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Story of a Defector

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While Colonel Gaff saw Garza's orders to assist Havoc Squad with their mission on Taris as a pain in his backside, Elara saw it as an opportunity to do something about the missing patrols. She quietly double-checked her reports on the missing men before she reported for duty at headquarters. Though she knew little about the CO of Havoc Squad, she hoped he would listen to her and investigate. His file indicated that he was from a prominent Coruscant family known primarily for their work in the political and commercial sectors. Lieutenant Reynarden Drondil was the first member of his family in generations to choose to serve in the military. She hoped that a man who willingly went against family tradition would also listen to a former Imperial such as herself.

Information about Havoc Squad itself was sparse, but Elara had half-expected as much when she'd looked it up. Most of their missions since its inception under the command of Jace Malcom had been classified. It had a reputation for accepting only the best of the best from Special Forces. She knew that the current CO had only recently taken command and at a very young age. I hope that means he'll listen to me and not Colonel Gaff.

She was distracted from her musings by the arrival of two soldiers in bright white and orange armor. The pale-skinned human had an assault cannon strapped to his back while the black-furred Cathar wore a sniper rifle. The human was the one who saluted Colonel Gaff and crisply told him, "Lieutenant Drondil and Sergeant Jorgan reporting in on behalf of General Garza."

"Well, well, General Garza graces us with her finest," Gaff remarked mockingly, earning a chuckle from most of the officers around him. "At ease." He didn't bother to return the salute, Elara noted, watching the proceedings out of the corner of her eye. "I'm Colonel Gaff and these are my senior officers. Your CO sent orders to do whatever is necessary to support your mission. Of course she didn't see fit to give me any details of said mission. Care to enlighten me, Lieutenant?"

"I'm afraid that's classified, sir," Lieutenant Drondil answered crisply, his parade rest stance textbook perfect. Elara had to admire his composure in the face of Colonel Gaff's attitude.

"How typical," Gaff replied snidely, "Forget the reconstruction of Taris. I've got to shift everything around and help with some 'top secret mission' nonsense." Elara subtly shifted her weight as Gaff continued speaking, "Well, whatever Garza has you looking for, you won't find it on Taris. There hasn't been any unusual activity here since I took command, Lieutenant."

That was the best opening Elara would get and she took it, turning and approaching the others, speaking as she did. "Patrol teams three, five, and eight: all lost, all without explanation."

She didn't miss the fact that both Drondil and Jorgan started when they heard her voice. As she'd expected, Colonel Gaff reacted to her first: "Sergeant Dorne, I don't recall giving you permission to speak."

"All due respect, sir," Elara replied without missing a beat, "but I wasn't speaking to you, I was speaking to the lieutenant, per General Garza's instructions. Are you ordering me to violate Code 73-B and ignore the general’s directive, Colonel?"

Gaff glared at her for that one. He hated when she pointed out that he was ignoring regulations and orders. "Always got a regulation to quote, don't you Sergeant Dorne?"

"I came here for intel, not arguments, people," Drondil interjected, looking annoyed.

Gaff transferred his glare to the lieutenant. "Taris is dangerous place--casualties are common on patrol teams. It's unfortunate, but not unusual, no matter what Sergeant Dorne says." Colonel Gaff straightened up and his officers followed suit. "Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a planet to run. Carry on with your 'secret mission'--just don't muck up anything important."

With that, the colonel and his officers left. Elara faced Lieutenant Drondil fully, assuming a parade rest stance out of habit. "Apologies, for the colonel, Lieutenant. Not all men are meant to lead."

"He's not the first person I've met like that." Drondil replied, giving her his full attention. "You have intel for me?"

"I do, sir." She nodded, relieved that he seemed open to listening to her. "I'm Elara Dorne, Sergeant, first class, commander of Search and Rescue Squad 204. We have three full squads, all MIA on patrols. The situation is critical."

"What makes you say that?" the lieutenant asked, raising his eyebrows curiously.

Inwardly, Elara cheered at the question. This was exactly what she'd hoped would happen! "Eighteen unexplained casualties over two weeks. Regulations call for a battalion-level investigation, but nothing has been done. Casualties are common on swamp patrols. Rakghoul attacks account for the majority--approximately 87%. However, SAR sweeps discovered no evidence of rakghoul activity in these instances--someone else attacked those teams. If you're looking for unusual activity, then this is it, sir."

"What exactly is a 'rakghoul' anyway?" Drondil asked, having glanced at Jorgan, who shrugged his shoulders.

She'd forgotten for a moment that not everyone read reports as thoroughly as she did, in the Empire or the Republic. "Rakghouls are disease-carrying mutants. Rakghoul bites and scratches are infectious. Those infected become rakghouls themselves in six to forty-eight hours." The lieutenant visibly shuddered, presumably at the thought of mutating. "I included the last known coordinates for the MIA patrols in my official incident report, Lieutenant. I'll load it onto your datapad for your review." He nodded and unclipped it from his belt. Elara retrieved hers and sent the report. "Taris falls under unexplored/unsecured territory protocols--all armor-cams transmit to SAR Command. I'll contact you with developments."

"Hang on, if that's the case, why don't you have any recordings of what happened to those patrols?" Jorgan spoke up for the first time, his accent a little different from what she was used to hearing from the Cathar who'd come to help reclaim Taris. "Even if you don't have someone constantly watching the feeds, the recordings should be stored on the computer until someone goes through them."

Elara nodded, hiding her surprise that Jorgan had been the one to point this out. She wasn't good at judging the ages of non-human species, but he appeared to be a good deal older than Drondil. Which begged the question as to why he wasn't the CO. Instead of voicing that thought, though, she explained, "We lost contact with each of the patrol teams before the teams were attacked: comms, videos, locators, everything."

"At the same time?" Drondil asked, his brow creasing in a frown that distorted the tattoo encircling his right eye.

She nodded again. "Yes, sir."

"This sounds more and more like Mantell," Jorgan growled, baring his teeth for a moment.

Drondil nodded his agreement. "It does, which means we're certainly on the right track. Let's go, Sergeant Jorgan."

"On your six, Lieutenant Drondil." With that, the two men left HQ.

Alone for the moment, Elara let out a relieved sigh. He listened to me!

*

She'd just set up her workstation at SAR Command to receive the feeds from both armor cams when they flickered to life, first Lieutenant Drondil's, and then Sergeant Jorgan's. She heard Drondil's voice first, "--look at Sergeant Dorne's report."

"What's so-- wow, this is very.... detailed," Jorgan replied, clearly skimming through Elara's report. There was nothing wrong with being thorough! Jorgan continued in a quieter voice, "And Iresso thought I was a stickler for detail."

"What was that, Sergeant?" Drondil asked, turning back towards his subordinate, mischief in his voice. When Elara glanced at the feed from Jorgan's cam, she could see that a smile lurked around the lieutenant's mouth, too.

Jorgan scowled and shook his head. "It's nothing, sir. We should get going."

"Yeah, the coordinates are pretty far apart. Thank goodness we have speeders." Drondil climbed onto one and Jorgan onto the other.

Much to Elara's surprise, Jorgan sounded playful as he asked, "What's the matter, sir? Had your fill of running everywhere on Mantell and Coruscant?"

"Kriff, yes," Drondil retorted with a grin before pulling the goggles on his helmet over his eyes. "Race you! Last one there's a boot licker!"

Elara didn't quite stifle a laugh of her own as Jorgan fumbled to put on his own goggles and took off after the lieutenant. He has quite the sense of humor. I wish he was my CO instead of Colonel Gaff.

While they traveled to the coordinates where they'd lost contact with Team 3, Elara took the opportunity to get a head start on the paperwork she'd inevitably have to fill out once they finished their operation, whatever the final result. She set it aside when she heard the speeder engines cut out. Drondil had an exhilarated expression on his face as he approached Jorgan once he'd dismounted his speeder and put his goggles up. "I win, boot licker."

"Ha, ha, sir," Jorgan retorted, also dismounting his speeder and putting his goggles up. "This isn't a game, you know."

"I know, but that doesn't mean we all have to be Mr. Grumpypants," Drondil replied, pulling a face that was clearly meant to mimic Jorgan.

Jorgan's growl was audible even on Drondil's armor cam. "Can we just get to work, sir? There are eighteen soldiers unaccounted for."

"You make a good point." Drondil pulled out his holomap. "According to Sergeant Dorne's report, patrol team 3 went missing over that way."

Elara was gratified to see that both men drew their weapons before approaching the coordinates. They didn't encounter hostiles before reaching the coordinates. As reported during the SAR sweeps, there weren't any signs of rakghoul activity. However, Jorgan nudged an object on the ground nearby with a booted toe. "Sir, what do you make of these?"

"Power converters?" Drondil knelt beside one for a closer look. This also allowed Elara a better view. The lieutenant pressed the commlink in his helmet. "Sergeant Dorne, are you seeing this?"

Elara pressed the button to send her reply. "I am, sir. Those are old power converters. Do you have any theories on how they got to that location?"

"Perhaps the people who attacked your patrol team dropped them," Drondil suggested, straightening up. Jorgan slowly paced around the area, allowing his armor cam get a thorough recording.

She shrugged. "It's possible. None of the other patrols logged similar discoveries." Elara would have noticed if they had. "Those come from ignition systems, engine parts. It takes work to remove them."

"Someone had to drop them here," the lieutenant replied, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Either the patrol or their attackers."

Elara nodded her agreement even though he couldn't see her. "We need more information to determine who did."

"Then we'd better go to the coordinates for the other teams." On Jorgan's armor cam, Elara could see the determination on his face. She found herself missing the mischievous smile she'd seen only briefly.

"I'll remain in contact, Lieutenant," Elara told him, keeping her thoughts to herself. "Dorne out."

*

The next set of coordinates found more power converters. Elara offered to speak with a science officer about examining the power converters so they'd have a clue as to their source. It was their only lead and that was the only thing she could think of that might help. Drondil accepted the offer and so Elara headed off to science division while he and Jorgan headed to the third set of coordinates.

When she returned, Drondil and Jorgan had just reached the coordinates and started towards the power converters, weapons at the ready. Jorgan kept testing the air with his nose and finally gave a loud growl. "Ambush!"

Elara could only watch as scavengers attacked the two soldiers. Drondil's assault cannon spat a series of green bolts at one of the scavengers. Once that scavenger stopped moving, Drondil turned his attention to a second. Jorgan, in the meantime, took out the other two scavengers with well-placed sniper shots. Elara had a better understanding of why these two had ended up in Havoc squad. As they surveyed the area, Elara spotted movement and, when neither Drondil or Jorgan reacted to it, she frantically pressed the button to contact them. "There's one more!"

Even as she said that, the fifth scavenger burst out of his hiding place and tackled Drondil, a vibroknife flashing in his hand, and knocked him to the ground. The two wrestled for control of the knife and Elara could see from Jorgan's armor cam that Drondil's helmet had come off. The scavenger was taller and broader than Drondil and seemed to have the advantage. However, Drondil used his smaller size to duck down out of the scavenger's hold. That seemed to surprise the scavenger, giving Drondil time to scramble away and leave Jorgan a clear shot, which he took. Drondil shook his head, wincing. "Kriff, that hurt."

"Lieutenant!" Elara hadn't let go of the button. From Jorgan's armor cam, it looked like Drondil wasn't hurt, but she couldn't be sure. "Status report: are you injured?"

"I might be hurt, Sergeant," Drondil replied after Jorgan relayed her question, picking up his helmet and putting it back on. "You'd better come rescue and search me."

Elara's mouth dropped open in surprise at that flippant response. Is he flirting with me? We just met a few hours ago! While part of her appreciated the attention, another part doubted he was actually serious about it. All of this ran through her mind in less than a second and she kept her response purely professional, "Flirtation and other non-mission-critical communications over priority holochannels are strictly forbidden by procedural guidelines, sir."

"Pretty sure that was a 'no,' Lieutenant," Jorgan added, a hint of a smirk on his face.

Drondil made a face at him. "I got that, Sergeant. In all seriousness, I got a little bruised, but that's it."

"Your attackers were scavengers," Elara informed him, relieved that he wasn't upset by her reaction to his flirtation. Once he finishes his mission here, he'll be gone again off to the next planet and I'll be stuck here. Forcing her mind back on the matter at hand, she watched Drondil and Jorgan survey the area just like they had the previous two locations. "Threat assessment reports classify them as a non-combatant group."

Jorgan growled at that, picking up Drondil's assault cannon, which now sported a sizeable scrape. "Either those reports were wrong or something happened recently that's made them start attacking Republic personnel."

"Or someone." Drondil gave Jorgan a significant look as he accepted his weapon and strapped it to his back. "I have a feeling this is connected to our mission here."

Elara wondered what their mission was, but doubted that Drondil would tell her anything. "Since our forces are superior in numbers, training, and equipment, it's certainly a possibility, sir. Whether they are connected or not, armed hostility against Republic personnel clearly justifies an armed response, Lieutenant. It's your call."

"Do we have any leads on the scavengers' HQ?" Drondil asked, looking down at the scavenger who'd attacked him with a cold expression that made Elara wish again for a glimpse of the mischievous young man who'd teased Jorgan earlier.

She shook her head more to banish the thought. "Negative, sir. I haven't seen the latest reports, however. Given the lateness of the hour, any response will have to wait until tomorrow anyway."

"An excellent point. I've seen the wildlife and I don't want to encounter those things after dark." Drondil gave a shudder, as if at the thought.

Elara refrained from pointing out that the rakghouls tended to be bolder after dark. "I'll see you shortly, then, sir."

"See you soon, Sergeant."

*

Elara had long ago developed the habit of a bringing a datapad with her whenever she ate in the mess hall, regardless of her posting. Ever since she'd defected, the Republic soldiers she'd served with, for the most part, treated her with suspicion. They usually only interacted with her if they were forced to as part of their work. So, rather than sit there picking at her food, she brought along a datapad with something to read or paperwork to fill out. Tonight, she had copies of the intelligence reports she'd yet to read. Hopefully one of them would have information about the scavengers' headquarters. She'd barely started reading when someone cleared their throat nearby. Elara looked up and started to stand up. "Lieutenant!"

"At ease, Sergeant," Drondil told her, smiling. "May I join you?"

She gestured to the empty chairs at her table. "There's plenty of space, sir."

"Will I be a bother if I do, though?" he asked, not yet moving to sit down.

Elara shook her head, touched that he was thinking of her feelings. Most people outside her family didn't. "Not at all, sir."

"All right, then." Drondil sat down in the chair across from hers. "And, since we're off duty, please call me Reynarden, Sergeant Dorne."

She nodded, resuming her seat. "If I'm to call you Reynarden, then you should call me Elara."

"It's a beautiful name," he observed, picking up his roll and cutting it in half. Reynarden glanced at her with a wink. "Just like you."

Blushing at the compliment, Elara, ducked her head and took a sip of her water as he spread butter on his roll. "I don't mean to pry, sir--" he glanced at her with raised eyebrows and she corrected herself, "Reynarden. Why are you here? I should think you'd rather eat on your ship."

"Sadly, I never really learned to cook." He smiled sheepishly. "My family is fairly wealthy, so we had servants do the cooking for us. Then I enlisted in the Army and this is the first posting where I've had access to my own kitchen."

Elara nodded her understanding. "What have you been doing when you haven't had access to a mess hall?"

"Frozen dinners keep real well," Reynarden told her with a sheepish laugh. "Although, on Coruscant, I had enough time to visit with my parents and brother." That made Elara think of her own family and she looked away, her hands clasped tightly together in her lap. She'd had no contact with them since she defected. Elara missed them and generally tried not to think about them. She started when he touched her arm. "Are you all right, Elara?"

She looked up with a wan smile. "I'm fine. Just had something in my eye."

"If you say so." He looked doubtful, but didn't push. "What were you reading?"

Grateful that he changed the subject, Elara held up the datapad. "The latest intelligence reports. I hope that there's something in them to indicate where the scavengers' HQ is located."

"Do you ever stop working?" Reynarden inquired, a small smile curving his lips. "Take time to do something fun?"

"When there aren't lives on the line, I do, yes," Elara informed him, trying not to get defensive.

He grimaced, toying with the last few bites on his tray. "I deserved that one. Look, if you want to focus on the reports, you say the word and I'll leave you to it."

"I suppose they've waited this long." Elara made no move to pick up her datapad. "You're the first person to suggest I take time to have fun since I defected."

Reynarden pushed his empty tray aside, leaning forward on the table. "I guessed you'd defected. There aren't many Republic soldiers with Dromund Kaas accents."

"I would imagine not." Elara managed a small smile. She'd been waiting for this moment. He was going to reveal that this was a joke all along. Just like every other Republic soldier.

Instead of that, however, he propped his chin on his hand, looking at her very intently. "Why did you defect?"

After a moment of speechless surprise that he'd even asked, Elara recovered her composure and told him quietly, "I served in the Imperial military for two years. In the course of those two years, my own colleagues regularly violated their own stated regulations and intentions without cause." She wasn't willing to explain her deeper reasons for leaving the Empire to a man she'd just met that morning. "I refused to participate and chose to defect instead. Given my extensive knowledge and training, I was awarded this position under Service Code 37-R."

"Well, the Empire's loss is the Republic's gain." Reynarden grinned at her, straightening up.

Her cheeks grew warm with pleasure at the compliment. Stop it, Elara! He'll be leaving soon enough! "It's kind of you to say."

"I mean it, Elara." He smiled at her, blue eyes warm with sincerity.

Neither of them noticed that Sergeant Jorgan had entered the mess hall until he reached their table. "Lieutenant, I think I found it, the scavengers' HQ."

Reynarden rolled his eyes. "Talk about not taking time to have fun." He turned his attention to Jorgan, his demeanor suddenly all business. "What'd you find?"

"I was looking at the intelligence reports and the latest orbital scans caught my attention." Jorgan handed his datapad to Reynarden. Without thinking, Elara got up and moved to look at the screen over Reynarden's shoulder. Jorgan tapped the screen with one clawed fingertip. "Fallenspire Stronghold. That's their base."

Elara nodded thoughtfully. "We had our suspicions about their use of the bunker, but no concrete proof, until this."

"Right, we'll head there first thing in the morning." Reynarden sat back in his chair. "Good work, Aric. Now, for kriff's sake, go do something that's not work."

Jorgan blinked and stared down at Reynarden for a moment. Then he looked at Elara and smirked. "Right. Good night, Rey."

With that, the Cathar left them alone. Reynarden turned to Elara, a hopeful smile on his face. "There's a chance we'll find your people alive."

"I'll send orders to my team to make preparations for tomorrow," she assured him, already thinking of the preparations she needed to make.

Reynarden took her hand and Elara blinked at him, distracted from her thoughts. "Elara, please take time to do something fun and has nothing to do with work."

"I have a lot to do, but I will try," she replied, only then realizing that she'd moved around the table without being aware of it.

He gave a soft laugh. "I suppose that's the best I can ask for." He stood up. "I'll see you in the morning, Elara."

"Until then, Reynarden."

*

As she and the other soldiers followed Havoc Squad into Fallenspire Stronghold, Elara took note of the fact that every scavenger they found was most definitely dead. Most of the kill shots were to the head or torso. Some showed signs of having been on fire, but the flames were gone. The part of her that had chosen to serve in the military admired the efficiency of their work. However, the part of her that had chosen to be a medic was saddened by the loss of life. She consoled herself with the reminder that these men had chosen a life of crime and their deaths were a form of justice. Elara stationed pairs of the soldiers along the path Havoc Squad had made to reduce the chances of being flanked.

When they caught up to Lieutenant Drondil and Sergeant Jorgan on the lower level, Elara was relieved to see that they were talking with Ensign Tane and several of the other missing soldiers were present as well. We didn't lose them all, thank the stars! "Here they are. Cav, Goran--cover the exit. Vise, Marko, Tabber--see to these men's wounds." Even across the room, she could see that Tane wasn't exactly thrilled to see her, but that wasn't news to her: he was one of the few soldiers who kept taunting her about being a defector and implying that she was really a spy. Upon reaching the three men, Elara ordered crisply, "Report, Ensign. Did you learn anything about the enemy?"

"Uh, yes, sir, Sergeant, sir." She ignored his borderline insubordination with the ease of long practice, waiting patiently for his actual report. "As I was just telling the lieutenant here, we were captured for some guy named Needles." Elara nodded, figuring it was a code name and, judging by the looks Drondil and Jorgan exchanged, it was one they recognized. Tane looked back at Drondil, clearly more comfortable talking to him, "And get this: There are Imperials here, on Taris! They're working with this Needles guy in a hidden base out in the swamps."

"Sounds like you overheard quite a bit," Drondil observed, folding his arms across his chest. Elara wasn't quite sure how to take his tone. It wasn't quite admiring, but neither was it sarcastic.

Tane nodded eagerly, reminding Elara of an akk puppy, eager to please. "Yes, sir, Lieutenant. The scavengers were pretty sloppy about talking in front of us." He looked back at her with a sneer. "So, are you excited, Dorne? You'll finally have the chance to correct your old buddies' paperwork again!"

"You are out of line, Ensign," Drondil snapped, his anger obvious. "Sergeant Dorne is the reason we even found you and the others. I strongly suggest you treat her with the respect she deserves as both your superior officer and your medic."

Tane nodded quickly, caught off-guard by the rapid change in Drondil's demeanor. "Uh, yes, sir, Lieutenant. Sorry, sir."

"Many of the local troops feel that my adherence to regulations is a result of my upbringing, Lieutenant," Elara told him, secretly flattered that he'd jumped to her defense so quickly.

Drondil nodded, his expression hard. "That's no excuse for insubordination."

"Sir, we have a job to do," Jorgan reminded his CO quietly.

Nodding, Drondil let out a deep breath. "Yes, of course. Let's go see if the scavengers had any information we can use on their computers."

"My team and I will get these men back to base, Lieutenant." Elara informed him, coming to attention and saluting him, crisply and correctly.

Drondil returned the salute with equal precision. "See you on the other side, Sergeant."

*

Transporting the wounded soldiers back to Olaris took several hours and Elara was worn out at the end. It was well worth the time and effort for the look on Colonel Gaff's face when he saw the soldiers he'd presumed dead. "I don't recall giving you permission to--"

"I was aiding Lieutenant Drondil with his mission, sir," Elara informed him brusquely as her squad settled the wounded soldiers in the medical bay. "We found nothing unusual."

He sputtered, but Elara didn't wait for his response. She checked that each of the soldiers was comfortable and had a datapad to write their reports. Tane made a face, but didn't object.

Happily, the only paperwork Elara was required to fill out herself were the standard reports on the morning's activities. Satisfied that everything was under control, she walked briskly to SAR Command to check in on Drondil and Jorgan. Just as she walked in, she heard Jorgan commenting, "No sign of Needles, sir. Maybe the scavengers had the wrong info?"

"I think this was just a stopover," Drondil replied, sounding thoughtful. As she took up her usual place, she noted that Jorgan was doing a careful survey of the bunker while Drondil checked the computer.

"Looking for Needles, are you?" Elara had just picked up her datapad and nearly dropped it at the sound of the familiar voice. She'd hoped to never hear it again and reluctantly looked at the armor cam feeds. Both Drondil and Jorgan had turned to face the Imperial officer, confirming his identity. "I'm afraid he's long gone, my friend."

Both Drondil and Jorgan drew their sidearms, pointing them at Thorus. "Let's see those hands, nice and slow."

"Don't worry, I won't give you any trouble." Thorus raised his empty hands into the air above his head. "I wouldn't stand a chance fighting against you." From what little Elara had seen of their handiwork, she had to agree with the assessment. Thorus excelled at dirty tricks and going behind others' backs. He wasn't very good at direct combat. "So, I won't. Instead, let me make a suggestion. I'll tell you everything you need to know about Needles. But, in exchange, you have to let me go."

Since Jorgan was standing behind and to the right of Drondil, Elara couldn't see his expression, but his suspicion was quite obvious in his voice when he said, "You seem to know an awful lot about our mission here."

"You're wearing a Havoc Squad insignia and searching Needles's files. It doesn't take a great mind to put the two together." Elara made a mental note about that, keeping her focus on the camera feeds. "It's simple: let me live and I will tell you everything. Kill me, and you'll learn nothing."

Elara had heard enough and pressed the button to contact Drondil. "Come in, Lieutenant. This is Sergeant Dorne. Do not trust this man--I served with him in the Empire. His name is Thorus."

"What? Who is that, who are you talking to?" Thorus demanded, his confidence fading. Clearly, something had happened to him since she'd defected. Drondil walked to a nearby holoterminal and plugged his holocom into it. Elara could see her holoimage on both Drondil and Jorgan's camera feeds, but she ignored that when Thorus sputtered, "Dorne? D-Dorne, is that you?"

She ignored Thorus, too, though she rather liked the fact that he seemed to be afraid of her for some reason. "Thorus is a mass murderer, Lieutenant. A war criminal."

"A mass murderer, huh?" Drondil remarked, turning back to Thorus with a glare.

Elara explained further, grateful all over again that Drondil was willing to listen to her. "During my time in Imperial service, Thorus ordered the execution of hundreds of civilian non-combatants and full-scale bombings of unarmed populations." Jorgan growled, his glare at Thorus intensifying, if that was even possible. Drondil grew even paler, the freckles on his nose and cheeks standing out. "Furthermore, these actions were committed in circumvention of direct orders from Imperial Command." "I am a soldier!" Thorus told them, sounding desperate now. "I--I do what I must to achieve my objectives! Just like you, Lieutenant." Drondil pointed his sidearm at Thorus once again, doing a fair approximation of a snarl. "I am nothing like you, Imp scum."

"Please, listen!" Thorus had grown pale as well, recognizing that he'd lost control of the situation. "I'll tell you everything, everything I know! Needles is doing experiments on the rakghouls. He wants to understand their disease, t-to turn it into a weapon. He-he left here a few hours ago. He said he was visiting some 'friends' in the ruins of an old transport station, to get more samples."

Neither Drondil's weapon nor his stare didn't waver. "I'm going to need a lot more detail here."

"R-rakghouls. He needs more t-to continue his research. He won't say who his 'friends' are, but they supplied the rakghouls. That-that's everything. That's all I know." He straightened and had the nerve to practically demand, "I've given you what you wanted. Now what about me?"

Drondil remained silent for several moments, just staring at Thorus. "I am nothing like you and those innocent people you killed deserve justice."

"No! This isn't fair!" Thorus exclaimed, backing away from Drondil.

He turned to run, but didn't make it far before Drondil shot him, sending him crumpling to the ground. Elara wouldn't normally advocate killing someone, but Thorus had never faced justice for the war crimes he'd committed. Until now. When Drondil made no move to check Thorus's status, Jorgan approached and carefully nudged his body with his foot. Nodding, he holstered his weapon. "Dead."

Elara didn't realize she'd been holding her breath until he let it out in a silent sigh. Seeing him dead at last was a relief in a way. He wouldn't be able to harm innocents again. "My feed cut out for a few seconds," Elara told them, something about the way Drondil stood even now suggested that Thorus had hit a nerve. "I did hear shots fired, though, so I'm going to assume that he resisted arrest and you were forced to kill him."

Jorgan turned and looked at Drondil for a moment before turning to the holoterminal. "That's correct, Sergeant. Thorus reached for his weapon when Lieutenant Drondil tried to arrest him. He was forced to kill Thorus in self-defense."

"Thank you for confirming, Sergeant Jorgan." She glanced at the chrono. "It's too late to act on his information today. I'll see you back at SAR Command. Dorne out."

Though she dropped her direct connection to the holoterminal, Elara watched as Jorgan removed the holocom and returned it to Drondil. The lieutenant accepted it and tucked it into a pocket on his belt. He finally looked away from Thorus and whispered, "I am like him, Aric."

"You're nothing like him, Rey," Jorgan answered, his voice gentler than Elara would have expected.

Drondil's face hardened and he turned and walked several paces away. "I am! I killed those civs on Coruscant."

"You were following orders," Jorgan retorted. "It turned out they were innocent, but we didn't know for sure at the time."

His back still to Jorgan, Drondil whispered, "I wish I could go back in time and tell myself to ignore those orders." He gave a humorless laugh. "Then I'd still be like Thorus."

"You'll never be anything like him," Jorgan told him. "You'd have disobeyed orders to save lives. He disobeyed orders to take them."

After a long moment, the tense line of Drondil's shoulders slumped. "Thanks, Aric."

"You're welcome, Rey." Jorgan walked over and briefly clasped his shoulder. "I don't know about you, but I've had enough of lovely Taris for today."

Another humorless laugh. "Yeah, let's get back to Olaris."

As they started to jog from the bunker, it occurred to Elara that she'd just eavesdropped on a very personal and very private conversation. A blush suffused her cheeks and she quickly began to write her report about the events at Fallenspire. Just in time, too, because someone knocked on the door a moment later. "Come in!"

The door opened to admit Tabber, a datapad in her hand. "Sergeant, here are my reports on the rescue op and the status of our soldiers."

"Thank you for your promptness." Elara accepted the datapads and set them to one side to review later. Her squad, at least, had no trouble working with her, for which she was very grateful. "Can you summarize your assessment of the soldiers?"

Nodding, Tabber told her, "They appeared to suffer several bruises and contusions during their actual abduction, most of which are still healing. According to Ensign Tane, each of them also had more serious injuries such as broken bones."

"If that were the case, they should still show signs of those injuries," Elara mused, rubbing her chin thoughtfully.

"I thought of that, too, sir." Tabber nodded her agreement. "I checked their scans and there are signs of more serious injuries. Apparently, they were given kolto for those injuries during their confinement and received no others at the hands of the scavengers."

Elara nodded, managing a small smile for her subordinate. "Thank you, Tabber. Dismissed." She saluted and left once Elara returned it. Given Thorus's information, Elara had a pretty good idea as to why Needles wanted healthy Republic soldiers. I hope Lieutenant Drondil stops him!

*

Elara managed to finish her report and review the ones written by her squad by the time Lieutenant Drondil and Sergeant Jorgan returned to Olaris. It was difficult to miss their return, because the other soldiers were eager to thank them for finding and rescuing their friends. By the time they made it to SAR Command, Drondil had a smile on his face and looked much better than he had been in the bunker. Elara saluted him and he returned it. "Good work with Thorus, Lieutenant. War criminals do not deserve the opportunity to strike deals."

"War criminal or not, his attitude grated on me anyway," Drondil replied, handing Elara a datapad. "I got all the files from the computer. Between those and Thorus's information, it looks we have a lead."

Elara nodded, accepting the datapad. She skimmed through several pages of notes. "It will take me time to examine the information. However, the fact that Needles is in the transport station presents a different problem."

"What do you mean?" Drondil glanced at Jorgan, and then back at Elara. "Is there a problem with the transport station?"

She nodded reluctantly. "Scans of the location have been cursory at best. Rakghouls infest it, making scouting by foot inordinately difficult. However, one traversable route has been located."

"I'll scout the area myself," Drondil informed her, looking determined.

Somehow, Elara had known that would be his response. "Any geographical information you can bring back would be very helpful, Lieutenant."

"Sir," Jorgan interjected. "Didn't Knight Drondil say that's where he and Jedi Par were headed today? When we passed them on the way to Brell?"

A smile broke through Drondil's determined expression. "Hey, yeah. Good thinking, Sergeant. If they're still dirtside, they may have information for us."

"Friends of yours, Lieutenant?" Elara asked, wondering if this knight was related to him, given the matching name.

Drondil nodded, amusement twinkling in his eyes. "Yeah, my brother and a Jedi colleague of his."

"I hope they can help, sir." Elara told him sincerely.

He grinned at her. "I hope so, too. Why don't we all go over the data from the bunker and talk to the Jedi and meet here in the morning to formulate a plan of attack?"

"Sounds like a plan, sir." Elara saluted him again and he returned it before leaving the room with Jorgan, the two of them talking in quiet voices.

Elara looked down at the datapad in her hand and headed back to her workstation to begin going through the information on it.

*

Once Elara saw what was being served in the mess hall, she decided to go to the cantina for dinner. At least she had more choices there. She'd just placed her order when a familiar voice called, "Elara!"

Turning, she did a double-take when she saw Reynarden. He'd changed out of his armor into a t-shirt and shorts. Somehow, it suited him far more than either the armor or uniform. "Sir!" At his raised eyebrows, she corrected herself, "Reynarden. I thought you'd be in the mess again."

"I did consider it," he admitted with a self-conscious smile. "However, Fio and Norm are both still dirtside and agreed to meet with me to talk about the transport station. Why don't you join us?"

"Oh, I wouldn't want to intrude," Elara demurred, flattered that he'd even asked. He was the first since she'd defected and it felt nice.

Reynarden shook his head, his voice earnest as he explained, "You won't be intruding and I'm sure you'd like to see the maps for yourself."

"Well, yes, I would." She had to admit that much. She was also nervous about meeting these two Jedi, particularly his brother. "Do you think they'd mind?"

Before he could reply, the bartender told Elara. "Your food, Sergeant Dorne."

"Thank you." She accepted the tray with a smile. He was one of the few people who'd never treated her any different from anyone else.

The bartender touched her arm. "Is he hassling you?"

"No, he's a friend." Elara assured him, touched by the implied offer.

Reynarden was smiling when she looked back at him. "I promise, they'll be happy to have you join us, Elara."

"Very well. I'd be glad to join you." Elara nodded and followed Reynarden through the cantina to a table in the corner. Two men already sat there: a Zabrak with slightly tan skin and bright red hair surrounding the horns circling the crown of his head and a Sith Pureblood with deep red skin and dark red hair. Elara almost dropped her tray when she saw the second man. She hadn't seen a Pureblood anywhere in Republic space since her defection.

Reynarden pulled a chair out for Elara and she sat down with a small smile for him. "Elara, I'd like you to meet my brother, Fiosynod Drondil, and a colleague of his, Normajh Par. Gentlemen, this is Elara Dorne, sergeant first class."

"A pleasure to meet you, Sergeant Dorne," Fiosynod, the Pureblood, offered his hand first. Though his voice was deeper than Reynarden's, he had a similar accent.

Elara hesitated barely a nanosecond before shaking his hand. As a former Imperial, she didn't have any room to judge, especially considering the fact that Reynarden called him his brother. "Nice to meet you, too, Mr. Drondil." She offered her hand to Normajh. "And you, Mr. Par."

"Please, call me Norm. This isn't a formal occasion." Normajh shook her hand with an easy smile. She found it difficult to think of him as a Jedi.

Fiosynod nudged Normajh with his elbow. "At least she didn't call you Master Par."

"Should I?" Elara asked, looking from one to the other. She wasn't sure about protocol with Jedi. They were the first she'd interacted with outside a formal situation and neither of them wore robes. "And should I call you Master Drondil?"

Normajh shook his head quickly. "No, Norm is fine."

"And I'm Fio," Fiosynod added with a chuckle. "Neither of us are masters."

Reynarden had settled in the chair next to Elara's and interjected his own comment. "Yet, Fio."

"Not for a long time, I hope," Normajh replied, making a face. "I don't know if the Order can handle two Master Pars."

Fiosynod shrugged. "Technically, it'd only be one Master Par. Yuon goes by her first name."

"Good point." Normajh chuckled, taking a sip of his drink.

A young woman arrived at the table then, swatting Normajh's shoulder. "You were supposed to wake me up when you headed to the cantina."

"You were sleeping so peacefully, I couldn't bear to wake you." Normajh told her, rubbing his shoulder and giving her a wounded look. Then he gestured across the table to Elara, who'd been eating quietly while the others talked. "By the way, this is Sergeant Elara Dorne. She's been helping Rey. Sergeant, this is my sister, Jeveen Par, captain of the light freighter Starseeker."

Jeveen offered her hand to Elara, who automatically shook it, just barely avoiding a double-take. She looks more like Reynarden than Normajh! "Nice to meetcha, Sergeant."

"And nice to meet you as well, Captain," Elara replied, the name reminding her of the rumors she'd heard circulating the base. She glanced at Reynarden, and then Normajh. "Are you sure Normajh is your brother?"

Surprisingly, Jeveen burst into laughter, leaning against her brother. "I'm sure, Sergeant. If it's any consolation, Norm is my half-brother. His sire was a Zabrak and mine was human."

"I see." Elara nodded, looking down at the remains of her meal. She couldn't imagine referring to her father as her sire, but he'd helped raise her.

She blinked in surprise at a light touch on her arm and glanced at Reynarden. "Don't feel bad. We certainly picked up on the resemblance ourselves when we first met back on Mantell."

"Of course, the only difference is that I'm better looking," Jeveen added with a crooked grin. "Cybernetics and all."

Reynarden chuckled, relaxing back in his chair. "Keep telling yourself that, Jeveen."

"It's the truth!" She turned to her brother. "Don't you think so, Norm?"

He gave her a deadpan look. "Do you really want me to answer that?"

"On second thought, forget I asked," Jeveen shook her head while both Fiosynod and Reynarden chuckled. She stuck her tongue out at them. "Where's Corso when I need him?"

A young man with dark brown dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail arrived then, looking a little bleary-eyed. "I'm right here, Captain. What do you need?"

"Just wanted to know if you think me or Rey is better looking," Jeveen told him, pulling out the empty chair next to her, which incidentally put him on Reynarden's other side.

Reynarden gave a snort. "We already know his answer, Jeveen."

"He can still say it, though." Jeveen grinned, leaning over to press her cheek against Corso's shoulder and look up at him with flirtatious smile. "So?"

Blushing, Corso told her, "You, of course, Captain."

"Thanks, Corso." Grinning, she stretched up to kiss his cheek and his blush deepened.

Normajh poked Jeveen, who gave a squeak and swatted at his hand with a dirty look. "Please save your flirting for later. And introduce Corso to our new friend."

"Oh, yeah." Jeveen waved a hand in Elara's direction. "Corso, this is Sergeant Elara Dorne. She's been helping Rey." Elara wondered if she imagined the slight emphasis on 'helping'. "Sergeant, this is Corso Riggs. He's helping me with my shipping business."

Elara extended her hand towards Corso. "Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Riggs."

"Nice to meet you." Corso made no move to take Elara's hand and she reluctantly drew it back. Jeveen stretched up to whisper something in his ear, making him wince. "Sorry, Sergeant. I was out of line."

Elara nodded slightly. "I understand, Mr. Riggs. Believe me."

"Still not right for me to judge you just based on your accent." Corso extended his hand. After a moment, Elara shook it, surprised that he was so quick to make amends.

At that moment, Fiosynod, who'd been watching the door, turned to face the table once again. "Kira and Teeseven are back. Took them long enough."

"Sorry we're late, Master." Another young woman, this one with red hair cut in a bob and dark blue eyes, reached the table, resting her hand on the back of Fiosynod's chair. "Those rakghouls were a little tougher with just the two of us."

The red astromech who'd trundled in after Kira beeped and whistled his agreement. "T7-O1 + Padawan Kira = good team // T7-O1 + Padawan Kira + Knight Fiosynod = better team"

"Agreed." Fiosynod nodded and introduced both Kira and T7-O1 to Elara.

This time, she didn't offer her hand, simply inclining her head to both of them in greeting. "Nice to meet you both."

"Sergeant Dorne = Friend of Lieutenant Drondil?" T7-O1 inquired, his 'head' spinning.

Reynarden nodded, sounding a little exasperated. "Yes, Teeseven, she's my friend.

"Sergeant Dorne = Friend of T7-O1," he declared, subsiding the next moment.

Kira had remained quiet throughout the exchange and glanced at Fiosynod for a moment before saying, "I'm with Teeseven. You've been helping Rey, so that's good enough for me."

"Thank you." Elara could only whisper the words, ducking her head to hide the sudden tears stinging her eyes. It was strange to her, this acceptance simply because someone had vouched for her. No one had before, not even in the Empire.

After a moment, Fiosynod cleared his throat. "Right, Teeseven, if you would do the honors?"

Elara blinked in surprise when a three-dimensional image was projected onto the table. Looking over, she realized T7-O1 was projecting it. "What's this?"

"The transport station," Kira explained, leaning on the back of Fiosynod's chair. "When Rey asked Fio to provide maps, he figured it'd be easiest to have me and Teeseven go back and scan as much as we could."

Next to Elara, Reynarden started. "You didn't have to do that, Fio."

"It'd help you with your mission and help you and Aric survive," Fiosynod answered with a shrug. "Of course I did."

Jeveen leaned forward, the implant over her right eye whirring. "Is Zone Zero somewhere in this maze of tunnels?"

"Teeseven, can you light up the coordinates Jeveen gave us?" Kira requested.

He beeped and a portion of the map lit up. Normajh looked thoughtful. "That's not too far from the entrance. Mind some help, Jev?"

"If by help you mean you and Qyzen, I don't mind," Jeveen grinned crookedly at her brother.

He grinned back. "Exactly what I meant. I don't have orders for my next stop yet, so I can take the time. I'm sure Qyzen will be glad for the chance to earn more points."

"He always is." Jeveen rolled her eye, still smiling.

Watching them, Elara noticed that they had the same smile. She was distracted from her musings when Reynarden asked, "Did you find anything besides rakghouls down there?"

"You mean Imps?" Kira asked with a smirk. Reynarden nodded. "We did, though we didn't get too close. Teeseven?"

Another beep and a completely different portion of the map lit up. "Kriff. That's a lot of rakghouls to fight through."

"I'd offer to help," Fiosynod told him, looking frustrated, "but we have to head out soon."

Kira looked down at Fiosynod in surprise. "We do?"

"Yeah, Var Suthra contacted me while you two were doing this." Fiosynod shifted in his chair so he could look up at her. "I'll tell you more on the ship."

She made a face and reluctantly nodded. "Right."

"If I may?" Elara lightly touched Reynarden's arm and he turned to her. "After what you did today, finding the missing soldiers, quite a few of the others have approached me to ask if they can help you in any way."

A smile slowly lit Reynarden's face. "They could help clear the way to the Imperials."

"And keep it clear," Elara added, ignoring the part of her that was pleased to have made him smile like that.

He nodded, still smiling. "That will work. Thank you, Elara."

"Not at all, Reynarden." She turned to the others. "Teeseven, can you transfer those scans to SAR Command's computers?"

The astromech beeped, rocking from side to side. "Maps = in the Olaris base computer."

"Thank you very much." She smiled at him, and then at Fiosynod and Kira. "All of you."

Fiosynod nodded his head slightly. "We're glad to help, Sergeant." He looked around the table at the rest of them. "Unfortunately, it's time we left. Good luck, everyone, and may the Force be with you."

"Fio." Kira stopped him from getting up. "Have you seen the base medic yet?"

Elara frowned as he shook his head. "No, I'll be fine, Kira."

"What's wrong?" Elara asked, leaning forward.

Fiosynod shook his head, but Kira answered for him, "Fio here twisted his ankle. It's why he didn't go with us to scan the transport station." She gave him a stern look. "He was supposed to have it treated while we were gone."

"The medics are all busy vaccinating people thanks to Jeveen." Fiosynod waved at the freighter captain, who blushed and ducked her head. "I didn't want to bother them with this."

Elara hesitated only briefly before offering, "I'm a medic, Fiosynod. You should not be walking on a twisted ankle anyway."

"I haven't been walking on it." He reached down and produced a pair of crutches.

Reynarden glared at his brother. "That's why you've been sitting here all this time."

"Fio, please let Sergeant Dorne heal your ankle," Kira requested quietly.

He let out a deep breath. "Fine, yes, let's take care of it."

"My kit is at SAR Command, I won't be long." Elara stood up and hurried out of the cantina.

By the time she'd retrieved it and left to return to the cantina, she spotted Fiosynod sitting on a bench outside. He had his right foot stretched out in front of him, the boot and sock replaced by a wrap. She'd have scolded him for walking on it, but the crutches were propped against the bench next to him. Kira, Reynarden, and T7-O1 waited nearby. As she approached them, she heard Kira say, "I kind of wish Master Kiwiiks was here. She'd have taken care of his ankle in no time flat."

"If Master Kiwiiks were around, you wouldn't need me to be your master," Fiosynod told her, tilting his head back to look at her.

Kira shrugged. "No, but it's not like I really need a master at this point. It's more a formality."

"Why haven't you been promoted yet?" Reynarden asked curiously.

Fiosynod sounded curious. "Yeah, I've been meaning to ask that. I'm a little surprised I was promoted so quickly. Especially given my background." He stretched out his leg and wiggled the toes of his foot.

"Well, I'm glad you can do that much at least, Fiosynod," Elara told him, having reached them by then. "It means the muscles and nerves aren't too badly damaged."

She sat down beside him and he shifted around to put his foot in her lap. Elara carefully removed the wrap and prodded it with her fingers. He gasped with pain and, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Kira offer her hand to him. Fiosynod took it and held it while Elara continued to probe the injury. Reynarden sat down beside Elara, watching her work. "It doesn't look bad to me, but I only know basic field medicine."

"It's a little strained. Luckily, someone thought to wrap it tightly to keep the swelling down." Elara rummaged through her kit for her scanner.

Kira volunteered with a grin, "That'd be me. Traveling around with a Force Healer, you learn a lot about medicine."

"A kolto wrap and staying off the foot should be enough to mend it by the time you get where you're going," Elara told them, wondering if the Force Healer Kira referenced was the Master Kiwiiks she'd mentioned earlier. She turned to retrieve the items she needed from her kit and blinked in surprise when Reynarden held them out to her. "Thank you, Reynarden."

He smiled warmly when she took the wrap from him and carefully swaddled Fiosynod's ankle with it. "Not at all."

"You should also take some painkillers," Elara told Fiosynod, keeping her eyes on her work. "I don't have any for someone of mixed background."

She jumped when he pulled his foot from her grasp, turning to face forward on the bench. When he spoke, his words were clipped and flat. "The kolto wrap should be enough. Thank you, Sergeant Dorne."

"Fio, it showed up on your scan and she probably figured it out before then when I introduced you as my brother," Reynarden rested a hand on Elara's shoulder, warm and comforting.

The tension that gripped Fiosynod's shoulders eased a little. "I don't like to be reminded of it." He glanced at Elara. "I do have painkillers that will work for me, though."

"Thanks, Elara," Kira added, helping to steady Fiosynod as he stood up on his good foot and positioned the crutches under his arms.

As they walked away, towards the spaceport, Elara sighed and packed her medkit. "There's something more you should know, Lieutenant."

"We're not on duty, Elara," he told her, sounding exasperated.

She shook her head. "I'm talking about what I found in the data you and Sergeant Jorgan pulled from the bunker's computers this afternoon."

"Oh." His jaw tightened and he looked away. "What about it?"

Elara carefully closed her kit and folded her hands together on top of it. "Lab results confirmed Thorus's account. Needles has almost completed a weaponized strain of the rakghoul disease. However, the data makes no mention of Needles's 'friends' in the transport system."

"Friends of Needles." Reynarden laughed humorlessly. "I'm not sure I want to know who'd be friends with him."

She eyed him thoughtfully, reminded of what Thorus had said. "You know him, then?"

"What?" Reynarden looked at her in surprise, and then groaned, scrubbing his hands over the top of his head. "Forget I said that." Clearing his throat, he told her, "I suggest we go over the maps and meet at 0900 tomorrow to figure out our plan of attack." With that, Reynarden stood up and walked towards the spaceport, his back ramrod straight.

Elara watched him go, resolving to do some research when she got back her quarters.

*

"This area is infested with rakghouls." Elara reminded the soldiers who'd gathered for a last briefing the following day. "Do not go anywhere without a partner. Teams of three or more are highly recommended. I encourage each of you to stock up on supplies and munitions before entering the area. Good luck."

The largest briefing room filled with chatter as the soldiers stood up and began leaving to make last-minute preparations. Elara already wore most of her armor. Though she planned to set up a medical station and supervise the treatment of any soldiers who were injured, she had no intention of requiring medical treatment herself. Drondil stopped beside her, fidgeting with his helmet. "Sergeant Dorne, I wanted to thank you for all the help you've provided us."

"You can thank me when you've completed your mission, Lieutenant," Elara told him crisply, turning off her datapad and clipping it to her belt. She had done her research and it only left her with more questions. She could guess the answers, but it wasn't her place to demand them. "Have you and Sergeant Jorgan been vaccinated?"

He frowned at her, and then glanced at Jorgan, who stood a few paces away. "Um, are you talking about a specific vaccine?"

"I'm surprised you haven't heard anything. It's been all over the base." Elara wondered how he could have missed it. "Thanks to Captain Par and Mr. Riggs, a vaccine against the rakghoul virus has been created. Of course, it's most effective for humans." She nodded apologetically to Jorgan, who grimaced. "However, it will prevent any mutation. The worst that will happen to non-humans is illness."

Jorgan shrugged "I'll take illness over mutation any day."

"I ensured every volunteer was vaccinated," Elara assured them. She didn't want them to worry that their support would suddenly turn against them.

Drondil nodded, looking pleased. "We'll do the same. I'd rather avoid becoming a rakghoul."

"That makes two of us, sir." Jorgan added.

Nodding again, Drondil offered his hand to Elara. Surprised, it took a moment for her to take it. His grip was warm and firm. "No matter what happens in that transport system, I'm glad that you helped us, Elara."

"Good luck, Reynarden." There was no telling what the outcome would be. They could only hope that it worked out in their favor.

Without a backward glance, Drondil and Jorgan left the briefing room. Elara finished tidying up and followed them. Not surprisingly, by the time she emerged, the corridor was deserted. She headed to her quarters to retrieve the last of her armor so she could join the other volunteers.

*

"Sergeant Dorne!" Jeveen's voice carried to Elara as she finished tending to a soldier who'd had a close encounter with a rakghoul.

Turning once she'd turned him over to her squad, Elara saw Jeveen and Corso helping Normajh, who looked like he could barely walk. Behind them was a green-skinned Trandoshan who periodically glanced over his shoulder. She indicated an empty cot, changing to a new pair of surgical gloves. "What happened?"

"One of the raks managed to get him," Jeveen reported, tugging Normajh's robe off before she and Corso lowered him to the cot. The shirt and pants he wore underneath the robe were made of synthweave. Similar to cortosis weave, something about it better suited Force users. "Almost off this kriffin' planet and he goes and gets himself bit."

Normajh reached out to touch Jeveen's hand, already unnaturally pale. "Didn't... mean..."

"Stay still," Elara ordered him, scanning him briefly and taking note of the fact that he was half Zabrak, half human, just as he'd told her. "Save your energy for fighting the infection."

"Will Herald live?" The Trandoshan had reached them by then and she thought he sounded concerned. It was difficult to tell with a species so different.

Elara didn't look up from removing Normajh's boot. She knew enough Dosh to translate and answered the question, "If by Herald, you mean Master Par, yes, he'll live. He'll just wish he hadn't until the worst of the illness breaks."

"Remember how sick Corso and I were yesterday and the day before?" Jeveen added as Elara tugged the leg of Normajh's pants up to get at the bite itself. "Same for Norm. It'll be like having a really bad cold or fever."

Elara carefully cleaned the bite. The teeth marks were deeper than she'd expected. "Kolto can take care of the bite itself. Unfortunately, I don't have any medication with me for a Zabrak-human hybrid."

"Fever reducer and painkiller are what he'll need, right?" Corso asked as Elara carefully injected kolto into the muscle above the bite. She glanced up at him, surprised that he'd identified the essence of what they needed. Corso shrugged stiffly. "It's what they used for us. Jeveen told them some meds don't work on her anymore. They asked about those in particular."

Jeveen shrugged when Elara looked at her and tapped the cybernetic that had replaced her right eye. "Got hurt real bad when I was a teenager. Built up a tolerance to the painkillers they used while I was healing."

"I see." Elara wondered just how badly Jeveen had been hurt. It took quite a lot to develop a tolerance to medications. She focused on smoothing kolto gel over the bite marks. "You are correct, Mr. Riggs: fever reducer and painkillers will help with the symptoms. As well as rest and plenty of liquids."

Normajh groaned as Elara wrapped a bandage tightly around his leg. "Don't have... time to rest. Need... Nar Shaddaa."

"Can't hunt when you can't walk, Herald." The Trandoshan interjected. "Rest, regain strength. Then hunt."

Elara scanned Normajh one last time. "Will you permit me to take blood samples, Master Par? I'm sure Dr. Cel and her people would appreciate the opportunity to formulate vaccines for hybrids."

"Go 'head," Normajh whispered, beginning to sweat. "Name's Norm. Not a master."

Jeveen stifled a laugh that sounded like it bordered on hysterical. "Not yet, anyway."

"That's what Lieutenant Drondil said to his brother," Elara remarked as she drew several samples of blood, carefully labeling the vials and storing them with the samples she'd taken from other victims. "This isn't a recent bite, Normajh."

This time, Jeveen gave an exasperated huff. "No, it isn't. He got bitten on the way to the vault I needed, but didn't say a damn thing until he nearly walked right into a wall on our way back."

"He wanted to make sure you got those charts you needed," Corso told her, his voice gentle. "I don't blame him. I sure hope they're worth all this bother."

Jeveen shrugged, rubbing idly at the skin around her implant. "Risha says they are."

Elara's holocom beeped just then. Grateful she'd already removed the surgical gloves she'd worn while treating Normajh, she pulled out the holocom and answered it. "Dorne, here."

"Sergeant, we accomplished our objective." Drondil's holoimage appeared. "We'll be falling back shortly."

"Acknowledged, Lieutenant," Elara replied, relieved that the weaponized virus wouldn't be a threat to Republic troops. "The way is still clear. Are you or Sergeant Jorgan injured?"

Drondil shook his head. "Nothing we couldn't handle ourselves. We'll see you shortly. Drondil out."

"Sir!" Elara's response came too late. His holoimage had winked out. She turned to the others. "It looks like I have preparations to make." She looked at Normajh, who appeared to be sleeping. A quick scan confirmed her deduction. "I plan to call in a medical evac shuttle. There'll be space for him if you like."

A relieved smile spread across Jeveen's face. "That'd be great, thanks. We can find our own back to Olaris, but I wasn't looking forward to trying to get Norm back on our own."

"He'll be safe with us, Captain," Elara told her, realizing that Jeveen would refuse an offer of a ride back. "I promise."

Jeveen offered her hand with a wan smile. "Thanks, Sergeant."

"You're welcome." Elara shook her hand with a tiny smile.

*

Elara rode the medical evacuation shuttle back to Olaris and saw to it that her patients were settled in the medbay. She put Normajh in a private room to wait for his sister's return to Olaris. Before going to her workstation to begin writing reports, Elara headed to headquarters to check on things there and wait for Jeveen. The officer on duty took her arrival as an excuse for a quick break and headed out. Consequently, Elara was the only one in the room when the base holocom beeped. She checked the origin of the signal and allowed herself a grimace of disappointment when she saw 'Coruscant'. It's probably for Reynarden. Someone should answer it. With that, she pressed the button to accept the call. The holoimage that appeared was of an older woman with steel gray hair piled into a bun on top of her head and stern blue eyes. "Come in Olaris SAR Command, this is General Garza."

"This is Sergeant Elara Dorne, first class, commander of Search and Rescue Squad 204," Elara replied, standing at attention. "What can I do for you, General?"

Surprisingly, Garza didn't seem taken aback by Elara's accent, only saying, "I'm looking for Havoc Squad. Do you happen to know where they are, Sergeant?"

"Not their precise location, no, sir," Elara told her, still standing at attention. "I do know, however, that they achieved their objective here on Taris and are on their way back to base even now."

Garza nodded, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. "I see. What's your assessment of Colonel Gaff's reception of Havoc Squad, Sergeant?"

"He... didn't appreciate the fact that Lieutenant Drondil refused to reveal his reason for being here on Taris in the first place," Elara answered, not sure of the reason for Garza's question.

For some reason, Garza's lips twitched as if she was trying not to smile. "Thank you for your honesty, Sergeant." She glanced over her shoulder, and then back at Elara. "Please have Lieutenant Drondil contact me before he departs Taris."

"I will, General." Elara saluted and Garza returned it.

"Thank you. Garza out." With that, her holoimage winked out of view.

Shaking her head a little, Elara turned back to checking the various monitors and scanning equipment that fed data to SAR Command. To her inner amusement, she noticed that several of them were tuned to armor cameras for their patrol teams. Apparently, Colonel Gaff had learned from the fact that Drondil had found some of their missing soldiers. The peace and quiet didn't last long because the troop transport arrived about fifteen minutes later. The volunteers who hadn't needed to return on the medical evacuation shuttle began streaming into the base moments later. Most ignored Elara as they headed towards the barracks to change out of their armor and clean up.

The officer who'd been on duty when Elara arrived returned and nodded briefly to her before resuming his post. Elara had just returned from preparing the large holocom when Drondil and Jorgan entered the base, both looking as filthy and tired as the volunteers. They looked around and Elara wondered if she imagined the flash of pleasure in Drondil's eyes when he spotted her. "Hello, Sergeant."

"Welcome back, Lieutenant," Elara replied, saluting him and waiting for him to return it before dropping hers. "Congratulations on the success of your mission."

He smiled wanly at her, idly swiping at his cheek with his fingertips. "I couldn't have pulled off this mission without you, Sergeant."

"I was only following orders, Lieutenant." Elara could feel her cheeks heating up in a blush. Why did it mean so much that he appreciated her assistance? He was leaving Taris soon! Clearing her throat, she told him, "General Garza attempted to contact you a few minutes ago. I took the liberty of briefing her on your mission status."

Drondil nodded, his lips twitching as if he was attempting to suppress a smile. "Thank you very much."

"The general requested that you contact her before departing Taris," she added just as he began to turn away. "I took the liberty of preparing the holocom in the next room for your use."

He nodded again, looking very tired for a moment. "I'll contact her right away."

"Congratulations once again, Lieutenant." Elara saluted him one last time, figuring he'd leave as soon as he'd finished reporting to Garza.

Drondil returned the salute and headed into the other room. Elara wasn't quite sure what to do with herself. She wasn't really needed in Command anymore and she really should check on her patients, but Jeveen still hadn't shown up. Just as Elara had made up her mind to go anyway, Jeveen entered the base. "Sergeant Dorne, I'm glad I caught you."

"I was just about to check on Normajh." Elara smiled at Jeveen, gesturing for her to follow. "His fever broke on the way here. Dr. Cel's people have their samples and started working on species specific versions of the vaccine for Twi'leks, Togrutas, and Cathar. Thanks to Normajh, they'll be able to make versions for Zabraks and Zabrak-human hybrids."

Jeveen smiled as they reached Normajh's private room. "I'm glad I could help."

"You and your brother both have helped," Elara assured her. She checked the indicator by the door. "It looks like he's still asleep, but you can sit with him. I'll let Tabber know so she doesn't try to kick you out."

Unexpectedly, Jeveen hugged Elara. "Thanks again, Elara."

"Just doing my duty," Elara replied, awkwardly returning the hug.

Jeveen gave her a watery smile before opening the door and going inside. Corso hesitated outside the door before Jeveen reached out and grabbed his arm, pulling him into the room. Amused, Elara found Tabber and informed her about Jeveen and Corso. "I'll make sure they're allowed to stay, Sergeant. Perhaps you should get some rest yourself."

"After my shift." Elara told her second-in-command, pleased and amused by her fussing.

She'd just returned to headquarters to retrieve her helmet when Drondil and Jorgan found her. "Sergeant Dorne, there you are."

"Lieutenant, sir. Is there something else I can do for you?" Elara asked, surprised that he'd apparently been looking for her. She glanced at Jorgan, but he had a good sabaac face.

Drondil held out datapad to her as he explained, "You're being transferred to Havoc Squad, effective the moment you sign this."

"I-- what?" Elara took the datapad and skimmed through it, recognizing the transfer orders. Drondil had already signed them. "You-- you mean it?"

Drondil nodded, smiling warmly at her. "It's all taken care of. General Garza handled Colonel Gaff so we wouldn't have to. All you need to do is sign that and get your gear."

"This... this is the greatest honor of my career," Elara told him, quickly signing the form and handing the datapad back to Drondil. "I'm speechless."

Dryly, Jorgan told her as Drondil tapped away on the datapad, presumably forwarding the transfer orders to the necessary people. "Don't get too excited, Sergeant. It's not as impressive as it's made out to be."

"Sergeant Dorne, reporting for duty, Lieutenant Drondil!" Elara informed him, her heart soaring in her chest at the knowledge that she was leaving Taris, hopefully for good.

Clipping the datapad to his belt, Drondil told her, "You've more than earned this, Sergeant."

"I'll gather my personal effects and meet you onboard your ship, Lieutenant." Elara relaxed enough to give him a heartfelt smile. "Thank you."

He spread his hands. "Do you need any help?"

"I don't have much, sir," Elara told him, suddenly shy.

Drondil nodded. "Very well. We'll see you aboard the ship. C'mon, Aric. Race you to see who gets first dibs on the shower?"

"Is everything a game to you?" Jorgan asked, exasperated.

Laughing, Drondil darted out of headquarters, closely followed by Jorgan. Shaking her head, Elara headed to the barracks to pack her things in her dufflebag and footlocker. As she did, it occurred to her that she was now Drondil's subordinate. Would he still flirt with her or would he now consider her hands-off because they were squadmates? She wasn't sure which answer she wanted to come true.

Deciding she didn't want to report for duty still grimy and sweaty from the transport system, Elara took a quick shower and changed into a standard gray Republic uniform. She'd just finished when Tabber came into the barracks, looking at the datapad in her hand. "Sergeant Dorne, I have-- what's going on?"

"Tabber, I'm glad you came by," Elara told her second officer, regretting that she'd be leaving her behind. Of all the soldiers on Taris, she was the one who came closest to being a friend. "I'm transferring to Havoc Squad. You'll be in charge of our squad unless Colonel Gaff decides to assign someone else to the spot."

"Transferred? To Havoc?" Tabber stared at Elara, clearly flabbergasted. Then she shook her head and stepped forward to hug Elara, smiling brightly. "That's wonderful! Congratulations! You must have really impressed Lieutenant Drondil for him to request it."

Feeling a little awkward, Elara returned the hug with a small smile. "I don't know how it came about, but I'm honored all the same."

"I admit, I'm a little jealous, but you're too good at what you do to be stuck here on Taris," Tabber told her, still smiling.

A little shyly, Elara offered her hand to Tabber. "Thank you. Good luck here."

"You, too." Tabber shook her hand. "And, uh, if you can, see if you can pull some strings to get me off this swamp."

A small chuckle escaped. "I'll see what I can do."

"Take care, Elara."

"You, too, Jeannie."

*

Once she received an official copy of her transfer orders, Elara left the base and headed to the spaceport. She managed to keep her pace to a swift walk, though part of her longed to just run. It was a relief to finally put Taris behind her. When she reached the hangar where Havoc Squad's ship, a BT-7 Thunderclap, waited, she stopped and stared for several moments. She didn't know ships very well, but this looked gorgeous and quite new. How recently was it built? Shaking her head at the thought, Elara spotted the hatch and walked towards it. She entered the access code once she reached it and the door slide aside to reveal Sergeant Jorgan, leaning against the bulkhead inside, as if he'd been waiting for her.

Saluting, she told him in her crispest, most professional voice, "Sergeant Elara Dorne, first class, reporting in, sir. Permission to come aboard?"

Jorgan straightened up and Elara wondered if she imagined the corners of his mouth twitching as if he was fighting back a smile. Returning her salute, he said, "Permission granted, Sergeant. Welcome to Havoc Squad."

"Thank you very much." Elara stepped inside, looking around curiously. As she'd expected, the interior was similar to most Republic military vessels: clean lines and sparse furnishings.

"Is this the new squad member Lieutenant Drondil mentioned?" The protocol droid surprised Elara, his chassis gleaming a dull gold in the interior lights. "I am C2-N2, steward of this vessel."

