the old Jedi Enclave where their ancestors, Revan and Bastila Shan, had trained, then maneuvered into a canyon a couple of kilometres away. She landed in a grassy clearing, with cliffs rising sharply on either side, and set the engines into idle mode. “Wait here,” she directed as she walked to the entrance ramp of the ship. “I’ll go ahead and verify it’s safe.”

Worry thrummed through the bond Xaja and Theron shared as they lingered in the cockpit of the ship, watching Satele walk through the grass — although Theron’s attention suddenly seemed to waver as he noticed something else. Xaja glanced to the side as the spy stepped to the side of the bridge, slowly running his fingers over a collection of old children’s toys, nostalgia and amazement spiking in the Force around him. Deciding she would ask him about the toys later, Xaja returned her attention to watching Satele as the older woman paused, then slowly raised her hands peacefully as a handful of robe-clad figures stepped out of the shadows. Tension rippled through the Force on sharp currents, mingled with suspicion and fear — Xaja recognized the feelings as ones felt before a defensive fight. She could see the flare of igniting lightsabers, and the glow flashing off metallic hilts in the hands of the rest. The Jedi were not about to blindly trust anyone, even someone who looked like the Grand Master herself.

Through the ship’s hull, Xaja couldn’t hear what was being said, although she sensed the relaxation in the Force as some of the tension eased. The ignited lightsabers were lowered, but not powered off. One of the Jedi strode out to meet Satele at close range; Xaja could sense the nudges in the Force as the other Knight probed at Satele’s Force-signature, verifying it was her. He took a step back and formally bowed, which Satele returned with a nod. Moments later, she looked back at the ship and waved, gesturing for her two passengers to come and join her.

“Think we’re gonna avoid getting skewered by paranoid Jedi?” Theron softly asked as he stepped back toward the ramp, holding his hand out for Xaja to take.

“They’re my people. I can’t see them trying to kill us, especially if your mother vouched for us.” Xaja tugged her mother’s robe tighter around her thin frame and slipped her hand into Theron’s. “And if we can hide anywhere, it should be with the Jedi survivors.”

“I kriffing hope so,” Theron muttered as they descended the ramp together, stepping through the sweet-smelling grass to reach Satele’s side. Xaja looked around at the surrounding Jedi, recognizing a few faces — she’d trained as a Padawan with the blonde in teal tunics, and had seen the Mirialan in shades of white and grey and black around the Tython Temple a few times —

A stifled shout cut through the air, and there was a flurry of activity off to Xaja’s right. She tensed, looking around Theron as he instinctively stepped between her and the noise… then promptly pushed by him when she recognized the auburn hair and tall, slim frame. “Kira!”

She only made it two steps forward before her former Padawan had caught her in a tight, rib-aching hug. Both Jedi gladly clung to each other for long minutes, as the surrounding guardians of the Enclave finally relaxed and stowed their lightsabers away, not that either of them was paying attention. “You’re alive…” Kira Carsen whispered in a voice thick with unshed tears, over and over again. “Thank the Force, you’re alive…”

The shuttle whined as it descended through Tatooine’s atmosphere, skirting the edges of a sandstorm. Koth grunted as he struggled to pilot the ship down through the dust. “I already hate this planet,” he grouchily complained.

“You, and a significant portion of the rest of the galaxy,” Lana responded as she strapped herself into the copilot’s seat. “Which makes this planet an ideal place to hide a resistance cell.”

“Wonderful,” Koth muttered. “Is the next cell we visit going to be on Hoth?”

“I was planning on taking you to Rhen Var next,” Lana retorted with a smirk. “Angle south-east and dive into that canyon. It will shelter us from the worst of the storm.”

“Lovely,” Koth sighed as he followed her directions. “So how do we get in contact with the cell and let ‘em know we’re here?”

“We don’t.” Lana turned her head to the side, her eyes out of focus as if focusing on something far distant from her. She could feel the stirrings in the Force, including those of a couple of Force-signatures she was well acquainted with, one of them one she had been concerned about ever since she had seen the last reports from the Empire. “They already know we’re here.”

Koth’s shuttle descended deeper into the canyon, finally turning and disappearing into a cave in the rocky walls. The ship finally settled down in a wide, hollowed-out portion of the cave, and was immediately surrounded by a variety of rebel forces. Lana descended down the ramp first, hands raised placatingly as blasters were trained on her. “We’re friends,” she called to the leader of the rebels, a green-skinned Twi’lek with a dark glare on his face. “A storm is brewing.”

“The storm approaches,” the Twi’lek answered, slowly lowering his blaster rifle. “Who are you?”

“Lana Beniko, and Koth Vortena.” Lana gestured for Koth to follow her down the ramp. “I am one of Darth Imperius’ advisors.”

“Sith.” The Twi’lek grunted, but gestured with his head. “C’mon. We’ll see if you get vouched for.”

The rebels fell into formation around Lana and Koth as they marched through the tunnels of the underground base, small lights set into the stone walls casting an eerie glow. It took perhaps ten minutes to reach another large, open area, this one filled with more personnel hurrying around on their own tasks. The Twi’lek looked around, waved a hand up at one of the raised platforms holding an overloaded planning table, and led his squad up the ramp. “Captain, Imperius,” he called, getting the attention of the two men reading a datapad. “Picked up someone else from the storm system. Claims she’s an advisor of yours, Imperius.”

“Zenith, I thought I gave everyone permission to use my real na— Lana!” Sorand straightened up, relief in his dark eyes. In the dark Mandalorian armour he wore, with his hair tied back and a couple days’ worth of scruff accumulating on his face, he looked a far cry from Darth Imperius, Head of the Sphere of Ancient Knowledge. “Stars, am I glad to see you alive.”

“Hey, it’s a blondie!” Korin cheerily grinned, and immediately ducked the discarded computer spike Lana Force-threw at him. Ignoring Sorand rolling his eyes and Zenith smirking, the smuggler stood back up once he deemed the coast to be clear. “Who’s your buddy?”

“I’m Koth Vortena,” Koth answered, flicking a hand in a wave. “Don’t think I’m on the Most Wanted list yet, but Zakuul’s not fond of me either. Arcann’s not fond of deserters, for some reason.”

“A Zakuulan defector?” Sorand’s eyes widened in pleased surprise as he came around the table, glancing to Lana as he moved. When she nodded, he looked back to Koth and smiled. “If Lana vouches for you, then I’m pleased to have you with us. Welcome to the resistance.”

“And an ex-Zak will be fantastic for analyzing their combat tactics and strategies,” Korin added as he came around to join his brother, shaking Koth’s hand. “Yeah, we’ll keep ya.”

“Lana mentioned you folks are the ones with the best chance of making Arcann hurt for what he’s done to the galaxy,” Koth said, a real grin forming on his dark face. “I’m happy to join up.”

Lana nodded, pleased that Koth had been accepted so readily into the resistance, then looked at the brothers as a frown creased her face. “Speaking of Zakuul’s Most Wanted and people who can strike back against the Eternal Throne, what the kriff is going on with your sister and Theron? All I’ve heard is that you and your father are both on the run, my lo— Sorand.”

“Hoo boy.” Sorand sighed and shook his head, looking much younger than he had as a Sith, but somehow more stressed. “You might want to grab a seat. This is going to take a while.”

It was late at night, local time, when Sorand drew the hood over his face and slipped into one of the more secluded caverns in the caves, Shara lurking outside to give him some privacy and prevent sneaky eavesdroppers. He reached to turn on the holoprojector, grateful for the heavy robes that obscured his identity and provided warmth against Tatooine’s cold nights. “The storm approaches,” he spoke, adjusting his tone and pitch to sound lower and differently accented than usual.

Almost immediately, the holo came to life with several other figures. Torian and Lana stood together -- Sorand knew they were making their communications from another cave, helping to hide ‘Thunder’’s current location and identity. When Vector appeared, he had Doc with him -- a pleasant surprise, reassuring Sorand that the doctor was safe on Alderaan. Corso Riggs showed up alone, as did Cole Cantarus. Nothing out of the ordinary.

He was surprised, however, to see Hylo Viz instead of Kaliyo transmitting from Nar Shaddaa. “Did something happen, Captain Viz?” he asked. “I expected Kaliyo.”

“Kaliyo’s running interference at the spaceport,” Hylo answered. “Just got a coded message from Vette. Cipher Nine landed a couple of hours ago, and they’re getting the Zaks off his tail while the old man helps him hide. They should be here soon, if they don’t run into trouble.”

“Hmmm.” Sorand nodded, relieved to hear that his father had made it to Nar Shaddaa safely, but concerned to learn about the Zakuulans investigating him. They had to have tracked him… and he had Theron and Xaja with him. “No word on Master Taerich or Agent Shan being with him?”

“Haven’t heard a thing. Figure there woulda been more commotion if either of ‘em had been on the ship.” Hylo shrugged.

“They ain’t with Cipher Nine,” Corso interjected, looking almost giddy over the holo. “They’re here. The Grand Master came blazing in maybe thirty minutes ago with both of ‘em, safe and sound.”

“They’re in the Enclave?” Sorand felt relief rush through him, echoed by the smiles on the holofigures before him. “Good! Any word of Zakuulans in your area?”

“Not yet, but I’ll be keepin’ an eye out.”

“Good. Monitor the situation and keep me apprised of any updates.” At Corso’s nod, Sorand looked to the rest of the group. “Status reports -- Torian, begin.”

“Captain Korin helped us in taking down the Star Fortress tower near the cell caves,” Torian answered. “Got rid of the Zaks and Skytroopers there; Tee-Seven and Mako are still sorting through data they pulled from the tower.”

“You’re just full of good news,” Sorand commented with a grin that the cell agents couldn’t see.

“It gets better.” Of course, Torian knew who he was talking to -- Sorand admired him for keeping a straight face. “Darth Imperius made it to our cell as the attack was windin’ down, along with Shara Verhayc. They’re both in.”

“Imperius is good people,” Doc spoke up with a nod. “Can’t imagine Master Xaja’s brother not being part of this group.”

“Nor I,” Sorand agreed. “Any sign of impending retribution, Torian?”

“The only Zak we’ve seen in the last few days is a defector that came in with Lana.” Torian nodded to the Sith beside him. “They’re joining forces with us, mostly so Lana can keep a low profile with the Imps hunting her for her connections to Imperius.” Lana nodded in confirmation.

“Good.” Sorand nodded. “Vector, Doctor Kimble?”

“The cell is still strong,” Vector answered. “Stronger, now that Supreme Commander Malcom has left the Republic. We have also come across a Zakuulan Knight who has reportedly disavowed Arcann and--”

“I’m sorry, come again?” The hood didn’t muffle his hearing that much, right? “Supreme Commander Malcom did what?

“Malcom got in a fight with the Chancellor when he could not, or would not, give up information on Theron or Master Shan. She delivered an ultimatum, and he chose to quit and leave rather than betray his biological son.” Vector paused, looking around at the stunned expressions he could see through the holo. “... And he has claimed Theron Shan as his son. Perhaps we should have mentioned that sooner.”

“I… did not see that coming.” Sorand shook his head. “Theron Shan, the son of Jace kriffing Malcom…”

“And with Satele Shan as his mother, this answers most of the questions I had about him,” Lana piped up.

Sorand smirked under the hood. “Anything else, Vector?” When the Joiner shook his head, he turned to Cole. “And what news from Corellia?”

“Not much,” Cole answered with a shrug. “The Zakuulans are still trying to crack down on all of Corellia, which is pretty much in open rebellion at the moment. Makes getting around complicated. But we do have a confirmed friend in the Green Jedi who’ll work with us, says he knows Master Xaja from back in the day.”

“Good.” Sorand nodded, then turned to address all the holofigures. He was going to have a long night of data crunching after this call wrapped up. “With Master Taerich and Agent Shan in the system, we’ll need plans in place should Dantooine become compromised…”

Chapter Text

Night fell over Coronet City, covering the wounds left from the Cold War that hadn’t healed in the three years since the Imperial bombardment. Right now, some of those old wounds served a helpful purpose — Jonas Balkar crouched in such a scar, a crater created by any one of countless bombs, holding his breath until the Skytrooper patrol passed without seeing him. The Corellians, always a thorn in the side of the Empire, had been enough of a nuisance to Zakuul that Eternal Empire forces now roamed the streets, enforcing a harsh curfew until the Star Fortress was completed. The imposing monolith would then take over surveillance and security of the planet.

Once the coast was clear, Jonas crept across the street and through the plaza littered with old industrial structures, making his way to a rusty grate built into the wall. He tapped a code against the durasteel, and a minute later, the grate opened enough for him to slip inside. The Selonian who’d let him in gestured down the corridor with her paw. “You’re almost late. The meeting is starting.

“Sorry, got stuck in traffic,” Jonas muttered as he slipped around the other rebel. “Thanks.” He hurried off down the old tunnel, stumbling more than once on old rubble and cursing under his breath.

He finally made it to the large underground chamber, somewhere below Axial Park. “Sorry I’m late,” he apologized to the rest of the resistance cell leaders as he all but flopped onto an overturned barrel. “Skytroopers are changing their patrol routes.”

“Yeah, we noticed.” Cole Cantarus frowned under the dim, flickering lights. “My CorSec forces are scrambling to figure out the new routes. Lost two guys yesterday.”

“Zakuul’s got the entire galaxy in a blasted chokehold,” grumbled a female voice. Risha Drayen brushed a lock of dark hair out of her eyes that had escaped the messy bun at the back of her head. “And there’s still no word about Master Taerich or Agent Shan.”

“Not quite true,” Cole corrected. “Got an update from the storm system. They’ve been found, and they’re on Dantooine. Master Shan brought them in today.”

“That’s a relief,” Jonas said with a sigh. “Because the last solid intel the SIS had placed them with either Darth Imperius or Cipher Nine on Dromund Kaas. Apparently Master Taerich’s related to Imperius -- who knew?”

“… To be fair,” spoke another voice, breaking the stunned silence that had followed Jonas’ report, “Xaja has never been one for sane, reasonable plans.” The Corellian Barsen’thor, Jakar Forseti, leaned forward. The lights cast the scars on his face into stark shadows and just glinted off the hilt of the saberstaff he carried under his jacket. “And she was friendly with Imperius during the Revanite crisis. If they are related, I suppose insanity must run in the family.”

“Theron’s never been fond of logical plans either,” Jonas muttered, thinking back on his friend who had always preferred climbing through windows to walking through perfectly fine doors. “He and Master Taerich are completely meant for each other.”

“How romantic,” Risha deadpanned. “Any comm chatter about where they are now?”

“None,” spoke up the last conspirator. Bey’wan Aygo crossed his arms over his chest and stroked the fur extending from his chin. “If the Republic got so much as a whisper as to where they are, you know Saresh would be going after them -- whispers they won’t be getting from us.” He glanced at Jonas, got an agreeing nod, and continued speaking. “Fortunately for them, most of the chatter has concerned the contract put out for Imperius and Cipher Nine.”

“As if we didn’t have enough with just Zakuul and the Republic involved.” Jonas sighed and looked up at the roof of the cavern. “Wonderful. Thunder hasn’t issued any new orders?”

“Stay on alert; keep pissing off the Zaks; and if Dantooine is compromised, we haul ass to get people out of there alive.” Cole shrugged. “The usual.”

“I thought Thunder was supposed to be keeping the Imps from getting involved in all this,” Bey’wan muttered. “Guess they ran out of influence when Imperius and Nine jumped in anyway. Of course, if Imperius is Master Xaja’s brother, I don’t blame him for getting involved.”

“It wouldn’t be the greatest surprise revelation I’ve heard during this entire war and rebellion,” Jakar muttered. “The Green Jedi have heard nothing regarding Xaja or Theron, or the hunt for Imperius and Nine.”

“That’s because the Green Jedi have their heads so far up their asses, it’s a miracle they can hear anything,” Risha retorted.

Jakar’s eyes narrowed dangerously, but before he could say anything, Bey’wan quickly interrupted. “Does anyone know what the status of the Republic’s manhunt for them is?”

“My contact in the SIS says Saresh is ready to tear planets apart, looking for them,” Jonas answered. “Especially after Supreme Commander Malcom resigned his post and walked out. Our reporting suggests he’s on Alderaan, possibly working with the storm system. And the rumor is that he’s Theron’s biological father.”

“… That does make things complicated,” Jakar said flatly. “Any news from the other cells?”

“Tatooine managed a decent hit against Zakuul,” Cole reported, “according to Captain Korin. He took down one of the Star Fortress towers, and is planning to infiltrate the Fortress skeleton itself to find a weakness. He might be getting Imperius to help, since he just arrived to the cell after escaping Dromund Kaas. Zakuul hasn’t retaliated yet, which is surprising.”

“Probably because Arcann’s hyper-focused on finding Master Taerich and Agent Shan,” Risha said. “One rebel strike probably isn’t more than a blip on his radar.”

“Hopefully he gets distracted by the Empire’s involvement in all of this and doesn’t find them under their current rock,” Jonas muttered. “They’re not stupid -- they have to know they can’t stay in one place. With any luck, they’ll be long gone from the Enclave by the time the Zaks think to look there.” He knew the odds weren’t high, but for his friend, and for the Jedi that Jakar claimed as one of his own friends, he desperately wanted to hold onto that hope.

“That’s a long shot at best,” Jakar said quietly. He offered a taut smile, but his eyes were shaded with worry.

After spending the better part of a standard month running across the galaxy and hiding from unfriendly eyes, even if she had been with her family or Theron the entire time, Xaja finally started to feel like the galaxy was stabilizing under her feet as she immersed herself in the hidden Jedi Enclave. Never minding that this was a rough network of chambers hidden in abandoned kinrath tunnels, with none of the trappings of the Tython Temple, or the constant sense of readiness among the rebel Jedi hidden here — simply the atmosphere of being among other members of the Order was a soothing balm to Xaja’s stressed spirit, especially after the corrupting darkness of Dromund Kaas. As she walked through the tunnels with Kira, quietly catching up with each other, she almost felt at home.

If one discounted the lack of personal possessions, or the constant patrols and monitoring of comms relays, or the paranoid suspicion of most of the other Jedi.

“You found Doc on Rishi?” Kira asked as the two Jedi paced through an old chamber, their voices and bootsteps echoing softly off the walls. “We all got split up during the war, never found out what happened to him. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m glad he’s okay.”

“Or he was last time I checked,” Xaja nodded, sidestepping to avoid a collision with a dark-haired half-Miraluka woman she vaguely remembered from Tython. “The last I’ve heard, there was still a notice out for his capture, so I’m assuming he’s still fine.” She tilted her head to study Kira — at close range now, she could see the constant tension in her former Padawan’s face, even in the caves’ dim light, and the dark bags under her eyes. “He didn’t know what happened to any of you though. What happened?”

“A lot of it’s a blur,” Kira admitted. “For the first months, it was just fighting and trying to stay alive. I went back to Tython, wound up helping some of the Padawans there go into hiding before Zakuul found the Temple. After the Republic surrendered, I started hearing rumours of a resistance network building across the entire galaxy — Empire, Republic, Hutt Space, you name it. Myself and the rest of the Jedi who still wanted to fight came out here. It kinda started out as a halfway house for injured Jedi running from the Zaks, but then we started picking up more and more able-bodied Force users, even a couple of Sith. Thunder established contact with us early on, and Master Satele’s been checking in on us.”

“I’m glad you’re okay and survived all of that.” Xaja squeezed Kira’s arm and got a smile from the younger Jedi. “Have you heard anything about the others?”

“Nothing about Scourge. He just kinda dropped off the face of the galaxy not long after the invasion. And like I said, I lost track of Doc early on. But Rusk joined the resistance too, after the siege ended.”

Xaja blinked. “He did?”

“Yeah. We get updates fairly regularly.” Kira grinned. “Your brother comes by sometimes, and your dad’s dropped in once or twice, both times for supply or intel drops. Korin let Guss and Corso stay here -- Guss so he could train with the Force again, and Corso because, well… we needed a token non-Jedi or non-Forcie person to interact with the rest of the planet for us.”

Reanden hadn’t mentioned travelling to the other resistance cells or seeing Kira, although Xaja supposed that her father had had a few too many things on his mind to tell her about this. “When was Korin last here?”

“About two months ago, give or take?” Kira’s shoulders raised in a shrug. “He’s also resistance, running between all the cells and assorted drop points.” She paused. “He won’t admit it, but I strongly suspect he stole Tee-Seven off of Coruscant.”

“That asshole,” Xaja muttered. “He better not be corrupting my droid.” Kira snickered in agreement, and for a few minutes there was only the sounds of their footsteps.

Kira finally spoke again, her voice soft and subdued. “We watched that ship disintegrate. Korin did, too, while he was guarding us and following us back to Coruscant. How the hells did you survive it?”

“I don’t know.” Xaja shook her head, frowning. “I was unconscious when the Zaks somehow captured Marr and myself. I woke up en route to Zakuul.” She felt a tired smile tug at her lips. “Long story short, Marr and I got hauled up in front of Vitiate wearing a new meatsuit—”

“What?!” Kira’s face drained pale, even in the dim light. “But how the—? He— Revan— Ziost—!”

“I don’t know either. But Marr and I… we could tell it was him. Nobody else in the galaxy feels that evil.” Xaja scowled. “He killed Marr when he refused to kneel, then after I mouthed off at him and called him a microscopically-endowed gizka-blowing coward—” Kira laughed at that. “— then he told Arcann to kill me. Arcann freed me instead and attacked his father, and when I had the chance… I took it.”

“Good,” Kira growled. “That bastard can die a thousand times over for what he did to us, and the rest of the galaxy. Still doesn’t explain how you were dead for over two years though.”

“Oh, that? The Force-damned son of a bitch told the guards that I was an assassin sent to kill his father and had me thrown in carbonite,” Xaja answered, with a flippancy she didn’t feel. She felt sick to her stomach again, remembering the terror of the minutes between being thrown back by the wave of the Force tearing out of Vitiate’s latest body and being dragged into the carbonite chamber, screaming and fighting every step of the way, to no avail…

The bond warmed as Theron nudged her, sensing her fear. Xaja made herself take a breath to calm herself before pushing a small burst of reassurance at him. Okay. Memories. She immediately felt his worry and a cold anger under the surface, and nudged at him again. Okay now. You saved me. The worry shifted into relief and love as Theron finally relaxed, satisfied that she was all right for the moment.

“And Agent Superhero saved the day by somehow finding you in the Spire.” Kira shook her head. “Would love to know how he knew where you were. Everyone was convinced you were dead.” Xaja felt a burst of sadness from her Padawan in the Force. “Korin and I… after we got back to Coruscant, we went and told him what had happened, figured he deserved to know directly instead of through reports. He…” Kira sighed. “Theron didn’t take it well. You know that face people make when they want to scream or cry, but they just can’t, and everything just kinda shuts down? He just… crumpled.”

Oh, that hurt, she thought, to know how badly Theron had taken her loss. For a second, an image flashed in Xaja’s mind of Theron falling to his knees in his small Coruscant apartment, the spy facade on his face shattering to show anguish as he crumpled in on himself, unable to cope with the pain. Xaja closed her eyes against the burning sensation she could feel, and reached back along their bond with the strongest wave of love and comfort that she could muster. She could feel Theron losing his breath at the overwhelming sensation before he pushed back at her with a burst of love for her. That nearly did make the tears come — she had to blink away the moisture in her eyes.

“Huh, that was weird.” Kira had her head tilted at Xaja, quirking an eyebrow at her former mentor as she nudged at the Force around them. “I knew you two were a thing before… y’know… but did you have a bond like that before?”

“No, this is a recent development.” Xaja looked around the corridor, making sure they were alone, before lowering her voice. “I accidentally formed a bond with him on Rishi, right before we found out I was dying of complications from the carbonite poisoning.” She gestured for Kira to remain quiet when the taller woman’s eyes flashed wide in horror, then continued. “My other brother managed to get me medical treatment on Dromund Kaas, but it affected my Force connection. My dad took us to Voss, and the healers did a ritual on us that strengthened the  bond, making it deeper and permanent.”

“For what, emotional connection?” Kira frowned in confusion.

“No, but it’s a side bonus.” Xaja raked her hands through her hair. “What I tell you does not leave this corridor.” At Kira’s nod, she continued. “The bond’s main purpose was twofold: Half of it was restoring my Force connection, and half of it…” She sighed, feeling sick again despite Theron’s reassuring presence in her mind. His wasn’t the only presence she could feel. “… I picked up a mind parasite on Zakuul… one you’re familiar with. The bond keeps him suppressed so he can’t possess me.”

She watched as Kira’s expressions and Force-signature shifted from confused to horrified to furious to steely determination, all within the space of a few seconds. “Good. Let me know if you need any more help with dealing with that brain fucker.” The younger Jedi reached up and squeezed the other’s arms. “You didn’t abandon me when you knew what was in my head, Master. I’m not ditching you now. We’ll deal with this bastard, one way or another.”

The Killik tunnels that connected Organa Castle to the hidden resistance base in the Juran Mountains still made Jace shudder every time he walked through them. No matter that he had been assured by their diplomat Joiner, a former Imperial named Vector Hyllus, that the Killiks were allies and meant no harm, it was still unnerving to walk through the insectoid lairs, stepping around the large, violet eggs, trying to not breathe in the scents. And that was before taking into account the unnatural black eyes and clicking noises of the human Joiners who had become part of the nest. Jace wasn’t too proud to say he was having disturbing dreams about the Joiners.

But the important thing was that if they creeped him out, they terrified the Zakuulans. There were four Zakuulan Joiners, wandering around in the rags of what used to be their uniforms. The rest of the Eternal Empire’s forces seemed to have given up, for fear of being brainwashed themselves.