"Nice to meet you, C2-N2," Elara replied, falling back on the manners drilled into her by her parents for as long as she could remember. "Sergeant Elara Dorne, first class."

Jorgan made a soft sound beside her that sounded suspiciously like a hastily-stifled laugh. "Seetoo, Dorne here is the squad medic. Did you finish cleaning up the medbay?"

"I did, Sergeant Jorgan," C2 assured him, somehow managing to inject cheerfulness into his voice. Turning back to Elara, the droid added, "I hope you find it to your liking."

Elara nodded, amused. "I hope so, too."

"Let me show you to the crew quarters so you can dump your stuff," Jorgan told her, gesturing to their left.

A flight of stairs opened onto what had to be the main deck with the holoterminal in the middle. Total, she counted five doors opening off of this particular area. Jorgan led her to the door straight across and a little to the right: the crew quarters. Only one of the several bunks showed signs of use. Elara set her duffle bag on the other bottom bunk and placed her footlocker on the deck against the bulkhead. "Thank you, Sergeant. I've been known to talk in my sleep. I hope that won't bother you."

"I have a tendency to snore when my sinuses are kriffed up," Jorgan told her, leaning against his bunk. "We'll be even."

Elara nodded, sitting down on the edge of her bunk. "So we will, Sergeant."

"Ah, since we're squadmates, you can call me Aric when we're off-duty," he told her, rubbing behind his ear and looking a little awkward.

She nodded again, touched by his offer. "And you can call me Elara."

"Gray isn't your color, Elara," Drondil commented from the doorway. Like Aric, he now wore a tank top and shorts in Havoc Squad colors. While the white and orange contrasted starkly with Aric's black fur, Drondil's paler skin almost blended with them.

Out of habit, she popped up to her feet and a position of attention. "Sir!"

"Relax, Elara." Drondil chuckled, waving a hand dismissively. "We're all off-duty here, so you can call me Reynarden, or Rey."

Nodding, Elara relaxed her stance, clasping her hands behind her back. "Right, yes, sir, uh, Reynarden. Forgive me, it'll take time to get used to it."

"All I ask is that you try," Reynarden told her with a reassuring smile. "Aric, would you like to do the honors?"

Aric nodded, straightening up. "Sure, after the mess you made of our last takeoff, I'd be glad to."

"I was running on only a few hours' sleep at the time," Reynarden retorted as Aric brushed past him to head for the cockpit.

Once Aric was gone, Reynarden turned back to Elara. She couldn't help asking, "Why were you piloting the ship on so little sleep?"

"I thought I could handle it. Obviously, I was wrong." Reynarden shrugged. "Right, so house rules: we're generally off-duty while aboard the ship, which means no ranks. I don't expect all of us to become best friends, but as long as we try to get along, that should be enough."

Elara nodded, a little surprised by the requirement, but it made sense. They'd be sharing close quarters aboard the ship. Any fights or arguments they'd have would affect the others aboard. "I'll do my best to remember, sir-- Reynarden."

"I'm not a knight, Elara, that's Fio." His grin took the sting out of his reply. "In the field, please feel free to speak up if you have questions or concerns about my decisions." Reynarden grimaced then. "Command was sort of dumped on me about a week ago. Aric's experience has been a big help and I'm sure yours will, too."

She swallowed, realizing that her suspicions were about to be confirmed or denied. Quietly, she asked, "How did that come about?"

"Have a seat. This is going to take some explanation." Reynarden gestured to the chairs bolted to the bulkhead. Elara sat and listened as Reynarden told her about being transferred to Havoc Squad at an unusually young age and how proud he'd been at the time. Bitterly, he finished, "I realize now that they'd needed someone young and green to fill that spot. To cover their tracks."

Keeping her voice quiet, Elara asked, "They defected, didn't they? And Needles was one of them. That's why you were after him."

"Yes, they defected." Reynarden's voice was hoarse and he clasped his hands tightly in his lap. He told her about arriving on Ord Mantell, only to be sent on solo missions all over the place in pursuit of an orbital strike bomb. They finally tracked it down, only to go retrieve it without him. "When we lost contact, Aric sent me after them. When I found them, they were preparing to officially defect to the Empire. They left me to face their Imp lackeys on my own. I survived, but the fact that they tossed me aside so easily will always sting."

Elara stared at him, surprised that he was being so open about his feelings. Most of her past commanding officers had kept some distance between themselves and the soldiers they commanded. I suppose, since we'll be in such tight quarters, that there doesn't seem to be a point to keeping any distance. Keeping that to herself, she instead asked, "How can you accept me as your medic after that?"

"Your defection was completely different from theirs," Reynarden told her earnestly, reaching over to cover her hands with his. "I looked up your service record after our talk the first night. You quietly surrendered to Republic authorities alone. Tavus took most of his squad and an orbital strike bomb with him and convinced other spec forces squads to join the fun."

The bitter expression on Reynarden's face didn't really suit him, but Elara wasn't about to say as much. "It must have been awful for you."

"Well, I ended up in command because I was the only one left," Reynarden sat back, forcing cheer into his voice. "And General Vander assigned Aric as my first minion, uh, subordinate, so some good came out of it."

Aric growled from the doorway, "I'd hardly call having my career flushed down the refresher a good thing, Rey."

"It landed you in Havoc Squad, didn't it?" Reynarden pointed out, his grin back in place. Growling again, Aric turned and stalked away. Reynarden turned back to Elara. "We're heading to the Fleet, by the way. I requisitioned gear in Havoc Squad colors for you. I recommend you inventory the medbay and put together a list of what we'll need so we can get it while we're there."

Elara stared at Reynarden, surprised by his thoughtfulness. "You didn't have to order anything for me, sir, uh, Reynarden. I could have done that myself."

"You were probably busy wrapping things up on Taris and I needed something to do while Aric took his shower." Reynarden tossed a glare over his shoulder, but there wasn't any heat to it.

She nodded, offering a shy smile. "Thank you very much. If you'll excuse me, I'll do that inventory now."

"Go ahead. I think I'll take a nap now that the excitement's over." Reynarden gave a huge yawn and left the crew quarters.

Elara followed him in time to see him disappear through the door diagonally across from the crew quarters and close it behind him. She peered through the door closest to the crew quarters and found Aric in the armory, checking the weapons. "Aric, where's the medbay?"

"Next room down," he told her, tilting his head to indicate the direction she'd been going.

The medbay was rather small, with only two beds. Not even a kolto tank. Hopefully we won't need one. Retrieving a datapad from her dufflebag, Elara began her inventory.

Chapter Text

After she finished her inventory, she meant to start reviewing the files for Havoc Squad's current mission, but she fell asleep in the common area before she'd read even a page of the first file. She half-woke up to Reynarden nudging her, "Psst, Elara, wake up. C'mon, Elara. I can't carry you to bed. Please wake up."

"'M 'wake," she mumbled, rubbing her eyes. Sitting up, she gave a hiss of pain. One side of her neck was sore. "Goin' on?"

Reynarden tugged at her arm and she tried to get to her feet, only to lose her balance and fall back on the couch. "Easy, Elara. I'll help you to bed."

"Files." She swiped at the datapad on the table nearby and fell onto the couch cushions. "Comfy."

Not quite stifling a laugh, Reynarden sat down beside Elara and helped her sit up before pulling one of her arms over his shoulder. "You'll sleep better in your bunk, trust me."

"But--" she cut herself off with a yawn as Reynarden stood up, pulling her to her feet at the same time. She leaned against him. "Mmm. Tiny."

He made an indignant sound, even as he guided her towards the crew quarters. "I'm below average, I admit, but I'm not that small."

"Mmmph, nice." Elara pressed her face against his neck, breathing in the scent of blaster oil, metal, and salty ocean air that seemed to cling to his skin.

She was almost certain his breath hitched, but his pace remained steady. "Really? I'd think it would take more than one shower to get the smell of Taris off."

"Smell good," she murmured, giggling again when Reynarden helped her lay down on her bunk.

"That's one thing in my favor." He pulled the covers over her. "Sleep well, Elara."

"Nigh', Reynar." The words slurried together as she drifted off to sleep.

The next time she woke up, the crew quarters were empty and Aric's bunk was made. Getting up, Elara made her bunk as well, regulation neat, and changed into her Army-issue shirt, pants, and boots. She asked C2 where Reynarden and Aric were and followed his directions up to the Control Deck. The two men sat in the pilot and copilot's seats. Reynarden had his hand on the hyperspace lever while Aric's was poised over the toggles for the sublight engines. His eyes on a readout in front of him, Reynarden said, "Sublight engines ready?"

"Ready and waiting," Aric replied, his eyes on his own readouts. "Just say the word."

Nodding slightly, Reynarden said, "Engage sublight on my mark. Coming out of hyperspace in three... two... one. Mark."

"Engaging sublight engines," Aric replied, toggling them as Reynarden disengaged the hyperspace drive.

Elara, who'd braced herself against the bulkhead when she realized what they were doing, felt only a small shudder as the ship switched from hyperdrive to sublight. Making the transition was difficult enough on one's own. To do it with a co-pilot was even more tricky. She was quite impressed. "Excellent teamwork."

"Oh! Hey there, sleepyhead," Reynarden smiled at Elara over his shoulder. "Sleep well?"

She nodded, moving forward to peer out the observation window. Carrick Station loomed ahead of them. "I did, thank you."

"The only talking I heard was when Reynarden put you to bed in your bunk," Aric told her, his tone playful. "You sounded drunk."

Elara winced. She thought she'd dreamed that. "I didn't have any alcohol, Aric. I prefer to keep my wits about me."

"You certainly acted drunk," Reynarden gave her a reassuring smile. "I didn't smell any alcohol, so I figured you're a tipsy sleepyhead."

She nodded, her cheeks warm with embarrassment. "Yes, I am. I'm sorry you had to see me like that, Reynarden."

"I'm not." He grinned at her. "It was adorable."

Elara looked away, ignoring the flutter she felt in her chest at the sight of that grin. "It was unprofessional of me."

"Elara, we're going to be living, working, and sleeping in close quarters with each other for the foreseeable future," Reynarden pointed out, his hands still dancing over the control board in front of him. "There's no way you can remain professional the whole time."

Aric nodded his agreement, his own hands moving with assurance over his board. "Agreed, and it wouldn't be healthy. You can relax around us. Neither of us are going to bite your head off if you decide to let your hair down and do something fun."

"You're one to talk about having fun, Aric," Reynarden told him with a laugh. "I have to practically order you to take a break sometimes."

Elara managed to stifle a giggle at the dirty look Aric gave Reynarden. "It's hard to take a break when work is all you have."

"So maybe it's time to find something or someone outside work to give you an excuse to take a break," Reynarden suggested, his tone a little too casual.

She shrugged, catching hold of the bulkhead as the ship suddenly seemed to swoop down, and then back up. "What was that in aid of?"

"Makes it easier to approach the docking bay they gave us," Reynarden explained as they now seemed to approach Carrick from below.

Moving forward, Elara peered out at the station. "Oh, I see. That's rather clever. Your idea?"

"Jeveen's," Aric explained before Reynarden could. "Rey was bitching about it on Taris and she suggested trying it this way."

Elara held on to the back of Reynarden's seat when he and Aric guided the ship into a small climb. "You said she captains a light freighter."

"Yeah, she transports cargo," Reynarden told her as he and Aric carefully guided the ship into the docking bay. "She didn't say who her usual customers are, but I understand she has a bounty on her head because the blasters she was shipping to Ord Mantell went astray."

She nodded, choosing not to comment on the sort of clients who'd put a bounty on someone's head for failing to make a delivery. Aric gave a derisive snort. "What little I saw of her and Corso working on Coruscant and Taris, the bounty hunter would have to be pretty damn tough to collect that bounty."

"I agree, Aric." Reynarden nodded, spinning the ship in a neat circle so it was pointing back the way they'd come. "She and Corso seemed to work well together on Mantell and even better on Coruscant and Taris."

Elara swallowed hard and closed her eyes, her stomach objecting to the motion. Quietly, she asked, "Next time, could you warn me when you're about to do that?"

"What?" She didn't see it happen, but she assumed Reynarden got up out of his seat because he touched her arm. "Elara?"

She focused on taking deep measured breaths, covering Reynarden's hand with hers. Her voice still quiet, she asked, "Are we done spinning?"

"Yes, we've landed," Aric assured her, sounding concerned.

Slowly, Elara opened her eyes and managed a wan smile for Reynarden. "I tend to get motion sick. As long as the movement is slow and I have warning, I'm fine."

"All right. I'll remember that." Reynarden squeezed her arm gently. "Do you need a stim or anything?"

Elara nodded. "I have something I can take, I just need to get down to the medbay."

"I'll take you there." Still holding her arm, Reynarden helped her down to the main deck and straight to the medbay.

She remembered exactly where she'd stored the different stims and soon found the one she needed. Her stomach began to calm within moments and Elara no longer feared she would throw up all over Reynarden. "That's better."

"I'm sorry about that." He looked down at the deck, clearly annoyed with himself.

She touched his arm, smiling reassuringly when he looked at her. "You couldn't have known and now you do."

"I'll be sure to warn you in the future." Reynarden smiled back at her. "Your gear should be delivered to the ship soon and I--" he paused when his datapad beeped. Unclipping it from his belt, he checked it for whatever message had pinged. "The medical supplies you requested are ready for pickup. Want to go with me to get them?"

Elara nodded, and then bit her lip. "Shouldn't someone stay with the ship?"

"I'm staying behind." Aric told her from the doorway. "Rey will come and give me a break in a few hours' time."

She nodded, smiling. "I'd be glad to go with you, Reynarden."

"Great! Let's go."

*

It didn't take long to pick up the medical supplies Reynarden had requested for Elara. Double-checking that everything she'd wanted was there, she glanced up at him in surprise. "There's more here than I asked for, sir."

"From the little experience I've had, we'll go through those very quickly," Reynarden told her with a rueful smile.

She nodded slowly and finished double-checking the supplies. "Everything is here, sir."

"I expected as much, but you can't be too careful." Reynarden signed the order and asked that it be sent to their ship.

As they walked out of the Republic Army logistics office, Elara diffidently told him, "I should go back to the ship and start reviewing the information for our assignment."

"How long has it been since you had any leave at all, Elara?" Reynarden asked, gently catching her arm before she could move away.

Elara slowed to a stop as she thought about it. Sheepishly, she shook her head at him. "I can't remember, sir."

"We're off duty, remember?" He slid his hand down to hold hers and gave it a squeeze. "Those dossiers and intelligence reports can wait for a bit."

She sighed and nodded after a moment. He had an excellent point and she rather liked walking along with him. Her datapad beeped before they'd taken more than a few steps. Reluctantly, she dropped his hand so she could look at it. As she'd expected, it was a reminder that she needed to check in with Captain Kalor soon. When she looked up, Reynarden was watching her with curiosity in his blue eyes. "Apologies, s--Reynarden. As a condition of my service in the Republic military, Personnel Division requires that I report regularly on my activities."

"Haven't you proven your loyalty by now?" Reynarden asked, frowning thoughtfully as they continued on their way.

Flattered that he seemed to trust her so much despite the brevity of their acquaintance, Elara told him, "That is a matter for Personnel Division to decide."

"Idiots." Reynarden shook his head, and then frowned even more. "Most of Havoc Squad missions are classified. Who do you report to?"

Surprised that he'd thought of that, Elara thought for a moment. "Captain Kalor and I doubt he has the clearance to know about our missions. You may have to vouch for me when I report in."

"Of course. You just let me know and I'll be there." He smiled warmly at her.

Elara felt a flutter in her chest again at the sight of his smile. You barely know him! Stop acting like a silly schoolgirl! "Thank you, Reynarden."

They reached the main walkway then and Elara couldn't help feeling a little intimidated by the sheer number of people. She unconsciously moved closer to Reynarden, feeling some relief when he took her hand again. "So, is there anywhere you'd like to go?"

"I'm not sure," she admitted, trying to ignore all the voices and laughter around her. At least Vaiken had been quieter. "What about you?"

Reynarden shrugged, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow. "I don't really need anything. There aren't any new holonovels or holomovies that I'm interested in. There isn't anything I need for my quarters on the Thunderclap."

"There are some medical journals I intended to get, but haven't yet," Elara admitted, reminded by his comment about holonovels and holomovies.

He looked at her with raised eyebrows. "That's work-related. Is there anything fun you'd like to get? It doesn't have to be a holonovel, either. Maybe a dress or shoes? Those seem to be things women like to buy. I could be wrong."

"I don't really need a dress or shoes, though," Elara pointed out, though part of her longed for something pretty to wear for once. "I shouldn't spend my credits on something frivolous."

Reynarden stared at her with wide eyes. Finally, he told her, his voice earnest. "You can't be good all the time, Elara. You have to be naughty once in awhile."

"It's not like I'll have a reason for wearing a dress anyway," Elara pointed out, wondering why he was pushing the issue.

He shrugged. "Fine, don't get a dress. Get a holonovel instead. A romance or a mystery or something to make you laugh until you cry."

"Why is this so important to you?" Elara finally asked him, touched that he cared so much.

Laughing sheepishly, Reynarden scrubbed his hand over the top of his head. "I don't know. It just seems like not a lot of people have cared about your actual well-being beyond your ability to do your duty. I'm trying to do better."

"That's very kind of you, Reynarden." She smiled shyly at him. "As a matter of fact, Republic-issue pillows aren't very comfortable for me. I'd like something a little fluffier."

He grinned at her. "We can do that." Leaning close, he whispered, "Between you and me, I hate Republic-issue bedding, period."

"A pillow will do for a start," Elara assured him, laughing softly.

*

By the time Reynarden's datapad beeped to alert him that his leave time was up, Elara was ready to head back to the ship herself. She'd had fun poking through stores with him and buying a few things for herself, but she needed time to herself now. "You seem to be enjoying yourself, Reynarden. Why don't you stay and I'll go back to the ship instead?"

"What? No, you don't need to give up your leave time." Reynarden shook his head, though he looked around them regretfully.

Elara shook her head as well. "I don't mind. To be honest, I could use some quiet time on the ship with just Seetoo for company."

"Are you sure?' Reynarden eyed her a little skeptically.

She nodded this time. "I'm quite sure."

"Will you take time to enjoy your new holonovel at least?" Reynarden asked, taking her hands in his and squeezing them gently.

A little reluctantly, Elara nodded. She'd planned to use the quiet time to start reviewing the dossiers and intelligence reports related to the Havoc Squad defectors. "I will and thank you."

"For what?" Reynarden looked surprised.

She smiled and squeezed his hands in return. "For caring enough to remind me to take time for myself."

With that, she left and headed back to the hangar. Aric stared in surprise when he saw her. "Where's Rey?"

"He was enjoying himself so much that I offered to relieve you instead," Elara told him, coming to attention and saluting him. "You are relieved of duty, Sergeant Jorgan. Enjoy yourself."

Though he returned the salute, he didn't leave. "Are you sure, Elara?"

"I'm sure." She took a risk and made shooing motions at him. "Go have fun."

Chuckling, Aric left the ship. Alone at last, Elara felt the lingering tension from being surrounded by so many people disappear completely. She put away everything she'd purchased as well as the uniforms and armor Aric had left stacked on her bunk. She took a moment to trace the Havoc Squad symbol on the chestplate. It's still hard to believe, but it really happened. I'm really in Havoc Squad. That done, she checked the medbay and decided to reorganize it. On impulse, she grabbed her datapad and set it to play some of her favorite music while she worked.

*

After she finished reorganizing the medbay, Elara did try to read the new holonovel she'd bought. However, knowing that she still had dossiers and reports to read, she couldn't relax and enjoy the holonovel. She certainly tried, but gave up and began reviewing all the files for their current mission. She became so absorbed in her work, taking notes and trying to make sense of the information that she didn't notice Reynarden and Aric's return until Reynarden said, "Are you doing work, Elara?"

"Oh!" Startled, Elara nearly fell out of her chair when she turned to face him. Reynarden stood in the doorway, hands on his hips and an amused smile on his face. Feeling her cheeks heat with a blush, Elara hastily began gathering up the datapads and flimsies she'd been using. "Yes, I was. There's no point in denying it."

Reynarden tilted his head, smiling. "Well, you were listening to music at least."

"What? Oh, my apologies." Elara fumbled with the datapads, trying to find the one playing her music, and managed to scatter her flimsies across the deck. "Oh, dear."

He hurried forward to help her gather up the flimsies. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."

"No, no, it's all right." Elara scrambled to gather up more of the flimsies, hoping Reynarden didn't find any of the ones she'd doodled on.

Her hope was in vain, because Reynarden paused, looking at a flimsy in particular. "Wow. Did you draw this?"

"Yes, I did." Elara snatched the flimsy from his hand, her cheeks still warm. "It won't happen again, I promise."

Reynarden held up his hands and sat back on his heels, letting her finish gathering the flimsies herself. "No, please continue doodling if that's something you enjoy."

"I, um, thank you." Elara finished gathering them and tucked them into a file folder so she wouldn't lose them. Remembering her music, she found the datapad and turned it off. "Did you and Aric have a good time?"

"We did." Reynarden used the table to help pull himself to his feet. "When did you need to report to this Captain Kalor?"

Surprised that he remembered, Elara checked the chrono. "We should do that now, actually." She glanced down at her shirt and pants. "Um, after we change into uniform. I find they go better that way."

"Sure, sounds like a plan." Reynarden turned to head to his quarters. "Be back shortly."

Carrying her datapads and file folder, Elara headed to the crew quarters to retrieve her uniform so she could change. Luckily, Aric was in the armory, again, so Elara changed in the crew quarters. She ducked into the refresher to put her hair up in her usual bun (she'd left it in a ponytail after getting up). By the time she was ready, Reynarden waited by the ship's holocomm, in full uniform as well. Elara joined him, feeling more comfortable now that they were focused on something related to work. "Yes, I thought the ship's secure holocomm would be best, too."

"It's your show, Sergeant." Reynarden gestured her forward. "I'm just here for decoration."

Not quite sure how to take his comment, Elara chose to ignore it and instead entered the holo-frequency she'd memorized long ago. "Captain Kalor? This is Elara Dorne, personnel number 22-795, reporting in per regulation 449."

"Please, Elara, you don't have to give me the full rundown every time," Kalor replied, sounding exasperated. She suspected, despite his protestations, that he would object if she didn't give him the full rundown. "I know who you are. How are things?"

Managing to keep her tone cool and professional, Elara told him, "Well enough, sir. Allow me to introduce you to Lieutenant Reynarden Drondil, the commander of Havoc Squad--my new CO. Sir, this is Captain Kalor, Army Personnel Division."

"Pleased to meet you," Reynarden told Kalor politely once he'd stepped forward. "Though, I don't see that Dorne's loyalty needs to be proven further."

Kalor finally found his voice and said, "Oh, we're all very proud of Elara. This is just part of the process." He looked at her, clearly curious. "Tell me about being in the top squad in the Republic, Elara. You must be keeping very busy."

"I'm sorry, Captain, but you aren't authorized to know about Havoc Squad's activities." Elara had double-checked that amongst everything else she'd done since returning to the ship to relieve Aric. "Lieutenant Drondil will have to vouch for me."

Reynarden was opening his mouth, presumably to do just that, when Kalor asked, obviously surprised, "What? Elara, I don't want to be a hard case, but rules are rules--this 'top secret' junk won't fly."

"All Havoc Squad activities are highly classified, Captain," Reynarden answered, his voice hard and his eyes steely in a way that Elara hadn't heard or seen before. She'd wondered if he'd have the strength to oppose a Sith. It seemed he did. "I'm sorry for any inconvenience."

Kalor gave a derisive laugh at that. "Heh. Inconvenience." Shaking his head, he told her, "Just... just carry on, Elara. We'll talk about this after I've had a word with my superiors. Kalor out."

His holoimage winked out of view and Elara frowned. That didn't go quite the way she'd expected, "Hm. I wasn't expecting him to react so strongly. Surely he didn't expect me to report on classified information?"

"Rules or no rules, information is classified for a reason. Not just anyone can know about it," Reynarden replied, some of the hardness leaving his face and voice. "Are you all right?"

Elara nodded, surprised that he'd even thought to ask. "Yes, I'm fine. I'm just surprised the captain didn't agree. If you'll excuse me, I have several matters to attend to. Thank you for your time." With that, she turned and headed back to the crew quarters to resume her work.

*

Shortly after, they received orders from General Garza sending them to Nar Shaddaa. After a short nap, Elara decided she needed to get back to her usual exercise regimen and headed to the training area. Upon her arrival, she found Reynarden already there. To her surprise, however, he wasn't using the any of the weight machines, but the gymnastics equipment. Wearing regulation tank top and shorts, he moved with fluid grace from one position to the next on the parallel bars, his expression focused and stern. She gasped when his grip on the bars slipped and he fell onto the mats. Quite without thinking, she hurried forward, "Are you all right, Reynarden?"

"Oh, hi, Elara." He smiled sheepishly at her as he scrambled to his feet. "I'm fine. Guess I need to spend more time on the parallel bars. I shouldn't have missed that."

She nodded, offering a small smile. "I'm hardly an expert on gymnastics, but it looked to me like you were doing very well."

"I was trying to do an old routine, but I kept fudging it." He scrubbed a hand over the top of his head and smiled wryly at her. "Thank you for the compliment, though."

Squeezing her hand briefly, he walked over the towel and water bottle waiting on a bench by the bulkhead. Watching him, she couldn't contain her curiosity: "How long have you been doing gymnastics? It wasn't in your personnel file."

"Since I was a kid." He took a deep drink of water. "Mother studied it when she was a kid and thought it would benefit me more than Fio."

She nodded again, ignoring the pang that went through her at the thought of her own brother. "It looked like it has. What about the self-defense required by the Army?"

"I took the standard hand-to-hand courses, but most of the guys wiped the floor with me because they were bigger and stronger." He grimaced, and then grinned wickedly. "That was at first. Once I learned how to use that against them, I wiped the floor with them."

Elara began stretching to loosen up her muscles in preparation for her own workout. "My parents enrolled us in self-defense classes at a young age. My teachers taught me how to take advantage of my smaller size."

"Smart." He began stretching as well. "Us? Do you have siblings?"

She began wrapping her hands and bare feet. "A brother. He also went into the military. We both favored kickboxing and continued our lessons well into our adolescence."

"Something tells me you'd be good at anything you put your mind to." Reynarden grinned and finished stretching. "I'll leave you to it, then."

He walked over to a line of mats and began to do tumbling runs, his small, lithe body twisting and contorting in the air with each pass. Shaking herself, Elara walked over to the large punching bag and began to familiarize herself with the weight and heft of it. She couldn't decide if she was pleased or not that he hadn't pushed for more information about her family. She took that out on the punching bag.

By the time she'd moved to the smaller speed bag to practice coordinating her punches, Reynarden had left the training area and Aric had arrived to do his own exercises. Elara finished her routine by practicing combinations of kicks and punches against a training dummy. That done, she nodded to Aric and left to shower and change into her armor. They were almost to Nar Shaddaa and Reynarden had asked that she act as co-pilot for this drop out of hyperspace. "I want all of us to be able coordinate, no matter who's in which seat."

That meant that this time around, Aric was in the pilot's seat and Reynarden stood behind them, watching, but making no comment as they coordinated their efforts. "Sublight engines ready?"

"Ready, sir." Elara told him, watching her readouts carefully.

Focused as he was on his own board, Aric's reply was distracted, "Engage sublight on my mark. Coming out of hyperspace in three... two... one. Mark."

"Engaging sublight engines," Elara answered, toggling them as Aric disengaged the hyperspace drive. One of the switches stuck and the ship shuddered before Elara could get it to move properly.

She saw rather than felt Reynarden clap her shoulder reassuringly. "Forgot to warn you about that switch. We haven't had time to get it fixed. You did fine."

"In a way, it's more difficult to do it with two people," Elara observed, keeping most of her attention on helping to steer the ship towards the spaceport. She always found it easier to land at spaceports than on stations because spaceports were relatively stable.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Aric nod. "I know what you mean. I prefer to do it all by myself."

"We'll get to that once we have coordinating down," Reynarden told them catching himself on Elara's chair when the ship lurched. "Everything all right?"

Aric looked sheepish. "Yeah, that was my fault. I was going down quicker than Elara."

"Slow and steady, remember that," Reynarden reminded him. "As soon as we land, come downstairs so Garza can do her spiel."

Elara risked glancing at Aric, who had a bemused smile on his face. "Does he take anything seriously?"

"He has his moments, Elara. Wait and see."

*

"Trust SIS to choose a cantina of all places to meet up," Aric grumbled as the three of them walked through Slippery Slopes towards a smaller lounge off of it.

Reynarden glanced over his shoulder. "The actual SIS headquarters here has been compromised. This was probably the best that this Agent Blakar could do on such short notice."

"How do you know it was compromised?" Elara asked him, surprised that he knew.

He gave her a mischievous smile and a wink. "The Force, of course."

"You know what, I'm not going to ask," Aric shook his head as a handsome human man with thick dark brown hair and deep blue eyes in a brown coat and blue pants caught their attention.

The stranger offered them a genial smile in greeting. "There you are. Lieutenant Drondil?"

"That's me." Reynarden nodded, and gestured to Aric and Elara, "And the rest of my squad: Sergeants Jorgan and Dorne."

He smiled at each of them. Elara wondered if it was her imagination that his smile at her was broader. "I'm Jonas Balkar. Have a seat." Though Reynarden sat, both Elara and Aric remained standing. "I hope you like the cantina. It's not one of my favorites, but it is conveniently located."

"I've seen worse cantinas." Reynarden shrugged. "What do you have for us?"

Both Elara and Aric moved closer so Balkar could keep his voice pitched low. "There's a vault, not far from here. It's a merc operation, holds valuables for anybody with the credits to pay. Our mutual friend is about to pay them a visit."

"How do you know this?" Aric growled the question, eyeing Balkar suspiciously.

Raising an eyebrow, Balkar explained, "A group of paramilitary types always shows up on the scene before the droid's attacks. We've already spotted them casing the vault." He shrugged. "You could head in now, but I don't want to scare them off. We wouldn't want the guest of honor to skip the party, would we?"

"That would rather defeat the purpose of our being here, yes," Elara offered, a little surprised when Balkar's only reaction was to give her a speculative look. He must have read my file. Wait, is he--

Reynarden leaned forward in his seat. "It's your show, Jonas. When do we make our move?"

"I have people with eyes on the vault." Balkar seemed reluctant to transfer his attention from Elara to Reynarden. "Once they spot our target, we'll get the party started." Sitting back so his jacket and shirt stretched snugly across his chest, Balkar let his eyes drift over the three of them. "So, Havoc Squad, huh? Pretty nice of Garza to loan us her very best. I'm--" his holocom chimed, cutting him off. "Ah, excuse me."

Pulling it out, he turned it on. A holoimage of a Cathar woman appeared above the device. "Jonas! I just wanted to let you know I made it to Ithor safe and sound."

"That's great! I'll talk to you later, then." Smiling, Jonas disconnected the holocom and looked at them. "That's our cue. The target is in the vault. Are you ready to move out?"

Reynarden stood up. "Dorne, you're with me. Jorgan, stay here with Balkar."

"What? Sir!" Aric glanced at Balkar, and then Reynarden.

Balkar smirked, resuming his casual sprawl. "Why not leave Dorne here, Lieutenant?"

"Paramilitary types and mercs?" Reynarden replied, eyebrows raised. "Whatever heat they're packing, Elara's medical skills will be very useful."

Aric opened his mouth, and then thought better of it. "And her range scores have been consistently high. Fine, I'll stay back, for now."

"If we need you, Jorgan, I'll let you know," Reynarden assured him.

Pressing a hand to his chest, Balkar asked, "What if I need Sergeant Dorne's tender mercies?"

"Get one of your own people to tend to you," Reynarden retorted dryly. "Come on, Dorne."

Nodding, she fell in behind him. At the door, she turned back to Jonas, "Balkar, I suggest you save your breath in the future for a woman who'll actually fall for your lines."

"Point taken, Sergeant." Balkar winced while Aric's mouth twitched with a barely-suppressed smile. "Good luck."

Once they were outside on the Promenade, Reynarden commented, "I wondered if you'd say anything."

"I would have sooner if you hadn't said anything," Elara answered primly, wondering if there'd been more behind his response than simply reminding Balkar that he had staff of his own.

Reynarden winced, scrubbing the top of his head. "Ah, yeah, sorry about that. I was out of line. I should have let you handle that."

"As long as you remember that in the future," Elara told him, surprised that he'd apologized. Most men, in her experience, wouldn't have even acknowledged that they were wrong, let alone apologize for it!

He nodded, catching her eye. "I will."

*

"Elara." Reynarden stopped just out of sight of the vault and gently pulled her to a stop as well. She looked at him curiously. "When we're fighting, I'd prefer that we split the difference."

She stared at him, surprised by the request. "You're serious? I thought you wanted me along because I'm your medic?"

"That, too, but you're a crack shot with your blaster," Reynarden nodded to her sidearm. "I want you to take advantage of that."

Still a little surprised, it took Elara a moment to nod. Most of her superiors had focused on her medical or administrative skills and ignored the rest of what made her a good soldier. "Yes, sir, I won't disappoint you."

"I'm sure you won't." He smiled warmly at her and Elara felt that flutter in her stomach again. He unstrapped his assault cannon and steadied it. "Let's do this."

Drawing her blaster and holding it ready, she told him, "Ready, sir!"

"No, stand here, please." Reynarden indicated the spot next to him. "It'll be easier if we're side-by-side."

Elara moved forward to take her place to his left. "A good point, sir."

"All right, now let's do this." Together, they moved forward into the mercenaries' vault.

As they'd expected, the 'paramilitary types' Balkar had mentioned were fighting the vault's security forces in the form of a large battledroid. Elara pitched her voice just loud enough for Reynarden to hear over the blasterfire. "Do we focus on one or the other, sir?"

"Shoot only if they do," Reynarden told her, and then raised his voice so the others could hear him. "Surrender in the name of the Galactic Republic!"

All Reynarden's request accomplished was to redirect the blaster fire at them. Elara blessed the efficacy of her generator and armor even as she dove for cover behind a crate. Carefully poking her head up, she noticed one of the defectors take a series of blaster bolts to the chest. As he crumpled to the ground, Elara aimed for the other one, taking advantage of his lack of a helmet to drop him with an almost-perfect headshot. Now, only the mercenary security droid remained.

Elara glanced at Reynarden, who now hid behind a cabinet. When she caught his eye, he put a finger to his lips before putting his cannon on his back. Then he removed his helmet and slowly extended it past the edge of the cabinet. The droid shot at the helmet, but missed somehow, the shot passing harmlessly beneath it. Reynarden drew it back and inspected it. Then he put it back on and readied his cannon.

Bracing it against his hip, he held up one hand with three fingers up. Realizing what he intended, she nodded and shifted her feet under her. Reynarden silently counted down to zero. When he reached it, Elara surged to her feet and shot at the droid. At the same moment, Reynarden swung around the edge of the cabinet and opened fire. They didn't stop until the droid crumpled to the ground, a smoking wreck. Slowly, Reynarden approached it. Elara covered him as he prodded it with one foot. "Clear."

"Are you hurt, sir?" Elara asked, joining him.

"A little scorched, but I can keep going." He eyed her curiously. "You?"

"The same." She shook her head.

"Right, let's go, then." Reynarden hefted his assault cannon and looked at Elara expectantly.

Realizing what he was waiting for, she took up her place on his left. "Ready, sir."

They proceeded further into the vault, fighting more defectors and mercenaries with each new room they breached. Each fight depleted their generators further. Deep inside the vault, Elara gently grabbed Reynarden's right arm to catch his attention. He gave a hiss of pain and barely managed to keep his voice quiet. "Ow, kriff."

"Let me take care of that, sir." Elara tugged at his armored glove.

"It's nothing, Elara." He tried to pull away and only succeeded in freeing his hand from the glove.

Tucking it under her arm, she retorted tartly, "You're having trouble lifting your weapon. Let me help you."

"Fine, take care of it." Reynarden gave another hiss of pain when she peeled back the cortosis weave to reveal an angry red burn on his forearm, just above where his glove stopped.

As she spread kolto gel on the burn and covered it with a bandage, Elara asked, "Do you have a back-up generator?"

"Um, I already used it." He smiled sheepishly. "I forgot to charge my primary one."

Elara shook her head in fond exasperation. "Really, sir?" While he smoothed his sleeve down and put his glove back on, she dug in her pack and offered him her back up generator. "Here."

"No, what if you need it?" Reynarden didn't take it.

She clipped it to his belt for him. "I'll be fine. You need it more than I do."

Though he grumbled, he didn't try to remove it as she packed her medkit and tucked it away. "Ready?"

"Ready, sir."

*

The confrontation with Captain Andrik went about as well as they'd expected. When he gave the order for his people to kill them, Elara shifted her position so she was standing back-to-back with Reynarden. She felt periodic nudges as Reynarden fired his cannon and adjusted for the nudges as she fired at the soldiers facing her. One of the soldiers, apparently realizing he wasn't getting anywhere shooting at them, charged forward and tackled Elara. He knocked her back into Reynarden so all three of them started to fall down. She felt Reynarden roll away from the impact, leaving her pinned under the soldier. Straddling her, the soldier swung the butt of his rifle down at her face. She barely got her arms up in time to block the strike. Before he could take another swing at her, Reynarden caught the soldier with his assault cannon, knocking him away. Her arm free, Elara brought her blaster up and shot the soldier. He slumped over her legs and she quickly scanned the room for other enemies. The only people left alive were the two of them and she finally relaxed.

"Whew!" Reynarden offered his hand to Elara and pulled her to her feet when she took it.

Her left knee buckled when she tried to put her weight on it. "Ow!"

"Elara!" He caught and steadied her when she would have fallen down. "What is it?"

He helped her to an overturned box so she could sit down. "I think that tackle twisted my knee."

"Is there anything I can do to help?" He hovered over her, looking concerned.

At that moment, Reynarden's holocom beeped. "You'd better answer that sir." When he didn't, she told him. "I can take care of this myself."

"Right." He moved away and answered his holocom.

She half-listened to his conversation with Balkar as she took care of her knee. By the time he finished talking, all she had left to do was put her boot back on. As he rejoined her, she said, "You didn't tell him the truth about the defectors. Why?"

"I'm following orders. I thought you'd appreciate that." Reynarden folded his arms across his chest defensively.

Elara carefully pushed her foot into her boot. "There are some orders that should be ignored."

"I thought you didn't like officers who disobeyed orders?" It was hard to read his tone of voice, similar to the tone he'd used when he commented on Tane overhearing things.

Elara shook her head, carefully adjusting her boot. "Officers who ignore orders to cause harm to innocents are an entirely different case from officers who do it to save lives and protect the innocent."

"You haven't read the reports for my missions on Coruscant." Reynarden looked away, his jaw tense as if he'd clenched it.

Elara shook her head, remaining seated for the moment. "I did, and I also overheard you and Aric after Thorus died. You regret killing those civilians. He didn't."

"So, I should think about whether I'll regret following Garza's orders?" He looked back at her, raising his eyebrows.

She looked at him levelly. "I think you should take your own conscience into account for orders like these."

"I'll keep that in mind." He walked over and extended his hand to her. "I'm assuming you don't want to put any weight on your knee?"

Shaking her head, Elara took his hand and let him pull her to a standing position, careful to keep her weight off of her left knee. "No, that would not be a good idea."

"Lean on me and we'll get to the warehouse together."

"Thank you, Reynarden."

"You're welcome, Elara."

*

The moment they entered the warehouse that Balkar had directed them to, a medic offered Elara a pair of crutches. She took them gratefully and hobbled along beside Reynarden into the back room. Aric indicated a chair. "Here, Elara."

"Thank you, Aric." She sat down gratefully. Though her knee was mending, she still needed to rest it as much as possible.

Once she'd settled, Reynarden turned to Balkar. "What news do you have for us, Balkar?"

"Welcome to Balkar Interior Refurbishments, Incorporated. Be sure you review the new employee manual." Balkar grinned and winked at them.

Chuckling, Reynarden asked, "Giving up the spy business?"

"Thought I'd like a less conspicuous career than 'Republic Intelligence team leader.' Though I will miss the benefits." Balkar glanced at Elara and winked again.

Sighing, she asked, "Can we stick to the matter at hand, please?"

"Well..." Looking sheepish, Balkar explained about losing track of Forex and Andrik. "We're finalizing a plan for tracking them down right now."

Sighing, Reynarden shook his head and looked at Aric. "Whatever the plan is, Jorgan, you're with me."

"Sir!" Elara started to protest, and then looked down at her knee. Reluctantly she said, "I withdraw my protest."

Balkar bowed slightly in her direction. "I'm sure we'll find plenty to talk about, Sergeant Dorne."

"As long as you confine yourself to the mission," Elara told him bluntly.

She saw both Reynarden and Aric hide smiles as Balkar pressed a hand to his chest. "You wound me, Sergeant."

"There's work to be done, Agent Balkar," she reminded him firmly. "That should be our focus."

Just then, one of Balkar's people walked over and handed him a datapad. His expression turned serious as he read it, and then nodded. "This will work. Get the signal trackers and give them to Lieutenant Drondil."

"Yes, sir." The agent nodded and headed towards another room inside.

Reynarden looked at Balkar. "I take it we have a plan now?"

"Yes, we do." Balkar nodded. "Whoever these guys are, they aren't working alone." Elara bit the inside of her cheek at the reminder that Reynarden had lied about who the defectors were. "Somebody on Nar Shaddaa is helping them, and it's time we found out who. I'll bet these guys would call for help if you shot up their arms factory. Then, we trace that call straight to whoever's really in charge here."

Reynarden nodded as the agent returned with three small devices. "That's a good plan. Let's make it happen."

"First things first: You'll need to plant these signal trackers around the arms factory so that we can trace the distress call." Balkar handed the devices to Reynarden, who tucked them into a pocket on his belt. "Then, you kick down the door and do what you do best while we see who gets a call. Sound like a plan?"

A grin slowly spread across Reynarden's face. "Time to wreak a little havoc."

"One more thing." Balkar stopped Reynarden and handed him a couple of generators. "Jorgan said it looked like both of yours had run out of juice."

Smiling sheepishly, Reynarden clipped one to his belt, handing Elara's back to her. "Thanks."

"We'll be waiting for you here when the party's over. Have fun." Balkar told him.

Reynarden paused beside Elara's chair and patted her shoulder. "We'll be back soon."

"Good luck, sir." She caught his hand and gave it a squeeze.

With that, Reynarden and Aric left the warehouse. "If you'll come with me, Sergeant Dorne, we can tap the cameras in the arms factory and watch them work."

"I'd appreciate it." Balancing on one foot, Elara got her crutches under her arms and hobbled after Balkar into the other room. Several technicians sat at a series of monitors.

He settled into a comfortable stance next to a chair. At his gesture, Elara sat down gratefully. "How's that tap coming?"
"Almost there." One of the technicians answered distractedly. Her fingers flew over her console, as did the others'. As Elara watched, the monitors slowly flickered to life.

At the moment, all they could see were mercenaries standing ready for anyone who might try to break into the factory. "You know, before watching you and Lieutenant Drondil in the vault earlier, I'd have wondered if he and Jorgen could handle those mercs."

"We're Havoc Squad for a reason," Elara reminded him, shifting her leg with a wince.

Balkar nodded, gesturing to someone. The medic from earlier reappeared with a stool and helped Elara position her foot on it to give the best support to her knee. "Objectively, I knew Havoc Squad is the best, but that's not the same as actually seeing you at work."

"It was the same for me," Elara admitted, her attention caught by movement on one of the exterior cameras.

Balkar noticed, too, and moved closer. "They got there quick. Are you picking up any of the signal trackers?"

"First one's in place," another technician informed Balkar, his eyes on a readout screen. After a few minutes, he added, "That's two." Another short wait, "And three."

Elara wanted to get up for a better look at the monitors as Reynarden and Aric proceeded with the next part of the plan. However, she knew standing wouldn't help her knee or peace of mind, so she remained where she was. "Huh, good is right. You three are certainly maintaining Havoc's reputation as the best."

"You're too kind," Elara told him dryly, watching for any sign of injury. She hoped they wouldn't get hurt, but there was always a chance.

Balkar glanced down at her, amusement glinting in his eyes. "I mean it. Havoc Squad is still the team that makes the impossible possible."

"I didn't know that's one of the things people say about Havoc." Elara kept her eyes on the monitors, aware of Balkar's admiring glance.

He chuckled, accepting a datapad from another worker. "Huh, that's odd. Are you sure about these results?"

"Ran them through facial recognition several times," the worker told Balkar. "No matches in the criminal database."

Elara bit the inside of her cheek to keep from saying anything. While she didn't agree with Reynarden's decision to keep Balkar in the dark, she was going to abide by it, for now. Luckily for her, Reynarden himself helped out by activating the alarm at the arms factory. "Are the signal tracers working?"

"Affirmative. Tracing now." While the technicians did their job, Elara watched on the monitors as Reynarden and Aric dealt with the security droids dispatched by the alarm. She didn't relax until she saw both of them jogging at an easy pace from the factory.

She didn't realize Balkar was watching her until he spoke, "Not easy to watch, is it?"

"They're my squadmates," she replied with a shrug, a little surprised that he seemed to understand what she felt.

Balkar nodded, looking back at the monitors. "Once our friends are out of sight, end the tap." He looked down at Elara. "As team leader, I get to organize the ops, but I rarely get to go on them."

"I see." She nodded, realizing now why he understood.

Before he could reply or she could think of anything else to say, the technician in charge of the trace lifted his head. "Sir! We have it!"

"Where are our friends' friends?" Balkar asked, walked over to accept the datapad the technician held out to him. He did a double-take when he saw the information on it. "You're sure?"

"Double- and triple-checked, sir," the technician replied with a nod. "Club Vertica Casino."

Balkar gave a low whistle. "The penthouse, no less. Have the slicers take a crack at the computers there. Start working out a plan to get Lieutenant Drondil and his faithful sidekick up there without bloodshed."

"Why there?" Elara wondered, biting her cheek when Balkar turned to her. "I mean, it's not like there aren't plenty of places to work from."

He shrugged, a smile tugging at his mouth. "Maybe you should ask the good lieutenant to ask when he gets in to see them."

Reynarden and Aric arrived then and headed straight for Elara's chair. "Are you all right, Elara?"

"I'm fine, sir," Elara assured him, realizing now that she could see him up close that he looked exhausted. "I should be asking you two that."

Aric rolled his eyes. "We're both fine, but Lieutenant Drondil needs rest."

"I can keep going," Reynarden argued, only to sway the next moment and grab Aric's arm.

Standing up, Elara was pleased when her knee barely hurt. "Sit down, sir, before you fall down."

Despite his protests, Reynarden was soon sitting in the chair, his eyes closed. Aric sternly told him, "You won't be any good as our CO if you run yourself ragged. Sir."

"Everything all right over here?" Balkar asked, walking over with a datapad in hand.

"Just fine, Balkar," Aric answered a little shortly.

Elara used one of her crutches to nudge him in a silent request that he not antagonize Balkar. Reynarden opened his eyes and sat up straight. He would have stood up, but Aric and Elara both had hands resting on his shoulders to keep him sitting. "Did you find anything more about the droid's accomplices?"

"The alarm signal from the factory led to a surprising place: a penthouse at the Club Vertica Casino." Reynarden and Aric exchanged surprised glances. Balkar continued with his report as if he didn't notice their reactions, "Our slicers took a pass at the computers in the penthouse--all Imperial tech. Our rogue droid's Republic, but the Imps are giving the orders."

Reynarden's hands clenched into fists for a moment before he seemed to notice and consciously relaxed them. "Are you positive of this?"

"Yes, and it would seem the Imperial expense accounts are much more generous than ours." Balkar shook his head in mock dismay while Aric rolled his eyes and Reynarden gave a tired chuckle. Elara kept her expression calm and professional with some effort. "Club Vertica is an extremely public place. We have to get you through the casino and up to the penthouse without any bloodshed."

Scrubbing his eyes, Reynarden asked, "I suppose you have plan for that already?"

"The plan is for our top slicer to get you on Club Vertica's 'safe list'," Balkar explained to them. "It's the list of people allowed to go in and out of the penthouse at any time."

Folding his arms across his chest, Aric asked, "Is there a kink in this plan?"

"Unfortunately, our top slicer had to make a quick trip down to Hutta." Balkar told them. Elara shuddered. She'd been there once. She didn't want to go there again. "He's on his way back, but it'll take a few hours for the trip and for his debrief."

Elara nodded. "That means Lieutenant Drondil can use those hours to rest."

"I don't--" Reynarden interrupted himself with a yawn and scowled.

She gave him a stern look. "Sergeant Jorgan and I will go without you if you don't rest, sir."

"Fine, fine." Though he grumbled, Reynarden did nod.

Balkar seemed amused as he gestured. The medic who'd given Elara her crutches and stool appeared yet again. "We have cots for you to use, Lieutenant, so you don't have to go back to your ship."

"Thanks." Yawning again, Reynarden followed her.

Aric touched Elara's arm. "We should rest, too. Situation like this, it's best to rest while we can."

"Agreed, Sergeant." Nodding, Elara and Aric followed the other two.

*

By the time they woke up from their naps, Balkar had hot boxed meals waiting for them. "I've found food as well as rest helps immensely."

"Thanks, Jonas," Reynarden told him fervently, digging into his meal with gusto.

Elara and Aric began to eat as well. Sitting at the table with them, Balkar said, "Niall's back and we've refined the plan even more." He placed a holocom on the table and a holoimage of a young Twi'lek man appeared, using a datapad. "Meet Niall Piv. He can get you onto Vertica's safe list, but he'll need help to do it."

"Hmm? Oh, yes, Club Vertica's systems are highly secured." Niall barely glanced up from his datapad as he talked. "The only way to add you to the safe list is from inside the system."

Elara exchanged glances with both Reynarden and Aric. This didn't bode well. Balkar picked up the explanation, "There's a substation down in the Lower Industrial Sector. It belongs to the casino, so its computers are tied into the casino's systems. We need to get Niall inside."

"We can make that happen," Reynarden assured them after swallowing his mouthful of food.

Balkar grimaced. "Security for the substation is heavy--the casino's contracted some of the priciest mercenaries around. Good luck to you."

Niall's holoimage disappeared and Balkar got up, leaving them to talk amongst themselves. "Elara, how's your knee?"

"Doing better, sir, but I don't want to risk it yet." Though she hated admitting it, she knew Reynarden was trying to think of what was best for all of them.

"Right, so it looks like you're with me, Aric." Reynarden sighed softly. "I hate to say it, Elara, but you should probably hang back while we talk to the Imps, too."

She nodded stiffly, fully understanding his reasons. "I understand, sir. I'll stay off my knee as much possible so I can join you when we find out where to find Andrik and the others."

"Thanks for understanding, Elara." Reynarden covered her hand with hers and gave it a squeeze.

Returning the squeeze, she reluctantly freed her hand so she could finish her food. Her first real mission with Havoc Squad and she spent most of it on the sidelines! "Dorne." She looked up at Aric, curious. "You'll get your chance. Right now, the best thing you can do for yourself and the squad is make sure your knee heals properly."

"Thank you, Sergeant Jorgan." She managed a small smile, remembering belatedly that he'd been a commander once. It must chafe at him sometimes, having to answer to Reynarden.

When they left for the substation, Balkar had his team set up a tap on the substation. Rather than watch, Elara started writing her report on the mission. When she'd written as much as she could, she carefully hobbled out to see where Reynarden and Aric were. Balkar smiled when he saw her, gesturing the chair. She sat down gratefully. "I was just about to contact Lieutenant Drondil and Sergeant Jorgan. Care to join me?"

"They know you'll keep me posted," she told him with a shake of her head.

Nodding, he activated the holoterminal. When Reynarden's holoimage appeared, Balkar greeted him, "Hey there, soldier. Niall just made it back and told me how much heat you took on covering for him. You two did great. You're on the safe list, our tracks are covered, and I'm even tapped into all of the casino's security cams." Looking at the monitors, Elara could see Reynarden and Aric standing in the casino lobby, looking very out of place in their armor. "I'll be able to keep an eye on everything, make sure nobody gets the drop on you."

"My armor has a camera built in for this kind of thing." Reynarden pointed out. On the monitors, Elara saw Aric shake his head.

Balkar smiled. "The Imps have slicers on Nar Shaddaa, too. Using your armor-cam would just give them lots of chances to crack it. You're walking into a hell of a situation here, Lieutenant. Questioning the Imps about the droid is one thing, but if this comes down to shooting... the Republic can't afford that risk."

"If anyone starts trouble, it won't be me," Reynarden assured him. Funnily, Elara believed him. Reynarden had a way with people. She wondered if his upbringing had anything to do with it.

"That's all we can ask of you." Balkar held up a finger to stop Reynarden before he could turn off his holocom. "One more thing--I ran the images we got from the vault, checking faces against our databases." Elara tried not to tense. She had a feeling she knew where this was going. "The weird thing is, I didn't find them in our Imperial or criminal databases. I found them in Republic Special Forces personnel records. Weird, huh?"

Reynarden closed his eyes briefly and gave a deep sigh. "The truth is, Commander Tavus defected to the Empire, along with the rest of Havoc. That's how I ended up as CO at my age. A lot of other SpecForces soldiers went with them."

Elara nodded when Balkar looked at her for confirmation. "Wow. That's even worse than I had suspected. Is there any particular reason the SIS doesn't know about this? Any reason you chose not to tell me before now?"

"Garza ordered me not to tell." Reynarden shrugged, looking relieved that the truth was out. "But it looks like you were going to figure it out anyway, so, I figured it was best to come clean."

Balkar made a face, as if Garza's order wasn't a surprise. Given what Elara knew, she wasn't either. "Ah. Of course she did. I'm not sure if your reason is noble or practical."

"A little of both." Reynarden shrugged again. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you the truth earlier."

Balkar shook his head. "We'll talk later. You'd better head up to the penthouse so we can find these traitors before things get any worse. Good luck. Jonas out."

"Something I've noticed about Lieutenant Drondil," Elara spoke up when Balkar stood in silence for several moments. "He's still trying to figure out when to follow orders and when to do what's right."

Balkar sat down on the stool Elara had used earlier. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"For much the same reason he didn't." She finished typing and looked at Balkar. "He was following orders and I was following his lead. I hoped, however, he would decide to tell you the truth. You can't do your job properly if you don't have all the information you need."

He studied her for several minutes. "You have a great deal of faith in him."

"On Taris, it's easy to forget yourself...to forget how things should be done when it's convenient to do so. But he didn't. Eighteen soldiers went missing and he agreed to search for them simply because I said it couldn't be rakghouls," Elara told him quietly. "In the end, we found only six of them alive. If not for him, none of those soldiers would be alive today. That's why I trust him."

Balkar looked thoughtful and didn't say anything immediately. One of the technicians called out, "Sir! They've made it to the penthouse."

Both he and Elara got up and moved closer to watch as Reynarden talked to the Imperials. She didn't recognize the Imperial commander, but she could see that he was a major. "Throw down your weapons, Republic scum! You have no idea what you've done, breaking in here."

"I'm sorry, the guy at the front desk must have made a mistake," Reynarden responded, neither he nor Aric moving to remove their weapons.

"That was a good one," Balkar commented admiringly. "I'll have to remember it."

Elara ignored his comment, tightly clasping her hands in front of her as the Imperial commander and Reynarden talked. The Imperial started to give the order to attack, only for Captain Andrik to appear on the holoterminal to give a report, "Zardres? This is Andrik. We've got the last package, and we're heading for Object-- oh. Oh, this is too much."

"Shut up, Andrik! Can't you see we have a situation here?" Major Zardres snapped at Andrik.

For some reason, Reynarden decided to speak up, too, "Is this any way to let your bosses treat you, Andrik?"

"Tavus is my boss. These Imps are just middle management," Andrik replied, not even looking upset. "Soon-to-be dead middle management. I'm guessing."

Balkar gave a thoughtful hum at Andrik's attitude. "Huh, it looks like the defectors aren't completely on board with the Imps."

"A means to an end," Elara agreed, managing to speak even though it felt like her heart was in her throat as Reynarden continued to talk to Zardres. "Their only loyalty seems to be to their fellow defectors."

In the penthouse, Reynarden seemed to have the same idea, because he said, "Andrik isn't loyal to you or the Empire. He'll turn on you, just like he turned on the Republic."

"Are you sure you've known him less than a week?" Balkar asked as Zardres finally told Reynarden what they needed to know.

Elara gave him a stern look, sitting in the chair. "Andrik's loyalty, or lack therof, to the Imperials was obvious."

"True." They watched as Reynarden and Aric walked away, their weapons still holstered. "Well, he kept it from getting messy and found out where our friends went."

Elara grimaced as her squadmates stepped onto the lift and Reynarden pulled out his holocom. "I know of Shadow Town, but I was never stationed here before I defected."

"Now you'll get to visit. Lucky you." Balkar turned on the holoterminal to accept Reynarden's call. "We saw the whole thing, Lieutenant. Congratulations."

A smile twitched at Reynarden's lips. "Thanks, Jonas. Did you catch where they took the droid?"

"I did." Balkar nodded. "Shadow Town is where the Imps put people who are too useful to kill, but too dangerous to leave roaming around the galaxy. It's dangerous and heavily secured. Fighting your way in won't be the easiest thing you've ever done."

He shrugged, his smile turning grim. "We'll manage. Is Sergeant Dorne still there?"

She stood up and moved to stand beside Balkar. "Here, sir."

"Meet us in Shadow Town." Reynarden told her, his expression completely serious now. "If it's as bad as Jonas says, we'll need all the firepower we can get."

"It's up to you to finish this." Balkar spoke to both of them. "Get in, trash the droid, and get yourselves out so we can call it a day."

Elara saluted Reynarden before he disconnected the call. She turned to Balkar. "Thank you for all of your help, Agent."

"Not at all, Sergeant. You'd better get going." He offered her his hand. "Good luck."

She shook his hand with a small smile. "We'll do it, don't worry."

With that, she headed out.

*

Before they headed into Shadow Town, Reynarden pulled out his holomap. "Here, Jonas sent me a gift: schematics of the building Andrik and Forex are in."

"Those are always useful," Aric commented, moving to peer at the map over Reynarden's shoulder.

Elara did likewise. "I can tell that these and these are enemies, but what are these?"

"Stealthed enemies," Reynarden explained, rotating the map. "Wait, are these rafters?"

Aric actually smiled! "If I can get up amongst those, I can pick off enemies for you. Snipers work best from a distance, after all."

"That's a good point," Elara agreed with a nod. "Is there any way up there?"

Reynarden fiddled with the map for a moment before it zoomed in. "I think-- yes, look, there's a ladder, but it won't be easy."

"If I wanted easy, I wouldn't have become a soldier," Aric retorted, amused. "So, I get up in the rafters, pick off targets. What about you two?"

Shrugging, Reynarden deactivated the map and tucked it into a pocket on his belt. "Improvise, I guess. How's your knee, Elara?"

"It's fine. I've been doing stretches and the like to keep it limber." Elara gripped Reynarden's arm for balance so she could lift her leg and demonstrate. Putting her foot back down, she brought up something that she'd been thinking about. "I'm worried about what they're doing here."

Aric and Reynarden exchanged glances. She braced for a round of ridicule like she'd have received from Colonel Gaff. Instead, Reynarden asked, "What do you mean, Elara?"

A little surprised that he hadn't laughed her off, she told him, "Zardres said that Forex 'will have shields and weapons more powerful than any other droid ever created,' right?" Both Aric and Reynarden nodded. "Will we even be able to stop him?"

"We'll have to think of a way to even the playing field," Reynarden replied after a few moment's thought. "It's part of the reason I wanted both of you here."

"We won't let you down," Elara assured him.

Aric nodded. "I recommend we all keep our eyes peeled for anything that might help us stop Forex because I doubt conventional weapons will be enough."

"Agreed. Let's keep our eyes peeled and our guard up," Reynarden glanced at each of them. "Ready?"

Both of them saluted. "Ready, sir." "Ready."

With that, the three of them entered the building together. It took some moments to coordinate their efforts, but they figured it out. They'd reached the corridor leading into the second-to-last room when Aric stopped them. "Here, this is how I can get up to the rafters."

"Do you have a stealth generator?" Reynarden asked as he and Elara positioned themselves to cover Aric while he climbed.

Snapping his fingers, Aric pulled a small stealth generator out of his belt. "I'm glad I grabbed this. Been awhile since I needed one."

"Remind me to requisition a new one for you," Reynarden commented lightly as Aric clipped it to his belt and turned it on.

The shimmer that showed where Aric stood moved towards the ladder. "Are you saying this one is old?"

"Not at all," Reynarden answered, completely straight-faced. "Just that a new one might be helpful in the future."

As the shimmer moved up the ladder, Elara told Reynarden, "It might be useful to requisition one for each of us, sir. There are times when it would be useful to sneak through a location instead of fight through it."

"Something to consider," Reynarden replied with a thoughtful hum. "Aric, when you're in position, target Andrik."

Aric chinned the mic in his helmet for acknowledgement: 'yes.'

"Let's go, Elara." Reynarden started to move away, and then stopped, "Oh! When we finally get in there to confront Andrik, I want us to stand back-to-back right away."

She stared at him, surprised by the request. "Back-to-back, sir?"

"Yes. Remember the way they surrounded us in the vault?" She nodded in reply. "They'll probably do that again and I don't want to be caught off-guard this time."

"I understand, sir." Elara nodded again. "It'll also give me an opportunity to look for anything that might help us stop Forex."

He laughed softly. "Yes, that, too. For now, we fight side-by-side."

"Yes, sir." Elara took her place by his side and they continued into the next room, taking out those soldiers with only a little more difficulty now that Aric wasn't with them.

Finally, they entered the room where Andrik waited for them with two techs and M1-4X in some sort of charging station. When they stopped a few paces away from Andrik, Elara immediately shifted to stand back-to-back with Reynarden, surveying the room for both potential attackers and anything that could help them defeat Forex. Sneering, Andrik said, "So, here you are. A little later than I was expecting to be honest. Did it really take you that long to wipe out Zardres and his men? Maybe you're not as good as I thought you were."

"Sorry--there's just so much to see and do on Nar Shaddaa," Reynarden retorted blithely, nearly distracting Elara. Really?

Andrik apparently had the same reaction. "Idiot. If you'd gotten here sooner, you might've actually had a chance." His tone changed from scornful to disgusted. "You make me sick. You killed good men--fellow soldiers! All because some scumbag on Coruscant said they were traitors? Your loyalties are all wrong. When you're bleeding out in a trench on some muckball planet, it ain't High Command that pulls you out--it's the guy next to you."

"It wasn't High Command that ambushed me on Ord Mantell." Reynarden's voice turned hard and steely now and Elara pressed her shoulders back against his to remind him she was there. "It was the guy next to me: Tavus."

Not surprisingly, that didn't shake Andrik's conviction. "Tavus probably saw what I see--a worthless, brainwashed slave. Not worth keeping around."

While the others continued talked, Aric's voice came over their coms, "Elara, directly opposite you, do you see it? That terminal should put out an electronic surge strong enough to disable Forex's shields." She chinned an acknowledgement into her mic, not wanting to risk drawing Andrik's attention to her. "It'll scramble our own equipment and any audio and visual feeds in the blast radius, but it gives you a better chance against Forex."

"Enough chatter!" Andrik's raised voice interrupted Reynarden's conversation with Forex. "It's time to finish this."

"Lieutenant, be advised that your weapon will require several decades of sustained fire in order to penetrate my shields at their current charge," Forex informed them in a far too cheerful tone. "Seeing as Republic SpecForce training is the best in the galaxy. I'm confident you'll find an alternative solution for my destruction. Good luck."

Reynarden sounded amused as he shifted his assault cannon into firing position. "I appreciate the tip, Forex."

"It is my pleasure to at least serve the Republic in this small way." As Forex spoke, several soldiers appeared out of nowhere between Elara and the console Aric had mentioned.

Andrik practically snarled his next words, "Enough! Open fire!"

"You heard the man, Aric," Reynarden called.

With that, Elara began to fire at the two soldiers in front of her. She barely heard Aric's sniper rifle, followed by muffled cursing from him. Another two shots and Elara could feel Reynarden firing at the two technicians. "Kriff, not sure if he's out, but he's definitely down."

"Cover Elara," Reynarden replied, and nudged her. "Use the console. We can repair or replace our equipment."

She nodded, understanding what he didn't say. "Yes, sir."

"On my mark," he told her and she shifted her weight. "Mark!"

Elara threw herself to the side, tucking into a roll as Reynarden turned to face the soldiers, spraying them with cannon fire and keeping their focus on him. She got to her feet and ran for the console, pressing buttons and scrolling through screens. As she worked, she heard the two soldiers hit the ground and the sound of the charging equipment disengaging. "I found it, sir! Ready when you are!"

"Over here, Forex!" Reynarden called and Elara risked glancing over her shoulder. He'd turned to face the war droid and shot him periodically as he backed up towards the console. Obediently, he followed, one of his shots grazing Reynarden's armor. "Now, Elara!"

With that, he dropped to the ground and covered his head. Elara pressed the button to trigger the ion pulse and did the same. "That did it. His shields are down."

"Open fire!" Reynarden pushed himself up to his knees and began firing with his cannon.

Elara followed his example and began shooting with her blaster. Aric added his own firepower and Forex soon crumpled into a smoking, motionless wreck. Reynarden got to his feet and carefully approached Forex, nudging him with his foot. Then he called out, "Who's not dead? Sound off."

"Really, Rey?" Aric called from the rafters, sounding exasperated.

Elara stood up and checked each of the dead soldiers. "It got a response, didn't it?"

"Thanks for making my point, Elara," Reynarden checked Andrik himself. "He may have dodged your first shot, Aric, but it didn't save him."

At the sound of a clatter, Elara looked up to see Aric lowering himself on a cable clipped to his armor. He winced once he stood on the floor and released the cable. "I forgot how uncomfortable that can be."

"Are you hurt, Sergeant?" She asked him.

He shook his head. "No, they focused on you two."

"Lieutenant Drondil!" The call came from a Zabrak man leading a group of people, all of them in the same uniform Elara had seen at the SIS base. "I'm with the SIS. What is your status? Do you require medical attention?"

Reynarden gestured to Elara, who'd pulled out a scanner and began using it on him. "My medic here has me covered, thanks."

"Excellent, we'll get straight to work, then." The Zabrak nodded firmly. "We're here to clean up the mess, make sure there's nothing useful to be recovered. Nice work, by the way." He glanced around the room, taking in the bodies and remains of Forex. "Jonas is waiting for you inside the Republic Embassy, up on the Promenade. He asked that you meet him there for a debriefing."

Nodding, Reynarden assured him, "We'll head there ASAP."

"Glad I got a chance to meet you, Lieutenant. And again--nice work." He saluted, and then turned to his people, barking out orders.

Elara turned off her scanner. "I don't know how you managed it, sir, but you don't have anything worse than superficial burns or abrasions."

"You're hurt, though." Reynarden touched his fingers to Elara's cheek and only then did she realize that she'd lost her helmet and had a cut along her cheek.

Touching her cheek as well, she began looking for her helmet. "Blast it, how did that happen?"

"When you dropped to the floor, you must have loosened it." Aric held her helmet out to her. "Then, when you got up, it fell off completely."

She shook her head at herself, finding the spot on her helmet that must have cut her when it came off. "It's been so long since I've used this kind of helmet..."

"If that's the worst that happened to you, I'm glad." Reynarden's tone distracted Elara and she looked at him in surprise. It's refreshing to serve a commander that values the soldiers he commands and the lives of those he come in contact with. Realizing she was staring, she flushed and looked away. Stop it, Elara, he's just being professional and courteous, unlike the Imperial officers you've served with.

Aric coughed. "I doubt Balkar wants to be kept waiting."

"Right, let's go."

*

The debrief in the Embassy went about as well as Elara expected. Garza wasn't happy that Reynarden told Balkar the truth and Balkar wasn't happy that Garza kept the truth from the SIS. Reynarden had to defend himself to both of them. "I did follow orders. When it became clear that Agent Balkar would figure out the truth anyway, I went ahead and told him."

"That wasn't your call to make, Lieutenant," Garza told him sternly. "Your only responsibility is to follow orders. Now, this discussion is over. Lieutenant Drondil, contact me on your ship's holo when everything with M1-4X has been settled. Garza out."

Her holoimage disappeared and Elara could hear Reynarden's sigh of relief. Balkar shook his head. "Ugh. I don't know how you can stand to work with her. The job got done--and it was no small feat. You've definitely earned your reward."

"What kind of reward are we talking about here?" Sounding puzzled, Reynarden glanced at both Elara and Aric. She shrugged, having no more clue than he did.

Balkar pulled out his datapad and activated it, clearing his throat before he read, "Republic war droid M1-4X is to be repaired and direct control transferred to Havoc Squad's current commanding officer, effective immediately."

"We destroyed Forex, didn't we? How is this possible?" Elara nodded her agreement with Reynarden's comment. They wouldn't be here if they hadn't.

Balkar chuckled, his eyes twinkling with amusement as he put his datapad away. "Apparently, you weren't nearly as thorough as you could've been. You really ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Now--" he propped his hands on his hips. "You three sure did a number on Forex. My people are still repairing him. What say we all head to the cantina for a nice, strong drink, hmm?"

"I like that idea," Reynarden grinned. "Elara?"

She shook her head. "No, thank you, sir. I'd like to change out of my armor. There's also--"

"We should all change, actually," Aric piped up, making a face.

Balkar laughed. "Fine, go change and meet me in the cantina."

"We'll be there ASAP," Reynarden assured him and they trooped out of the Embassy.

Aric told Elara to change first, since he had to inspect their weapons before storing them. Elara changed quickly, inspecting her armor once she'd done so. Some scuffs and soot marred it now, but it'd be easy enough to remove once she had the time to do it. When she emerged, Aric and Reynarden were talking quietly, both still in their armor. "Reynarden? Aric?"

"Oh, Elara." Reynarden smiled apologetically. "Something's come up that we need to take care of before we can have that drink."

She glanced down at herself. "Should I change?"

"No, don't worry about it." Aric shook his head. "We need to talk to Balkar, and then we'll figure out our next step from there."

When they reached the cantina, it was mostly deserted. Reynarden nudged Elara towards the bar. "Go get a drink. We'll be back soon."

"You'll tell me what this is about later, right?" Elara asked, glancing from him to Aric.

Aric nodded. "I will."

"Good." She squeezed Reynarden's hand before heading over to the bar and ordering a drink. Honestly, she was glad for the chance to sit and rest her knee.

She'd just gotten her drink when a stranger slid onto the stool next to hers. "You're far too lovely to be drinking alone, my dear."

Elara turned to see a handsome human man with green eyes, sandy brown hair and matching goatee, a charming smile on his face. Calmly, she asked, "Who says I'm alone?"

"I don't see anyone sitting with you," he replied after pointedly looking around the cantina.

"Not that it's any of your business, but I'm waiting for my friends to join me." She was a little surprised that he didn't seem put off by her accent. This was Nar Shaddaa, though.

His charming smile didn't fade. "Allow me to keep you company until they return, then. You're far too exquisite to be wasted on the majority of the inhabitants here on Nar Shaddaa."

"Including yourself," Elara told him firmly. "I don't wish for the company of a stranger at the moment."

He offered his hand to her. "Of course, I hadn't introduced myself, how thoughtless of me. Dr. Tharan Cedrax, at your service."

"Sergeant Elara Dorne, first class," she shook his hand once. "Now please leave me alone, Dr. Cedrax."

Finally, Dr. Cedrax's smile faded. "Sergeant?"

"Republic SpecForces," Balkar interjected, having approached without Elara noticing. "I thought you were busy with a new project, Cedrax?"

He shook his head, standing up. "Alas, that project has finished and I find myself at loose ends."

"I'm sure you'll find something else," Elara told him firmly. "That doesn't include trying to seduce unwary women in cantinas."

Nodding to the two of them, Dr. Cedrax left the cantina. "Reynarden and Aric are on their way. How are you?"

"Still a little sore," she admitted, rubbing her knee.

He nodded, sympathetic. "Hopefully you won't have to wait too long for them to get back. Perhaps you should have something to eat while you wait, soak up that alcohol."

"Who's the medic here, me or you?" Elara asked him, amused by his suggestion.

Holding up his hands in mock surrender, he told her, "Habit from being a team leader. Some of my fellow agents are horrible workaholics and would forget to eat and sleep if someone didn't nag them about it."

"You have nothing to worry about there," she assured him with a laugh. "I'm very good at taking care of myself."

Before he could say anything, an older human man with medium brown hair had stalked into the cantina and scanned the room before barking, "Balkar!"

Much to Elara's surprise, Balkar cursed under his breath. "Excuse me."

He stood up and walked over to talk to the older man. Elara tried not to be obvious about watching them, but she was very curious. Whoever the stranger was, he clearly wasn't happy with Balkar. Before he could work up a full head of steam, Reynarden and Aric showed up. Elara didn't catch what they said, but it was enough to make the stranger glare at them and snap something. Aric shot something back that made the stranger respond just as angrily. Reynarden, his face hard and steely once more, answered with something that made Aric look pleased. The stranger, however, looked less than pleased and stormed off after saying one last thing.

When Elara saw both Aric and Balkar pull out datapads to presumably exchange some sort of information, she decided to join them. As she approached, Balkar said, "...do what I can, but I can't make any guarantees."

"I understand." Aric nodded, looking grimmer than usual.

"How are the repairs to Forex progressing?" Reynarden asked, nodding briefly to Elara when she joined them.

"As it happens, I just received word that they finished." Balkar smiled distractedly at Elara. "Good thing I had company while you two were having fun."

Reynarden made a face. "Believe me, I'd rather have had the drinks."

"Agreed, sir, but--" Aric cut himself off and looked away.

Reynarden bumped Aric's shoulder with his own. "We did what we could, Aric. C'mon, let's collect Forex and get back to the ship. I'm sure Garza is dying to scold me some more."

"About that," Balkar gave a rueful smile. "I'm a little pissed that you didn't tell me the truth right away, but I understand your reasons. Thanks for telling me in the end. On Nar Shaddaa, it's easy to forget how things should be done when it's convenient to do so "

Elara stared at him, surprised that something she'd said had stuck with him. Reynarden nodded, his own smile wry. "I'm still trying to figure out what I should be doing half the time, orders or no orders."

"You'll get there, Rey," Aric told him quietly.

She rested her hand on his arm, above the glove. "It takes time."

"Thanks." Reynarden smiled at each of them. "Let's go collect Forex."

Chapter Text

Reynarden waited until Garza's holoimage disappeared from above the holoterminal before slumping where he stood. "Sure, who cares if it's a trap? Doesn't matter if it means neutralizing Tavus and retrieving a prototype cloaking device."

"We're Havoc Squad!" M1-4X volunteered with far too much enthusiasm for a battle droid. "We will always prevail!"

Reynarden chuckled humorlessly. "I wish I had your certainty, Forex. Elara, Aric, could you get us into hyperspace?"

"Yes, sir." Aric and Elara both saluted. Reynarden returned the salute and disappeared into his quarters. When he emerged a few minutes later, he'd changed into his exercise clothes. Elara watched him head to the training area and chewed the inside of her cheek, worried by the change in his attitude.

While she and Aric headed up to the cockpit and piloted the ship up out of their docking bay, Elara glanced at him. "Aric? You've known Reynarden longer than me..."

"He has a big heart," Aric told her when she hesitated, trying to figure out how to frame her question. "He told me he joined the Army to protect people and help them. Missions like this... they'll always bother him. I'd worry if they didn't bother him."

"You're not worried at all, then?" she asked, carefully guiding the ship up into space.

He gave a small huff of laughter. "More worried. Maybe, once we're in hyperspace, you should check on him if you want."

"Thank you, Aric." She nodded and focused on calculating their hyperspace jump. Once they made their jump, Elara retreated to the crew quarters to change into her own workout clothes. She'd have to favor her knee a little, but that was a minor consideration.

When she reached the training room this time, she found Reynarden on the pommel horse. Despite her lack of familiarity with the sport, Elara could tell that he wasn't managing very well. Eventually, he stopped and sat on the horse itself, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes. "Kriff."

"Are you--" Elara cut herself off as she approached him. Clearly, he wasn't all right. Instead, she started over and asked, "Can I help?"

Sighing, Reynarden scrubbed his face with his hands. "Talk to me. Just talk about anything except the mission."

"Um, well." Elara sat down on a bench to begin wrapping her hands and feet. "I can't think of anything at the moment."

He slid down from the pommel horse and padded over to sit next to her. "Nothing?"

"Well, I-- I do want to apologize." She didn't look at him, focusing on making sure her wraps were on correctly.

Reynarden sounded amused when he asked, "For what?"

"After we spoke to Captain Kalor, I was unnecessarily curt with you." She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and saw him smile sadly. "You've been very supportive. That hasn't always been the case with the Republic personnel I've dealt with since defecting."

He covered her hand with his, gently stopping her fidgeting. "It must be hard to work with people who don't trust you."

"I expected some degree of reservation, but nothing like what I've actually encountered." Reluctantly, she freed her hand so she could get up and start stretching. "Even when I'm not a potential spy, I'm a resource. Endless questions about Imperial culture, personnel, military procedures. It's exhausting."

After a moment, Reynarden cleared his throat and told her, "You're a good soldier, Elara. Don't worry about what other people expect."

"Thank you, Reynarden." Elara smiled shyly at him. "I don't really complain by nature. Mistrust and inconvenience are a small price to pay for a clear conscience. I don't regret defecting to the Republic at all." She finished stretching and stood up straight. "Despite my past, I was allowed to join the military, earn commendations, and serve in the Republic's most elite squad. I'm very fortunate to be here."

He stood up as well. "And Havoc Squad is fortunate to have you."

"You're very kind." Elara fidgeted, not sure if he was done talking.

Reynarden smiled and patted her shoulder. "I can see you're anxious to get to your exercising. I'll leave you to it."

"Thank you." On impulse, she caught his hand in hers and gave it a squeeze.

He squeezed her hand in return and left the training area.

*

When they finally reached Tavus' ship and docked with it, the four of them cautiously entered it with weapons drawn. After taking in the droids that waited in the room beyond the airlock, Reynarden asked, "Forex, what do your sensors tell you?"

"A great deal of heat that makes it difficult to detect anything else," Forex replied after a few moments. "I do detect several droids apart from those directly in front of us."

Not relaxing in the slightest, Reynarden glanced Aric. "I know Cathar have heightened senses. Do they help here?"

"Not really." Aric growled a little in his throat. "Droids mostly smell like metal and grease and that blocks out any other smells at the moment. I can tell you that the ship is unusually quiet."

Nodding, Reynarden gave an exasperated sigh. "I have a bad feeling about this. Let's get that cloaking device and get out of here."

"Yes, sir!" The three of them chorused. Elara wasn't sure if she imagined it, but Reynarden seemed to flinch when they did that.

Slowly, they moved through the ship, encountering suicide drones and flamethrower traps. Nothing and no one else tried to stop them. After a short corridor, they reached a large room with what could only be the prototype cloaking device. Unfortunately, it was surrounded by more than a dozen of the flamethrower traps, positioned so they overlapped each other. "Kriff."

"They had to activate them in a certain order to avoid getting hurt in the process," Elara told him.

Reynarden nodded. "Right. So we just need to deactivate them in the reverse order. Forex? Aric?"

"My sensors only read the heat from the traps," Forex reported.

Aric growled under his breath. "All I smell is the fuel for the traps and it's still too quiet."

"Great." Reynarden sighed and surveyed the room. "It looks like the controls for the first one we need to deactivate are on the other side of that shelving unit."

Slinging his rifle on his back, Aric walked over and climbed up on top of it. "This has a good view of the room as a whole." Stopping, he drew his rifle and shot another suicide drone. "I can help best from here."

"Right, just give me a boost." Reynarden stepped close and extended his hand.

Aric took it and pulled him up. Reynarden paused a moment to look around the room before nodding and dropping down on the other side. It took him only a moment to deactivate the trap. "Elara, can you get at any controls over there?"

"Yes, sir." She found a set of controls and deactivated the second trap.

They soon figured out the pattern of traps and deactivated each of them in turn. Occasionally, Aric or Forex would shoot a suicide drone before it got close to either of them. Finally, the only obstacle between them and the cloaking device was the force field. Reynarden paused by the shelving unit, looking up at Aric, who kept testing the air. "Aric?"

"I still smell the fuel, but now that the traps are off, there's something more," Aric told him quietly. "Can't pinpoint it exactly yet."

Reynarden nodded. "Stay up there for now. This has been too easy."

"Yes, sir." Aric dropped to one knee, his rifle at the ready.

At a signal from Reynarden, Elara and Forex fell in on either side of him while he attempted to deactivate the forcefield. "Elara, can you make heads or tails of this?"

"I'll try." Elara took his place at the terminal and managed to figure out the command sequence that would deactivate the force field. "There."

They started to turn away, but the holocom embedded into the terminal flickered to life. Elara recognized the older human man from the dossiers she'd read: Commander Harron Tavus. "It's good to see you again, Lieutenant Drondil. It is lieutenant now, right? You're doing so well for yourself--I'm very proud." Elara stayed back while Reynarden spoke to Tavus and she could see his hands ball into fists at his sides. "I have to thank you for working this little meeting into your very busy schedule. It took me some trouble to arrange."

"Great." Reynarden shook his head in frustration, propping his balled hands on his hips. "I told Garza this was a trap."

The smile Tavus gave was almost a parody of paternal concern. "It must bother you, the way she casually gambles with your life. But that isn't what I wanted to discuss with you today. You have caused me a great deal of difficulty, Drondil. Some have even called you my nemesis. Was that your goal?"

"What's your goal, Tavus?" Reynarden shot back, ignoring the fact that Tavus hadn't even bothered with his rank. "Why are you doing this?"

Tavus's expression hardened. "My goal--our goal--is to fight injustice. To destroy the greatest murderers of all. Needles... even Captain Andrik! What is wrong with you? They were heroes!"

"Your squad-mates betrayed the Republic." Though she couldn't see his face, Elara guessed that Reynarden's expression had turned as hard and steely as Tavus's now. "Just like you."

Aric's voice came over their comms, quiet and urgent. "We're not alone. The heat's dissipated enough that I'm picking up heat signatures through my scope. At least two, possibly more."

"You're a fool." Tavus shook his head. "In my entire career, only one other enemy has been as difficult as you: the Imperial Shadow Fist."

Forex addressed them via their comlinks as well, "My sensors also detect other lifeforms. Four others in this room and a fifth in the corridor outside."

"One of the most elite commando units in all of the Sith Empire. Five of the Empire's deadliest agents." Tavus's words confirmed Aric and Forex's information.

Reynarden's only response to Tavus was a request, "Please--end this before anyone else has to die."

"I have only just begun, Drondil," Tavus replied and Elara wondered if she imagined the hint of remorse in his eyes. "Havoc Squad and the Shadow Fist fought many times. We battled to a standstill over and over again. We were the worst of enemies, but times have changed. Meet my five newest friends."

Elara dove for cover at Reynarden's signal, drawing her blaster. "Aric, Forex!"

"You're overdue for a painful death, Lieutenant Drondil. Goodbye." Tavus' holoimage winked out of view.

Reynarden ducked for cover as well, just in time to avoid being hit by the Imperial sniper. "Forex and I have these two. I can see two more at the other of the room."

"With me, Elara," Reynarden ordered her, drawing his assault cannon.

She nodded and got up in time to see the enemy sniper fall from the cargo containers he'd been hiding on. A second body hit the deck as Reynarden and Elara made a dash for the other end of the room, shooting the two Imperial soldiers as they emerged from stealth. They didn't get more than a couple shots off before they fell to the deck as well, also dead. "One more, sir."

"I know, out in that corridor." They turned back to see a fifth Imperial soldier attacking Forex with a vibrosword. Aric had his sniper rifle pointed at them, but he wasn't shooting. "Aric, what's the problem?"

Elara stopped once they were close and tried to aim for the Imperial soldier. Aric replied just as she realized it herself, "He's jumping around so much that it makes it difficult to aim properly. I might hit Forex by mistake."

"I have a solution for that." Reynarden pulled a cryo grenade off his belt. "Forex, dodge left, now!" Reynarden threw the grenade as he yelled it. Forex moved to the left just in time for the grenade to hit the Imperial soldier and freeze him in place. "Shoot him!" Aric hadn't even waited for the order, shooting the Imperial soldier. Elara and Forex followed suit. By the time the cryo grenade wore off, the soldier slumped to the deck. "Who's not dead, sound off."

Aric growled in reply. "Still not funny."

"I am a droid, therefore I am neither dead nor alive," Forex replied as they approached.

Elara smiled when Reynarden gave a soft huff of laughter. "Any other life signs?"

"Just you three, sir," Forex informed him.

Reynarden nodded. "Fine, let's get the prototype and get out of here."

*

After reporting in to Garza, she told them to take the prototype to the Fleet. Republic scientists would take the prototype off their hands and return it to Cularin. While they were in transit to the Fleet, Elara decided to check if anyone had been badly hurt. She found Aric first. When she scanned him, she didn't find any injuries. "One of the perks of being a sniper."

"Fair point," Elara agreed. Her armor and generator had taken a beating, but the worst that had happened to her had been a graze on her right arm. It'd caught her just below the shoulder plate. She'd mended the injury before looking for the other two.

Now that she'd checked on Aric, she went looking Reynarden. She found him in the common area, staring out the viewport at the swirls of hyperspace. She could only see the right side of his face and he didn't look at her. "Hey, Elara."

"Hello, Reynarden." She sat down nearby, folding her hands together in her lap. "Were you injured during our altercation with the Shadow Fist?"

He shook his head, still looking out the viewport. "No, I wasn't."

"Why don't I believe you?" Elara pulled her scanner out of her medkit. "Do you want to try again, or should I just scan you anyway?"

Laughing softly, Reynarden finally looked at Elara, revealing the bruise around his left eye. "Fine, I managed to trip and fall on my face."

"I wondered what that commotion was while we were disarming the flamethrower traps." Elara dug out some kolto salve and carefully began spreading it on the bruise. "I thought you were wearing your helmet?"

Wincing when she pressed too hard on the bruise, he admitted, "I took it off so I could better see what I was doing."

"And then you tripped and fell," Elara clarified, putting the cap on the salve.

He nodded, taking the salve when she offered it to him. "On my face. Naturally, I put my helmet back on right after that."

"Naturally." Elara closed her medkit and set it aside. She folded her hands together once more, resisting the impulse to fidget.

Sighing, Reynarden shifted so he was facing Elara, one foot tucked under him. "Do you have something else on your mind?"

"I have a rather personal question," she replied, turning so she faced Reynarden in return. "About the former Havoc Squad members' defection." He nodded, gesturing for her to go ahead. "What was it like to have your commander and comrades join the enemy? How did you feel?"

He remained silent for a moment, looking out the viewport for a moment before looking back at her. "At first, I was shocked, I never saw it coming."

"Tavus and the others must have been hiding their plans very carefully," Elara mused, thinking of when she'd made her own plans to defect.

Reynarden nodded his agreement. "They did. Once I got over my surprise, I was just sad. They were such great soldiers and they were throwing away everything they'd fought for."

"I can only imagine what it must've been like," Elara knew what it was like to be the defector, but not the other side. She drew her knee to her chest and wrapped her arms around her leg. "I've always wondered how my family took the news of my defection. It must've been difficult for them to understand."

Leaning forward slightly, he asked, "What was your family like?"

"Austere, proud," Elara told him, her heart clenching in her chest at the thought of her parents and brother. "Warm, as well, at least in private." Reynarden smiled slightly and nodded. "Members of the Dorne family have served with distinction in the Imperial military for generations. It's an important family tradition."

Reynarden nodded again. "One that you upheld."

"Both of us did," Elara confirmed, wiping away the tears that pricked at her eyes. After a moment, she cleared her throat. "It isn't easy to reach prominence in the Empire with no aptitude for the Force, but my family did it. I hope they're all still well."

He reached out and covered her hands with one of his. "If they're anything like you, I'm sure they are. I doubt it's easy to fight against your family's side."

"It's a consequence I accepted when I chose to defect," Elara told him, turning one of her hands over to grasp his. "I don't give it a second thought."

Reynarden raised his eyebrows. "I don't believe that, but I'll let it go."

"Thank you." She smiled and squeezed his hand gently. "What about your family? I know what your brother is like, but what about your parents?"

His smile turned fond. "They're very kind and warm. Dad's not really demonstrative in public, but Mom certainly is."

"I don't mean to pry, but--" Elara hesitated, aware that her question was indelicate.

Chuckling, Reynarden finished for her, "How do I have a brother who's half-Sith?"

"I wouldn't have phrased it that way, but yes, I can't help my curiosity," Elara admitted.

He shrugged. "Mom had an affair while Dad was away from home. Only after Fio was born did she realize her lover wasn't as human as she'd thought he was."

"It must have been quite the shock for both your parents," she observed, resting her cheek against her knee.

Reynarden laughed. "Oh, yes. It turned out that Mom and Dad both had affairs. They forgave each other, and, well--" he tapped his chest with a wry smile.

"I have no idea how Father would have reacted if it'd been Mother who had an affair," Elara murmured thoughtfully. "Frankly, I don't want to know."

He nodded. "Yeah, probably for the best."

"We should probably get some sleep." Elara reluctantly released Reynarden's hand, a little surprised that he hadn't let go.

Reynarden shook his head a little. "I'm not tired yet. Go sleep if you are, though."

"You're sure?" Elara stood up, stretching to ease the kinks out of her muscles.

"I'm sure." He smiled and made shooing motions. "Go on."

She started for the door. "If you don't sleep before we get to the Fleet, try to get some sleep once we're on our way to our next destination."

"I will. Sleep well, Elara."

She stifled a yawn. "Thank you, Reynarden."

*

After dropping off the device, Garza contacted them. "I have a new target location for you, Lieutenant: Tatooine. I want you to head out immediately. I'll give you a full briefing when you get there. Garza out."

"No rest for the weary," Reynarden commented, making a face. "C'mon, Elara, let's get this lovely lady into hyperspace."

She followed him up to the cockpit, vaguely aware of Aric following behind them. "Lady, sir? It's a ship."

"Every ship is a lady," Reynarden told her, settling into the co-pilot's seat. "It goes back to pre-space travel, when ships carried people across oceans."

After staring at him for a moment, Elara sat down in the pilot's seat, helping to guide the ship out of the docking bay and into space. "I'd forgotten about that. Most of my studies have been focused elsewhere."

"I dabble in history occasionally," Reynarden replied, his fingers dancing over his console. "Ready when you are."

She fumbled through the preparations for launching into hyperspace. The jump wasn't as smooth as she would have liked, but they held steady on their course. Aric patted her shoulder. "Pretty good for no prior warning."

"That was very mean of you," Elara told Reynarden with a mock glare.

He smiled back at her. "Where's the fun in warning you? This is going to be a long stretch. I hope you two have plenty to do."

"I planned on inspecting the weapons," Aric told Reynarden as the latter stood up and stretched.

Elara realized she was staring at the strip of Reynarden's stomach exposed by his shirt riding up when he raised his arms over his head and quickly looked away, her cheeks warm. Reynarden asked, "Anything I should know about?"

"I had a few misfires during the prison run on Nar Shaddaa," Aric explained calmly. "I think the barrel was out of whack. I just want to make sure all of our equipment is in top form."

Prison run? She wondered, glancing over her shoulder to see Reynarden nodding. "Yeah, we don't want to be caught with our pants down. Take care of it, Aric."

"Will do." Aric nodded to Reynarden and turned to leave the cockpit.

Standing up, Elara asked, "Prison run?"

"Oh, yeah. I guess I'd better tell you about that." Reynarden gestured for Elara to follow him to the common area. Sitting down on one of the couches, he told her about the situation with Aric's old squad, the Deadeyes. "So, now we're waiting for Jonas's contact to decrypt those coordinates for us."

Elara nodded, smiling a little. Reynarden had been willing to look for the missing soldiers on Taris. This was a very similar situation. "You're a good man, Reynarden."

"Why do you say that?" He stared at her, eyes wide with surprise.

She tilted her head, amused by his surprise. "You don't see it? You helped find those soldiers on Taris. You decided to tell Balkar the truth. You agreed to help look for the Deadeyes."

"That's not being a good man," he objected. "It's being a decent person."

Still amused, she asked, "Isn't that the same thing?"

"Sure, be logical," he muttered, but she could see the smile twitching at his lips.

Reaching over, she covered his hand with hers and squeezed it gently. "I do my best."

*

Once they were on the way, Elara spent some time reviewing the dossiers for the remaining Havoc Squad members: Tavus, Zora, Bex Kolos, and Vanto Bazren. She wondered which of them they would find on Tatooine. When she finished that, she decided some quick exercise was in order. After changing, she headed to the training area and raised her eyebrows. As per usual, Reynarden was already there. Unlike the other times, he wasn't using the gymnastics equipment.

For once, he was pummeling the punching bag. She watched him for a few moments before speaking up. "If you adjust your stance, you can put greater force into your punches."

"I just need to punch something, but the punching bag and training dummy aren't enough." He sighed, stepping back from the bag and letting it gradually stop.

"We could spar?" Elara suggested, sitting down to begin wrapping her hands and feet. "Maybe the challenge of a live opponent will work better than the bag or training dummy."

When he didn't respond for several minutes, she looked up at him. He stared at her in obvious surprise and shook himself. "Are you sure, Elara? You've trained at it much more than I have."

"The point won't be to prove who's the better fighter," she pointed out, beginning to do stretches to loosen her muscles. "The point will be to help you work off whatever it is that's your reason for using the training dummy and punching bag."

His jaw tensed and he looked away. "Garza sending us right into that trap."

"I thought so." Elara stood up and rested her hand on his arm. "We survived with minimal injuries."

He laughed and touched the fading bruise around his left eye. "Yeah. I'm grateful for that. I'm just mad that she didn't seem to care if it was a trap or not. All that mattered was getting the cloaking device."

"You have every right to be mad," Elara told him, squeezing his arm gently. "And, if you need to work it out somehow, better against a training dummy than an innocent person."

Reynarden glanced at her with raised eyebrows. "And yet, you're offering to spar with me?"

"You said yourself the punching bag and the training dummy weren't helping," she reminded him. "Sparring usually helped my brother if he was angry or upset."

"Mine, too." For a moment, he looked sad. Then he shook his head and grinned. "All right, you're on."

Unable to help smiling back, Elara finished preparing, mentally and physically, for the match. They stepped into the sparring ring once they were ready and settled into their stances. After a few moments of waiting, Reynarden threw the first punch. Elara blocked it and followed up with a punch of her own. He managed to block that and kicked, surprising her with the height he managed to get. Aleksei only managed to get such height on his kicks because he was taller than her. Reynarden was shorter than her by a few centimeters. Despite his lack of experience, he was proving to be a bit of a challenge. He was stronger than he looked, probably a combination of his gymnastics training and using an assault cannon as his primary weapon. Reynarden was also more flexible and agile than Aleksei, again due to his gymnastics training. He seemed as likely to dodge Elara's punches and kicks as much as block them. Finally, he bent backwards when she tried to get him with an uppercut. Remembering a story Aric had told her about Reynarden on Ord Mantell, she sidestepped to avoid his feet when he kicked them up into a handstand. She moved so she could look down at his face. "You know this wouldn't be acceptable if we were actually following kickboxing rules."

He grinned up at her, his face turning red as the blood rushed to it. "I know, but we never said we were following them."

"True, so..." Trailing off, she nudged him enough so he lost his balance and landed flat on his back on the mat. Before he could recover his breath or his wits, Elara pinned him with an arm across his throat, half-lying on top of him. "Do you yield, Reynarden?"

"I yield." He nodded, his chest heaving under her as he caught his breath. Suddenly aware of their relative positions, she stood up and extended her hand to him. He took it and she helped him to his feet. "Good match."

Elara nodded, smiling shyly at him. It'd been fun. "You, too."

"It helped, too." They walked over to the bench where their towels and water waited for them.

She picked up her towel and wiped her face and neck with it. They'd worked up quite a sweat. "If you ever need my help again, Reynarden, don't hesitate to ask."

"I will." He stripped off his sweat-soaked tank top and used his towel to wipe away the sweat on his face, neck, and chest.

Elara couldn't help staring at Reynarden's bare chest for a few moments. He kept himself in excellent shape and it showed. Realizing she was staring, she hastily turned away and sipped her water. Her cheeks grew warm when Aric asked from the training room doorway, "Help with what, Rey?"

"Just a way to work out my frustrations, Aric." Reynarden explained while Elara excused herself.

She quickly headed to the crew quarters to pick up a change of clothes. As she showered and changed, she most definitely did not think about Reynarden in just his exercise shorts, freckles scattered across his shoulders and chest as well as his nose and cheeks. Elara pressed her forehead to the tile wall of the shower. Nothing's going to happen, Elara. Forget it and move on!

*

During the rest of their trip to Tatooine, Elara ensured they were as prepared as possible for the heat they'd be facing on the desert planet. After they received their instructions from General Garza, Elara commented, "Personally, I prefer the dry heat we'll experience here than the humidity we'd face in a jungle."

"I'd rather not face any heat at all," Aric growled, ruffling the black fur on his head.

Reynarden laughed. "I'm with you, but our target wasn't so obliging."

"We will triumph regardless of the weather!" Forex declared. "For we are the best in the Republic, and therefore the galaxy!"

Laughing again, Reynarden followed it with a sigh. "Come on. The sooner we get going, the sooner we can finish this mission and get off this dustball."

Just exiting the ship alone was a shock to their systems. If it's so warm indoors, how hot must it be outside? The answer was extremely hot. As she walked with the others through Anchorhead, Elara was very glad that she'd never been assigned to Tatooine. She'd rather take the swamps and rakghouls of Taris.

When they reached the mayor's office, Reynarden looked inside, and then back at them. "There's not much space in there. I hate to ask, Forex--"

"I am not as susceptible to the heat as you three are," Forex agreed, dipping his chassis in an approximation of a bow. "I will wait out here."

"Thanks." Nodding to Elara and Aric, Reynarden entered the office. When they were inside, all three of them removed their helmets.

Catching the others' attention, Elara pointedly removed one of her canteens from her belt and took a large drink of the water-electrolyte solution it contained. Grinning, Reynarden followed suit. Aric scowled and reluctantly did the same. Satisfied, she turned her attention to surveying the office. It was a single room, surprisingly cool despite the heat outside. The only furnishings consisted of a large holoteminal, a desk, chairs, and a couple colorful rugs. Two human men stood near the holoterminal. The older man she recognized from the report General Garza had transmitted during their briefing on the ship. The younger man she assumed was an assistant. Both looked worried. "...That puts the tally somewhere around sixty-four, sir. But we've still got some volunteers digging through the rubble to be sure."

The mayor looked very worried and upset. "Sixty-four. So... so many. So much death. And for what? Why is this happening? What have we done to deserve this?"

"We still don't have any leads sir, but I'm sure--excuse me, who are you?' The aide noticed the three of them then, his expression turning indignant. "This is the mayor's office; you can't just barge in here without an appointment!"

Reynarden held up his hands to show that he didn't mean any harm. Elara and Aric did the same. "I'm Lieutenant Drondil, Republic SpecForces. The mayor knew I was coming."

"You're the one General Garza told me about." Mayor Klerren looked relieved, but still worried. "I am so thankful that you're here. Please, Lieutenant, I need your help. My city--the people of Anchorhead--need your help."

While Reynarden dropped his hands to his hips, Elara clasped her hands in front of her and she noticed that Aric clasped his behind him. "How can we be of assistance?"

"Someone is attacking us, Lieutenant," Klerren began, though that had been clear enough from what they'd overheard. "Bombs have been going off all over Anchorhead--more than a dozen just in the past week." Elara kept her expression calm, but immediately began mentally reviewing the dossiers of the former Havoc squad members. "And we have no idea who's behind them--no threats, no demands or warnings. Innocent people are being murdered without any explanation!"

Reynarden glanced over his shoulder at them. "Dorne, Jorgan, one of our objectives is a bomb expert, correct?"

"That's a big affirmative, Lieutenant." Aric confirmed with a nod. "He pulled some pretty flashy stuff back on Ord Mantell, if memory serves."

Also nodding, Elara added, "According to the personnel files I've reviewed, he's one of the most skillful in the galaxy."

"Really?" Mayor Klerren asked, looking even more hopeful. "Do you think our problems might be related, then? If you find this bomb expert..."

Another aide rushed in, clearly panicked. "Sir! Mayor Klerren, sir! There's been another bombing! An apartment building, over in district seven!"

"Oh, no. No, no." Klerran pressed a hand to his mouth for a moment before asking, "How--how many? Do we know yet?"

The human woman shook her head. "No, sir, but it's going to be bad. A lot of people lived in the building... a lot of families."

"I'll proceed to the scene at once, Mayor Klerren," Reynarden told him firmly.

He didn't look relieved as he turned to Reynarden. "After the first explosion, there are always more, all in the same area. If you hurry, you might get there in time to stop them! Please, Lieutenant--protect my people, and I'll do anything can to help your mission. Please, hurry!"

They hastily pulled on their helmets and left the office. Forex greeted them, "Sir! There was an explosion nearby!"

"I know, Forex," Reynarden replied, leading the charge towards the smoking building. "The mayor says there's usually other bombings soon after. We're going to stop them."

"That may not be possible, Lieutenant," Aric told him.

Reynarden didn't break stride. "We have to try, Sergeant."

"We know, sir," Elara answered quietly.

Though he didn't reply verbally, he did nod. They found the site of the bombing and Elara had barely begun treating the first victim they found when he pointed to the Imperial protocol droids beginning to trot into the ruined building. "Oh... oh no... oh no, no, no, no! Over there! In the doorway!"

"Don't let them cause further damage," Reynarden ordered them. "Dorne..."

She stood up, drawing her blaster. "He's stable for now, Lieutenant. These droids are more of a threat at the moment."

"Right." Reynarden nodded. "Fire!"

Between the four of them, the droids never had a chance to explode. Aric set to work disarming the bombs inside them. Elara returned to tending the wounded man, Benett. The human woman, Cana, asked, "Is it... is it over? Are they all dead?"

"Don't worry, you're safe," Reynarden told her, sounding every bit the confident Republic soldier.

She smiled, jumping to her feet, and then wincing. Whatever pain she'd felt didn't dampen her enthusiasm. "You did! You really did it! We're safe. Benett, we're safe!"

"Ungh... good. Good." Elara scanned him one last time.

She could see the concern on Cana's face and assured her, "He has a minor concussion, but he'll make a full recovery, so long as someone keeps an eye on him for the next day or two."

"I can do that." Cana nodded, her smile returning. "We owe you--all of you--our lives. I wish there was some way we could repay you."

Reynarden held up a hand as he shook his head. "As soldiers of the Republic, it's our duty to help."

"You are true heroes," she told them, still smiling. "I'll never forget what you've done here today. None of us will. Thanks again, soldiers."

As they started towards the exit, Elara bit her lip and glanced over her shoulder. "Sir, with your permission, I'd like to stay help with the other victims in need of medical attention."

"Are you sure, Sergeant?" he asked, glancing back as well.

She nodded. "Yes, sir. As a field medic, I have extensive training in this area."

"Very well. Report to Mayor Klerran's office once you're done," he told her with a nod.

Resisting the impulse to hug him, Elara instead saluted crisply. He returned the salute and she turned back to offer her assistance to the nearest bystander. As she worked, she was vaguely aware that Aric had remained behind as well, disarming the bombs inside the droids.

*

She didn't plan to spend the rest of the day helping the local doctors with the victims of the bombings. They were so overwhelmed by the sheer number of victims that Elara couldn't leave with a clear conscience. She barely took time to eat or drink as she worked. When she finally sat down to write her report, Elara didn't realize she'd fallen asleep until Reynarden prodded her awake. "C'mon, Dorne. Wake up."

"She worked very hard today, Lieutenant," Dr. Prenell told him. "She needs rest."

Elara blinked herself awake, bringing Reynarden and Dr. Prenell into focus. "I'm sure she did, doctor. That's who she is."

"'m 'wake," she told them, rubbing her eyes to clear the grit from them. "Time izzit?"

Reynarden took her arm and pulled it over his shoulders, helping her to stand up. "Time to get you back to the ship and into your bunk."

"R'ports," Elara muttered, very much aware that Reynarden had slipped his arm around her waist to help steady her.

Dr. Prenell held up a stack of datapads. "All done, Sergeant. Thank you very much for your help today. Everyone appreciates it."

"You saved a lot of lives," Reynarden added, guiding her to the door.

Leaning into him, Elara tugged her hand free so she could slip her arm around his waist instead of his shoulders, hooking her fingers on his belt. "I saved as many people as I could, but it wasn't enough. Some patients still died."

"You can't save everyone, Elara," he told her quietly, hooking his fingers into her belt as well. "We both know that."

They stepped outside and she shivered. With the suns down, it had cooled down considerably. She moved closer to Reynarden for warmth. "I still hate it when I can't. I chose to specialize in medicine to save lives."

"I know." He tipped his head to the side enough to press it against her temple.

They finished the trip to their docking bay in silence. After she'd changed into civilian clothes, Elara reheated a frozen dinner and sat down in the common area to pick at it. Reynarden joined her a few moments later. "What did I miss today, Reynarden?"

"Turns out, Fuse switched sides again," he told her. At her stare, he explained that the bombs were, indeed, Bazren's work. However, the Imperial officer he'd been working with, Colonel Gorik, didn't want to use empty deserts to test bombs. "He wanted a live testing ground."

She shoved her mostly-untouched food aside, suddenly unable to eat. "So he chose to bomb Anchorhead instead."

"Yeah. Once Fuse found out, he refused to continue designing bombs." Reynarden shrugged. "So Gorik had him locked up and Fuse decided to contact Mayor Klerren."

Elara raised her eyebrows. "Let me guess: he called while you were talking to the mayor."

"Got it in one." Reynarden nodded. "He gave us intel on who was building the bombs for him."

She rolled her eyes. "Of course he didn't build them himself. It keeps him from being directly connected to the bombings if anyone manages to figure it out."

"Yeah, Aric said the same thing when I told him." Reynarden rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "That hadn't even occurred to me. Anyway, we took care of the Geonosians who were building the bombs. So Anchorhead is safe from that at least."

Elara folded her arms and leaned forward on the table. "There's more, isn't there?"

"Gorik was talking with the Geonosians when Rey and Forex got to the warehouse they were working at," Aric interjected, having joined them at the table. "He knows that Havoc Squad is here on Tatooine."

Reynarden nodded, scrubbed his fingers across the top of his head. "Yeah, so Gorik put his people on high alert. Fuse couldn't tell us where the base is, but Gorik's commando teams do."

"So you found one of those teams and got the coordinates from them." Elara deduced from what Reynarden said.

He nodded. "I did. By then, though, the suns were starting to go down and we knew it'd be too dangerous to try to attack at night."

"So we're going first thing in the morning?" Elara asked, sitting up straight.

Another nod. "Yeah. I want everyone with me for this. Is there anything more you want to do for the victims of the bombings?"

"No, I did all I could today," she told him, shaking her head.

Aric patted her arm. "I heard a lot of people talking about how happy they were that you were there to help out."

"Then we'll head out first thing in the morning," Reynarden informed them. "Get plenty of sleep." Standing up, he took Elara's hand and gave it a squeeze. "I'm proud of you, Elara."

She watched him go, her heart fluttering in her chest. He doesn't mean anything by it other than friendship!

"He was worried about you," Aric told her, distracting her from her thoughts.

Blinking, she turned to look at him. "What?"

"He was worried when he realized you'd been helping with the victims all day," he clarified, his expression serious. "So was I, come to think of it. I have a pretty good idea why you chose to be a medic, but take care of yourself, too, Elara."

She smiled at him, touched by his concern for her. "Thank you, Aric."

While she turned to finish her meal, he stood up and left, heading for the crew quarters. After she'd eaten and tossed the remains in the recycler, Elara went to bed as well. She wanted to be ready for anything they might face the next day.

*

The trip out to the Imperial base was long. It felt even longer knowing that Colonel Gorik planned to pull out now that he knew Havoc Squad was on Tatooine. The four of them fought their way through the base in time to find Bazren waiting in his holding cell. He looked relieved when he saw them, "Lieutenant Drondil! You made it just time--Gorik called for a full-scale evacuation. He's already at the hangar in the back of the base, overseeing the evacuation--and he has my bomb designs with him."

"Are we just supposed to leave you here?" Reynarden asked skeptically, hands propped on his hips.

Bazren glanced around his holding cell pointedly. "I'm, uh, I'm clearly not going anywhere, Lieutenant. After you've taken down Gorik, you can--"

"Warning! Warning! Self-destruct sequence initialized! All personnel must evacuate to the hangar area immediately! This is not a drill!" They exchanged worried glances at the sound of that. They had less time than they thought! "Countdown sequence initialized. Warning! Warning! Facility detonation imminent!"

Bazren's hands clenched into fists at his sides. "Oh, no. We're too late. The entire base, it--it's going to be vaporized. We... we're out of time."

"There must be some way to shut down the self-destruct sequence." Reynarden started forward, only to flinch back from the force field.

Hands still clenched into fists, Bazren reluctantly nodded. "You... you'd have to go to the command center to cancel the detonation. Y--you could even unlock my cell from there." He looked down. "But... by the time you reach the command center and stop the explosion, Gorik will have escaped with my bomb designs--that can't happen."

"Who says I'm going?" Reynarden turned to the rest of them. "Volunteers?"

Elara raised her hand. "I'll go, sir. I'm quite familiar with Imperial systems."

"I'll go with Dorne," Aric added. "You and Forex stop Gorik."

He nodded and Elara wondered for a moment if she saw worry when he looked at her. "Get going. We'll rendezvous back here afterwards."

"Yes, sir!" With that, the two of them took off in the direction Bazren had indicated, settling into a fast jog.

Luckily, they didn't encounter any Imperial soldiers along the way. They must have evacuated already. "Are you sure you'll know how to turn off the self-destruct, Elara?"

"I'm sure, Aric." She did her best to ignore her worry about Reynarden going to confront Gorik with just Forex for back-up. "Save your breath."

He grumbled, but didn't say anything else. They reached the command center and Elara headed straight for the console she needed. It was the work of only a few moments to stop the self destruct. She found the controls for the holding cells and deactivated all of them. When they returned, they found Bazren sitting in the middle of his cell, looking nervous. "Hey, Sergeants. I, uh, guess I should thank you two. You saved my life, after all."

"Did the Imperials harm you at all, Sergeant?" Elara asked, ready to pull out her medkit.

After staring at her in surprise, Bazren shook his head. "No, no, they just tossed me in here. Gorik made some snide remarks about my lack of loyalty, but they didn't hurt me."

"That's a relief," Reynarden announced from the doorway. He held up something in his hand. "Got your bomb designs, too, Fuse. Gorik was pissed when the self-destruct didn't go off."

Looking relieved, Bazren told him, "Thank you, Lieutenant Drondil. I'm sorry that I helped Gorik at all. He was a monster. It's unforgivable."

"That monster faced justice and he won't hurt any more innocent people," Reynarden reminded him, flourishing the computer disk for emphasis.

Nodding, Bazren told them, "Okay, then, let's, uh, go. Consider me officially surrendered, Lieutenant Drondil. I'll stay where you can see me."

"It's a long trip back to Coruscant," Aric remarked, scowling as he looked at Bazren.

Shrugging, Bazren said, "I'm ready for it."

Reynarden put restraints on Bazren and they walked back through the base together. They met another Republic squad coming in. Their CO told his people, "Squad, hold up! Get me a solid perimeter, ASAP!" Turning back, he addressed Reynarden. "You must be the commander of Havoc Squad. I'm Lieutenant Tasser, sir--Forty-third Advance Recon Squad."

"What can I do for you, Lieutenant?" Reynarden asked, propping his hands on his hips once again.

"General Garza rerouted us from a two-week sightseeing op on Ryloth to assist you, Lieutenant. Looks like you've already taken care of things, though." Tasser looked past them at Bazren, clearly curious.

Reynarden smiled, dropped his hands. "The mission was a complete success."

"Garza mentioned a possible prisoner for us to haul back to Coruscant." Tasser looked back Reynarden. "Is this the guy Garza was talking about?"

Nodding, Reynarden moved aside so Bazren could join the soldiers. "Take this man to Coruscant immediately."

"Understood, sir." Tasser saluted.

Bazren looked back at them. "I guess I'll, uh, see you around, then. Good luck."

"I'm glad you chose the right side in the end, Fuse." Reynarden sounded sincere and Elara had no doubts that he really was sincere. It was just who he was.

Nodding, Bazren managed a small smile. "Thanks, Lieutenant. So am I."

"All right, people, let's move out. I want a full sweep through this facility for intel." After giving his people orders, Tasser looked back at Reynarden. "Good meeting you, Lieutenant. Maybe we'll see you around later. Let's go, people!"

After that, all they had to do was go back to Anchorhead and tell Mayor Klerran the good news. He asked about Bazren, of course, but Reynarden told him that it was classified. "I can tell you for sure, though, that you don't have to worry about any more bombings."

"Fantastic! This is incredibly good news, Lieutenant Drondil. Congratulations! You won!" Klerran looked younger now that he wasn't worried about his people. Much to Elara's surprise, he turned to her. "Dr. Prenell told me that you worked very hard yesterday to help the victims. Thank you."

Feeling bashful, she told him, "I only did my duty, sir."

"We're still very grateful to you. All of you." He began digging in his pockets. "We managed to scrape together a small reward for you. It's the least we could do to thank you."

Reynarden held up a hand to stop him. "No reward is necessary."

"Well, that's very generous of you, Lieutenant." Klerran smiled, surprised and relieved. "I know the people affected by these bombings will really appreciate it. I guess this is where we part ways. It's been an honor having you here. We'll never forget what you've done for us."

Standing up as straight and tall as he could manage, Reynarden told him, "The Republic prides itself on protecting the innocent."

"Well, be sure the Republic knows how much we appreciate the help." Mayor Klerran smiled and extended his hand. Reynarden shook it. "Good luck, Lieutenant Drondil. You'll always be welcome in Anchorhead."

*

"Hey, Rey!" They stared when they entered the cantina for a drink before leaving the planet only for Fiosynod to flag them down from one of the booths.

Smiling, Reynarden waved back. "Hey, Fio. I didn't know you were here."

"Got here early this morning." Fiosynod grimaced. "It's been a bit of a nightmare of a day."

Aric tapped Reynarden's shoulder. "Would you like us to leave you alone, Rey?"

"You can stay if you want," Fiosynod answered instead, looking from Aric to Elara. "Kira should be joining us anytime now."

Shaking his head, Aric said, "No, thanks. I just remembered that I didn't finish going through my e-mail yesterday. I'll see you when we're ready to take off."

"What about you, Elara? Are you abandoning ship?" Reynarden looked up at her from where he'd slid onto the bench opposite his brother.

She slid onto the bench next to him. The size of the booth meant their legs were pressed together from knee to hip and Elara was very much aware of it. "I'll stay, if it's all right with you, sir." At his look, she corrected herself: "Reynarden."

"Why not Rey?" Fiosynod asked curiously as Reynarden flagged down a waiter droid.

Elara waited until she'd given her order to the droid before answering, "Nicknames are very personal. Even my family doesn't use them. It doesn't feel right."

"Use whatever you're comfortable with, Elara," Reynarden told her, covering her hand with his under the table and giving it a squeeze.

She returned the squeeze. "Thank you, Reynarden."

"This looks cozy." Kira had arrived, her face looking drawn. "Hello, Rey. Elara, right?"

She nodded, watching as Kira slid into the booth next to Fiosynod and rested her head on his shoulder. "Yes, that's right. Are you all right, Kira?"

"No. It's been a long, crappy day." Ending on a sigh, Kira closed her eyes.

After the droid delivered Elara and Reynarden's drinks, Fiosynod asked, "Maybe you should just go back to the ship."

"'Mfine," Kira replied, reluctantly sitting up and opening her eyes. She looked at Reynarden and Elara. "Do either of you know why Anchorhead looks like it's been hit by Imp bombers?"

Reynarden and Elara exchanged looks and she nudged him gently. He sighed and looked back at them. "Our target designed bombs and Anchorhead was the testing ground for them."

"You neutralized them, though, right?" Fiosynod asked, his voice quiet and expression intense.

Both of them nodded. "We did. Elara here even spent most of yesterday helping to heal the victims of the bombings."

"I was just doing my duty," Elara told him, blushing and ducking her head. It didn't feel right to brag about something like that. It's not why she became a medic.

Across the table, Kira snapped her fingers. "Oh! That reminds me. I have something for you, Elara. Dr. Prenell asked me to give this to you."

"Oh?" Elara wondered why Kira had been in the medical clinic in the first place. She accepted the datapad Kira held out and turned it on.

Sergeant Dorne,

I wanted to thank you again for your help with our patients yesterday. I know you feel you failed because we lost some. I want you to remember, though, that we probably would have lost more if you hadn't been there. As an expression of my gratitude, I'd like to donate a kolto tank to you and your squad. The bombs destroyed the room the tanks were originally meant for and now we have too many. I thought, instead of letting one sit around and collect dust (we get a lot of that here), it would do more good for Havoc Squad. Please let me know your answer as soon as you can.

Thank you once again,
Dr. Silas Prenell

Speechless, she handed the datapad to Reynarden, who read it. A smile slowly spread across his face while he did. When he finished, he looked at Elara. "You're the medic. Do you want to accept this?"

"We've been lucky so far to not need one," Elara told him, not sure if he would agree.

He shook his head. "Luck runs out eventually. I'd rather not risk it."

"I would like to accept the donation," she admitted, pleased that Reynarden was in agreement.

Reynarden nodded, smiling warmly. "Then we will. Why don't you go talk to Dr. Prenell and get everything settled?"

"Thank you so much, Reynarden." Quite without thinking, she kissed his cheek. Blushing at her boldness, Elara stood up and hurried from the cantina, heading to the medical clinic.

Just as she'd expected, Elara found Dr. Prenell in the medical clinic, studying a datapad. He looked up at her entrance and smiled. "Ah, Sergeant Dorne! Did Padawan Carsen find you?"

"Yes, Kira found me and delivered your message." Elara nodded, unconsciously settling into a parade rest stance. "After reading it, I showed it to Lieutenant Drondil and he agreed that we should accept the donation."

Dr. Prenell's smile brightened. "Excellent! I'll go get it, and then you can take it to your ship."

Before Elara could say anything, he disappeared into another room. After he'd gone, an older togruta woman laying on one of the beds sat up. "Excuse me, Sergeant."

"Yes?" Elara walked over and sat down in the chair beside the bed. "Can I help you?"

The togruta leaned back against her pillow. "Did I hear Dr. Prenell correctly? You know a Lieutnant Drondil?"

"He's my CO," Elara told her, wondering why this woman found it significant.

She nodded, looking thoughtful. "I see. Does he happen to have a brother in the Jedi Order?"

"Yes, he does. Do you know Fiosynod?" A thought occurred to her and she leaned forward slightly. "Are you his master?"

The woman laughed softly. "No, I'm a master, but I'm not Knight Drondil's master."

"Kira's then?" Elara asked. It was the only other reason she could think of that a Jedi master would be interested in Fiosynod.

She nodded, smiling faintly. "Yes, Kira's my Padawan, though I'm not in any shape to train her right now."

"You're in good hands with Dr. Prenell," Elara told her, trying to reassure her.

The togruta nodded, still smiling. "I know. I just wanted to ask you to encourage your CO to maintain his relationship with Knight Drondil as best he can."

"Well, they seem to be doing that already." Elara smiled reassuringly. "I'm a little surprised, though. I thought Jedi aren't supposed to form attachments."

This time, the woman's smile turned rueful. "It's been my experience that some Jedi benefit from maintaining relationships with others. I believe Knight Drondil is one of them."

"I will keep that in mind." Elara turned at a noise from the doorway to see Dr. Prenell carefully guiding a cargo lift into the room, steadying a large crate on top of it.

He smiled when he saw them. "Here's your kolto tank, Sergeant Dorne. Thank you again for your help yesterday and please thank the rest of your squad for stopping the bombings entirely."

"We were doing our duty, Dr. Prenell." Elara took control of the lift and began guiding it from the clinic. "I will pass on your thanks all the same."

After thanking her one last time, she heard him address the togruta as she carefully maneuvered through the doorway, "Now, Master Kiwiiks, you need to rest until the transport arrives to take you home."

*

Aric helped Elara install the kolto tank in the medbay and rapped his knuckles on it once they were done. "Just having this here makes me feel a little better."

"Me, too." She nodded, carefully brushing her fingers over the console set in the front of the tank. "Has Reynarden indicated when he'll return?"

He shook his head. "No, but he doesn't get to see his brother often."

"That's true, but we still need to make our report to General Garza," Elara chewed the inside of her cheek, wondering if she should try to contact Reynarden.

At that moment, they heard the access code being entered for the ship. Elara hurried to the airlock just in time to see the door slide open to admit Reynarden. "Hey, there. I didn't expect a welcoming committee."

"We weren't sure how much longer you were going to be," Aric explained as they trailed after Reynarden to the holoterminal.

He swiped a hand across his forehead before entering the holofrequency he needed. "Don't worry, I remembered that we still have to get through Garza's spiel."

"Clearly." Aric shook his head and settled into parade rest behind Reynarden, Elara doing the same on Reynarden's other side.

After they finished, Elara moved forward, having been watching Reynarden more than Garza. "Reynarden, are you all right?"

He swiped a hand across his face this time. "Now that you mention it, I feel a little light-headed."

"You look flushed." She reached up to press the back of her hand against his forehead. "You're burning up."

He smiled and leaned into her touch. "That feels good."

"It looks like you're dehydrated. Didn't you drink any water while you were talking with Fiosynod?" She nodded to Aric and they steered their CO towards the medical bay.

Reynarden stumbled, but didn't resist. "Just had the one drink. There were people that needed water more than me. I gave what I had left to them."

"You're lucky you lasted this long." Together, they helped him lay on one of the beds and she pushed his sleeve up so she could insert a saline drip. "Just lay there quietly, sir. We'll get us up into space."

Aric left the medbay once he saw that Reynarden was taken care of. When she moved to step away to follow Aric, he caught her hand with his. "'Lara."

"I'm here, sir." She looked at his face. His eyes were closed.

As she turned her hand to feel his pulse, he turned his face towards her. "Good soldier. Good woman."

"Thank you, sir." She didn't like the way his pulse fluttered under her fingers and adjusted the fluids flowing through the IV.

Reynarden shifted restlessly. "Don't leave. I-- the squad needs you."

"I'm not going anywhere, I promise." Her heart skipped a beat at his words. She still wasn't sure if he was sincere, but it seemed more and more likely. She'd liked him from the first herself. He may joke around sometimes and tease, but he was a good man and a good soldier and turning into a fine leader. She'd have accepted a post on Havoc Squad regardless of who commanded it, but she had to admit that she was glad that Reynarden in particular was the commander.

He sighed and his breathing deepened and slowed as he drifted off to sleep. "Good. Stay f'ever."

"I'll do my best to follow that order, sir." Smiling, she reluctantly pulled her hand away so she could go join Aric in the cockpit.

After they'd taken off and jumped into hyperspace to return to the Fleet, Elara began going through the messages that had accumulated over the last couple days. Most of the holomessages were junk, but one in particular caught her eye: the signal codes were Imperial. Although she was curious, she resisted the immediate impulse to play the message. If she didn't handle this right, she'd be right back where she was when she first defected. When Reynarden wakes up, we'll watch it together.

*

Elara waited not only for Reynarden to wake up, but also for him to eat and drink some water. Once he seemed more like himself, she told him: "Sir, I need to speak to you immediately. I've received a strange holomessage that appears to bear Imperial signal codes. I haven't watched it yet. I wanted you present to supervise and confirm that I'm not engaged in secret communications with Imperial personnel."

"We'd better watch it immediately," Reynarden replied, looking quite curious, not that Elara blamed him.

Relieved that he wasn't going to ask questions she couldn't possibly answer yet, Elara nodded. "Yes, sir. I'll load it now."

They walked to the holoterminal and she loaded the holomessage. She barely managed to stifle her gasp of surprise at the holoimage that appeared. "Elara, it's me, Aleksei. I... I hope you're well. It's been a long time."

"Aleksei... This message is from my brother." She didn't know how she managed to keep her voice steady. She hadn't seen any of her family in so long. "I don't know what to say."

"I know this must be hard for you." Reynarden's voice was gentle and kind.

She dashed away the tears that threatened. This wasn't the time for them. "It's more surprising than anything. I honestly never thought I'd see his face again."

"I'm sorry to contact you like this, but I need your help." She bit the inside of her cheek, not liking the sound of that. "My men and I... we're as good as dead. We're on Nar Shaddaa--we were caught tampering with one of the Hutts' operations. We never dreamed the slugs would have so much security." She couldn't stop a soft sound of dismay. She didn't like where this story was going. "These Hutts are Imperial allies, Elara. There is no rescue team. We'll be disavowed and left to die. Please--you're my only hope now."

Aleksei's holoimage disappeared and they stood in silence for several moments. Elara was still trying to absorb the implications of his message and control her emotions. "We need to get your brother out of there, Elara."

"I... thank you, sir." Though Reynarden had demonstrated before that he was open-minded, this was more than Elara had hoped for after that message. "I appreciate your willingness to help, given the circumstances. I believe I can bring him to our side. I know my brother better than anyone--I can convince him to defect." She hesitated a moment. Though she wanted him with her for this, she didn't want to risk turning it into a bigger problem. "Perhaps it's best if I see to this matter alone, sir. Aleksei will be much easier to convince if he doesn't feel outnumbered."

He turned to fully face her. "Are you sure? It'd just be us and I'd let you do the talking."

"I--" She hesitated, biting the inside of her cheek. "You're still recovering from dehydration."

Reynarden waved a hand dismissively. "It's not like we're going back to Tatooine."

"If you're sure." He nodded firmly. "Very well, coordinates are included at the end of the message. I'll prep my gear for search-and-rescue. I recommend you do the same."

Aric and Forex expressed curiosity about the flight to Nar Shaddaa, but neither Elara nor Reynarden explained the reason for it. Reynarden gave them leave once they arrived on Nar Shaddaa. In the meantime, he and Elara traveled to the coordinates from Aleksei's holomessage. They had to fight through some Hutt lackeys to get to them, but they managed all the same. Once the last was dealt with, Reynarden shouldered his cannon and gestured for Elara to lead the way. "This is your show now, Elara."

"Thank you, sir." Her heartbeat drumming in her chest, Elara slowly walked towards the Imperial squad. She kept her hands away from her blaster to show that she didn't mean them any harm.

A familiar figure stood up, taking a few steps forward to meet her: Aleksei. "Elara. I... it's good to see that you're well."