Jace walked into a substantial cavern, deep under the mountains. Once, this had been an extension of the Killik hive — now it was part of the resistance network that spread through a significant chunk of the planet, extending as far as Rist territory. The warring houses of Alderaan could unify against a common enemy, it seemed. They weren’t the only ones — numerous clusters of mingled Imperials and Republic personnel filled the cave. Jace blinked when he saw a Hutt on one platform, emphatically gesturing to a monitor in front of him as he tried to explain something to a Republic scientist with a longsuffering expression on his face, then shook his head and kept walking. Apparently the Hutts had their own grudges against Zakuul.

He made his way to another platform, feeling the conversation fade to a hush at his presence. “You wanted to speak to me?” he rumbled, looking at the resistance personnel before him.

“We did.” Vector offered Jace a shallow bow, then turned back to the computer behind him. “We have received intelligence from the storm system, Commander. Agent Shan and Master Taerich have been located.”

Jace’s heart jumped into his throat. “Where?”

“Dantooine.” Doctor Kimble turned to Jace, looking visibly relieved for the first time since he had arrived on Darth Imperius’ ship, having fled Dromund Kaas in a hurry. “The Grand Master found them and brought them to the resistance cell there.”

Satele found them? Jace felt a knot in his back loosen with that good news. “That’s good to hear.” He suddenly paused. “Weren’t they with Cipher Nine before? Is he in the cell too?”

“No.” The only woman on the platform, a Corellian Jedi named Mairen Bel Iblis, barely glanced up from the computer she was working on. “I received a notification from my station chief on Nar Shaddaa. He’s picked up Cipher Nine, who says he doesn’t know where Master Shan took Master Taerich and Agent Shan.” Judging from how the redhaired Jedi-turned-spy pursed her lips, Jace guessed she didn’t fully buy Cipher Nine’s story — not that he could blame her. Imperial spies were devious and talented liars, and Cipher Nine, being one of the oldest agents in the field, was something of a legend for how damned good he was at his job. It was a pity that he couldn’t be persuaded to defect. “Apparently he left them on Voss and went to cause a distraction.”

“Voss?” Jace crossed his arms over his broad chest in thought. “Why would they go to Voss?”

He was answered with a chorus of silent shrugs. “It’s difficult to say,” Doctor Lokin said, stroking his beard. Looking much like a kind grandfather, he should have felt trustworthy — but Jace couldn’t forget that he was retired Imperial Intelligence, and one of Cipher Nine’s comrades. Assets who lived to be that old were dangerous. “Master Taerich was ill from the side effects of carbonite poisoning, one of which was all but losing her access to the Force. She may have gone to Voss for healing when our medical treatment didn’t restore her connection.”

“Or they may have wished to stay out of sight of the rest of the galaxy,” Vector suggested. “Voss is neutral territory still, and expansive enough that they could have tried to hide.”

“Two humans on Voss would stick out like Hutts in the Senate,” Doctor Kimble muttered. “I’m with Lokin on this one. Xa— Master Taerich probably went for healing. But what was Master Shan doing there?”

Jace shrugged. He’d known Satele the longest, and he couldn’t identify what would have led her to the alien planet. The Zakuulan Knight, Senya Tirall, had said Satele planned on going there, but she hadn’t known why. “Takes a Jedi to understand a Jedi,” he grunted, offering a rueful smile in apology when Mairen cut her eyes at him. “Senya Tirall knew Master Shan’s destination, but not the reason. Perhaps Master Shan was in contact with Cipher Nine?” That thought made him feel sick… but Cipher Nine wouldn’t have been the first Imperial Satele had worked with. Jace wasn’t sure if that made it better or worse.

Lokin and Vector looked at each other before shrugging. “It’s possible,” Lokin finally said. “Agent Taerich never shared all of his contacts with us, and always likes to have a card or three up his sleeve. I believe he’s worked with Jedi before as well — why, I didn’t see fit to ask. In this instance though, he probably would have put feelers out for a Jedi where his daughter was concerned.”

“Hmmm.” The idea of the infamous Cipher Nine as a caring father to a Jedi, worried about her continued safety, seemed incongruous to his reputation as a ruthless Imperial saboteur and assassin. Grimacing, Jace dismissed the possibility from his thoughts for the time being. “Perhaps Master Taerich or Master Shan can give us answers directly.” He turned to march off the platform with a purposeful stride. “Send word for my ship to be prepped. I’m heading to Dantooine to get some answers.” It wasn’t enough to hear through the storm system that Theron was alive and safe for the moment — he needed to see his son, dammit, and probably tear him a new one for scaring him with that blasted suicide note.

So consumed by concern for his own son, he didn’t notice Master Bel Iblis’ brow creasing in a frown as she watched him walk away. She sighed, then grimaced before turning back to her console and the data that awaited her.

It wasn’t a difficult task to find information on Xaja Taerich; Lord Kallig, also known as Darth Imperius; or Reanden Taerich, the mysterious agent previously known only as Cipher Nine after the Cold War. All three members of the family seemed to have made large ripples wherever they went, with Master Taerich having made the largest metaphorical splash. Kovach was impressed — he had seen the Jedi in action and knew she was damned good at her job, but hadn’t realized that she had been a certifiable badass since she was only a Jedi Padawan, taking down a powerful Dark Jedi on Tython, who had defeated even her Master. 

Of course, trying to nail down the story of their origins was difficult. 

So far, he had found Reanden Taerich’s academy records from his early recruitment into the Imperial Military, noting he had almost immediately been snatched up by Imperial Intelligence. Top marks, top aptitude scores, a reputation for ruthlessness and clever improvisation in the field, and a small flag for his apparent hatred of Force-users. Kovach supposed he couldn’t blame the older agent — he would hate Force-users too if he’d had the Wrath for a brother. But his records had been wiped clean shortly thereafter, with only the odd mention of a classified mission for a few years before it appeared he dropped off the map entirely for five years. He resurfaced on Hutta only a few years ago, under orders from Keeper to ensure Nem’ro allied with the Empire. There was no mention of a wife or lover, nor of any children, in the Imperial archives. 

If Imperius is his son, then he should have been flagged as Force-sensitive at birth and registered with the Korriban Academy, Kovach mused. Taerich must have gone back and erased the data to keep his children hidden. On a whim, he still ran a search for Sorand Taerich, and got nothing. Xaja Taerich’s only results were of an Imperial prisoner record, and a hit notice for her head after she assassinated the Emperor. 

He frowned as he accessed Korriban’s records, looking for the recruit who would become Darth Imperius. But of course, the boy had been brought to the Academy as a fifteen-year-old slave, and had said almost nothing about his origins. Even the name he had used (when not being addressed as ‘slave’ by Harkun) had only been “Rand.” The Sith Lord who had plucked the human out of the slave pens hadn’t known where he had come from — she had just informed the traders holding him that he would be going with her, and killed the first one to object. 

But the Sith said that the boy claimed the slavers had killed his father in front of him. It was why he had embraced the Dark Side to kill in revenge. Kovach frowned — was Cipher Nine actually Imperius’ father? Or had the teenager been mistaken?

He shook his head and opened up another screen, slicing into Republic archives. No mention of Reanden Taerich or Sorand Taerich here either, but Xaja Taerich had plenty of results. He sighed as he scrolled through HoloNet report after report about the legendary Jedi Knight who had killed Darth Angral, convinced Lord Scourge to defect; led the Jedi forces on Corellia; assassinated the Emperor; killed Grand Moff Kilran; fought and won against Revan himself… had personally put Kovach in an armlock and driven her knee into his back until he had confessed to Theron Shan who he was truly working for. He’d never forgiven her for that. His back still ached where she had knelt on him, driving all one hundred pounds of her body weight into his kidneys and growling angry threats into his ear. 

He shook his head and skimmed past the public reports of the Jedi’s heroism. No birth certificate — perhaps she hadn’t been born as a Republic citizen. Her identicard had no homeworld listed, nor parents or living kin. He frowned, then sliced into the Jedi Archives, grateful that Saresh had made the Order keep their records open to the Republic. Here, he found the legal document of custody transferal, signed by her mother when she was handed over to the Jedi Order. Why didn’t her father sign the form as well? Did he not know about his daughter being handed over? But at least now there was a name for the mother — Airna Taerich, with no evidence of a maiden name, and a classified name for her husband.

An idea suddenly struck Kovach’s mind, and he grinned as he accessed the SIS’s archives again with his own credentials. Theron Shan’s files had been made accessible when he was identified as a person of interest in Master Taerich’s escape from Zakuul. He wasn’t too interested in looking for the rogue agent’s own backstory — he wanted what Theron had compiled on Taerich before recruiting her for the Korriban attack. Despite his half-baked execution plans, Theron had always been meticulous in his research for big operations like that. 

He was briefly surprised to note that Captain Korin, the privateer who had joined the op as well, had no files under Theron’s stack of research. Perhaps Theron had wiped that data? But he left Master Taerich’s up — she was legally dead, after all, and there was no reason to hide her identity. He shrugged and turned his attention to the Jedi’s file, silently thanking Theron for doing his work for him.

Training records… service records… Oh, a Sacking survivor. Kovach almost felt pity for the Jedi at that. Trained by Yvaine Allende and Orgus Din, both deceased… Oh, that’s interesting. The Green Jedi of Corellia claimed that she was the child of one of their own and therefore Corellian, despite a reported birth world of Lavisar. Airna Taerich, were you a Corellian Jedi? Then why was your child given to Coruscant?

He accessed Corellian citizenship records and grinned. Jackpot. Airna Drallig had been a Corellian Jedi, and had been about the right age to be Xaja Taerich and Sorand Taerich’s mother. But she had reportedly left Corellia less than a year before her daughter’s birth, seduced by an Imperial spy, and had died in Imperial space a decade ago. At least now we have the mother identified — and she’s no longer a concern. He leaned back in his seat, rubbing his hand over his chin. Well, my little red haired Jedi, how were you and Imperius connected before Ziost?

He cross-referenced the data on Taerich and Imperius, and nodded when he saw they had wound up working together on Manaan, and then on Rakata Prime, and again on Rishi and Yavin IV. He raised an eyebrow when he saw they had been a part of the respective attacks on Korriban and Tython, and in the reclamation battles. And Cipher Nine was working with them… did you know they were your children, Agent?

Captain Korin had been a part of that entire gong show as well. As far as Kovach was concerned, the snarky, flirtatious smuggler was a person of interest. He ran a search through the SIS databases again, and raised an eyebrow. None of Theron’s research was there… but Korin’s name came up frequently in other records. He had earned both the respect and the hatred of several crime groups, it seemed, including the infamous Rogun the Butcher. On a whim, Kovach accessed the compiled data from Rogun’s slicers and felt his jaw drop. Rogun had managed to access the most information on Korin while hunting the spacer down… including a homeworld of Lavisar, a mention of a deceased mother and missing brother, and two listed surnames. The spacer frequently used Korin Drallig to get around, but there was a mention within the archives of Korin Taerich. 

You can’t be… it’s too much of a coincidence. Kovach looked back into Lavisarian records, accessing files from before the small planet had been overtaken by the Empire. No official marriage certificates, but there was a census record of one Reanden Taerich and Airna Taerich, and three birth certificates — one for a daughter who was reported deceased months later in a speeder accident, and two for sons, reported missing after their mother’s death at the hands of raiders. Xaja Taerich, Korin Taerich, Sorand Taerich. This entire family is ridiculous.

Kovach immediately compiled the necessary data and made two copies of the files. One was sent to Darth Vowrawn, as per the Sith Lord’s directions — the other was encrypted and sent to Saresh. She would want to know this information.

The Eternal Fleet ship lurked just outside of Dantooine’s immediate orbit. Yes, this was where Satele Shan’s ship had gone — they had arrived just in time to see the Defender fly into the atmosphere. “Why would the former Grand Master of the Jedi Order go to a planet that her Order abandoned earlier in the war?” The Knight-Captain paced through the bridge, frowning in thought.

“After leaving the same planet where Cipher Nine is reputed to have taken the assassin and the terrorist.” The blue holo figure of one of the Overwatch overseers crossed his arms. “Interesting that a Jedi Master and an Imperial spy should be in league.”

“What updates are there from the other ship?”

“The Phantom was tracked to Nar Shaddaa, but I suspect your other ship lost it and became confused with another vessel. The ship that our people on the surface apprehended was the Duchess, a private civilian ship owned by a gambler, and not the Shadow. The ship was still searched, but it had come in from Corellia, and there were no signs of any passengers — merely the captain, her first mate, and a droid they seem to have modelled after our own, SCORPIO.” The overseer started pacing over the holotransmitter. “And when our agents investigated the Shrine of Healing on Voss, they found evidence that Shan and Taerich had been there, but had departed swiftly.”

“Could Cipher Nine have changed his ship’s identity?” The Knight-Captain frowned as she mulled over the options.

“Unlikely. Such a task would be nearly impossible, especially that quickly. And he was nowhere to be seen on the ship, even after performing a bioscan.” The overseer stopped pacing for a moment. “We will continue to look for the Shadow and Cipher Nine, but that is not your concern. If Master Shan is returning to a planet that the Jedi have historically had a claim to, perhaps the Order did not abandon their enclaves as initially reported.”

“You think the Order still has a presence on Dantooine?”

“I would place money on it. And if Master Shan is fleeing there, perhaps she is attempting to hide the assassin there, at least. Taerich was also a member of the Order and would try to hide among her own people.”

The Knight-Captain nodded, thoughts of glory for being the one to capture one of the terrible Outlanders flitting through her mind. “What are your orders?”

“Search the planet until you find whatever hole the Jedi are hiding in, look for Taerich and Shan, and then burn it to the ground. Take Master Shan alive — we will have answers from her.” 

Chapter Text

The sound of an incoming freighter made Sorand squint up into Tatooine’s clear blue skies, shading his eyes against the fierce burn of the twin suns. At present distance, with the freighter backlit against the horizon, he couldn’t make out any identifying features. It was only as it approached that he could make out faded green paint, accented in dark red. He frowned — that ship was familiar, as were the markings. He’d spent enough time among Shara’s clan to recognize the Mandalorian symbols adorning the hull.

With a low grunt, the young Sith turned and re-entered the caves. He blinked several times as his vision readjusted to the dim interior. Over his comms, he could already hear the crackle of the cell’s agents communicating with the pilot of the incoming freighter. Brushing his hands over his lightsaber hilt and his blaster pistol as if to make sure he still had them, Sorand decided it was time to greet the newcomer.

He arrived at the designated landing zone just as the freighter touched down softly, sign of a deft hand at the controls. While waiting for the ramp to lower, he looked over at his brother, who leaned back against the wall. The sandy-haired smuggler twirled a spare hydrospanner in his hand. “You call him?” Sorand asked.

“Nah. Maybe Lana did.” Korin frowned in thought. “I don’t think I’ve pissed him off recently… I hope…”

“Considering the last I heard of him, he was in Imperial Space,” Sorand muttered as the ramp finally lowered and a figure clad in red beskar’gam descended to the cave floor, “I don’t think he’s here for a chat with you.”

“… Great.” Korin sighed and straightened up as the Mandalorian approached. “I hope you’re right, otherwise I got some explaining to do about a pazaak match and a not-insubstantial amount of credits.”

“Why do I claim to be related to you again?” the Sith groused before turning back to the Mandalorian. “Su’cuy gar! Been a while, hasn’t it?”

“A few months, yeah.” The Mandalorian -- known to the Taerichs as Corey Black -- removed his helmet, revealing  a face peppered by scars, each of varying length, depth, and age. His solemn, angular features broke into a grin behind a thick, auburn beard. “Too busy planning a rebellion to socialize, Sor’ika? I’m wounded.”

“Sorry.” Sorand shrugged. “Revolts don’t plan themselves, and the other option was leaving that twit in charge.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating a very indignant Korin.

At this, Black smirked. “The entire thing would implode on itself in a week. Or turn into a professional crime ring, hard to say.”

“I hate you both,” Korin muttered.

Sorand grinned at his brother, then looked back at Corey. “So, what brings you out this way?”

“Oh, not much. Just Acina wants me to haul your sorry shebs back to Dromund Kaas. Seems she wants a new throw rug to decorate her apartments.” Corey lazily shrugged. “Something about embezzlement, something something sheltering a Jedi and a Republic spy, something…”

“A throw rug?” The Sith frowned. “I’m a little insulted. I would have thought I at least deserve to be a tapestry.”

An impish grin played across Corey’s features. “I would have suggested a flag,” he teased. “Then they can use your hair to secure you to the pole.” He swatted at the nerftail with an armoured hand.

Sorand actually growled at that, a hand flying up to protectively guard his long hair. “She can touch my hair over my cold, dead body.”

“I think that’s her plan, actually.”


There was a long moment as Sith and bounty hunter regarded each other before Corey finally clapped Sorand’s shoulder. “Room in your rebellion for one more?”

“If we didn’t, we’d make room for you.” Sorand grinned and stepped back. “C’mon; if Lana finds out you arrived and I didn’t tell her immediately, Acina won’t get the chance to turn me into a throw rug.”

“Lana’s here?” Something in Corey’s posture seemed to relax. “That’s good. Was worried about her when she went off the radar and Acina put a hit out for her.” He fell into step behind Sorand as both men approached the entrance into the rest of the base. As they passed Korin, he took advantage of the opportunity to slug the spacer in the face.

“Ow!” Korin dropped like a sack of bricks, holding the left side of his face and glaring up at the Mandalorian. “What the kriff did I do this time?!”

“I dunno. I just assume you’ve either done something I don’t know about, or I’m getting a hit in early before you pull some other stupid osik. Again.” Corey grinned as he kept walking; behind him, Sorand rolled his eyes and went to haul his brother back to his feet.

“I have to ask, vod’ika,” the Mandalorian said as the trio continued into the base, “the rumour about your Jedi sister -- was it true? What in haran happened?”

The Sith scrubbed a hand over his face with a sigh. “I swear, I should just write the entire damn story and put it up on the HoloNet so people get caught up. Remember that Jedi I was working with during the Ziost crisis…?”

The Red Light sector of Nar Shaddaa had a rough reputation, even by the standards of the city-moon. Such a reputation seemed to keep most Zakuulans at a safe distance from the deeper, darker areas of the sector. Despite this, rumours circulated wildly that the Eternal Throne was planning a purge of it, Quesh, and the several other more crime-ridden areas of the galaxy, such as the Black Sun and Justicar Sectors on Coruscant. Good luck to them, Reanden thought with a derisive snort. The Hutts would fight with the proverbial tooth and nail to protect their own interests.

Still, he cast a glance toward the sky as he and Kothe made their way down a narrow alleyway, both spies trying to not breathe too deeply. “Mind your step,” Kothe warned as he picked his way through the rubble. “They haven’t fully cleaned up down here from the sewage backup a few weeks ago.”

“Delightful,” Reanden sarcastically muttered. “The Hutts gave up on this sector entirely?”

“Not quite. That backup was deliberate.” Kothe glanced back at Reanden as he kept walking. “Did its job in keeping the Zaks from poking their noses in too deep.”

The former Imperial spy grimaced. “Which dumbass came up with that idea?”

“Korin.” The former Jedi looked back again, a grin pulling at his face. “The kid’s insane, Legate. Definitely yours.”

Reanden sighed as he followed Kothe down the alley. “Great. I’m so proud of him,” he deadpanned.

The two spies made their way down to a rusty door, flanked by flickering holo signs advertising stims of questionable repute. Kothe tapped a sharp code against the door, waited a few seconds, then tapped a second code. Moments later, the door cracked open. “Did you bring drinks? I’m surprisingly not picky after this week.”

“Sorry, Gault. Didn’t exactly have time to stop by the cantina after picking up this moron.” Ignoring Reanden’s glare, Kothe waved his hand, using the Force to open the door enough for entry. “Kaliyo and Vette are probably going to be late.”

“So, who’d you piss off, old timer?” The Devaronian currently going by the name of Gault Rennow grinned as he stepped back, allowing the two spies into the hideout.

“A bunch of envious Zakuulans who know a good ship when they see one.” Reanden shot Gault a warning look. “You’re still not allowed to touch my baby, Tyresius.

The name is Gault. And you’re no fun,” Gault complained as he closed the door. “Hylo’s been waitin’ for you two. Seems she’s had an update from the storm system about that Jedi and Spy-Boy Junior.”

“You’ve saved your remaining horn from being busted off,” Reanden muttered as he hurried down the corridor, Kothe a step behind him. In truth, while Gault could get under his skin masterfully, the possibility of an update on his daughter made him anxious for the news. He’d been in contact with the Nar Shaddaa resistance cell enough to know his way through the hideout. Still, he frowned as he walked through the condemned apartment. “I thought Zenith was still here.”

“He was -- until he decided to leave off with Korin for Tatooine. After what happened to the Balmorra cell, Zenith’s understandably paranoid — keeps moving almost as much as the Shan kid does. Or your daughter.” Kothe paused to raise an eyebrow at Reanden. “You sure Xaja Taerich’s your kid? Times I’ve encountered her, she’s been too nice and friendly to be related to you.”

Reanden just made a rude gesture at Kothe as the two spies entered the centre of the hideout and earned a grin for his trouble. Their footsteps drew the attention of the middle-aged Mirialan woman bending over a computer terminal. She straightened with an audible sigh of relief. “I was beginning to wonder if you two old bastards would ever show up. You get lost, Kothe?”

“That happened once,” Kothe growled as Reanden smirked. “What do you have for us?”

“Just got off a call with the cell contacts and Thunder,” Hylo answered as she flopped down. The worn chair creaked under what was a minimal strain. “You might wanna take a seat, this could take a while.”

“Then give us the short version,” Reanden said as he mirrored her action. “What the Hells is going on? I’ve been out of contact for the last day and a half, and Kothe doesn’t have all the information I want.”

“Even the short version’s gonna take a while, Agent.” Hylo ran a hand through her hair as she leaned back, balancing precariously on the back two legs of the chair. “Zaks are gettin’ more snoopy than usual, as you just found out. Imperius —”

The rumble of a furious Wookiee made Reanden twist in his chair, eyebrows rising to his hairline. “Oh yeah,” Hylo said as heavy footsteps approached the room, “we got a new pair in. They said they know you and Master Taerich; figured you’d wanna verify ‘em anyway.”

“That would be—” Reanden blinked as the Wookiee lumbered into the meeting room. The first impression of the shadowy silhouette gave the illusion that he had two extra, remarkably hairless arms. When the Wookiee stepped into clearer vision, however, Reanden could recognize the half-assembled droid attached to the furry chest. “Dee-Four,” the old agent said, surprise colouring his voice. “You’re looking remarkably more intact.”

“This barbarian has been making me earn my limbs back!” the droid furiously exclaimed. “And then taking them away again! I was almost complete a couple of months ago!”

“You karked up translating on purpose!” the Wookiee retorted. “And got us shot at!”

“I I had my legs, I would assuredly kick you,” C2-D4 complained. “Queen Lina of Onderon would never have taunted me like this!”

“Of course not,” Reanden smoothly interjected, inwardly wondering if the illustrious Queen Lina wouldn’t have disassembled the droid on her own. She had a reputation for being direct and impatient, herself. “Jakarro, I didn’t know you two were involved with the resistance.”

“Where else would we be? We haven’t had a good adventure since the Revanites!” Jakarro took a seat on a table that creaked precariously under his and Dee-Four’s combined weights. “Besides, the Zakuulans interfere too much with our shipping enterprises.”

“And the Skytroopers,” Dee-Four added. “Ugh. So unnatural, and with less personality than a loader droid. The galaxy will be better off without them. Is it true they killed Master Xaja?”

“No, but they came damn close,” Reanden muttered. He turned and nodded at Hylo. “Yes, I know them.”

“Is there anyone in the galaxy you don’t know?” Kothe asked with a raised eyebrow.

Reanden had to think about that. “There’s probably some little street urchin or two in this system I haven’t met yet…”

“Spies are social flutterplumes. Got it.” Hylo looked down at her datapad. “Hookay. Imperius is on Tatooine, joined forces with Cap’n Korin after he took down the Star Fortress bunker tower there.”

Kothe’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s no small feat.” He glanced over at Reanden. “I have to admit, your boys are impressive.”

“Damn straight they are,” Reanden beamed a bit before looking at Hylo. He leaned against the table. “Any word on Master Taerich or Agent Shan?”

“Reports indicate they’re safe and sound for now, having landed on Dantooine with Master Shan,” Hylo answered. A knot of tension in Reanden’s chest loosened as the smuggler continued talking. “That cell’s on high alert, though, and from the sounds of it they aren’t going to be staying around long. Right now they’re—”

“With the Jedi?” Kaliyo strolled into the room, Vette and Gault right behind her. “I’d almost rather still be on the run.” She nodded at Reanden. “Your baby’s fine. SCORPIO has her sealed up like a vault. I’d be careful though — the Zaks are still crawling around the spaceport looking for you.”

“I’ve never sympathized more with paparazzi-hounded celebrities in my life,” the former Imperial muttered. “Good seeing you two alive and intact after all that.”

“You too, old timer.” Vette hopped up on another table and gave Jakarro an affectionate nudge with her shoulder. “What are we missing?”

Hylo scowled up at the ceiling. “Okay, one more time, from the top without anyone else interrupting: Master Taerich and Agent Shan are on Dantooine. Darth Imperius is on the run from the Empire, and last update puts him on Tatooine. Captain Korin attacked and took down the Star Fortress tower there, but the Zaks haven’t retaliated yet. Doc Kimble’s safe on Alderaan, and so’s Supreme Commander Malcom after he quit his job —”

Kothe’s jaw dropped. “Malcom did what?”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much what Thunder said. Apparently he’s Agent Shan’s biological dad, or so he’s claiming.” Hylo shrugged. “Seems the sly old fox found a stray Zak Knight who made friends with Master Shan. She’s cooperating with the cell there, while Lord Beniko arrived on Tatooine with another Zak defector and his buddies. Uhhhh, think that’s about it?”