"Aleksei. A captain, now? Congratulations." She stifled the urge to roll her eyes at the inanity of her remark. If all went as she'd hoped, he wouldn't have that.

"Yes, thank you. Mother and Father were very... ahem." He must have seen something in her face and cut himself off. His eyes moved away from her and took in Reynarden, who stood behind and to her right. "We've disarmed ourselves in accordance with treaty standards. May we assume that standard parley protocols are now in effect?"

Reynarden answered with a calm, neutral voice. "Sergeant Dorne here is in charge. I'm here to support her."

"Proceed with your terms," Elara told her brother, ignoring the way her heart wanted to soar at Reynarden's explicit support of her.

Clearing his throat and settling into a parade rest stance, Aleksei informed them, "Several of my men are wounded, and our munitions are all but expended. We are incapable of armed aggression against any group. It is my intention to return with my men directly to Imperial territory. We will conduct no further military actions en route. Is that acceptable?"

"The Empire sent you to die, and you're still going to report back for more?" Elara asked him incredulously, having settled into a parade rest stance herself. She should have known his first thought would be to return to the Empire.

He stared at her in surprise. Clearly, he hadn't expected her to object to his suggested course of action. "What? I... we are soldiers of the Emperor's military. We have sworn an oath to carry out our orders at all costs. The risks of failure in this mission were made clear before we began. We have no one to blame but ourselves."

"How can you not see that this is wrong? The Empire is wrong, Aleksei." Elara implored her brother to understand. "You're here to manipulate an alliance with criminals. Where is the honor in that assignment? How is the galaxy made safer? Defect. Join me and fight for what you know is right."

Aleksei stared at her, and then shook his head. "That isn't... I don't know. I haven't known for a long time, now. I'll come with you, but I cannot command my men to make this choice. What if they do not wish to defect with me?"

"Will any of you really choose to return to the Empire that abandoned you?" Elara asked the soldiers who'd remained quiet while their CO parleyed for their lives.

One of them, his second-in-command most likely, spoke up, then. "We will go where Captain Dorne leads us. Wherever that may be."

"I'll contact our SIS outpost." Reynarden finally interjected, sounding quite relieved. "They'll send a team to bring you in."

While they waited, Elara spoke to Aleksei. "Personnel Division will be very strict about any contact we have, but we'll have it."

"I understand." Aleksei took her hand and squeezed it gently. "Father refused to speak of you once we found out you'd defected. Mother, though, still misses you and speaks of you when Father isn't around."

A lump formed in her throat at that and she returned the squeeze. She'd always been closer to her mother than her father. "I miss them, too. I couldn't stay, though."

"I understand." He gave her a small smile just as an SIS squad arrived.

The leader addressed Reynarden with a salute. "Sir! I understand you have five new recruits for us. I think that might be a new record."

"These soldiers have been through a lot. Show them a bit of Republic hospitality." Reynarden returned the salute.

The commander nodded. "You got it, sir."

"Havoc was never here," Reynarden added, looking stern. "These soldiers came to you on their own. Understood?"

Another nod. "Understood."

"I'm glad to have you back with me, Aleksei." Elara took both of Aleksei's hands in hers and squeezed them warmly. "You won't regret this."

He returned the squeeze just as warmly. "I know I won't. I'll contact you as soon as I'm able."

With that, he and his soldiers followed the SIS agents away. Reynarden walked over to Elara, resting a hand on her shoulder. "You all right?"

"I have my brother back." She told him with a tearful smile. "Thank you for allowing me to help him and for coming with me."

Reynarden smiled back at her, patting her shoulder. "I'm happy I could help and that it all worked out somehow."

"Hopefully, Personnel Division will allow me to stay in contact with Aleksei--not privately, of course--and help guide him through the defection process." They started after the others. "I should start compiling notes for him."

Chapter Text

Their next assignment sent them to Alderaan, in pursuit of Lieutenant Bex Kolos. Apparently, the intelligence came from a Thul nobleman who'd been captured by House Organa. On Garza's orders, they headed to Organa Palace and into the detention area. A tall, muscular man in Organa armor stopped them. "Whoa, hold up a minute, friends. The detention area's restricted. I'm going to need to see some identification before you come in here."

"Sure, I understand." Reynarden pulled out his ID and handed it to the soldier. He glanced back at Elara and Aric and shrugged expressively. Aric shook his head and Elara raised her eyebrows at him.

The soldier looked at the ID and his eyes widened with surprise. "Oh! I'm sorry, Lieutenant Drondil. I'm Captain Balic Cormac, House Organa." He returned Reynarden's ID to him. "We, uh... well, General Garza told us someone was coming, but she didn't say who." Cormac glanced over them and Elara wondered if she imagined his eyes lingering on her for a moment. "You'll be wanting to talk to our esteemed guest from House Thul, won't you?" Reynarden nodded, his hands clasped behind his back. Before he could say anything, though, Cormac continued, "He's a tough one--we worked him over a dozen times, and he still won't talk."

Reynarden drew himself up to his full height and Elara could almost see his backbone snapping straight. "Your orders were to keep the prisoner in isolation, Captain."

"I... well, yeah." Cormac looked uncertain, his glance flicking over the rest of them before returning to Reynarden. "I mean, we kept him away from all the other prisoners, kept anyone outside from talking to him, sure. But we... well, I mean, we wanted to be sure the man wasn't wasting your time with some made-up story."

Shaking his head, Reynarden told him, "That wasn't your call. General Garza will be informed of what you've done."

"I apologize and take full responsibility, Lieutenant Drondil." Cormac bowed his head briefly in acknowledgement. "Please tell General Garza that we were only trying to help." Reynarden nodded. Cormac cleared his throat. "So, uh, going back to the prisoner, sir. His name is Markus Thul." He glanced over his shoulder at the cells, and then back at them. "Our boys caught old Markus sneaking into the castle with a dozen Imperial commandos, set on cutting the head of House Organa into thranta bait."

Reynarden sounded sympathetic as he asked, "Was anyone in House Organa harmed?"

"Nobody in the family was hurt, but a bunch of guards went down in the fighting. It was bad, Lieutenant. Really bad." Cormac looked sad for a moment, and then shook himself. "Anyways, as soon as we got the shock-cuffs on him, Markus starts in on the Gearbox stuff. 'Critical intelligence, Republic Special Forces will want to know,' all that sort of thing. That's when we called your people."

This time, Reynarden nodded and Elara could see his shoulders relaxing. "Right, I should speak with the prisoner now. Thank you, Captain Cormac."

"You're welcome, Lieutenant." Cormac nodded. "Sorry to have held you up so long. Markus is in holding cell five. I've set the security door to grant you access whenever you're ready."

They trooped through the door to the cell directly across from them where a human man sat on a cot. Quietly, Reynarden asked, "Elara, do you recognize the uniform he's wearing?"

"I've never seen anyone from House Thul myself, sir, but those colors do appear to be correct," she told him, keeping her voice as quiet as his.

Reynarden nodded and headed into the cell. The man looked up at their entrance and stood up. "So--visitors. Welcome, I am Markus Anderius Thul. Your aspect and equipment are not those of House Organa. Whom do you represent?"

"Lieutenant Drondil, Havoc Squad, Republic Special Forces," Reynarden replied, coming to a stop a few paces from Thul, settling into a parade rest stance.

Thul looked pleased, nodding. "Just as I'd hoped. We have much to discuss." Not surprisingly, though, he wanted something in exchange: protection for his wife and daughter.

"I can't help you until I know your intel is good," Reynarden told him, sounding regretful.

Shaking his head, Thul replied, "And I cannot help you until I know that my family is safe."

"Lieutenant." Elara interjected then, surprising both Reynarden and Thul. "House Thul has the support of the Empire. It is likely that his family will be hurt if they suspect that he has betrayed them."

Thul nodded when Reynarden looked back at him. Sighing, Reynarden shrugged, "I can't just accept your word that your intel about Gearbox is good."

"A compromise, then?" Aric suggested. "Gearbox has been on Alderaan awhile, hasn't he?"

Reynarden looked at Thul, who looked thoughtful. "Yes. I tell you part of what I know, to prove the veracity of my claims. If you find it accurate, you help my family, after which I tell you exactly how to locate Gearbox."

"The safety of the Republic is at stake, Lieutenant," Forex declared from his place by the door. "We don't have time for meaningless errands."

Holding up a hand, Reynarden looked at Forex for a moment. "Family is important to organic beings, Forex. Ease up." He looked back at Thul. "Fine, let's hear this intel of yours."

"Among other projects, Gearbox has helped construct a hidden, highly sophisticated missile battery capable of eradicating any Organa force that approaches Thul territory." Thul looked very relieved that Reynarden was willing to work with him. "Destroying this missile battery would greatly benefit your Organa allies--and prove how accurate my information is. All you need do for the rest is protect my wife and daughter."

Reynarden nodded. "We'll talk again after I'm done checking your intel. If you're telling the truth, then I'll protect your family."

"Then you will have what you seek. Farewell." With that, Thul sat down on the bed once more.

They trooped out of the cell together. Before Reynarden could issue orders, Captain Cormac spoke up, "I gotta say, Lieutenant, you're something else. Until you showed up, Markus had barely spouted twenty words at us."

"He was waiting for Republic Special Forces for a reason, Captain," Reynarden reminded him with a wry smile.

Elara stepped forward a little, unable to keep silent. "Would it be possible to have someone tend to his injuries, Captain?"

"My apologies, Sergeant, but my orders are clear: no medical assistance." Cormac gave her an apologetic look and Elara nodded reluctantly. "I'll make sure no one mistreats him while you're gone, though, if that helps."

She nodded, pleased that he tried to help as much as he could. "It does. Thank you, Captain."

"Let's go, people." Reynarden ordered abruptly, heading for the door.

As Elara fell in behind him, she wondered about the difference in his attitude. Just as they exited Organa Palace, Reynarden stopped and doubled over, clutching his chest. Elara fumbled to retrieve her scanner from her medkit while Aric exclaimed, "Lieutenant! What's wrong?"

He shook his head, staying bent over, gasping for breath, as she scanned him and frowned. He smiled weakly at that. "Nothing, right, Elara?"

"Correct, sir. The scanner indicates that there's nothing wrong with you." She raised her eyebrows at him, surprised that he didn't seem worried.

"My scanner shows the same," Forex confirmed with a dip of his chassis.

Reynarden slowly straightened up, reaching up to wipe a hand across his eyes. "That's because it's not a physical ailment."

"This has happened before?" Elara ignored a stab of worry at the thought that this could happen again. "There was nothing in your file about it."

He shook his head and turned to look towards one of the other buildings in the complex. "You've met Fio."

"What does he have to do with this?" Aric asked, frowning at the seeming non-sequitur.

Sighing deeply, he turned back to them. "While we were growing up, we realized the two of us have a bond. It's not very strong, but if my brother experiences any extreme emotions and I'm nearby, I experience them, too, though it's to a lesser extent."

"Are you suggesting that he's on Alderaan as well?" Forex asked. He had yet to meet Fiosynod, though he surely knew of him from Reynarden's file.

Elara couldn't imagine being able to experience someone else's emotion like that. Her own emotions were enough for her to deal with. Reynarden nodded, absently rubbing his chestplate. "I am and something that he learned upset him deeply. I mostly felt grief from him, but there was denial and anger in there, too."

"It would take a lot for a Jedi to feel that much emotion," she observed, then thought about what Fiosynod had been like the two times she'd met him.

Reynarden shrugged and glanced towards the building again. "Fio isn't one to keep his emotions completely in check, but this-- It was very strong. I hope he's fine."

"Perhaps you can contact him when this is over and see how he's doing?" Elara didn't like seeing him worried and she knew she would want to contact Aleksei if she'd felt those sorts of emotions from him.

He nodded, his frown fading. "Yeah, that's a good idea. For now, we have a job to do."

With that, he ordered Aric and Forex to help House Organa's efforts against House Thul. After some protestations, they accepted their orders and headed back into Organa Palace. Reynarden and Elara headed off to investigate Markus Thul's information.

*

"Well, this is a coincidence." Jeveen grinned as she approached them with Corso in tow as well as a Wookiee. "Good to see you again, Rey."

Reynarden smiled as he shook Jeveen's hand. "Good to see you, too, Jeveen. Are you still after Nok Drayan's treasure?"

"Yep! Made a delivery to a pair of noble siblings at Organa Palace and now they want me to retrieve a datapad from that estate up there." Jeveen indicated the same estate they were heading towards.

Elara sighed and shook her head, muttering, "What are the odds?"

"That's where we're headed, too." Reynarden told her. "You have a new friend, I see."

 

Jeveen nodded and gestured at the Wookiee. "This is Bowdaar. He joined my crew on Nar Shaddaa. Bowie, this is Havoc Squad, commanded by Lieutenant Reynarden Drondil. The woman is Sergeant Elara Dorne." She looked around with a frown. "Where's Aric?"

"He's helping House Organa while we investigate a lead," Reynarden explained. "A wardroid joined us on Nar Shaddaa, too: M1-4X. He's very patriotic." He offered his hand and Bowdaar shook it. "Good to meet you, Bowdaar." He tilted his head towards Corso. "What's his problem?"

Elara hadn't realized that not only had Corso been rather quiet up until now, but he had a scowl on his face and wouldn't quite look at Jeveen. Bowdaar growled an explanation. It took some effort for Elara to understand him. "He's a little annoyed that Lenn flirted with Jeveen."

"It's not just that." Corso glared at her, folding his arms across his chest, and continued, "She flirted back!"

She nudged him with her elbow, a playful smile on her face. "Doesn't mean I actually want him." Turning and stretching up on tiptoes, she kissed his cheek and whispered something in his ear.

Whatever she said, he relaxed and managed a small smile. Elara turned to Reynarden, "We really should proceed with our mission, sir. We need to check that intel."

"She's wearing a Republic uniform, Bowdaar. She's not an Imp anymore," Jeveen told him. When Elara looked at them, Jeveen had her hand resting on the Wookiee's arm, clearly trying to keep him calm.

"Jeveen's right," Reynarden set off once more and Elara followed. She understood that her accent would bother people, but it still stung at times.

A few running footsteps and Jeveen fell in step with Reynarden. "Hold on, you're going to House Baliss, too?"

"We have information that House Thul has a missile battery there that could do a lot of damage to House Organa," Reynarden explained without breaking stride.

Though Elara was behind Jeveen, she could picture the other woman's smile. "Great! We can work together."

"You know there's some things I can't tell you," Reynarden warned her.

Jeveen nodded and kept walking alongside him. Between the five of them, the Thul and Baliss soldiers they encountered weren't much of a problem. While Jeveen, Corso, and Bowdaar went into one of the buildings to retrieve the datapad they needed, Reynarden and Elara finished dealing with the missile battery and ducked into what looked like a communications center. After dispatching the soldiers inside, Reynarden stepped back and gestured for Elara to take a crack at the computers. As she'd expected, the security protocols were similar to what the Empire used and she soon disabled them. Skimming through the communications logs, she found a recording of a recent holocall and started it. A tall human man appeared in an Imperial uniform. He had dark skin and tightly curled black hair in a cut similar to Reynarden's. "Forward Battery, this is Primary. I've got some fresh ballistic data for the MR-3's you've got loaded down there."

"That's him, isn't it, sir? Former Lieutenant Bex Kolos--Gearbox?" Elara asked, recognizing him from the dossiers she'd been reviewing every chance she got.

Reynarden nodded, his hands balling into fists at his sides. "Yeah. He was the first Havoc Squad member I met in person." She couldn't think of anything to say, so she gently covered his hand with hers. Letting out a deep breath, he said, "Whatever data he had for them, it's not going to do them any good now."

"Yes, sir." Elara reached for the controls to end the playback, but pressed the wrong button.

Kolos's image resumed pacing. "We've been doing some testing for Project B and worked out new results for your range reqs."

"Project B, hmm." Reynarden looked thoughtful by the time the message ended. "I doubt it's good for us."

Elara nodded. "Agreed. I'll follow your lead, sir."

*

They collected Aric and Forex on the way back to Organa Palace. They'd done well and listened intently as Reynarden told them about their trip to House Baliss. When they entered the detention area, they found a strange man in fine clothes pacing in front of Captain Cormac. From his bearing and the colors he wore, he was apparently one of the nobles of House Organa. "Captain Cormac, I really don't believe I can make myself much clearer than--"

"Lieutenant Drondil!" Cormac looked extremely relieved to see them. "Welcome back, sir! How did your mission go?" With a sidelong glance at the noble who'd turned to face them, he added, "You know, destroying that giant missile battery that threatened our house, sir?"

Sounding concerned, Reynarden asked, "Is everything all right, Captain?"

"Oh, of course it is, Lieutenant." Cormac nodded firmly, glancing obliquely at his superior again, a glint in his eyes. "Especially knowing that you pulled off such a dangerous mission against Thul and the Imperials."

Clearing his throat and managing to look both sheepish and superior, the noble said, "Yes, allow me to extend the fondest gratitude of our noble House of Organa for your heroic assistance, Lieutenant Drondil, was it?" Reynarden nodded and the noble nodded back. "I am Pallos Thessius Organa, first nephew to his highness, the great duke of Organa. It is an honor to make your acquaintance. The Drondils are a powerful family on Coruscant."

"They are, sir, but neither politics nor trade was to my liking," Reynarden had his hands clasped behind his back and from where Elara stood, she could see that he was squeezing them tightly together.

Looking flustered, Pallos began to pace as he gathered his thoughts. "Uh, yes, well, indeed. I am told that you have spent some time in the company of a prisoner, detained herein." He gestured over his shoulder. "One Markus Thul. This man is of no small consequence to our house, as you may well be aware. What is your interest in him?"

"I can't discuss the details of my mission," Reynarden told him firmly. Elara hid a frown. She could understand not telling Mayor Klerran, but House Organa were staunch Republic allies!

Apparently, Pallos didn't like it any more than Elara did. "Surely you're joking." He stopped and drew himself to his full height, which was almost a full head taller than Reynarden. "Lieutenant Drondil, I'm certain you would agree that my family has a right to know what transpires in our own home."

"As I said, I can't discuss mission details with you." Reynarden didn't seem at all bothered by the height difference and Elara suspected that Pallos wasn't the first to attempt to intimidate him through sheer height difference.

Realizing that intimidation wouldn't work, Pallos stepped back, spreading his hands in front of him. "Your mistrust saddens me. Are we not allies? Can we no confide in one another?"

"It isn't mistrust, sir," Reynarden told him, sounding apologetic. "You're focused on the safety of your House and Alderaan, as you should be. I, however, am focused on the safety of the Republic as a whole. In the interest of that safety, I cannot discuss mission details with anyone else, even staunch Republic allies."

Pallos considered that for a several moments. "Very well. I'm afraid that House business compels me elsewhere, so I must take my leave of you, Lieutenant Drondil." Pallos stepped close once again, deliberately invading Reynarden's space. "But let me make something clear: Markus Thul attempted to murder the head of our House. He will not be pardoned for his crime."

With that, Pallos nodded to the rest of them and left the detention area. Captain Cormac sighed deeply. "Sorry about that, Lieutenant Drondil. I tried to calm him down, but to Pallos, you're just a stranger, buddying up with the guy who tried to kill his family."

"Pallos has a right to seek justice for his family," Reynarden told Cormac, sounding much calmer than Elara would have been if she'd been in his boots.

"Yeah, I'd want to put Markus down, too, if he came after my family like he did the old duke," Cormac agreed with a nod.

After a few more words, they went into the cell to speak with Thul again. Although Reynarden tried to get Markus to tell him about Project B, Thul refused to provide any further intelligence until his wife and daughter were rescued. Giving a frustrated sigh, Reynarden capitulated, "I'll rescue your wife and daughter. Where can I find them?"

"My wife and daughter can be found at our family manor. I'll provide you with coordinates." Once he'd done so, he added, "They must not be recognized while traveling with you. You'll need to acquire disguises of some kind."

Reynarden nodded and pointed over his shoulder towards where Cormac still stood guard. "I'll see if Captain Cormac has anything I can use."

"My family and I have a code word for situations such as this. Speaking it will prove that you are acting on my behalf. 'Tyrovan.' Remember the word well." His expression hardened. "I'll not having you harming Altana or Valyn to gain their cooperation when you could simply speak a word."

Another nod from Reynarden. "'Tyrovan'--got it."

"Good." Thul looked relieved. "If you fail to deliver Altana and Valyn to me, alive and well, I will never tell you anything. Never. Now go. We will only speak further when I see my wife and daughter safely before me."

With surprisingly little effort, Cormac produced a pair of cloaks for the ladies to wear. Again, Reynarden asked Aric and Forex to help House Organa with their efforts against House Thul. Elara and Reynarden set out to retrieve the Thul ladies.

*

"Fio!" Reynarden dashed over to hug his brother tight. For his part, Fiosynod hugged him back just as tight. "Are you all right? What happened earlier?"

Kira frowned as she looked from one brother to the other. "You have a bond with Fio?"

"Sort of." Clearing his throat, Fiosynod reluctantly pushed Reynarden away. Nodding, Reynarden stepped back another pace. "Growing up, Rey was really the only person who didn't treat me like I was an enemy spy. So we remained close and, as a result, if I experience strong emotions when Rey is nearby, he feels them."

Elara nodded when Kira and Fiosynod looked at her. "He did feel them, Knight Drondil. He said he felt grief, anger, and denial."

"Kark." Fiosynod sighed and kicked the ground. "It must have been when we got the news that Master Orgus was dead."

Reynarden grabbed Fiosynod's arm. "Wait, what? Your master is dead?"

"No, he isn't, but we were led to believe that he was." Fiosynod's expression darkened and Elara wondered if she imagined that his eyes changed color for a brief moment.

Kira put her hand on his arm, squeezing gently. "We're going after the woman who told us that Master Orgus was dead because we think she's working to keep Alderaan at war."

"I hope you succeed at that, Fio, Kira." Normajh's voice distracted them and they turned to see him approaching with a familiar sandy-haired man in a long red coat. "Hello, Rey, Elara."

Reynarden greeted Normajh with a handshake. "Norm, this is a surprise. You know Jeveen's here, too, right?"

"Yeah, we've run into each other." He turned and gestured to his companion. "I'd like you to meet Dr. Tharan Cedrax, a scientist who specializes in exo-technology. He joined my crew on Nar Shaddaa. Tharan, you know Fio and Kira already. This is Fio's brother, Lieutenant Reynarden Drondil, commander of Havoc Squad, and his medic, Sergeant Elara Dorne."

Tharan offered his hand with a charming smile. "An honor and a pleasure, Lieutenant."

"It's nice to meet you, Dr. Cedrax." Reynarden shook Tharan's hand.

Elara shook Tharan's hand as briefly as she could without being rude. "Dr. Cedrax."

"Sergeant Dorne." For his part, Tharan offered his charming smile again. "If I'd known the Republic Army recruited such lovely ladies into their service, I'd have joined myself."

Out of the corner of her eye, Elara saw Kira roll her eyes. Stiffly, she told him, "Your lines didn't work on me before, Dr. Cedrax. Why do you think they'll work this time?"

"When did you meet Dr. Cedrax?" Reynarden asked her, sounding surprised.

She clasped her hands behind her back. "On Nar Shaddaa, while you and Sergeant Jorgan were busy. We really should proceed with our mission, sir."

"You're right, of course." Reynarden nodded and turned to set off.

They'd barely taken a few steps when they heard Jeveen call out. "Hey, are we having a party over here? Hey, bro. It's been awhile."

"Yes, just ages," Normajh agreed in a dry voice.

Reynarden had continued on his way and Elara followed him. A few steps later, Fiosynod and Kira fell into step with them. It was Kira who asked, "Tharan flirted with you?"

"He tried. I didn't reciprocate." Elara kept her eyes on Reynarden's back as he walked ahead of them, Fiosynod at his side. Pitching her voice a little louder, she added, "I discourage men if I'm not interested in them."

Kira looked from Elara to Reynarden and back again, her eyebrows raised in silent question. A little shyly, Elara nodded. Grinning, Kira gave her a thumbs-up. Pitching her voice a little louder as well, she said, "Same for me. I mean, Jedi aren't technically supposed to form attachments, but I think that's a dumb rule anyway."

"Really?" Elara glanced at Reynarden and Fiosynod and noticed that both of them seemed to have relaxed, at least a little. "That's unusual."

Grinning, Kira told her, "Thank Master Kiwiiks for that one. She told me once that being attached to people doesn't lead to the Dark Side. It's what you do because of that attachment that could lead you to the Dark Side."

"I suppose that's why she asked me to encourage Reynarden to maintain his relationship with Fiosynod." Elara mused, smiling a little at Kira's surprise. "Not that either of them really need the encouragement."

Fiosynod actually stopped and stared at Elara with surprise. "Did she really ask you to do that?"

"Elara wouldn't lie about something like that, Fio," Reynarden told his brother gently. "Come on. We still have work to do."

Together, they continued on their way.

*

Elara held her tongue until they were on the shuttle back to Organa Palace with Markus Thul's wife and daughter. "Sir, how are you feeling?"

"Sore," Reynarden admitted, holding out his left arm so Elara could remove the glove and bracer on it, both of them rather scorched. Even the cortosis weave underneath was scorched, thanks to a flame thrower, of all things.

As Elara opened her medical kit and retrieved a pair of scissors to cut away the cortosis weave, Altana asked, "You are Imperial, soldier?"

"I am Sergeant Elara Dorne," she retorted, carefully removing the cortosis weave to expose Reynarden's forearm, which showed signs of second-degree burns, but no third degree. She looked up to meet his eyes. "Your glove and the cortosis weave kept this from being worse."

He smiled wryly at her. "Still hurts like a son of a gundark."

"I'm sure." She picked up her scanner to double-check her assessment.

Altana didn't appreciate being ignored. "Whatever your name is, you sound like an Imperial."

"I am not an Imperial," Elara told her shortly, setting the scanner aside and rummaging in her kit for kolto salve and bandages. "Not anymore."

Valyn sounded more excited than she should have. "Is he hurt very badly, Sergeant Dorne? Will he need an amputation?"

"Hardly," Elara answered dryly, spreading the salve over the burn.

Reynarden gave a soft sigh of relief as it began to work, numbing the pain and repairing the damage. "Amputation is rarely needed these days, Miss Thul. Especially if we get to injuries quickly enough like Elara did here."

"Why are you no longer Imperial?" Altana asked, sounding rather confused by the idea. "It was your home, wasn't it?"

Keeping her focus on wrapping the bandage around Reynarden's arm, Elara told her, "Yes, it was. However, not long after joining the military, I realized that my personal integrity would eventually be tested and I would be found lacking. So I left and joined the Republic."

"That's not nearly as exciting as I thought it would be." Valyn actually sounded disappointed! "I thought maybe Lieutenant Drondil had captured you and helped you see the error of your ways or something of that sort."

Sounding scandalized, Altana asked, "Where did you get such ideas, daughter?"

"From the sound of it, trashy romance novels," Reynarden volunteered with a laugh. "That's exactly the sort of plot you'd expect to find in one."

Elara held up a vial of painkillers in silent question and he shook his head. As she put it away, she asked, "You've read a lot of these trashy romance novels, Sir?"

"More than a few." Reynarden acknowledged, chuckling. "The overall story is always the same, but some writers manage to make them interesting anyway."

Nodding, she packed up her medical kit and handed Reynarden his glove. "Try not to strain your arm for a few hours and undo all my hard work."

"I'll do my best." He pulled the glove on and sat back in his seat with a sigh.

At his unspoken invitation, Elara sat beside him. What stuck with her during the rest of the short shuttle flight was the fact that Valyn had apparently thought there was more between them than there actually was! Is she just seeing what she thinks she should because of those romance novels? Or is she seeing something that's actually there?

*

It was a relief for Elara when they left Organa Palace after getting their intel from Markus Thul. She didn't quite flinch when Reynarden touched her shoulder. "Everything all right, Elara?"

"Fine, sir." She told him, her voice clipped in her efforts to keep her emotions under control.

After a few moments of silence as they walked towards the taxi, he quietly asked, "They reminded you of your family, didn't they?"

"Yes, they did," she whispered, a lump forming in her throat. "I have Aleksei back, but not my parents. I miss them."

Reynarden gently drew her to a stop and pulled her into a hug. After a moment of surprise, she hugged him back. It wasn't professional, but she needed the comfort. She vaguely heard him tell Aric and Forex to go ahead, but focused more on the feel of his arms around her and the smell of his soap and aftershave. They stood like that for several moments before Reynarden took a deep breath. "If you like, I'll take you to meet my parents when we have more than a few hours of downtime. I think you'll like them."

"Really?" Elara blinked and stepped back enough to look at him. "Are you sure?"

He had a soft smile on his face. "I'm sure. You've been on your own for awhile. You need friends in the Republic."

"I've never really had friends, Reynarden. Not even in the Empire." She admitted this with a sheepish smile.

Reynarden took her hands in his and squeezed them gently. "Now you will, if I have anything to say about it."

"Thank you." Smiling, she leaned in to kiss his cheek.

He smiled back and kissed her cheek in return. "Come on, let's go stop Gearbox."

*

"Havoc Squad, scatter!" Reynarden ordered as a set of doors nearby opened.

Elara and Aric darted towards the sides of the room, dodging behind what cover they could find. M1-4X marched forward to take on the threat of Project B, whatever that was. Reynarden dropped to his knees behind the holoterminal, fumbling to draw his assault cannon. "Lieutenant, what's wrong?"

"Forget about me for now, Sergeant Jorgan. Take out Gearbox." Reynarden's voice sounded hoarse, as if he was struggling to speak.

Even as she shot at the massive war droid along with the others, Elara couldn't help scolding Reynarden. "Sir, if something's wrong with you, we need to know."

"Same thing is wrong as what happened this morning at Organa Palace." Reynarden staggered to his feet and added his firepower to the others'.

Elara grimaced, aiming for the joints of the war droid's legs. I wonder what upset Fiosynod this time.

"Understood, Sir. Aim for the joints," Aric replied, having found a pile of boxes to climb.

Forex moved closer to the other war droid. "Expose this traitor to the Republic so that we can show him the error of his ways!"

"Working on it," Reynarden grunted, rolling onto the holoterminal and shooting from there.

Just as the war droid collapsed, Kolos ejected from inside it and began firing with his own assault cannon, targeting Forex. As much as it pained Elara to do it, she aimed to kill Kolos. He clearly didn't intend to surrender. "Forex, dodge right on my mark," Aric told him. "Mark!"

With that, Forex moved to the right, giving Aric a clear shot at Kolos, who crumpled in a heap on the deck. His breathing ragged, Reynarden asked, "Is he dead?"

"He is, Lieutenant," Forex reported after scanning Kolos.

"Sir?" Elara rushed over to Reynarden as he fumbled to remove his helmet. She drew in a breath when she saw that his face was wet with tears. "What did you feel?"

Reynarden practically tore off his gloves and scrubbed his face with his palms. "Much the same as earlier, but stronger."

"Slag," Aric muttered. "I have a bad feeling about this."

Nodding, Reynarden reached into his utility belt for his holocomm. "You and me both, Aric. Sweep the bunker for intel. I have a feeling Garza will want to know what Gearbox was working on here."

"Yes, sir." Aric saluted and headed over to the computer terminals.

Elara lingered near Reynarden's side as he entered a holofrequency. Surprisingly, the holoimage that flickered into view was Kira. It could have been a trick of the video quality, but it looked like she'd been crying. "Rey. I'm not surprised."

"Where's Fio, Kira? What happened?" Reynarden all but demanded.

She took a hitching breath. "Master Orgus is dead. We saw it happen via holo."

"Kriff," Reynarden muttered, wincing and pressing a hand to his chest just as they heard a crash from Kira's end of the holocall.

Aric called over from the computer terminals. "Dorne! I could use your help here!"

"On my way!" She called back, squeezing Reynarden's arm for a moment before getting up to join Aric at the computer terminal.

In next to no time, they'd copied all the information they could find on the computers and returned to Reynarden. He was talking to Fiosynod now. "I wish I could be there for you right now, Fio."

"You have a job to do, Rey, just like I do." Fiosynod's holoimage stood stiff and unnaturally still, as if he was holding on to his composure by a thread. "Hopefully we'll get a chance to talk soon."

Reynarden nodded. "Hopefully. May the Force be with you, Fio."

"And with you, Rey." Fiosynod held up his free hand as if for a fist bump.

Smiling sadly, Reynarden did the same. The next moment, Fiosynod's holoimage winked out of view. Elara spoke up then. "We have all the data, sir."

"Good. Let's head back to Organa Palace."

*

"Ah, slag," Reynarden muttered when they entered the detention center. "I should have known we hadn't seen the last of him."

Following his glance, Elara spotted Pallos Organa talking with Captain Cormac again. From what they heard as they approached, he wasn't pleased about the presence of Altana and Valyn with Markus. He turned to face them, his expression decidedly unhappy. "Ah, Lieutenant Drondil, no doubt returning from yet another daring and influential operation on my family's behalf and without our knowledge. Would you be so kind as to explain to me why there are Thul nobles here, insisting that they have a bargain with you?"

"Because they do have a deal with me," Reynarden answered, his hands clasped behind his back. From where she stood, Elara could see that he was gripping his hands tightly. "I made a deal with Markus to get the information I needed."

Pallos puffed up like an angry cat. "How dare you make arrangements with House Organa's prisoners without our permission? Indeed, without our very knowledge!" He sneered down at Reynarden. "I don't suppose you'd care to share the details of this illicit arrangement that you've conceived, Lieutenant Drondil?"

"I am here on behalf of the Republic," Reynarden answered levelly, his hands still clasped tightly behind his back. "If you have any issues with my agreement with Markus Thul, take it up with General Garza. In any case, my deal was for the wife and daughter--not Markus. He will remain your prisoner."

Markus, Altana, and Valyn had all moved to stand at the entrance to Markus' cell. Both Altana and Valyn gasped at his explanation. "But... but Markus! My Markus--no, no!"

"Please! Not father--not father!" Valyn covered her face with her hands.

He looked from one to the other, his expression resigned. "Hush now, dears. I knew that this might come to pass. And it is a small price to pay for your safety."

"This... this agreement is satisfactory to House Organa, Lieutenant Drondil." Pallos looked awkward and uncomfortable. "The ladies will be remanded to the Republic's care as soon as arrangements are made."

Reynarden sounded apologetic as he looked at Markus. "It has to be this way. You have my apologies."

"Yes, I understand." Markus' voice was low and a little thick with emotion.

When they could finally leave, Elara lightly touched Reynarden's arm. "Sir?"

"I don't know about you three, but I'm ready to get out of here." Reynarden kept his head up, but he radiated tension.

Elara exchanged a glance and a nod with Aric. "Yes, sir."

*

The moment they entered their ship, Reynarden handed Aric his assault cannon. "I know I should do this myself, but I need some time alone before I contact Garza."

"Understood, sir." Aric accepted the assault cannon and carried it to the armory closet. Elara followed him and checked her blaster in silence while Aric checked his sniper rifle. He was still checking it by the time she finished and Elara silently picked up Reynarden's assault cannon. "Do Imps train their soldiers to shoot every type of weapon?"

Elara nodded, carefully checking the cannon for signs that it was still in good working condition. "They do. Most choose a type of weapon to specialize in. I imagine it works the same in the Republic, yes?"

"Yeah. I was real surprised when I saw Rey with that huge cannon strapped to his back." Aric chuckled softly. "You'd expect someone his size would choose the blaster rifle."

Elara smiled, carefully cleaning the cannon. "That's probably why he chose the assault cannon: to be contrary."

"That's exactly why, Elara," Reynarden replied from the doorway, startling her. "Should I be worried that you're starting to know me so well?"

She handed the cannon to Aric to put it away, standing up to face Reynarden the next moment. "Only if you don't want me to know you that well."

"I don't mind." He smiled, but she could see that his heart wasn't in it.

Moving close, she touched his arm. "Is something wrong Reynarden?'

"Kira and Fio weren't the only ones who saw Master Orgus's death," he explained, his voice thick with tears. "Darth Angral broadcast it to the whole damn sector."

She followed him into the main area and drew in a breath when she saw the holoimage above the holotable: a Sith in the middle of stabbing a Jedi through the chest. "I never dealt with any Sith directly, but this is exactly the sort of thing they'd do."

"I tried to contact Fio, but he's pursuing Angral right now. We have a report to make anyway." Reynarden moved to the controls and the holoimage disappeared.

Aric and Forex joined them and Aric rested a hand on Reynarden's shoulder. "You all right, Rey?"

"Just need work to focus on," he replied with a wan smile.

After making their report, they set course for Coruscant. It wasn't a long trip and Elara couldn't help staring a little as they walked from the spaceport to the Senate Tower. She'd only been here once before and she'd been too nervous to truly pay attention to her surroundings. It was very beautiful and grand. And so much light, too. Dromund Kaas was perpetually gloomy with frequent rainstorms. Elara had never set foot in the Senate Tower, just saw it from the outside. In the past, she'd reported to Personnel Division, which was in an entirely different part of the planet. Come to think of it, when she'd last been there to receive the orders sending her to Taris, that'd been the last time she saw Captain Kallor in person, too.

Now, though, she followed Reynarden and Aric into the Senate Tower. Their leatheris dress boots made no sound on the luxurious red carpet with gold trim. As they walked through the tower towards General Garza's office, Elara was struck by the noise all over again. Just like on the Republic Fleet, people gathered in groups to talk and even laugh. No one seemed to fear being overheard by the wrong person and they seemed to genuinely enjoy their conversations. Finally, after turning down a couple corridors, they entered an office where General Garza waited for them. "Welcome, Lieutenant. Stand at ease, make yourself comfortable. We have a great deal to discuss."

As they'd suspected, it was time to take the fight to Commander Tavus himself. Havoc Squad's interference in his teammates' missions on Taris, Nar Shaddaa, Tatooine, and Alderaan had prompted him to recall his remaining people. Reynarden voiced Elara's thought on the matter, "If Tavus is pulling back, this would be a good time to make a move."

"Exactly what I was thinking, Lieutenant," Garza nodded approvingly. "I want you to infiltrate Tavus's rendezvous. You'll proceed to the coordinates in the message and slip in amongst the surviving traitors to board his vessel."

Once Garza had explained the plan, she gave Reynarden a datapad. "Here--get yourself and your people the best load-outs you can. Then head for the rendezvous coordinates. I'm counting on you, Lieutenant. The Republic is counting on you. So get out there and do us proud. Dismissed."

They drew themselves to a position of attention and saluted. Once Garza returned their salutes, they turned and left her office. Elara didn't relax until they'd left the Senate Tower. "Most of my gear is still fairly new and in good condition, Sir. I don't need anything."

"You could stand to get a new blaster, Elara," Aric told her before Reynarden could say anything. "You've taken good care of your current blaster, but going by the model and the wear on it, I'd say you've been using that one since you were assigned to Taris."

A little sheepishly, Elara nodded. "Yes, that's right."

"Certainly past time you got a new blaster, then," Reynarden stated firmly, giving Elara a look that kept her from voicing her objections. "What about you, Aric? How's your gear situation?"

As they walked towards Logistics, Aric took time to think. "All of my gear is fairly new. I don't need to replace any of it."

"And my gear is still top of the line," Forex interjected.

Reynarden nodded, an amused smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. "My gear is still good, too, so just a blaster for Elara. And more ordnance for everyone. We have no idea what kind of situation we'll be walking into."

"I'd also like to buy more kolto and stims," Elara added, remembering that their stores on the ship were running low.

He nodded again. "Right. Good thinking, Elara."

After their stop at Logistics, they headed to their ship and took off. Reynarden retrieved the box with the blaster he'd insisted on grabbing for her. He hadn't even let her see it until now. Smiling, he offered it to her. "I'm sure you're going to say I shouldn't have, but I did."

"Should I be worried?" Elara asked, taking the box with a smile and opening it. She gasped when she saw the blaster inside. It was the sort she'd stare at longingly in the catalogue, and then pass over in favor of something less expensive. "Oh, sir-- Reynarden. Are you sure?"

Smiling, Reynarden nodded. "Absolutely. Havoc Squad is the best in Special Forces and therefore requires the best armament. I'd noticed your blaster needed replacing and that was the perfect opportunity to make it happen."

"Thank you!" Before she could stop and think, Elara turned and hugged Reynarden.

Just as she realized what she'd done, Reynarden wrapped his arms around her, hugging her back. Quietly, he told her, "You're very welcome, Elara."

Clearing her throat, she reluctantly pulled back after a few moments. "I should, um, I should go practice with this." She held up her new blaster, certain her cheeks were red. "Get a feel for it before we face combat."

"Good idea." Reynarden dropped his arms so she could stand up. "I'm glad you like it."

"I do, very much." Smiling shyly at him, Elara made her escape to their practice range. Stars, Elara, what were you thinking, hugging him like that? He probably thinks you're ridiculous.

Even as she prepared to practice, she could still smell the blend of durasteel, blaster oil, and salty sea air that seemed to cling to Reynarden.

*

By the time she'd finished, Elara was satisfied that her new blaster felt as comfortable in her grip as her old blaster. She retrieved her armor and cortosis weave next, going over every inch of them to ensure they were in the best possible condition. She'd just taken off her uniform to change when Reynarden asked from the doorway, "Is your generator charged, Elara? Oh, sorry."

"Yes, my generators are charged, Reynarden," she replied, glancing over her shoulder to see that he'd looked up at the ceiling. Grabbing up her shorts, she pulled them on. "Is your generator charged? Both of them?"

A quick glance as she grabbed her tank top assured her that he was still looking anywhere but at her. "Yeah, I made sure to plug them both in."

"You can look now," she told him once she'd tugged her tank top into place. "Do you know if Aric plugged his in?"

Reynarden nodded as she picked up her repaired cortosis weave and stepped into it, slipping her arms into the sleeves. "Yes, he did. Not that he takes much fire the way the rest of us do." He cleared his throat. "Are you having a problem?"

"Seetoo must have decided to move the zipper, because I can't quite reach it," Elara reluctantly turned her back to Reynarden. "Could you help, please?"

Clearing his throat again, Reynarden stepped forward and she felt the zipper sliding up. About halfway up her back, he stopped. "I think the cortosis is caught on something and that's why you had trouble reaching the zipper."

Glancing down at her front, Elara blushed and quickly untucked it from inside her shorts. "There, that should do it."

"Yeah, it did." The zipper finished going up her back. "There you go."

She turned to thank him and bit the inside of her cheek when she realized how closely they were standing. Clearing her throat, she took a step back. "Thank you, Reynarden."

"Of course." Reyarden smiled and gestured vaguely towards the door. "I'll-- I'll just be outside. We're almost there."

Nodding, Elara waited until he'd left to press her hands over her flaming cheeks. Could he have feelings for me after all?

*

Once they landed on Tavus's ship, Justice, Reynarden addressed them as they gathered their gear. "I think it'd be best if only one of you accompanied me initially."

"Are you sure, Rey?" Aric asked, exchanging a glance with Elara.

He nodded, strapping his assault cannon into place. "I'm sure, Aric. Use your new stealth generator to follow me and Elara at a distance. Don't interfere unless it looks like we absolutely need it."

"What about me, sir?" Forex asked, raising his chassis so the top of his head almost brushed the ceiling. "What shall I do?"

Reynarden thumped the bulkhead beside him with his fist. "Guard the ship. Don't let anyone board it unless they have permission from one of us. Or General Garza."

"Are you sure you want to handle things this way, sir?" Elara asked, flattered that Reynarden wanted her to accompany him, but also worried that he only wanted one of them to go with him.

He nodded, checking his utility belt. Reminded of her own belt, Elara did the same. "We need to keep a low profile, at least at first."

"Yes, sir." Elara nodded as well, her heart pounding with a combination of nerves and anticipation. "Ready when you are."

Reynarden took a deep breath and put his helmet on. Elara and Aric followed suit. Once they were at the hatch, Aric turned on his stealth generator. Then they left the safety of the ship and marched out to be met by another lieutenant in an Imperial uniform. He asked Reynarden which planet he'd been posted on. "I was stuck bowing to noblemen on the Alderaan. Gearbox was running the show."

"Oh yeah?" The lieutenant looked intrigued and curious. "Some of the other guys were telling me Gearbox put together his own assault walker--really advanced stuff. Is it true?"

Reynarden nodded, his tone light and playful even though Elara could see that his hands were tightly clasped behind his back. "I saw the thing with my own eyes, Lieutenant."

"I'll bet it was pretty impressive." His expression turned regretful the next moment. "Too bad the prototype couldn't be salvaged, huh? Wouldn't mind riding into battle on one of those babies!"

Another nod from Reynarden. "Wish I could have had a ride in it, but Gearbox kept that privilege for himself."

"I bet." Leaning in and lowering his voice, the lieutenant asked, "So what about this other rumor I keep hearing? That a single Republic soldier came in and broke up the entire operation? Is that really true?"

Leaning as well, Reynarden confided in an equally low voice, "The guy was a killing machine--I still have nightmares."

"Sounds pretty serious," the lieutenant gave him a sympathetic smile and they both straightened up. "But hey, you made it--we're in the clear, now." Elara was glad her helmet hid her face. She didn't have to hide her reaction to his comment. "Hey, I won't hold you up any longer, Lieutenant. Go on and head for the crew area. I'll bet you could use some rest after what you've been through."

Reynarden nodded, his voice light once again. "You have no idea."

"See you around." With that, the lieutenant stepped aside so they could continue on.

Walking briskly, Reynarden and Elara headed further into the ship. Keeping his voice quiet, Reynarden asked, "You with us, Aric?"

The only response they received was the sound of Aric chinning his mic in acknowledgement. "Elara, you know Imp ships better. Which way to the Engineering Bay"

"Straight ahead and up the ramp," Elara told him, watching the soldiers around them. "Pretty much the opposite direction from the crew area."

Reynarden nodded. "Well, we'll get as far as we can without fighting. Remember, Aric, stay back unless it looks like we need the help."

Aric chinned his mic again to confirm. They continued towards Engineering. Reynarden turned to keep watch while Elara accessed the computer terminal. She tensed at the sound of a quiet, deadly voice behind her. "Hello--Lieutenant."

"I was hoping we'd bump into each other, Wraith," Reynarden replied as Elara continued scrolling through menus and screens, trying to remember how to shut down the hyperdrive.

Zora--it could only be her--answered in short, terse sentences, her voice completely flat. "Me, too. You're caught. You've failed."

"Surrender, Wraith--I don't want to fight you," Reynarden told her, his voice strained.

Elara turned away from the computer as Zora replied, "Too bad. Time to die."

"Scatter." Reynarden ordered curtly, even as he dodged to the side.

Drawing her blaster, Elara dodged the other way in time to avoid taking a shot from Zora. Scrambling to her knees, she aimed for Zora and mentally apologized before she began shooting. Reynarden brought his assault cannon around to follow suit. Zora managed to avoid their blaster bolts and closed with Elara, a vibroknife flashing in her hand. Elara cried out when Zora slashed through the cortosis weave above her elbow, drawing blood. The next moment, a blaster bolt hit her back, right between her shoulder blades. Elara switched her blaster to her left hand and shot Zora, point blank. She slowly crumpled to the deck in front of Elara. "All right there, Dorne?"

"She had a vibroknife," Elara explained, fumbling with her medkit one-handed.

Reynarden gently took it from her. "What do you need?"

"Kolto and a wrap, sir," Elara told him, glancing up when Aric appeared next to them, examining the computer terminal. "Once we shut down the hyperdrive, our cover will be blown."

Both men nodded and Reynarden carefully began to smooth kolto over the wound Zora had given Elara. "Let's get you patched up first, Sergeant."

"Yes, sir." She bit back a gasp at the sting of kolto. When he looked at her inquiringly, she shook her head.

Aric crouched beside them, watching intently. "I saw her too late to warn you two."

"Her code name is Wraith for a reason, Jorgan," Reynarden reminded him, opening the kolto wrap and winding it around Elara's arm.

Elara rested her good hand on his arm. "Thank you for shooting her, Sergeant. It gave me the chance I needed to stop her."

"You're welcome." Aric nodded briefly, the corners of his mouth twitching. "Should we have Forex join us now?"

Reynarden finished wrapping Elara's arm. "How does that feel, Dorne?"

"Still sore, but I'll manage." Elara carefully moved her arm. Reynarden had kept the wrap above her elbow so she could still bend her arm properly.

Nodding, Reynarden keyed his mic. "Forex, once you hear the alarms start, secure the Thunderclap and come join us."

"Sir, yes, sir!" Forex responded, far too enthusiastically, while Elara put her medkit away.

Standing up, Reynarden offered his hand to Elara. She took it and let him pull her to her feet. "Let's do this, people."

Elara moved to the computer and took only another minute to find the command she needed. Before she activated it, she glanced at Reynarden, who nodded. Then she entered the command and alarms immediately started blaring. "For the Republic!"

"We're heading to the bridge, Forex," Reynarden reminded him.

With that, the three of them headed towards the bridge, fighting Imperials and defectors alike. When Forex joined them, they made quicker progress through the ship. When they confronted Tavus, Reynarden tried to get him to surrender, but he refused. He insisted on fighting all of them. However, there was a reason he was Reynarden's predecessor. It wasn't an easy fight, even with all of them working together. In the end, four against one was a losing proposition. For a few moments, Tavus seemed like he'd listen to reason. He seemed like he would come in alive. And then Reynarden told him he'd be court-martialed. That was too much for Tavus. "It's better to die here. To die on my feet--to die fighting! This ends here, Drondil! This ends now!"

He charged for Reynarden, but a blaster bolt right between his eyes stopped him in his tracks. Elara followed the direction it'd come from to see Aric looking satisfied. Reyanrden must have noticed as well. "Satisfied, Jorgan?"

"I'm still a sergeant, but now they've all paid for sending my career down the 'fresher," Aric replied, putting up his rifle.

"Clear!" A strange voice called from the entrance of the bridge.

They all raised their weapons, but lowered them a second later when they recognized the Republic uniforms. Behind the two soldiers stood General Garza. When she reached them, they all saluted. "At ease, Lieutenant Drondil. You've done a truly remarkable job--congratulations."

"Harron Tavus has been neutralized, General," Reynarden reported, stepping aside so she could see his body crumpled on the deck.

She looked down at it, her expression unreadable. "Harron Tavus, dead. I honestly had to come see it for myself." She looked back at Reynarden. "He was one of the best soldiers to ever serve under my command. It's a very great shame that he chose to end his career this way."

"If I could've brought him in alive, General, I would have." Reynarden told her, sounding truly regretful.

Garza shook her head briefly. "You did your duty. You have absolutely nothing to apologize for. Tavus and his followers knew every aspect of our organization. They could have torn the Republic military apart piece by piece--but they never got the chance. Thanks to you."

"I couldn't have done it without the help of my team," Reynarden told her, glancing at Elara, Aric, and Forex as he spoke.

She stood up straighter at the acknowledgment. "Thank you very much, Lieutenant Drondil. It's an honor to serve in Havoc Squad."

"We'll be staying to search the ship for intelligence while the hyperdrive is reactivated," Garza informed them, and then held up a hand to forestall any protests. "But there's no need for you to remain as well." Her mouth twitched in a tiny smile. "I'd say you've earned some leave, all of you. Take some time off. I'll contact you when it's time to report for your next assignment."

Reynarden nodded, sounding pleased. "It will be nice to finally relax a bit."

"Yes, I imagine it will." Garza's smile broadened a little and she dismissed them.

*

As they jogged through the Justice back to their ship, Forex stopped short, going on high alert. His next words came through their comms, "There are still traitors aboard. They intend to attack--"

"Sir! Look out!" Elara shouted when a soldier in Imperial uniform appeared and pointed his blaster rifle at Reynarden's back. Even as she shouted the warning, Elara shoved Reyarnden forward, taking the shot in her side.

As she fell to the deck, winded, she saw Reynarden turn her shove into a roundoff. Even as he regained his feet, he drew his blaster to shoot the other defectors that had appeared around them. Elara drew her blaster, shooting even as she dragged herself to her feet. Aric and Forex joined in the fray. She was so focused on the enemies in front of her that Elara forgot to check her six. For some reason, Reyarnden shoved her from behind. "Look out!"

"Lieutenant Drondil!" She stumbled forward, falling onto her hands and knees, jarring her injured side enough for her to lose her breath. She'd just caught it when a muted explosion went off behind her. She spun on her knees to see Reynarden limp and bloody on the deck. "No! Sir! Reynarden!"

She scrambled for her medkit, fumbling with it to scan him. "He's alive. His armor took the worst of the explosion. This is more than I can handle here. He needs the kolto tank." To stabilize him, she gave him a large dose of kolto. "Thank the stars we have one now." She looked up at Aric and Forex. "We need a stretcher to carry him."

"On it. Come on Forex." Aric gestured to the wardroid and they headed off.

Elara remained kneeling beside Reynarden's unconscious form. He did it to save me. Why?

*

It didn't take long to get Reynarden back to their ship and into the kolto tank. Aric tossed his armor in the recycler. It was beyond saving. After a short discussion, Aric and Elara decided to set course for Coruscant. "Reynarden's parents are there and so is my brother."

"I have family there, too," Aric agreed. "It's the best bet."

As they sped through space, Elara found herself spending a lot of time in front of the tank, watching Reynarden float peacefully in the kolto. One time, she could have sworn she saw him open his eyes. When she was satisfied with his progress, she and Aric pulled him out of the tank and put him in one of the medbeds after dressing him in a tank top and shorts. Almost to Coruscant now, Elara sat in the chair by the bed, daring to hold Reynarden's hand in one of hers. Eventually, exhaustion took her and she drifted off to sleep. When she woke up, the room was dim and her neck was stiff. Sitting up, she absently rubbed her neck with her free hand.
A hoarse whisper from the bed drew her attention: "Physician, heal thyself."

"Reynarden?" She sat up straight, her eyes snapping to the medbed. She couldn't stop the smile from spreading across her face when she saw his blue eyes looking back at her. "It's good to see you awake."

His return smile was wan but pleased and he squeezed her hand. "It's--" He coughed before he could continue. "Water?"

"Yes, of course, sir." Elara had to let go of his hand to pour a glass of water for him and she was glad it helped hide the blush that must be apparent on her face.

He made a face when she didn't let him have more than one glass. "I'm thirsty."

"Not too much too fast, sir, or you'll make yourself sick." She set the glass aside, firm on that score. She wouldn't risk his life just because he was thirsty.

Reynarden made another face, but didn't protest further. "How long have I been out?"

"You were in the kolto tank for thirty-six hours, sir, to mend broken bones, lacerations, burns, and a punctured lung." By now, Elara could speak of his injuries with equanimity. "And I took the liberty of giving you a light sedative once you came out of the tank." She knew he hated being sedated, but he'd needed it. "Your armor was beyond salvaging."

He nodded, tangling his fingers in the blanket. "I'll requisition more when we get to-- Where are we going, anyway?"

"Coruscant." She patted his arm reassuringly. "Aric and I thought you'd like the chance to visit with your family."

Reynarden nodded again, catching her hand to squeeze it again. "Good. Thanks, Elara. You're the best."

"That's why you picked me for Havoc Squad, sir." She looked away, but didn't withdraw her hand. Her heart raced in her chest and she was grateful Reynarden couldn't hear it.

She could hear the curiosity in Reynarden's voice when he asked, "Something bothering you?"

"Why, sir?" She looked back at him, her forehead furrowed with puzzlement.

He stared at her, surprised by the question. "Why what?"

"Why did you do it?" She dropped her gaze to their hands.

Gently, he stroked the back of her hand with his thumb, his voice soft. "Because I couldn't not do it. The thought of seeing you blown to bits before my eyes when I could have prevented it was horrible." He tucked his fingers under her chin and gently tilted her head up so her eyes met his. "I couldn't stand the thought of losing you."

Just as she opened her mouth to reply, maybe ask if there was something to his flirting, there was a tap on the closed door, "Elara, is Reynarden awake?"

"He is, Aric." She gently pulled away and got up to open the door.

As he entered, she slipped out. She hesitated by the door when Aric asked, "What?"

"You have the worst timing, Aric."

Smiling faintly, Elara headed to the crew quarters to get some sleep in a proper bunk.

*

"Hey, Rey!" Fiosynod greeted them as they emerged from the spaceport.

Reynarden grinned and carefully moved forward to greet his brother with a hug. "Hey, Fio. Are you all right?"

"Am I all right?" Fiosynod demanded, looking Reynarden up and down. "Are you all right?"

He gave a dismissive wave. "It's nothing, Fio. Elara fixed me up, no problem."

"Yeah, right, and I'm the Queen of Dubrillion," Kira retorted from behind Fiosynod. "Why is she letting you walk unaided?"

Elara reached Reynarden's side and firmly handed him a pair of crutches. "I'm not. He took off without me--us."

"I hate this." Grumbling, Reynarden still tucked the crutches under his arms.

Elara gave him an arch look, aware of Aric and Forex joining them. "It's crutches or a wheelchair, Reynarden. Your choice."

"Fine, fine. The crutches are the lesser of two evils." Reynarden made a face and turned back to the others. "Hi, Kira."

"Hey, Rey." She grinned, but it didn't quite reach her eyes.

Fiosynod interjected before they could talk further. "Let's go home. Mom and Dad had meetings, otherwise they'd be here."

Nodding, Reynarden turned to Aric and Forex. "You two are free to do what you like for your leave. You have my comm frequency and I have both of yours."

"Take care, Rey." Aric shook Reynarden's hand. Then he offered it to Elara. "You, too, Elara."

She shook his hand with a shy smile. "And you, Aric."

"Take care, Lieutenant Drondil, Sergeant Dorne, Sergeant Jorgan." Forex turned to each of them as he said their names, and then marched off.

Aric said his good byes to Fiosynod and Kira, and then took off as well. Reynarden hobbled forward to join Fiosynod. "Right, let's go."

"At least tell us you accomplished your goal," Kira requested, looping her arm through Fiosynod's as they started towards the taxi droid.

Reynarden grinned. "That we did, Kira. Mission accomplished." His grin faded. "What about you two? Same?"

"Same." Fiosynod nodded, bowing his head for a moment. "Orgus has been avenged and no more innocent people will die."

Coming to a stop beside Fiosynod, Reynarden took the opportunity to lay a hand on his arm. "That's why you became a Jedi, Fio. Remember that."

"Thanks, Rey." Fiosynod covered Reynarden's hand with his. He glanced at Elara, who'd lingered beside Reynarden.

Reynarden followed his glance and smiled sheepishly. "Um, do you think Mom and Dad would mind if I invited Elara to stay with us?"

"You don't have anywhere to go?" Kira asked, looking curiously at Elara.

Stiffly, she told them. "Most of my family is still in the Empire. My brother only recently defected. I have no one else."

"Mom and Dad will adopt you on the spot," Fiosynod told her with a smile.

She nodded, but didn't say anything else in reply. Kira grinned. "They adopted me, Elara. They'll adopt you, too."

"Forgive me my doubt," Elara told them, climbing into the taxi when it finally arrived. "It's been a long time since anyone has genuinely wanted to be my friend."

Kira raised her eyebrows, but said nothing in reply. Fiosynod asked, "What usually happened? If you don't mind my asking."

"I don't mind." She shook her head, taking a deep breath. "Usually, if people wanted to be my friend, it was for some sort of personal gain. Or, more recently, it was a joke."

Reynarden made a sound in his throat that almost seemed... angry. "Idiots, all of them."

"I agree with Rey," Kira said, looking at Elara with a sincere smile.

Fiosynod nodded. "Rey has good judgment."

"Thank you," Elara told them, tears stinging her eyes, just as the taxi came to a stop.

They climbed out and Elara could only stare at the elegant penthouse in front of them. She knew, of course, that the Drondils must be wealthy to be such a prominent family. Especially given Reynarden's reference to servants. It just hadn't sunk in until now what that meant. She blinked when Kira looped her arm through hers. "Come on, Elara."

"Somehow, it didn't register until now how much money their family must have," Elara murmured quietly to her.

Kira laughed softly. "You get used to it. Their parents are very sensible and grounded. They see their wealth and status as a means to help the less fortunate."

"That's... reassuring, actually." Elara walked up the steps with Kira, nodding to the servant holding the door open for them.

When they entered, they saw Reynarden being tightly hugged by a small, petite woman. A taller man, stood nearby, an indulgent smile on his face. Finally, the woman released Reynarden and the man took his turn hugging him. "When we got word that you'd been hurt, we were worried sick. Honestly, Rey, between you and Fio, it's a wonder my hair hasn't gone completely gray."

"As if you'd let it show, Mom," Reynarden retorted with a chuckle, turning to smile at Elara. "Besides, my injuries were worth it."

Swallowing hard at the reminder that he'd gained those injuries to save her, Elara nevertheless moved forward to greet Reynarden's parents. Florya Drondil just matched Reynarden's height, her black hair had the same tight curls as both her sons. Unlike them, she didn't shave it or keep it short. At the moment, she had her hair pulled into short braids around her face while the rest remained loose, framing her face nicely. Warm brown eyes met Elara's and she smiled welcomingly. "I know Kira. Who is your friend, Rey?"

"Mom, Dad, this is Sergeant Elara Dorne, Havoc Squad's medic and the reason I'm still alive." Reynarden's smile held the same warmth as his mother's. "Elara, these are my parents, Florya and Bryden Drondil."

Florya moved forward to take Elara's hands in hers, squeezing firmly. "It's wonderful to meet you, Sergeant. Thank you so much for keeping my boy alive."

"It's good to meet you, Mrs. Drondil," Elara replied, offering a shy smile in return. "I couldn't do anything less for Reynarden."

Bryden had walked over to join them by then. Nearly a head taller than his wife, he had a lean, wiry build with the same pale skin, blue eyes, and freckles as Reynarden. His hair was also the same rich brown as his younger son's. "We are still grateful, Sergeant. Thank you."

"You're welcome, Mr. Drondil." Elara shook his hand, relaxing despite her nerves.

Taking Elara's arm, Florya urged her further inside. "Come in and relax. You're welcome to stay here if you like. Or visit if you have somewhere else to stay."

"I... have nowhere else," Elara admitted quietly. "Most of my family is in the Empire."

Florya tsked. "Very well. We're now your Republic family. You must call me Florya."

"And I'm Bryden." He chuckled, as if this was a common occurrence.

Nodding, Elara told them, "If that's the case, then please call me Elara."

"Welcome to the family, Elara," Fiosynod told her with a grin.

Kira leaned over to whisper. "We told you!"

*

The rooms they gave Elara were the most sumptuous she'd seen in the Republic with a beautiful view of Coruscant from the windows. The dresser and closet seemed emptier after she'd put away the few civilian clothes she'd brought. When she said as much to Kira and Florya, they insisted on taking her shopping. "I'm surprised Rey didn't take you shopping. Surely you had time between assignments before now?"

"He, um, he did, but I refused to buy anything because there didn't seem to be a point," Elara blushed, remembering how earnest he'd been about it.

Florya patted her arm. "Well, you're welcome to just leave what you buy here if you don't think you'll need it."

"Probably just armor and uniforms aboard your ship," Kira mused thoughtfully.

Elara nodded, amused. "Yes, just those."

"Then it's past time you bought some nice clothes to wear," Florya declared, smiling.

Normally, Elara found shopping boring and tedious, preferring to do other, more productive things. With friends, she discovered that it was much more pleasant and enjoyable. Since she hadn't bought more than the necessities for years, Elara had a substantial number of credits saved up, so she had quite a few bags in her hands by the time the three women called it quits and headed back. The three men were sitting in the living room, talking, when they returned and Reynarden raised his eyebrows when he saw them. "What, did you three decide to buy out the store while you were there?"

"Not the whole store, Rey," Florya answered airily, moving up behind his chair and pressing a kiss to the top of his head. "Just half."

Fiosynod smiled when Florya moved over to repeat the gesture with him. "I doubt there'd be room for us in here if they bought everything in sight."

"Florya knows how to restrain herself and it looks like Kira and Elara do, too." Bryden chuckled when Florya moved to him and sat down in his lap to give him a proper kiss.

A lump formed in Elara's throat, reminded of her own parents, and she quickly excused herself so she could escape to her room and put everything away. Once she had, she dug out the holoportrait of her family that she'd kept and set it on the bedside table. She stared at it until the image blurred. For once, she let the tears come. She was grateful for Florya and Bryden's hospitality and friendship, but she missed her own parents. Her tears had dried by the time someone tapped on her door. "Elara?"

"Just a moment." She hastily scrubbed at her cheeks and crossed to the door.

When she opened it, Reynarden stood on the other side, looking concerned. "Hey. You all right, Elara?"

"I'm fine," she assured him, stepping aside so he could enter. "I just needed to put my things away, that's all."

Clumping inside, Reynarden glanced around. "I hope my parents haven't made you uncomfortable. That's the opposite of what they want."

"No, they're hospitality themselves," she told him, biting the inside of her cheek when he moved to the bedside table.

He bent to peer at the holoportrait, and then turned to Elara. "Your family?"

"Yes, that's from the day Aleksei and I qualified for our specializations." Elara moved to Reynarden's side, gazing sadly at the image.

Humming thoughtfully, Reynarden said, "I'm assuming yours was medical. What was his?"

"Technical," she told him, smiling sadly. "We were both so proud to finally serve in the Imperial military. Aleksei advanced quickly, but I became disillusioned."

Turning, Reynarden perched on the edge of the bed, propping the crutches against the bed next to him. "Why did you become disillusioned?"

"The Imperial military was supposed to stand for honor and discipline," Elara explained, sitting down beside him, staring down at her hands folded in her lap. "But my superiors discarded those concepts any time a Sith asked it." She dashed away the sting of tears in her eyes. "I'd always been taught that the Jedi and the Republic were genocidal hypocrites, but the only brutalities I witnessed were committed by my own comrades."

He gently covered her hand with his, voice quiet and understanding. "I'm sure it wasn't easy to learn the truth like that."

"I have always preferred difficult truths to easy lies," Elara replied, lifting her head up to stare blindly out the window. "I raised my concerns with my superiors, but they only questioned my resolve. Soon, I would've been forced to prove my loyalty by carrying out orders directly against my conscience. I chose to defect instead."

Reynarden's hand tightened around hers for a moment. "Did you have any trouble getting away from the rest of your unit?"

"I had noted numerous inefficiencies in our assigned patrol routes--" she smiled, small and wry. "I simply took advantage of one of them to escape. I surrendered to the first Republic patrol I came across and declared my intention to defect. That was over three years ago." She shook her head slightly, amazed. "It's strange to realize how long it's been. The Republic truly feels like my home now."

She looked at him when he covered their clasped hands with his other one. "You will always have a home here, no matter what, Elara."

"Thank you, Reynarden." She whispered, her heart pounding as she met his eyes.

Elara was almost certain he was going to kiss her, except someone chose that moment to knock on the door. Reluctantly she turned towards the door. "Yes?"

"Dinner's almost ready," Florya told them, poking her head around the door. "Better wash up."

Reynarden nodded and stood up, balancing on the crutches and moving towards the door. He stopped and turned back to Elara for a moment when he reached it. "I'm glad you decided to defect, Elara. Otherwise we wouldn't have met."

She stared as he exited and let the door shut behind him. Her heart still pounding, she laid back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. I'm glad we've met, too, Reynarden, and not just because it got me off Taris.

*

At dinner, Kira seemed preoccupied by something. She didn't say much and picked at her food. No one commented on it, so Elara kept her worry to herself. As they lingered over dessert, Kira cleared her throat, "I have something to tell all of you." Elara glanced at the others and the only one who didn't seem to be surprised was Fiosynod. He just reached over and clasped Kira's hand with his. She smiled weakly at him before looking at the rest of them. "Elara's not the only one who was born in the Empire. I was, too. I was born Sith."

"You have no trace of an accent," Florya remarked after a few moments of silence. "When did you leave?"

Kira's shoulders slumped and she said, "I was about ten, I think." She proceeded to explain about being a Child of the Emperor, stowing away on a cargo transport to Nar Shaddaa, being found by Master Kiwiiks, and then having her past come back to haunt her. "When we confronted Darth Angral, the Emperor took control of me and made me a prisoner of my own body as they fought each other. Then we fought."

"That was the hardest part of the situation for me," Fiosynod interjected, his hand tightening around Kira's. "I didn't want to hurt her, but she didn't give me much of a choice."

Bryden spoke up then, offering a grin. "Clearly, it worked out, since you're both sitting here, alive and well."

"Yes." Kira smiled warmly. "I managed to kick the Emperor out of my head and my life is my own for certain now."

Elara had finished her dessert by then, patting her lips with her napkin. "You were very brave to leave the Empire when you did, Kira. I'm honored to know you."

"Thank you, Elara. I admit, when we met, I wasn't sure what to think or do." Kira smiled ruefully at her. "Here I'd been hiding my true background for years, and you didn't care one bit that it was obvious from the moment you spoke. You bore others' coldness and distance and even cruelty without complaint. So I decided to be kind and polite to you."

She felt her cheeks grow warm with a blush, touched beyond words by this revelation. "Thank you, Kira, but it's a small price to pay for a clear conscience."

"You said that I'm brave for leaving the Empire, but so are you." Kira smiled warmly at Elara, covering her hand. "In fact, I'd say you are braver because you never tried to hide your background and faced up to the consequences of that. I, on the other hand, hid that part of myself in order to avoid those very same consequences."

Fiosynod wrapped his arm around Kira's shoulders, squeezing gently. Elara grasped Kira's hand, unable to find her voice. She could feel Reynarden's hand come to rest on her back and felt her heart skip a beat. When she'd made the choice to defect, she hadn't felt brave. It'd been scary to contemplate leaving her life behind, but she'd known it was right and that mattered more than being brave or afraid.

Chapter Text

Elara got up early, unwilling to linger in bed once she woke up. Dressing in her usual tank top and shorts, she grabbed her workout bag and headed to the gym that Reynarden had pointed out to her on her tour of the penthouse. She stopped short in the doorway. Fiosynod and Kira had beat her to the gym. Also in shorts and tank tops, they were doing martial forms together. What surprised Elara was the fact that they were moving in perfect synchronization, but neither had their eyes open. At some unheard or unseen signal, they turned to each other and began exchanging kicks and blows, their eyes still closed. Slowly, their movements sped up until Elara couldn't follow them anymore. They froze without warning, Kira blocking Fiosynod, and they opened their eyes. Quietly, she asked, "Fio?"

"No, it's--" He shook his head and dropped his hands to his sides.

Smiling understandingly, she moved forward and hugged him tight. After a moment, he returned the hug, pressing his face into her hair. Only then realizing that she was intruding on a private moment, Elara turned to go. She stopped when Kira called out, "It's all right, Elara. We knew you were there."

"I apologize for intruding," she told them, turning back to see that they'd turned towards her, holding hands. "I didn't realize--"

Fiosynod waved his other hand as they walked towards her. "It's all right, Elara. If we didn't want you to intrude, we wouldn't come in here to do martial forms."

"Exactly." Kira nodded her agreement. "You're not the first and you won't be the last."

Elara nodded back, relieved. Fiosynod frowned and glanced over her shoulder. "Rey should have been here sooner, actually."

"He's been sleeping in a bit since he was hurt," Elara told them, glancing down at another reminder of what he'd done for her.

Fiosynod reached out and squeezed her arm. "He's strong, Elara. He'll recover soon."

"Yeah, he--" when Kira's hand touched Elara's arm below Fiosynod's, she stopped short, her eyes going distant and unfocused.

Elara stared at her. "Kira?"

"Kira!" Fiosynod gripped her shoulders, and then went still as well, his yellow eyes going distant and unfocused.

After a few more moments, they closed their eyes and drew in deep breaths. A little hesitantly, Elara asked, "What happened?"

"I can sometimes See things, especially with skin-to-skin contact," Kira explained, leaning against Fiosynod. "Since you were thinking about when Rey got hurt, I saw it, too."

Fiosynod nodded, kissing Kira's temple. "And I saw it when I touched Kira because she can also share what she's Seeing."

"Oh. That's--" Elara didn't get to finish her thought because Kira hugged her tight then. Fiosynod followed suit a moment later. "What?"

Kira whispered to her, "Stop feeling guilty about it. Rey did it because he thought your life was worth saving."

"He cares about you, Elara," Fiosynod added, kissing her cheek. "More than you know."

Elara slowly nodded, closing her eyes against fresh tears, and hugged them back. "Thanks."

"Hey, are you trying to smother my medic?" Reynarden asked a few moments later.

The hug broke up and Elara quickly scrubbed her face with her hands before turning to see Reynarden standing there with a curious look on his face. She frowned when she noticed something missing. "Where are your crutches?"

"In my room," he replied, looking rather guilty. "I, um--"

She gave him a stern look, wishing there was some way to bring them to her. "You're not to leave them behind until I give you permission. What if you'd lost your balance?"

"Just because you're a gymnast doesn't mean you have perfect balance all the time," Florya interjected from behind Reynarden.

In her hands, she had the crutches. Though he made a face, Reynarden took the crutches and tucked them under his arms. "I'm assuming you won't let me do my usual workout."

"Absolutely not!" Elara blinked and glanced at Fiosynod and Florya, who'd spoken together.

She raised her eyebrows at Reynarden, amused by the blush staining his cheeks. "I take it this isn't the first time you've pushed your recovery?"

"I just don't like to sit around," Reynarden admitted, ducking his head.

Kira reached over and rested a hand on his arm. "Take it from me, Rey: you'll recover quicker if you listen to Elara."

"The point's taken." Reynarden nodded, turning his hand to clasp Kira's for a moment.

As Reynarden turned to head back the way he'd come, Elara looked at Kira and Fiosynod, wondering about the nods they'd exchanged. As they followed Reynarden, Elara returned to the gym to work out like she'd planned.

*

Elara enjoyed this chance to get to know Reynarden and his family, but it did make it difficult for them to have a proper, serious conversation. A few times, it was Fiosynod or Kira who interrupted them, but most of the interruptions came from one or both of Reynarden's parents. Once, Aleksei commed her and Elara had to take it because she didn't know when she'd next get to speak to him directly. That would be decided by both their handlers. Lieutenant Bryni, a red-skinned Nautolan, seemed reasonable enough, but Captain Kalor asked Elara to contact him ASAP. She asked Reynarden to join her for it, both of them in full uniform, and he agreed without question. "Captain Kalor. This is Elara Dorne, personnel number 22-795, reporting in per your request."

"Always the whole mess. Every time." Kalor shook his head slightly before continuing. "Anyway, yes, thank you for returning my call, Elara. It's about this whole situation with your brother. You did a great job, obviously, but people are starting to think you have more information than you're sharing."

Elara stared up at his holoimage, stunned that anyone would think that, simply because she'd encouraged her brother to defect. Reynarden moved to stand beside Elara, one of his hands pressing against the small of her back. "Elara got a lead, and we acted on it. End of story."

"Maybe, maybe not." Kalor eyed Reynarden for a moment before looking back at her. "Elara, if you have information you'd like to share, I think this would be a good time for you to come in."

Recovering from her surprise and comforted by Reynarden's presence at her side, Elara told him, "I appreciate the offer, but I have no further information of value to you."

"Suit yourself." Kalor shrugged dismissively, but she didn't trust his casual reaction. "I have work to do--Kalor out."

She stared at the blank holocomm, feeling tears sting her eyes. "He's still demanding more, after everything I've done." Elara dashed away the tears gathering in her eyes. "What do I have to do to prove myself?"

"You're a good soldier, Elara," Reynarden told her, moving his hand up to squeeze her shoulder comfortingly. "You've got nothing to prove."

She managed a tiny, shaky smile. "Thank you, sir--Reynarden. But I think it's clear that some people don't feel the same way." Taking his hand from her shoulder, she gave it a squeeze. "If you'll excuse me, I'd like to be alone right now."

"Of course." Reynarden looked disappointed, but he nodded all the same, giving her hand a squeeze in return. "If you want to talk, you know where to find me."

Nodding, Elara let go of his hand and headed towards her rooms. She would have liked to stay with him, but she felt too raw, too vulnerable. Luckily, she didn't encounter anyone on her way. Once the door closed behind her, she slumped to the floor and let the tears come. She buried her face in her arms and huddled in on herself. Why is he so suspicious? Is it just me, or are there others in the same position?

*

One morning, as Elara approached the gym, she overheard Reynarden remark to someone else in the room, "I finally heard from Jaxo. It's not like her to go silent so abruptly."

"How can you be sure it's not like her?" Fiosynod responded and Elara hesitated just outside the door. "Maybe you just haven't known her long enough."

After a few moments, Reynarden replied, sounding troubled. "I-- I don't know, but I just get the feeling that she's hiding something from me."

"You two had one night together," Fiosynod's voice was as gentle as Elara had ever heard it. "That's not much to build a relationship on."

Reynarden sighed deeply. "I know, but she was there when I found out about those civs I--"

"Oh, Rey." From the sounds, Elara guessed that Fiosynod had pulled his brother into a hug. "You did what you thought was best."

His voice muffled, Reynarden said, "I knew it was wrong, but Garza ordered me to do it, so I did. I don't know how she can sleep at night, making decisions like that."

"You couldn't have known." Fiosynod's voice remained gentle and soothing. After a moment, he cleared his throat and said, "So, Jaxo was there when you found out they hadn't been dangerous after all?"

Reynarden cleared his throat, too, and his voice sounded stronger when he replied. "Yeah, she understood why I was so upset and didn't think less of me for crying about it."

"She sounds like a good woman, but you two haven't spent much time together in the grand scheme of things." Fiosynod's voice sounded firm now, while remaining gentle. "Are you sure you want to build a relationship on that?"

After a few moments, Reynarden sighed again. "No, but I still want to keep in touch."

"And she's doing exactly that," Fiosynod reminded him. "C'mon, let's go clean up."

Elara scrambled back from the door and around a corner, ashamed to realize she'd been eavesdropping. She waited until they'd left before going into the gym to begin her workout. Who's this Jaxo? Is she part of the reason Reynarden-- Stop it, Elara. You're not even sure if he likes you! Maybe if I encouraged him somehow? I've never flirted before, but it can't be that difficult, can it?

*

Before Elara could gather enough courage to act on her decision, General Garza summoned them to the Senate Tower. As they followed Reynarden to Garza's office, Elara guessed that their leave was over. They entered and saluted Garza before standing at ease. She told Reynarden he was being awarded the Republic Mark of Victory for his work against Commander Tavus and the other traitors. At this announcement, Elara had to fight back a smile. He certainly deserved it and she couldn't be prouder for him. Garza wasn't done, though, "In addition, due to your exemplary leadership under the most dire of circumstances, you are hereby promoted to the rank of captain, effective immediately. Congratulations."

"Thank you very much, General." Reynarden saluted her again, somehow managing to stand even taller, if that was possible.

Garza returned the salute, looking very proud. "You've more than earned it." She gestured towards where Aric, Elara, and Forex stood. "It's time for you to designate one of your squad members as your executive officer. Your XO will serve as your second-in-command and be promoted to the rank of lieutenant. As droids cannot hold rank, your choice is between sergeants Jorgan and Dorne."

Reynarden turned to face them, his expression unreadable as he glanced between them. Clearing his throat, he asked, "Let's start with you, Jorgan. Why should I give you this promotion?"

"Are you serious?" Aric asked incredulously, as if he was surprised that Reynarden was even asking him. "I was a lieutenant when you met me. I was an operations officer on Ord Mantell for more than three years." His next words were almost snarled. "If Tavus hadn't left the lazy jerks upstairs hungry for a scapegoat, I'd still be a lieutenant. Besides--you've seen my results in the field. I'm obviously the most qualified for executive officer."

"Sergeant Dorne has done a lot for this squad, Jorgan," Reynarden reminded Aric, clasping his hands in front of him.

Aric glanced at Elara and she met his gaze calmly. Looking back at Reynarden, Aric said, "Yes, she's a great medic, and she knows the regs--but she doesn't have the training or experience that I have, sir. Thank you for hearing me out."

"Tell me what makes you the best choice for the job, Dorne," Reynarden asked, turning to Elara once Aric finished speaking.

Elara unconsciously shifted into a position of attention as she answered the question, keeping her voice calm and professional. "I believe my service record speaks for itself, sir. In spite of my short time in the Republic Army, I have received multiple commendations and glowing performance reviews." She couldn't resist a subtle dig at Aric, though. "As you've seen firsthand, I carry out my duties professionally and precisely at all times. Finally, I have extensive personal knowledge of the tactics and training of our enemy--more so, perhaps, than any other soldier in the Republic."

"Sergeant Jorgan already has a lot of command experience," Reynarden reminded her.

This time, Elara glanced at Aric, who gazed back with an arch look. Returning her attention to Reynarden, she told him, "Yes, sir, but I think you'll agree that Sergeant Jorgan's combative demeanor is not a recommended quality for a position of authority." She and Aric got along well enough, but that was one thing that had bothered her about him. "Thank you for allowing me to speak, sir."

For several moments, Reynarden looked between them and Elara could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he thought about which of them to choose as his XO. Finally, he cleared his throat and said, "Elara Dorne, I hereby promote you to the rank of lieutenant."

"Thank you very much, Captain," Elara told him, saluting crisply, touched and honored that he'd chosen her as his XO. "I will endeavor to serve well."

"I know you will." He returned her salute, and then turned to face Garza.

She explained her main reason for calling them in: an undercover SIS agent discovered that the Empire was building a superweapon, code-named 'Gauntlet'. They didn't have more information and needed to extract the agent in question. "The extraction will take place on Tatooine. An SIS agent will meet you there with the full details of the operation. She looked at them sternly. "Failure is not an option, Captain. We have to learn what the Gauntlet is and what it's capable of, no matter the cost. Dismissed."

They saluted and exited Garza's office. Once outside the Senate Tower, Reynarden remarked, "So much for our leave." He then addressed the three of them. "Gather your gear and report to the ship. We leave ASAP."

"Yes, sir." Aric saluted and left, presumably for wherever he'd been staying.

"I have no gear to collect," Forex informed them. "I will meet you at the ship, sir." He turned towards Elara. "Congratulations, Lieutenant Dorne, on your promotion."

She smiled, touched. "Thank you, Forex."

"We'll see you on the ship, Forex," Reynarden told him.

Forex marched off for the spaceport. Elara and Reynarden followed at a slower pace, headed for the taxi. After a short silence, Elara asked, "Why me, sir?"

"Instead of Aric?" Reynarden asked. Elara nodded. "Because you balance me in a way that Aric doesn't. Both he and I tend to rely on our instincts and gut feelings. I need an XO who considers situations rationally and won't let their emotions get the better of them."

Elara nodded, relieved by his explanation. She'd worried that he'd picked her because he was attracted to her. If that had been the case, she'd have felt obliged to refuse the promotion and maybe even request a transfer. Some officers in the Imperial military traded on their looks and seduction to rise through the ranks. Elara had always preferred to earn her promotions based on her abilities as a soldier and a medic. "I understand, sir, and thank you for the honor."

"You're welcome, Elara." He smiled warmly at her and they climbed into the taxi, riding up to his parents' penthouse apartment in companionable silence.

The Drondils were naturally disappointed to learn that Reynarden's leave was over. Much to Elara's surprise, they were just as disappointed to see Elara go. Florya and Bryden both hugged her tightly and asked her to keep in touch. Fiosynod and Kira hugged her as well and whispered that they hoped to see her again once they returned to their own duties. With their bags in hand, Reynarden and Elara left for the spaceport. She had to wipe away a tear as they climbed into the taxi. "Your family is very lovely, Reynarden."

"I know." Reynarden found her hand with his and squeezed it lightly. "We hate to say good-bye, but they understand why I chose to serve."

She nodded, clearing her throat. "Yes. My parents were the same way."

"I'm sure they understand all your choices." Reynarden twined their fingers together.

Elara shook her head, unable to speak. He didn't push her to say anything else, giving her the space she needed to compose herself.

*

Not surprisingly, Aric barely spoke to Elara once they were all aboard and on their way to Tatooine. She was a little hurt, but tried not to let it get to her. She focused on putting her gear away and changing into the new armor she'd requisitioned, complete with her new rank insignia. Ready, she left the crew quarters in time to hear Reynarden say, "I will let that slide this once, Jorgan, because I understand that you're angry. However, it was unworthy of you to even consider it."

"I notice you haven't denied it. Sir." Aric's words were snarled rather than spoken once again. "You've been flirting with her since we met her on Taris. She spent her leave with you at your parents' home. What else am I to think?"

Elara's back stiffened as she realized the exact accusation Aric was making. Reynarden's voice when he answered was quiet and angry. "I would never make this sort of decision based on my attraction to a person."

"So you say," Aric retorted. Whatever else he might have said was interrupted by the meaty thud of flesh hitting flesh.

Elara reached the armory in time to see Aric take a swing Reynarden that their CO easily dodged. She narrowed her eyes at them. "Gentlemen, if you're going to spar, may I suggest you do it in the workout area?"

Aric gave a wordless snarl and lunged past Reynarden at Elara. She sidestepped him and punched him with just enough force in the right spot to knock him out cold. Gazing down at Aric, Reynarden asked quietly, "How much did you hear?"

"Enough to know that he accused you of naming me your XO because you want in my pants," Elara answered calmly, helping Reynarden pick up Aric and carry him into the medbay.

"Damn, I hoped we could keep it between us." Reynarden sighed, helping Elara strap Aric to the medbed.

She shrugged, ensuring the straps were tight around his wrists and ankles, but not too tight. "Let's hope he'll listen to reason once he has a chance to sleep off his anger."

"I certainly hope so." Reynarden met Elara's eyes. "He's wrong, you know."

Elara nodded, not looking away. "I know. You told me your reason earlier."

"I'm glad." He smiled, relieved, and left, presumably for his own quarters.

Alone, Elara let out a deep sigh and proceeded to take inventory of their medical supplies. They'd requisitioned more supplies upon their return to Coruscant and she wanted to be sure everything had made it. Just as she finished, she heard Aric stirring. Turning, she saw him staring at the straps on his arms with some puzzlement. "Sergeant Jorgan."

"Lieutenant Dorne." He looked sheepish. "Um..."

She folded her arms across her chest, giving him her best stern look. "Are you willing to listen like a rational being to Captain Drondil's reason for making the choice he did regarding executive officer?"

"He already told me," Aric sighed, turning his gaze to the ceiling. "I'm-- It makes sense. I just didn't want to let go of my anger. Not yet."

Elara nodded, releasing the straps. "I understand your anger, but if that's going to be a problem, we can't trust you to watch our backs in the field."

"No, it's not going to be a problem," Aric told her, sitting up and rubbing his wrists.

She studied him for several moments and nodded. "I believe you. I don't know if Reynarden will, though. It's up to you to convince him."

"I will do my best." Aric tilted his head curiously. "May I go?"

For answer, she stepped back to give him room to stand up. "I hope that's the last time we have to do that, to you or any other squad members."

"Same here." Aric stood up. After a moment, he saluted her. "Lieutenant."

She returned the salute, relieved. "Sergeant."

He left the medbay and she slumped against the bed. I knew he'd be angry, but not like that.

*

Their SIS contact on Tatooine was none other than Jonas Balkar. He congratulated both Reynarden and Elara on their promotions. After explaining the situation, he wished them luck and sent them on their way. The extraction itself went about as well as they could have hoped. When they emerged from the cave that led to the crash site, a familiar voice said, "Rey? Elara?"

"Talk about a small galaxy, Fio." Reynarden grinned, stepping forward to hug his brother. "I thought you were still on Coruscant?"

Fiosynod returned the hug, looking sheepish. "I, um, was sent here to Tatooine to help a fellow Jedi who'd been stranded here."

"Who's your new friend, Rey?" Kira asked, eyeing Prellon Garn, who looked bemused as the brothers talked.

Saluting, Garn told her, "SIS Agent Prellon Garn, at your service, Master Jedi."

"Jedi Knight Kira Carsen," she replied, bowing slightly. She nodded to Fiosynod. "The rude one over there is my former master, Jedi Knight Fiosynod Drondil."

Reynarden interjected then, "Fio here is my brother."

"Well, Jonas trusted you to save my ass, so I'll trust your word about Knight Drondil, Captain," Garn told him.

Since they were all headed back to the spaceport, they travelled together across the desert, watching each other's backs. Once there, they said their good-byes and headed to their separate hangars. Jonas greeted them with a pleased smile. After handing over twenty credits to Jonas, Garn told them about the Gauntlet: "It's a massive cannon, built into the frame of an Imperial battle cruiser. It's no ordinary cannon. It can fire on ships traveling through hyperspace, where they're completely helpless. Warships going down in one shot."

"A weapon that powerful could win the war by itself," Reynarden mused, looking worried.

Garn nodded. "Exactly. We have to move fast to stop this thing."

While Jonas arranged for him to transmit his report to Coruscant, Havoc Squad returned to their ship and flew back to Coruscant. When they reported to Garza's office, she wasn't alone. Fleet Admiral Numinn and Supreme Commander Rans were present as well, helping to develop a plan to take out the Gauntlet. "Destroying the Gauntlet will require a coordinated naval and infantry strike of unprecedented scale. Our forces must begin preparing now."

"In the midst of the assault we're planning, a single commando team will board the Gauntlet and sabotage it from within," Garza informed them when Rans nodded to her. "We've chosen Havoc Squad to carry out this task."

"Havoc Squad will be proud to end this threat to the Republic, sir," Reynarden answered briskly, saluting them.

Garza nodded. "Your team will need to be expanded. You'll need a technical specialist and an explosives expert."

"The general and I have scoured the entire Republic personnel database to locate the two most highly qualified specialists available," Rans assured them.

Garza gave them a stern look. "Both men are engaged in active operations--the first on Balmorra. Extract him and report to me as quickly as possible. Understood?"

"If I have your leave, I'll get started immediately, General," Reynarden replied, his shoulders twitching just a little before he remembered his place.

Garza nodded, returning his salute. "Absolutely, Captain. The sooner Havoc Squad is at full strength, the sooner we can begin the assault on the Gauntlet. Dismissed."

They saluted and left the Senate Tower, heading straight for the spaceport. Once they were headed to Balmorra, Elara found Reynarden in the cockpit, watching hyperspace swirl past. "Reynarden? I need your approval to requisition some supplies for my medical kit."

"I thought you did that already?" He glanced at her with a frown.

"I requisitioned supplies for the ship, but not for me to take into the field," she explained with a sheepish smile. Reynarden chuckled in reply. "I've categorized the items by relative priority. Everything fits within our allotment under supply code eighteen, but items near the bottom of the list can wait if necessary."

He nodded, accepting the datapad she offered him and filling out the required fields. "Best to make sure you can still patch up my handsome face."

"Yes, Reynarden, I'd say your features are worthy of preservation," Elara remarked, her heartbeat racing a little at her boldness.

She wondered if she'd gone too far when he stared at her in surprise. "Was that... were you just flirting with me?"

"I see no reason I shouldn't be free to flirt if you do," she retorted, accepting the datapad from him. "Provided it doesn't interfere with operational effectiveness, of course."

Reynarden chuckled. "Of course." His blue eyes danced as she stood up. "Feel free to flirt whenever you like, Elara."

"Thank you, Reynarden." Feeling her cheeks grow warm, Elara beat a hasty retreat and focused on preparing for the upcoming mission on Balmorra.

*

Since Balmorra was so close to Coruscant, the trip there didn't take very long. Elara spent that time sending in her requisition and inspecting her gear. Seetoo had done a good job cleaning it of sand after their trip to Tatooine. She changed in peace and emerged from the crew quarters just as the ship dropped out of hyperspace. Rather than watch Reynarden and Aric dock at the space station, Elara moved to the holoterminal to prepare it for the call to General Garza. She nodded when the others joined her at the terminal and took her place standing behind and to Reynarden's right while he completed the call to Garza.

Elara already knew about the situation on Balmorra. Her father had complained about the resistance more than once before she defected. They weren't there to help the resistance take back their planet, but to find their new explosives expert, Tanno Vik. "He's a Weequay, and a natural at demolitions work. But he also has a history of insubordination and collateral damage. Keep him on a short leash."

"I'm sure I can keep him out of trouble, General," Reynarden answered confidently. Elara wondered if it was at least partly bravado, because he had his hands clasped tightly together behind his back.

"I hope so," Garza answered sternly. She straightened slightly when she continued. "To be clear: Vik's infractions were not minor and they led to hi dishonorable discharge over a year ago. He is, however, the most skilled demolitionist on record--and Havoc Squad needs the best."

Reynarden nodded, his hands clenched into fists behind his back now. His voice was confident and steady when he replied, "I'm sure he'll work out fine."

"Just be sure to keep an eye on him." Garza's gaze shifted to Elara and Aric for a moment. "Vik is currently fighting as a mercenary for the Balmorran resistance." Elara nodded slightly. That explained why they were looking for him here when he wasn't even in the Army anymore. "His supervisor is a resistance leader named Ardon. Meet with him, learn where Vik is stationed, and pull him out as quickly as possible. Contact me when you've done so. Garza out."

Reynarden let out a gusty sigh when her holoimage disappeared and leaned forward against the terminal. "Yeah, this is going to go so well."

"He'd better be a damn good demolitionist," Aric growled, his lips curling just enough to show the tips of his fangs.

Elara hesitantly rested her hand on Reynarden's arm, between the plates so he could feel it. He glanced at her with an attempt at a smile that looked more like a grimace. Sighing, he covered her hand with his. "I hate to say this, Elara, but you should probably not say much while we're dirtside. At least around the resistance.'

"I understand, Captain," she told him, stifling a sigh. Sadly, she did. Far too well. Still, as Havoc Squad's medic and XO, she would do her duty and do it well.

She blinked when Reynarden cupped her cheek with one hand, raising her eyebrows at him. "I don't care that you're former Imperial, Elara. I hope you understand that."

"I do, Reynarden," she replied, covering his hand with hers. "Not everyone is as open-minded and understanding as you and, frankly, I'm more used to suspicion than acceptance."

He nodded and squeezed her hand for a moment before dropping his and stepping back. He turned to Aric and Forex. "Let's go get this over with."

"After you, Lieutenant Dorne," Aric told her with an expression she couldn't quite interpret. Feeling her cheeks grow warm, Elara hastily pulled on her helmet and followed Reynarden from the ship.

*

When Reynarden approached Ardon, the latter's opinion of the Republic Army was crystal clear. The fact that they were pulling Tanno Vik out didn't help. After telling them where they could find their new squadmate, scowling all the while, Ardon said, "Now, if that's all--there are real soldiers who need my time."

"Thank you for your cooperation," Reynarden retorted, accepting the printout Ardon offered, presumably with the coordinates to find Tanno. Ardon gave no indication that he'd heard and Reynarden stalked away, rejoining Elara, Aric, and Forex, who'd hung back. "Let's go to these coordinates and get off this rock."

As Reynarden pulled out his datapad to enter the coordinates, Aric asked, "Sir, when has a mission ever been this easy?"

"Never," Reynarden muttered, nodding to Elara when he finished entering the coordinates.

As they started to leave, Forex declared, "We will triumph regardless of the adversity we face."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Forex," Reynarden replied, sounding amused.

Upon exiting the base, they ran almost directly into a familiar group. "Hey, Rey!"

"Hello, Jeveen." Reynarden grinned as he greeted her with a hug.

She'd flitted on and off Coruscant during their leave and they'd met a few times just to spend time together. They'd been joined a couple of those times by Normajh. Despite their physical differences, the two were very similar in personality, though Jedi training had tempered Normajh's sarcasm into a sly sense of humor more akin to Reynarden's. Jeveen thumped Reynarden's shoulder with her fist and promptly shook it. "Why didn't you tell me you'd been promoted? I had to hear it from Norm, who heard it from Fio."

"I was a little distracted," Reynarden admitted, and then grinned. "Elara's been promoted, too."

Grinning, Jeveen turned and hugged Elara, much to her surprise. "Congrats! Both of you."

"We really should get going, Jeveen," Risha interjected then, her arms folded across her chest. "It's never a good idea to keep a contact waiting."

Jeveen made a face, but nodded. "Yeah, you're right." She waggled a finger in Reynarden's face. "I owe you a drink." She looked at Elara. "You, too."

"If we ever have downtime at the same time, I'll hold you to it," Reynarden told her with a grin and a wink.

Laughing, Jeveen waved for Risha, Corso, and Bowdaar to follow her into the base. Smiling, Reynarden led them to the taxi droid. As they settled into their seats, Aric remarked, "If past incidents are any indication, we should run into Norm and Fio at some point as well."

"The probability of that happening, Sergeant Jorgan, is very low," Forex countered, his chassis carefully wedged into the back.

Elara twisted slightly in her seat, pleased to see Reynarden's smile. "That doesn't mean it won't happen, Forex."

"Here's hoping whatever brings Norm and Fio to Balmorra isn't too bad," Reynarden interjected with a sigh. They finished the trip in silence.

*

Reynarden waited until they'd set out for the first relay to ask, "Dorne, that reg Vik cited didn't have anything to do with what he said, did it?"

"No, sir, it didn't," Elara confirmed with a nod, keeping her attention on their surroundings. "It's about the size and positioning of improvised field latrines."

Aric gave a snort of laughter, watching their rear as they moved forward. "That sounds about right. Bet he's real familiar with those regs if he has a history of insubordination."

"I don't know about a 'big push' coming, but why would he pick now to do this?" Reynarden wondered aloud.

None of them had a chance to answer because they spotted Imperial troops around the first relay. They took them out and Reynarden reinstalled the power couplings. Once he finished, Aric suggested, "Maybe Vik didn't know we were coming?"

"Ardon doesn't strike me as the type to not tell a soldier that we're coming," Elara replied as they set off for the next relay.

Reynarden made an annoyed sound. "I could see him sending someone off on one last mission just before he's set to leave Balmorra."

"Just to inconvenience the best army in the galaxy?" Forex wondered, shooting Imperial soldiers when Reynarden pointed them out.

Aric, who'd climbed a few meters up a small mountain, reported via comm, "That's all of the soldiers by the relay, Captain. We're clear to approach."

"Thanks, Sergeant." They still approached cautiously. "To answer your question, Forex, organics have a tendency to do things out of spite that defy logic."

Elara stifled a laugh as Aric rejoined them. "Well, organics aren't known for logic and rationality on the whole, sir."

"I stand corrected, Lieutenant." He glanced back at her, but his helmet made it impossible to see his expression. Still, she could hear the smile in his voice.

They finished turning the relays back on and returned to the two technicians. They thanked them profusely and even brought up a recording they'd made from tapping Vik's comms: "--a dangerous mission, no doubt about it. To be honest, a lot of you probably won't make it back."

"Collateral damage," Reynarden muttered, shaking his head.

Elara pressed her lips tightly together, glad she'd kept her helmet on. "Of course, if you asked the guys up top, they'd never even admit to ordering this mission. That's how it is in this business." Their comms were sensitive enough to pick up Aric's quiet growl. Reynarden made a cutting motion with his hand behind his back as the recording continued, "But we're not here for glory or credits--we're here to save Balmorra. Am I right?"

"They're here for Balmorra," Aric muttered before Reynarden made another cutting motion.

Prand nodded slightly towards Aric. "This next part is the important one."

"Step one is Sobrik--once we have what we need there, it will be a straight shot to our final objective." If Tanno said anything else, they didn't hear it because Prand turned off the recording.

He looked at Reynarden with a sharp-edged smile. "Sobrik's an Imperial-occupied city, one of their main bases of operations on Balmorra. Sounds like you could catch up to Vik there."

"We'd better move out right away." Reynarden nodded slightly, his shoulders straightening.

After Prand gave them a name and location, they set off for the coordinates for his contact in Special Forces. As they rode the taxi, Elara told him quietly. "They're right about Sobrik, sir. Infiltrating it won't be easy for us, let alone a group of resistance soldiers."

"Someone like Vik wouldn't have set his sights on Sobrik without a plan of some kind," Aric interjected, leaning forward from his seat.

Reynarden nodded, tapping his fingers on his helmet in his lap. "That thing about the leaders denying they ordered this mission? I don't think they really did."

"You're saying he lied?" Forex inquired incredulously.

Elara thought back on what Garza had told them about Tanno Vik and glanced at Reynarden. She raised her eyebrows slightly at him, glad she'd thought to take off her helmet for the moment. He nodded in reply and she nodded back. Tanno was a loose cannon and had taken advantage of the situation to gain something for himself.

*

"Captain, I have eyes on your brother and Knight Carsen at the checkpoint," Aric reported as Reynarden and Elara sidled their way towards the first checkpoint.

Since they were trying to be sneaky, they'd left Forex at the Troida Workshop to help defend it. At Aric's report, Reynarden glanced at Elara, and then asked, "Do they need help?"

"No, sir. They're the only ones standing there. Them and that little astromech. Teeseven?" Aric sounded impressed.

Nodding, Reynarden jerked his head and he and Elara approached the checkpoint openly. They could see Fiosynod and Kira now. Just as Fiosynod finished a holocomm call, Reynarden shouted, "Hey, Fio!"

"Rey!" Fiosynod turned and grinned as Reynarden and Elara jogged up the ramp to the top of the checkpoint. "What brings you here?"

Elara began rummaging through the crates for the parts they needed as they talked. "Garza wants to bring Havoc Squad up to full strength and one of the soldiers she wants me to recruit is here on Balmorra."

"That doesn't explain why you're here," Kira replied as Elara found some fuses and handed them to Aric, who'd finally joined them.

Reynarden sighed deeply. "It'll take a bit to explain and we can't really waste time."

"Knight Fio + Knight Kira + T7 = can't waste time," Teeseven chimed in then. "Doc = counting on us."

Fiosynod nodded, indicating the other two checkpoints. "Yeah. We need to get to the other two checkpoints and hack those comm terminals."

"Mind some company?" Reynarden asked and Elara didn't try to hide her smile, since she was wearing her helmet once again. "We're heading to those, too, and then into Sobrik."

Kira smiled when Fiosynod agreed with another nod. "Yeah. What we're doing will actually help in that respect."

As the six of them fought their way to the other two checkpoints, Fiosynod and Reynarden exchanged what information they could about their missions. Elara found herself walking alongside Kira, who asked in a quiet voice, "Have you and Rey talked?"

"No, we keep getting interrupted," Elara answered, just as quiet. Feeling her cheeks heat under her helmet, she added, "I, um, flirted with him."

"That's good." Kira grinned encouragingly. "How did Rey take it?"

Elara gave a soft huff of laughter. "He was very surprised."

"I'm sure he appreciated it, though," Kira nudged her with her elbow, and then winced because her elbow had hit Elara's armor.

The next moment, they saw that Fiosynod had leapt up onto the checkpoint, blue lightsaber flashing. Reynarden hurried up the ramp, pulling out his assault cannon as he went. When he reached the top, he shifted into a ready stance and began firing. Kira jumped up to join Fiosynod, two green blades blooming as she joined the fray. Elara took a few steps back so she was even with Aric and Teeseven. The three of them then opened fire, helping to take out the rest of the Imperial soldiers. Once they were gone, Elara led Aric and Teeseven up to the checkpoint. The red and silver astromech rolled over to the comm terminal in the middle to access it. While he did that, Aric rummaged through the crates. Reynarden reached out and tugged at Kira's sleeve, which had a tear in it above the bracer, making her wince. "Looks like you could use some healing, Kira."

"Yeah, I do." Kira pushed up her sleeve so Elara could take care of the slowly-oozing burn.

Elara carefully spread kolto on the injury. "What about you, Captain?"

"I'm fine." Reynarden assured her. "Kira and Fio took most of the fire."

As Elara smoothed a bandage over the spot, Kira extended her other hand towards Fiosynod just as he finished the holocall. A moment later, he twitched, and then groaned, half-sitting, half-falling onto a crate. "What was that for, Kira?"

"I'm not the only one who got hurt," Kira replied in a sing-song voice.

Elara gave Fiosynod a stern look. He glared back for a moment before sighing and reaching down to remove his right boot and sock. She sat down next to him so he could prop his foot in her lap. "This is the same one you injured on Taris."

"That foot's always been prone to sprains and twists," Fiosynod admitted as Elara bound his ankle, which began to swell now that he wasn't wearing his boot.

She nodded, ensuring the wrap was tight enough to contain the swelling. "I have some painkillers for both Zabrak and Sith hybrids if you'd like some."

"Yeah, I'll need it." Fiosynod sighed and nodded.

Elara injected the painkiller into his leg above the wrap, and then handed him his sock and boot. As he put them back on, Aric spoke up. "I have the casings, Captain. We still need detonite."

"Right, we still have one more checkpoint to hit." Reynarden nodded as Fiosynod stood up. He pulled out his holocomm to contact Forex and tell him to head to Sobrik. That done, they headed for the last checkpoint.

*

Apparently, everyone needed to hit Sobrik, because they encountered Normajh, Qyzen, and Tharan while they were taking out the jammers. They worked together for a time and Tharan proved to be a crack shot with a blaster, quick with a medkit, and even knew enough about droids to help Forex when a lucky shot scrambled his vocal processor. They parted ways after that, because Normajh needed to go to the cantina and their objective was in Imperial HQ.

Once inside, they found Jeveen and Risha providing covering fire for Bowdaar, Corso, and a red(?)-skinned Zabrak woman in Mandalorian armor as they fought Imperial soldiers. Without a word, Forex joined the others while Reynarden, Elara, and Aric added their firepower. When the last Imperial fell, the Zabrak turned and nodded to Jeveen before proceeding further into the facility. The smell of singed fur had Elara reaching for her medkit well before Bowdaar rejoined them, favoring his left side. "Thanks for the assist, Rey."

"Not at all, Jeveen," Reynarden replied, checking his generator as Elara took care of a couple nasty gashes on Bowdaar's side. "Norm and Fio are here in Sobrik, too. Did you know that?"

She nodded, digging in Elara's medkit to pull out a kolto bandage for Corso. "Well, I knew about Norm. We came here together and saw some of your handiwork. Very nice, by the way."

"Thanks." Rey grinned and winked at Jeveen, who grinned back. "Fio's here to protect the resistance as they hack the Imperial database to find where some resistance prisoners are being held so they can free them."

Corso grunted when Jeveen firmly pressed the kolto bandage on his arm. "Everyone's bein' awfully buddy-buddy with the resistance: Jeveen, Norm, Fio."

Reynarden shook his head when Corso looked at him meaningfully. "Not us. The resistance isn't fond of the Republic Army anyway."

"Now we're trying to recruit a resistance member to Havoc Squad," Elara added, accepting the bandages Jeveen hadn't used.

Aric growled very briefly. "You should have heard the way he talked to Rey. I don't know how he kept his temper in the face of it."

"I looked at it from his point of view," Reynarden explained with a shrug. "I'm poaching one of his most valuable soldiers without giving anything in return."

Risha gave an unladylike snort. "That's always a bad deal."

"Maybe Captain Drondil will find a way to make it more even," Bowdaar suggested, and then he rested his hand on Elara's shoulder. "Thank you, Lieutenant."

She smiled up at the Wookiee. "You're welcome, Bowdaar."

"We'd better get going. Akaavi's waiting for us." Jeveen pointed her thumb over her shoulder.

Reynarden glanced over his shoulder at the remains of a durasteel door that had been blasted open. "That's our destination over there."

"Damn." Jeveen stepped forward and hugged him. "See you some other time, then."

He nodded, hugging her back. "You, too. Stay alive."

"You, too." She grinned and headed off with the others at her heels.

Turning on his heel, Reynarden led them in the opposite direction. Despite Major Triam's prediction, they didn't find Vik there. Or the resistance soldiers he'd left behind. They at least made contact with Tanno via holo. When he signed off, Reynarden gave a frustrated grunt. "Collateral damage, all right."

"I don't buy that he's doing this for Balmorra," Aric growled as he took the holocomm and retrieved Vik's contact information from it.

Elara nodded her agreement, double-checking her medkit. "From Vik's attitude, I would say that Sergeant Jorgan's assessment is accurate."

"That lines up with my thinking, too." Reynarden agreed, taking the holocomm and dropping it onto the resistance soldier's body. "Let's go."

*

After Vik 'asked' them to take down the aerial shield generator, Elara almost hesitantly asked, "Are you sure we have to do this, Captain? He should be taking orders from you, not the other way around."

"Unfortunately, Vik knows exactly how to play his cards." Reynarden scowled as he stuffed his holocomm into his utility belt. "He's technically not back in the Army yet, so I can't really do anything about his behavior right now."

Aric nodded his agreement. "He's taking full advantage of the situation."

"I'll be ready with any number of regulation-approved punishments when the opportunity arises," Elara assured him, wishing she could say or do something more.

Reynarden smiled weakly in reply and opened the holomap. "Let's see, the shield generator he wants us to take out is in that crater over there."

"The sooner we take it out, the sooner we can catch up to Vik," Aric remarked as Reynarden closed the holomap and tucked it away.

Reynarden set off, closely followed by the rest of them. Tromping along with Aric, Forex declared, "Nothing is too difficult for Havoc Squad."

"Are you all right, Captain?" Elara asked quietly, wishing she could take away his obvious frustration somehow.

He shook his head, grimacing. "Vik's a Weequay. Have you ever seen a small one?"

"No, they've all been tall and broad," Elara admitted. After a moment, she realized why it worried him. "You think he might not take you seriously because of your size?"

Reynarden nodded slightly. "Yeah. Though most people are smaller than him, so maybe it won't be much of a factor."

"Something tells me his attitude would be the same regardless of your relative sizes," Elara told him, hoping that it was some comfort to him. He smiled faintly, but they had to fight the next moment. When they finally reached the crater with the Imperial base, Elara couldn't help studying it with a critical eye. "Rather hasty fortifications on the Imperials' part. Certainly not up to regulations."

"Makes things easier for us," Reynarden replied, glancing between the crater and the holomap.

Aric looked at it over his shoulder and pointed with one clawed fingertip. "I think that'll be easiest for us."

"Yeah, my thought, too." Closing the holomap and putting it away, Reynarden carefully led them down into the base.

They didn't encounter anything out of the ordinary until they reached the terminal that controlled the shield generator. As Elara tapped buttons and scrolled through menus, looking for a way to destroy the shield generator, or at least disable it, an explosion across the way startled them. The ground under their feet shook a moment later, but they easily kept their balance. The interruption helped in a way, because Elara accidentally opened a menu that led her to the command she wanted. She triggered it and looked at the others. "The aerial shield is down, Captain."

"Good, let's get out of here and tell Vik," Reynarden nodded at Elara and led them up out of the crater base.

*

Thankfully, when Reynarden demanded Tanno's coordinates, the Weequay didn't really argue except to make a remark about not enjoying the moment. After he ended the call, Reynarden's shoulders dropped. "Well, he might not be as difficult to work with as I feared."

"We can only wait and see," Elara pointed out quietly, biting her lip for a moment before squeezing his arm just below his shoulderplate.

He smiled weakly at her before putting his helmet back on. When they reached the coordinates Vik had sent them, they found Imperial soldiers outside the structure. As they drew their weapons, Reynarden muttered, "I have a bad feeling about this."

"We will prevail!" Forex announced, marching forward at a nod from Reynarden, his weapons powering up. "For the Republic!"

As the Imperials focused their fire on Forex, Reynarden, Elara, and Aric spread out behind him and opened fire themselves. When no more fire came, Aric swept the area with his scope. "Can't smell anything just yet, but I don't see anything through my scope, either."

"My scanner detects life signs in both buildings," Forex added, his 'torso' swiveling from side to side. "One in the larger one and several in the smaller one."

Nodding, Reynarden led them into the smaller building, weapons drawn. That precaution saved their lives, because the several life signs turned out to be Imperial soldiers. When they checked the other building, however, they found dead Resistance soldiers and a Twi'lek man, battered, but breathing. When he saw them, relief lit his face and he said, "Help... got to help. They took him. The imps took Vik."

"Can you do anything for him, Lieutenant Dorne?" Reynarden asked, rather unnecessarily, because Elara was already hurrying forward, reaching for her kit.

Withdrawing her scanner, she turned it on. "I'm on it, Captain."

"Th-thank you," the soldier replied with a groan, making no protest as Elara did what she could for him.

Dropping to one knee, Reynarden asked, "What happened here?"

"It was... it was that traitor, Brel Orus," the Twi'lek told them, his voice becoming less strained. "He gave the Imps our position somehow. We fought hard, but they overran us. They tore straight through and grabbed Vik."

Reynarden gave a heavy sigh, his head drooping for a moment. "Kriff. Just what we needed."

"They'll take him to the Balmorran Arms Factory," the soldier added, looking hopeful. "The Imps built a prison in the back of the complex... no one ever comes out."

Nodding, Reynarden stood up. "Well, we'll just have to change that, won't we?"

"You're a real hero, Captain. You and Vik both... you're heroes," he told Reynarden earnestly.

Elara scanned him a last time and nodded. "Your condition is stabilized, soldier-- but you need to get to a safe location immediately."

"Thanks." He managed a small smile for her. "I can make my own way back. The four of you need to save Vik."

A little hesitantly, Elara touched Reynarden's arm. "Captain..."

"Tatooine all over again?" He asked, understanding in his voice.

She nodded, wishing for a moment that they'd taken their helmets off. "Yes, sir. Sergeant Jorgan and Forex should be enough back up for you."

"Very well. Help, um, sorry, I didn't catch your name." Reynarden sounded sheepish.

Getting to his feet with some help from Elara, the Twi'lek answered, "Druan."

"Right. Help Druan back to the outpost," Reynarden ordered her. "If you see others who need medical assistance, go ahead and help them, too. If we need you, we'll contact you."

Elara nodded, saluting. "Yes, sir."

"You should really help your CO," Druan insisted as they made their careful way back to the outpost. "There are a lot of Imperials in the factory."

She shook her head, though part of her did ache to go with them. "I'm a medic, Mr. Druan, first and foremost." When they reached the outpost, she recognized a familiar group huddled around a map. "Master Par, Qyzen, Dr. Cedrax. Are you headed to the Balmorran Arms Factory?"

"Lieutenant Dorne, this is a surprise." Normajh watched as she helped Druan lay down on a cot.

She removed her helmet the next moment, brushing back a few strands of hair that had come loose from her bun. "If you hurry, you'll catch up to the others."

"Stop the Imps, please?" Druan requested weakly, looking pleadingly at Normajh.

The Jedi rested his hand on the Twi'lek's. "That's my goal."

"Medic!" "Doctor!" "Someone help us!" They turned as a group of resistance soldiers stumbled into the outpost.

Elara hurried to help them to different cots so the medical droid could scan them. When she turned to retrieve stims and bandages from the stockpile, she found Tharan still there even though Normajh and Qyzen were nowhere to be seen. She raised her eyebrows at him. "You're going to help, Dr. Cedrax?"

"With the way the fighting's going, you'll need all the help you can get, Lieutenant," Tharan explained, handing her a bundle of bandages.

Nodding, she helped tend to the soldiers, waiting tensely for any news from Reynarden. Before any came, a different voice called her name: "Lieutenant Dorne! This is a surprise."

"Hello, Knight Drondil," she replied, nodding to Fiosynod, Kira, and Teeseven. "On your way to the factory, right?"

He nodded, chuckling. "I take it Reynarden's already headed there?"

"Yes, and Master Par," she confirmed, glancing around for Tharan.

She raised her eyebrows again when she noticed him standing by one of the cots, staring at an unfamiliar human man on the other side with dark brown hair, matching mustache and soul patch. Both looked surprised, but while Tharan also looked wary, the stranger also looked angry. Fiosynod approached them, gripping the stranger's shoulder. "Doc, we should get moving."

"I'll stay and help Lieutenant Dorne," Kira offered, glancing between Tharan and Doc.

Fiosynod turned to her. "Are you sure?"

"I'm a good nurse," Kira assured him, stretching up to kiss his cheek. "The sooner you get going, the sooner you come back."

Nodding, he kissed her cheek in return. "Right. Let's go, Doc, Teeseven."

"These are my people, Cedrax," Doc told him quietly. "Don't run out on them."

Tharan drew himself to his full height. "I don't run out on patients, Doc."

"Patients, right." Grumbling, Doc followed Fiosynod and Teeseven, passing another group of wounded resistance soldiers.

As Kira helped Elara and Tharan settle them on recently-vacated cots, Elara asked in a low voice, "His name is Doc?"

"That's the only name he's given us," Kira answered, keeping her voice low, too. "Fio and I are pretty sure his given name is embarrassing."

They twitched when Tharan interjected, "It is. Trust me."

"Looks like Norm, Rey, and Fio beat us here," Jeveen commented before Elara or Kira could think of a response.

Like before, the freighter captain had Corso, Bowdaar, and Risha grouped behind her. "Hmm, I can understand why Lieutenant Dorne and Dr Cedrax are here, but why you, Knight Carsen?"

"Just call me a nurse, Risha," Kira answered with a grin. "Better hurry if you want to join in the fun at the factory."

Corso looked skeptical. "What makes you think that's where we're headin'?"

"That's where the others were headed," Elara explained with a shrug as Tharan moved to the computer terminal and began tapping keys.

Jeveen laughed, sounding a little like Reynarden, of all people. "She makes a good point, Corso. Let's go intercept that shipment."

"I'm not lookin' forward to Akaavi's reaction when she meets the moff," Corso remarked as they made their way towards the factory.

Shrugging, Elara peered over Tharan's shoulder to see what he was doing. Of all things, he was updating the soldiers' medical records. "You knew exactly where to find these."

"This isn't my first trip to Balmorra," Tharan told her, his voice quite flat and emotionless, very unlike what she was used to from him.

From her place nearby, scanning patients, Kira told him, "We gathered that much, Tharan. What happened between you and Doc?"

"History that has no bearing on the present," Tharan answered, his voice curt.

Elara shook her head. "We still have work to do. Let's focus on that."

"Yes, Lieutenant Dorne." "Aye, sir."

*

Elara didn't hear from Reynarden until he returned from the factory. "Lieutenant Dorne."

"Captain Drondil, sir!" Standing up, she saluted crisply. "All resistance soldiers have been healed as best we could manage."

Reynarden returned Elara's salute with an amused smile. "At ease, Lieutenant. That's good to hear." He handed her a datapad. "Doc took care of Vik's injuries and said this contains his medical records from his service in the resistance."

"Oh, that's good." Pleased, Elara carefully tucked the datapad away. When they reached the ship, she'd add it to Vik's military service records.

Nodding, Reynarden glanced around the outpost. "Is there anything left for you to do here?"

"No, sir. The resistance medics and droids should be able to handle things now," Elara told him, touched that he'd asked rather than assuming.

Nodding again, he gestured towards the taxi. "Let's head back to headquarters, give Ardon our respects, and get off this planet."

"Gee, Boss, I'd say you don't much care for this place," Tanno remarked as they set off.

Lifting his chin a fraction, Reynarden retorted, "I don't much care for being sent on a wild shyrack chase all over it for the sake of a few weapons."

"Could have had your pick of them," Vik reminded him, his smirk turning into a scowl.

Reynarden turned to him with raised eyebrows. "Are you regretting giving me the choice of what to do with those weapons?"

"Yeah, but can't do anything about it now." Shrugging, Tanno climbed into one taxi with Aric and Forex while Reynarden and Elara climbed into another.

As they flew back to the base, Elara glanced at Reynarden. He'd slumped back in his seat and closed his eyes. He looked very tired, but it'd been a long day for them. After a few moments, he remarked, "I can feel you staring at me, Elara."

"Sorry, Reynarden." She bit her lip and looked back at the landscape.

He chuckled. "What's on your mind?"

"Weapons? That's what Vik was after?" Elara asked, turning to see that Reynarden had opened his eyes.

Sighing, he nodded. "Yeah. Very valuable prototype weapons developed by the Balmorrans that the Imps had hidden away. He wanted to sell them."

"Obviously, that's not what you decided to do with them," she observed, thinking of Tanno's comment.

Reynarden grinned. "Nope. I decided to give them back to the Balmorrans. Maybe they'll help them win their fight once and for all."

"The Imperials aren't going to make it easy, weapons or no," Elara reminded him.

He covered her hand with his. "I didn't expect them to, but it's worth fighting for."

Before she could say anything, the taxi landed and they climbed out. The others were waiting for them and they trooped into the base. Their farewell with Ardon went about as well as Elara had expected. Reynarden wished him luck in the fight for Balmorra and they left.

On the shuttle up to the orbital station, Reynarden said, "Vik, this is Lieutenant Elara Dorne, Havoc's XO and medical officer. Elara, our newest squad member, Tanno Vik."

"Good to meet you, Lieutenant." He gave her a lazy wave.

"And I to meet you, Mr. Vik," Elara replied, biting her tongue about military protocol. He wasn't officially reinstated yet, so he didn't have to follow procedures. "Please don't try to hide if you're injured. I know Weequays are tough, but it's just better in the long run if you let me do my job. Both of them."

Tanno nodded, looking curious. "Sure. That's a mighty fancy accent you have there. Dromund Kaas? Or somewhere else in the Empire?"

"I defected from the Empire several years ago," Elara told him quietly, surprised that he didn't seem suspicious, just curious. "I was allowed to join the Republic military and Captain Drondil recruited me for Havoc Squad."

Nodding again, Vik smiled. "Welcome to the loving arms of the Republic, Lieutenant, however belated it may be."

"Thank you." Elara smiled, not sure what to make of his statement. In the end, she took it at face value and left it there.

*

Elara was glad that Reynarden decided to visit the fleet after he made his report to General Garza. They needed to requisition proper gear for Tanno and she needed more medical supplies. She'd used quite a bit on the Resistance soldiers. On their way to the fleet, she read the others' reports on what happened in the Balmorran Arms Factory. What struck her particularly was what Reynarden did to Brel Orus. After reading the reports, she resolved to catch him alone so she could ask him about it. After they finished at Logistics, Reynarden gave them leave to wander the fleet. "Just stay on the fleet. There's plenty to do here."

"Reynarden, do you mind if I stick with you?" Elara asked once the others left. "I have something I want to discuss in private."

He raised his eyebrows, but nodded. "Of course. Um, I think the best place for privacy would be the ship."

"I'd rather talk somewhere less…official," she admitted, aware of how Reynarden would likely take her request.

Nodding, Reynarden thought for a moment before taking her hand and heading off. "I know a place. Well, Jeveen told me about it."

"It sounds like she's led an interesting life," Elara couldn't help remarking, enjoying the feel of his hand around hers.

Laughing, he gently drew her arm through his and continued walking. "Yeah. Norm once told Fio that he thinks she has some Force sensitivity herself, but she just thinks it's 'sheer dumb luck' that she managed as long as she did on her own."

"Well, it could be," she allowed, smiling at the thought of the freighter captain. "But Normajh could be right, too. She knows of two Force users in her immediate family. It's not outside the realm of possibility."

Reynarden nodded again. "There no use in speculating. Ah, here we are."

"This is your idea of somewhere private?" Elara asked, eyeing the door with a simple sign on it.

He grinned. "Jeveen says it's the best place to conduct 'discreet' business on the fleet."

"We don't need that much privacy," she told him, worried now that he'd gotten the completely wrong idea about her request.

Reynarden turned and took her hands in his. "Elara, whatever you have on your mind, we won't do anything you don't want to, all right?"

"I never worried about that," she told him with a chuckle. "You know I can fight if necessary."

He smiled, squeezing her hands gently. "Exactly. So don't worry."

"Very well." Returning the squeeze, she followed Reynarden into the club. It was neither bright nor dim and quiet music played, just loud enough to drown out the chatter of the people present. "Perhaps we should come here again if we want privacy, but not on the ship."

Reynarden laughed softly, but didn't say anything until they'd found a booth. He gestured for Elara to sit first, and then took the seat opposite. Once they'd ordered drinks, Reynarden asked, "All right, Elara. What's on your mind?"

"I read the reports you and Forex submitted about our efforts on Balmorra," she told him, a little uncertain of how to bring up what she wanted to discuss now that she could.

He raised his eyebrows, his hands folded together on the table. "You were present for most of what we did on Balmorra. Why did you bother reading them?"

"I didn't go the Balmorran Arms Factory and I wished to know what happened, besides finally catching up to Vik and finding those prototype weapons," Elara explained patiently. He really should know this about her by now. She'd read their reports about what they did on Tatooine while she was helping the bombing victims, after all.

Clearing his throat, Reynarden nodded. "Right, of course. I take it you have questions about what happened in there?"

"You killed an unarmed man," she reminded him, deciding it was best to be direct. "Why?"

He sighed, waiting until the waiter droid had set their drinks on the table before answering her question. "Brel Orus was an Imperial collaborator, the reason Tanno Vik was captured and most of the Resistance soldiers killed, and he tried to bribe me to let him go."

"None of that is a good reason to kill an unarmed man," Elara told him, leaning forward on the table. "That's part of the reason I defected in the first place."

Reynarden flinched as if she'd struck him. "Ouch. Yeah, they would do shit like that, wouldn't they?" He sighed. "The way I saw it, I had two options: kill him or let him go. Arresting him would have been a pain because we'd have had to either bring him with us or someone would have had to take him to safety while the rest of us continued with the mission."

"You didn't want to send him with Aric or Forex?" Elara wondered, surprised that Reynarden had considered arresting Orus.

Another sigh. "No, because the Imps had some pretty heavy firepower waiting for us. Honestly, I'd have been glad to have you with us."

"I was just a holocomm away," she prompted him. She'd half-expected a holocall.

Reynarden smiled faintly. "I didn't want to take you away from your patients."

"I appreciate the consideration, but don't forget that you and rest of Havoc Squad are my patients, too." Elara truly was touched, but she couldn't her exasperation. "If this sort of situation crops up again, don't hesitate to comm me. All right?"

"Fine, I'll comm you next time." Laughing, he reached across the table and covered her hand with his, squeezing gently.

She returned the squeeze with a shy smile, feeling her heart skip a beat. Before she could think of something to say, a familiar voice interjected, "Hey, Rey, Elara. I'm quite surprised to see you two here, of all places."

"Hey, Jeveen." Reynarden took his time letting go of Elara's hand before he sat back to look up at the freighter captain. "I thought you'd be off to your next potential big score."

Jeveen shook her head with a grin. "Nah, nothing's caught my interest yet. How's your new squadmate settling in?"

"Well enough," Elara replied with a tiny shrug. "We haven't had a chance to fight together yet, so we don't know about that yet."

A strange yet familiar woman moved to stand beside Jeveen, gazing at Elara curiously. "Your accent. Dromund Kaas?"

"Yes." She nodded, taking in the stranger's appearance: Zabrak with dark orange skin, black tattoos on her face, and sharp horns encircling the crown of her head. It took Elara a moment to figure out why she was familiar: she'd been on Balmorra, helping Jeveen and the others in Sobrik. "And you're a Mandalorian, traveling with a Republic freighter captain."

Jeveen nudged the Zabrak woman with her elbow. "Akaavi, I'd like you to meet Captain Reynarden Drondil and Lieutenant Elara Dorne, the CO and XO of Havoc Squad. Rey, Elara, this is Akaavi Spar. She helped me out on Balmorra and I invited her to join me and the others."

"Nice to meet you, Akaavi." Reynarden offered his hand to her.