That’s it, she says,” Reanden muttered as he shook his head. He would have to try reaching out to SIS headquarters through back channels and see what Marcus Trant knew about these developments. “Trivial, really.”

“So the other cells are actively doing things,” Jakarro growled. “Why are we sitting around?”

“Because you pissed off half the Zakuulan garrison in the Star Fortress,” Hylo snapped at the Wookiee, “and the old man over here pissed off the other half! Thunder’s orders are recon only for the Star Fortress bunker here, and that’s provided we can find the stupid thing.”

“A bunker like that has to have its own independent power supply off the Nar Shaddaa grid,” Reanden mused. “Do we have a ballpark area of where it might be?”

“As far as my agents can determine, it’s somewhere in this sector,” Kothe spoke up. “Let’s see if we can figure out a way to knock it out of commission without the Zaks getting up our asses or killing people. If Zakuul is distracted by Tatooine, we might have a shot at this.”


It was some time later when Xaja and Kira returned to the main parts of the Enclave. A pretty human Jedi with a long braid of auburn hair directed them to a chamber where Master Satele was waiting, along with Theron and a handful of other people milling about. Xaja spared a glance and a smile to the Nautolan male who bowed in her direction, frustrated that she could not remember his name. He was Master Orgus’ Padawan before me, she thought. Why the Hells can’t I remember his name? Next to him was a tall Zabrak in armour that was once bronze, the surface marred with deep scrapes and gauges. She acknowledged him with a nod before her eyes settled on the tall, muscular human male beside Theron, capped with dreadlocks. He wore a long duster that stopped just below the top of his boots, a blaster rifle strapped to his back. A grin settled over her features with recognition. “Good to see you, Corso.”

“Nice seein’ you too, Master T.” Corso Riggs, first mate and friend to the scandalous Captain Korin Taerich, still managed to blush when Xaja talked to him. “It’s good havin’ you back around. Ain’t that right, Guss?”

“You betcha!” The Mon Calamari a couple of paces off waved. “Galaxy’s been a darker an’ colder place without you around, Master Xaja.”

Can’t have been darker and colder than carbonite, Xaja thought to herself, and shuddered at the memory of being thrown into the chamber before slipping her hand into Theron’s. She took comfort in his warmth, and the way he gently nuzzled her hair and squeezed her fingers.  Leaning into his shoulder and looking around, she blinked at a familiar pair of montrals visible over everyone else’s heads. “Ashara?” she softly asked.

“Oh, yeah.” Kira nodded. “Apparently after the siege over Dromund Kaas lifted, a few Imps decided the ‘impurity’ of the Empire was to blame for their loss, so they started going after everyone who wasn’t human or Sith. Your brother sent Ashara here after folks tried to kill her twice — and I’m not sure how his other apprentice didn’t get murdered.”

“Because Xalek is straight-up terrifying,” Theron muttered, and Xaja smirked as she nodded in agreement. 

Kira grinned. “Yeah, point. Ashara’s a good kid though, even with that Sith influence. Your brother pretty much let her keep her Jedi traditions intact.” Her expression grew slightly more sombre and she inclined her head as Master Satele approached the trio. “Master.”

Satele nodded at Kira and offered a small smile before her attention shifted back to Theron and Xaja. “Come. We need to discuss your options moving forward.”

“You think we’re not safe here?” Xaja asked, frowning worriedly.

“I fear you’re not safe anywhere,” Satele murmured as she lead them to an alcove in the cave wall. Kira accompanied them, never more than a couple of feet from Xaja’s side; Corso and Ashara made their way over moments later. 

Once everyone was settled down, Satele spoke again, bypassing formalities and pleasantries entirely. “What are the latest updates from the Storm network?”

“Got a report that the cell on Tatooine landed a good hit against the Zaks by attackin’ the Star Fortress tower there,” Corso spoke up. “Cap’n Korin reported in — all systems are good, although he’s a little spooked that the Zaks haven’t tried retaliatin’ yet.”

“Probably because the Zakuulans are too focused on us to look anywhere else,” Theron muttered. He slipped an arm around Xaja’s thin shoulders. “On one hand, it sucks being the galaxy’s most wanted. On the other, I guess it’s good for the resistance to get stuff done.”

Corso nodded. “Word on the street is that Imperius made contact with the Tatooine cell an’ is hiding from the Empire, along with Shara Verhayc. Acina wants his head for stealin’ a ton a’ credits from the Empire an’ pullin’ a runner. Cipher Nine’s reported to have made it to another cell too, but no data on where he is, just that he obviously ain’t here with you.”

“Does the resistance know where we are?” Xaja asked. 

“Yep. And Thunder’s the happiest we’ve ever seen ‘em about it, Master T.” The former farmboy gave a knowing smile. “We also picked up a couple of stray Zaks who apparently ain’t too fond of their Emperor, either.”

“Defector Zakuulans?” Ashara blinked. “Aren’t the Zaks supposed to be fervently loyal to the Eternal Throne?”

Corso shrugged. “Dunno. Apparently there’s an entire crew of Zak soldiers who jumped ship, an’ their captain’s runnin’ around with Lana —”

“Wait.” Theron straightened up. “Lana Beniko?”

“Unless there’s another scary-lookin’ blonde Sith lady who’d admit to bein’ friends with a Jedi, yep.” Corso looked back to Master Satele. “An’ that’s all that’s come in on the network.”

Satele nodded as she absorbed in the information. “Thank you, Corso.” She sat back, looking around the small council. “While Agent Theron and Master Xaja have friends scattered across the galaxy, both as independent agents and formally with the resistance, there’s more people seeking them for their own reasons. I assume everyone knows of the bounty on their heads?”

“Half a million credits each, just for information.” Kira shook her head. “Arcann really wants you two back, apparently.”

“Arcann needs to get used to rejection,” Xaja muttered, and was rewarded with a couple of smirks.

“There have already been some serious -- and close -- attempts to collect on those bounties,” Satele continued. “Half of Raider’s Cove on Rishi, and possibly someone on Dromund Kaas.”

“Got confirmation about the traitor in Kaas City,” Corso interjected. “Verhayc commed in privately to say one of her crew figured out Doc Kimble was there, then put two an’ two together, calling in the Zaks for the credits. Good news is that Skadge didn’t live long enough to regret that.”

“Did she kill him?” Ashara asked. The Force flickered around her with something cold and dark that hinted at an old, deeply-ingrained hatred for the named person.

“Imperius took care of it on his way out.” Corso suddenly frowned. “Which reminds me: Old Man Nine put out a warnin’ on another channel couple of days back that the Wrath might be in on the hunt too, for unnamed personal reasons. We’ll all have to keep an eye out for that nutjob.”

“Calling the Wrath a nutjob is an insult to nutjobs everywhere,” Ashara muttered, shuddering. “And sells his brand of crazy far too short.”

“Enough,” Satele interjected. “When I spoke to him, Cipher Nine seemed to think that the Wrath would be looking for him or Imperius more than he would for Theron and Xaja, which only leaves us with the problem of Arcann and every bounty hunter in the galaxy.”

“Trifling problems,” Kira dryly said.

“Trifling problems with the entire Eternal Fleet involved.” Satele steepled her fingers in front of her, frowning. “I don’t think that we were followed from Voss — Cipher Nine was attempting to keep the Zakuulan ships away from me, and their attention focused on him as we were escaping. But I’m hardly an expert in tracking ships, and the Zakuulans seem to be much more advanced in that regard.” She looked over at Theron and Xaja, a note of clear pity in her eyes. “For your safety, it’s best if you keep moving -- stay one step ahead of the Zakuulans, if you can.”

Xaja had already suspected that would be the answer, but it didn’t mean she wanted to hear it. She sighed, feeling Theron's arm around her shoulder tighten. “We know,” she quietly acknowledged. “Any good options for us to go next?”

“I wouldn’t recommend Corellia,” Kira said. “Not only is it too close to Coruscant, but Saresh has agents all through Coronet, and the Corellian rebels keep the Zaks stirred into a constant swarm. The Green Jedi might protect you if you can get to the Enclave, but they’ve already got their hands full.”

Corso nodded in agreement. “Alderaan might work for ya though. It’s still Republic, but with the Supreme Commander going way back with the Organas, the ol’ green witch hasn’t been able to manage too tight a hold there.”

Theron went alert at that. “Wait, if Malcom’s there, doesn’t that mean Saresh has people there?”

“Oh, ya didn’t hear?” Corso grinned. “Guess ya have been outta touch for a while,” he said. “Seems Malcom told Saresh to kriff a Hutt and quit. He’s been hangin’ around Organa Castle, and a bunch of his folks followed. Now there’s a whole lot of ‘em there, all loyal to him instead of Saresh. She’d probably be goin’ after him, but the Organas won’t let her people onto their territory.” His grin widened. “Been fun to watch.”

“Malcom told Saresh off and quit?” A streak of pure, almost-childish glee tore through Theron’s Force-signature before he could temper it. “That is the best news I’ve heard all day.” To his right, Satele appeared a little bit surprised by Corso’s news, although she kept her reaction limited to a widening of her eyes. 

“Him an’ all of Havoc Squad, among others.” Corso grinned. “Dunno if he’s joined the resistance yet, himself, but he’s been encouragin’ his troops to join up, from what I’m hearin’.”

“Alderaan might be a good option then,” Xaja mused as she looked up at Theron. The feeling of delighted glee had toned itself down, although she could still sense some sort of emotional turbulence within him. It was clearly connected to Commander Malcom. Malcom? she silently asked through the bond.

Theron hesitated before responding, pursing his lips, a crease between his brows. He gave a heavy sigh. Father.

Xaja blinked. Father? she echoed. The Supreme Commander was too… too rough, too burly, too grizzled of a war veteran and soldier; the idea of him as a father --

Her mind screeched to a halt. Wait, that means… Her gaze darted over to Satele, then back at Theron, working through what she knew of the biological connections. The Supreme Commander and the Grand Master …? No wonder Theron had never identified his birth father — he developed enough insecurities as the son of one legendary parent, forget two. Even if you don’t need to be a legend for me, she silently thought as she slipped her arm around Theron’s waist and lightly squeezed. A soft burst of relief swept through her, and Theron lightly leaned against her.

The conversation had gone on while Xaja had processed the information of Theron’s connection to Malcom. “I can get in contact with the cell leader on Alderaan,” Corso was saying. “He’s Imperial, but a good person; got no issues with Jedi or Republic folks. Think he used to be a diplomat, back in the day.”

“Do that,” Satele said with a nod. “If he doesn’t answer, I’ll simply take Theron and Xaja to Alderaan with me in the morning. Otherwise, we’ll coordinate with him and —”

A deafening crash overhead brought the revered Jedi to an abrupt stop. Ominous booms eched through the caverns,a phenomenon with which the Jedi were already too familiar. Anticipation mingled with fear  around her as Xaja jumped to her feet, looking up in the direction of the surface. Cries began to reverberate against the solid walls and she frowned as she spoke: “I don’t think we have until morning, Master.”

Chapter Text

Lightsabers igniting around him, Corso Riggs ducked into the back of the chamber and scrambled his comm link. Kriffin’ hoped I’d never have to use this, he silently complained as he tapped in a particular sequence. There was a slight tremor to his touch, movements hurried. Designed to alert the network of an attack and request assistance, he had only used the alert code once before -- a test run on Thunder’s orders. Balmorra’s resistance cell managed to scatter and escape the Zakuulans before they needed to sound the alarm. Dantooine was not going to be so lucky.

“Hope someone nearby’s listening,” Corso muttered with a final tap to the comm. Shoving the unit back onto his belt, he pushed to his feet and hefted his blaster rifle. As he held the stock against his shoulder, he listened for the sounds of approaching enemy forces, one eye trained down his scope. “Sounds like we’ve got our work cut out for us, Torchy.”

Across the galaxy, the alert message had its desired effect as the signal rippled through the network. Each knew the day would come when it was needed, but the reality of it seemed surreal, especially coming as it had from Dantooine. No one expected the Enclave to be the first target on the Zakuulan radar. But then, no one expected Master Taerich to be alive, much less hiding there, either.

While the news was startling to Cole Cantarus and the Corellian cell, it was on Nar Shaddaa, Alderaan, and Tatooine that the alert provoked the most response.  

Kaliyo grumbled as she dropped the new scope she was attaching to her modified blaster rifle, scowling as she reached for the offending comm link. Blast, if whoever was contacting her right now didn’t have awful timing!

Her frustration turned to something approaching concern when she read the message. “Shit,” she whispered as she set her weapons to the side and lunged to her feet, running to find the old man. Cipher Nine needed to know this. “Agent!” she yelled, taking a corner at a run and nearly running right into her target. “Dantooine’s getting attacked, Agent.”

She couldn’t remember seeing Reanden Taerich ever going that shade of white before today.

Doc frowned as an alert started coming through on Vector’s computer console. “What’s that?” he asked, leaning over the Joiner’s shoulder to see.

“What is—” Vector frowned as he opened the alert. “It’s the Storm system. It’s an emergency warning code, coming from…” The Joiner paled and started frantically typing into the console. “Oh no. Oh, no.”

“What is it?” The Jedi who’d remained behind, Master Bel Iblis, stopped behind Vector and frowned at the anxiety she could sense. A few dozen metres away, Doc could hear the clicking of disturbed Killiks picking up on Vector’s anxiety. “Ambassador, what—”

“Dantooine’s under attack,” Vector hurriedly answered as he kept typing. “We need to warn Commander Malcom. Get Doctor Lokin and Doctor Oggurobb — we require assistance reaching Havoc’s comms while they're in hyperspace!”

Watching as Bel Iblis rushed off toward the resident scientists, Doc staggered back a step, fear lurching into his throat. Xaja was in danger -- again. Kriff, I hope that cure worked enough for you to fight, Red…

On Tatooine, it was Torian who delivered the news. Sorand -- Thunder, himself -- looked up sharply when he heard the Mandalorian’s shout echoing through the underground caves. He rose to his feet as Torian rushed into the command cavern. Alarm rippled through the Force from the blond-haired man, strongly enough to make Lana hurry in a second later, Corey right behind her. “What’s wrong, burc'ya?” the Sith asked as he started walking down toward the hunter, Korin right behind him.

“Dantooine…” Torian gasped as he shoved the datapad at Sorand. If he noted the Sith’s hands shake ever so slightly, he said nothing. “The Enclave’s under attack.”

All sound ceased in the cave as the resistance members struggled to process the news. Sorand looked down at the datapad, then at a rapidly-paling Korin, then back at Torian, feeling his face drain of colour. In an instant, however, his leadership mask fell into place. “Do your best to stay in contact with Corso; get any intel you can from him.” He whirled, looking to the former head of Sith Intelligence. “Lana, can you get in contact with the other cells and coordinate with their leaders?”

“I’m already on it.” The blonde Sith pulled her datapad out and began typing. Gloved fingers moved briskly across the surface, even as she spoke. “Your sister and Theron aren’t allowed to die before I’ve had a chance to tear them both a new one for sheer idiocy.”

“There ain’t a hope in hell that anyone’s gonna reach ‘em in time, Sith,” Andronikos spoke up. He was unusually sombre as he rested a hand on Sorand’s shoulder. “I know it’s your sister, but the only thing anyone’s gonna be able to do once they get there is scare off the vultures.”

“We have to try,” Sorand whispered, his fingers clutching onto the datapad hard enough to turn his knuckles white beneath his gloves. “We’re either saving them or avenging them.”

It was a hard toss-up, Theron thought, as to what was more terrible: the sounds of an orbital bombardment pummelling the ground overhead, or the sudden eruption of blaster fire and mechanical warcries of Skytroopers as the Zakuulans swarmed into the caves. Drawing his blasters in the same motion as he got to his feet, Theron fired as the hum of igniting lightsabers filled the cavern around him. Two of the blades were immediately extinguished as the Jedi holding them fell to the Skytroopers’ blaster fire.

He glanced over to the side, just seeing Corso fall back to frantically type a code into his comm link — probably a distress call to the Storm system. “Any odds we can get out of these caves and lose them?” he called over.

“Not likely,” Guss called back, guarding Corso with a lightsaber held in shaking hands. “Not unless we can get through the active kinrath tunnels…”

“Those are almost worse than the Zaks are,” interjected a raven-haired Jedi with striking violet makeup.

A particularly loud explosion rippled through the cave -- loud enough to temporarily drown out the sounds of battle. “And I think those were our emergency shuttles,” muttered Ashara, looking in the direction of the explosion.

“Great,” Theron muttered as he shot down another Skytrooper. They must have tracked us from Voss, he mused. The old man must not have been as good a distraction as he thought. If the explosion had been the destruction of the evac shuttles, then the ship they arrived on, the Corellian corvette belonging to his mother, might be their only way off world… provided that hadn’t been found and blasted apart as well. That, however, depended on them getting out of the caves. And right now, that didn’t look likely.

He had to give them credit: the Jedi were putting up an impressive defence. Satele had rallied the Jedi around her to form a wall of spinning blades, guarding the rebels who had already fallen and were out of the fight. How well could — Theron did a quick headcount — fifty-odd assorted Force-users hold off what looked like a full platoon of Skytroopers,  human Zakuulan soldiers, and, to his dismay, the incoming flood of Zakuulan knights?

Then he saw a blur of green and blue as two human women jumped into the fray. The taller Jedi wielded a bright green saberstaff, the shorter bearing two vivid blue twin lightsabers. His heart leapt into his throat when he got a feel of Xaja’s mental state — steely, stubborn determination, and a fierce combative streak that no Jedi training could tame fully. A week ago you could barely function! he silently protested, nanoseconds before he felt the hair on his neck stand on end and dodged to the left, a blaster bolt thudding into the stone wall behind him.

But apparently two years in carbonite and a month of being dangerously ill hadn’t diminished Xaja’s combat abilities. Theron wasn’t sure if it was the effect of fighting beside Kira again for the first time in so long, or if her reconnection to the Force had brought back the muscle memory of ‘saber duelling. Whatever it was, it was like he was watching her fly into battle on Rishi again, or Manaan, or Ziost, or Yavin IV. She handled herself like a dancer, fluid and graceful, yet deadly quick with her blades and too acrobatic with the fast-paced Ataru form to be easily hit by the Zakuulans. The Jedi Battlemaster, Hero of Tython, and Bane of Technically-One-And-A-Half Emperors was back in her element, a perfectly seamless unit beside her former Padawan.

The shouts from the Zakuulans rose in volume as the hated ‘assassin’ was recognized, fire focusing on her. One of the Knights lunged at Xaja, polesaber striking from above; the Jedi nimbly avoided the blow in a maneuver that made Theron’s back ache in sympathy. She then launched into a counter-attacked against the Zakuulan, switching to what Theron was pretty sure was the Juyo form of aggression —

“The terrorist! Take him!”

Shit. Theron dodged backwards as another Knight swooped in for the attack, just barely getting out of the way of the plasma blade. He wasn’t sure if there were orders for him and Xaja to be brought in alive, and he really didn’t want to find out firsthand. He fired a series of rapid shots at the Knight, forcing the Zakuulan on the defensive as a red-haired Miraluka woman darted in to help with the fight. Finding himself back to back with Corso, he unleashed another storm of bolts into the Zakuulans as the Mantellian shot down another Skytrooper with a challenging yell. “Any luck from the system?” he shouted over the sounds of the fight.

“If the signal got out. I’m kriffin’ hopin’ so.” Corso swore, using some expletives that Theron was pretty sure he picked up from Korin. “Be a good time for some gorram grenades right about now!”

“You’re not wrong.” Theron ducked another Skytrooper shot. For an instant, he allowed himself to wonder if his bond with Xaja was letting him leech off her Force-sensitivity, giving him Jedi instincts. “If the signal did get through, how long do you think it’ll take for Thunder to get help out?”

“Unless someone’s already on their way for other reasons?” Corso’s brow creased worriedly. “Dunno if anyone’ll get here in time.”

This time it was Theron who swore out loud. It was unclear as to whether it was from Corso’s grim words; from another Zakuulan Knight charging at him, only intercepted at the last second by his mother; or from Xaja catching an unlucky kick to her leg. He watched as she crumpled with a yelp. Kira dove in to cover her.

A warning prickled against Theron’s awareness, but he didn’t recognize it in time to do more than turn his upper body slightly. The blaster bolt that would have taken him in the chest instead slammed into his shoulder, making him stagger backward with a strangled cry. He heard an alarmed shout of “Theron!” before a slender, yet surprisingly strong hand grabbed his arm and dragged him out of immediate danger -- his mother’s hand.

The former Grand Master adjusted her grip on her saber-staff to provide something of a shield, reaching for Theron’s injured shoulder with her free hand. “It’s not lethal,” she murmured, inspecting the wound. “It looks like it should be easily treatable if —”

The caverns shook with the echoes of another explosion, and Theron looked away from his burning injury to exchange a look with his mother. “I don’t think that’s going to be a concern,” he quietly said. “Not unless you think the Force can work a miracle.”

Satele offered him a small, sad smile as she moved her hand up to gently touch his cheek, with a soft touch that Theron wouldn’t have ever expected to come from her. “Theron, whatever happens down here…” She hesitated, taking a breath to steady herself and blinking in the dim light. “I’m proud of you. I have always been a very proud mother, and I wish I had told you long ago.”

Those were words that Theron had never expected to hear from Satele Shan, not even during the few years under Master Zho’s care when he had actually been an idealistic child before he discovered cynicism. But it was something he would never admit he wanted to hear from her… no matter how desperately he did. “Thanks, Mom,” he whispered, and saw Satele’s eyes soften for possibly the first time that he could remember--

He sharply looked up as a Knight of Zakuul appeared over Satele’s right shoulder, polesaber raised to stab the Grand Master in the back while she was distracted. A sudden spike of protective fear lanced through Theron’s chest. He felt his blaster settle back in his hand and quickly raised his uninjured arm to fire at the Knight. The Zakuulan fell with a blaster bolt in the centre of his helmet, not having suspected the spy to have been able to shoot him down so quickly.

Satele whirled as the blaster discharged, eyes widening as she looked at first the Knight’s body, then back at Theron’s hand. “What was that?” she breathed out, sounding more startled than Theron could ever remember her being before. The spy looked down at the blaster in question, then felt his heart stop for a second. Hadn’t he dropped the weapon when he was shot? Then how had it returned to his hand…?

He looked up to meet his mother’s dumbstruck look, a second before he felt a prickle of warning and ducked another shot that would have grazed his ear. Giving her head a quick shake, Satele spun back to the battle, saber-staff lighting the air around her as she deflected more shots away from her son. Forcing himself to put away the thoughts of how his blaster had returned to his hand, Theron gritted his teeth around the pain from his shoulder and fired around his mother, taking out a Skytrooper with deadly accuracy. Chances were that he wasn’t going to survive long enough to puzzle out what had happened anyway. May as well use the opportunity to take down as many Zakuulans as he could before the resistance cell fell.

Arcann rested his chin on his metallic hand as he studied the intelligence in front of him regarding Taerich and Shan. From Rishi to Dromund Kaas to Voss to— he glanced at the latest update from Overwatch— Dantooine? You have been moving around quickly. From what he understood of the Core Worlds, the idea of a Jedi willingly going to Dromund Kaas was unthinkable, half due to the risks of being murdered by a Sith, and half to the negative impacts of the Dark Side on them. Taerich must truly have been desperate to flee there.

But then, she also had ulterior motivations to go there. Accessing the information on Darth Imperius once again, he compared the profile of the Sith to that of Xaja Taerich. Yes, he could now see the striking resemblance between them. Pulling up an image of Cipher Nine, he could then see the traits both children seemed to inherit from the illustrious spy. So she fled to her family, and brought her lover and her friend with her.

Empress Acina swore she knew nothing of Imperius’ loyalties, and had given orders for her fellow Dark Councillor to be hunted down. The Eternal Emperor was not keen on trusting the Sith’s words. She would need to be investigated.

So Cipher Nine had fathered Taerich and Imperius; risked his own safety to protect his daughter -- after selling her to the Jedi as a child. Arcann frowned, unable to wrap his head around that concept. If he, Thexan, or Vaylin had been in such straits, Valkorion would have simply abandoned them. Their mother, on the other hand, had always been sentimental, attempting to ‘rescue’ them multiple times. Cipher Nine must be weak to be swayed by his daughter. That must be it. Coddling was what mothers did, he thought, not fathers.

Still, rumours circulated wildly through his Imperial contacts of the agent’s prowess in handling even rogue Sith -- despite being Force-blind himself. Forced to protect his children, then, it was clear he had a skill set more than up to the task. Thus, weak though he might have been, the former Imperial spy remained a significant threat.

And while Xaja Taerich’s mother was confirmed to be long dead, she also had another brother, according to the files procured by Sith Intelligence: Korin Taerich, infamous Republic privateer and smuggler, who hadn’t been seen in months. Arcann frowned. Not knowing if the rogue captain was powerful with the Force like his siblings was a factor he wasn’t pleased with. Even if the captain had no connection to the Force -- which Arcann thought unlikely, given his Jedi mother and the power demonstrated by his two siblings -- there was a significant chance he had also inherited his father’s intelligence and ruthless characteristics. If he had half of Cipher Nine’s reputed intellect and vicious streak, he, too, could prove to be dangerous.

He sighed. It seemed the whole damned family, with concentrated effort, could possibly dismantle everything he had built, piece by piece. He couldn’t allow that to happen.   

Frowning, Arcann then accessed another report taken from the Republic’s intelligence services. Theron Shan’s face stared at him in holo form, alongside those of the former Supreme Commander Jace Malcom and former Grand Master Satele Shan. The bastard son of two Republic war heroes, the spy had become something of a hero in his own right. He had earned his own influence to wield, likely with Republic forces or intelligence services. If he was truly Force-blind as the reports claimed, perhaps, the Zakuulan emperor mused, that influence was what Taerich saw in him.

Best to take out both troublesome families now, he decided, before they grew to be problems. Unfortunately, Cipher Nine had vanished somewhere in the chaotic Hutta system, and Imperius had gone rogue, disappearing without a trace. Jace Malcom’s whereabouts were also uncertain… but Satele Shan -- she had been located. Even better, it was suspected that her son and Master Taerich were with her.

A slow grin crept across his features, only half-visible behind the mask. Even if she doesn’t have them, she’ll have information. And perhaps the terrorist will come out of hiding for his mother.

Settling back into the Eternal Throne, Arcann switched on the stream of data provided by the Overwatch feeds. The Knight-Captain leading the attack force had reported finding a group of hidden Jedi rebels, likely under Master Shan’s leadership. Even if neither of the Shans was on Dantooine, there would be one fewer pocket of resistance in the galaxy by nightfall.

Zakuul’s flaw was pride.

The GEMINI captain looked down at the life sign readings from her ship’s crew. “I am fully assured of the Knight-Captain’s imminent victory, Overseer,” she addressed the holo figure of the Overwatch officer. “The Jedi cannot withstand an assault like this, or escape now that we have destroyed their shuttles.”

“We witness the last gasps of the Jedi resistance,” the overseer agreed, smugness in his tone even over the holo. “This will strike fear into the hearts of the rest of the galaxy’s would-be rebels. The assassin and terrorist will answer for their crimes.”

“I do hope the Republic assets do not believe in ritual suicide in the face of defeat,” GEMINI commented. “It would be a shame to not witness —”

The proximity alerts sounded. GEMINI turned her head to view the new alert coming through on her screens; if she could have frowned in confusion, she would have. “What the—?”

Cannon fire pummelled the side of the distracted ship, and one proud vessel of the Eternal Fleet went up in flames.

The forces of the Eternal Empire were well-trained and well-armed, and outnumbered the Republic or the Empire’s forces by an almost hilarious amount. But no army was completely flawless.

The incoming ship swooped low into Dantooine’s atmosphere, easily tracking the battle at the falling Jedi Enclave. The Knight-Captain leading the attack frowned when she heard the sound of a large ship’s engines bearing down on her location, knowing that she hadn’t given the command for her ship to reinforce her troops. She looked up, pale green eyes widening. She watched in shock as she and the troops still outside the cave entrances were mown down by cannon fire.

Even over the din of battle, the rumble of a ship’s engines descending over the roof of the hidden Enclave was entirely audible. Theron groaned, only partially from the pain in his shoulder, feeling Xaja’s awareness shift toward the sky. She could sense new lifeforms, and through her, Theron felt a sense of their bloodlust and adrenaline. The Zakuulans must have called in reinforcements to ensure the defeat of the resistance cell and the last Jedi rebels.

He shook his head as Xaja’s awareness overpowered his own; she was growing too tired to maintain a shield between herself and Theron, and he swore he could feel everything she did. The Skytroopers radiated no emotions, but the Zakuulan humans more than made up for the droids -- all Theron could feel from them was greedy excitement, pride, and the feeling of an imminent, assured victory. It was a stark contrast to the growing despair of the Jedi, faltering wills, exhaustion, and fear mingling with grim acceptance of what was to come.

Theron turned his head as Xaja suddenly sensed new lifeforms entering the caverns at a hurried run, rage and stubborn determination colouring the Force to red. The spy sighed, shifted to stand back-to-back with Corso as the younger mercenary kept firing at the Zakuulans with a challenging whoop. He raised his blaster with his good arm. “Good knowin’ you, Riggs,” he grunted as his finger tightened on the trigger, the bolt shooting out and slamming into a Zakuulan’s leg. The attacker dropped with a scream.

“You too, Shan.” Corso shifted against Theron’s back, his arm jerking slightly with the recoil of his rifle. “The cap’n’s gonna bring me back to life to kill me again for dyin’ out here like this.”

“Hells, the old man’s gonna do that to me for putting his daughter in danger.” Theron scowled. “I think he’d do it twice, too.” Corso snorted a wordless laugh that wasn’t disagreement with Theron’s grim prediction before shifting again, taking aim as the new lifeforms stormed into the cavern.

A new round of blaster fire joined the chorus of battle, rounds of plasma bolts tearing into the fray. Shouts arose from the chaos -- sounds of confusion and sudden, new uncertainty. When Theron focused along Xaja’s piggybacked senses, he was surprised to realize the new fear was coming from the Zakuulans as they were attacked from behind. “The resistance?” he asked, mostly to himself, as Corso turned to frown in bewilderment.

A deafening battle cry sounded as the newly-arriving soldiers fully moved into Theron’s line of sight. His jaw dropped when he recognized first the large number of decidedly-non-Zakuulan aliens in the newly-arriving force, and then recognized the sigils adorning their armour -- not to mention the unmistakable war droid in the ranks, gleefully firing at the Zakuulans. “Havoc Squad!” he shouted, and wasn’t sure if he was relieved to see his father’s old squad here, or worried at the possibility of Havoc still being loyal to Saresh.

Either way, the mood in the caves changed abruptly. Panic stirred in the Zakuulan ranks as the Jedi found renewed morale and pushed themselves forward for a final stand. Those uninjured joined ranks with Havoc’s front lines, and what looked like an extra squad or two of Republic soldiers; the rest started to fall back to Satele’s rallying point behind the lines, the grievously-injured leaning on their comrades as they prepared to fight or flee the caves.

Theron felt a nudge against his back as Corso turned toward him. “Think that’s our cue to head out?” the smuggler asked over the din.

“Good a time as any,” Theron grunted in agreement as he let Corso start pushing him toward the shelter created by Havoc’s lines. Out of the corner of his eye, he recognized Aric Jorgan’s lean, angular features highlighted by the explosion of a Skytrooper. The battle droid crumbled under the Cathar’s matchless aim. Either Havoc’s newest CO had been on a recruiting spree, or he had called in some favours with other Republic soldiers sympathizing with the resistance.

A large hand closed itself over Theron’s elbow and pulled, disturbing the burned wound in his shoulder. The spy hissed in pain, and the hand loosened its grip slightly. When Theron looked up to see who had grabbed him, he felt his heart leap into his throat at the sight of Jace Malcom staring back at him. The old soldier appeared to want to say something to his wayward son, but couldn’t seem to make the words form. For a second, Theron felt both Corso’s sudden confusion, and a heavy wave of too many emotions to sort or name from his father --

Another Skytrooper exploded from a lightsaber strike, and Jace seemed to snap himself out of his daze. “Move!” he barked out, giving Theron a shove toward the tunnel his forces had just entered through. Theron gratefully let himself be guided toward freedom by Corso’s hand on his other arm, just barely aware of Jace shifting his own position as if to provide the younger men a shield made by his own body.

He lingered long enough to look back, trying to find Xaja’s bright hair in the middle of the battle. For a second, despite the bond connecting them, he felt a spike of fear when he couldn’t immediately see her diminutive frame in the middle of the chaos. Then he saw Satele pulling the redhead out by her elbow and giving her a push toward Theron and the stream of injured Jedi survivors fleeing the Enclave. At this distance, through so much chaos he was unable to hear or lip-read the comments his mother made to the petite Jedi.

Xaja nodded at Satele and finally bolted for the exit to the caves, Kira only a step behind her. Theron felt a probe along their bond as Xaja then reached out to find him. Emerald eyes met amber, and Theron felt her relief at seeing him upright and alive. She nodded to confirm she was all right and right behind him. It was only then that Theron finally turned to flee the cavern with Corso’s aid.

In the middle of the desperate battle, there hadn’t been time nor focus for Satele to consider what she had witnessed. And there certainly hadn’t been time to ask Theron what that was, as she had fought to defend her injured son for as long as she could.

Nor had there been time to ponder what she had seen as Jace’s forces stormed the caverns, much less time to wonder how the blazes the former Supreme Commander knew to come with backup. However he had known, Satele would be eternally grateful he had come when he did.  Then she had been too busy pulling her wounded Jedi back from the fight, barely looking up to make sure Theron and Xaja escaped alive. After that, it was running for Jace’s warship, one eye worriedly looking up at the sky for Zakuulan reinforcements. Jace had caught the first Zakuulan warship off guard, but he wouldn’t have that same advantage should the rest of the Eternal Fleet show up.

It was only after the entirety of survivors and their Republic rescuers had boarded the ship, and were fleeing the ruins of the Enclave that Satele let herself fall into a chair. Her mind raced as she tried to plan the next destinations of the Jedi survivors, or the impact this would have on the resistance. Thunder wouldn’t be pleased that the cell had been compromised, she knew, but at least most of her people had made it out. She closed her eyes in a moment of silence for the fourteen Jedi who had joined the Force. The loss of that many Jedi Knights was painful.

As her mind tumbled over the battle, the memory of what she had seen rushed back, and Satele opened her eyes with a frown. For thirteen years Theron had trained with Ngani Zho, never once experiencing the wonder that was an active connection to the Force. It had been assumed that he was Force-blind like his father. It seemed that, if he was going to become aware of a connection to the Force, he should have felt it years ago. Not even being permanently bonded to a powerful Jedi Master like Xaja Taerich should be enough to allow a Force-blind being to wield it.

Still, there was no other explanation for the way Theron’s blaster, lost when he was shot, found its way back into his hand, allowing him to fire a such a lethal blow so quickly. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t convince herself that she had hallucinated it, or that the strange brightness she could feel around him was just something she was only noticing after having not seen him for over a year. What did that Voss ritual do to you? 

Chapter Text

Xaja didn’t approach anything near a relaxed state until she and the survivors from the Dantooine cell made it onto Commander Malcom’s ship. As the Republic soldiers scattered to their own duties, several escorting injured Jedi to the medbay, she anxiously strained up on the tips of her toes, trying to see over the rest of the crowd. She could feel Theron — fatigued and worried, pain radiating in short bursts along their bond from the blaster wound he’d taken — and could just sense Master Satele, but couldn’t see over the heads of everyone else. “Do you see them, Kira?” she asked her much-taller Padawan.

Despite being a solid half-foot taller than her mentor, Kira still had to crane her neck to look around. “I don’t — wait, yes, back over this way. C’mon.” She eased her way through the crowd, Xaja following close behind. Now that they were safely out of the fight and fleeing from Dantooine’s orbit, she could feel every single scrape and bruise she had accumulated during the fight, and the burn of every muscle that hadn’t been used for combat in far too long. She hadn’t gotten herself terribly injured or killed in that fight, but blast it, she was out of shape, and strongly suspected Kira was most of the reason she hadn’t died.

Well, lucky for you, you’ll have lots of time to get reacquainted with fighting at all times! her inner monologue snarked in the back of her mind. Xaja sighed and rolled her eyes. Banishing the voice, she followed Kira into medbay. Here, the occupants of the room were easily visible, and she made a beeline toward Theron. The former Republic spy was stretched out on a bed, jacket and shirt already removed, and a blonde medic tending to the ugly blaster wound on his shoulder. Xaja winced when she got a look at the injury. “What were you doing, playing on the shooting range again?”

“Very funny,” Theron muttered, although the burst of relief from his end of the bond when he saw her belied his dry tone. He hissed as the medic gingerly cleaned out the wound, looking away from her task to find Xaja’s hand and take it with the opposite hand. “Are you okay?” he softly asked.

“Bruises. Nothing serious.” Xaja perched herself carefully on the edge of the mattress where she could still hold Theron’s hand. She glanced over her shoulder as Kira meandered off to check in on other key resistance members. “How did they find us so quickly?” she whispered.

“Who? The Zakuulans or J— Malcom?”

“Yes -- no. Both, I think.” She grimaced. “I mean, how did Malcom know we were under attack?”

Theron shrugged his unhurt shoulder. “Dunno about him. The Zaks -- they must have tracked the Grand Master’s ship somehow. Guess Cipher Nine wasn’t as much of a distraction as he thought.”

“We didn’t know,” the medic finally spoke up with a surprisingly Kaasian accent as she started applying kolto to the wound; Theron bit down hard on his lip to keep his groan of pain silenced. “Commander Malcom heard through the resistance network that you two were on Dantooine and went to see you for himself. We received the warning of the attack right before we dropped out of hyperspace, and managed to catch the Eternal Fleet ship off-guard.”

Xaja frowned as she turned her gaze to the medic; a second later, her eyes widened when she recognized the other woman’s face and accent. A perk to once being romantically involved with the former commander of Havoc Squad was still being friends with his crew, long after he had been unceremoniously discharged from duty. “Elara Dorne? Blast, it’s good to see you!”

“You as well, Master Taerich.” Elara looked up from Theron’s shoulder long enough to give the Jedi a smile. “For a dead woman, you’re looking remarkably hale.”

“Thanks,” Xaja dryly said as Theron snorted a laugh. “What the kriff is happening with the Republic? We’ve been hearing every possible story for the last month.”

“And most of those are probably true,” Elara muttered. “I presume you know that the Chancellor wants your heads to give to Zakuul. The Eternal Fleet has been reinforcing its presence around Coruscant and threatening retribution for your ‘war crimes’.”

“War crimes, my ass,” Xaja growled. “It was damned self defence! They can’t punish the entire Republic for something that they well and truly deserved!”

“Apparently they can,” Elara said with a sigh as she started bandaging Theron’s shoulder. “Master Taerich, did you really assassinate Emperor Valkorion like they’re claiming?”

“Yes. And considering he was Vitiate wearing yet another meat suit,” Xaja muttered, “I’d do it again.”

“What?!” Elara’s hands slipped around the bandaging, making Theron hiss. Murmuring an apology, the medic resumed her task with the frequent sidelong glances at Xaja. “What the blazes happened out there?”

“I swear I should just write a book about it,” Xaja muttered. She felt Theron squeeze her hand comfortingly before he suddenly went tense. She frowned and glanced behind her, following his amber gaze — then promptly stood up when she saw the looming figure in the door to the medical room. She may have only spoken to Jace Malcom over the holo, the last conversation over three years ago, but he was unmistakable. “Commander Malcom!”

“Good to see you alive, Master Taerich.” The grizzled old veteran nodded to the Jedi, glancing between her and Elara. “We’re having a full debrief on the command deck in one standard hour, and your presence will be needed. I think we all need to get caught up on what the hells is happening.”

Xaja nodded. “You won’t hear me protesting that. I can’t thank you enough for arriving when you did, Commander.” She couldn’t voice the alternative that had faced the resistance, and Theron, and didn’t want to think about how close they had come to failing.

“It’s fortunate we were already en route,” Malcom said as he shifted into rest position. Xaja recognized it as any well-trained soldier’s default stance for talking to a Jedi. “Captain Dorne, how is Agent Shan doing?”

“It’s a single clean wound, sir,” Elara answered, her voice brisk and business-like. “Once I’ve gotten the bandages secured, he’ll be cleared for release from medical.”

“It’s really not that bad,” Theron added, squirming to sit up so Elara could finish with the bandages. “Aches, but it’s fine.” Xaja watched her partner’s eyes as they darted around the medical room, looking anywhere except at his father’s face. She frowned as she tried to make sense of the cacophony of emotions she could feel from Theron: anxiety, relief, nervousness, a surprising amount of guilt, a sense of dread. Whatever relationship he had with his birth father, it wasn’t as close as the one Xaja had with hers — and her father was part of the enemy faction! “I’ll be good for debrief once I get a shower.”

“I hope you don’t mind holding off on that for a few minutes, Agent.” Malcom’s dark eyes flickered with some emotion that Xaja couldn’t read. “I would like a word with you before the debrief.”

Theron shifted uncomfortably under Malcom’s scrutiny before slowly nodding. “Okay,” he agreed at length. When Xaja turned to worriedly frown at him, he gave her a small, tense smile and squeezed her fingers. “I’ll be fine.” She noted he sounded as though he was trying to convince himself of that statement.

The petite Jedi furrowed her brow at the anxiety she could sense from her partner. “Want me to stay?” she murmured, hopefully low enough that Malcom couldn’t hear her.

The bond flared with Theron’s want for her to stick around, but he still shook his head. “I got a feeling I know what this chat’s about,” he answered quietly. “Didn’t exactly leave Coruscant gracefully after walking out of headquarters.”

Oh. That was a conversation Xaja was certain Theron didn’t want her to witness. If Malcom was his birth father, and Theron had left in the dead of night with no notice… yes, she could imagine how worried the Supreme Commander had been. Her own father would have torn the galaxy apart already if she had done that, then told her off for it at the end. She nodded, squeezing his hand before he released her fingers. “Let me know if you need me,” she added as she lightly tugged on their bond.

“I will,” Theron said. The smile he gave her might have been reassuring, if he hadn’t glanced at Malcom out of the corner of his eye. Xaja was tempted to linger anyway, but decided to move along when she heard Malcom clearing his throat behind her.  No need to test his patience when he clearly wanted to talk to his son.

Is this what Theron feels like when talking to my dad? she silently asked herself as she left the medbay and bid farewell to Elara. She thought for a moment, then caught a glimpse of Aric Jorgan’s distinctive profile, of the rank and unit noted on his armor. She smiled as she went to greet her Cathar friend who was now, apparently, the commanding officer of Havoc Squad.

The door hissed closed behind Xaja’s back, and Theron had to fight to keep himself somewhat calm at the new predicament he found himself in. Jace hadn’t moved yet, save to cross his arms over his chest and stare down at Theron with the same steely expression he had mastered in the past as commander of Havoc Squad. Theron wasn’t sure what made him more nervous: the fact that his father was still silent, or the dread of the impending reproval that he knew he rightfully deserved. Jace was one of the only people in the galaxy who knew about the suicide note Theron had sent him, and the one whose reaction he was least sure about.

Satele’s reaction had startled Theron, but it hadn’t been entirely unwelcome. He had expected a Jedi-styled lecture, not for her to hug him and act like… well, like a mother. Korin -- he hadn’t seen the rogue captain since before he’d gone to Zakuul, but he could already predict that he was due for a well-justified punch in the face. Maybe two. Jace… Jace was a wild card. Theron had gotten into a shouting match with his father before, and right now he would have gladly welcomed a verbal barrage over this silence. It was almost as though he could sense the anger lurking under Jace’s frozen exterior.

“What the fuck were you thinking?” Jace finally broke the silence, his voice rough and strained. Theron had the sudden impression that his father was resisting the urge to strangle him. “Do you have any idea how much of an idiot you’ve been?”

“Recently? Or in the last year?” Theron nearly bit his tongue as the words slipped out of his mouth before he could stop them. He forced himself to not fidget with his shirt in his hands as Jace’s eyes narrowed.

“I was going to only yell at you for that blasted suicide message, but now that you mention it…” Jace uncrossed his arms and ran one hand through his cropped hair in frustration. “Leaving the SIS and Coruscant with no warning and completely going AWOL? Dodging every single contact Marcus and I tried to send after you for an entire bloody year? Zero communication until I got a blasted suicide note from you?” The old soldier slammed both of his hands down onto a table, practically making the entire room shake. “Do you have any sort of idea what that did to us— to me?”

Theron looked away from the intense stare for a second, delaying his need to answer by standing up and trying to pull the shirt back over his head. His shoulder ached with the motion; he hissed and gave up on putting the shirt back on for a moment, wishing the painkillers that Dorne had given him would kick in faster. “I didn’t intend for the suicide notes you and Satele got to go out,” he finally lied. “They were connected to a dead man’s switch, and it malfunctioned.”

“A bloody dead man’s switch malfunction? That’s your only answer for the shit you’ve been doing the last year?” Jace’s eyes darkened warningly. “A switch that you wouldn’t have needed if you hadn’t slunk off Coruscant in the dead of night and only resurfaced on Zakuul, with charges of terrorism on your head!”

“The Republic wasn’t doing anything,” Theron snapped back. “The Sith Empire wasn’t half as much of a danger as Zakuul was and Saresh still refused to even listen to anything other than what she wanted!”

“And running off to Wild Space, unsanctioned, by yourself, with only a plan of a suicide note would have accomplished anything?”

“Clearly it did! Master Taerich’s alive and free now!” No way was Theron confessing that finding Xaja alive had been a complete accident.

“Yes, and now the entire galaxy is ready for another war; Coruscant’s in a stranglehold; and you two are both on the run from the entire known galaxy, in case you hadn’t noticed!”

“Only most of the known galaxy,” Theron countered, and saw Jace’s eye twitch. “The Hutts haven’t said anything about us yet, have they?”

“For kriff’s sake, Theron!” Jace paced toward the far wall, raking his hand through his hair again, then turned back to glare at his son. “If you think the Hutts wouldn’t immediately sell either you or Master Taerich to Zakuul, or the Senate…”

“I don’t think the Imps put a notice out on us either, did they?”

“And that’s another thing!” Jace all but exploded. “Hiding with Cipher Nine and Darth kriffing Imperius, on Dromund Kaas of all places? One of the Dark Council and the Commander of Sith Intelligence? What in the Nine Hells were you thinking?”

“Hey, Imperius likes both of us, and I’m pretty sure Nine likes Master Taerich.” Theron scowled as Jace threw his hands up in exasperation. “What else were we supposed to do? Run back to Coruscant and let Saresh hand us over to Zakuul on a platter?” He suddenly frowned as he remembered what Corso had reported, right before Zakuul had attacked the cell. “Didn’t you quit too?”

“Yes, but not by sneaking offworld and disappearing!” Jace sighed in frustration. Fortunately, he appeared to have been sufficiently distracted from his questions and complaints about who Theron and Xaja had sought shelter with over the past month. “And definitely not by completely vanishing for a year, and only showing back up hiding with our other group of enemies.” Okay, maybe he hadn’t been entirely distracted.

Theron frowned down at his shirt in his grip, then back up at his father. “I didn’t think you’d ever quit, or even retire. What happened?”

“You.” Jace leaned his weight on the back of a chair and sighed heavily. “I don’t know how, but Saresh found out about our connection, and tried using me to get to you. She didn’t seem to accept that I didn’t have a single idea where you or your mother had vanished to.” The old soldier frowned into space. “Her continued focus on the Sith and not Zakuul was a factor too, but you were the final straw.”

Saresh knew that Theron was Jace’s illegitimate son? The spy’s frown deepened — that was bad news. And presumably she knew Satele was his birth mother.  “Shit,” he quietly said, and heard Jace lowly grunt in agreement. “Why would she have asked you for information on Satele though?”

“She knew your mother had been with me after we got those damned suicide letters of yours. Neither of us… took it well.” Jace furrowed his brow at his hands. “Your mother slipped off Coruscant the day after you and Master Taerich were identified and the warrants were issued. She was determined to find you before anyone else could… Zakuulan or Republic.  Before she left, she promised me she’d let me know if you were alive, and wouldn’t bring you anywhere near Coruscant, wherever you were.” There was a second’s pause before the old soldier looked back up. “How did you go from Dromund Kaas to Voss?”

Jace Malcom was one of the absolute last people in the galaxy who should know about Vitiate’s ghost hitching a ride in Xaja’s brain. Theron went with a half-truth. “The Zaks froze Master Taerich in carbonite, and it poisoned her nervous system. One of Cipher Nine’s contacts in Kaas City managed to cure her before it could kill her, but it damaged her access to the Force. The Voss were the only Force-healers who could have fixed that.”

Jace winced in sympathy. “Carbonite poisoning? Might’ve been kinder for the Zaks to have just executed her.” His mouth twisted distastefully at the mention of a contact of the infamous Cipher Nine, but he surprisingly didn’t comment on it. “But she’s healed now?”

“Yep, back to normal.” Theron nodded in confirmation as he attempted to pull the shirt over his head again, hissing when his shoulder protested the movement. “Son of a—!”

He could feel a large pair of hands that weren’t his own helping to guide the shirt down, then aiding him in slipping his injured arm through the sleeve. “You’re lucky, Theron,” Jace muttered as he helped his son finish getting dressed. “It’s a clean, non-lethal blaster shot, not a slugthrower round. And you’re alive for it to heal relatively quickly.” He drew a breath like he had more to say to his son, then shook his head and remained quiet.

“Thanks,” Theron mumbled as he finished adjusting the shirt, shifting his injured arm until it was quasi-comfortable. When Jace started to pull away from him, the spy quickly spoke up. “For what it’s worth… I’m sorry. I didn’t think about what those suicide notes and vanishing like that would do to you, or Satele.” Because you were so focused on making your own pain from losing Xaja stop, you didn’t think about anything else. “I… don’t know what I was thinking much during that.”

Jace sighed heavily and rested a large hand on Theron’s unhurt shoulder. “Grief can make you do stupid things, and you were mourning for Master Taerich. I’m not blind, Theron — it was obvious you cared for her.” The hand squeezed before he spoke again, with a steely bite under his voice. “You ever pull a stunt like that again, dropping off the face of the galaxy or sending a suicide letter, and I swear to everything sacred I will hunt you down and strangle you myself.”

Cipher Nine still had the reputation of being the one man still alive Theron would admit to being scared of— but right then, he decided Jace Malcom was worthy of that wariness, too. “Understood,” he quietly said. “It’ll never happen again.” At least not the suicide notes bit. The vanishing for months or years at a time… well, that was part of the job.

Xaja hadn’t meant to eavesdrop. But when she had meandered by medbay after talking to Major Jorgan and opened her mind up to the Force, seeking Theron out, she had a distinct impression of guilt and apprehension, even after his discussion with his father. Concerned, she approached the door, wondering if she needed to to get involved on Theron’s behalf.

Then she heard their last exchange, muffled through the door despite her Force-enhanced senses. She frowned, worried, as she carefully reconstructed her mental shields, effectively blocking Theron from sensing her mood. Commander Malcom’s words echoed through her mind, and she tried to analyze what they implied.

What suicide letter?