Akaavi stared at it for a moment before Jeveen nudged her again. Then she reached out and clasped Reynarden's wrist. After a moment of surprise, he clasped her wrist in return. "Hello."

"An honor, Ms. Spar," Elara added, offering her hand once Akaavi and Reynarden released each other's wrists.

This time, Akaavi didn't hesitate, clasping Elara's wrist and she did the same in return. "Hello."

"Well, it's an improvement," Jeveen volunteered, still grinning. "She didn't even say 'hello' when we met."

Akaavi gave her a dry look. "We were fighting Imperials. There wasn't time for 'hello'."

"Details, details." Jeveen waved a hand dismissively, and then looked at the chronometer on her wrist. "Whoops. I'm supposed to meet Norm soon. Catch you later, Rey, Elara."

Standing up, Reynarden hugged Jeveen tight. "Take care."

"It was lovely to see you, Jeveen." Elara offered her hand.

Laughing, Jeveen shook Elara's hand. "It was good to see you, too, Elara."

"K'oyacyi," Akaavi told them before following Jeveen from the club.

Elara sat back in her seat. It'd been nice to see Jeveen, but her timing could have been slightly better. After taking a sip of her drink, she asked, "Is there anything you wished to talk about?"

"I didn't before, but I do wonder if you know what it was that Akaavi said, just before she left," Reynarden asked, blue eyes twinkling with amusement.

She smiled back. "Literally translated, it means 'stay alive'. Most Mandalorians use it as a farewell, like Ms. Spar just did."

"It's a very Mando sort of farewell, isn't it?" Reynarden laughed softly.

Elara couldn't help laughing with him. "I've always thought so."

Chapter Text

"Let's see what you got, Lieutenant Dorne," Tanno told Elara when he found her warming up for a workout on their way to Quesh.

She considered him for a moment before nodding. "Of course, Specialist Vik. Let's see what you're made of."

"I won't go easy just cause you're a woman," he warned her as he began to stretch and loosen up.

Elara raised her eyebrows as she finished stretching and waited patiently. "I would prefer that you don't anyway."

"Good. Just so we're clear." Tanno grinned at her and finished stretching in silence.

Once he was ready, they took their positions in the sparring ring. Elara shifted into a slightly different ready position than she used with Reynarden or Aric. Since Tanno was so much bigger and stronger, she'd have to fight differently to account for it and, hopefully, take advantage of it. Her strategy depended on whether he would try to take advantage of his larger size. Tanno used a ready position that she hadn't seen before, likely a result of growing up on Nar Shaddaa. After a few moments of waiting, Elara went on the offensive, attacking with a series of kicks and punches that Tanno easily blocked or parried. He then went on the offensive with some unique attacks that Elara was hard-pressed to counter somehow. Interestingly, some did rely on his size and reach, but not all of them.

Keeping that in mind, Elara turned one of her parries into a counterattack using something she'd learned from Reynarden. She continued her attack using tricks she'd learned not only from him, but also from Aric, Fiosynod, Kira, and others. Another grin from Tanno and they settled into a proper sparring match, neither of them gaining the upper hand for long. "Elara, Tanno, we'll be at Quesh soon. Might want to just call it a draw so you can cool down and clean up."

"Yeah, Boss." Tanno stepped back from Elara and she did the same. "Good fight, Lieutenant. You're as scrappy as I expected."

"You're very good yourself, Specialist," she replied, returning his nod with one of her own.

He left the workout area, peeling off his tank top as he went. Reynarden watched him go, and then turned back to Elara. "He's right, you know."

"About what?" she asked, taking a long drink of water before picking up her towel to wipe away the sweat she could feel drying on her skin.

Reynarden cleared his throat. "You're good at fighting hand-to-hand. Especially when you don't just stick to kickboxing."

"If I learned anything from you, Reynarden, it's to use everything I know to survive." Giving an exasperated sigh, she yanked off her tank top so she could better wipe away the sweat, leaving her in her sports bra and shorts.

He cleared his throat again and she snuck a peek at him. Reynarden had looked away and his cheeks were decidedly pink. Smiling to herself, Elara took her time wiping away the sweat. After a moment, he finally said, "Right, good for you to have learned that. I'll let you get cleaned up."

"I'll be ready to go dirtside when we get to Quesh," she called before he'd disappeared out the door. Alone, Elara grinned and hummed a little to herself. If only we can have time to talk without being interrupted!

*

"Even having taken precautions, we should attempt to limit our atmospheric exposure as much as possible," Elara warned the others as they rode the shuttle down to Quesh from the orbital station, where they'd docked the ship.

Reynarden nodded, his hands clasped tightly in his lap. "Yeah, best we get off this poison planet as quickly as we can."

"Are you all right?" she asked, reaching over to cover his hands with one of hers.

He shook his head. "No. Can you talk about something else? Distract me from the toxic atmosphere we're descending through?"

"Of course." Elara thought for a moment. She wanted to discuss their relationship, but this was hardly the time or place. "I haven't heard from Captain Kalor recently. Have you?"

Reynarden shook his head again. "Not a peep."

"I'm very worried about his accusations," she confided quietly, shifting closer to him. "If Personnel Division thinks I'm withholding information about the Empire, they can continue hounding me under Security Regulation Fifteen." She clenched her hands into fists as she continued to ponder the situation with Kalor. "I think if men like Kalor had their way, I'd be locked in a room reciting the minutia of Imperial culture until the end of time."

She nearly jumped when one of Reynarden's hands covered hers. Her heart skipped a beat as she met his eyes. "I won't let them do that to you, Elara."

"Thank you. I truly appreciate everything you do for me." Elara meant every word. He'd recruited her to Havoc Squad, getting her off Taris. He'd helped her rescue her brother and convince him to defect. He'd even introduced her to his family and they'd welcomed her into their home without reservation. She sighed and turned her hand to clasp his as well as she could with both of them wearing armored gloves. "I do sometimes wonder if I'm being unfair, though. I'm one of the only people in the Republic with extensive knowledge of Imperial culture. Perhaps I have a responsibility to do what few others can, even if it's not what I'd like to be doing."

He squeezed her hand gently. "If it's not what you want to do, Elara, then don't do it. Let someone else recite all that minutia of Imperial culture."

"Thank you, Reynarden," she told him with a shy smile, touched by what his words implied. "I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels that way."

The shuttle landed then and they filed off with the others. Elara couldn't help flinching when she took her first breath of Quesh air. It didn't smell toxic, but that didn't mean it wasn't toxic, even filtered through her helmet. Next to her, Reynarden shouldered his assault cannon. "Come on. Let's finish this mission ASAP and get off this planet."

*

"The situation is a mess, that's what it is!" Major Donovan told them when they reported to him. "Everything went south while the Safecrackers were on a bunker raid. Intel was bad, alarms got tripped, and the Imps moved out in force." Elara winced behind her helmet. Who handled the intel for them? "Now Coria's people are surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned. We don't punch 'em a hole to run through, every man in that outfit is a goner."

Reynarden stood as tall as he could. "I don't care how many Imps there are. We're getting our people out of there."

"Agreed, Captain," Elara chimed in, not at all surprised by Reynarden's determination. It was just like him. "Leaving our comrades to the Empire is never an option."

Major Donovan didn't even seem surprised by her accent. Maybe her helmet had distorted it? Or he cared more about getting the Safecrackers out safely. "Diversion is the key. Scouts found an Imperial command center, deep behind their lines. That's where you'll strike." Both Reynarden and Elara nodded. "Equipment, vehicles, personnel--anything with an Imperial logo gets holes in it. The Imps will rush back to stop you, and the Safecrackers will get the gap they need."

"Just give me the coordinates, and I'll make some noise, Major," Reynarden told him confidently.

Donovan's answering smile was sharp. "Let's give those scumbags a run for their money! As soon as the Imps clear out, Coria will contact you so that you can all burn jets back here. Speeders are waiting for you. Get out there and give the Imps something to think about!"

"See you soon, Major." Reynarden saluted, quickly followed by Elara.

After Donovan returned the salute, they left the room to join the others in the cantina across the way. Tanno voiced what all of them were wondering, sounding eager even through the distortion from his helmet. "What's the plan, boss?"

"Diversionary tactics," Reynarden informed them. "We'll be destroying Imp property, so I want you with me, Vik, and Dorne. Jorgan, Forex, help out as best you can with the efforts here."

Aric stifled a sigh, but nodded, saluting. "Yes, sir. Let's go, Forex."

As she watched them leave, Elara wondered why Reynarden had chosen to keep her with him instead of Aric. His choice of Tanno was clear enough: demolitions would certainly help in destroying the command center. However, her preferred blaster pistol wouldn't be much help. Not the way Reynarden's assault cannon, Aric's sniper rifle, or even Forex's blaster would. It wasn't a critical concern, though, so she didn't speak up. If she couldn't figure out, she'd ask once they were done on Quesh. Tanno's voice distracted Elara from her thoughts: "I take it this is going to be a loud and flashy distraction?"

"We're going to shoot up an Imp command center," Reynarden told him as they headed down the ramp and towards the exit. "Draw away some of the forces keeping the Safecrackers pinned down. Once they're out, we'll pull back as well."

Tanno grunted, looking disappointed. "Not total destruction, then?"

"Enough to draw attention," Elara interjected, wishing for a moment that she could give him a proper stern look. Instead, she tried to channel that into her voice.

Reynarden nodded his agreement. "Exactly. You'll get your chance at total destruction, Vik."

"I'll hold you to that, boss." They stepped outside and both Elara and Reynarden flinched.

In the speeder that would get them close to their target, Reynarden asked Elara to brief them on what they might expect in terms of Imperial patrols, the sorts of personnel they'd have assigned there, and the best targets for destruction. "I can tell you the basics, Captain, but unless I have some idea of the layout, I can't do more than that."

"I understand, Lieutenant. Tell us what you can." He sounded encouraging and Elara offered what little information she could. This must be part of the reason he chose me to come along.

*

When they reached the coordinates Donovan had given them, they found heavy durasteel doors blocking their way. "No guards. Is that good or bad?"

"Since we're talking Imperials, bad," Elara answered Reynarden's question, thinking back to her training. "They want to keep a low profile to avoid attracting attention, so they don't post guards and the lock is probably biometric."

Reynarden nodded, humming thoughtfully. "Those are practically impossible to hack. Looks like you're up, Vik."

"On it, boss." Tanno sounded even more eager and pulled a grenade out of the pack he'd brought with him. "Stay down. There'll be flying debris, I can guarantee it."

He was gone before Elara could warn him about the hidden cameras. She peered over the rock they were hiding behind in time to see him draw his blaster and shoot two 'rocks' not far from the door. They flickered and turned into two lumps of smoking, melted slag. Elara dropped back down to nod at Reynarden. "Vik took out the cameras by the door. It'll buy us a little time once the door is gone."

"I hadn't even thought of cameras." Reynarden sounded annoyed with himself. "Should we take them out inside, too? Keep blinding them?"

After a moment's thought, she nodded. "There will be several in the front room at least. Slagging those will help."

"You take point, since you know where the cameras would be placed." Reynarden looked up when Tanno ducked back around the rock.

He held up three fingers, silently counting down. When he lowered his last finger, an explosion sent debris flying everywhere. After a short wait, Tanno nodded to them. "Door's open, boss."

"Good work, Vik." Reynarden stood up and offered his hand to Elara. She took it and straightened up. "Dorne, you're on point."

She saluted. "Yes, sir." Drawing her blaster, she carefully approached the destroyed door. Even from outside, she could see one of the cameras. Stopping just out of range, she aimed and fired, destroying the camera. Changing the angle of her approach, she slagged two more cameras before she even set foot inside the bunker. Without pause, she aimed for the last camera and slagged it. "Clear, Captain Drondil, Specialist Vik."

"Good work, Dorne." Reynarden stepped inside and turned to get a good sweep of the room. "Ah, good. I'd hoped they'd have a computer terminal."

Holstering her blaster, Elara approached. "If I may, sir?"

"Be my guest." He stepped back so she could access the computer.

Elara removed her helmet so she could see the screen better, skimming through the files until she found a schematic of the command center. "Here, sir: schematics."

"Excellent." Reynarden and Tanno peered at the schematics over her shoulder. "Looks like the command center itself is at the other end of the corridor from the lift."

Tanno pointed at a couple rooms opening off the corridor. "Bet we'd give the Imps a really bad day if we blew up whatever's in these rooms."

"Most likely," Elara agreed, opening a couple other screens. "There's very valuable equipment in both of those rooms."

Reynarden nodded and straightened up. "Right. Shoot to kill, people. Don't worry about collateral damage this time. That's kind of the point here."

"Yes, sir." Elara picked up her helmet and put it back on.

Tanno drew his vibrosword with one hand and pulled out a grenade with the other. "Ready when you are, boss."

"Let's go." Reynarden led them onto the lift and hit the button to send it down.

Elara drew her blaster, ensuring it was fully charged. Reynarden drew his assault cannon, steadying it with both hands. The moment they cleared the ceiling of the corridor, they spotted Imperial soldiers approaching the lift. Without a word, Reynarden opened fire, spraying the entire group with blaster bolts. By the time the lift platform reached the floor, the entire group was dead. They slowly progressed through the command center, shooting Imperials and equipment alike. Tanno tossed more than a few grenades, cheering each time one did more damage than expected. "Yes! That was spectacular!"

"Dorne, I know Major Donovan didn't request it, but download as much as you can from their computers," Reynarden requested once they'd cleared the actual command center. "Intel will always be useful."

She nodded, heading to the computer terminal the highest-ranking Imperial had been using. As she worked to download what information she could, Elara could see Reynarden and Tanno working together to keep any remaining Imperial soldiers from coming in. Just as she finished and put the datapad in her utility belt, Tanno cried out and crumpled to the floor. The Imperial who'd hurt Tanno didn't get a chance to finish the job, a series of green blaster bolts sending him to the floor as well. Snatching up her blaster, Elara rushed towards her fallen squadmate. "Cover me, sir!"

"You got it!" A spray of blaster bolts kept any other Imperials from approaching as Elara reached Tanno and started dragging him back behind a row of computers.

Elara fumbled with her medkit as Tanno pushed himself up into a sitting position. "Kriff, you'd think I'd be used to getting hurt by now."

"Hold still," she ordered him, holding up kolto and bandages. "Where did he get you?"

Tanno tugged at the cortosis weave on his left side. It'd been split and she could see blood seeping from the injury underneath. "Kriffer must've watched me. I keep leaving my left side open. Lucky he didn't aim higher."

"I'll do what I can here, but I'll want to take another look at it later," she told him, pulling a pair of shears out so she could cut a larger opening to give her better access to the injury.

She nodded to Reynarden when he crouched beside her and pulled out his holocomm. As Elara put kolto on the gash along Tanno's hip and covered it with a bandage, Coria informed them that the Safecrackers were out. "Can you put weight on your hip, Vik?"

"Gimme a painkiller and I'll do it," he told them with a grin that was more a grimace of pain.

Nodding again, Elara injected Tanno with a painkiller formulated for Weequays. While they waited for it to take effect, Elara repacked her kit. "How's it feel?"

"Numb. I should be fine to get out of here." Tanno accepted Elara and Reynarden's help to stand up. He paused once he was upright and smiled down at Elara. "Thanks, Lieutenant Dorne."

She raised her eyebrows, surprised, but nodded yet again. "You're welcome, Specialist Vik."

"Let's get out of here." Reynarden suggested, handing Elara her helmet, which she'd left by the computer terminal in her rush to grab Tanno. "You might want this, Dorne."

Laughing sheepishly, she took it and put it on. "Ready, sir."

"Let's go." They proceeded cautiously down the corridor back to the lift, weapons out and ready. "This doesn't make sense. I'd have thought we'd see Imps coming back from the Safecrackers' position to reinforce this one."

As they got closer to the lift, they could hear blaster fire and Forex booming out, "No Imperial scum shall get past us!"

"That explains that," Tanno remarked. "Jorgan and Forex must be holding them off."

Reynarden considered for a moment. "Do you think you can support me or Elara on your shoulders, Vik?"

"Dorne," he answered promptly. "She doesn't have a huge-ass assault cannon like you do."

Both Reynarden and Elara laughed. "All right. If you put Dorne on your shoulders, she can add her fire to Jorgan and Forex's sooner."

"Gotcha, Boss." Tanno knelt on his good leg. "Alley-oop, Dorne."

Rolling her eyes, she handed her medkit to Reynarden and carefully climbed up so she was sitting on Tanno's shoulders. "Should I stand or sit?"

"Wait 'til I'm standing, and then you stand up," Tanno told her before Reynarden could reply.

She kept one hand pressed to the wall as Tanno carefully straightened to his full height. Then he braced both hands against the wall. Moving carefully, she slowly stood up on his shoulders. Once she was standing, he took firm hold of her ankles. She looked down at Reynarden by the lift controls. "Ready, sir."

"Right. I'll stop it once you can shoot," he warned her. "It'll confuse the Imps even more."

She drew her blaster, pointing it up. "Understood, sir."

"Here we go." He hit the button to send the lift up.

Elara held still, watching the lip of the upper floor slowly approach. Once she was high enough, she could see Forex in the doorway, a pile of Imperial bodies in front of him. Elara peered down at Reynarden. "Forex has it under control, sir. I suggest we just let him and Jorgan know we're here and we can make a break for it."

"Sounds good. Vik?" Reynarden gestured and Elara shifted to sit on Tanno's shoulders, and then slid off when he knelt. "Sorry we went to the trouble for nothing."

Tanno rolled his shoulders. "Nah, don't worry about it. Was a good idea."

"It really was, sir," Elara echoed, touching Reynarden's arm just above the elbow.

He nodded and lifted a hand to his helmet. "Jorgan, Forex, make a hole. We're done here."

"About time, sir. You have a cryo grenade ready, Forex?" Aric replied, sounding about the same as he always did.

Forex's response came just as they reached the top and stepped off the lift. "Ready, Sergeant."

"On my mark." Aric's answer sounded more like a growl than words. "Three, two, one. Mark!"

With that, a cryo grenade launched from Forex's side and he started forward. "Let's move, people. Those grenades don't last forever."

They hardly needed Reynarden's encouragement, rushing down the road to the Republic post nearby. Once there, Elara pointed Tanno to the medic droid. He grumbled, but obeyed her order. Turning to the others, she asked, "Anyone else hurt?"

"No, sir," Aric replied, sounding amused.

"Not at all," Forex added with a dip of his chassis.

Reynarden shook his head when Elara looked at him. "Nope. Tanno took the brunt of it."

"Right." Elara headed over to ensure the droid took proper care of Tanno.

*

They reported to Major Donovan once Tanno was properly healed and gladly climbed onto the shuttle back to the orbital station. Elara gladly removed her helmet once they'd lifted off. "Stars, I hope there aren't lasting effects from the air down there."

"Same here." Reynarden had removed his helmet, too, and wiped his hand across his forehead. "All things considered, that was an easier mission than I'm used to since I joined Havoc."

Jorgan made a sound that could almost have been a chuckle. "They won't all send you all over the blasted planet, you know, Rey."

"I know." Reynarden sighed and scrubbed his fingers through his hair. "Kriff, I need a shower."

Jorgan wrinkled his nose. "We all do, sir. Especially you three."

"I'd rather stink than be exposed to the toxic air," Elara interjected just as the shuttle touched down. They gathered their things and started down the ramp.

A Selkath scientist met them as they filed off the shuttle. "Captain, soldiers, before we can let you leave the station, you'll need to go through decon, to ensure none of the toxins from the atmosphere have lingered on your skin and clothes."

"Decon showers and treating our gear?" Reynarden asked, his shoulders slumping a little.

The Selkath nodded. "Yes, Captain. We have facilities set up on the station."

"Do I really need to shower?" Aric asked, sounding a little plaintive.

This time, the scientist shook his head. "For furred species, we have a dry shampoo you can use with a sonic shower. A water shower is preferred, however."

"I'll do the sonic shower, thanks." Aric sounded relieved now.

The Selkath gestured for them to follow him. "This way, please." They followed him to a row of cubicles. "Leave your gear in the robing room. Someone will come by to retrieve it and leave something for you to wear until your gear is returned to you."

"How will you decon Forex?" Reynarden asked as the Selkath handed Aric a bottle and pointed him towards the sonic showers.

He pointed back the way they'd come. "There's a station for deconning droids. We had an astromech in there earlier."

"All right." Reynarden turned to the rest of them, making a face. "The sooner we shower, the sooner we can get going. I never thought I'd say something like that."

Elara slipped into the first stall on the row and began undressing. She hadn't expected this step, but she really should have once she considered the situation.

*

It was quite difficult to not think about the fact that Reynarden was a few meters away, naked and soaking wet, just like her. She wished more than ever that they could find the time and privacy to talk about their relationship. As she ducked under the spray to rinse the shampoo out of her hair, Reynarden called, "All right there, Dorne? We're all finished."

"I'm fine, sir," she called back, her heart aching at the concern in Reynarden's voice. "I have more hair to wash than you do, that's all."

He laughed as she threaded her fingers through her hair to ensure all of the shampoo was gone. "Good point. It's rather long, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is." She turned off the water and stepped back as the drain in the floor sucked up the excess. "I'll have to leave it down until we get back to the ship. It'll take too long to dry properly before then."

Reynarden gave a soft huff of laughter. "You'll be forgiven for being out of uniform. It's a quick trip back to the ship."

"Indeed." Elara stepped into the robing area after squeezing as much water out of her hair as she could. Picking up one of the two towels waiting, she wrapped it around her hair and used the other to dry herself off. "We'd all intended to shower anyway."

Tanno interjected then, sounding a little disgruntled, "I hadn't. Take your time, Lieutenant. Our gear isn't here yet."

"If there's one thing I've learned about Elara Dorne since I met her, it's that she prefers to be quick and efficient," Reynarden commented as she dressed in the tunic and pants that had been provided along with the towels.

Elara unwound the towel around her hair and used the other one to dry her hair further as she emerged from the changing area. Reynarden and Tanno sat on a bench nearby, both clad in a tunic and pants as well. "Efficiency allows us to accomplish more in a given amount of time."

"Your hair really is long." Tanno tilted his head as he studied her for a moment. "I've only seen you with it in a bun.

Reynarden grinned as she sat down beside him. "You should see it when it's dry, Tanno. All loose and flowing."

"Not my thing, but cheers if it's yours." Tanno stood up and wandered over to where Aric and Forex had entered.

The white tunic and pants practically glowed against Aric's black fur. Forex looked as clean as he had when they met him on Nar Shaddaa. Reynarden's voice drew Elara's attention back to him, "Your hair is beautiful when it's down. Too bad that's not regulation."

"No, it isn't, but I can't bear to cut it." She smiled shyly, flattered by his open appreciation.

Reynarden mock-glared at her. "Don't you dare. It's too beautiful to cut."

"I quite agree with you, Reynarden, so don't you worry." She patted his hand and left hers there.

He turned his hand to clasp hers and squeezed it lightly. "Maybe we should all go out together once we finally take out the Gauntlet. Take time to let our hair down and just relax."

Offering a wry smile, she glanced up at his head and said, "You don't have much, if any hair to 'let down'. How will you manage it?"

"Captain, everyone, here's your gear. Cleaned and decontaminated." The scientist arrived with their gear before Reynarden could retort.

"Thank you very much." Reynarden accepted on their behalf.

They quickly sorted everything and Elara ducked into the stall she'd used to change, part of her disappointed that they'd been interrupted. We really need a chance to talk without anyone interrupting us.

*

Reynarden reported once they'd reached the ship and changed into proper uniforms. "General Garza, this is Havoc. The Safecrackers have been extracted safely."

"Excellent. Very good work, Captain." General Garza looked as pleased as Elara had ever seen her. It was hard to tell sometimes "I'll make sure the Safecrackers stay out of harm's way until our operation against the Gauntlet begins." She glanced to one side and shook her head slightly. "Your last specialist isn't finished with his mission just yet. You're free to spend your time as you wish until then."

Saluting, Reynarden merely said, "Understood, General."

"Garza out." She returned the salute and her holoimage disappeared from above the holotable.

Tanno rubbed his hands together, looking pleased. "What'll it be, boss? Got a couple--"

Shaking his head, Reynarden told him, "Coruscant. An old friend is free to meet up and I want to take advantage of it."

"Your loss." Shrugging, Tanno disappeared off towards the cargo bay.

"I'll check our medical supplies and let you know if we need to requisition more while we're there," Elara told Reynarden.

As she walked away, she heard Aric say, "Still waiting for news from Garza about the Deadeyes. I'm really worried about them, Rey."

"Soon, Aric, I'm sure of it." Glancing back, Elara saw Reynarden reach up to squeeze Aric's shoulder. "Come on, let's get this lady headed towards Coruscant."

*

"Lieutenant Dorne?" Lieutenant Bryni Ekaitz smiled apologetically when Elara stood up from where she'd been waiting. "Please come in."

Elara followed the Nautolan woman into the office and sat down in one of the chairs facing the desk. "Thank you for seeing me, Lieutenant, Ekaitz."

"Of course." Bryni sat down and tapped a few keys on the keyboard embedded in the desk. "I'm sorry you had to wait so long. I was trying to contact Captain Kallor, but he took forever to answer. When I explained the reason for my call, he said 'Thanks for telling me, Lieutenant, now handle it how you wish.'"

Frowning, Elara rubbed her temples. "I'm not looking forward to my next check in with him." Dropping her hands, she looked at the other woman hopefully. "May I speak to Aleksei? I understand if you need to be in the room. I've just missed him so much."

"Yes, I've decided to grant your request." Bryni smiled at her. "He's been very cooperative and helpful since he defected."

Sighing wistfully, Elara murmured, "I almost wish you were my handler instead of Captain Kallor." Biting her lip, she looked down at her hands in her lap.

"Truthfully? No one really likes him here," Bryni confided in a soft voice. "Not even the rest of us handlers." Elara nodded, smiling wryly. At that moment, the intercom on the desk chimed and Bryni pressed a button. "Yes?"

The voice that answered was brisk and a tad bored. "I'm here with the defector, Lieutenant."

"Send him in," Bryni replied, glancing at Elara with a smile.

Her heart skipping a beat or two, Elara turned towards the door. It opened to admit a familiar figure. "Aleksei."

"Elara!" He smiled and started towards her, only to stop and glance at Bryni.

She waved a hand dismissively. "Oh, go on, Aleksei. I know you've missed her."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Still smiling, Aleksei started towards Elara.

Standing up, she helped close the distance between them, hugging her brother tight. "Stars, it's wonderful to see you!"

"I'm happy to see you, too, Elara," Aleksei replied, hugging her just as tight. "I asked Bryni about seeing you instead of sticking to holocalls."

Elara stepped back and glanced around, only to find the office empty. Spotting a datapad on the desk that hadn't been there before, she looked at it: I'm observing via the cameras in my office, but at least you have a semblance of privacy.

"She's nicer than my handler," Elara told Aleksei once they'd sat down on the couch against the wall, half-turning to look at each other. "Whenever I tried to ask him about visiting you, he either ignored my question or said it'd be difficult to arrange."

He frowned, looking towards the desk. "Bryni's been very nice and as helpful as she can. Sounds like you got the worst of the bunch."

"Lucky me." Elara sighed, taking Aleksei's hand and holding it between both of hers. "Do you regret defecting?"

Aleksei shook his head quickly. "No, I don't. I've done a lot of soul-searching since you and Captain Drondil helped me and my men." He shook his head again. "Let's be honest, Elara. You two saved us."

"You're my brother and you reached out to me," she reminded him, squeezing his hand tight. "How could I do anything else?"

He smiled and returned the squeeze. "How are things for you, anyway? I know you can't tell me about your missions, but you're happy?"

"Very happy." She smiled, thinking of the warm welcome she'd received from Florya and Bryden when she and Reynarden had arrived earlier in the day. "I'm doing something I love and spending time with good people."

Still smiling, Aleksei made a show of making himself comfortable. "Can you tell me a little more about them? Your squadmates, I mean."

"Of course." Shifting into a comfortable position, Elara began describing them. "You've met Captain Drondil: he's young for his position, but he's doing his best. He has a tendency to joke and tease, but he can be deadly serious when the situation calls for it."

Aleksei nodded, smiling faintly. "I got that impression about him. What about the others?"

"Sergeant Aric Jorgan is a Cathar and I heard Reynarden call him 'Mr. Grumpy Cat' more than once." She'd been surprised the first time he'd done that, but it suited Aric very well. "Still, under the grumpy exterior, he just wants to do good. I guess he felt joining the Army was the best way he could do that."

Another nod. "Same reason we joined the Imperial Army, I guess."

"Yes." Elara shifted position. "M1-4X is a highly advanced war droid designed and built specifically to serve in Havoc Squad. He's been programmed to be very patriotic and he's still learning to understand organic beings like us."

Aleksei looked thoughtful. "We never would have had a droid as a squadmate in the Empire. Is it odd in any way?"

"Not really." She shook her head. "His patriotism is a bit much, but it's how he was programmed. His boundless faith in the Republic can be uplifting at times."

Nodding, he glanced at her curiously. "Do you have any more squadmates?"

"One more: Specialist Tanno Vik. We just recruited him because we need a demolitions expert and he's one of the best." Elara couldn't help grimacing a little.

Leaning forward, Aleksei asked, "Is there something wrong? Did he hurt you?"

"No, he didn't." She sighed. "Well, we sparred a bit and we both gave as good as we got."

Now he looked intrigued. "We were always evenly matched. It'd be interesting to spar now that we've both learned a few tricks."

"Someday in the future," Elara suggested gently. "Tanno is a Weequay and he was actually dishourably discharged."

Aleksei gave her a skeptical look. "And now he's on Havoc Squad? The top Special Forces unit in the Republic Army?"

"He's very good at demolitions, but has a history of a great deal of collateral damage." She shook her head with a sigh. "Because of his skill, General Garza decided to overlook that and picked him to join Havoc Squad."

He gave a thoughtful hum. "Well, Havoc's supposed to be the best of the best, so you sometimes have to overlook things such as a dishonourable discharge."

"Or the fact that they're a defector," Elara reminded him gently.

Aleksei gave her a rueful smile. "A good point." He gave her a sharp, assessing look. "You like Captain Drondil, don't you?"

"I do. Very much," she admitted quietly, looking down at her hands in her lap.

He covered her hands with one of his. "Does he like you?"

"I'm pretty sure he does," Elara replied, clasping Aleksei's hand with both of hers. "He's always looking out for me and making sure I don't spend all of my time working."

Aleksei tilted his head curiously. "You haven't taken things further?"

"Every time we've tried to discuss our relationship and what we should do about it, we get interrupted." She freed one hand to poke him in the ribs, where she knew he was ticklish. "One time was because you called."

He squirmed away from her with an undignified giggle. "It took ages to arrange that holocall. We'll try to schedule a better time in the future."

"I don't regret taking your call," Elara assured him with a fond smile. "We'll talk when the time is right. I'm sure of it."

Aleksei gave her a stern look. "I know you've gotten kriff since you defected, Elara. I'm glad you're in a better place now. Don't let Reynarden treat you badly. If he does, he'll have to answer to me."

"I don't think he has it in him to treat anyone badly," she murmured thoughtfully. "I will keep your advice in mind, though."

He tugged her into a hug. "See that you do. I love you, Elara."

"I love you, too, Aleksei."

*

At breakfast the following morning, the house servant, Clive, entered and cleared his throat, "Forgive the interruption, but Sergeant Jorgan has arrived, asking to speak with Master Rey."

"Is Rey still asleep?" Florya asked, glancing at her son's empty chair. By the time Elara had returned from her visit with Aleksei, Reynarden had left to see his friend and he hadn't returned by the time Elara went to bed.

Clive shook his head. "He hasn't come home at all, Mrs. Drondil."

"I see." Florya frowned and Elara saw her glance towards her.

For her part, Elara felt as if she'd been doused with cold water. He must have spent the night with his friend. Taking a steadying breath, Elara told him, "I'll see Aric. He's likely here about Havoc business anyway."

"Would you like Harris to save your breakfast?" Bryce asked, his expression sympathetic.

She shook her head; she'd quite lost her appetite. When she stood up, Clive led her to the sitting room off the entryway. Aric, dressed in civilian clothes, paced the room. He stopped when she entered. "Elara? Where's Rey?"

"Not home." She folded her arms across her waist. "What brings you here so early, Aric?"

After a moment of hesitation, he nodded. "You already know and you can fill Rey in later: Garza's people finally decoded that first set of coordinates: the data points to an Imperial excavation site on Tatooine. I think Torve, my former XO, is one of them."

"That's good news." Elara smiled, pleased by this breakthrough. Aric's concern for his former squad was quite... touching, actually. She realized how her words could be taken and hastily added, "The decryption, I mean, not that they're on Tatooine."

Before he could reply, the front door opened and closed. Both Elara and Aric turned to see who had just come in. Rey strolled into view, wearing his clothes from the day before. The shirt and trousers were hopelessly wrinkled and a lazy, satisfied smile lit his face. The smile disappeared the moment he spotted them. "Aric, this is quite the surprise."

"We have a lead for at least some of the Deadeyes: Tatooine," Aric explained, his nose twitching as Rey entered the room to join them. "With your permission, I'd like to go bust them out."

Reynarden nodded, grinning. "Sounds like a plan." He glanced down at himself, and then Elara. Almost pleading, he said, "Elara?"

"I'll pass the word to Forex and Tanno," she assured him, holding on to her composure by her fingernails. He'd clearly done more than sleep with his friend and it hurt.

He grinned again, closing the distance between them to kiss her cheek. "Thanks, Elara. You're the best."

"I'll tell them to meet us at the ship," she told him stiffly, catching a trace of unfamiliar perfume.

Nodding, he stepped back, looking sheepish. "I'll go shower and get my things together."

"I'm ready to go when you are," Aric assured him.

After Reynarden had left, Elara let out a shuddering breath and closed her eyes tight. She shook her head when she felt Aric's hand touch her shoulder. "Don't, Aric."

"I have a good shoulder to cry on if you need it," he told her quietly.

She nodded this time. "Thanks. I'll go change and get my things." With that, she retreated to her rooms and only then allowed a few disappointed tears to escape. What should I do now?

*

"Captain Drondil!" Forex greeted them when they stepped aboard the ship. "I would like to speak with you while we wait for Specialist Vik."

Reynarden nodded, scrubbing his nails through the hair on top of his head. "Yeah, sure." He turned and held out his bag to Aric. "Can you put this in my quarters for me, Aric?"

"Of course, Rey." Aric took the bag and draped it over his shoulder.

As their commander followed Forex to the conference room, Aric glanced at Elara. "You good?"

"For now." she replied with a wan smile.

The trip to the spaceport had been uncomfortably silent. She'd spent the whole ride thinking back on the past year and change working and living beside Reynarden. He'd listened to her on Taris when no one else would. When she was hurt on Nar Shaddaa, he'd fussed, but not smothered. On both Tatooine and Balmorra, he'd understood her wish to heal rather than hurt. Letting her do that had saved his life after he'd saved hers on the Justice because they wouldn't have had the kolto tank otherwise. More than anything else, he seemed to understand her, better even than Aleksei and they'd always been close. Shaking off her thoughts, Elara headed to the crew quarters to put the few things she'd taken back in her footlocker. She'd just closed it when Aric cleared his throat from the doorway. "Hey. Want to talk about it?"

"What's there to talk about?" she asked as he crossed to his own footlocker and began unloading the duffle bag he'd taken with him.

Keeping his eyes on what he was doing, Aric told her, "Sometimes, just talking it out helps, even if it doesn't solve anything."

"The one person I really want to talk to is Reynarden," she admitted quietly, perching on top of her footlocker. "Right now, though, I'm too emotional for it."

Turning to her with an incredulous look, he asked, "Where does it say you have to be calm and rational to talk to someone about something like--" He paused and cleared his throat, realizing what he was saying. "Well, maybe you should give yourself some time and distance from what happened this morning."

"Exactly." Elara sighed and picked up the datapad she used to store the regulations for the military. She hadn't had time to go through it recently. "Maybe I should just follow the Personnel Code and forget about it."

Frowning, Aric sat down on his footlocker. "What do you mean?"

"Well, Section Two discourages romantic relationships between personnel, particularly commanding officers," she explained, flourishing the datapad.

Laughing a little, Aric shook his head. "Trust me, there are plenty of officers who broke that code. Including Tavus and Wraith."

"That doesn't surprise me in the slightest." Elara had noticed that Republic soldiers broke their share of regulations, but it wasn't the same as Imperials going against their conscience if a Sith asked them to do so.

She raised her eyebrows when Aric got up so he could sit beside her and gently take the datapad out of her hands. He scrolled through it and handed it back to her once he found what he was looking for. "If you read Section One, you'll find that it encourages personnel to spend time together socially, which is what we have been doing."

"I remember that." She skimmed through the section. "Following it with Section Two seemed to rather defeat the point."

Aric bumped her arm shoulder with his. "What I've found helpful over the years was to ask myself this: if I pursued the relationship, could I remain professional in the field?"

"Thank you, Aric." Elara smiled and closed the file, turning off the datapad. "It doesn't help regarding what happened this morning..."

He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed lightly. "I'll tell you this much: emotions have a certain scent to them and I've gotten pretty good at sniffing them out over the years. Rey has only smelled of guilt and regret since he showered."

"I'll keep that in mind." Still smiling, she hugged Aric.

The door opened then to admit Tanno, still wearing civilian clothes and carrying a stuffed duffle bag. "Oops, sorry, don't mean to interrupt anything."

"No, you're not, Tanno," Aric retorted, a hint of a growl in his voice.

Elara nudged Aric and stood up. "I'll go tell Reynarden that we're all aboard now."

"Think about what I said, Elara," Aric told her, catching her hand for a moment.

She nodded and patted his hand before leaving the crew quarters. As she started for the conference room, she heard Tanno ask, "What did I miss?"

"Nothing you need to worry about," Aric answered curtly.

Smiling faintly, she knocked on the conference room doorway. Poking her head in to find Reynarden and Forex looking her way, Elara said, "Tanno's aboard, sir. All personnel present and accounted for now."

"Thanks, Elara." Reynarden smiled and straightened up from his slouch against the podium. "Can the two of you get us up and headed towards Tatooine? I need to take care of my things."

She nodded. "Yes, sir."

*

"Right, we have two missions here on Tatooine," Reynarden told them once they'd gathered by the holotable upon landing on the planet. Elara glanced at the others, but both Aric and Tanno seemed just as surprised as she was. "Part of Aric's former unit, the Deadeyes, are being held at an Imp excavation site. Forex's next target for his initiative is here on Tatooine, too. I'm going with Aric, but I leave it up to you two--" here Reynarden paused and gestured to Elara and Tanno. "--to decide who you'll help."

Glancing briefly at Tanno, Elara told him, "I'll go with you and Sergeant Jorgan, sir."

"I'll go with Forex, boss," Tanno added the next moment.

Reynarden nodded. "All right. Report back to Anchorhead once you finish. I'm not sure how long this is going to take."

"Thank you for accompanying me on this mission, Specialist Vik," Forex told Tanno as they headed for the exit.

Glancing at Aric, Reynarden gestured for him to take the lead. "You have the coordinates, Jorgan. After you."

"Yes, sir." Nodding, Aric followed Forex and Tanno to the ship's exit.

For a long moment, Reynarden stared at Elara. Then he quietly said, "I'm sorry I hurt you."

"Let's focus on the task at hand for now, sir," she told him, touched by the apology.

Before he could say anything else, she hurried after the others. We'll talk afterwards. I won't feel quite so raw, then.

*

"Dorne, can you do anything for them while we wait for an evac?" Reynarden asked while Aric put in the call.

She nodded, opening her medkit and digging through it for her scanner. "Of course, sir."

"You-- you're Imperial!" Torve exclaimed, staring at Elara with some fear.

Putting his holocomm away, Aric snarled, "Former Imperial, Torve. She defected about three years ago."

"Four years, Sergeant," Elara corrected him, touched by his defense of her. Looking at the Republic soldiers, she told them, "I'm a trained medic and can tend to your wounds if you wish."

Glancing between her, Aric, and Reynarden, Torve lifted his chin. "If Sergeant Jorgan vouches for you, that's enough for me."

"Thank you." With that, Elara scanned him, finding only dehydration and malnourishment in addition to the scrapes and contusions she'd already noticed.

After giving him some kolto and water, she looked at the other Deadeyes. Both nodded and followed Torve's example. By the time Elara had scanned them and given them kolto and water, too, the evacuation unit had arrived. She told the medics her findings and transferred her scans to their datapads. Down to just the three of them, Aric sighed gustily, "Let's get out of here. I always hated getting sand in my fur."

"Yeah, that sounds good to me, too," Reynarden agreed.

Elara only nodded and followed the other two from the bunker. When they entered the cantina, they found Tanno waiting for them in a booth. He waved when he spotted them. "What good deed did you do for the locals here? I didn't even have to pay for my drinks."

"Stopped a series of bombing attacks," Reynarden told him, wiping the sweat from his forehead. "Where's Forex?"

Finishing his drink, Tanno told him, "Back on the ship."

"One drink, people," Reynarden told them. "Then we head back ourselves."

Elara sat down only a little reluctantly. She'd be glad for a cool drink after all that time under the Tatooine suns. A short time later, they returned to the ship. "Greetings, Captain! We received a holocall just a short time ago."

"Did you answer it?" Reynarden asked as Aric and Tanno drifted off to the crew quarters.

Forex twisted his chassis from side to side. "Negative. That is not among my protocols."

"Right. Let's see if whoever it was left a message." Walking to the holotable, Reynarden switched it on and sighed. "General Garza. What a surprise."

Elara stood beside him as he set the holomessage to play. General Garza's holoimage appeared, "Captain, your last specialist is having difficulty completing his current mission. Head to Hoth and contact me when you arrive. I'll brief you on the specifics then. Garza out."

"Do you think the Force has it in for us?" Reynarden asked Elara. "Going from Tatooine to Hoth? Maybe if we mash them together, we'll get a planet that's actually decent."

She smiled slightly, patting his arm. "I'll tell the others. Who do you want piloting?"

"Aric and Tanno," he covered his hand with hers. "We need to talk."

Nodding, Elara swallowed her nerves at the thought of finally discussing things with Reynarden. "I'll go tell them."

"I'll change and see you in the medbay?" Reynarden squeezed her hand lightly.

She nodded and beat a hasty retreat to the crew quarters. Aric and Tanno had already changed and, once they left, Elara changed as well. She felt the ship lift off and hurried to the medbay. Reynarden already waited for her there and she closed the door behind her. "So..."

"So..." he echoed, fidgeting with his hands.

After a few moments of unbearable silence, Elara blurted out, "I'd like to know where I stand with you." Reynarden stared at her and she felt her cheeks heat up, but plowed ahead now that she'd started. "I've become quite fond of you, Reynar. I thought you were fond of me, too, but perhaps I was mistaken."

"No, Elara, you're not mistaken." He shook his head, taking a step towards her, only to stop when she held up a hand. "I am fond of you. A lot." Reynarden grimaced the next moment. "I understand why you doubt it, though."

Moving carefully around Reynarden, Elara found her usual seat and told him, "Yes, it was quite clear that you didn't get much actual sleep at your friend's place."

"I like you, Elara, and I like Ava." Reynarden sighed and scrubbed his fingers through his hair. "I hadn't seen her in eighteen months. When I got her message inviting me to visit her, I wasn't about to refuse."

"Nor would I want you to give up your friendships with other women," she assured him, her arms folded across her waist. "However, you've been flirting with me for almost as long." She felt tears sting at her eyes. No! A Dorne doesn't show weakness, Elara! "Was it a joke? A long con, as it were?"

He shook his head emphatically. "No! I do want more with you, Elara. I visited Ava because she's a friend. We just... got carried away."

"All the way to her bedroom if your appearance the next morning was anything to go by," Elara raised her eyebrows, that image seared into her memory.

Reynarden gave a soft chuckle at that. "What I'm trying to say is that I am very fond of you, Elara. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me and let me prove to you how fond I am of you."

"I really shouldn't," she admitted, biting the inside of her cheek. "But, we weren't technically together when you slept with... Ava?"

He nodded, his mouth twisting into a rueful smile. "Yes: Ava Jaxo."

"You've flirted, I've flirted, but we hadn't actually talked about our relationship." Elara was very much aware of the small size of the room and how little distance there actually was between them. "It wasn't technically cheating and I'm sure you wouldn't have slept with her if we had started a relationship."

Reynarden nodded again, very emphatically. "Absolutely. I want to be with you, Elara."

"And I want to be with you, Reynar." Unfolding her arms, she stretched out her hands to him.

Grinning, he took her hands and stepped close enough that she could smell his soap even through the scent of sweat and blaster oil. "I will do everything in my power to make you happy."

"Just keep doing what you've been doing," Elara whispered, freeing one hand to cup the back of his neck. Unable to stand it any longer, she pulled Reynarden into a kiss. His lips remained still against hers for a bare moment before he rested his hands on her waist and responded. She'd imagined this moment so many times before, but romance novels were correct in one respect: reality was far better. For one thing, Reynarden kept the kiss chaste, his hands never straying from Elara's waist. Despite how much it frustrated her, she couldn't help liking him even more for it. When they parted to catch their breath, Elara cupped Reynarden's cheek with her hand. "I think this is the right choice."

Covering her hand with his, Reynarden turned his head to brush a kiss across the palm of her hand. "I think so, too. You have my word that I won't share my bed, literally or figuratively, with anyone else."

"Thank you, Reynar." Elara kissed his cheek. "Feel free to continue your friendship with Ava. I refuse to be the jealous girlfriend type."

He smiled, kissing her cheek in return. "And I won't keep you from being friends with Aric and Tanno. I'm not the jealous boyfriend type."

"Good." She kissed him again, grateful that they'd talked.

Someone knocked on the door, interrupting them. Tanno called through it the next moment, "Boss, we're at Hoth. Better get out here so Garza can give us her spiel."

"To be continued later," Reynarden told Elara, kissing her one more time, sweet and swift, before moving away.

Smiling to herself, Elara followed and took her usual place behind and to Reynarden's right at the holoterminal. She caught Aric giving her a speculative look and felt her cheeks heat up again. He glanced between her and Reynarden and she nodded. Garza's holoimage coalesced and they quickly turned their attention to the briefing. After explaining the situation on Hoth, she told them why they were there: "You're recruiting a technical specialist named Sergeant Yuun. Judging by his service record, he's the finest technician in the entire Republic military. Yuun is a Gand, an uncommon species in the Republic, and he follows an indigenous shamanistic training. No one understands it, but his results are unmatched."

"If he can get the job done, then I'll be glad to have him," Reynarden told her firmly.

Garza nodded and explained the mission on Hoth that had stymied Yuun: he was scavenging parts for an Umbra encrypter from Imperial warships that had crashed on Hoth. Elara had only heard rumors about it and she wasn't sure if Aleksei knew anything, even though he was a technical specialist himself. "It's critical that Yuun completes the Umbra encrypter--we've never come close to breaking the code, and the amount of intelligence we could gain is immense."

"With Havoc's help, the job be done in no time," Reynarden assured her, though Elara could see that he'd clasped his hands tightly behind his back, a sure sign that something was bothering him.

After reminding them to contact her once they finished their mission, Garza signed off. Reynarden sighed and braced his hands on the holotable. Aric stepped forward and rested a hand on his back. "Didn't Norm have to deal with Gands on Coruscant?"

"Yeah. They were stuck behind a security barricade because they were caught in a gang war," Reynarden confirmed. "Norm managed to solve the situation peacefully, but they're not as uncommon as Garza implied."

Elara covered Reynarden's hand on the holotable. "Uncommon in the military, perhaps."

"That's probably what she meant." He straightened up, clasping her hand with his. "All right, everyone, change into cold weather gear and meet back here ASAP."

Saluting lazily, Tanno trotted off to the crew quarters. Aric lingered, glancing between the two of them. He finally gave Reynarden a stern look. "Don't kriff this up, Rey. Elara deserves the best."

"Why, Aric, I didn't know you cared," Reynarden replied, grinning. Aric growled and glared at Reynarden. He laughed and punched Aric's shoulder. "I get it. I assure you, Elara's happiness is all I want for her."

Blushing, she squeezed his hand. "Thank you, Reynar. Don't forget your happiness."

"As long as I'm with you, I am happy," he told her.

Making a disgusted noise, Aric headed to the crew quarters. "If you two are going to get mushy on me, I'll go get changed."

"Mush will send Aric running. Good to know." Reynarden grinned, and then looked at Elara. "You've called me Reynar. Several times."

Nodding, Elara gave him a hesitant smile. "Since we're together now, I don't want to use your full name, but your usual nickname doesn't sound right."

"Whatever you're comfortable with." He turned his hand over and squeezed it gently. "Soon as we have some downtime, we're going out on a proper date."

She squeezed his hand in return. "I'm looking forward to it already."

Chapter Text

The moment the corporal spotted Reynarden and Elara approaching, he interrupted himself to announce, "Officer on deck!"

"Captain!" Yuun greeted them once everyone had stood up and saluted. "Yuun is pleased to make your honorable acquaintance, and to share this hunt for knowledge with one so renowned."

Reynarden returned the salutes and relaxed his stance. The other soldiers followed his example and he asked, "Why don't you give me the details of your operation, Sergeant?"

"The signs guide Yuun to the Crescent Canyon Facility nearby," Yuun replied, picking up a datapad from the table. Taking his cue, Reynarden pulled out his datapad to accept the coordinates Yuun sent. The facility was important because it had the locations of Imperial shipwrecks, which would have the Umbra components they needed. "Do you follow?"

Reynarden nodded, "Having the Imperials' own records should speed up our search."

"Imperial security in the Crescent Canyon Facility is very strong," Yuun continued, which explained why they hadn't retrieved the data yet. "There are many dangers and sealed doors within that must be bypassed."

When Yuun suggested that Havoc Squad go in first to clear the way to the database, Reynarden agreed with another nod. "Havoc is used to going in first. Just point us in the right direction."

"Before infiltration begins, Yuun asks that Havoc Squad disable motion sensors which would alert the Imperials to our intentions," Yuun requested, tapping at his datapad once again. "They are spread across the facility's perimeter."

Checking his datapad, Reynarden nodded a third time. "Blinding the enemy is always a good strategy. We'll take care of it."

"Please journey carefully, newfound friend." Yuun saluted, followed by the rest of his unit.

Reynarden returned the salute. "We'll be in touch."

With that, they turned and left. When they emerged from the room where Yuun had briefed them, they spotted Aric, Forex, and Tanno talking with Fiosynod, Teeseven, Kira, and Doc. All of them except Teeseven were bundled up against the cold. Fiosynod spotted them and waved. "Hey, Rey!"

"Hey, Fio!" Reynarden hurried forward to hug his brother tightly. "It's great to see you."

Fiosynod returned the hug just as tight. "It seems we just missed each other a couple times. We were on Quesh, too. Then we swung by Coruscant and Mom and Dad said you visited. Now Aric here said you just came from Tatooine."

"Yeah, talk about a change in temperature." Reynarden let go of Fiosynod and stepped back.

Kira grinned, slipping her arm through Fiosynod's. "Eh, just look at the cold as an excuse to cuddle close to each other."

"Cuddling's not in the cards when you wear armor." Elara piped up, stepping forward to take Reynarden's hand. He twined their fingers together and her heart soared. "Though I quite understand the appeal."

Fiosynod and Kira both noticed and gave them inquiring looks. Feeling shy, Elara nodded slightly in confirmation. Grinning again, Kira told them, "The next time we all have downtime together, we need to find a cantina and talk."

"You read my mind," Reynarden agreed with a chuckle. "For now, we need to get going."

Just then, Fiosynod's holocomm chimed. Frowning, he pulled it out to answer it while Kira stepped back out of range. An image of a Nautolan in Jedi robes appeared. Without a word, Reynarden, Elara, and the others moved back as well to give them privacy. When the holoimage disappeared and Fiosynod put the holocomm away, he said, "Looks like we need to get going, too."

"Try not to freeze out there." Reynarden hugged Fiosynod again.

His brother returned the hug. "You, too." Then he whispered something that Elara couldn't hear.

"I want details, Elara," Kira told her in a quiet voice, having approached on silent feet. "I'm glad for you both."

Smiling, Elara awkwardly hugged Kira. They were as good as sisters now. Might as well act like it. "You'll get them, but they might surprise you."

"I still want them." She hugged Elara back. "May the Force be with you."

Chuckling a little, Elara told her, "And with you."

"Catch you later." Fiosynod offered his arm to Kira and she took it. They set off down the corridor with Doc and Teeseven trailing along behind them."

As they followed a respectable distance behind, Tanno commented, "Doc's a good doc. Your brother's in good hands, medically speaking, boss."

"Any idea why his name is Doc?" Reynarden asked, glancing over at Tanno.

Tanno's shrug in response made his armor clatter for a moment. "Nah. Don't know, don't care. He kept my sorry ass alive and that's all that mattered."

"It would," Reynarden muttered. He didn't seem surprised by Tanno's attitude and neither was Elara in truth. There were few things that Tanno Vik seemed to care enough about to ask questions and the reason a man refused to use his given name clearly wasn't one of them.

*

Even with cold-weather gear and her helmet firmly in place, Elara flinched when she emerged from the base. This was the coldest weather she'd ever experienced and it wasn't even snowing. "I recommend we finish as quickly as we can, sir."

"That sounds good to me," Reynarden agreed, pulling out the holomap. "We're here, and the facility is here, with the sensors here, here, here, and here."

Aric gave a thoughtful hum. "Is there some sort of transportation we can borrow?"

"Excuse me, Captain." They turned to see a soldier standing nearby. "If you need transportation to get somewhere, there are speeders available for soldiers."

"Thank you, Corporal," Reynarden replied. "Let's go, people."

They followed the corporal over and ended up borrowing two speeders. Reynarden, Elara, and Aric piled into one while Tanno and Forex climbed into the second. As he steered towards the coordinates Yuun gave them, Aric asked, "Something's on your mind, Rey."

"Just thinking about what Garza told us about Yuun," Reynarden admitted quietly. "She called it shamanistic training."

Elara glanced at him curiously. "You don't think it is?"

"No, I'm sure it is some sort of shamanism," he replied with a chuckle. "The way he talked, though, reminded me of the Jedi that visited us during Fio's early training."

Aric had leaned forward between Reynarden and Elara's seats to ask his question and he hadn't bothered to lean back. "You think he's Force sensitive?"

"Yeah, but he chose the Army for some reason instead of the Order." Reynarden eased them into an arc towards the bridge that led to their goal. "I won't say a word."

Elara braced a hand against the ceiling of the speeder. "Nor I."

"Same." Aric ducked back into his seat.

Once they'd all gathered at the end of the bridge, Reynarden opened the holomap. "I think it'd be best if we spilt up to take out the perimeter sensors. There's two up here and two down below."

"How do you want us to split up, boss?" Tanno asked, looking at the five of them.

Reynarden stared hard at the holomap, and then at the rest of them. "You, Elara, and Aric up here. Forex and I will take care of the sensors down below. We'll rendezvous at the facility once we finish with the sensors."

"Yes, sir," Elara answered promptly, though she felt a bit apprehensive at the thought of being separate from Reynarden, even by so small a distance. That's probably why he's doing it.

While Reynarden and Forex picked their way down, Elara turned and led the way towards the closest perimeter sensor. After they'd cleared the Imperial soldiers around the first sensor, Elara knelt to disable it. Part of her was tempted to remove her helmet so she could see better, but a cold breeze made her think better of it. Keeping an eye out, Aric asked, "All right, Lieutenant?"

"Fine, Sergeant. Why wouldn't I be?" She kept her eyes on the panel in front of her.

A rattle of durasteel told her he'd shrugged. "Doubt you like being here while he's down there."

"No, I don't, but this isn't the first time our duties take us different directions and it certainly won't be the last." Finished, Elara carefully stood up. "We've managed before and we'll keep managing."

Aric's helmet bobbed in a nod and they continued to the next sensor. They took that one out courtesy of one of Tanno's grenades. "Whoops. Well, they won't be using that sensor again any time soon."

"I imagine not." Elara commented wryly, quite certain he'd done that deliberately. She didn't see any point to bringing it up. "Let's go down to the facility." They found a path to climb down and Elara jumped down the last half meter or so to land in front of Reynarden. "Perimeter sensors disabled, Captain."

Reynarden returned her salute, the smile audible in his voice as he replied, "Good work, Lieutentant Dorne, Sergeant Jorgan, Specialist Vik." He indicated the entrance to the facility. "In we go."

*

The fight through the corridors was almost too easy with the five of them working together. When they finally reached a security door, Yuun's voice came over their comms, "Captain, please stand by. Yuun will remove the security door from your path momentarily."

"We'll hold this position until you get the door open," Reynarden assured him, clasping his hands behind his back.

The moment the door slid open, an alarm started blaring and the Imperial soldiers they could see on the other side started gathering their gear together. "Captain, Yuun has discovered that an alarm has been raised, and troops are being summoned to the location of Yuun's team. The Imperials' numbers are too great. Yuun's team will surely be slain unless Havoc Squad intercepts these enemies in their barracks."

"We'll hit the barracks and stop the Imps immediately," Reynarden replied promptly, nodding at the rest of them.

Forex and Tanno barely waited for Reynarden's nod before they charged forward towards the nearest group of soldiers. Reynarden shook his head and pulled his assault cannon off his back, but didn't raise it into a ready position. Aric, who'd drawn his rifle, asked, "Captain?"

"Let's see how they do. If they're fine, then we'll split up and stop the Imps quicker," Reynarden explained, his attention still on Tanno and Forex.

When the last Imperial lay dead, Tanno turned and waved at them. "Go on and join in the fun, boss. Plenty for all of us."

"Don't forget that we have a job to do, Vik," Reynarden replied. Then he turned to Elara and Aric. "Come on. Divide and conquer and all that."

They followed him in the opposite direction than the one Tanno and Forex had taken and began taking care of the other Imperial soldiers. Elara never liked killing others, but she knew the other option would be to let them kill her or Yuun's team, so she shot to kill. They worked through the barracks, ensuring not one soldier would respond to the alarm. When Reynarden contacted Yuun to assure him that they were safe, he, in turn, warned them that they faced further opposition deeper in the facility. Aric muttered, "That's not such a surprise."

"Fully understood," Reynarden answered, making a cutting motion with his hand.

They started into the next set of corridors, weapons out and ready. These soldiers joined the others and they soon found their way blocked by the force field Yuun had warned them about. Tanno pried the cover off and stared at the wires inside for a moment before shaking his head. "No clue, boss."

"Nor I," Elara admitted after taking her turn staring at the incomprehensible tangle.

Aric looked and shook his head. Reynarden shrugged. "Worth trying." He contacted Yuun, who suggested cutting the blue wire because of the way it sat in the panel. Tanno gave a disbelieving snort and Reynarden turned to him. "Do you have a better idea?"

"No, I don't, boss." Tanno seemed to shrink a bit and Elara wondered what sort of expression his helmet hid.

Nodding, Reynarden turned back to the control panel and cut the blue wire. The force field disappeared and they marched into the final room that contained the computer they'd been aiming for all along. The soldiers were not ready and didn't last long against them. Once they were down, Reynarden gestured Elara forward. "Dorne, you know the drill."

"Yes, sir." Elara turned on the computer and quickly decrypted it so Yuun could slice the databanks properly.

He found the information he needed and gave them coordinates for the closest Republic base so they could discuss their next move. "We'll see you there, Yuun. I'm glad we could help."

"Journey safely, Captain," Yuun then signed off so they could make their escape.

Reynarden sighed and set off at a brisk walk, back the way they'd come. Elara fell into step beside him and brushed her hand against his. The next moment, he clasped her hand and squeezed it gently. She returned the squeeze, comforted by the gesture.

*

Along with the locations of all the Imperial shipwrecks, Yuun found a holorecording relevant to their mission: "Outpost Four-two-seven, this is Major Artano, information control specialist for General Rakton's command group. Republic personnel are searching Imperial shipwrecks on Hoth. This cannot continue. Full security details will be posted at all crash sites immediately. I am en route to Hoth now. Any questions about General Rakton's orders may be addressed to me upon arrival. Glory to the Empire!"

"Hmm, that's going to make it harder to get those last Umbra pieces," Reynarden remarked, tapping his finger against the chin of his helmet.

Apparently, Yuun had used the time since finding the holorecording to think on the situation, "Yuun believes we can turn this situation to our advantage. Many sites to be guarded have no Umbra components at all. If Havoc Squad attacks one of these useless sites, guards would be drawn away from the others, allowing Yuun's squad to acquire Umbra components elsewhere."

"Havoc Squad is good at diversions," Reynarden replied and Elara could hear the smile in his voice, even filtered through his helmet. "Just pick a crash site and we'll move out."

Yuun pulled out his datapad to send the coordinates and Reynarden pulled his out to receive them. "A nearby cave is guarded by the Empire. Assaulting it should draw much attention from our enemies." Setting it down, he picked up a bag of detonators and held them out. "Here, Captain--please take these detonators. If the Imperial reinforcements become too much, you can collapse the cave and escape."

"Let's make it happen, Sergeant." Reynarden took the bag and handed it off to Tanno, who opened it and examined the contents. He made a pleased sound and shut it, attaching it to his utility belt.

"Yuun's team will finish reloading and depart immediately. Journey safely, Captain," Yuun told them, saluting.

Reynarden returned the salute and turned to the rest of them, freeing Yuun to go speak to his soldiers. "Will those detonators do the job, Vik?"

"Standard issue, but I'll need to see the crash site, boss," Tanno told him, folding his arms across his chest.

Nodding, Reynarden opened his holomap. "That'll be your job once we clear out the Imps at the site. How's everyone's gear doing?"

"I'll need to charge my generators when we're done here, but I knew that," Tanno replied after a moment's consideration.

Elara, Aric, and Forex were fine and she'd been watching her squadmates carefully for any sign they'd been injured. A quick scan assured her that they hadn't been badly hurt. "Right, let's go give Yuun and his soldiers that distraction they need."

*

The cave Yuun had specified wasn't too far away and the tight quarters made it a little harder to work together to take out the Imperials. Forex waded in first, taking a great deal of blaster fire. Reynarden, Elara, and Aric picked off the Imperials who hung back. Once the first group was dead, Tanno studied the cave around them for several minutes, examining the structure of the ice and rock as well as the pieces of ship that stuck out of the walls. Finally, he nodded and picked one of the ship parts that stuck out near the first bend of the cave. "I'll use two dets for now. Just to ensure it'll collapse properly."

"You're the expert here, Vik," Reynarden said, shrugging his shoulders. "I'll trust that."

Tanno just grunted as he focused his attention on setting the detonators and programming them. Once he finished, they moved deeper into the cave system. About halfway through a long, narrow stretch, Tanno stopped and set two more detonators, one on either side of the tunnel. "At least one more spot for dets, boss, depending on how big this system is."

"Not much further if the scans for my holomap are right," Reynarden replied, studying it.

They set off, clearing the tunnel and the final part of the cave of Imperial soldiers. While Tanno placed two more detonators, Reynarden's holocomm chimed to announce an incoming call. When he accepted the call, it wasn't Yuun, but Major Artano who appeared. "Your attempt to steal Imperial property has been detected, and reinforcements called from all nearby positions."

"Good, they took the bait. Here's hoping Sergeant Yuun gets the part he's after," Aric remarked over their comms.

Reynarden didn't react to the comment, simply telling Artano, "We're Havoc Squad. Nobody you send can handle us."