The second sun had just disappeared behind the horizon, leaving only a lingering orange glow in the sky, when Korin slipped out of the base, making his way to the rocky outcropping jutting into the canyon hiding the base. As claustrophobic as he was, he could only put up with the interior labyrinth of the base for so long before he needed open space and fresh air. I need to see stars again, he silently grumbled as he looked up into the darkening sky. The first few white pinpricks of light visible weren’t quite enough for him, especially with the shadow of the unprotected Star-Fortress-in-progress in high orbit.

He sighed as he flopped down with the rocky canyon wall against his back and pulled out a cig from his pocket, lighting it. He didn’t regularly smoke anything, but he figured he could use the relaxation from the inhaled drugs after the last couple of days. He was pretty sure his heart rate hadn’t yet settled back down after Corso’s distress signal had come through. With his sister and several of his best friends in the Dantooine cell, warning of the attack had been terrifying for him to hear.

“You know how bad that osik is for you, right?” Sorand’s voice approached with the sounds of his quiet bootsteps as he made his way over to his brother. When Korin glanced back, he noted that his younger sibling had changed out of both robes and beskar’gam, sporting a jacket against the chill of Tatooine’s night.

Korin snorted as he turned forward again, hearing Sorand’s feet stop beside him. “I think I’ve earned one after the last few days, dammit,” he muttered. “Besides, I’m trying to ration the whiskey on my ship.”

“Fair enough.” There was a soft grunt as Sorand sat down beside his brother, scooting further back from the edge of the overhang. The young Sith had never liked heights, even if he stubbornly denied being afraid of them. For a moment after Sorand settled down, there was silence broken by the sound of wind blowing through the canyon, before a hand extended into Korin’s field of vision. “You sharing?”

“Since when have you smoked anything?” Korin incredulously asked, even as he handed the cig over to his little brother.

“Since… age thirteen or fourteen, I think? It was around the same time that one Hutt owned me. The shit one deals with in Hutt palaces…” Sorand’s Force-signature darkened with old, unpleasant memories as he took the cig and breathed in a lungful of smoke.

“How’d you get out of that place?” Korin asked as he shifted back to lean against his brother’s shoulder.

“Gambling collateral. The pirate who beat him in sabaac owned me for about a week and a half before he got sick of the snark and sold me off to another pirate crew.” Sorand looked over as he handed the cig back to Korin, a rueful grin tugging at his mouth. “Longstanding family traditions, right?”

“Damn straight. I’m pretty sure ‘Taerich’ is Old Lavisarian for ‘snarky asshole’.” Korin grinned as he took another drag from the cig, and for several minutes afterward, there was silence between the two brothers.

Korin finally spoke up again, his voice quiet. “I’m gonna take the Dancer up there tomorrow and see what sorta recon I can pull on the Star Fortress. Hopefully their weapons aren’t fully functional.”

“It’ll need to get done before Arcann sends someone out here to investigate,” Sorand agreed, staring up at the Star Fortress. “We’ll need to be hell and gone from here before then, too.”

“I hate uprooting bases every few months,” Korin grumbled. “Got a plan where yet?”

“I’m thinking I might talk to Corey, see if that old Mando outpost on Dxun is still viable.” Sorand took the cig back for another drag. “Zakuul doesn’t have too great an influence in that system yet.”

“Could always set up a backup on Hoth,” Korin suggested, even as he shuddered. “I’m pretty sure the cold would freeze the Zaks in their tracks.”

“Yes, and us with them.” Sorand sighed as he handed the cig back. “We could return to Yavin IV, take over the old Revanite outposts. Or Koth says his crew is still on the Asylum refuge -- it could be a useful staging point.”

“Taris? Maybe Telos? The rakghouls would scare anyone away from Taris.”

Sorand scowled at the mention of Taris. “That’s a hard ‘hell no’ from me, thanks. Telos might work though. If Corey can’t get us set up with something on Dxun, I’ll look into Telos. We might be able to repurpose the old Jedi training area from the Jedi Civil War.”

“Even if Dxun is available, I’d still set somethin’ up on Telos. The Dantooine survivors are gonna need somewhere to go now.” If there are any went unspoken, but still understood.

“Point.” Sorand sighed. “It might almost be easier to just send this cell to Alderaan, just to get people out of here quickly before Arcann retaliates. Remind me how I got myself into this?”

“Your idea, and nobody else wanted to coordinate it all. Nobody else had the brains to do it all either, or the credits.” Korin frowned in concern. “You think folks are gonna find out who Thunder is?”

“I’m worried,” Sorand quietly confessed. “If that gets out, I’m going to replace Xaja and Theron as the Galaxy’s Most Wanted. And if I’m taken out or have to disappear, the resistance…”

“We’ll find a way. Both to keep your head on your neck, and to keep fightin’.” Korin looked back at his brother, a grim smile on his face. “If you think I’m lettin’ the Zaks, or the Empire, or the Senate at my kid brother or my sister, I got news for you. They’ll get at you over my dead body… if Dad doesn’t get ‘em first.”

“Or if Dad doesn’t get himself killed,” Sorand muttered, although his Force-signature seemed to relax slightly. He leaned back against Korin’s shoulder as the smuggler took a final drag from the cig, then crushed it out on the rock beside him. “Dad’s clever though. He’ll figure out a way to stay alive.”

Korin nodded in agreement. “You got any clue about the Dantooine cell yet?”

“Not yet. If they're still alive, they'll contact us when they're safe.” Sorand frowned into Tatooine’s night, worry seeming to age his young face behind the scruff growing on his cheeks. “I hope that’s soon.”

“That makes two of us,” Korin murmured in agreement.

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty!” The Overwatch officer who had been sent to brief the Emperor and the High Justice trembled under twin sulphuric glares from the siblings. “We cannot determine who attacked the ship over Dantooine!”

“Useless imbecile,” Vaylin snarled. She turned to Arcann, frowning contemplatively. “The GEMINI didn’t get any transponder codes or images of the attacking ship?”

“Nothing,” Arcann growled. “She barely got so much as a proximity alert.” He got to his feet and stepped down from the Eternal Throne, the fury racing through his veins not allowing him to sit still. “Who would be so bold as to attack one of our warships?”

“I doubt the resistance cells would be able to scrounge up anything more powerful than a shuttle,” Vaylin sneered as she followed her brother. “Even Thunder’s network can’t be that strong. It must have been the Republic, to come rescue their pet Jedi.”

“Our previous interrogations of Senate leaders indicated that none of them knew where the remnant Jedi Order fled to,” Arcann pointed out.

“Clearly someone’s lying, and sympathizing with the resistance,” Vaylin retorted. “Unless you suppose the Sith Empire would have come for the Jedi?”

“Unlikely, unless Darth Imperius still has allies in the Imperial navy.” Arcann glanced over at his sister. “I doubt it was the Empire seeking Jedi playthings. Empress Acina would have already contacted us if she had Taerich or either of the Shans.”

“And none of them were among the Jedi killed,” Vaylin mused. “I still say someone in the Republic is lying about knowing where the Jedi were hiding.”

“The Chancellor has enough functioning brain cells to know what will happen to Coruscant, should she have them and not hand them over.” Folding his hands behind his back, Arcann looked out to the stars beyond Zakuul. Somewhere out there, he knew, Taerich and Shan still lived and breathed. And his apparent inability to catch either of them made his blood boil. “This could be a deed by the Mandalorian rebels, or rogue members of the Hutt Cartel.”

“Neither Taerich nor Shan has any connection to the Mandalorians,” corrected Vaylin. “And the Hutts would sell them to us almost faster than Acina would.”

“But Imperius does have a connection to the Mandalorians. The bounty hunter he kept as a plaything is Mandalorian. He could have used that connection to aid his sister by sending a rescue.”

“But how in the blazes would Darth Imperius have known where the Jedi, or his sister, were hiding?”

“I doubt Imperius concerned himself with the Jedi Order. His focus would have been on protecting his sister. Perhaps she was in contact with him after they fled Dromund Kaas.” Arcann was quiet for a moment as he frowned out into the void. “It is possible this was an attack from a rogue member of the Republic, perhaps under Malcom’s orders. Or the resistance is more expansive and influential than we had thought. Perhaps Thunder orchestrated this.”

“Very helpful, considering we still don’t know who Thunder is.” Vaylin looked over at the trembling Overwatch officer. “Unless you have a surprise for us?”

“N-no, High Justice. We still can’t pin down Thunder or their lieutenants.”

“You disappoint me. And I do hate being disappointed.” Vaylin Force-pushed the officer off the walkway with an idle flick of her hand; his scream echoed the entire way down. “So, brother, what is your next plan to track them all down?”

There was another moment of silence before Arcann spoke again. “We have reports of rebel activity on Tatooine?”

“There was an attack on the Star Fortress bunker,” Vaylin confirmed. “I don’t believe there has been any activity on the station itself.”

“Was there any footage captured of the attackers?”

Vaylin frowned in thought at that. “If there was, I wasn’t told of it.”

“A pity you already murdered the officer who could have answered that,” Arcann muttered.

“… Oops?” Vaylin shrugged. “No matter, they can be replaced easily enough. Do you suppose the rebels who attacked the bunker have a connection to the Jedi? Or possibly to Imperius and any Mandalorians he has under his sway?”

“I’ll find out,” Arcann vowed. He turned on his heel and stepped back toward the Throne. “Have a patrol sent to Tatooine to investigate the attack. And I want every activity report of every military vessel flying Mandalorian, Republic or Imperial colours in the last week. If Sith Intelligence or the SIS has turned up any new information on Thunder, or Taerich and Shan, or Imperius, I want to know of it.”

“Certainly, brother.”

Chapter Text

“Does anyone have any news at all on Dantooine?” Sorand asked the moment the call to the rest of the Storm system was secured. It felt unusual to be talking to everyone without Thunder’s disguise on, but it would raise questions if Imperius wasn’t seen communicating with the resistance he had joined. It still didn’t stop the Sith from feeling naked in the call.

“Nothing here, from Corso or from CorSec’s intel.” Cole raked a hand through his hair, worry visible on his face. “My contacts with the SIS and the Green Jedi haven’t heard anything either, although they’re raising hell to find answers.”

Vector folded his arms, a grim set to his mouth. “Nor can we raise Commander Malcom or his forces over the communications network. Doctor Kimble is frantic.”

“You think Doc’s frantic?” Hylo Viz jerked a thumb over her shoulder at Reanden, standing just beside her. “You know how snarly Imp agents get when they’re actually scared?”

“I can show you ‘snarly’,” Reanden muttered. But Sorand noted his father hadn’t denied being terrified. The Sith himself was anxious about Xaja and the rest of the Dantooine cell, to the point of nausea. He knew Korin wasn’t much better. Between Xaja and Theron, as well as Ashara, Corso, and Guss, there were a lot of friends unaccounted for that both brothers were concerned about.

“We haven’t heard anything either,” Lana spoke up, just off to Sorand’s right. “But we cannot sit on our hands and do nothing while waiting for news. What concerns me is how Dantooine was compromised, and what intel the Zakuulans have managed to accumulate on the rest of us. Corso alone knew the primary cell contacts and locations. If he was captured…”

“Arcann won’t ease up if he catches Xaja or Theron. He’ll slow down, maybe, but then come after the entire resistance.” Korin shifted his weight on Sorand’s other side. “We need a plan.”

“We need to be moving.” Reanden crossed his arms in thought. Sorand could recognize the shift in his father’s voice — he was delving into the Cipher Nine persona, shifting his focus to the job. It would serve to distract him from the worst of his fear for Xaja. “Assume the worst case scenario and that Corso has been compromised. Even if Corso escaped, I’m honestly surprised there hasn’t been any Zakuulan retaliation on Tatooine.”

“Join the club,” Korin muttered. “Black and I are taking a run up to the Star Fortress later today, but we’ll be moving the cell out tonight.”

“It’s probably best if this cell scatters,” Sorand added. “Less chance of Zakuul being able to track and identify us. Most of the Mandalorians will be heading to rendezvous with Mandalore. I at least will be heading your way, Vector.”

“To another planet with an active Star Fortress?” Cole frowned. “I thought you were smarter than that, Imperius.”

“Gambling runs in the family.” Sorand shrugged with a confidence he almost felt. “Normal space traffic in and out of Alderaan space is still ongoing, and if Arcann has two working brain cells to rub together, he’ll think twice before stirring up that killik nest with a Star Fortress attack. If we stagger our approach times, we should be able to pull it off.”

“We’ll be ready,” Vector nodded. “We will notify Duke Organa of your impending arrival, Lord Imperius. What of the other cells?”

“Scattering’s a good idea, but we won’t be able to budge at all yet, no matter what Thunder says,” Hylo spoke up. “The old timers here think they got a lead to where the Star Fortress bunker is here.”

“Red Light sector,” Reanden confirmed. “Way the hell in the slums. It might take us some time to pinpoint the precise location with our limited numbers.”

“I can help with that,” Sorand volunteered. “My cult will be delighted to—”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Reanden’s surprise was obvious, even over the holo. “Since when have you had a cult?”

“Since about forever?” Sorand frowned. He blinked. “Didn't I tell you about that?”

“No!” A chorus erupted from Reanden, Korin, and Lana all at once, almost drowned out by the muffled snickers from the rest of the call’s participants.

“I could have sworn…” Sorand shrugged. “No matter. I can get you in contact with the cult leadership. Tell them Lord Kallig sent you, and they’ll probably bend over backwards for you.”

“How the hell did you get your own cult?” Korin’s brain appeared to have short-circuited, and he was stuck on the idea that his kid brother had a following of questionably-sane devotees.

“I’ll tell you later,” Sorand muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

“So we’ll get in contact with this... cult of yours and figure out recon or sabotage on the bunker.” Reanden shook his head. “We can scatter quickly enough and still leave a backup if things go south. At the very least, Kothe will have to stay behind -- he can’t risk his position by leaving.”

“Our cell can scatter as well,” Cole spoke up. “With all the chaos on Corellia, finding one resistance cell is nearly impossible -- as the Imps found out.” He paused, allowing a smirk to flicker over his features. “We can vanish into the planetary resistance if need be. Leaving the system itself might be difficult, but I’m pretty sure most of my group can manage something if we need to rendezvous. I can’t leave because of CorSec, but I can keep a friendly hideout open here.”

Sorand nodded. “If you can move from your current locations, I would suggest Alderaan to regroup and make further plans beyond what can be safely discussed over a holo. We’ll need House Organa’s support.”

“Good a suggestion as any,” Hylo shrugged her agreement. “We’ll be along soon as the old men are done scouting the place.”

“Sounds good.” The call disconnected, and Lana turned to survey the brothers. “I’ll oversee the evacuation process. Korin, you and Corey are due to make your flyby within the hour?”

“Yep. I’m gonna go make sure Dancer’s ready to go.” Korin nodded and turned to leave, lingering only long enough to tightly squeeze Sorand’s shoulder before leaving for the hangar.

“I’ll monitor their progress and keep an eye out for the Fleet,” Sorand quietly said to Lana. “I’ll have an ear open for any news that comes through directly from Corso.”

Lana nodded. “If we haven’t heard anything by the time we reach Alderaan, I’ll send someone out to Dantooine to investigate. Hopefully they’ll find more than just bodies.”

“That is quite the story,” Malcom finally said as he sat back in his seat, rubbing his temples. “If I didn’t know better I’d ask if this came from some holofilm.”

“Believe me,” Xaja assured him as she wrapped her fingers tighter around a mug of caf, “we wish we were making this up.” She shifted on her chair in Malcom’s office, drawing one leg underneath her comfortably, and felt Theron shift his weight beside her in the next chair. Pain still lingered along the bond, but it was muted now after Elara’s medical treatment and a dose of painkillers. It now mingled with bone-deep weariness, and Xaja couldn’t tell if it was her own or Theron’s overwhelming her senses.

When she looked around the briefing room, she could see that same weariness mirrored among their companions. Master Satele, to Malcom’s left, looked more drained than Xaja ever remembered seeing before. But then, losing the fourteen members of the Enclave had been a painful blow, both to the resistance and within the Force.

To Xaja’s right, seated on the other side of Theron, Corso slumped over his own mug of caf, dreadlocks falling out of their bundle and hanging around his face. He was uncharacteristically quiet, lips thinned and brow creased. When Xaja focused, she could sense the fatigue and frustration in his Force-signature. On her left, Kira slouched in her own chair, gazing out over the rim of her caf. Only Malcom and Jorgan seemed to be less affected, but closer inspection still revealed the sagging, puffy skin under Malcom’s eyes.

The resistance was in fine hands right now.

Finally, Malcom sighed heavily and ran a hand over his scarred face. “All right, let’s look at options. I don’t know how long we have before Zakuul connects me, or at least Republic forces, to that fight. We need to get you two in particular underground ASAP.”

“And with the Republic actively hunting us down, and the Empire about as hospitable as Coruscant right now…” Theron shook his head. “We might be stuck with Hutt Space after all.”

“The Hutts would just as likely sell you to the highest bidder,” Satele said, raising an eyebrow.

“Funny,” Theron muttered, eyes darting to Malcom. “He said the same thing.”

Malcom narrowed his eyes at Theron, but didn’t make a retort to his comment. “We’re currently en route back to Alderaan,” he said. “I’ve ordered additional jumps to different coordinates to make our origin harder to track.”

“Doesn’t Alderaan have a bunch of Zakuulans on it, or in orbit?” Kira frowned. “I’ve heard they have their own fully active Star Fortress. If they see us fly in…”

“What are they gonna do,” Jorgan snorted, “blow the planet up?”

“Arcann’s smarter than that,” Satele interjected. “Alderaan is a veritable killik hive of valuable resources, civil unrest, and angry noble houses. He needs those noble houses to remain compliant if he wants access to those resources, which he won’t get if he stirs that killik hive. The Zakuulans are having a difficult enough time trying to make Corellia bow.”

Xaja snorted into her caf mug. “Good luck with that one. He might have better luck getting the Hutts to submit.”

“He did. The Corellians are something else.” One side of Malcom’s mouth pulled up in a smirk that eerily reminded Xaja of Theron. “To the best of my knowledge, only one Zakuulan has been seen planet-side in months, and she has resistance sympathies.” He looked over at Satele, brow slightly creasing. “She said she had met you on Jedha.”

“Senya Tirall?” Satele offered a soft smile. “I’m glad to hear she made it to the Organas. I had worried about her.” She looked back over to Xaja and Theron with a slight nod. “She is an outspoken critic of Arcann and had left Zakuul’s service when I talked to her. I do not predict her being a threat to you.”

“I’m taking your word on that, Master Jedi.” A warmth flickered through Malcom’s gaze briefly before he returned his attention to the meeting. He cleared his throat. “I can get you to Organa Castle without being caught, unless the Star Fortress can see inside of a Republic war cruiser. The last I checked, Republic vessels can still move to and from Alderaan at will,” he added. “Even if we are searched, we can find a way to hide you on board. Once you’ve gotten in contact with the resistance, we’ll figure out a plan from there.” He paused for a moment. “Unless contact has already been established?”

“Not since I got the distress signal out,” Corso finally spoke up. “My comm got busted in the fight and I can’t get hold of anyone on the secure channels. We’re silent until we reach Alderaan and I can get a secure message out to Cap’n Korin and Thunder.” He frowned. “Kriffin’ hells, Thunder probably thinks we’re dead.”

Forget Thunder, Xaja thought to herself. My dad and brothers, if they’re in contact with the resistance and got that distress signal… Beside her, Theron shifted enough to reach his uninjured arm over and gently squeeze her knee under the table.

“And I’m continuing to operate on radio silence with the resistance on Alderaan while we’re in transit. There’s simply too much risk of it being intercepted.” The former Supreme Commander shook his head. “It’ll be probably two standard days before we reach the planet. Thunder and their resistance will have to wait.”

“We won’t be able to stay on Alderaan,” Theron quietly said, exchanging a look with Xaja. “Chances are we’ll be around long enough to let Thunder know we’re not dead yet, but we’ll need to keep moving. Arcann might not deploy the Star Fortress if he knows we’re on Alderaan, but he’ll still endanger civilians to get at us.”

“Just where do you plan on going?” Malcom asked.

Xaja exchanged another look with Theron before answering. “We... don’t know. Not yet. I mean, we’re making this up as we go. But it stands to reason that, as long as we keep moving, it should be harder for us to be tracked.”

“As far as plans go, Master Taerich, that’s not exactly a great one,” Jorgan spoke up.

“No, but it’s the only one we have so far.” The fatigue and anxiety of the past week caught up to her and Xaja slumped in her chair. The knowledge that she and Theron had to keep running bordered on demoralizing. As long as Arcann is in power, she thought, we’ll never be safe, and neither will anyone else we try to hide with.

“We have a couple of days in transit to think of a more solid plan,” Satele offered with a faint, reassuring smile. “In the meantime, you should use the downtime to get some rest. One of you has a new injury to heal from and the other is still recovering from carbonite poisoning.”

Malcom nodded decisively and stood up. “We’ll reconvene before arriving in the Alderaan system. For now, you heard Master Shan: Get some shut-eye — you have a long road ahead of you.”

There was a scraping of chairs as the meeting adjourned. Xaja felt Theron subtly slide his hand down her arm to keep her near him as they started to make their way out of the briefing room. When she glanced back to see if either of Theron’s parents had noticed that action — considering Theron had been acting so cagey around his father — she noted that neither of them had moved to leave the room. Malcom had sat back down, and appeared to already quietly speaking to Master Satele, his voice low enough that Xaja couldn’t listen.

She shook her head and followed the others out of the briefing room. Elara had just arrived, and was giving directions as to where the refugees from Dantooine could get some sleep. “It’s tight quarters, but we can fit you into the barracks on the lower deck.”

“Right now, I think most of us are fine with any vaguely horizontal surface,” Kira dryly said, and got a grin from Elara. “Thanks. We really appreciate it.”

“Any time. We weren’t going to leave you to the Zakuulans.” Elara smiled and stepped away, Jorgan falling into stride with her as they moved off to check on the rest of Malcom’s forces.

Xaja sighed wearily and made to walk in the direction that Elara had indicated, but was brought to a halt by Theron tugging on her hand. When she looked up at him, he nodded toward an alcove in the corridor and lowered his voice. “Can we talk for a second?”

“Of course.” Xaja’s brow creased as she eyed her partner, mind racing to try and figure out what he wanted to talk about. Had he known about her eavesdropping on his conversation? What the hells was Malcom saying about suicide letters?

Theron nodded and took a deep breath as if to brace himself. The words that came out of his mouth, however, were nothing like what Xaja had expected. “Something… something happened, during the fight in the caves… I think you need to know.”

Power blackouts on Nar Shaddaa, especially in the Red Light sector, weren’t uncommon. A series of rolling blackouts across the entire sector were a little unusual, but not enough to gain the attention of the Hutt overlords. And hopefully, they wouldn’t be enough to make Zakuul look too closely, either.

Reanden crept along a walkway with Kaliyo, following a young, pretty woman who had introduced herself as Kylee. She was apparently one of the leaders of the Screaming Blade cult — no, Lord Kallig hadn’t come up with the name, she assured an incredulous Reanden, he had just inherited it when he’d taken the cult from a rival Sith and hadn’t bothered to change the name — and still remembered the Sith with some strange mixture of awe and fondness. It was enough to convince her to aid the strangers Lord Kallig himself had sent. And really, she was much easier to deal with than her fanatical counterpart, a man named Destris.

The human woman paused before a corner and gestured with her head to Reanden. “The bunker should be just ahead, sir.”

“Y’mean where the giant-ass turret’s standing?” Kaliyo looked around Kylee and raised one brow-ridge. “The Zaks compensatin’ for everything with how big they gotta make things?”

“I blame the bastard in charge,” Reanden muttered. He also took a glance around the corner, then pulled back. “Nobody had any questions about that huge turret before?”

“Nobody who wanted to live, sir. Everyone who came around here got killed.” Kylee shifted nervously. “Folks still keep their distance from here — Cartel, gangs, mercs, even our cult members.”

“That approach is gonna be a bitch,” Kaliyo muttered as Reanden flipped on his stealth generator and stepped out to get a better look at the turret. “They got a full field of view for anyone approaching. Probably have infra-ed or proximity sensors for stealthers.”

“Likely,” Reanden’s voice muttered out of thin air. “Not a great angle for us to get a flyby from a ship, either.”

“Not unless you wanna risk killing a bunch of innocent people… or at least as innocent as you get on Nar Shaddaa.”

“That sounded strangely caring of you, Kaliyo.”

“Only because I know you got a thing about that, old man.”

Reanden rolled his eyes at ‘old man’ and turned his focus back to the bunker. “There might be a side or back entrance to the facility that doesn’t require going past the turret,” he murmured. “Otherwise we’ll have to sabotage that to get into the bunker. And sneaking up on that is going to be a pain in the ass.”

“There any way we can get underneath it?” Kaliyo frowned. “Maybe try disabling it from below?”

“Maybe!” Kylee brightened up exponentially. “I’m pretty sure I can get blueprints of this area.”

“Excellent.” Reanden returned to the shelter provided by the corner and switched his stealth generator off. “See what you can pull for us, Kylee. The sooner we can take down that bunker, the better.”

The shield protecting the Star Fortress skeleton in Tatooine’s orbit was gone, but that didn’t mean the station wasn’t a danger. Korin frowned as he piloted the Dancer toward the satellite, just getting a glimpse of Corey’s freighter, Kotyc, out of the corner of his eye. “Fierfek, this thing’s huge,” the Mandalorian’s voice came over the comms.

“That’s what she said.” Korin couldn’t stop from grinning as he swooped low under the fortress, even if his heart was racing at the idea of the station being operational enough to shoot. Beside him, Tee-Seven made a beeping noise that sounded suspiciously like a laugh.

“I’m going to punch you again, burc’ya,” Corey muttered. “At least one of us is an adult.”

“Bah. You’re no fun. At least Tee-Seven thought that was funny.” Korin angled the Dancer downward; a moment later, he felt his heart leap into his throat. “Holy—!”


“Okay, so actual grownup talk now… hells, it looks like they have their own sun in here.” Korin nimbly flew around the skeleton as Corey chose his own route around the station. “Is that how they’re pulling all that insane firepower?”

“Their own sun?” Corey sounded skeptical. “That doesn’t sound—” He suddenly went quiet, before letting loose a few shocked expletives in his native tongue as he regained his composure.. “Oh. I see what you mean. Shit, they actually have miniature suns inside the fortresses.”

“How the hells…?” Korin muttered. “I want to know how they’re making their own personal stars inside those fortresses.”

“Heh. I thought the title of Star Fortress was just the Zaks being dramatic as per usual.” Korin could almost hear Corey’s frown. “Making even a miniature star like that shouldn’t be possible. What kind of tech do they have out there?”

“It’s damned good already, just from the Fleet. This is marginally more terrifying.”

“At least these stay in one place… I hope.” Kotyc zoomed through Korin’s field of vision as Corey went high. “That shield they had on the planet surface makes me think there’s a glaring vulnerability in the fortresses, especially in construction mode like this. I don’t think there’s any space on board yet for lifeforms to be here.”

“Come on, the Zaks run everything with their droids. They’d have no reason to have people on board. If we found a way to disable all their droids, their entire society would collapse.”

<<Zakuulan droids = too many = overpowered.>> Tee-Seven beeped indignantly. <<Zakuulan droids = rude.>>

“Sounds like their humans, buddy,” Korin muttered as he darted closer to the Star Fortress for a better read on the shields. “See what you can pull on their shields for me?” He got an affirmative beep.

“Disabling all their droids…” Corey mused over the comm. “That’s surprisingly not a bad idea, coming from you.”

“What was that supposed to mean?!”

“You know exactly what that meant. I’m surprised the guy who thought flirting his way into a Zakuulan camp to get intel came up with a good idea.”

“Excuse me, that idea worked perfectly. I got intel, and I got laid.” Korin grinned. “A win all around. I’m just full of good ideas.”

“I don’t know how your brother hasn’t strangled you yet.” Corey sighed as he completed a circuit around the satellite. “Far as I can tell, they’ve got basic shields up, but nothing as good as what the bunker was providing. We get in with a quick enough strike team, we might be able to knock this thing out of the sky before it gets to be a bigger threat.”

“I almost wanna try infiltrating it,” Korin murmured as he dove dangerously near the skeleton. “If we can figure out how they’re making those mini suns to power the damn things, might give us something of an edge.”

“Sneaking on board a karking Star Fortress? You’re insane, even by Taerich standards.” Corey went thoughtfully quiet. “Plan for both, ret’lini. If we’re gonna do either, we’ll have move fast, before they complete it enough to pressurize. Otherwise, I think the next one we’d get a chance to take out is the one they’re putting up over Voss.”

“Rumour has it there’s another one over Hoth too,” Korin added. “Not sure how far along that one is yet.”

“Hoth? What the hell’s on Hoth that the Zaks want to keep contained? Wampas and tauntauns?”

“Hey, you ever get bit or chased by a tauntaun? Those things are vicious!”

“Did you try your patented flirting technique on the poor tauntaun, too?”

“Fuck you, Black.”

“Buy me dinner first.” Corey retorted. “Even if it’s a pity screw at this—”

Tee-Seven suddenly started whistling a warning, loudly enough to drown out Corey’s voice. “What?” Korin asked as he glanced down at the droid. “They’re targeting weapons on us? I thought their weapons systems weren’t live!”

<<Weapons systems = live now!>>

“Thanks,” Korin muttered as he dove sharply, the Force just warning him of the Star Fortress’ cannon fire. “Corey?”

“I see it!” Kotyc zoomed past to Korin’s left, dodging its own stream of ion beams. “So, shields, weapons systems…”

“And I’m pretty sure they’ve got surveillance and comms systems. All they’re missing is life support.” The Dancer angled sharply as Korin tore away from the Fortress. “Blowin’ one up might be easier than sneaking on. Dammit.”

“Sucks when I’m right, doesn’t it?”

“Oh, shut up,” Korin muttered, and could almost hear Corey’s grin. “Tee-Seven, how are we looking?”

<<Star Fortress = sending comm signals = communicating with Zakuulans. Dancer =/= jamming systems.>>

“I’m aware I don’t have signal jammers for a thing like that!” Korin retorted as he banked hard to the left. “Any updates from the ground as to when folks’ll be ready to haul ass outta here?”

“If things are going smoothly they should be about ready to send the first transports out,” Corey grunted, pushing Kotyc into a hard, spiralling dive. “With luck, most of them will be out soon.”

“Here’s hoping the Fleet doesn’t show up before they can get moved out,” Korin muttered. He shook his head and glanced toward the astromech. “Keep your ears open, Tee-Seven. We’ll need to send up flares if company does show up.”

Chapter Text

Even with Corellia effectively under siege, the Coronet spaceport was remained busy: The sight of civilians, pilots, and CorSec personnel hurrying about on their business was not uncommon. Since the attack on the Green Jedi Enclave, the comings and goings of the Green Jedi were a slightly more unusual sight, considering how few members of the Order survived. Few left the Enclave now, and even fewer left Corellia, but departure wasn’t unheard of.

It didn’t stop Annya Emrys, twin lightsabers swaying against green-clad hips, from feeling as though she rather stood out as she hurried to a private hangar in the spaceport. Owned by her father, Hamilton, it had served to funnel numerous members of the resistance to and from Corellia. One might never guess that the hangar itself  was technically owned by CorLion, LTD., the Emrys family logistics firm. Two ships currently waited within the hangar — it a tight fit, but hardly the first time they had made efficient use of the space.

She finally emerged from the lift to see Balance of Justice emblazoned on the hull of the Defender-class corvette, all but towering over a small, two-person shuttle. A small gathering of personnel stood between the ships. She made her way toward them as the tallest among them saw her first and raised a hand in greeting. “I wasn’t sure if you were going to make it.”

“Uncle Connall wanted to talk at me for the last hour and express his displeasure with this entire idea.” Annya rolled her eyes as she finally came to a halt beside Jonas.

“He’s really against you leaving Corellia, is he?” Jonas asked with a slight smirk.

“Half that, and half something about Imperial-spawned bastards not being worth time and effort, even if the other half of them is Corellian.” The redhead sighed and shook her head. “I’m making it back after this, if only to prove that Green Jedi who leave the system don’t always wind up dead or defected like dear cousin Airna.”

“Oh, I don’t count?” Jakar Forseti snorted. “If I didn’t know the old man, I would be offended. Essi isn’t overly enthused about this idea either, but she’s worried about Xaja too. She’d be coming along if the girls didn’t need care.”

“The struggles of half-Tythonian Jedi,” Jonas deadpanned. “You’re the last one we’re waiting for. Cole’s staying to keep a haven open for us and to keep CorSec running. Risha’s had to run back to Dubrillion for some sort of a gong show there. The rest of us are heading to Alderaan.”

“And no word yet about your cousin or Agent Shan, from official channels or otherwise,” Bey’wan Aygo finished. “I can’t get hold of Corso on the comms systems, and according to Balkar, the SIS has no news.”

Annya frowned, turning her focus to the Force. She had trained with Xaja Taerich on Tython, years before the two discovered they were second cousins. She considered herself reasonably familiar with the petite Jedi’s Force-signature, but when she reached out, she felt nothing. Of course, if she was still alive, Xaja was likely in the Dantooine system, far distant from Corellia. “If she’s still alive,” she finally said, “I can’t feel her.”

“Neither can I, and I’ve known her for over a decade,” Jakar murmured. “She’d better still be alive when we find her, or there’ll be hell to pay.”

“As in hunting down the Zaks who may or may not have done them in, or dragging her spirit back to the realm of the living for an ass-kicking?” Jonas asked with a grin.

“Pick one.” Jakar shook his head as he started walking to his ship. “Or both. Are you sure you don’t just want to ride along in my ship, Agent Balkar? I have plenty of space available.”

“Thanks, but I’ll need my shuttle. The Director’s promising to send me all over the damned galaxy in the next few weeks.” Jonas flicked a lazy salute at the Barsen’thor. “My next stop is Alderaan, same as you, so I’ll just follow you there.” 

“I’ll send you the rendezvous coordinates when you arrive in the system,” Jakar nodded. “May there be good news waiting for us there.”

“Preferably tangible good news -- like Master Taerich or Agent Shan themselves being there,” Bey’wan muttered as he turned to follow Jakar to the Balance. Annya could hear the engines already powering up as the Jedi and the Admiral walked up the ramp into the ship. Looking up with a squint, she could just see Jakar’s Trandoshan companion in the cockpit of the ship.

Annya started to take a step toward Jakar’s ship before she felt a hand cradle her elbow. “Y’know,” Jonas drawled, a smirk pulling at his lips, “there’s more than enough space on my shuttle if you didn’t want to share breathing space with one of the Council.”

Despite her worry for her cousin, the redhead grinned and slipped an arm around Jonas’ waist as they walked toward his shuttle. His came to rest over her shoulders. “You’re just saying that so you don’t get lonely in transit.”

“Me? Ulterior motives? Never. I’m rather offended, Master Emrys.” The SIS operative couldn’t help the grin that curled across his lips.

The Green Jedi shook her head, her grin a suitable echo of his. “Shut up, Balkar.”

Aside from Thunder’s leadership, the Resistance had learned that mobility was arguably their most valuable asset: sitting down and getting comfortable was never going to be an option for them while the war waged on and Zakuul’s banner flew over the galaxy. Still, Sorand was impressed with how quickly the Tatooine cell had managed to pack up what they could, and wipe or destroy what they couldn’t. He supposed it helped that a solid three-quarters of the cell was comprised of Mandalorians, who were more accustomed to bas’lan shev’la  than others. Add Lana Beniko, former head of Sith Intelligence herself, as the taskmaster overseeing the evacuation, and things happened quickly.

He drew to a halt beside the aforementioned Sith as she looked up from a datapad. “We’re proceeding on schedule,” she informed him. “The first shuttles are departing now, and the last of us should be gone within two hours.”

“Good. The sooner we’re gone, the better.” Sorand looked up at the cave roof, as though he could see the Star Fortress construction and the two freighters flying around it. “Any updates from Corey and Korin?”

“Rudimentary shields are in place — the Star Fortresses rely heavily on the ground bunkers for stronger deflection. The station’s not equipped for life support systems yet, but it seems to be habitable for droids. Weapons systems are online, so they’re attempting to keep the Skytroopers and droids distracted enough so our evacuation can proceed.” Lana frowned down at the datapad. “Tee-Seven transmitted back something about a star in the centre of the fortress as well.”

The dark-haired Sith frowned in confusion. “A star? Inside the fortress? That can’t be right.”

“He’s insistent. And with your brother and Corey too busy trying to keep themselves from getting shot, they can’t exactly clarify what he means.”

“Hmm. We’ll debrief them when we’re all away from here.” Sorand looked back down at Lana, feeling nervous worry clench around his heart. “Any word from Dantooine?”

“Nothing.” The look Lana exchanged with Sorand reflected her own fear of what the end result of that attack had been. “No further word from Riggs, and no reports of survivors from other cells or independent assets.”

“It’s still early,” Sorand murmured, crossing his arms over his chest and staring at the mostly-empty cave in front of him. “They could have escaped and still be running.”

“It’s possible.” Lana reached over, placing her hand on his forearm. She offered a comforting squeeze. “There is one glimmer of hope, however: Zakuul has made no statement regarding elimination of a resistance cell, nor capture or demise of either your sister or Theron. Arcann would be gloating to the entire galaxy, had he apprehended them.”

Sorand slowly nodded. Lana did have a point — Arcann was enough of an egomaniac that he wouldn’t have been able to stay quiet about his triumph over the ‘assassin’ and ‘terrorist.’ Unless they’re in transit to Zakuul, or the Empire or the Republic got there first. Wait, the Republic wouldn’t have attacked them like that, not with so many Jedi there… would they? “I still need confirmation, one way or another,” he said.

“You’re not planning on going there yourself, are you?” Lana’s eyes widened. “You’re as valuable a target as they are!”

“I’m aware.” Sorand sighed and uncrossed his arms, running his hand over the scruffy beard he’d let grow in. It would help disguise his identity a little bit, he thought. Besides, the look was rather growing on him, and Shara seemed to like it. “If we’ve heard nothing by the time we’re on Alderaan, I’m sending someone out to investigate. Right now I need all hands to get this cell moved out quickly.”

Lana nodded, then glanced down at her datapad as a small ping came through. “The second set of shuttles is away. We had best get to the Shereshoy and be ready to leave, my lord.”


“Apologies. Changing four years’ worth of ingrained habit is difficult, Sorand.” Lana shot the taller Sith a small, tight smile. “Come.”

Nar Shaddaa never slept, and neither did the security systems of the Zakuulan bunker. Fully staffed, Knights and Skytroopers took shifts to guard the site and the control panels for the shields of the orbiting Star Fortress. They believed each potential vulnerability had been secured. But, in their arrogance, there was one significant blind spot that they hadn’t thought to guard against.

Reanden grunted as he slowly made his way through the narrow maintenance tunnels snaking through the sector, a blueprint of the area displaying itself through one of his retinal implants. It was an area usually left to rodents, droids, and the occasional vagrant. Needless to say, it had seen better -- and cleaner -- days. He tried not to think too hard about the puddle he planted his elbow into, crawling to the next intersection. “I’m getting too old for this shit,” he grumbled into his comm.

“This was your idea, Legate,” Kothe retorted, voice crackling in the earpiece Reanden carried. “Vette could have gotten in there easier.”

“Vette’s a bright girl, but she doesn’t know how to do my job.” Reanden muttered a curse as his head bumped against a pipe that had no business being in his way like that. Gingerly rubbing the sore spot through his greying hair, he blinked at the blueprint he was following. “I’m under the bunker.”

“Good work. Standby.” The former Jedi went quiet for a moment; Reanden knew the other spy was tracing his position on sector maps. “The comms centre should be about six more metres north, then two metres west. Be careful; that’ll put you right under the shield generator.”

“I’d still like to know how they managed to get their own power station in here to run the damn thing,” Reanden mused as he resumed crawling forward. He scowled as his implants started to quietly hum, picking up the energy of the Zakuulans’ shield generator.

“Heh. You should see some of the intel your son sent back about the Tatooine fortress they got a look at. Miniature suns inside the damned things.”

“Wait, what?” That report was concerning, but Reanden couldn’t spare the time to think about the apparent interior structures of the Star Fortresses. That was something to concern himself with at another time. He had another job to do. “On second thought -- fill me in on that later.”

The old spy reached the corner in the tunnels and turned to the west, grumbling about the stupid things he did for his job and the sake of the galaxy at large. “Remind me again why I didn’t retire, Kothe?” he muttered into the comm.

“You tried once, if Marcus tells the story correctly, and lasted perhaps half a day before getting bored enough to take apart the Shadow’s comms systems and put them back together.”

“That bastard knows far too much,” Reanden groused as he pulled himself forward the last few feet, ignoring Kothe’s snort of laughter. Yes, that was a peculiar pipe running through the middle of the maintenance tunnels, only a few metres from the bottom part of the power generator. “I’m here.” He blinked to take a snapshot of the area; another series of blinks sent the image to Kothe.

“That looks about right. You find an access point?”

“Not yet — oh, there we go, you look promising.” Reanden grunted as he pulled himself around the side of the pipe and started removing an access panel. From how difficult it was to remove, he suspected it hadn’t been touched since the bunker was under construction. With a few more muttered expletives, he managed to pull the panel off, exposing a series of wires and transmitters to his cybernetically-enhanced eyes. “Jackpot.”

He smirked tightly to himself as he reached into his belt pouch and retrieved some small, barely-noticeable parts. With almost forty-odd years of experience behind him, installing his own transmitters into enemy feeds was a task he could practically do in his sleep -- even on the advanced Zakuulan tech. It still operated on the same basic premise as Republic, Empire, and Huttese technology. Thus, slipping a transmitter onto the main conduit remained a simple task. “Test.”

“Standby…” Kothe went quiet for a moment. “Receiving. Force, I’m seeing everything: comms, transmissions records, security logs, personnel records…”

“Excellent. Hang tight while I set up part two.” Installing a systems override without being detected was a fair sight more difficult, and Reanden spent several long minutes sweating in the stifling tunnels as he delicately wired in the tiny device. He swiped at his forehead with the crook of his arm. “Give that a try.”

“Let’s see…” Kothe gave a low whistle. “Looks like that took. I’m not gonna try pulling anything with Zaks awake in the bunker, but I should be able to override their system controls from here.”

“Still got it.” Reanden smirked, then gingerly extricated himself from the tangle of wires, carefully replacing the panel cover. “Can you open the surveillance feed enough for Thunder to observe? Or Marcus?”

“Marcus for sure. We’ll have to wait to get Thunder’s latest encryption key. They’ve got some people hiding them who’re damn good at their jobs.”

Damn straight, Reanden thought. He’d been the one to make Sorand’s ‘Thunder’ signal nigh untraceable, and had taught his son how to maintain the scrambling. “Works for me. I’m heading out before I melt down here.”

“Salt doesn’t melt that quickly,” the spymaster remarked.

The double agent gave a snort of laughter. “That’s another drink you owe me.”

Kothe chuckled. “Then get your sorry shebs back here. You can collect on the way out of the system.” He paused a beat. “In case I didn’t mention it, good work, Legate.”

Trying to find somewhere quiet on a Republic warship was like looking for dry land on Manaan. The small briefing room that Xaja had eventually found still wasn’t what could be called a ‘relaxing environment’, but at least it muffled most of the noises of Commander Malcom’s troops and the Jedi refugees.

“I don’t get it,” Theron quietly murmured to her as they sat on the floor of the briefing room, legs crossed and knees just touching each other's. “I wasn’t imagining it — my mother saw it too. It…”

“After all this time…” Xaja took one of Theron’s hands in both of her own, fingers slowly tracing the calluses earned over the years. “Shouldn’t this have shown up with Master Zho’s training?”

“I dunno.” Theron frowned, twisting his hand in hers to run his thumb over her knuckles. “I’m kinda wondering if it’s not the bond that’s doing this. I mean, I couldn’t feel anything before the Voss ritual.”

“But even then, you could only feel what I was channeling.” Xaja bit on her lower lip in thought. “There isn’t really any records of this ever happening before, with a Force-user bonding to a Force-blind person and making them Force-sensitive.”

“How many records are there of people walking around with Sith ghosts in their heads?”

“You might be surprised. Sorand had some stories.” Xaja shook her head at Theron’s rising eyebrows and turned her focus back to the perplexing question at hand. “You don’t think another Jedi could have pushed your blaster back to you?”

Theron shook his head. “It didn’t feel like that at all. It… I could feel it, Xaja. It was… kriff, how do I explain it…” He sighed. “… It was like I could feel the blaster, and feel something connecting me to it. I could feel it being pulled back to me.”

“And it wouldn’t have been me you sensed,” Xaja murmured. “I was trying to not die.” She hummed in thought, an idea glimmering in her mind. “Do you think you could do it again?”

“Maybe?” Theron shrugged his uninjured shoulder. “I don't know. I guess it’s worth a try?”

Xaja nodded in agreement as she looked around the briefing room. Someone had left a datapad behind on the table; she reached out a hand and, using the Force, drew it toward them, setting it down a couple of metres away. “See if you can pull that over?”

Theron frowned at the datapad, then stretched his arm out. “Kriff, how the hell did I do this last time?” he muttered. Xaja watched his forehead wrinkle as he stared down the length of his arm. She could just feel the Force shifting around him faintly, erratic ripples pressing against her senses. It was like she was watching a new Jedi Youngling trying to touch the Force for the first time— which, she supposed, wasn’t inaccurate. This particular ‘Youngling’ just happened to be thirty-three years old.

The bond prickled. “Youngling?” Theron mumbled, raising one eyebrow incredulously at Xaja.

“Sorry.” Xaja offered him a cheeky grin. “Would ‘Padawan’ feel better?”

Theron broke his focus long enough to very maturely stick his tongue out at Xaja, earning a giggle from the Jedi. “Brat,” he muttered.

“And you keep me around anyway,” Xaja retorted with a smile as she reached to take his other hand.

“Yeah, for some reason. The things I do for cute Jedi girls.” Theron grinned and shook his head before turning his focus back to his task. Xaja watched as his smirk fell away, replaced by a frown. Amber eyes narrowed as the spy honed in on the datapad, a muscle in his jaw twitching. The ripples in the Force grew more pronounced, but not quite strongly enough for any visible motions.

Xaja’s gaze darted between Theron’s frown and the datapad, anxiously watching for any movement. When Theron had told her about the blaster returning to his hand, she almost hadn’t believed it. She desperately wanted to know if it was possible for Theron to touch the Force, even if his odds were astronomically low. And he wanted it just as badly as she wanted it for him, likely even more. For all his offhanded comments about not needing the Force, she knew he was always bitter he hadn’t shared his mother’s aptitude for it.

She squeezed his hand as she turned back to look at him. Sweat was starting to bead on his forehead with the effort he was putting into his attempt to move the datapad, every muscle in his neck and jaw rigid. “Breathe, Theron,” she said quietly.

Theron wordlessly nodded, not taking his gaze from the datapad. Xaja felt a burst of growing frustration mingled with desperation along the bond. “Come on…” he whispered. She could feel the strain building within him. The hand not stretched out to the datapad squeezed Xaja’s fingers in his lap tightly.

Maybe thirty seconds later, Theron slumped in frustrated disappointment. “Must’ve been a fluke,” he muttered. “I can’t do it again.”

Xaja sighed and reached up to caress Theron’s uninjured shoulder. “I’m sorry, Theron,” she murmured, reaching out with the Force in an attempt to soothe his frustration. “Maybe the Force answered you in a high-stress situation? We’ll figure something out.”

Theron rested his forehead against Xaja’s, jaw clenching with his disappointment. He had so desperately hoped that he could repeat it, she knew — that he would be able to live up to the Jedi lineage that weighed on him. “Might have been another Jedi flying it back to me in the fight, or my mother might have unconsciously done something. It doesn’t matter.” He sighed heavily and waved his hand in a frustrated motion in the datapad’s direction. “It’s not going to happen for me—”

The datapad didn’t move much, but it did noticeably wiggle in the direction of Theron’s push.

Xaja felt her jaw drop as she felt Theron freeze. Shock flared in the Force, and it was impossible to tell who radiated it more. Slowly, she turned her stare from the datapad up to Theron’s face, as his shock mingled with the strongest sense of joy and relief that she had felt since the moment he’d broken her out of carbonite. “So, what were you saying about that being a fluke?” A grin pulled at her lips.

“That… it actually…” Theron stared down at his hand, then at the datapad in disbelief. “I…” When he looked back at Xaja, his eyes were wide, a smile starting to appear. Elation radiated from him strongly enough that Xaja could almost physically see it. “You saw that, right?!”

“Yes, I saw it!” Xaja beamed as she lifted her hands to caress Theron’s face. “Force, Theron, you—” Her words were lost as Theron abruptly pulled her in to kiss her hard, too much at a loss for words to try to verbalize his joy. She tangled her fingers in his hair as she kissed him back, pulling him closer to her in turn—

They both heard the sounds of the sublight engines kick in as Malcom’s warship dropped out of hyperspace. Xaja reluctantly pulled back from the kiss and looked upward. “Is this another one of the false-trail jumps your father’s doing to keep the Zakuulans off our necks?”

Theron blinked in the odd way that told Xaja he was interacting with his implants. “Yes,” he finally said. “We’re approaching the Rhen Var system, next detour looking like it’s going to be past Onderon.” He sighed as he loosened his grip on her. “Want to go find somewhere more comfortable to crash?”

“Consider my rubber arm twisted,” Xaja said as she got to her feet, Theron a second behind her. She watched as his gaze still went back to the datapad and a smile pulled at his mouth again. “We’ll make a Jedi out of you yet,” she said with a grin.

Theron just shook his head as though disbelieving what had just happened, even if his elation hadn’t subsided much. “I still can’t believe it,” he whispered as he reached down to take Xaja’s hand. “After all this time…”

“The Order just gave up on you too early,” Xaja laughed as they started walking out of the briefing room. “It—”

A stabbing pain lanced through her head, badly enough to make her wince and stop walking. She could sense Theron’s sudden worry, but couldn’t hear him speaking to her as another voice filled her mind, a cold, malevolent whisper. So your pet can now do parlour tricks. So very impressive. Certainly the apex of Revan’s line. Vitiate was still as cruelly sarcastic as Xaja remembered from her carbonite nightmares.

Shut up! Get out of my head! Xaja ground her teeth as she tried to wedge a mental wall between her and Vitiate, even more than what the Voss had done. The Emperor chuckled coldly before the icy, painful pressure lessened on her shields, and the waking world came back into focus.

“--ja? Xaja!” Theron was lightly shaking her shoulders, eyes wide with fear this time. “Look at me, sweetheart, please…” His hand came up to caress her cheek; Xaja could feel moisture on her skin when his thumb traced her cheekbone, and realized she had shed a tear. “The hell was that?”

Xaja had buried her face in Theron’s chest almost before she realized she was moving. Fear raced through her veins, fear of the monster inside her head and what she knew he was capable of, fear mingled with hatred. “It was him,” she whispered, and felt Theron tightly wrap his arms around her, his earlier joy dissolving into mingled anger and dread. “He’s watching, Theron. He’s… he’s trying to get in.”

A cruel laugh echoed in the depths of her mind. .