"Havoc Squad?" Artano looked intrigued rather than intimidated, but Elara could have told Reynarden that if he'd asked her. "Excellent. This victory will be celebrated. You had your chance--now be crushed by the might of the Empire."

Reynarden shrugged as he put the holocomm away. "Eh, worth a shot. Havoc Squad, scatter."

"A reputation like Havoc Squad's would only mean more prestige if they actually succeed," Elara told him even as she moved away, towards one of the walls.

Aric moved towards the opposite wall. Tanno remained where he was while Forex marched forward with Reynarden. Although Reynarden stopped in about the middle of the cave, Forex kept marching forward to meet the first wave of Imperial soldiers. They fought hard, as did the next two waves, but they ultimately failed. As they caught their breath and Elara checked that none of them had been badly injured, Reynarden's holocomm chimed again. "Captain--the diversion has succeeded. Yuun's team has discovered much promising salvage."

"We're collapsing the cave and making our way out," Reynarden told him, sounding pleased.

After telling Reynarden where to go to contact him again, Yuun and Reynarden ended the holocall. "Everything's set, boss. I can set off the dets once we're out of the cave."

"Then let's move out."

*

It wasn't much of a surprise that Yuun had already set out to recover the last two Umbra parts. He'd been on Hoth longer than them and probably wanted to leave the planet ASAP. Still, he hesitated to end the holocall asking Reynarden to assist Corporal Sajin. "Premonitions of danger lurk in Yuun's mind. Perhaps are enemies are closing in... please be cautious, sir."

"What have the signs shown you, Yuun?" Reyanrden asked, clasping his hands tightly together behind his back.

After taking a moment to think about it, Yuun told them, "Bloodthirst. Fury. Desperate desire for the Umbra components but limited understanding of the machine's purpose. And above all, fear of failure."

"That doesn't sound right to be the Imperials," Reynarden remarked, sounding thoughtful. "They don't seem to know what we're looking for, just that we're searching Imperial crash sites."

Yuun nodded his agreement. "Yuun will meditate more on this while searching the second cave. Please meet Yuun there when Sajin's search is complete. Journey well, sir."

"Garza did tell us that Hoth is the site of a three-way conflict, sir," Aric told Reynarden as they gathered their gear and headed for the exit.

Reynarden hummed thoughtfully. "You think the White Maw may be the cause of Yuun's premonition, Jorgan?"

"It's certainly a possibility to consider, sir." Aric shrugged.

Tanno gave a dismissive snort. "You're really going to take his 'premonition' seriously, boss?"

"Yes, I am," Reynarden affirmed, his voice sounding hard for a moment. "Fio's had his share of them and we learned to listen when he had them. I'm sure Norm's had them, too." They finished the trip to the cave Yuun had specified in silence. When they entered, they found not Imperial soldiers, but White Maw pirates. None of them needed an order from Reynarden to attack. Once the last of the first group they encountered lay dead, Reynarden nudged one of the bodies with the toe of his boot. "Bad feeling is right. Let's move fast."

They fought hard to clear out the pirates, but it wasn't quick enough for two of Yuun's soldiers. Only Corporal Sajin remained alive and Elara didn't need to scan him to see that he wouldn't last long. When he saw them approaching, Sajin called out, trying and failing to push himself up. "Ack... Captain, sir! They're everywhere, sir--they're all over us! You have to warn Sergeant Yuun!"

"Just take it easy and start from the beginning," Reynarden told him gently, kneeling beside him.

Elara moved forward, her medkit in her hands. "I'll try to ease his pain, sir. But I'm afraid there's nothing else I can do for him."

"It was pirates. Grimy, murdering pirates!" Sajin told them as Elara scanned him and gave him kolto for the pain he must surely be in. "They... they knew what we were after. Their leader grabbed the... grabbed the Umbra part and ran!"

Catching Reynarden's attention, Elara slowly shook her head. She couldn't do more for Sajin. Turning back to Sajin, Reynarden asked, "Do you know where the pirates are based? Who their leader is?"

"All I heard them say was that they needed the Umbra parts." Sajin reached up and gripped Reynarden's arm as tightly as he could. "Please, sir! You have to warn Sergeant Yuun--the pirates will be gunning for him next!"

Gently pulling Sajin's hand away, Reynarden nodded. "Yes, he needs to know what's heading his way." Standing up, he moved away to contact Yuun on the holocomm.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Sajin told Elara, shaking his head when she held up another kolto vial. "I know I don't have much longer."

Elara bit her lip and nodded, stepping back when Reynarden knelt beside Sajin once more. "Sergeant Yuun knows and will be on guard."

"Thank you, sir." Sajin's voice was coming shorter now and Elara could see his arm trembling as he struggled to remain propped up. "I had to be sure. Had to warn him."

Reynarden's voice was rough, but steady. "Yuun wanted you to know that you served with honor, Corporal Sajin."

"Thank you..." Sajin's breath hitched and his arm finally gave out. "Thank you..."

Elara scanned him once more and cleared her throat. "He's gone, sir."

"You did what you could for him, Dorne," Reynarden answered, extending his hand.

She took it and pulled him to his feet, taking the moment to squeeze his hand in silent thanks. He returned the squeeze and sighed heavily. After a few moments, Aric cleared his throat. "We should get moving, sir. Sergeant Yuun won't last long against the pirates on his own."

"Of course." Squeezing Elara's hand once again, Reynarden dropped it and headed for the cave entrance. The rest of them trailed after him in somber silence.

*

Luckily, they reached Yuun and his team in time to save them from the pirates. They'd managed to find the piece they were after, but the pirates had the final piece. One of Yuun's soldiers found a holorecording on one of the dead pirates and started it. A holoimage of a Cathar woman appeared above the unit and Aric growled under his breath. "--got a chance at serious credits on this one. If you fail me in this, I'll hang your hides on my walls."

"That explains the desperation and fear of failure," Reynarden commented, nodding towards Yuun, who returned the nod.

The holorecording continued, "Leave no witnesses. Grab the Umbra parts at these coordinates, and don't come back to the Star of Coruscant without them--got it?"

"And that explains the bloodthirst and fury," Aric contributed as the soldier turned off the holorecording and offered the holocomm to Reynarden.

He took the holocomm and handed it to Aric, who decrypted the coordinates. Looking at Yuun, he asked, "What's the Star of Coruscant?"

"An old Republic superdreadnaught, lying broken upon Hoth's surface," Yuun told them, taking the holocomm when Aric growled his frustration. It took him only a moment to decrypt the coordinates and send them to Reynarden's datapad. "It is the pirates' stronghold, guarded by an army of murderers and thieves."

Elara had been quietly tending to Yuun and his men while the others talked and finally said, "You three are in no state to fight pirates. You need to rest and heal." And mourn, but she wasn't about to bring it up yet. Yuun may have reconciled himself to the loss of Sajin and his team, but the other two were clearly shaken.

"Havoc Squad will retrieve that last part, Sergeant Yuun, no matter the opposition," Reynarden told them, drawing himself to his full height.

Yuun and his team stood straighter in response. "Your bravery is truly unsurpassed. While you acquire the last piece, Yuun will assemble the rest. Please meet with Yuun at Aurek Base when your hunt is complete. Journey safely, sir."

"We can stick together for now," Reynarden told them, his helmet turning towards Elara for a moment. "We can't be sure we got all of the pirates on our way here."

Havoc squad formed up around Yuun and his team and they made their slow way out of the crash site. They continued towards the nearest outpost: Zerek. As Yuun led his soldiers to the medical droid, Elara stopped beside Reynarden, "Sir, I'd feel better if I oversaw their treatment myself. Medroids can only do so much."

"Of course. I promise I'll call if we run into more trouble than we can handle," Reynarden's hand found hers and he squeezed it gently.

She returned the squeeze with a smile. "Thank you, sir."

"See you soon." Squeezing her hand again, Reynarden turned and headed to the exit with Aric, Forex, and Tanno.

Elara watched them go, and then headed towards Yuun and the others. "Lieutenant, why are you here? Why did you not go with the others?"

"I'm a medic first and foremost, Sergeant," Elara told him, checking the scans the medroid had made. "Captain Drondil understands that and knows I will come if he needs me."

The private who'd found the holorecording commented as she gave the medroid instructions for their treatment, "You sound like an Imp, but you're wearing Republic colors."

"I defected years ago," she answered stiffly, trying not to tense up over his observation.

Yuun responded before the private could, "Yuun can see that you are as honorable as Captain Drondil. It will be an honor to serve alongside you."

"It will be a mutual honor," Elara told him, watching intently as the medroid followed her directions, ensuring that its programming did its job.

Just as it finished, a familiar voice rang through the outpost, "I told you, Corso, you're not going with us."

"And I'm tellin' you that I'm goin', Jev," Corso replied, sounding stubborn.

Looking around, Elara spotted Jeveen, Corso, and Akaavi walking into the outpost. The two women stood on either side of Corso, who was visibly swaying. As Elara approached them, Jeveen scowled up at him, "You have a concussion, Corso. You need to stay here and rest."

"Last I checked, none of us have a medical scanner, so you can't be sure I have one," Corso retorted, remaining on his feet.

Jeveen rolled her eye, exasperated. "I know the symptoms of a concussion, Corso, and you're exhibiting every single one of them."

"If you go with us, Riggs, you'll be more of a danger than the pirates," Akaavi finally contributed.

Elara reached the trio and held up her scanner for them to see. "I can scan Mr. Riggs if you like, Captain Par."

"Yes, please do, Lieutenant. Maybe this idiot will actually stay behind." Jeveen gave Elara a grateful look.

She used her scanner and nodded. "Captain Par is correct, Mr. Riggs. You have a concussion and Ms. Spar was right in her assessment that you'd be more of a hinderance in this condition than a help. I recommend you stay here and rest."

"But the pirates?" Corso stopped resisting and slowly sat down, still swaying.

Jeveen pointedly glanced around the outpost. "I don't see the rest of Havoc Squad, so I'm assuming they're already at the Star of Coruscant, which means they've probably cleared a good number of the pirates out of our way."

"Plus, Ms. Spar is a Mandalorian and a more than capable fighter," Elara added, rummaging through her medkit. Just like on Taris and Balmorra, it seemed Jeveen had the same ultimate goal as Havoc Squad.

Corso gave a gusty sigh and reluctantly nodded, only to clutch at his head the next moment. "Fine, I'll stay here."

"If I may," Elara could see the concern on Jeveen's face as she looked at Corso. "I can give you kolto specially formulated to heal concussions. It will knock you out, though."

He frowned, and then Jeveen leaned down to whisper something Elara couldn't hear. The frown faded and he looked at Elara. "Fine, give me the kolto, Lieutenant. Thank you for your help."

"Thanks, Corso." Jeveen kissed his cheek and stepped back so he could lay down. Once he was comfortable, Elara injected him with the kolto. He held Jeveen's hand, his eyes on hers until the kolto put him to sleep. She squeezed his hand and gently placed it on the bed at his side. Turning to Elara, she said, "Thanks, Elara."

"How did he get a concussion anyway?" Elara asked, quite curious.

Jeveen pulled the glove and bracer on her left hand off as she explained, "We were trying to get in with the White Maw to steal some high-end cloaking device they got their hands on, but they double-crossed us, no surprise, and tossed us in a wampa cave."

"Typical pirates," Elara murmured, surprised when Jeveen rolled up her sleeve and extended her arm to Elara. A closer look showed bruising and swelling. She glanced at Jeveen. "Did you land on your hand?"

Jeveen held up her right hand and Elara could see now that it wasn't quite right. "Both of them, but Bowie or Tharan will have to take care of this one.'

"At least I don't have to sit on you to get you to admit you need medical attention." Elara injected kolto above the bruising and wrapped it tightly. Jeveen flinched, but didn't protest. "Keep that on for at least an hour. If it's still bruised and swollen, another kolto injection will take care of it."

Jeveen nodded, rolling her sleeve down over the wrap, and then putting her bracer and glove back on. "Thanks again, Elara."

"Lieutenant." At Akaavi's voice, Elara turned to see that she'd sat down and removed the boot and sock on her right foot. The bruising of a twisted ankle was very apparent and it was starting to swell now that she'd removed her boot.

Sighing, Elara injected kolto above the bruising and wrapped it tightly. "Same as Captain Par: keep the wrap on for at least an hour and give yourself another injection if it's still bruised and swollen afterwards."

"Thanks." Akaavi pulled her sock and boot back on.

Elara sat back on her heels and looked up at Jeveen. "Be careful out there. I don't know how many pirates there are, let alone how many Reynar and the others have taken care of."

"We'll be fine, Elara," Jeveen told her seriously, and then grinned. "Wait, Reynar? You've always called him Reynarden before."

Feeling her cheeks flush under helmet, Elara told her, "Well, certain circumstances changed."

"I want details when we can sit and have a drink," Jeveen told her, still grinning.

Amused, Elara told her, "Kira wants them, too."

"Good!" Jeveen punched Elara's arm below her shoulder plate. "Let's go, Akaavi."

Nodding, Akaavi stood up and hesitated beside Elara. "K'oyacyi."

"K'oyacyi," Elara told her in reply.

With that, Jeveen and Akaavi left the outpost. When Elara turned to check on Corso, Yuun stood beside his bed, head tilted curiously. When Elara joined him, he asked quietly, "Was that Captain Drondil's sister?"

"Genetically, they're half-siblings, but they didn't meet until about two years ago," Elara told him just as quietly.

Yuun nodded and indicated his soldiers. "Yuun and the others have been cleared for travel. Journey safely, Lieutenant."

"You, too, Sergeant." Elara nodded to him and watched the three soldiers leave.

She'd just checked on Corso when her holocomm chimed. When she answered it, Reynarden's holoimage appeared, his posture strained. "Dorne, we need you here ASAP. Jorgan's down. It's bad. Hurry."

"I'll be there soon, sir." She didn't wait for him to end the call, turning to give the medroid instructions for Corso.

That done, she headed outside. "It's too late to take a speeder, Lieutenant. If you need to get there fast, you'll have to take a tauntaun."

"Fine, I'll take one." Elara climbed into the saddle and set off, urging the tauntaun to go as fast as it could. She was worried about what Reynarden's message could mean.

She'd just reached a fork in the road when she spotted Tanno waving to catch her attention. "This way, Dorne!"

He led her to a little medcenter where Reynarden and Forex waited with Aric resting on the one medbed at the center. Elara gasped when she finally saw Aric. His entire left side was a mess of melted durasteel and burned cortosis weave, fur, and skin. She didn't need her scanner to see that he was bad off, but she pulled it out anyway. "I can tell you right now that I can stabilize him, but he'll need the kolto tank ASAP."

"Do what you can for him," Reynarden told her, sounding grim. "As soon as it's safe to transport him, we'll head back so we can give Yuun this last piece of the Umbra encrypter."

Elara glared at Jorgan's armor. "Whatever did this melted the buckles on his armor. I'm not strong enough to break them so we can get it off him."

"No problem." Tanno twisted the buckle with a grunt of effort and it broke in his hand.

They eased Aric onto his right side and Reynarden took care of the buckle on the back with the help of a multitool. Aric made a distressed noise as they carefully eased away the chest- and backplates, blinking up at them with bleary eyes. "Hi, Elara."

"Hello, Aric." She began cutting through the cortosis weave around the burned area. "How are you feeling?"

He grunted and let out a hiss as she moved to the cortosis weave on his back. "Like someone tried to roast me alive."

"It certainly looks like they tried," she retorted, smiling distractedly at Reynarden as he and Tanno helped peel the useless cortosis weave off Aric's torso and dropped it on top of his slagged armor. "How did it happen?"

Aric growled low in his throat while Elara removed her gloves. "Zareen had a flame thrower. Somehow, a spark managed to get under my armor and my cortosis weave caught fire. She used the flamethrower again and that's when things really got bad."

"She died shortly after that and Aric had the presence of mind to stop, drop, and roll," Reynarden added as Elara pulled out a container of kolto gel.

Another hiss escaped Aric as Elara began spreading the gel over the burned skin. It served to heal the burned area and loosen the pieces of cortosis weave that clung to it. "Your quick thinking kept this to a second-degree burn, Aric, but it came close to being third-degree."

"Thank the stars for that kolto tank," Aric muttered, hissing again as Elara finished with the gel and began picking out the pieces of cortosis weave with a pair of tweezers. "Can't that wait?"

She shook her head. "The longer we leave them, the more difficult they'll be to remove later." When she was satisfied that she'd removed all the cortosis weave, she wrapped a bandage around his entire torso to keep the gel from drying too quickly and to keep Aric warm since he was basically naked from the waist up except for his helmet. "You're ready to travel, Aric."

"Forex and I will go ahead to give Yuun the last piece of the encrypter," Reynarden told them. "You and Tanno get Aric up to the ship and into the kolto tank."

Before he left, Reynarden caught her hand and squeezed it. She squeezed his in return and turned to help Tanno get Aric into one speeder. She wanted to watch Reynarden set off with Forex in the other speeder, but she had a job to do.

*

Since Aric was wounded, they had priority to go up to the orbital station. By the time they reached the ship, Aric had passed out from a combination of pain and sheer exhaustion. It helped Elara and Tanno get him into the kolto tank because he didn't fight as Tanno finished stripping him down to his regulation underwear. Elara climbed onto a stepstool to help lift Aric into the tank, which had been slowly filling with a kolto solution. Before he was completely submerged, Elara fit the rebreather over his nose and mouth. It was a combination of oxygen and a sedative to keep Aric calm while he was in the tank. After helping to put the lid on the tank, Tanno told Elara, "I'll take care of our weapons, since Jorgan certainly won't."

"Thank you for your help, Tanno," she told him as she handed over her blaster pistol, every word sincere. He was working out better than both she and Reynarden had thought he would.

He grunted and left the medbay. Smiling to herself, Elara stayed to monitor Aric's status. Once she was satisfied that Aric was healing well, she headed into the galley to check that caf was brewing. The kettle she used to boil water for tea had also been filled and started. It wasn't popular in the Republic, since it was associated with the Empire. Reynarden had come to like tea, though, so Elara took a chance and prepared two cups while getting down three mugs for caf. When the kettle whistled, she poured it into the teacups. While those steeped, she poured caf into one of the other cups and carried it into the armory. Tanno was just standing up and grinned when she held up the caf. He took it and downed half of it in several gulps. "Thanks, Elara."

"Any word from Reynar?" she asked, heading to the crew quarters to get out of her armor now that the urgent business was done.

Tanno had followed her and moved towards his bunk to remove his armor as well. "Nothing yet, but we did get priority treatment 'cause of Grumpy."

"Good point." She reluctantly peeled herself out of her cortosis weave and quickly pulled on her uniform trousers and undershirt.

She heard the timer in the galley beeping and hurried out to the galley to take care of the tea. While she did that, she heard the hatch open and close, followed by the sound of Reynarden and Yuun greeting Seetoo. She was just putting the milk back in the refrigeration unit when Reynarden asked from the doorway, "How's Aric?"

"He's in the kolto tank and healing," Elara told him, dropping two sugar cubes into the other cup and stirring it in. "He won't need as long as you did because he wasn't hurt as badly."

Reynarden nodded, smiling when Elara offered him the tea. "Thanks, Elara."

"You're welcome, Reynar." She turned back to retrieve her own tea, taking a sip.

She stiffened briefly when he slipped an arm around her waist, and then relaxed. He hummed and kissed her cheek. "I could definitely get used to this."

"Me, too, but we really need to report to General Garza now that we're all here." Elara turned, cupping Reynarden's cheek with her free hand.

Smiling, he turned his head to brush a kiss across her palm. "Once you're fully in uniform, I'll contact Garza."

"Of course." She started to move away, but Reynarden didn't let go of her.

When Elara raised her eyebrows at him, he grinned and leaned in to kiss her softly. She let herself kiss him back for only a moment before reluctantly breaking free of his hold. They still had duties to perform.

*

Once they were in hyperspace, heading back to Coruscant, Elara retreated to the medbay to keep an eye on Aric while she wrote her report. She'd just made herself comfortable when someone knocked on the door frame. Elara raised her eyebrow when realized it was Reynarden standing there, wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt. "Yes, Reynar?"

"Mind if I sit in here while I write my report?" he asked a little hesitantly. He bit his lip before adding, "I just want to be near you."

Blushing, Elara nodded. "Of course. I don't have another chair in here, though."

"That's fine." He disappeared for a moment, and then reappeared carrying a chair from the briefing room.

She laughed and gestured to the space on the other side of her little desk. Reynarden grinned and set his chair there. He sat down with his datapad and focused his attention on it. After a moment, Elara realized she was staring at him and quickly turned to her own datapad. It took a little time for her to really focus on her report because she was used to total solitude while she worked. As she determinedly kept her eyes on her datapad, it became easier to recount what had happened on Hoth. In fact, the words seemed to come easier with Reynarden there. She finished typing and submitted her report with a satisfied sigh. Sitting back, she stretched her arms up above her head, easing the stiffness in her back from sitting still for so long. When she dropped her arms, she realized Reynarden was watching her with a smile. Blushing again, she dropped her hands to her lap. "I'm sorry if I distracted you."

"Don't apologize," he told her, setting his datapad down. "You're the best kind of distraction I could ask for."

Blushing more, she ducked her head. "You're being silly."

"Hardly." His chair scraped across the deck and he moved around her desk to crouch in front of her. "To be honest, you'll always distract me, simply because you're you."

Elara smiled shyly, reaching up to cup his cheek. "You're quite distracting yourself, Reynar."

"Good to know it goes both ways." Grinning, he stretched up to kiss her.

When he pulled back, she hastily covered her mouth as she yawned. "Oh, I'm sorry. You're not boring, I assure you."

"We've had a long day." He straightened up and tugged on her hands. "I'd say some rest is in order, wouldn't you?"

Elara nodded, standing up. She gasped when he wrapped his arms around her waist and tugged her into a hug. After a moment, she hugged him back, resting her cheek on his shoulder and breathing in the scent of blaster oil and ocean air that seemed to cling to him. After a few quiet moments, she asked, "Do you mind if I join you?"

"What?" Reynarden pulled back to stare at her. "You want to take a nap with me?"

She nodded again, biting her lip. "Yes. I find I don't want to be apart from you just yet."

"Fine by me." Smiling, he kissed the tip of her nose. "I'd like to spend as much time with you as I can, too."

Wrinkling her nose with a fond smile, she reluctantly left to change out of her uniform into sweatpants and a soft t-shirt. That done, she headed to Reynarden's quarters. She'd avoided going inside before now because she hadn't wanted to presume anything. When she entered at his invitation, she found him perched on the right side of the bed, the covers of which were already turned back. On the bedside table on that side sat a holoportrait of him with his family. On the desk sat a computer terminal with datapads stacked untidily next to it. On the bulkhead above the desk hung a display case with several medals and trophies as well as a holopicture of a group of teenage boys of various humanoid species wearing matching tank tops and grinning. After staring for several moments, Elara realized the shortest human boy in the picture was Reynarden, before the tattoo that surrounded his right eye, before he started shaving his tight curls, before he grew the goatee on his chin. Reynarden spoke at her shoulder. "That's me with my gymnastics team. It was our last meet before we went our separate ways."

"Are these all from gymnastics?" Elara asked, leaning into Reynarden when he slipped his arm around her waist.

He kissed her cheek. "Yeah. I keep them with me to remind me that there's more to me than being a soldier."

"Do you have any holorecordings of your meets?" she turned to look at him. "Or more likely, your parents have them."

Chuckling, Reynarden nodded. "Exactly. They're at home." He interrupted himself with a yawn. "Oh! Sorry."

"We're both tired. Let's rest." Elara turned the bed, and then glanced at Reynarden. "Which side do you prefer?"

He waved his hand at the side with his family's holoportrait, covering another yawn with the other hand. When he finished, he told her, "That side."

"Then I'll take this side." Elara moved to the other side and hesitantly stretched out under the covers. The mattress and covers were both softer than she expected.

Reynarden chuckled as he stretched out on his side of the bed, rolling onto his side to look at her. "I told you I don't like Army issue bedding."

"So you did." Smiling shyly, she rolled onto her side and reached out to take his hand.

Clasping her hand, he tugged gently. "You're too far away over there."

Laughing, she gladly scooted closer, wrapping her arms around Reynarden once he was close enough. "Better?"

"Much." He kissed her, light and playful.

They traded increasingly lazy kisses until sleep finally claimed them.

*

By the time they reached Coruscant, Aric had been out of the kolto tank for over eighteen hours and conscious for the last six of them. He had a rather large bald spot on his left side, but the time in the kolto tank ensured stubble of new growth would start coming in within the next twenty-four hours. He was able to march into Garza's office alongside the rest of them. General Garza wasn't alone: Supreme Commander Rans and Fleet Admiral Numinn both waited with her. Elara was glad they'd had the time to ensure their dress uniforms were clean and pressed, their leatheris boots gleaming.

Once the pleasantries were over, they began discussing how to even approach the Gauntlet when it could shoot them even while they were in hyperspace. Rans told them, "Fortunately, the technical data you helped retrieve allowed us to determine a safe approach pattern that will get our forces within striking range."

"Can you explain this approach pattern, sir?" Reynarden requested, looking from Rans to Garza to Numinn.

"We've run the numbers from the Imperials' readouts and determined the Gauntlet's minimum time to acquire and lock onto a target," Rans answered first, gesturing to the computer terminal in Garza's office.

Numinn took over the explanation. "Your ship and those of my battle group, will approach the Gauntlet by making numerous short hyperjumps, always remaining below the minimum lock-on time." He sighed softly before continuing. "Short, repeated hyperjumps are very inefficient. Once we're in, our warships won't have enough fuel to return. Total victory will be our only option."

"Failure has never been an option, sir," Reynarden told him firmly, tilting his chin up stubbornly.

Numinn nodded his agreement, "Quite right."

Rans and Garza explained the rest of the battleplan: the Safecrackers would disable the shield generator protecting the Gauntlet. This would give Havoc Squad the opening they'd need to board the Gauntlet. Yuun would bypass the security seals to the Gauntlet's inner core. That would allow Tanno to plant explosives at key weak points to ensure the total destruction of the Gauntlet. When Garza finished, Reynarden glanced at the rest of them and asked, "How should I deploy my other squad members?"

"During your demolition operations, two Havoc Squad members of your choice will assault the Gauntlet's bridge and download all data from the weapon's computers," Garza informed him briskly. "Unassigned squad members will provide mobile backup to the rest of the team as needed." Reynarden nodded and she continued, "As soon as your objectives are complete, evacuate the Gauntlet immediately. Understood?"

He nodded again, his hands clasped behind his back. Though Elara couldn't see them, she was sure he was squeezing his hands together tightly. "I'll assign the bridge assault team before the attack begins."

After some parting words from both Rans and Garza about the importance of this mission, they were dismissed. They picked up some last-minute requisitions and headed to the spaceport. Once they were in hyperspace for the first and longest hyperjump, Elara found Reynarden in the workout area, pummeling the punching bag again. When he stopped to catch his breath, Elara asked, "Do you need a sparring partner again, Reynar?"

"No, it's nerves this time, not anger." Sighing, he picked at the tape on his hands. "If I tried to do my usual workout, I'd probably land flat on my ass or back."

"You did the first time we sparred," Elara reminded him, sitting down on the nearby bench.

He nodded, and then grinned, sitting down beside her. "It wasn't so bad. You ended up on top of me, after all."

"Well, you got me back when you took off your tank top afterwards. It quite distracted me," she admitted the last with some heat in her cheeks. She eyed him thoughtfully. "I'm still not sure if you intended that."

Laughing, Reynarden bumped her shoulder with his. "At the time? No. It was so soaked with sweat that it stuck to my skin it was just easier to take it off entirely than deal with it sticking. I did notice that you looked."

"Yes, well, I'd never seen you without a shirt on before then and you have a very well-defined chest." Elara's cheeks warmed again at her comment, but she willed the blush away. They were dating now. She could discuss his bare chest and the like if she wished.

He laughed again and leaned close to murmur quietly, "If you want an even closer look, you're welcome to it."

"I'll take you up on that offer another time," Elara told him, kissing the tip of his nose with a smile to take away the sting of her refusal. Stars knew she'd wondered what it would feel like under her hands plenty of times. However, on their small assault ship just before an important mission with the rest of their squad busy preparing was not an ideal moment. She tried a sultry smile. "I want to take my time and enjoy the experience."

Reynarden groaned and let his forehead drop down onto her shoulder. "That's not fair. How can I focus when I have the memory of you looking at me like that to torment me?"

"If you don't focus, you won't come back alive," she pointed out quietly, resting her cheek against the top of his head. The tight curls were surprisingly soft. "And we won't get to pursue our relationship further."

The breath from his soft chuckle raised goosebumps on her bare arm. "You make a very compelling argument."

"I want to pursue this further, Reynar." Elara gently tucked her fingers under his chin and tilted his head up so his lovely blue eyes met her green ones. "So stay alive."

He smiled, cupping her cheek. "Koy'ahsee. I'll take that."

"K'oyacyi," she corrected before kissing him.

*

For the approach to the Gauntlet, Reynarden and Elara worked together to hop in and out of hyperspace as needed. When they finally reached it, she slumped in her chair for a moment. "I never want to do that again."

"Same." Reynarden chuckled, reaching across the console between them to squeeze her arm. "Gather everyone for the briefing. I can hear the holo going off."

Nodding, she got up and hesitated a moment before leaning down to kiss Reynarden's cheek. He grinned and reached up to cup her cheek so he could kiss her properly. Smiling, Elara reluctantly backed away and headed downstairs to gather the rest of the squad for the briefing. Forex remained in his usual place while Yuun and Aric took seats at the front of the room and Vik sat in the chair closest to the door. Elara stood next to the podium at the front, waiting patiently for Reynarden to finish talking to Numinn. When he appeared at the door, Elara saluted him, "Captain, sir--the squad is assembled and ready to receive your battle assignments. Our operation orders require two squad members to assault the bridge and collect data there. Resistance will be heavy." That went without saying, but she felt it best to remind him of that fact. "As Specialist Vik and Sergeant Yuun already have assignments, available personnel for the bridge assault are myself, Sergeant Jorgan, and M1-4X. Who do you want to send, sir?"

"Forex can cover you while you get that data, Lieutenant," Reynarden answered promptly. He'd clearly been thinking about who to send since Garza had told them about that part of their orders.

She saluted him crisply, trying to stand even taller, "All bridge data will be collected and returned without error, sir."

"No Imperial will stand in our way!" Forex declared, lifting his chassis up high for a moment. "The Republic will triumph!"

Elara didn't know how she managed to keep her voice calm and steady as pre-mission nerves began to make themselves known. "I'll see to our final preparations, sir. Any further words for the squad?"

"Havoc is the best squad in the Republic because it has the best soldiers in the Republic," Reynarden began, meeting each of their gazes for several moments. "This is why we'll succeed. We may be charging headfirst into the most advanced weapon of war the Sith Empire has ever built, but we will succeed." He stood as tall as he could. "The odds may be impossible. The enemy may outnumber us ten to one. But Havoc Squad will succeed!"

Elara saluted enthusiastically as Aric, Yuun, and Tanno stood up. "Sir, yes, sir!"

Yuun and Aric saluted as well while Tanno punched the air with his fist. They scattered to finish their preparations while Elara and Reynarden returned to the cockpit to fly the Thunderclap into a hanger on the Gauntlet. Once they landed, Elara remained seated for a long moment. "Elara?"

"I'm sorry, Reynar. This is probably the most important mission I've ever been part of, in either the Empire or Republic," she told him, standing up to face him.

"Same for me." He slipped his arms around her waist and drew her close. Their armor prevented them standing as close as they would have liked. "Yuun and Tanno have proven their skill already, so that should go fine."

She nodded and asked what had been on her mind since Reynarden assigned her to assault the bridge with Forex, "Are you sure you want me to go to the bridge?"

"You're the best person to retrieve the data. We both know that." He sighed and nudged his forehead against hers. "I picked Forex instead of Aric because he makes a bigger target."

Elara couldn't stop a laugh and swatted his arm below the shoulder plate. "That's terrible."

"But true." Reynarden grinned and kissed her softly. "Come back to me, Elara."

She returned the kiss, her heart racing for a reason other than nerves now. "You'd better come back, too, Reynar."

"Of course I will." He sighed softly.

They simply held each other for several moments and Elara made an effort to memorize the moment. The feel of Reynarden's arms around her and her arms around him. The smell of durasteel, blaster oil, and salty ocean air that clung to him. The sound of the Thunderclap settling around them as the systems finished spinning down to their idle state. The taste of Reynarden's kiss lingering on her lips. Most of all, the look in his light blue eyes as he gazed at her intently. Aric broke the moment, calling up the stairs, "Captain Drondil! We're losing time here!"

"We're coming, Jorgan!" Reynarden called back. He leaned forward to kiss Elara one last time and she responded almost desperately. "I still owe you a date, Elara. Remember that."

She managed a weak chuckle. "I have every intention of collecting on that, Reynar."

"Good." Sighing, he reluctantly stepped back and Elara dropped her arms from around his waist.

As he started down the stairs, she took a moment to gather her composure. She had a job to do and she would not fail. As ready as she ever would be, Elara descended the stairs and accepted the gear Aric held out to her: blaster pistol, medkit, and generators, both fully charged. After checking with each of the others, she joined Reynarden at the ship's hatch. "Havoc Squad is present and ready, sir."

"For the Republic!" Reynarden hit the button to open the hatch and they rushed out in formation to counter the Imperial troops waiting for them. The next few minutes passed in a loud, chaotic blur of blaster fire and shouting. Elara had learned long ago the best strategy in a situation such as this was to aim for anyone wearing Imperial insignia. It took a few moments for her to realize that the blaster fire had stopped. Just as she caught her breath, Reynarden asked, "Who's not dead? Sound off."

Aric growled. "That's still not funny, sir."

"You still answered," Reynarden's grin was obvious in his voice.

Checking her blaster pistol and her generator, Elara told him, "Present, sir."

"Neither dead nor alive, sir." Forex chimed in, his blaster folding away into his chassis.

Tanno gave a soft huff of laughter. "Haven't heard you say that before, boss."

"Haven't needed to before now," Reynarden explained as they gathered near the two lifts on either side of the hangar bay.

Yuun turned from contemplating the lifts. "Yuun has survived, Captain."

"Right. We all have our assignments," Reynarden reminded them. "Let's get this done as quickly as possible to minimize our losses."

Before she left, Elara checked with Aric about how he was feeling. "My left side is a little stiff, but not too bad."

"Just be careful." She patted his arm and turned to set off with Forex.

Before she moved out of earshot, he said, "You be careful, too, Lieutenant."

Elara smiled under her helmet, touched by his concern. As she marched alongside Forex, her thoughts turned to Reynarden, already moving further into the Gauntlet with Yuun. Stay alive, Reynar. I'm pretty sure I love you.

Chapter Text

"Captain Drondil, a situation has developed on the bridge," Elara informed Reynarden via their comms during a lull between waves of Imperial soldiers. "All data has been retrieved, but Imperial reinforcements are overwhelming our position. We can't hold them--are your explosives in place? Are we clear to return to the ship?"

He didn't answer her question directly, but his affirmative was clear enough: "Jorgan, take Yuun and give Dorne and Forex some cover while they pull out, then rendezvous back at the ship."

"Already on our way, sir," Aric responded promptly, sounding concerned and determined. "Just hang in there, Dorne!"

Relieved, Elara nodded even though they couldn't see and told them, "We'll try to reach the ship by the time you get there, Captain. Dorne out."

"Another group is approaching the bridge, Lieutenant," Forex told her as she joined him at the door. "Larger than any that came before."

She nodded, switching out the power pack in her blaster for the last one in her belt. "You heard Reynar and Aric. Let's move out."

"Affirmative!" Locking his blaster into the firing position, Forex marched forward into the corridor. Elara walked alongside him, her own blaster up and ready.

When they reached the first intersection, they encountered the first Imperials headed for the bridge. It didn't take long for Elara and Forex to defeat them and they continued towards the hangar. After that, every meter forward was a fight. Elara felt her first flash of panic when the power pack for her blaster ran out. Holstering it, she scanned the deck around them and picked up an Imperial blaster pistol. I swore I would never carry one of these again, but needs must. Straightening up, she said, "Forex, we need to move faster."

"We must kill every--" he began, as patriotic as ever.

Stifling a frustrated sigh, Elara reminded him, "We will, once we get back to the ship and get to the minimum safe distance."

"Understood, Lieutenant." With that, Forex focused more on knocking the Imperial soldiers away from them so they could progress.

Just as she thought they might make it without trouble, her backup shield generator sparked and died. Elara stared down at it in disbelief. Shooting the Imperial whose blaster fire had overloaded her shield generator, she moved close to Forex. "Both of my generators are dead, Forex."

"Stay close to me, Lieutenant Dorne," he suggested after barely a nanosecond of processing. "My shields will keep you safe."

She'd wondered if that was possible. Most of the time, it was easier to use individual generators, but they could protect two people in a pinch and not for long. However, Forex's generator drew from his power core, so it would last longer than Elara's in a similar situation. At any rate, she moved closer to Forex, staying close to his 'back' and shooting at any Imperials that might be following them. "We should be--"

"Lieutenant, move away!" Forex's warning came too late. An explosion slammed them back against the bulkhead, knocking the air out of Elara's lungs with the initial impact, and then almost crushing her when Forex slammed into her right side.

Groaning, she slumped to the deck when he gathered himself onto his 'legs' and moved away. Her arm and leg weren't broken, but she had no doubt they'd be a rainbow of bruises later. As she flexed her hand, Elara realized she'd dropped the blaster and looked around for it. Stooping to pick it up, she noticed that Forex had moved on, apparently forgetting that she'd need more time to recover. Stiffly, she started after him, holding the blaster in her left hand. "Forex--" A burst of static over her comms made her wince. The unit in her helmet must have been damaged. Even after removing her helmet, her shout was too hoarse to be heard over the din of battle. "Forex."

"Looks like someone's all on her own here." She turned to see a soldier with a blaster rifle in his hands approaching. "Come along, girlie." Lifting the pistol, she attempted to shoot him, but it went wide. "Now that's not very nice, is it?"

Elara backed away from him, wincing at a stabbing pain in her side, just below her chestplate. "No, thank you."

"Your accent-- Dromund Kaas." His attitude became, if possible, even more predatory. "Time to return to the loving arms of the Empire."

For her answer, Elara fired again. This time, she managed to nick his arm. "I left for a reason. I refuse to go back."

"You know what happens to traitors." The words came out as a snarl.

With that, he charged towards her, slamming the butt of his rifle into her face, snapping it to the side while stars exploded across her vision. Slowly turning her head back towards the soldier, she spat out the blood filling her mouth, right at the visor of his helmet. "I'm no traitor."

"You bitch!" He slammed the rifle into her gut this time, a vibroblade jutting out from the end, slicing deep. The nova-hot pain left her gasping as she crumpled at his feet.

Elara refused to stay down, somehow dragging herself to her feet to glare at him. Her hand pressed to her stomach, she stood tall. Just as the soldier pointed the rifle at her forehead, a blur of blaster bolts slammed into him, sending him flying down the corridor. "Forgive me, Lieutenant! I forgot it takes organics longer to recover."

"I'm losing blood," she told Forex, feeling her glove grow sticky. "We need to move."

He moved closer and extended an 'arm' to her. "I cannot carry you, but I can support you."

"Close enough," she coughed, and then grabbed his 'arm', forcing her feet to move. "I don't know how much longer I'll stay conscious."

Forex started forward, keeping his pace slow enough for her to keep up. "Sergeants Jorgan and Yuun should be here soon."

"I know." She leaned heavily against Forex's chassis, starting to feel dizzy. Losing blood. Sorry, Reynar.

Almost as if she was watching from the outside, Elara watched her body collapse to the deck, eyes closed, just as Aric and Yuun rounded the corner at a dead run. "Elara!"

"She's losing blood," Forex informed them. "Her life signs are weakening."

Nose twitching, Aric grabbed Elara's medkit from her belt. "I can smell the blood." He picked up her hand and examined it. "That's not where she was hurt." He tugged at her cortosis weave and hissed when it stuck to her skin. "A gut wound. Those are nasty."

"We must get back to the Thunderclap and into the kolto tank," Forex declared, shooting at Imperial soldiers as they approached.

Yuun accepted the medkit when Aric shoved it to his hands and held it while Aric cut the cortosis weave away, and then dug in the kit for bandages. The feel of the cool kolto accompanied Elara's spiral down into welcoming darkness.

*

Elara woke up to the sight of the spaceport, the sound of strange voices, and the smell of kolto. "Where?" She stopped with a cough.

"Stay calm, Lieutenant Dorne." The calm voice belonged to a Miralan man with tawny hair, emerald skin, and red eyes. "You're on Coruscant. We're taking you to Army Medical for full and proper treatment."

She couldn't help squirming on the gurney, trying to find Reynarden. "Reynar--"

"I'm here, Elara." He appeared at the head of the gurney, his smile not quite erasing the worry in his eyes. "Let Dr. Par take care of you."

It took some twisting, but Elara managed to free her arm from the blanket covering her and grab Reynarden's arm. "Gaun'let?"

"Destroyed. Complete success." Reynarden squeezed her hand. "Relax. You'll see me again before you know it."

She kept her eyes on his until sleep claimed her again.

*

When she woke again, she was alone in a dim hospital room, monitors beeping steadily nearby. For a moment, she was disappointed that Reynarden wasn't sitting by her bed like she'd sat by his, but she pushed it away with a shake of her head. They probably have visiting hours and wouldn't bend the rules for even Havoc Squad. She noticed a glass of water on the bedside table and reached over to pick it up, taking small, steady sips. Just as she set it back, the lights slowly brightened and the Miralan man entered, wearing wrinkled scrubs and a tired smile. "Good morning, Lieutenant Dorne. How are you feeling?"

"Sore," she admitted after taking mental stock of herself. "Especially on my right side."

Nodding, Dr. Par flourished the datapad in his hand. "I'm not surprised. You had numerous contusions on that side of your body as well as two cracked ribs." Elara nodded, thinking of Forex slamming in her. "Whatever caused those, your armor prevented them from being worse."

"The thought had occurred to me at the time." Elara smiled ruefully. Shifting carefully, she asked, "That's not the extent of my injuries, though, is it?"

Shaking his head, he glanced down at the datapad. "No, it isn't. Your armor prevented broken bones, but it didn't prevent the stab wound to your abdomen. It missed your stomach and intestines by centimeters. You also had contusions on the left side of your face and a concussion on top of everything else."

"Must have had one beauty of a black eye," she murmured thoughtfully.

Laughing softly, Dr. Par shrugged. "It was fading by the time you got here. I'd like to keep you for the rest of the day for observation and we'll release you to go home tomorrow."

"Thank you, Dr. Par," Elara told her.

Smiling, he stepped close and patted Elara's arm. "Don't thank me. Thank your squadmates. They're the ones who saved your life."

"And you finished their work," she couldn't resist pointing that out.

Laughing again, Dr. Par squeezed her arm. "Breakfast should be served soon and I'm sure you'll see some visitors before too long."

"I'm sure, too." Elara smiled, thinking of Reynarden and his family. She studied him for a moment. Something about his laugh was familiar. A little hesitantly, she asked, "Do you have a brother named Normajh and a sister named Jeveen?"

Patting Elara's arm again, Dr. Par focused on the monitors, "I do, actually. They're both younger than me. They write to me, so I know they've both been flying around, having adventures. And I stayed here on Coruscant."

"You're saving lives here, Dr. Par," Elara told him as he typed something on the datapad. "Not everyone needs to be on the front lines."

He turned to her with a smile. "I wanted to be a doctor, but the only way I could afford the training was to enlist in the Army. So here I am."

"My mother's the reason I'm a doctor and my father's why I'm a combat medic," Elara told him, sitting up a little, and wincing when her ribs protested. Reluctantly, she laid back down.

Dr. Par checked one of the monitors and pressed a couple buttons. "That should help with the pain. Try to stay still to give your body time to heal." He grinned and winked, reminding her of both of his siblings. "We doctors tend to make the worst patients, but do try to be good."

"I will." She couldn't help smiling back at him. He was as personable as his siblings. It made her wonder if that came from their mother.

Looking over the monitors one more time, he nodded and left her to eat breakfast in peace. Shortly after her empty tray was removed, Aric, Tanno, and Yuun came by to see her. "How you feelin', Dorne?"

"Sore, but definitely better, Tanno," Elara told him, surprised and touched by his concern.

Aric, looking uncomfortable, squeezed her shoulder. "Been awhile since medical basics, but Yuun and I managed to patch you up enough to get you to the Thunderclap."

"It was not time for Lieutenant Dorne to finish her journey," Yuun contributed.

Tanno rolled his eyes. "You shoulda seen the boss when he saw you lying on the stretcher. I didn't know he could get any paler."

"Told us to get you on the ship and into the kolto tank." Aric added with a nod. "Would have stayed here with you if they'd let him."

Elara smiled faintly. "I thought as much when I woke up this morning." She glanced at them curiously. "Where is Reynar now, anyway?"

"Debriefing with Garza," Aric told her, patting her arm again. "Said to tell you that he'll be by later, probably with his parents."

She nodded, shifting into a slightly more comfortable position. Much as she wanted to see Reynarden, Elara was rather enjoying the others' visit. They took turns filling her in on what she'd missed while she was unconscious. "Rey barely left the medbay the whole time you were in the kolto tank."

"Sat in there while he filled out paperwork," Tanno added with a cheerful smile.

Yuun nodded in agreement. "Yuun found Captain Drondil asleep at the desk several times. When Yuun woke up Captain Drondil, he refused to leave until he'd checked the kolto tank."

"I felt much the same way when he was hurt." Elara laughed, and then winced when it sent pain stabbing into her right side. "Oh, ow."

Looking concerned, Aric half-rose from his chair. "Should we leave?"

"No, I'm--oh." She yawned in the middle of her answer.

Standing up fully, Aric urged the other two of the room. Alone with Elara now, he told her, "Get well soon, Elara. We miss you."

"I'll do my best." Elara watched him leave and didn't realize she'd fallen asleep until an orderly arrive with her lunch.

Just as she was debating trying to read something or maybe start her report, a familiar face peered around the door. "Hello, Elara."

"Aleksei, hello!" she exclaimed, delighted to see her brother. Another familiar figured entered behind him. "Hello, Lieutenant Ekaitz."

The Nautolan woman offered an apologetic smile. "Aleksei can't visit you unsupervised yet. Sorry, Elara."

"As long as I can see Aleksei," she replied turning her smile to her brother the next moment. "It's wonderful to see you."

He carefully hugged her. "I'm always glad to see you, Elara, but not in a hospital bed."

"Requirements of the service and all that," Elara told him, gladly returning the hug. "Thank my squadmates for getting me into the kolto tank so quickly."

Aleksei eased back and took hold of her hand. "I will. I lost you when you defected. I don't want to lose you again."

"Oh, Aleksei." Her throat thick with emotion, she pulled him into another hug. Her healing body protested, but she ignored the pain.

After several moments, he gently eased back, wiping at his eyes. "I doubt you can provide details, but please tell me your mission was success."

"According to Reynar, yes, it was," Elara assured him with a smile.

Aleksei paused mid-nod and stared at her with wide eyes. She simply raised her eyebrows at him in silent inquiry. He squeezed her hand gently. "Are you sure about him?"

"I'm very sure." She returned the gentle squeeze. "He makes me happy, Aleksei. More than I thought possible."

He nodded again, smiling fondly. "If he makes you happy, that's enough for me." Then he gave a soft chuckle. "I'd threaten to kill him if he hurts you, but you're more than capable of defending your own honour."

"Of course I am, but I appreciate the sentiment." Elara smiled back, and then looked over towards the door, spotting Reynarden waiting with his parents. "I've kicked his arse before and I can do it again if necessary."

Grinning, Reynarden stepped into the room and around to the other side of the bed. "Exactly and I have no intention of needing my ass kicked outside of the sparring ring."

"Good." Aleksei squeezed Elara's hand again and released it. "We should go."

Reynarden stared at Aleksei for a moment, and then spotted Bryni as she stood up from the chair in the corner where she'd waited quietly. "Oh! I didn't mean to be rude."

"It's quite all right, Captain Drondil." Bryni stepped up beside Aleksei and saluted. "Lieutenant Bryni Ekaitz. I'm Aleksei's handler until he's no longer a person of concern."

Reynarden returned the salute, his cheeks flushing. "Actually, it's Major now. General Garza promoted me and the rest of Havoc at our debrief this morning."

"What?" Elara tried to sit up straighter, only to wince when her body, particularly her ribs, pained her. "Really?"

Reynarden nodded, turning and kissing Elara's cheek. "Yep. You're a captain now, Aric's finally a lieutenant again, as is Yuun, and Tanno's a corporal."

"Congratulations, Elara." Aleksei hugged her again. "We really should go now."

She returned the hug gladly. "I'll keep in touch."

"Of course." Aleksei extended his hand across the bed to Reynarden. "Congratulations to you, too, Reynarden."

Reynarden shook his hand with a smile. "Thanks, Aleksei. It's good to see that you're doing well."

"Thank you." Nodding, Aleksei left with Bryni. In the corridor, Elara could hear them introducing themselves to Florya and Bryden.

Elara looked up at Reynarden. "Have you told the others yet?"

"No, I wanted us to tell them together," Reynarden told her with a grin.

She smiled, reaching up to cup his cheek. "I haven't been able to tell many people that they've been promoted. It'll be nice."

"Yes, and I want both of us to see Aric's face when I tell him he's out of uniform." Still smiling, he turned his head to brush a kiss across her palm.

Chuckling, Elara shook her head at him, more to hide the shivers that went through her at the brush of his lips. "Of course you're going to tell him like that."

"Of course." Reynarden gently smoothed a strand of hair out of her eyes. "It'll be so much fun."

She smiled fondly up at him. "You're ridiculous, you know that, right?"

"You still like me, though," he bent to nudge his forehead against hers.

Still smiling, Elara stretched up to kiss him, light and quick. "That I do."

"It's good to see you feeling better, Lieutenant Dorne," Dr. Par interjected from the doorway. When Reynarden and Elara turned towards him, he had a crooked smile on his face that reminded Elara of Jeveen and Normajh. "However, I ask that you refrain from any strenuous activity for the next week at least."

Feeling her cheeks grow warm, Elara nodded. "Yes, of course, Dr. Par. I understand."

"And she's just been promoted to Captain," Reynarden added, his arm around Elara's shoulders. "The forms should've gone through by now."

Dr. Par glanced down at his datapad and nodded. "Yes, it shows that her rank is now Captain. Congratulations."

"Thank you, Doctor." Elara smiled shyly.

After a brief scan and check of the monitors, he told her, "You're recovering nicely and should be able to go home tomorrow, Captain."

"Thank you for everything you've done," Elara told him, quite sincere. "Not just for me, but for every patient in your care."

After staring at her for a moment, he smiled and nodded. "You're very welcome." He looked at Reynarden and his parents sternly. "Don't stay too much longer. Elara needs rest."

"I'll be good, Doctor." Reynarden shook his hand, followed by his parents. After he left, Reynarden turned to Elara, "Par?"

She laughed softly. "He's one of Normajh and Jeveen's brothers."

"I wondered when he introduced himself yesterday." Reynarden sat in the chair to the left of Elara's bed, taking her hand in both of his.

Bryden dragged over the chair that Bryni had used to the join the one that Aleksei had sat in. "You've mentioned them before, but we've yet to meet them."

"Norm's a Jedi and he's been busy with his duties, just like Fio," Reynarden told them. "Jeveen's been doing something for a Senator the past year or so. I'm not sure which one."

Elara tugged on Reynarden's hand. "Do we know what they're up to right now? Maybe we can find time to meet."

"Norm's probably on Tython if he's not elsewhere in the galaxy." Reynarden looked thoughtful. "Jeveen… she'll be harder to pin down."

She looked at him carefully. "What aren't you saying, Reynar?"

"We received a holomessage from Fio," Florya told Elara quietly from where she leaned against Bryden's side. "He tried to sound like he normally did, but we got the impression that he wasn't sure if he'd come back from this top secret mission of his."

Reynarden sighed softly. "I saw him again as we were getting ready to leave Hoth. The way he hugged me--extra tight and longer than usual--hints at the same."

"That's very worrying." Before Elara could comment further, she yawned widely. "Excuse me."

Smiling warmly, Florya stood up. "We'll leave you to rest."

"Thanks to your squadmates and the miracles of modern medicine, we'll have plenty of time to talk later." Bryden added, standing up as well. Stepping close, he kissed Elara's forehead. "Get well soon."

Florya hugged Elara tight. "When the doctor releases you, we'll talk all you want."

Elara could only nod, overwhelmed by emotion for a moment. She'd come to respect and care for Florya and Bryden since meeting them almost a year ago and it meant a lot that it was mutual. She finally managed to whisper, "I look forward to it."

"I won't be long," Reynarden told his parents and they left with knowing looks.

Alone with Reynarden, she smiled up at him, "I look forward to napping with you, Reynar."

"That makes two of us." Grinning, he kissed her again. "Until tomorrow."

She kissed him back. "Until tomorrow."

*

When Reynarden took Elara home to the Drondil penthouse, tears stung her eyes when Florya and Bryden welcomed her with warm hugs. It wasn't the same as coming home to her parents, but she felt welcome here. She'd found a home in the Republic at last. Reynarden helped her settle onto a couch in the parlor. As he did, Clive brought a tray of food and set it on the table next to her. "For when you get hungry, Miss Elara."

"Thank you, Clive." Elara smiled at him. "And thank Harris for me as well, please."

He nodded, smiling back before leaving the parlor. Reynarden sat down beside Elara while Bryden and Florya sat down on the nearby couch. Picking at the food, Elara asked, "What else did you and Garza discuss at your briefing yesterday, Reynar?"

"This and that." Reynarden slipped his arm around her waist. "Along with my promotion, Garza awarded me the Silver Crescent for 'extraordinary valor' in attacking the Gauntlet superweapon. I just did what needed to be done."

Elara smiled proudly, reaching up to cup his cheek and stroke her thumb along the arch of the bone. "Well deserved, Reynar. For someone who had leadership thrust upon him without any warning, you've done amazingly well."

"It sure doesn't feel like it," he admitted quietly, covering her hand with his and turning his head to kiss her palm. "Most of the time, I'm just reacting to whatever's being thrown at me."

Bryden chuckled. "I hate to break it to you, Rey, but that's life in a nutshell. It doesn't change as you get older."

"Well, good to know I'll be thinking on my feet for the rest of my life." Reynarden gave a rueful chuckle and a shake of his head.

Smiling, Florya told him, "The secret is to find someone to support you as you both think on your feet."

"I'll keep that in mind, Mom," Reynarden replied, his arm tightening around Elara. "Something else Garza and I discussed was an award for you, Elara."

She stared at him with wide eyes. "What sort of award?"

"You now have three Medals of Valor," he told her with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Due to the injuries you sustained on the Gauntlet, Garza wanted to give the Mark of Dedication, but I insisted on a Medal of Valor."

Elara continued to stare. "Why?"

"You almost died, Elara," Reynarden reminded her, completely serious. "You almost didn't come back to me. I felt that warranted more than the Mark of Dedication and Garza ultimately agreed." She hadn't expected any award at all, but a third Medal of Valor in four years of service was even more unexpected. Chuckling, he nudged her with an elbow. "Breathe, Elara."

Elara closed her mouth and did as he suggested. "I don't do any of this for recognition, Reynar. You know that."

"That doesn't mean your bravery shouldn't be acknowledged, Elara," Bryden interjected gently. "If I know Rey, he'll insist on it. Best to accept graciously."

Reynarden laughed softly when Elara sighed and nodded. "Yes, of course I will. "

"Good!" He kissed her cheek with a smile. The smile faded the next moment. "Unfortunately, not all of Garza's news was good."

She frowned at him. She didn't like seeing him with a serious expression. "What is it?"

"General Rakton sent a message to Republic Command," Reynarden told her quietly. "Aric called him Republic enemy number one."

Elara nodded, remembering that he'd been the one to send troops to Hoth to attempt to stop them from salvaging Imperial ships. "He's one of the Empire's most celebrated generals, respected by both his fellow generals and his soldiers."

"Something tells me that's not easy to accomplish in the Empire," he remarked with a thoughtful expression. "Nothing like Thorus."

She shook her head this time. "No, Rakton despised men like Thorus."

"I see." Reynarden glanced away, his jaw tensing for a moment.

Realizing where his thoughts must be going, Elara gently turned his head towards hers, meeting his blue eyes steadily. "You're not like Thorus, either, Reynar. You did it to save lives."

"Fat lot of good it did in the end," he muttered, leaning his cheek into her hand.

She nudged her forehead against his. "You learned from it, Reynar. That's what counts."

"Can you tell us what this General Rakton said, Rey?" Florya asked quietly after a few minutes of silence.

Reynarden grimaced, sitting up. "Yes. He basically said that peace is over. We'll see war again."

"And Havoc Squad will do their part when the time comes," Bryden added, looking tired.

Florya stood up and crossed over the squeeze onto the couch on Reynarden's other side, holding him. With some maneuvering, Reynarden turned to hug his mother back. "For now, we're resting and recuperating, Mom."

"I've lost one of you boys," she murmured as Bryden stood up and leaned over the back of the couch to embrace both of them as much as he could. "I don't want to lose both of you."

After a moment of hesitation, Elara pressed against Reynarden's back, resting her cheek against his shoulder. "You don't know that Fio's gone, Mom. Wherever he is, I'm sure he's fighting hard to get back to us."

"I have faith that he is," Bryden added, kissing the top of Florya's head, and then Reynarden's.

Florya sighed softly. "I'm glad you're on leave right now at least."

"Hopefully, we won't be sent anywhere until Elara's fully recovered." Reynarden found one of Elara's hands with his and gave it a squeeze.

She returned the squeeze, but didn't share his hope. If I'm not recovered enough when it happens, I'll have to stay behind.

*

Over the next few days, Elara became more and more mobile as her body continued to heal. As part of her recovery, a physical therapist came by the help her build up her range of motion again. After the third session, when she was finally to walk without even the aid of a cane, if only for short distances, she entered the parlor to find Reynarden and a strange woman seated together in two of the comfortable armchairs. The woman was about the same height as them, with shoulder-length black hair and light skin. They looked up at Elara's entrance and Reynarden smiled warmly. "Elara! How did your physical therapy go today?"

"Better," she assured him, smiling when he walked over to greet her with a peck on the check. "I can start using the cane less now."

He grinned, taking note of her free hands. "That's wonderful. Come and sit. I have someone I'd like you to meet."

The strange woman had stood up and offered her hand when they drew close. "Sergeant Ava Jaxo, Spec Forces."

"Captain Elara Dorne, Havoc Squad," Elara replied, shaking the woman's hand. Her grip was firm and strong. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

"Nice to meet you, too," Jaxo replied, brown eyes sharp and assessing as she looked between Elara and Reynarden.

He urged them to sit down. Elara did with some relief. She needed the rest. "Ava, please sit."

"Perhaps I should go." Jaxo raised her eyebrows at them.

Elara shook her head. "No, please stay, Ava. I'd like to get to know you."

"Are you serious?" Jaxo looked surprised by Elara's request.

She nodded this time. "Absolutely. I like meeting Reynar's friends."

"Um, all right." Jaxo slowly sat down in her chair. Reynarden perched on the arm of Elara's chair, resting one hand on her shoulder. "What would you like to know?"

Elara reached up to cover Reynarden's hand with hers. "Why did you decide to join the Republic Army in the first place?"

"You don't pull your punches, do you?" Jaxo chuckled, her glance lingering on their hands. "Well, I was an Army brat. It was all I knew, growing up, so I signed up once I was old enough." She tilted her head curiously. "What about you, Elara? Rey hasn't said much."

Behind Elara, Reynarden gave an embarrassed cough. Ignoring that, Elara told Jaxo, "My father was in the Imperial Army and my mother was a doctor, so I chose to be a combat medic as a way to honor both their legacies."

"And now you're here in the Republic." Ava arched her eyebrows with a smirk. "I doubt Daddy dearest at least is happy about it."

Elara tightened her grip around Reynarden's hand and felt him stroke her hand with his other one. "According to my brother, Father considered me dead to him when I defected. Mother, on the other hand, still talked about me when Father wasn't around."

"I think Rey mentioned that," Jaxo replied, frowning a little. "Said you talked your brother into defecting, too."

She nodded, relaxing a little. "Yes, I did. Aleksei still isn't cleared to start working in the Republic, but he told me that he's glad he defected."

"That's good to know," Reynarden volunteered, sounding pleased. "Mom and Dad like him, by the way. Said he's welcome to come here if he needs somewhere to go once he's cleared."

Elara turned to stare up at Reynarden. "He is?"

"Of course. He's your brother, so that makes him family, too." Reynarden smiled fondly down at her, gently tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear.

She nodded, blinking back happy tears. "I'll have to thank them. I know Aleksei's been worried about what will happen to him when he's allowed to find his own place."

"Well, he has somewhere to go if he has trouble finding somewhere," Reynarden told her.

Elara nodded again, standing up so she could hug him tight, pressing her face into his shoulder. He returned the hug, gently rubbing her back. When Elara finally felt composed enough again, she stepped back and carefully sat back down. Jaxo looked thoughtful and a tad regretful. "I almost wish I wasn't an only child. It must be nice to have a brother or sister."

"I certainly can't imagine not having a brother," Reynarden volunteered with a laugh.

Elara smiled warmly. "Aleksei and I were always close growing up and it's been wonderful to have him back."

"I bet." Jaxo grinned. "Still, I got all my parents' attention, when they actually bothered to spend time with me."

Reynarden shook his head. "I can't imagine what that was like. Mom and Dad always made time for me and Fio."

"My parents weren't always able to be there for Aleksei and I, but they did their best." Elara smiled when Reynarden squeezed her hand gently.

Jaxo made a dismissive motion with her hand. "Eh, I'm happy. I have a job I love and plenty of friends to make up for my lack of family."

"You don't have any aunts or uncles?" Elara asked curiousy.

Shaking her head, Jaxo shrugged. "Nope. Both my parents were only children, or if they did have sibs, I never met them."

"Well, I know you consider Reynar a friend," Elara answered, leaning forward in her seat. "I hope we can be friends as well."

Jaxo studied Elara for a long moment before giving a soft laugh. "Most women who've landed a catch like Rey wouldn't want to get to know his any of his exes."

"Reynar likes you for a reason, Ava, and I'd like to discover that reason for myself," Elara told her, quite earnest and sincere.

Smiling, Jaxo offered her hand. Smiling back, Elara shook it. "I'm starting to see for myself why you he likes you, Elara."

*

To celebrate a week out of the hospital, Elara went out for the first time since arriving on Coruscant. Reynarden joined her for the trip to the Dealer's Den cantina in the Old Galactic Market. After they got their drinks a familiar voice called, "Hey, Rey!"

"Hey, Jeveen!" He grinned as he greeted the freighter captain with a warm hug, careful not to spill his drink.

When they parted, Jeveen turned to hug Elara, albeit a little more carefully. "Hi, Elara. How are you feeling?"

"Better than a week ago," Elara answered with a smile, returning the hug with one arm. She'd brought her cane more as a precaution. "Is Norm here?"

Jeveen nodded, looping an arm through Reynarden's free one and leading them towards one of the back rooms. "Yep, and our littlest big brother found time in his busy schedule to join us today, for once."

"It'll be nice to meet more of your family," Reynarden remarked as they left the noisy public area. He glanced at Elara with amusement dancing in his blue eyes.

She hid a smile as they entered the room in question to see Normajh seated on couch with Dr. Par, both smiling as they talked. "Yo, bros! Look who made it!"