With a whoosh, ships of the Eternal Fleet dropped out of hyperspace in Tatooine’s orbit. At first glance, all seemed normal and deceptively peaceful... until one of the GEMINIs registered the two light freighters being chased around the Star Fortress skeleton by the station’s rudimentary fire. But those pilots had seen the Fleet’s arrival, and were already diving away from the warships. The Paladin overseeing the battle group scoffed derisively as the ships, likely owned by the miscreant smuggler types that ran rampant in the Core Worlds, fled from the Fleet. He watched as the ships opened fire on the freighters, then raised an eyebrow, begrudgingly impressed, as the pair vanished into hyperspace. The Core Worlds did produce some decent pilots, it seemed.

But two spacers playing chicken with the Star Fortress weren’t his concern. He sharply barked out an order to deploy ground troops to Tatooine’s surface. He would get his answers for the blatant attack on the bunker there.

He turned to march away from the bridge, but glanced back just in time to see another ship leave Tatooine’s orbit and jump to hyperspace before they had quite broken out of the atmosphere.

The bunker was destroyed. As far as the Paladin could tell from the reports of his droids sent in to analyze the ruins, the rebels had managed to overload the generator under the desert’s sandy floor. The scattered remains of demolished Skytroopers still littered the ground around the bunker, but little remained of the human inhabitants. It was likely that the barbaric rebels had left their bodies for Tatooine’s wildlife.

The Paladin snarled in rage at the disrespect of the rebels, stalking back toward his transport. “Tear the planet apart if you have to. I will have their heads!”

Two hours later, he stepped into the hidden cave labyrinth, seeing everything tinged with red. The rebels had been here — they hadn’t vacated the caves fast enough to take everything with them, and there were empty crates, blaster parts, and ration wrappers left laying about. But the few computers still around had been destroyed with a barrage of blaster shots. There were no datapads or scraps of flimsi left behind. And there was no information to be gleaned about the recent inhabitants of the caves.

He stalked through the caves, noting the different alcoves filled with abandoned items from the resistance. Some caves, and even whole open parts of the canyon floor, bore the signs of recently being occupied by starships. When he held his bare hand against the sand, he could still feel lingering warmth, despite the cooler interior of the cave. The last rebels must have fled within the hour, barely a step ahead of the Zakuulans. He glowered at the stone walls of the cave before whirling on one of his subordinates. “Get me every departure log from Anchorhead and Mos Eisley!”

“We’ve been trying, sir,” the corporal stammered. “But this part of Tatooine is considered no-man’s land. Neither the Republic base nor the Imperial has any control over who takes off from here. And if the rebels are this good, they will have been able to dodge any identification attempts —”

“I did not ask for excuses. Get me answers!” The Paladin stormed through the caves, seeking to return to his shuttle. Which resistance leaders had been here? Had Thunder themselves been present to oversee the attack? Either way, he needed answers. Emperor Arcann would accept nothing less.

Chapter Text

The Shereshoy whined as it descended through the Alderaanian atmosphere, maneuvering sharply to slip through the narrow opening of a cavern built into the side of one of the many mountains in the snowy region. It hovered briefly, finally settling within a clearing in the caves, neatly parked beside the battle-worn Dancer. The engines were still ramping down as Sorand descended the ramp of the Shereshoy. He tossed a casual salute to his brother. “Good job not getting shot,” he said with a smirk.

“What can I say? It’s a gift.” Korin grinned, then waved as Lana and Torian followed his brother down the ramp. Shara was only a step behind, Koth in tow. “Corey got here same time I did. He’s parked beside the Raven — I’ve been told your baby’s just fine, ‘Rand.”

“She’d better be, or there’ll be hell to pay,” Sorand muttered, sparing a glance downward as Tee-Seven rolled down the ramp with a series of beeps and whistles. “Any contact with the rest of the cell?”

“They know we’re here. A couple of the Organas came out to say hi.” Korin started walking beside his brother through the tunnels. He knew the layout of the base well from his regular supply and intel runs. “From everything I was told, they haven’t heard anything. And still no check-in from Malcom yet.”

“Not even a text message?” Sorand frowned, feeling his worry echoed. When he glanced back, he could see Akaavi and Rusk behind him, Bowdarr bringing up the rear.

“That is concerning,” Lana murmured, a frown creasing her brow. “If Corso hasn’t been able to contact us…”

“Even if Farmboy’s on the lam,” Shara spoke up, “it ain’t good that the kriffing Supreme Commander went quiet and all. If he showed up on-scene and the Zaks caught him…”

“Especially if he really is Shan’s biological father,” Koth spoke up. “With that reputation of Shan being a terrorist, every loyal Zakuulan is going to want to wring any possible bit of intel that they can get, especially from a family member.”

“As if we didn’t have enough to be worried about.” Sorand frowned. “Any word from Dad yet?”

“Nada. But you know how Dad gets when he’s in ops mode. If he hasn’t contacted us by the end of the week, we can be worried then.” Korin shrugged as he rounded a corner, leading into a giant cavern. Once, it had been overrun with killiks; it now housed a resistance operations base. “Where’d you send the rest of the Mando squad to?”

Mand’alor recalled them -- can’t say where to an aruetii,” Shara interjected, “but she’s giving me, Corey, Torian, and Akaavi a pass since she knows we’re workin’ with the resistance directly.”

“Fair enough.” Korin looked forward and raised his voice as they approached a command platform. “Hey, look what the wild manka dragged in!”

The flurry of activity on the platform ceased for a split second as everyone looked over, before a burst of excited noises filled the cavern. A second later, Talos hurried around the large Hutt on the platform, open relief in his expression. “My lord! It’s a relief to see you well and unharmed.”

“Good to see you too, Talos.” Sorand waved as Kimble came up behind the archaeologist and promptly smiled in relief. “You as well, Kimble.” He looked around, noting a few familiar faces, and more strange ones. Not even Thunder knew the name and face of everyone in the resistance. “This is a very impressive setup here for the resistance. Well done.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Vector spoke up as he offered the Sith a bow. “Did you have any problems leaving Tatooine?”

“Fewer than leaving Dromund Kaas,” Sorand muttered.

“The Fleet came barrellin’ in as the last transports were leaving,” Korin spoke up. “All they’ll be findin’ is empty caves and exhaust fumes. They didn’t catch any of us on the way out.”

“Cuttin’ it a little close at the end,” Koth commented, his brow creasing. “Another hour…”

“Ah, c’mon, Vortena.” Korin grinned. He clapped the former Zakuulan officer on the shoulder. “It’s a Core World tradition to procrastinate to the very last minute on important, life-altering things.”

“Only on your homeworld, perhaps.” Vector shook his head as he stepped back a pace. “Shall we provide an in-brief?”

“Please do.” Sorand fell into step beside the Joiner as his entourage of followers scattered, leaving him with Korin, Lana, Shara, and Koth. He could just hear the sounds of Kimble and Rusk meeting up again, mingled with Tee-Seven’s happy beeping. “First, the Zakuulans. Then we can discuss Malcom.”

“As you wish.” Vector bowed slightly. “If the Zakuulans have heightened their surveillance of Alderaan, we are unaware of it. There have been a few patrols that have come from the Star Fortress, but no more than usual. They still maintain a safe distance from the killik nests, for fear of Joining us.”

I don’t blame them, Sorand thought, but said nothing. “The noble houses?”

“Organa, Rist, Frayus, and Alde are still assisting us with supplies and transportation around the planet. Thul and Ulgo are aware of our presence, but they do not know where we are. We have a connection directly to Organa Castle not far from here, and this portion of the cave leads out to Rist lands. Killiks inhabit most of it, but we can travel through the nests safely, provided we do not cause them a disturbance.”

“Which is a boon,” Lana agreed, even if she cast a wary glance to one of the killiks walking around the cave. “Malcom?”

“Silence -- not even an attempt at contact that we can determine.” Vector frowned. “Duke Charle is concerned, as is the only Zakuulan inside the castle. We actually wished your opinion on the matter of this latest defector, my lord. She is a Zakuulan knight by the name of Senya Tirall—”

“Wait,” Koth finally spoke up. “Senya Tirall is here?” He seemed to be paling behind his goatee. “She was the captain of Valkorion’s personal guard!”

Korin’s eyebrows vanished under his scruffy hair. “That high ranked a defector? Shit, Arcann really ain’t endearing himself to a lot of you folks.”

“That’s new information,” Sorand said, shaking his head. “I think I’d rather like to meet her. If Valkorion’s captain of the guard has abandoned Zakuul, perhaps more Zakuulans will follow her.”

“We suspected you would.” Vector bowed slightly. “We can introduce her to you, Lord Imperius. She has indeed expressed curiosity about you, and not merely because of your sister. Your reputed strength in the Force impresses even the Zakuulans.”

“My reputed strength in the Force? I’m a little insulted.” Sorand offered Vector a small smirk. “Lead on, then.” He fell into step with the Joiner.

Behind him, the redheaded Corellian Jedi, Master Bel Iblis, stared after him, looking not unlike she had seen a ghost. She watched as his brother hesitated, looking around as though he could sense something... off. After a moment, he merely shook his head and followed Sorand.

Master Bel Iblis finally stepped back as the group departed, pale as she clutched a datapad to her chest. “That’s what her sons look like?” she whispered.

It was another day of travel before the Aegis dropped out of hyperspace in Alderaan’s orbital path. Xaja stifled a yawn as she and Theron walked into the bridge of the warship: The constant travel, flitting about the galaxy to obfuscate their trail, left her body with no idea what the date was anymore. She was pretty sure she was still operating on something approaching Dromund Kaas time. Right now it felt like the dim hours before dawn, although Theron had said that it was closer to early afternoon in Organa territory, on the planet surface. Maybe one day we’ll be lucky enough to stay somewhere long enough to get adjusted to one planetary time zone without having to run so quickly.

She snorted inwardly. Right. And maybe Arcann will offer a truce.

Malcom looked over as she and Theron approached him. “We’ve just arrived at Alderaan,” he said without any preamble. “The Star Fortress is orbiting the far side of the planet; if we’re quick enough with the descent, we should be able to vanish before they realize we’re here.”

“How often do the Zakuulans go poking around on the surface?” Theron asked, frowning at the rapidly-approaching planet and resting a hand protectively on Xaja’s lower back.

“Every so often they’ll traipse through the various Houses’ territories or go into the castles. But it’s not as often as they used to do.” Malcom stepped back as Master Satele approached them, Corso and Jorgan a step behind her. “When I left, the only Zakuulan in Organa territory was Knight Tirall, and she’s a defector.”

“I am curious about meeting her,” Xaja murmured. The idea of a Zakuulan defector and rebel against Arcann was one that perplexed her. And from what Master Satele had hinted, Tirall was not a mere grunt in the ranks who had abandoned her post. She was respectably high-ranked. Perhaps Arcann had pissed off more of his people than Xaja had dared to hope. If so, maybe she and Theron had a chance of survival.

“I expect she’ll be one of the first people you’ll meet when we finally get you to the resistance.” Master Satele offered a small smile. “She was interested in you as well — and I don’t believe she’s interested in turning you in.”

“We’ll worry about introductions after we get you two to safety,” Malcom rumbled. “Once you’ve gone underground with the resistance, you’ll get to know everyone.”

Xaja nodded, frowning slightly to herself as she gazed out at the stars beyond Alderaan. “All assuming none of the other cells were compromised.” With no contact to Sorand, or her father, or Doc, she was worried for their safety. And if they had heard of the attack on Dantooine, they had to be frantic.

“If there had been another raid, I’m pretty sure it would have come through to our comms,” Jorgan finally said. “Or it would have hit the broad HoloNet channels. Republic comms have already been blowing up with chatter about Dantooine — apparently we’re down to maybe two or three straggler Jedi in the Republic now, as far as anyone who isn’t on this ship knows.”

“Hmm. The longer they think we were killed, the better our odds of being able to get by without actually dying,” Theron muttered.

And the more likely my family has a collective heart attack, Xaja thought as she turned her focus to Alderaan. The planet thrummed with life in the Force, tangible to Xaja’s senses despite being in orbit. At this distance, she couldn’t focus enough to identify life forms on the surface. But for a moment, she swore she felt a flicker against her senses from a familiar signature, one tinged with both bright light and dark shadows. Sorand? “And the sooner we’re on the surface,” she murmured, “the sooner we can tell the resistance that we’re not dead yet.”

“We’ll be on the surface in under a standard hour.” Malcom nodded once, sharply. “I suggest you make yourselves scarce until we’re ready to get you offloaded. The Star Fortress doesn’t usually order ship searches, but I wouldn’t put it past them.”

In an empty alcove near to the entrance to Organa Castle, Sorand watched as an older woman was escorted through the cave by Vector. Even at a distance, he could sense her considerable strength in the Force, and the tight discipline that she exercised over it, enough to earn the envy of any Jedi. The Sith stepped out of the alcove, inclining his head in greeting. “You must be Senya Tirall,” he said.

“And you must be Darth Imperius.” Tirall offered him a shallow bow, which he answered with a nod. “I’ve heard much about you.”

“I expect there’s a few stories about me circulating around the galaxy,” Sorand acknowledged, a slight smirk twitching across his lips. He looked to the side where Lana and Korin stood behind him. “Allow me to introduce my brother, Captain Korin Taerich, and my advisor, Lana Beniko.”

“Of course. Even Zakuul has heard impressive stories about the Voidhound. And Lord Beniko -- your reputation precedes you.” Tirall nodded to each of the ones Sorand named. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“The feeling is mutual,” Lana answered. “Though... I trust you’ll forgive our collective curiosity as to how a such highly-ranked Knight of Zakuul came to sympathize with the resistance.”

“I’m sure you have many questions.” Tirall’s small smile softened her pale blue eyes. “I’m willing to answer as much as I can. While I may be one of the only Zakuulans to leave the service of the Eternal Throne, I’m not the only one who believes our home is in the wrong.”

Korin raised an eyebrow, shifting his weight to Sorand’s left. “And here I thought that all Knights were devoted to the Throne an’ whoever’s ass is parked in it.”

“Not all of us blindly support Arcann.” That was a slight bite to Tirall’s voice. “Tyranny is not what our people have stood for. I would hate to see my homeworld become permanently associated with dictators and conquest.”

“Your kind is rare,” Lana acknowledged, eyebrows raising. “Although I suppose if you were a loyalist to Zakuul, you wouldn’t have earned Satele Shan’s respect.”

“No. Even with the Jedi all but defeated, Master Shan is something of a respected legend among Zakuul’s ranks.” Tirall smiled slightly. “It was an honour to meet her in a relatively peaceful circumstance.”

“How did that meeting come about?” Sorand asked, curiosity striking him. “The greater part of the resistance knows nothing about you, and I have not been on-world long enough to meet anyone of the Organas.”

“We met on Jedha. She was trying to find her son who had gone MIA in the war, and I was seeking Jedi teachings on mind healing.” Tirall frowned slightly. “When I found nothing, she suggested I come here. She herself went to Voss to pursue another lead.”

Does she know…? Sorand exchanged a quick glance with Lana, then Korin, before looking back to the Zakuulan. “Did she identify her son’s name?”

“No. I looked through a list of Republic missing and dead with her, but Shan is apparently a common name.” She shook her head ruefully. “Of course, after arriving here I began to hear rumours that her son is the reported terrorist from the Spire, Theron Shan.”

“The reported terrorist? Do you believe the accusations are true?” Lana questioned.

Tirall spread her hands. “I dislike the idea that someone would attempt to cause an act of terrorism to my home. But, unlike the rest of my people, I do not immediately jump to the first thing that Arcann says. He…” She paused, pursing her lips for an instant. “It isn’t unheard of for him to alter the truth to garner public support. Of course, releasing the assassin who killed Valkorion could be considered terrorism…”

“War crime, maybe. Terrorism seems a bit excessive.” Korin shrugged. “D’you think the stories about the assassin are true?”

Someone killed Valkorion. And the reports say he was alone with Arcann and the assassin at the time of his death. For how strong Arcann is, I doubt he could have killed his father like that.” Tirall frowned. “The assassin, Taerich… she is your sister, is she not?” she asked, looking at Korin and Sorand.

“She is,” Sorand confirmed. “And the idea of her being a cold-blooded murderer is inconsistent both with her personality, and with the rules of the Jedi Code she swore to uphold.”

“She’s got the skill to,” Korin agreed. “I ain’t ever seen her lose a lightsaber duel. But if she killed Valkorion, she had a reason to. She woulda killed if she’d felt threatened, or panicked.”

“Master Shan said the same thing when I asked her about it,” Tirall murmured. “Considering she said she had trained your sister, she would know the most about her prowess, and her personality.”

“Yep. If the charges had been for sucker-punching Valkorion in the gonads, yeah, we’d believe it easier.” Korin grinned as Sorand shook his head. “Half ‘cause that’s all she would prob’ly be able to reach.”

“Classy,” Sorand muttered at his unrepentant brother… even if he knew that Korin was right and Xaja would have gleefully taken any opportunity to harm Vitiate -- Valkorion -- whatever his real name was. “My apologies, Knight Tirall.”

“Please, call me Senya.” The Zakuulan looked between both brothers, and the advisor standing between them. “I’ve heard a rumour that she and Shan have both gone missing again, with Master Shan. What happened?”

“We believe that Zakuulan forces attacked the hideout they sought refuge in.” Lana glanced at Sorand, then continued. “Three days ago, we received a distress signal, but haven’t heard anything since. I’ll be dispatching one of our scouts to their last reported location.”

“If Arcann had captured or killed them -- especially Master Taerich -- it would be all over the HoloNet by now. He does enjoy bragging.” Senya’s blue eyes narrowed in thought. “If they have been captured, I may be able to help you rescue them. I can provide information on Zakuulan protocols for detainment and transport of prisoners of war. ”

“And you would help rescue accused war criminals?” Korin asked, his earlier humour fading into a creased brow and grimly-set jaw.

“I would rather meet your sister and Master Shan’s son before I cast any judgement on them. As I said: it is not unheard of for Arcann to obscure the facts he delivers to suit his own means.” Senya’s eyes flashed. “Like the rest of my people, and likely yours, I want the truth of what happened.”

Sorand slowly nodded, deciding he rather liked the Zakuulan woman. “Then we welcome any information you’re willing to provide. Come; we may as well sit and be comfortable while discussing this.”

“… swear to the stars, Captain, you bring me another kriffing waste of bolts again and I’ll sell your ship to Ugnaughts,” Kothe snarled at Kaliyo as they entered the Shadow-masquerading-as-the-Duchess’s hangar, gifting a scowl over his shoulder to the lurching loader droid behind him.

“You want a better droid? Then start paying for it,” Kaliyo snapped. “I ain’t working for cheap, old man.”

“You’re already getting paid more than you’ve earned,” Kothe growled. “Keep it up and I’ll switch my services to the Wookiee.”

“You won’t. You like checking Lia out too much to do that,” came the snarky retort. Kaliyo looked over her shoulder with a grin at Vette, bringing up the rear of the group with an expression of long suffering. “Ain’t that right?”

“Don’t you go bringing me into this,” Vette snapped, watching out of the corner of her eyes as the Zakuulan Knights guarding the hangar exchanged a look through their helmets.

“Aww, you still mad about me sellin’ off your other cousin to Drooga?” Kaliyo flashed her teeth in a grin as one of the Knights took a step forward.

“You put me down as collateral in a pazaak game!” Vette shouted, lekku twitching dangerously. The Knight promptly seemed to decide he wasn’t getting paid enough to get involved in this and withdrew, his companion taking a couple of steps to the side. “You don’t kriffing own me!”


Kothe sighed, subtly waving his hand at the Knights as the trio walked up to the ship. Both Zakuulans shifted, then turned away from the group, apparently deciding they weren’t worth the trouble. “You decide you want a new job, kid, look me up. My vices don’t include gambling.”

“Sure they do. Why else do you keep getting this model of loading droid?” Kaliyo grinned as she gestured at the droid. “Up you go, Rusty.”

Rusty? Reanden grouchily thought to himself as he trudged past Kothe and Vette. Never minding that his legs ached with maintaining the droid’s lurching stride — he swore literal rust on his joints would probably hurt less. But admitting that would be admitting he was growing old… and he was certainly not doing that.

Feeling the weight of a datapad in his jacket pocket with his own connection to the transmitters wired into the Zakuulan bunker, he made it up the ramp and lurched to the bridge of the Shadow. SCORPIO looked over as he came to a halt behind the captain’s seat. “You somehow kept yourself from getting shot,” she commented as she resumed typing into the navicomputer. “I suppose your ideas aren’t quite as stupid as they appear.”

“The threat to turn you to scraps and sell you to Jawas still stands,” Reanden growled as he dropped the disguise with a blink and settled into his seat with a soft groan. His hip wasn’t quite as forgiving of the droid lurch as it had once been, or of crawling around through maintenance tunnels. “Any updates?”

“Lord Imperius and Captain Korin have arrived on Alderaan. Intercepted transmissions from the Republic suggest that the Dantooine Enclave was destroyed.” SCORPIO glanced over as Reanden felt his heart drop to his boots. “Yet I have intercepted no transmissions indicating so from Zakuulan forces. The Eternal Empire’s forces in this system seem to have gone quiet.”

If she were dead, Arcann would be gloating to the entire galaxy. She has to still be alive. Reanden rested his head in his hands for a minute, fighting to keep the fear from overwhelming him. “Any news from the Empire?” he finally asked.

“Very little. Imperius remains at the top of the most wanted bulletin, and you, Agent, aren’t far behind. Your associates, Lieutenant Temple and Agent Emrys, have disappeared completely into the Ascendancy. I received an encrypted message, indicating that they are safe for now. Koli’arr was dispatched to bring Imperius in.”

That, at least, was good news. The bounty hunter known as A’den Koli’arr was, in fact, family friend and associate, Corey Black. Reanden knew well where Black’s true allegiances lay. The news of his protege, Adela Emrys, and the youngest member of his crew, Raina Temple, gaining refuge with the Chiss was also welcome information. Raina had maintained her commission in the Expansionary Defense Force, and Adela had earned the… trust… of Aristocra Saganu. Between their wits and his influence, they would be quite safe.

Finally, he nodded and pulled the datapad out of his pocket, passing it to SCORPIO. “Wire that into the systems,” he directed as the droid took the device. “We’ll be better able to track Zakuulan communications with this.”

“Very well.” SCORPIO started typing as boot steps sounded on the ramp before Reanden heard the distinctive whirr of the ramp retracting into the ship. Kaliyo and Vette must have boarded. “Where is our next destination?”

Reanden frowned in thought, barely looking up to nod approvingly at Vette when she poked her head into the bridge with a grin. “Alderaan,” he finally said. “We’ll rendezvous there with the resistance and figure out our next steps.”

“Very well, Agent.”

The Zakuulan woman certainly seemed nice enough. Senya Tirall was a mystery; Sorand had the suspicion that she was hiding something big. And secrets from a Zakuulan who claimed to not support Arcann’s tyranny was something that made him worry.

But if she had earned the respect and trust of Satele Shan, perhaps she wasn’t a threat. Sorand had only met the Jedi Grand Master briefly during the Revanite crisis, but she struck him as intelligent, and discerning. If Master Shan approved of Senya, then maybe Sorand’s paranoia was just making a nuisance of itself.

He frowned. That heightened sense of paranoid suspicion that he had inherited from his father, and refined over the years spent among the Sith, hadn’t failed him yet. Senya, he felt, wasn’t a danger, per se. But she was hiding something, something significant that—

If his paranoia hadn’t failed him, his sensory awareness certainly did. Sorand grunted as he collided mid-step with a human woman. “Sorr—” he started to say, before he got a look at the woman’s face and felt the blood drain from his own. For a second, he swore he was looking at a face he hadn’t seen in the world of the living since he had been ten years old. “Mum?” he breathed out.

As the woman’s brows drew together, Sorand belatedly caught up to the differences between the stranger in green Jedi robes and his memories of his mother. This woman’s eyes were hazel, not deep green… she lacked the same freckles across her nose that Airna Taerich had… the nose was wrong, and the chin was just a bit off, and the lightsaber that hung at her hip was a different build. But if Sorand’s mother had had a sister, he would have sworn this was her, if not his mother returned from an untimely death herself.

He cleared his throat and stepped back, feeling his throat tighten with old grief as his mother’s lookalike opened her mouth. “My apologies, Master Jedi,” he quietly said, sounding less like a Dark Lord of the Sith and more like a spooked young adult. “Excuse me.” Neatly stepping out of the reach of the Jedi’s outstretched arm, he hurried off down the cave tunnel. For someone who had had far too much experience in encountering ghosts, malevolent or otherwise, he felt like he had walked right into his mother’s apparition. And that was not a pain he was willing to face today.

Behind him, Master Bel Iblis stared after his back, mouth falling slightly open. She had planned to encounter Darth Imperius and Captain Korin, determined to see if they had turned out like their mother, her late cousin… or the Imperial bastard who had stolen Airna away from Corellia. But whatever she had expected from Imperius, she hadn’t expected that.

Now that she had been close enough to get a read on him, she was startled at how much his mother’s son he was. It wasn’t just his strength with the Force; Airna’s youngest son had inherited his mother’s slim build, the bone structure in her face, the same way her hair had parted. She had few memories of Reanden Taerich, but she could already see that the Sith had inherited his father’s dark hair and eyes, and the same set to his jaw — not to mention the height. And then there was the too-noticeable Imperial accent. Rumour had it he inherited a similarly vicious streak when provoked as well, and the same cunning intelligence.

But the soft tone to his voice, his polite manners even when startled— no, spooked, his caution; those, Mairen thought, were all his own. For a second, she could forget that Airna’s son was Darth Imperius, Dark Lord of the Sith and renegade member of the Dark Council. Sith weren’t supposed to be that quiet or polite.

She nodded slowly, still looking in the direction that the Sith had vanished down. She was going to have to attempt meeting her cousin’s youngest son again, and this time see if she could talk to him without him paling like he had seen a ghost.

Chapter Text

Saresh wasn’t sure if the emotion racing through her veins was fear or wrath. Her instincts suggested fear might be winning out: Destruction of one of the last hidden Jedi outposts was terrible news for the Republic, and that news was beginning to spread. She could already imagine morale plummeting at the report. Worse, Republic operatives sent to investigate the massacre indicated that Satele Shan’s ship had been found on the planet, shot almost beyond the point of recognition by Zakuulan forces. The former Grand Master’s body hadn’t yet been accounted for among the dead — it could only be assumed that she was taken prisoner by the Zakuulans.

The Twi’lek ran a hand down her face. On a personal level, she hadn’t been fond of Master Shan, but blast it, the woman had been Grand Master of the Jedi Order. She was a valuable strategic prisoner, even before her role as the mother of Theron Shan. Saresh almost pitied the Jedi.

But perhaps having Master Shan would make Zakuul loosen their stranglehold on the Republic. Rumours filtered in -- sightings of Xaja Taerich and Theron Shan, their last confirmed location being Dromund Kaas. And they had reportedly departed with notorious Imperial agent, Cipher Nine. Known and feared throughout the galaxy, Saresh still couldn’t quite believe the report Kovach had sent to her, indicating that the infamous spy was father to the rogue Jedi. It did perhaps explain the girl’s sharp temper and vicious language when provoked, however, she mused.

A ship matching the description of Cipher Nine’s was reported to have landed on Nar Shaddaa. But neither the old spy nor his charges had been found on board. The SIS station chief in that sector, Ardun Kothe, hadn’t reported seeing the Imperial agent on the moon, nor had he seen Taerich or Shan. It seemed the pair of fugitives had vanished into thin air once again.

This time, however, they left more trouble in their wake: Arcann had all but accused Empress Acina of sheltering them to stir trouble in the Republic. Acina had, in turn, accused Saresh of sending her problems to Dromund Kaas, creating strife in the Empire — which certainly had happened, with Darth Imperius having shown himself a traitor and disappearing. Saresh only wished it had been intentional. As it was, she took the news as proof that Taerich and Shan were both traitors and working with Imperius — to what end, even back before the war had broken out, she wasn’t sure.

But now the galaxy teetered toward open war again, and this time the Republic was terribly crippled. Saresh found herself missing the quiet reassurance of the Jedi only a short hyperspace jump away on Tython, and Jace Malcom’s brilliant strategic decisions.

We don’t need them, she tried to tell herself. The Empire is even more fragmented than we are right now. We can win without the Jedi, or Malcom. Perhaps if she told herself that more, she would start to believe it.

Korin knew that his younger brother had a reputation for being tough and unfazed by almost everything around him. It was why he was such a good leader for the resistance and why he’d done so well on the Dark Council, after all. And it made Sorand hurrying up to him, pale-faced like he’d seen a ghost, way out of character. The smuggler frowned as the Sith made his way over to him. “You okay?” Korin asked as he took in just how spooked Sorand looked. “You look like that one time you walked in on Skadge losing strip sabaac to Andronikos.”

“Don’t remind me of that…” Sorand muttered. “I’m still considering taking up drinking to purge that memory.” He paused and shook his head. “Actually, I might take up drinking anyway.”

That made Korin blink. “Darth Paranoia, going for alcoholism? I thought you hated drinking after the one time with the tihaar--”

“Oh, shut up.” Sorand furtively glanced around, then lowered his voice. “I need a list of every single Jedi in this cell — Tythonian, Corellian, questionably dark, whatever.”

“There a particular reason you need a roster?”

The younger Taerich hesitated, lips pursed.“There’s a literal near-duplicate of Mum walking around here,” he admitted at length, “and I need to figure out who the blazes she is.”

Korin’s brain stalled out for a moment as he tried to process the statement. “Uhhh… what?”

Sorand pinched the bridge of his nose. “There’s a woman here, wearing Jedi-type clothing in shades of green, makes me think she’s Corellian. She has a saber-staff, and it sure as hell isn’t of Sith design or a Sith outfit. And kriffing hells, Kor’, she looks like Mum -- just with hazel eyes and no freckles.”

“I’m pretty sure there’s a bunch of red-haired Jedi ladies who look like —”

“No, she looks like Mum. Like if Mum had a sister, that would be her. If I didn’t know Mum was dead…”

“Shit, she looks that much like Mum?”

“Yeah.” Sorand shook his head and hissed out a heavy breath through his teeth. “It’s damned creepy is what it is, even by Sith standards. And I have no idea who the hells she is.”

“If she’s Corellian, that’ll narrow the options down,” Korin murmured, frowning at his crossed arms. “Not a hell of a lot of Corellians who jump off-world for anything unless they’re pilots, and even less Green Jedi who’ll leave the Enclave. I’ll grab Vector, see if he knows anything.”

“Green isn’t exclusively a Corellian colour, so she could be Tythonian…”

The smuggler gave a snort. “Yeah, but they’re boring and tend to go for every shade of brown known.”

A grin tugged at the corner of Sorand’s lips. “Right. So maybe give Cantarus a call, see if he can track down which Jedi have left Coronet City in the last couple of years,” he added. “ I mean, Mum… didn’t have a sister, right?”

“Not as far as she or Dad knew. Maybe someone cloned her?”

“A clone would probably have her freckles and the right eye colour.”

“Bah, details.” Korin shrugged one shoulder, trying to act unperturbed about the whole thing, even if he felt a chill up and down his spine. If Sorand was this spooked by the mysterious Jedi lookalike of their mother, it was serious. Worse, Korin could feel the Force tugging at him, as though demanding his attention regarding the Jedi. He knew that tug meant this was significant — and hells, how he hated feeling it. Sometimes being Force-sensitive just wasn’t worth the headache and paranoia. “I’ll snoop around, see what I can dig up.”

Sorand nodded. “When Dad gets here, I’ll try to figure out how to ask him if he’s sure Mum didn’t have a sister. Maybe he knows something… or he’ll have the heart attack I’m still having myself.”

“Hey, I’m the one who gets to make Dad have a heart attack, not a creepy lookalike of Mum.”

“I’m pretty sure I can out-heart-attack-potential you any day, my miscreant asshole brother. Sith and dumbass Sith things, remember?”

“I’ve got no less than six and a half people who want my head on a plate!”

“How the hells did you get the half person in there?”


“Dumbass. You’re going to make Dad have a stroke from you being a moron, while I have the entire bloody Empire gunning for me right now!” Sorand paused. “Wait, no, Xaja’s going to be the one to make Dad have the heart attack with the entire galaxy looking for her.” If she’s still alive went unsaid.

“Yeah, Xaja wins, I think. First and last time you’ll hear me say that about a Jedi.” Korin stepped back and shoved his hands into his jacket pockets. “Lemme track down Vector and see what he knows.”

“Works for me.” Sorand turned, craning his neck to look around. “I need to find Lana and see what--”

“Hey, Sor’ika?” Corey called, earning both brothers’ attention. When Korin looked over, he could see the Mandalorian intently looking at a computer screen. “I think you’re gonna want to check this out...”

The Aegis rapidly descended through Alderaan’s atmosphere, the crew setting the cruiser down in a valley between two snow-capped mountains. A kilometre or so from the official boundary of the Organa lands, it was situated in an out-of-the-way location that didn’t receive too much attention from Zakuul — indeed, it was almost impossible to access via the main roads.

But Commander Malcom’s crew had no need for the roads. There was a hidden entrance to the killik warrens running under Alderaan’s mountains. The rebels utilized the caverns and winding paths to stay out of sight. Malcom hoped it would now serve to protect the two most hunted fugitives in the galaxy from those seeking their heads.

A security cam discreetly placed in a rock formation focused in on the faces of the disembarking refugees. As the programmed algorithms recognized the features of Xaja Taerich, arguably the most wanted person in the galaxy, an alert triggered deep within the warrens, notifying the resistance of the newcomers.

Corey Black, the nearest person to the computer console when the alert flickered to life, frowned down at the monitor for only a second as recognition kicked in, both of the Jedi woman and some of her travel companions. “Hey, Sor’ika?” he called out, a grin starting to spread across his bearded face. “I think you’re gonna want to check this out…”

The group of Dantooine survivors entered the cool darkness of the killik tunnels, looking around with no small amount of suspicion. Xaja wrinkled her nose at the scent of damp earth and the lingering traces of the killik pheromones. “When you said you were getting us underground, Commander, I didn’t realize you meant literally.”

Malcom smirked, the expression eerily like Theron. “Not many people do. We’re reasonably sure the Zakuulans expect some form of resistance down here, but so far they haven’t found us. The killiks do a good job in scaring them off.”

“I can’t say I blame ‘em,” Kira muttered as she followed a step behind Xaja, looking around warily. “At least it’s better than the last time we were in a hive. Nothing’s trying to kill us... yet.”

“Let’s hope it stays that way,” Theron answered quietly. For perhaps a couple hundred metres, the group moved in near-silence, until the spy spoke again. “You sure this is the right cave? It seems suspiciously empty.”

“If it wasn’t, we would have already been swarmed by killiks,” Jorgan piped up from a few paces back. “But there should be some sign of life by now.”

Worry settled into Xaja’s chest as she heard Malcom’s mutter of “There hasn’t been any news of an attack here” as the old soldier warily looked around. If the Zakuulans were already in the caves, waiting in ambush to take out the Dantooine survivors… they had no place else to flee to, and wouldn’t be able to escape. And there wouldn’t be a miraculous rescue from Havoc Squad to save their—

She froze, making Kira bump into her back. The sound of running footsteps echoed ahead; when she focused, she could hear more than one pair of feet. “Someone’s coming,” she hissed, sensing the rest of the group around her freeze as the other Jedi warily reached for lightsabers. Jorgan raised a hand, making one quick gesture, and his soldiers spread into formation as Malcom stepped back closer to the Jedi protectively, blaster in hand—

“Riggs, you son of a bitch!” came the yell from down the tunnel, a welcome voice that made Xaja sag in relief. Corso stepped out to the side of the formation, a delighted grin on his face. Moments later, Korin came flying around a bend in the tunnel, his own grin flickering as he registered a pack of armed soldiers and Jedi bracing themselves for a fight. “Whatever it was, I didn’t do it. Probably,” he quipped, coming to a stop and raising his hands placatingly.

“Bantha shit, Captain,” Corso promptly retorted with a laugh as Xaja darted around him, running the few paces to her brother. She had a second with which to sense Korin’s sheer relief under the veneer of carefree laughter, and then she was being tightly hugged by the tall spacer — a form of affection he didn’t go for too often. He must have been legitimately mourning her presumed death, or terrified for her safety.

As other members of the Alderaanian cell started hurrying around the corner after Korin, earning a chorus of delighted shouting and reunion between friends and comrades, the smuggler finally set his sister down. Real worry sparked briefly in his hazel eyes. “You okay?” he asked, squeezing her shoulders. “Sorand mentioned you’d been sick as hell, but…”

“Better now. Happy to still be in one piece.” Xaja smiled up at her brother, concern darkening her own mood for a moment. Hells, even Korin looked older — she swore she could see grey in his blond hair. “You been okay? Dad didn’t have any new updates on you last time I saw him.”

“I’m fine, all things considered. Hells, my favourite zombie sister’s back with us, so I’m doing great—”

“Zombie?” Xaja gifted her brother with a scowl as he grinned unapologetically. “Zombie? Listen, you asshole --”

“Last I checked, you’re still legally dead, and you know as well as I do that the walking dead are technically zombies.” Korin laughed and dodged a swat from the Jedi. “And since you’re clearly not a ghost, that only leaves zombies as our undead option.”

“I’m pretty sure you can’t put a bounty on a legally dead person, you twit,” Xaja muttered with a scowl. “My status seems to have been rescinded.”

“Bah. Details. You’re still my favourite undead sister—” The smuggler ducked out of reach again with another laugh, only to trip and fall backwards over an outstretched boot.

“If you get stabbed, that’ll be your own damned fault,” Sorand interjected with a grin as he looked down at his brother. Ignoring Korin’s scowl up at him, the Sith hurried to give Xaja a hug. “I’m glad to see you in one piece, Xaj.”

“You, too.” Xaja returned the hug, for a second aware of Malcom side-eyeing them before looking back at her brother. “When I heard there was a hit out for you…”

“Acina’s going to have to do a lot better to take me down,” Sorand smirked. Worry flashed through his dark eyes as he lowered his voice. “How did things go?” he asked.

“Uhh… partially good?” At Sorand’s frown, Xaja shook her head. “I’ll explain later.” Catching him up on the details of the parasite in her brain was not something to do with so many listening ears around.

Sorand nodded in understanding, squeezing her shoulders before letting go. His gaze drifted over to Ashara; Xaja watched him hurry over to his apprentice before she turned at Kira’s delighted cry. Recognizing Doc and Rusk as they hurried up to the group, an excited Tee-Seven beeping in tow, she ran over to her old crew, feeling like the team was almost complete.

Theron felt a weight lift from his shoulders as he watched the Alderaan rebels gladly embrace the Dantooine survivors. For the first time since fleeing Zakuul with Xaja, he felt reasonably safe… in the middle of a killik hive. Still, this was stable and out of Zakuul’s grip, for the moment. Sorand being here in one piece indicated that this location was also safe from the Empire; it would also help that the Organas weren’t fond of Saresh and could help keep her agents from finding the rebels. He lowly sighed and relaxed, the tension in his back easing.

Then he made eye contact with an approaching Korin Taerich, and had perhaps half a second to think shit before the smuggler’s fist connected with his jaw and knocked him down. “You fucking asshole!” Korin growled, his earlier joy at seeing his sister alive turning into a well-justified anger at his apparently-former friend.

Theron grunted as he gingerly ran his tongue over his teeth, pleasantly surprised to realize none had broken loose from that punch. “Brave words coming from the guy who punched a guy who got shot three days ago,” he muttered. His shoulder flared with pain as he gingerly shifted it. At least the bandages didn’t seem to have come undone.

Korin faltered for a second, brow wrinkling in confusion. “The fuck you mean you got shot?”

“Bunch of Zaks who really wanted to chat up your sister,” Theron retorted as he tugged his shirt to the side, revealing the bandages. “Asshat.”

“You still had that coming,” Korin snapped, dark eyes flickering with anger. But at least he apparently felt bad enough about hitting the wounded spy to offer a hand back up.

“Yeah, I know.” Theron grunted as he accepted the hand back to his feet, lowly hissing in discomfort. “Would saying ‘sorry’ make it a little better?”

Korin’s eyes narrowed in threatening anger. “Not in that kriffin’ tone of voice it—”

“No, I’m legitimately sorry,” Theron quickly interjected as he saw Korin’s fist tightening again. “You’re right. I’m an idiot and deserved that punch.”

“You think?! You’re making me look like a certifiable genius, Shan.”

“You are a certifiable genius. I’ve seen your aptitude tests, Taerich.”

“Shh!” Korin furtively looked around. “Don’t go ratting me out! I’m tryin’ to dodge responsibility, not adopt it!”

Theron rolled his eyes, then caught Korin’s shoulder. “For what it’s worth I am actually sorry, Korin. I was an idiot. It won’t happen again.”

“It’d better not,” Korin muttered. The fury seemed to have finally cooled down from the fiery temper to a low simmer under the surface. The smuggler shook his head, then frowned at Theron’s shoulder. “Sorry about the punch. Your shoulder more buggered up now?”

“Whose shoulder’s what now?” Sorand interjected as he appeared on Theron’s left. The Sith frowned at the spy, already reaching for the wounded shoulder. “The hell did you do?”

“Target practice, gone really badly,” Theron deadpanned, and earned a snort from the Sith. Feeling a prickle on the back of his neck, he turned his head slightly, just enough to see Jace frowning at Sorand. Right… his father wouldn’t trust a Sith, even one who had abandoned the Empire for his Jedi sister.

“I suggest thinking of a better story before Lana hears it and laughs at you for the rest of your respective natural lives.” Sorand smirked as he settled his hand on the blaster wound. “Hold tight for a minute.” A violet glow appeared around his gloved fingers; Theron shivered as he felt a cold trickle seep into his shoulder, knitting the injured muscles and tendons back together. Dark Side healing was never a completely comfortable experience, despite Sorand’s efforts to be gentle; but, when the Sith withdrew his hand and Theron rotated his shoulder experimentally, the wound was completely healed.

“Good as new,” Theron pronounced when he didn’t feel pain flaring in the joint, and gave Sorand a grin. “Thanks.” The Sith had even healed the bruising Theron could feel forming on his jaw from Korin’s punch.

“Don’t mention it. Force knows you’ve been through enough without having a kriffed-up arm on top of everything else.” Sorand stepped back, gesturing for Theron and Korin to follow him. If he was aware of Jace staring at the back of his head, mistrust showing in his dark eyes, the Sith didn’t reveal it. “I know you’re probably tired enough to see double, but we’re going to need to catch up on all the osik following you since you got off of Dromund Kaas. You lot good for a quick debrief?”

“As long as it’s relatively quick,” Theron agreed. Craning his neck, he caught a glimpse of Xaja, still surrounded by her closest friends, excitedly chatting away. At least she hadn’t witnessed her brother sucker-punching him like that — that would have been much harder to explain to her. Nervous dread settled in his stomach before he shoved it down to where he hoped she couldn’t sense it. “You said Lana’s here?”

“Yes, and you’d best hope she doesn’t feel inclined to make like Korin with the punching — which, by the way, I’m perfectly fine not knowing the reasons for.” Sorand grinned and stepped toward the tunnel. “Come on.”

Jace had never been sure how to take the news that a Jedi war hero, and his son, both had non-hostile connections with powerful Sith Lords. With the Revanite crisis, he supposed it was reasonable for Republic and Imperial assets to cooperate. But the extended communication and open friendly behaviour made him frown.

He watched suspiciously as Darth Imperius caught Master Xaja up in a tight hug, both siblings clearly happy to see each other. Now that they were beside each other, he could see the resemblance between the two, far too similar to be mere coincidence. The Hero of Tython had one brother recently on the Dark Council, and one brother who was a proud career criminal and privateer -- not to mention their father.

He frowned, caught up enough in his thoughts that he missed Theron getting punched, still focused on Imperius. Sith weren’t exactly known for being affectionate or protective of their families, much less family members who came from enemy space, yet Imperius had risked his own safety to hide both his sister and a known enemy spy on Dromund Kaas. Had she known who he was sheltering, Jace suspected Empress Acina would have killed the younger Sith. So perhaps despite being a Sith, the boy — and how did a boy who looked like he was barely into his twenties make it to the Dark Council? — wasn’t a bad sort. He certainly wasn’t as shrivelled as Darth Malgus, nor did he carry himself in the same way. The eyes that darted around were dark brown and openly relieved, not tainted with sulphuric rage. Jace even dared to say the Sith was happy.

But surely the son of Cipher Nine had learned to hide his true motivations. The former Supreme Commander of Republic Forces pursed his lips, frowning. Master Xaja had also been fathered by the infamous Imperial spook, but she had been raised among Jedi; Jace figured that didn’t count, as she hadn’t grown up around her father’s influence. How much had the legendary cipher agent taught his sons?

“He’s not Malgus.” Satele’s voice by his right shoulder made him start. He looked down and got a raised eyebrow in turn. “Sith he may be, but he’s not steeped in the dark side like too many others. He’s actually far more like his sister than you might think.” She paused, giving Master Xaja a look as the redhead knelt to give an old astromech droid a hug, the droid beeping loudly and happily enough to be heard a few metres away. “Arguably, he could claim to be the more Jedi-like of the two.”

Jace snorted. “A Dark Lord of the Sith and a Dark Councillor, more Jedi-like than a hero of the Order?”

He wasn’t the one who yelled a few interesting curses at Revan on Yavin, or told a mercenary where to go and how to get there. He’s far less hot-headed than his sister is.” Satele smiled slightly. “It’s unfortunate he wound up on Korriban; he would have done very well as a Jedi.”

“Hmm.” Unconvinced, Jace watched as a blonde woman hurried to the reunion throng in the tunnel, frowning at her sulphuric yellow eyes. His gaze darted toward the lightsaber on her hip, noting the metallic fins and blackened metal -- a very Sith style. Master Xaja didn’t seem to mind that, or the Mandalorian bounty hunter behind the Sith — she shot back to her feet and hurried to give the blonde a hug, one that was gladly returned. Lana Beniko was a known Imperial asset, and the SIS’s records indicated she was Imperius’ top advisor. “Blast, they’re still Sith, Satele. You know what they’re capable of.”

“Yes. And I believe Imperius would unleash it to protect his siblings… not unlike you might protecting us, the Republic.” Her hand tightened on his arm. “It doesn’t make him a bad person, Jace.” They watched as Theron turned from talking to Imperius and Captain Taerich, an open smile on his face as he went to greet Beniko. His arm was moving much more freely, Jace noticed, like it was no longer damaged. “I have never had cause to be worried around him. And he did protect Theron along with his sister.”

To what end? Jace wondered as he watched the reunions: Master Xaja was animatedly talking to Beniko, Theron standing at her side and interjecting commentary before turning to greet a newcomer with dark hair and a brown coat. Imperius had turned to speak to a Mandalorian woman in green armour -- the Champion of the Great Hunt, Shara Verhayc, Jace recognized -- while his smuggler brother slipped out of the crowd and neatly disappeared. No matter that Satele didn’t consider Imperius or his right-hand to be threats, no matter that Theron greeted the Sith like friends — Jace couldn’t bring himself to feel at ease around them.

And this was before bringing Cipher Nine into the mix, he thought. He frowned. Nothing involving the Empire’s top spy could ever end well.

As the crowds beganto disperse toward the main sections of the hive, reunions still ongoing, Korin slipped away to send a message to his father. The old spy was probably in hyperspace, but if the Shadow ever dropped back into realspace for course corrections, he would hopefully see the message before having a worry-induced heart attack. The smuggler sighed — his father picked the most inconvenient times to be radio silent.

“What’s this? You, dodging out of the closest thing to a party we’ve seen in years?” A familiar -- and very welcome -- voice to his left startled him. Looking over, he saw Kira leaning against a stalagmite and smirking at him. “Who are you and what have you done with Korin Taerich?”

“It ain’t a party til the booze and strippers are out,” Korin retorted with a grin as he slipped his datapad back into his pocket, the message to his father half-written. “You remember Rishi.”

Kira grinned as Korin stepped up to her, resting his forearm on the stalagmite over her head. “Vividly. Those were some good times with the crazy cultists.” She straightened enough to slip her arms around Korin’s neck. “So what’s this I hear about the dumb spacer thing being an act and you leading a proper strike team?”

“I call shenanigans. I still dunno how I got roped into that,” Korin muttered as Kira laughed. The smuggler grinned as his other hand came to rest on the Jedi’s waist. “You missed seein’ some of my best shootin’, Jedi.”

One auburn eyebrow raised. “So if that was your best shooting, what’ve you been showing me the last year and a half?” Bright blue eyes pointedly glanced up and down, suggestive amusement pulling her lips into a grin.

“I said some of my best shootin’. You get the special showin’, Carsen.”

“Do I?” Kira’s eyes danced with pleased mischief, as her fingers started lightly tickling the back of his neck. “I’m not convinced, Captain. You got some persuading to do.”

“Challenge accepted,” Korin retorted with a smirk as he leaned in to kiss her. “Real talk though,” he murmured, sobering for a moment, “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“Me too.” For a brief moment, lingering grief and fear flickered through Kira’s Force-signature before she withdrew to where Korin couldn’t sense her emotions. She covered her brief slip with a smirk. “Your life would’ve gotten a lot less interesting without us in it.”

“And a lot less fun without you in particular,” Korin murmured as he pulled her into a side tunnel and kissed her again.

For a second, he thought about the message sitting half-written on his datapad, and almost pulled himself away to finish sending it. But then Kira’s hand had slipped down, nimble fingers finding his belt buckle, and he quickly decided it could wait. Chances were the old man was already in hyperspace. He would just finish the message later… much, much later.

Oh, stars, she looked just like her mother. Mairen watched as the group of evacuees from Dantooine and their Havoc Squad saviours scattered within the resistance base — some people heading for the medics, some to meet friends, and still others to just go and crash from post-trauma exhaustion.

But she wasn’t watching the refugees. She was watching the red-haired Jedi woman walking toward the command centre with Lord Beniko and Captain Vortena, animatedly talking to the Sith. Even if the girl’s face hadn’t been broadcasted around the entire galaxy for the last month, along with the face of the tall, handsome spy beside her, Mairen would have recognized her.

She remained still as the group walked past her, able to observe without being recognized. Agent Shan, she noticed, seemed to be more alert, looking about with a slightly paranoid look; his gaze landed on Mairen for a moment before moving on, apparently taking her to be only a curious onlooker. Airna’s daughter glanced at her for barely a second before her attention turned back to Lord Beniko. Mairen had known that her cousin’s daughter wouldn’t recognize her, not like her brother had — she had never met her own mother. But that didn’t quite stop the slight ache in her heart.

At first glance, the pretty redhead didn’t seem to take after her father much at all. She had her mother’s hair and eyes, her mother’s slim build, and the same graceful stride. And the laugh that came from her at some quip Lord Beniko made was an eerie echo of Airna. Even her reputed sharp temper and fondness for creative insults came from her mother. And you went after a spy, too, she thought, shaking her head. Truly your mother’s daughter. At least Agent Shan was a Republic agent, and not in the service of the Empire.

It was like Mairen was watching her cousin again, before she had left Corellia with Taerich. She wanted to go to the girl, see how much of Airna lived on in her — but the younger Jedi wouldn’t know who she was. And she had just survived one terrible ordeal after another. And your journey isn’t done yet, Mairen thought as she watched her cousin’s daughter walk up a ramp to one of the command platforms, Agent Shan never far from her. With any luck, there would be time later to meet Xaja Taerich properly. The Jedi Shadow could only hope that the only thing she had inherited from her father was his surname.