"Hi, Rey, Elara." Normajh stood up to greet them with warm handshakes.

Before either of his siblings could begin introductions, Dr. Par stood up as well and shook their hands. "Major Drondil, Captain Dorne. It's good to see you both again."

"Dr. Par." Elara smiled as she shook his hand. "It's lovely to see you, too."

As Reynarden helped Elara sit, Jeveen looked from Elara to her brother, and then threw up her hands. "Of course he was your doctor at Army Medical. I should have thought of that."

"Since we're here to visit, perhaps we should use first names," Reynarden suggested, sitting down beside Elara. "You can call me Rey or Reynarden."

Elara nodded her agreement, leaning her cane against the arm of the couch. "And I'm Elara."

"In that case, you two can me Yakarn," he answered with a chuckle. Then he held up a warning hand. "Not Yak."

Jeveen and Normajh both grinned and he added, "Only we get that privilege."

"Only because you two are little shits and I put up with it," Yakarn told them, his expression fond despite his words.

Jeveen simply giggled. Normajh turned to Reynarden and Elara, "How's the rest of your squad? Were any of them hurt?"

"Not really," Reynarden answered with a shake of his head. "Aric's visiting with family here on Coruscant. I'm not sure I want to know what Tanno's getting up to, and Yuun's contacted that group of Gand you encountered here two years ago, Norm."

Normajh nodded, looking pleased. "They've been doing better since they got out of the middle of that gang war."

"Speaking of gangs, Corso's still trying to talk his cousin, Rona, into leaving the Black Sun," Jeveen told them, shaking her head.

Normajh and Yakarn shook their heads in commiseration. The latter voiced his opinion, "He might as well beat his head against a duracrete wall."

"You have experience with family joining a gang?" Elara asked gently, suspecting something from their attitudes.

Nodding, Normajh told them, "Yeah, our second oldest brother, Kageesh, joined the Justicars when he was a teenager. They've changed since then and none of us have found any trace of him since the Sacking."

"Do you think he--" Reynarden cut himself off and glanced down at his drink.

Jeveen shrugged. "We don't know. Haven't heard anything from Mom or Viray in years, either."

"Our oldest brother," Yakarn added when Reynarden and Elara exchange puzzled glances. "He joined the Navy and we're guessing he was KIA because he just stopped writing to us."

Reynarden abruptly tossed back the rest of his drink back and left the room. The others looked at Elara curiously. Quietly, she told them, "Fiosynod left for a top secret mission about the same time we left for ours and Reynar and his parents have had no word from him since."

"Fio's a Knight and Rey's older brother," Normajh told Yakarn, who'd looked puzzled. "I guess we managed to hit a nerve for once."

After a short silence, Elara asked, "What are the rest of your crews doing?"

"Bowie's visiting Kashyyyk at last," Jeveen told them with a grin. "First time he's been back since he was captured as a child. He doesn't know if he even has any family left. Risha's visiting with some friends of her. Akaavi's trying to find out more about what happened to her clan. Guss has just been trying to stay out of trouble."

"He's not doing a very good job of it," Reynarden announced his return, steering a Mon Calamari man in front of him. "I caught him trying to pick my pocket."

Jeveen sighed heavily. "Guss, I've told you, all you have to do to earn your keep on my ship is keep us all alive."

"You're not doing anything dangerous right now, so there isn't much to do," 'Guss' replied, almost sounding petulant.

Sitting down beside Elara, Reynarden offered her a wan smile. She took his free hand and gave it a squeeze. Jeveen sighed deeply, "Just go back to the ship and take a nap, Guss." After he left, Jeveen told Reynarden, "Sorry about Guss, Rey. He's still settling in."

"Where did you pick him up?" Elara asked curiously.

Jeveen settled back against the couch. "Hoth. He was supposed to kill me, but he decided he'd rather be on my good side."

"He's trying too hard," Normajh remarked. "Both at 'helping' you and trying to use the Force."

Yakarn stared at his brother in surprise. "He's a Jedi?"

"Failed Jedi," Jeveen replied with a laugh. "He did train for a while, but it just didn't work for him. The way he put it is that he can see the Force, but he can't use it."

Normajh hummed thoughtfully. "Perhaps. Anyway, it's kept him alive, so it's working somewhat at least."

"How's your crew doing, Normajh?" Elara asked curiously.

Laughing, Normajh told them, "Qyzen stumbled into leading his own clan of Trandoshans. Since I'm on leave, he returned to Taris to teach them more about being hunters and following the Scorekeeper. Tharan's on Nar Shaddaa, taking stock of his holdings there. Zenith's on Balmorra, helping to get everything going there, and Felix is here on Coruscant, looking up old friends from past assignments."

"What about the Rift Alliance?" Reynarden asked curiously. "Uncle Jerome was concerned about them following through with their threat to leave the Republic."

Normajh shook his head. "They've decided to stay in the Republic. They've all returned to their homeworlds for now to explain that decision. My ship feels decidedly less crowded these days."

"My ship feels crowded enough with five others," Jeveen remarked with a grin. "I can't imagine diplomats and politicians on top of that."

He sighed heavily and shook his head. "It's been hard at times, but I've managed somehow."

"Hey, Master Norm," an unfamiliar voice called from the doorway. "Hope you don't mind that I invited my friend to join us."

Though the dark-skinned human with black curly hair wasn't familiar, the black-furred Cathar who followed him was and Reynarden grinned. "Hi, Aric. Been having a good leave so far?"

"Yes, it's been good, Rey." Aric smiled when the human turned to him with a curious expression. "Sorry, Felix. I already know your Jedi Master and his sister." Walking over to stand by Reynarden and Elara's couch, he added, "I'd like you to meet the CO and XO of Havoc Squad: Captain Reynarden Drondil and Lieutenant Elara Dorne. Rey, Elara, this is Lieutenant Felix Iresso. He served with me on Mantell for a while before he ended up on Hoth."

Felix gave a casual wave. "Well, there were a couple assignments in between, but that's the gist of it. Then Master Norm helped us take out Captain Valon on Hoth and I asked to be assigned to his ship." He glanced at Normajh, who offered a crooked grin. "He didn't see fit to tell me he already knew Aric."

"We met not far from here, actually," Normajh replied, gesturing with one hand. "Jev met him on Mantell, right?"

Jeveen nodded, her grin matching her brother's. "Yep. He was a very grumpy Cathar."

"He'd just been demoted, it was understandable." Reynarden stood up and offered his hand to Felix. "It's nice to meet you, Lieutenant Iresso." He turned slightly to catch Elara's eye, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. "Though Aric was slightly incorrect when he introduced me and Elara."

Aric stared at Reynarden for a moment. "What do you mean?"

"It's Major Reynarden Drondil," Elara explained, using her cane to push herself to her feet so she could join Reynarden. "And Captain Elara Dorne."

He glanced between the two of them while Felix stared at Elara in slight surprise. "Are you two the only ones who were promoted?"

"All of Havoc Squad's been promoted," Reynarden told him with grin, offering him his hand. "You're a lieutenant again, Aric. Sorry it took so long."

After a few moments, Aric reached out and shook Reynarden's hand. "It took longer than I would have liked, but I'll take it."

"You're Imperial, Captain Dorne?" Felix asked, eyebrows raised.

She saw both Reynarden and Aric start to respond and gestured to stop them. Meeting Felix's brown eyes directly, she told him, "Former Imperial, Lieutenant Iresso. I defected about four years ago now."

"Welcome to the Republic, then." Felix offered his hand and she shook it with a small smile.

Once Felix met Yakarn, everyone sat down again. Elara leaned forward to study Aric for a moment. "How's your side feeling, Aric?"

"The fur's still growing back in, but that's the worst of it," Aric replied, idly scratching at his side through his shirt.

Yakarn glanced between them curiously. "Hang on, what happened to you, Aric? I thought only Elara was hurt on your mission?"

"She was. I was hurt during our assignment on Hoth and it's thanks to Elara that I was able to participate on our last mission and get to her in time when she was hurt."

Felix looked at Elara curiously. "You're a combat medic?"

"Yes, and it's been most rewarding for me, both professionally and personally." Elara was grateful that Felix didn't seem bothered by her background.

He nodded, but didn't say anything else about it. After a few more minutes, Corso arrived, looking dejected. Jeveen stood up and took him aside, talking with him in quiet voices. By the time they joined the rest of the group, Corso looked happier and greeted everyone with a smile and a handshake. Apparently, he'd already met Felix and Yakarn because he didn't need to be introduced to either of them. Or maybe Elara missed it because that's when she started nodding off against Reynarden's shoulder and waking up again. After the third time she did that, they said their good-byes and left for home.

*

"Mom, Dad, I'd like you to meet Sergeant Ava Jaxo, a friend," Reynarden made the introductions the next time Ava visited. "Ava, these are my parents, Bryden and Florya Drondil."

Offering her hand, Ava told them, "It's a pleasure to meet you both. Rey's been a good friend."

"It's nice to meet you, too, Ava." Bryden told her, shaking her hand.

Florya brushed Ava's hand aside and hugged her warmly. "It's lovely to meet you, Ava. Please, come and sit down."

"Um, all right." Ava followed Florya into the parlor and they sat down.

Elara sat down beside Reynarden, leaning into his side with a small smile. Softly, she asked, "They're going to adopt her, aren't they?"

"Yep." Reynarden chuckled, kissing Elara's temple.

They watched as Florya and Bryden asked the usual questions: How do you know Rey? How long have you known him? Where are you from? What are your parents like?

"I met Rey here on Coruscant during one of his missions and it's been, oh stars, about two years now." Ava shrugged at the third question. "I was born in space, but I have a place here on Coruscant where I crash between assignments. My parents died in the line of duty while I was training at the Academy."

At the last comment, Bryden and Florya glanced at each other for a long moment. He raised his eyebrows and she nodded in response. Turning back to Ava, Florya told her, "We hope you'll consider us family, Ava. We can't replace your parents, but we can be there for you just like we're here for Rey and Fio."

"Are you serious?" Ava stared at them, and then looked over at Reynarden. "Do they mean it?"

Reynarden nodded. "Absolutely, Ava. They adopted my entire gymnastics team when I was younger and they've adopted Aric, Elara, and Kira so far."

"I'll keep your offer in mind," Ava told them, her smile looking a little shaky.

To give Ava a chance to compose herself, Elara said, "Speaking of gymnastics, Florya, Reynar told me you have recordings of some of his meets?"

"Some of his meets?" Florya repeated, rolling her eyes. "We recorded all of his meets. If Fio had done something similar, we'd have recorded that, too."

Getting up, she and Bryden led them into the room with their holoviewer. He indicated two seats near the middle. "Here, Elara, Ava, this is the best place to watch the recordings."

"Thank you." Elara sat down in one and Ava sat in the other. Reynarden sat on the floor at their feet, leaning back against their shins.

Florya and Bryden sat down behind them and the lights dimmed. The next moment, a frozen holoimage appeared of a teenaged Reynarden standing next to a set of parallel bars, wearing what looked like a tank top and long pants. The recording started and they watched as Reynarden mounted the bars and began performing a series of maneuvers on them that Elara vaguely recognized from watching him work out on the ship. In the recording, Reynarden's movements were crisper, more polished, and he wore a look of extreme concentration on his face. Ava leaned over to Elara and whispered, "Serious isn't a good look for him."

"I know," Elara whispered back, amused. "A smile suits him better, doesn't it?"

Reynarden turned and shushed them, frowning. Elara and Ava stared at him for a moment, glanced at each other, and then smiled before looking back at the holorecording. In the recording, Reynarden finished his routine and dismounted to applause from the audience. "I see why you're so strong, Rey. That took a lot of upper body strength."

"There are events that required more upper body strength than that one, Ava," he told her with a grin and a wink.

The recording had skipped to the floor exercise. Reynarden's long pants had been replaced with shorts and Ava whistled admiringly. Reynarden ducked his head a little and Elara reached down and squeezed his shoulder, though she quite understood the sentiment behind Ava's whistle. Elara sat up a little at the tumbling runs the younger Reynarden performed. "You've done some of those while working out on the ship."

"Of course, where do you think I learned them?" Reynarden shifted to smile up at her.

Ava reached down and scrubbed her nails through the short curls on the top of his head. "Now you need to show off for us later."

"We'll see." His eyes closed briefly at her touch before he recalled himself and turned to face forward again.

The next event was the vault and Reynarden was still wearing the shorts. After signaling the judges, he charged down the runway towards the springboard. When he did a roundoff and hit the board with both feet, the recording went dead silent for a moment, and then the sound came back as he reached for the vaulting table and pushed off it into a twisting tumble through the air. Elara's heart jumped into her throat, wondering how he could ever untwist and untuck quick enough to stick his landing. She didn't breathe until he did land in a deep knee bend, and then straightened up. "Why did the holorecording go dead silent in the middle there?"

"It's because of me." Reynarden's voice was quiet, his shoulders hunched up towards his ears. Elara reached down to rub his shoulders. "After I finished on Coruscant, but before Garza sent us off to rescue Senator Krasul, Aric and I visited my parents to unwind a bit. I turned this on and got to that point in the recording and the sound of me hitting the springboard it prompted a flashback." He paused to swallow hard and Elara slid from her chair to hug him tight. He hugged her back, a tear trickling down his cheek.

Florya joined them on the floor, wrapping her arms around them both. Bryden continued the explanation. "It didn't affect Aric the same way, so he was able to pull Rey out of it. After they left, Florya and I went through all our recordings and took out that sound wherever it occurred. We'd rather have that moment of dead silence than to send Rey or anyone else into a flashback."

Ava joined the rest of them on the floor, hugging Reynarden, too. They stayed like that until Reynarden had calmed down. He smiled shakily at them. "Thanks."

"Of course, Rey." Ava kissed his cheek and moved back.

Florya kissed the top of his head. "Always, Rey."

"Whatever you need, Reynar." Elara kissed him, swift and soft and sweet.

They returned to their seats and watched the rest of Reynarden's events in that meet. By then, Clive entered to announce that lunch was ready. Ava didn't bother to argue when Florya and Bryden invited her to join them for lunch. She complimented it lavishly and reluctantly left afterwards. "You have very lovely parents, Rey."

"I know." Reynarden grinned, hugging Ava tight. "See you later."

She hugged him back. "I'm absolutely coming back. For the food if not the company."

"Harris will be flattered." He laughed.

Ava reluctantly stepped back and turned to Elara, offering her hand. "It was really nice to see you again, Elara."

"Same here." Elara smiled and shook Ava's hand. "I look forward to seeing you again."

Nodding, Ava left. Reynarden smiled when Elara looped her arm through his. "I'm glad you and Ava are getting along."

"I'm starting to see why you like her," Elara admitted quietly as they walked through the penthouse to her rooms. "She's a bit like you: cheerful and playful most of the time, but she has her serious moments."

Reynarden laughed softly. "Yeah, something like that."

"It makes me wonder what you see in me," Elara admitted, opening the door to her room so they could enter.

He guided her to sit on the edge of the bed and sat down beside her. "You are a strong, brave woman, Elara, with a firm moral compass." He smiled, holding her hands in his. "Underneath that, though, you have a sly sense of humor that peeks out occasionally and a plenty of love to give to whoever earns it: your parents, your brother, your friends."

"You, Reynar," she interrupted, squeezing his hands gently.

Reynarden stared at her with wide eyes. "You-- does that mean--?"

"Yes, Reynar. I love you." Elara smiled at him a little shyly, worried that she'd moved too fast.

He pulled her into a tight hug. In a hoarse whisper, he told her, "I love you, too, Elara."

"I hoped," she whispered back, hugging him back.

Smiling, Reynarden pulled back enough to kiss her. She responded eagerly, pouring every bit of her feelings into the press of her lips against his. He dragged his lips from hers far too soon for her taste. "Have you been cleared for--"

"Yes, I have." Elara smiled shyly and hopefully at him. "I was going to tell you tonight, but now's fine."

Laughing, he pulled her into another kiss, deeper than before. She gave herself up to it with a happy sigh. It didn't last as long as she would've liked because he eased back to ask, "Elara, what sort of experience have you had?"

"You're asking?' She stared at him in surprise.

Reynarden laughed sheepishly. "I learned awhile back never to assume."

"That's something." Elara laughed, leaning back on the bed so she could remove the house slippers she wore around the penthouse. "As it happens, I have had lovers before. Most of those relationships ended amiably."

He stretched out on his side across the bed, eyebrows raised. "Most?"

"One man thought to use me to get ahead in the Imperial Army." She turned to face Reynarden, her legs folded together underneath her. "When he realized a relationship with me would more of a hinderance than a help, I never saw him again."

A scowl wrinkling the tattoo around his left eye, Reynarden reached over to rest a hand on her knee. "What an asshole."

"Yes, well, he wasn't a very good lover, either." Elara smiled, patting his hand. "It hurt more that he tried to use me."

Turning his hand over to squeeze hers, he said, "No one should try to use others to 'get ahead'."

"That's how Imperial society works, Reynar," she told him gently, squeezing his hand in return. "Everyone's out for themselves. My parents were unusual in that they actually loved each other."

Reynarden nodded, sitting up and folding his legs underneath him. "Did you have any lovers in the Republic? After you defected?"

"One," Elara answered quietly, holding tight to his hand. "She was the first person to be nice to me right away."

He shifted closer so their knees touched. "What happened?"

"It was a joke to her," she whispered, trying desperately to hold back the tears that came when she thought about it. "How far would the defector go just because someone's actually nice to her instead of suspicious?"

Reynarden did a pretty passable imitation of Aric's growl. "That's worse than the guy who tried to use you to get ahead."

"Yes. That's why I was so hesitant to do anything when you first flirted with me." Elara managed a shaky smile.

His angry frown eased at that and he reached up to brush away the few tears that managed to escape. "And then I slept with Ava. No wonder you asked if it was a joke."

"How do you think I found out the truth?" She caught his hand and turned her head to kiss his palm. "I caught her in bed with someone else. She laughed when I confronted her about it."

Reynarden drew in a sharp breath and pulled her into a tight hug. Elara's still-tender ribs ached at the sudden move, but she ignored it in favor of hugging him back. "I know I joke and tease about a lot of things, Elara, but I am one hundred percent serious about us. I hope you believe that."

"I do, Reynar." She shifted to kiss his cheek. "It's part of why I like you: despite how much you laughed and joked on Taris, when the situation called for it, you were quite serious."

He nodded, kissing her cheek in return. "You were so serious and reserved on Taris, I wanted to make you smile at least."

"You've managed that many times over since then," Elara told him, smiling as she nudged her forehead against his.

Reynarden cupped her cheek. "And it takes my breath away every time."

"Flatterer." Before he could object, she leaned in to kiss him.

He kissed her back for only a few moments, drawing a frustrated groan from her. He smiled at that, kissing the tip of her nose. "Something that just occurred to me: what would be the most comfortable position for you?"

"What?" Elara stared at him, surprised all over again.

Reynarden grinned. "You may be cleared for 'strenuous activity', but I've had cracked ribs myself. They're still tender for at least a couple weeks after they've 'healed'."

"You're sweet, Reynar." She kissed the tip of his nose. "This position is quite comfortable for my ribs, actually."

He groaned when she shifted her hips against his and she could tell he wasn't as unaffected as she'd thought. "Got it. On top it is."

"Now stop asking questions," Elara told him sternly before kissing him.

*

"Where's Reynar?" Elara asked Clive when she returned from a trip to Personnel Division.

An eyebrow twitched, but he simply told her, "In the gym, Miss Elara."

"Thank you." She headed that direction as briskly as she could while still using the cane. Reynarden was on the high bar with Florya spotting as he swung around it. He paused when he spotted her in the doorway, arms supporting his full weight as he rested it against the bar. "Hi, Elara. How'd your meeting go?"

She shook her head, lips pressed together for a moment. "Not very well. Captain Kalor decided to act on his suspicions about me."

"Oh?" Reynarden shifted his weight enough so he hung from the bar, his feet about a meter from the mats. Releasing the bar, he landed in a crouch and began removing the grips. "What's he doing now?"

Walking over to sit on one of the benches, Elara told him, "He's trying to open a formal inquiry into my status as a defector. If it proceeds, I could be pulled from active duty."

"Well, you're not on active duty right now, but--" Reynarden shrugged, setting the grips on a table and walking over to the sink to wash the chalk from his hands. "Could he really keep you from returning to active duty?"

She shook her head. "He cannot directly order that I be suspended, no, but he can begin the necessary inquiry to do so and guide its progress." Scowling, she explained what Kalor had told her when he finally saw her earlier, "He has testimony from a civilian security officer on Taris that 'forced' him to proceed with the inquiry. The officer's name is Ridu."

"I'm assuming you remember this guy." He finished washing his hands and dried them on a towel. "What'd he do or say?"

Elara clearly remembered the events in question. They'd required a great deal of paperwork. "He temporarily commanded my squad during a Republic Senator's visit. The Senator was killed and Ridu is blaming me for the mistakes he made."

"He would." Shaking his head, Reynarden sat down beside her on the bench and took her hand. "What happened? Rakghouls?"

She nodded, part of her amused that he'd hit on the answer right away. "Correct. Security details were far below the required strength. Ridu didn't want to portray Taris as a dangerous place. Fool."

"What do you want to do about this, Elara?" he asked, gazing intently at it. "Is there anything I can do?"

Smiling, Elara cupped his cheek with her friend. "Thank you for the offer, but all I need to do is speak to Ridu on Taris. I have a right to face my accuser and I intend to do so."

"Are you cleared for traveling, Elara?" Florya asked, startling them. Elara had rather forgotten she was there.

She nodded, and then glanced slyly at Reynarden. "I am, though Yakarn did say it would be best not to travel alone."

"I volunteer," he answered promptly, grinning. "How soon do you want to leave?"

Elara smiled back. "As soon as possible. The sooner the matter is settled, the better my chances of avoiding Kalor's inquiry."

"We have a small, personal shuttle you can use," Florya told them.

Reynarden smiled, standing up to hug her. "Thanks, Mom."

"Thank you, Florya." Elara hugged her, too.

*

The trip didn't take long and Ridu visibly paled when he saw Elara, especially armed as she was with the contradictory documentation of the reports filed by herself and her squad regarding the events in question. Squirming in his seat, he said, "Perhaps I misremembered what happened. It was a few years ago, after all."

"I trust your testimony will now reflect the correct facts?" Elara asked, feeling rather smug and triumphant in the face of Ridu's discomfort.

He nodded quickly. "Yes, of course, Captain Dorne. Thank you for jogging my memory."

"Thank you for allowing me to jog it," she replied.

With that, she left his office, followed by Reynarden. "I'm glad you were able to turn the situation around, Elara."

"So am I." Smiling, she took his hand as they exited Ridu's security offices. "An actual hearing would have kept me from active duty for months, at the very least."

He leaned over to whisper, "Is it a good or bad thing that I found you very sexy delivering the Wrath of Elara Dorne on him?"

"Did you, indeed?" Elara raised her eyebrows, amused. He nodded. "What did you find so sexy about it?"

Reynarden kissed the spot below her ear. "You were so confident, so commanding, and so damned beautiful."

"No one's found that sexy about me," she admitted in a quiet, breathless voice. "Perhaps we should continue this discussion somewhere private?"

He grinned, speeding up his pace. "We have a shuttle waiting for us."

"You read my mind." Laughing softly, Elara followed him to the docking bay where they'd landed the shuttle.

When they reached the shuttle, however, the holocomm was chiming insistently. When they answered it, Captain Kalor's holoimage appeared, looking angry. "Dorne! This is Kalor--what's going on here? I just got word from Ridu that he's recanting his testimony."

"You've got nothing on Dorne, Kalor," Reynarden snapped while Elara struggled with Kalor's vehemence."

Scowling at Reynarden, Kalor told him, "You've done nothing, but interfere with my work. I'm getting tired of it." He shifted his attention. "I used to think you were cooperating with me, Elara, but you're hiding something. And I will find out what."

Before she could reply, his holoimage disappeared. Angry tears stinging her eyes, Elara burst out, "I've followed every rule, shared everything I know. Why does this continue?"

"That moron is dragging this out for no reason," Reynarden replied, gathering her into a hug.

"I suppose he feels he's simply doing his duty," she replied, letting the tears trickle down her cheeks for once.

He kissed her cheek. "Hounding you for secrets you're not keeping? That's not doing his duty."

"Let's just go home." Elara requested quietly.

Reynarden nodded, squeezing her gently. "I'll get us up into hyperspace."

"Thank you for everything, Reynar."

"No thanks are needed, Elara."

*

"What are you doing, Elara?" Ava's voice startled Elara as she sat drawing in the sketchbook Reynarden had given her months ago.

She covered the drawing and told Ava, "I'm not doing anything."

"Yeah, sure, pull the other one." Ava raised her eyebrows. "What are you embarrassed about?"

Elara shook her head. "I'm not embarrassed. Just... shy."

"I'll stop asking if you really don't want me to know," Ava told her, making no effort to peer around her at the sketchbook.

After some consideration, Elara moved her hand and offered Ava the sketchbook. "The only people who know I do this are my family and Reynar. Not even his parents or brother know."

"Oh? I feel very honored, then." Ava took the sketchbook and began to look through it. Elara watched her face nervously as she did. Reynarden insisted that she was a better artist than she gave herself credit for, but she only ever saw the flaws in her work. Ava finally closed the sketchbook and handed it back to Elara. "You're very good, Elara. I mean it."

She stared at Ava, surprised and touched. "It-- I only ever see where I made mistakes."

"Mistakes to you, perhaps." Ava grinned. "They're only mistakes because you know what you pictured in your head." She tapped her temple. "They're not mistakes to the rest of us, because we only see the end result." She tapped the cover of the sketchbook.

Elara raised her eyebrows. "Do you have personal experience like this?"

"Not quite the same as yours." Ava's grin didn't fade and she offered her hand. "Come with me."

After a moment of hesitation, Elara placed her hand in Ava's and let her pull her to feet. "Come where?"

"Not far." Ava led her through the penthouse to the parlor.

Reynarden and his parents were already there, each of them eating some sort of canape. He grinned when he saw Ava and Elara. "Good, you found her. Try this, Elara."

"Try what?" Elara sat down beside Reynarden on the couch and accepted the plate he offered her. On it sat what looked like a carrot, tomato, and cauliflower. When she looked closer, though, she realized that the carrot was thin orange-colored pastry shaped into a cone and filled with hummus, the tomato was a choux bun topped with some sort of red sauce, and the cauliflower was a scone topped with creamed cauliflower. She glanced at the others, "Harris didn't make these, did he?"

Ava shook her head with a smile. "No, I did. Please try them."

"All right." A little cautiously, Elara took a bite of the 'carrot'. The orange color of the pastry came from paprika, but just enough to give it some bite and the hummus helped cut the spiciness. She finished it before looking at Ava. "That's delicious."

Ava smiled back. "Try the others."

"I'm surprised that you cook. Most soldiers don't." Elara ate the choux pastry and the scone with less trepidation than she had the 'carrot'.

Shrugging, Ava told her, "I grew up on military food. By the time I was a teenager, I was sick of it, so I started learning to cook. I found some cooking vloggers on the holonet who share recipes and advice for beginners and cooking on a budget." She nodded to the tray of canapes. "This is my latest attempt at these. The flavor is good, but they don't look as good as the vlogger's."

"They look perfectly fine to me," Elara told her, and then stopped short. That was exactly what Reynarden said about her sketches when she let him look at them. Turning to Ava, she raised her eyebrows in silent inquiry.

Grinning, Ava nodded. "Thanks, Elara."

"Thank you, Ava." Elara smiled back and leaned against Reynarden, feeling quite thoughtful.

*

"Oh, Norm, come in." Reynarden smiled when Clive escorted Normajh into the parlor a few days later. "Mom, Dad, this is Jedi Master Normajh Par, the Barsen'thor of the Jedi Order. Norm, these are my parents, Florya and Bryden Drondil."

Normajh rolled his eyes even as he bowed to Florya and Bryden. "You have to use my entire title, don't you, Rey?"

"You earned it, Norm." Reynarden grinned.

Florya smiled and stepped forward to shake Normajh's hand, closely followed by Bryden. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Master Par. Rey and Fio have talked about you and your sister quite often."

"Where is your sister anyway?" Bryden asked, shaking Normajh's hand.

Normajh chuckled. "She and her engineer have been busy tweaking her ship and now they're taking it for a test flight."

"Didn't they tweak it enough during the search for Nok Drayen's treasure?" Elara asked, greeting Normajh with a hug.

He laughed this time. "Apparently not."

"I'd be surprised that you're related to Dr. Par, but we can hardly point fingers ourselves," Florya remarked as they all sat down.

Normajh smiled. "Fio and Rey were the first people to not be surprised when Jev and I introduced ourselves as siblings."

"And Norm and Jeveen weren't surprised when Fio and I introduced ourselves as brothers." Reynarden added with a grin.

After a few moments, Bryden leaned forward in his chair. "Master Par, do you know anything about what's happened to Fio?"

"Please call me Norm or Normajh," he requested with a grimace. "As for Fio, the Council's been very tight-lipped about his whereabouts and that of his crew."

Florya reached over and gripped her husband's hand tightly. "Surely there's been rumors?"

"He didn't go on his mission alone," Normajh admitted quietly. "Master Tol Braga, Warren Sedoru, and Leeha Narezz went with him and none of them have returned. They and Fio are among the strongest Jedi in the Order now. I don't like to think what sort of difficulties they've encountered that they couldn't overcome together."

Reynarden had clasped Elara's hand in his when they sat down together and his grip on her hand tightened even as he playfully told Normajh, "You're not helping any, Norm."

"No, I'd rather he be honest with us," Bryden interjected, an arm wrapped around Florya's shoulders as she buried her face in his chest.

Elara squeezed Reynarden's hand gently. "Difficult truths are better than easy lies, remember?"

"I do remember that," Reynarden told her, glancing at her with a fond smile.

Normajh chuckled as Reynarden brought her hand up to kiss the back of it. "That sounds like a very wise philosophy, Elara."

"Thank you, Normajh." She smiled at him, resting her cheek against Reynarden's shoulder.

When his chrono beeped an hour later to remind him that he needed to meet Jeveen, both Reynarden and Elara escorted him to the door. Outside, he turned to them. "There has been a rumor about Fio and the rest of his team, Rey."

"Why didn't you tell us earlier?" Reynarden wondered, exchanging a glance with Elara.

Normajh grimaced, rubbing at the base of his horns. "Because the rumor is that they went to confront the Emperor himself."

"No one knows where the Emperor keeps his secret base," Elara told him, her heart clenching with fear at the thought. "And he's not been seen in recent memory."

He shrugged. "That's just the rumor. I leave it up to you whether share that with your parents, Rey. You know them better, after all."

"Of course." Reynarden nodded, stretching up on tiptoe to hug Normajh. "May the Force be with you, Norm."

Normajh returned the hug with a smile. "And with you, Rey." He turned to Elara, offering his hand. "Take care of him and yourself, Elara."

"I'll do my best." A little shyly, she stepped forward to hug Normajh. She may not be close to him, but he was basically family at this point. "May the Force be with you."

They waved him off and returned to the penthouse. Without a word, they withdrew to Reynarden's rooms together and Elara held him as he cried, worried about the fate of his brother. Absently, she traced the words on the back of his left shoulder. She couldn't read the gold script, but he'd told her it translated to 'There is no death, there is the Force.' Fiosynod had a matching tattoo on his left shoulder. The brothers had gotten them just a year ago when Fiosynod was still mourning for his master, Orgus Din. She knew it was selfish of her, but Elara hoped he and the others on his crew and the strike team were still alive, somewhere in the galaxy. Your brother misses you, Fio, and I do, too. Please come back to your family.

*

Elara let herself into the penthouse with a happy sigh. Her checkup with Yakarn had gone well. She was still healing, but in good health regardless. She'd even gotten to see Aleksei for a brief visit! The only thing that spoiled her happiness was the fact that Captain Kalor didn't see her when she tried to report in as required. Closing the door behind her, Elara caught the sound of voices coming from the nearby sitting room: Reynarden and Ava. Curious, she walked over to peer into the room. They stood close together, holding hands. "I'm going to miss you, Rey. So much."

"I'll miss you, too, Ava." Rey squeezed her hands lightly.

Ava gave a soft huff of laughter, returning the squeeze. "Not sure you can miss me, with Elara in your life."

"Yes, I will miss you, Ava." He ducked his head to catch her eyes. "Don't forget to write."

She shook her head. "I can't promise that, Rey."

"Stay in touch as best you can, then," he requested quietly.

Nodding, Ava bit her lip, and then hugged him tight, burying her face in his shoulder. After a moment of surprised stiffness, Reynarden hugged her back, his cheek pressed against her hair. Watching them, Elara didn't feel threatened, only sad that Ava was clearly leaving on a mission. Getting to know her over the last few weeks, Elara had come to like her for her own sake and not simply because Reynarden liked her. Stepping inside, she said, "I'll miss you, too, Ava."

"Oh, Elara!" Ava quickly let go of Reynarden and stepped back from him.

Smiling gently, Elara joined them. "Are you going on a mission, Ava?"

"Yeah. I don't know when I'll be back, so I thought I'd come say good-bye while I can." Ava smiled weakly.

Reynarden nodded, finding Elara's hand and giving it a squeeze. "Yeah, I didn't realize how difficult it would be to say a proper good-bye."

"That wasn't a proper good-bye, though," Elara pointed out, amused when they both stared at her in surprise.

Ava glanced from Elara to Reynarden. "What do you mean?"

"Elara, do you mean--" Reynarden cut himself off and stared at Elara.

She gave him a slight nod of encouragement. Smiling, he turned back to Ava and kissed her properly After a moment of surprise, she kissed him back, winding her arms around him so she could hold him close. Elara's heart ached at the obvious longing on both sides. She didn't doubt Reynarden's feelings for her, but it seemed he'd never quite let go of his feelings for Ava.

When they finally parted, Elara stepped forward to hug Ava tight, much to Ava's surprise. She didn't do hugs often or easily. Not knowing when they'd see each other again, though, Elara put aside her natural reserve, just this once. Before she let Ava go, Elara kissed her cheek. Ava stared at Elara for a moment with wide eyes. Grinning, she kissed Elara's cheek in return. "I hope I see you both again soon."

"We look forward to it," Elara told her, meaning every word.

"We'll both miss you," Reynarden added, catching Ava's hand and giving it a squeeze.

Nodding, Ava glanced from one to the other, and then pulled them into one last hug. "Stay alive, both of you."

"You, too," he replied quietly. Elara only nodded, unable to speak for the moment. Taking a deep breath, Ava pulled back and turned away, walking resolutely to the door. Reynarden and Elara followed and stood together at the door, waving until her taxi took off. When they finally went back inside, they returned to Reynarden's rooms. Closing the door behind them, he asked,
"Did that mean what I think it did?"

Elara shrugged, taking his hands. "I don't know. The way she hugged you, I could tell that she cares for you and I already know that you care for her. Beyond that…"

"We need to talk when we see her again," Reynarden muttered, grimacing. "Great timing."

She laughed sheepishly. "I've gotten to know Ava and I like her. I don't know what it means for the three of us, but I'd like the chance to find out."

"Are you sure, Elara? You won't change your mind?" He stared at her hopefully.

Elara nodded, smiling reassuringly. "When I saw you two together, I didn't feel jealous. My heart ached for you both because the prospect of separation obviously upset you."

"It was the first time we said good-bye to each other like that." Reynarden smiled sadly. "It's not quite the same as saying good-bye to my parents."

She smiled sadly, thinking of her last good-bye to her own parents. She hadn't thought about defecting at the time, so there hadn't been extra sadness on her part. Rather than bring that up, she just told him, "We'll all need to sit down and talk about it properly when Ava gets back."

"Of course. Thank you, Elara." Smiling, Reynarden kissed her, sweet and soft.

Elara kissed him back happily. Something in her felt more settled now.

*

"Major, Captain." General Garza didn't seem surprised that she'd gotten both Reynarden and Elara when she'd called him. "I need you to report to my office on Coruscant immediately. General Rakton made his move--the Imperials have invaded dozens of Republic planets. Havoc Squad is needed--immediately."

Reynarden tensed beside Elara and she didn't blame him. Yakarn had yet to clear her for active duty. "Is there a plan for dealing with this invasion, General?'

"I'll brief you both on the details when you arrive. Move quickly. Garza out." With that, her holoimage disappeared from above the holocomm.

He turned off the holocomm and looked at Elara. "I'd hoped we'd have more time."

"I'm surprised it took Rakton this long to act on his threat," Elara told him as she got up and moved to her closet to retrieve her dress uniform. She could at least report for the briefing, cleared for active duty or not.

Turning back to him, she raised her eyebrows at the fact that he'd made no move to get up. Reynarden grinned at her. "I hadn't considered that it'd be very enticing to watch you change into your uniform."

"You're ridiculous." She shook her head, but didn't try to shoo him out of the room as she stripped down to her underwear.

The appreciative noise he made changed to an annoyed sound when she put on a camisole and shorts. "That's too many layers."

"I don't think we'll have to worry about that, given the urgency of General Garza's tone," Elara pointed out, amused by his complaint.

Reynarden shifted to sit up when she sat down at her vanity to brush her hair before pulling it back into her usual bun. "I suppose not. Though, that does give me some ideas."

"Why can't you have them when we don't have to be anywhere?" She turned to him with a smile.

He got up and crossed the room to kiss her softly. "Something to look forward to, I guess."

"Come back here." Elara caught his hand and pulled him into another, deeper kiss. "Now you can go change."

Reynarden laughed, squeezing her hand gently. "Bossy. I like it."

"I know you do." She swatted his arm. "Go."

Laughing again, he headed to the door. "Yes, dear."

*

"Major, Captain." Garza returned their salutes when they arrived at her office half an hour later, both in full dress uniform. "Stand at ease. Let's get straight to the situation at hand." Apparently, Rakton had called a 'diplomatic summit' after they destroyed the Gauntlet at a neutral station of Republic-allied planets. "Rakton's troops seized the heads of state by force. They are now hostages of the Empire."

Reynarden frowned, glancing briefly at Elara before asking, "How does this tie into Rakton's invasion plan?"

"This is his invasion plan, sir," Elara told him before Garza could say anything.

The general nodded her agreement. "Captain Dorne is correct. With their leaders held hostage, our allies are allowing Imperial troops to pass through their systems and strike us where we're vulnerable. Our forces are at their limit. The Imperials will overwhelm us unless we rescue these heads of state and block Rakton's invasion routes."

"What's our intel on the hostages' location?" Reynarden asked, tilting his head curiously.

Garza handed him a datapad and he held it so both he and Elara could look at it as she explained where the heads of state were being held hostage and how Havoc Squad would sneak aboard so they could free these heads of state. "Helik, a diplomat for one of these worlds, is flying there to surrender his government's security codes. He's volunteered to sneak your team aboard."

"How can we minimize the risk to the hostages when we storm the station?' He wondered aloud. Elara brushed her hand against his in approval of the question.

Nodding briefly at the question, Garza told them, "Lieutenant Yuun will be responsible for that part of the plan. Your ship will ride alongside Helik's, detaching at the last second and landing in an unused maintenance hangar aboard the station. Lieutenant Yuun will slice into the station's security and stop any alarms from sounding while you storm the crew area and secure the hostages. Understood?"

"I'll need time to gather the rest of Havoc Squad, but we should be ready to leave before the day is out." He looked at Elara, worry in his eyes. "Captain, have you been cleared for active duty?"

Reluctantly, she shook her head. As much as she wanted to join the others for this, she knew it wouldn't be a good idea. "No, sir. Dr. Par wants me to wait at least another week or so."

"This mission can't wait," Garza told them. "We have to act promptly."

Elara nodded. "I'll stay here on Coruscant. You and the others just take care not to get hurt."

"We will." Reynarden nodded back, his eyes saying what he couldn't with Garza right there.

She tapped the datapad. "The coordinates for your rendezvous with Helik are on here. The Imperials are expecting him to deliver his security codes very soon, so move quickly. Remember, the safety of the Republic depends entirely on the safety of these diplomats. Good luck. Dismissed."

They saluted, Garza saluted back, and they left her office. Reynarden scowled as they headed to the entrance. "He couldn't have waited one more week?"

"Rakton's not the sort to waste time," Elara replied, taking his hand and giving a squeeze.

"I suppose not," he grumbled, returning the squeeze. "Could you contact the others? I need to pack my things."

She nodded, having already planned on it. "I'll tell them to report directly to the ship."

"Good. Thank you." Reynarden helped her climb into the taxi, and then joined her. As it flew them to the Drondil penthouse, he took advantage of their relative privacy to kiss her softly. "I'll miss you."

Elara returned the kiss, her heart aching at the prospect of being separated. She'd gotten used to seeing him every day. "I'll miss you, too, Reynar."

Chapter Text

"You're looking much better, Elara," Aric greeted her when he arrived at the ship.

She smiled, shaking his hand. "It looks like our leave agreed with you, too, Aric."

"It did, but it'll be good to get out in the field again," he replied, moving to his bunk to begin unpacking his duffle bag.

Elara watched him, pressing her lips together for a moment. "I won't be going with you on this mission, Aric."

"I-- you-- what?" Aric stopped and turned to face her, shocked. "You haven't been cleared for active duty yet?"

She shook her head. "No, I haven't. This mission is too important to wait, though."

"Right. We'll do our best to keep from getting hurt." He smiled faintly at that.

A quiet laugh escaping, Elara nodded. "Thank you, Aric. I appreciate that."

"Appreciate what?" Tanno asked from the door to the crew quarters. "Hey, Dorne, Jorgan. Where's bug-eyes?"

She gave him a stern look. "Yuun was off-planet. He'll be here shortly."

"And I thought I'd be the last to arrive." Chuckling, Tanno began unpacking his duffle bag.

While he did that, Elara slipped out of the crew quarters and crossed to Reynarden's quarters. He turned when she rapped her knuckles on the door jamb. His face lit up with a smile. "Hi."

"Hello." When he extended his hand towards her, she stepped forward to take it. Elara gladly let him pull her close, nestling into his embrace, her cheek pressed to his shoulder. "I wish I could go with you."

Kissing her forehead, he rested his cheek against her hair. "I don't want to be parted from you, either, but we'll manage."

"Whatever our next mission is, I should be able to join you for that one." Elara slipped her arms around his waist.

Reynarden wrapped his arms around her waist in return, kissing her forehead again. "I look forward to it."

"I love you," she murmured, kissing him softly.

He returned the kiss with a sad smile. "I love you, too."

"Rey, Elara," Aric stood in the doorway, an amused smile on his face. "You might want to close the door next time."

Still holding Elara, Reynarden glared at Aric. "Thank you for the advice, Aric. I'm assuming you're here for a reason?"

"Yuun just arrived," Aric told them. "We're ready to go."

Sighing, Elara reluctantly dropped her arms and stepped back. Reynarden half-heartedly tried to keep her close. "I'll go. Good luck, all of you."

"We'll see you soon." Reynarden told her.

They left his quarters together and he walked her to the hatch. "Stay safe. All of you."

"We will." Reynarden caught her hand and gave it a firm squeeze.

She squeezed his in return and reluctantly left. As she headed to the waiting area outside the docking bay, she could hear the hatch close and the engines start. Moving to the observation window, Elara watched the Thunderclap slowly lift into the air and glide out of the hangar. Only when it disappeared from view did she leave and return to the penthouse. Florya met her at the door and gathered her into a tight, motherly hug. She hugged her back and, for once, let the tears come. I never want to be left behind again.

*

She moped for the rest of the day, curling up in Reynarden's rooms and watching recordings of his gymnastics meets until she fell asleep. When she woke up, she firmly turned off the recordings, got dressed, and left to meet up with Jeveen, Normajh, and Yakarn like they'd planned before they got the call from General Garza. "Hello, Jeveen, Normajh, Yakarn."

"Hey, Elara." "Hi, Elara." "Hello, Elara." They returned her greeting with puzzled smiles. As she settled in her seat, Jeveen leaned forward and asked, "Where's Rey?"

Elara took a sip of her drink before answering. "He's on a mission with Havoc Squad."

"Without you?" Jeveen looked surprised, and then turned to Yakarn. "Yak?"

Making a face at her nickname, Yakarn shook his head. "No, Elara's not quite ready to go back on active duty."

"This mission couldn't wait?" Normajh asked gently.

Elara shook her head regretfully. "No. Reynar left yesterday afternoon."

"That's rough." Jeveen reached over and patted Elara's arm. She glanced at Normajh and asked, "Do you think it likely that this'll mean the end of Norm's leave, too?"

Reluctantly, Elara nodded. "I believe it is very likely."

"More work for me, too," Yakarn murmured thoughtfully.

Both Jeveen and Normjah's holocomms chimed just then. They excused themselves to answer them. Elara watched them and shook her head. "Duty calls."

"You've been very good about your PT and not pushing your recovery," Yakarn told her. "I'd feel safe clearing you for active duty in four days rather than a week if it's absolutely necessary."

She couldn't stop a pleased smile at that news. "Thank you, Yakarn. I've sat out missions before, but I was at least nearby."

"I've been recalled to Tython," Normajh announced his return. "The Council wants to discuss recent developments, though they didn't say what those are."

Elara bit the inside of her cheek, suspecting those developments. Jeveen returned the next moment, grinning. "It seems someone wants to meet me on Port Nowhere to discuss a business opportunity. I don't have anything else going, so why not?"

"Stay safe, Jev," Normajh told her, turning to hug her tight.

She hugged him back. "You, too, Norm." Yakarn joined them the next moment. "You keep saving lives, Yak."

"Number one priority, Jev." Yakarn told her, kissing the top of her head.

They held each other for another long moment before Jeveen and Normajh left. Yakarn sighed and looked at his chronometer. "I need to return to work."

"I'll stay a little longer," Elara told him. "I'll see you at my next check-up."

Elara didn't linger overlong. She finished her drink and left. As she did, a strange Rattataki man bumped into her on his way into the cantina. "Excuse me. Sorry about that."

Before she could reply, he'd disappeared into the crowd. Shrugging, Elara continued to the taxi.

*

"Present circumstances aside, Elara, are you happy?" Florya asked a couple days later as they walked through the zoo together. "Not just with Rey, but here in the Republic."

Licking at the ice cream cone she'd ordered when Florya offered, Elara considered the question carefully. Despite the suspicion and wariness that greeted her every time she spoke somewhere new, Elara felt comfortable in the Republic in a way she'd never felt in the Empire. Comfort wasn't the same as happiness, though. Finally, she said, "I've never regretted defecting. Being happy, though, that's harder to manage when people grow suspicious of me once I speak."

"I hope we've helped in that respect," Florya told her earnestly. "We can hardly judge when Fio looks like... well."

Elara nodded, unable to stifle a small chuckle. "I confess, I was very surprised when Reynar first introduced Fiosynod as his brother. I'd never expected to encounter a Sith Pureblood in the Republic at all."

"To be fair, his sire didn't look like a Sith Pureblood when I knew him," Florya admitted, cleaning her fingers with a napkin once she finished her popsicle. "He looked very human."

Finishing her ice cream cone, Elara wiped her fingers clean while she considered that. "I don't want to sound judgmental, but why--?"

"Why did I sleep with someone else despite being married to Bryden?" A faint smile twitched the corners of Florya's mouth. Elara nodded. "Our marriage was political. It united two rather large trading fleets. Bryden and I barely knew each other on our wedding day. After our honeymoon, Jerome, my brother-in-law, asked Bryden to tour the lower levels of Coruscant and talk to the people about what the government could do for them."

They walked in silence for several moments. Quietly, Elara said, "You were left alone and Fiosynod's sire took advantage of that."

"Yes, he did. He was very handsome and charming," Florya admitted this without a hint of embarrassment. "By the time Bryden returned from his trip, Fio's sire was long gone. I saw no reason to say anything to Bryden about him until..."

She smiled ruefully. "Until you gave birth."

"Exactly. Fio surprised all of us and I had to confess after all," Florya sighed sadly. "I'll never forget what Bryden said afterwards: I'm not his sire, but I am his father. In all the ways that count, he is my son and I'll treat him as such."

That brought a tear to Elara's eye. Simple words, but they'd influenced Fiosynod's life profoundly. "Reynar told me Bryden admitted to having an affair as well."

"He did, once we got Fio home and settled in." Florya shook her head with an ironic laugh. "She was a woman living in the lower levels with four children to raise on her own. Bryden offered her money and medicine because one of her sons was badly hurt. She insisted on repaying him the only way she could. He did admit that he didn't try very hard to resist."

A wry laugh escaped Elara. "So you forgave each other and eventually had Reynar."

"We admitted to our mistakes and promised each other we would make our marriage work." Florya stopped and watched a group of Nexu cubs play together. "I love Bryden now, very much, and he loves me. We also agreed that we would let Fio and Rey choose their own spouses when the time is right."

Elara's breath hitched and her heart skipped a beat at the thought. Marriage? We've barely started a relationship.

"No matter how things turn out with Rey," Florya had continued talking and Elara forced herself to focus. "We hope you will consider us family."

Smiling shakily, Elara nodded. "You and Bryden have been wonderful friends. I'd be honored to call you family, no matter what comes."

"Good!" Smiling, Florya hugged Elara tightly.

After a moment, Elara awkwardly hugged her back. She still wasn't used to the open affection of the Drondil family. Quietly, she said, "Thank you, Florya."

"You're more than welcome, Elara." Florya eased back to smile at Elara. "Let's go home."

Nodding, Elara slipped her arm through Florya's and walked with her to the zoo's exit. This wasn't quite what she'd expected when Florya suggested the trip, but she was hardly going to argue when it resulted in an adoptive mother and father.

*

Elara waited impatiently at the spaceport for the Thunderclap to land a few days later. She was eager to see not only Reynarden, but the rest of Havoc Squad, too. Though part of her wanted to dash up to the ship's hatch, she forced herself to remain in the waiting area. She didn't pace, though it was a near thing. Instead, she sat and filled out the paperwork confirming that she was fit for active duty once more. She looked up at the sound of footsteps and smiled when she saw Reynarden approaching with the others behind him. "Welcome back."

"Hi, Elara." Smiling back, Reynarden pulled her into a warm hug.

Stiffening for a moment, she relaxed into the hug and clung to him. Her voice came out in a whisper, "I've missed you, Reynar."

"I missed you, too, Elara." They held each other for several more moments before they reluctantly pulled apart. "Any news about Fio?"

She shook her head, falling into step with him as they made their way to the exit. "None besides what Normajh told us."

"Shit. I'd hoped he'd be back by now." Reynarden scrubbed his fingers through the hair on the top of his head. At the taxi, he told the others, "You're free to do what you like, but don't go far. It's likely that Garza will have a new mission for us."

Aric and Yuun both saluted crisply while Tanno's was more lackadaisical. All three found other taxis. Elara, Reynarden, and Forex continued towards the Senate Tower. When they reached Garza's office, they found Supreme Commander Rans waiting with her. They came to attention and saluted, waiting for it to be returned before dropping theirs. "Major, Captain, stand at ease. Welcome back."

"We were just reviewing the results of your mission," Garza explained as they relaxed slightly. "You did an excellent job on Outpost 256. Congratulations."

Reynarden nodded slightly. "Rakton was on the holo when we rescued the heads of state."

"Good. Let him see what you're capable of," Garza was pleased by the idea. Elara wasn't so sanguine. His strategies had won victories for the Empire in the last war and she fully believed he intended to continue that in the renewed conflict. "Let him wonder when it will be his office that you're blasting your way through."

As they'd expected, the success of Havoc Squad's mission was only an opening salvo in the renewed war. There was much more to be done. Reynarden stood as tall as he could, "Havoc Squad is ready to serve, General."

"Right now, we need every advantage we can get," Garza reminded them. "Every available force must be put to work to counter the Empire's moves."

Havoc Squad's part would be to free up top military units from backwater planets so they could serve on the front lines where they could be most effective. Their first destination was a world called Belsavis. Rans reminded them, "Our forces are still spread thin. Saving our allies has relieved some pressure, but to turn the tide, we need every advantage we can get."

"We will not accept defeat at the hands of the Empire," Garza added, looking stern. "We will defeat them--utterly and completely."

Reynarden saluted and Elara quickly followed suit. "For the Republic!"

"Dismissed."

They marched from Garza's office together. "Forex, contact the others, tell them to wrap up their business and report back to the Thunderclap."

"Sir!" Forex acknowledged the order and set off for the spaceport.

Elara looked carefully at him. "Reynar?"

"I need to see my parents," he told her quietly.

Something in his eyes kept her from pushing the subject just yet. Florya and Bryden were waiting in the entryway and gathered Reynarden into a hug the moment he entered. Elara closed the door behind her and simply watched for several moments as Reynarden clung to his parents. Florya noticed Elara and reached out to pull her into the embrace, too. She didn't know how long they stayed that way, but eventually, Florya and Bryden eased back and he said, "We know you have to go."

"Elara told me there's been no word about Fio," Reynarden replied instead, looking from one to the other. "Is that still the case?"

Reluctantly, they both nodded. "Not a word from anyone beyond the rumor that Norm told you."

"Dammit." Reynarden muttered, scrubbing at the top of his head. "I'd hoped he'd be back before I had to go."

Bryden rested a hand on Reynarden's shoulder. "There may be a reason we haven't heard anything, Rey."

"He is alive, Dad." Reynarden glared at his father, shrugging off his hand.

Elara pressed her lips together against the observation that Reynarden had no proof that his brother was still alive. If it were Aleksei missing, she'd cling to the hope that he was still alive until she had definitive proof otherwise. Florya cupped Reynarden's cheek. "Rey, you have a mission. Go."

"I don't want to go. Not without word about Fio." His head drooped until his chin rested against his chest.

Bryden gently eased Reynarden's head up until he had no choice except to look into his father's eyes. "What would Fio want you to do?"

"He'd want me to do my duty." Reynarden sighed. Then he gently pulled his chin free of his father's grip so he could hug him. "Thanks, Dad."

Bryden hugged Reynarden close and Elara could see him blinking back tears. Quietly, he said, "Come back to us, Rey."

"We love you." Florya added, hugging him, too.

When they finally let Reynarden go, they turned to Elara and hugged her too. She returned the hug just as tight, whispering, "I'll keep him alive."

"And yourself, too," Bryden added, kissing the top of her head.

When they finished, Elara picked up her bag and left the penthouse with Reynarden. It felt good to be going on the mission with Reynarden, but she didn't like leaving his parents behind. They were family now.

*

"It's good to have you with us again, Dorne," Tanno commented once they were on their way to Belsavis. "The boss moped the entire time we were gone."

Reynarden made an indignant sound, but Aric shook his head. "Tanno is right, Rey. You were horrible company."

"To be fair, he wasn't the only one," Elara replied, feeling her cheeks grow warm. She smiled at Reynarden. "I missed him."

He smiled and took her hand. "I missed you, too, Elara."

"Clearly," Aric interjected dryly. "I respectfully suggest that you two 'get a room'."

Laughing, they retreated to Reynarden's quarters. Elara stopped in her tracks as they approached the bed. Reynarden had added a new holoimage to his bedside table. Crossing the room, she picked it up and turned to him. "You have a holoportrait of me?"

"To keep me company while you're gone," he explained, smiling sheepishly.

Smiling back, she reached under her uniform for the hololocket she'd started wearing and opened it. Reynarden grinned when a holoimage of himself appeared in the air above it. "Looks like we had the same idea."

"Yours is more practical." He watched as she closed the hololocket.

"Florya and Bryden gave it to me," Elara told him, tucking it under her shirt.

Still smiling, he slipped his arms around her waist. "You seemed more comfortable with them."

"As much as I hated being separated from you, Reynar, I think it was a good thing in the long run." She slid her arms around his waist in return. "Part of me had wondered if your parents only tolerated me for your sake." When he opened his mouth to reply, she held up a hand to stop him. "Spending time with them while you were gone showed me that that was not the case. They do like me for me and Florya even said that she'll always consider me her daughter, even if we don't work out."

His arms tightened around her. "Perish the thought, but that's my parents for you. I told you they adopted my entire gymnastics team. They also adopted any other friends I brought home. If Fio'd had friends, they'd have adopted them, too. Any girlfriends I dated were adopted, too. I think Mom stayed in touch with most of them."

"I miss my parents, but yours have made the lack of them hurt less," Elara admitted quietly. "I don't think I'll ever stop missing them, but I can carry on at least."

Reyanrden kissed her cheek. "I can't imagine how much courage it took to defect, but I'm glad you did. Otherwise, we wouldn't have met."

"Or, if we had, it would have been on opposite sides of a battlefield." She kissed his cheek in return. "Let's not think about that, though."

Smiling, he kissed her, sweet and warm. She kissed him back, deepening the kiss.

*

Elara woke up hours later still in Reynarden's arms. Kissing his cheek, she carefully eased out of bed and dressed in her usual tank top and shorts. Leaving a note on her pillow for him to find when he woke up, she headed to the workout area. Aric was already there, using one of the weight machines to carefully strengthen his left side. He looked surprised when he saw her, "Elara. I figured you and Rey would stay holed up in his quarters for the entire trip."

"Hardly," she retorted dryly, beginning to stretch. "How's your side feeling?"

He finished the set he was doing and sat up. "Not sore, but it's definitely weaker than my left side. Good thing I don't get in the thick of things like Tanno or Yuun."

"I'd like to check all of you before we get to Belsavis," Elara told him as he moved to another machine and began doing more exercises. "

Aric nodded. "I'll let the others know." He glanced at her with a sly smile. "I'm assuming you already checked Rey."

"Yes, I did." She met his gaze steadily despite the warmth in her cheeks.

Chuckling, he continued his exercises and Elara began wrapping her hands and feet in preparation for her usual workout. After her workout, she took a sonic shower and went into the medbay to check their supplies. As she did that, each of the others found their way to her for a checkup. Last of all was Reynarden. "Hi."

"Hello." Smiling, she kissed him softly. "Everyone's in good shape. We shouldn't have any trouble with whatever's on Belsavis."

Reynarden's smile faded and he perched on the edge of the medbed. "I did some poking around on the Holonet about Belsavis."

"What did you find?" Elara asked, perching beside him.

He took her hand and held it between both of his. "Nothing."

"Nothing?" She frowned at him.

Reynarden nodded. "There's nothing on Belsavis. It's very classified and it makes me wonder what's out there that the Republic wants to keep secret."

"Considering we're on our way there, we'll find out soon enough." Elara pointed out. She bit her lip, and then asked, "Have you heard from Captain Kalor since the incident with Ridu on Taris?"

Frowning, he shook his head. "Captain Kalor hasn't contacted me. Should we be worried?"

"I suppose it's possible that he's moved on to other cases, but I can't help but suspect that he's still planning something." She wanted to hope, but past experience made it difficult. "I tried to meet him for my standard activity report on Coruscant, but he wasn't in his office and when I tried to contact him again, he was still out of his office."

Reynarden's frown didn't fade. In fact, it seemed to deepen. "I don't like the sound of that. Do you think it has something to do with you?"

"I hope not." Elara replied, grateful that she wasn't the only one thinking along those lines.

He set his jaw. "Whatever he does, you'll handle it, just like you did Ridu."

"Of course." She lifted her chin up higher. Remembering that visit to Taris, she scooted closer to Reynarden. "I seem to recall you rather liked the way I handled Ridu."

Grinning, Reynarden lifted his hand to cup her cheek. "As a matter of fact, I did. We didn't get to follow through on that."

"Would you like to do so now?" Elara asked, nudging her forehead against his.

Still grinning, he nodded. "Yes, I would. Let's go."

They hurried to Reynarden's quarters together, shutting the door firmly behind them.

*

By the time they reached Belsavis, they were all in armor and ready to go down to the planet. From what she saw as they flew to the orbital station and docked, it was mostly covered in ice, rather like Hoth. Unlike Hoth, though, there were pockets of vegetation. When they contacted Garza, she told them that Belsavis was a Republic prison colony. Somehow, the Empire found out about Belsavis and were attacking in an attempt to free their captured comrades. "Your primary objective is to extract the pilots of Dagger Wing, an elite navy starfighter unit, from within the prison zone and return them to service."

"Were these pilots shot down?" Reynarden asked, puzzled. "Will they need medical attention?"

Garza shook her head in reply. "They weren't sent to Belsavis on a mission. They're inmates." Elara and the others exchanged glances while she continued her explanation, "The pilots of Dagger Wing are serving life sentences on Belsavis for participating in an unauthorized bombing mission that killed thousands of Imperial civilians." Briefly, Elara wondered if she knew anyone who'd been killed. "The attack was so brutal that High Command had no choice but to disavow the incident and sweep away the pilots responsible--permanently."

"Why did they target civilians?" Reynarden wondered, sounding thoughtful.

Garza's voice was carefully neutral, "Dagger Wing thought they were acting in the Republic's best interests at the time, but results far outweigh intentions. The Republic needs Dagger Wing back in the fight, regardless of their past crimes. Starfighter pilots of their caliber are in very short supply." Reynarden nodded in acknowledgment. "A prison guard captain named Zess will direct you to Dagger Wing's CO, Conrad Gall. Contact him, extract the pilots, and then report back to me. Garza out."

*

"Hey, Rey." Jeveen waved in greeting when they boarded the shuttle down to the surface. Bowdaar and Guss sat with her. "You have the whole gang with you, I see."

Reynarden greeted Jeveen with a hug. "Hi, Jeveen. I'm surprised you don't have all of yours with you. Where are Corso, Risha, and Akaavi?"

"Corso's sick, Risha refuses to go down to ice planets, and Akaavi's tracking down a lead on how her clan ended up being accused of betraying the Empire." Jeveen grinned and shook Elara's hand. "Hi, Elara. You look happier."

Smiling faintly, Elara sat down beside Reynarden across from Jeveen. "I am happier. Being left behind is not what I signed up for, after all."

"Corso hated being left behind, too," Jeveen confided. Lowering her voice, she asked, "Any news about Fio?"

Reynarden shook his head. "Nothing."

"I'm sorry, Rey." Jeveen reached across to squeeze his hand. "I know how that feels." He nodded and looked out the observation window. Giving them a speculative look, she asked, "Are you here about the prison break?"

Shaking her head, Elara told her. "We're not here to help with that, though we'll do what we can."

"Sir, look at this." Aric handed Elara a datapad.

Taking it, she realized it listed the names of Dagger Wing's pilots. Third from the top was the name 'Viray Par'. She nudged Reynarden and he looked at it. He glanced briefly at Jeveen, and then opened a text program, typing Don't say anything about him to Jev or Norm. Not until we know more about their situation.

She nodded and handed the datapad back to Aric. Jeveen studied them carefully. "What was all that about?"

"Just related to our mission, that's all." Reynarden grinned. "What brings you to Belsavis. Helping to contain the prison break?"

"You know the guy who's been hounding me about that stupid blaster shipment on Mantell?' Jeveen asked him. Reynarden nodded. "His mentor is imprisoned here on Belsavis and Dodonna wants me to try to get some dirt on Rogun from him."

Reynarden nodded thoughtfully. "Trying to take the fight to Rogun instead of simply taking out the bounty hunters he keeps sending after you?"

"Yep. Oh!" Jeveen suddenly sat up straight, startling them. "Guess who I saw on Port Nowhere."

Elara and Reynarden exchanged glances, and then looked back at Jeveen. "No idea."

"My second-oldest brother," she informed them with a bright grin. "Kageesh apparently managed to sneak off Coruscant during the chaos after the Sacking and has been working as a mercenary ever since. He tried to get into the Great Hunt that just finished a year ago, but couldn't get a sponsorship."

Elara stared at Jeveen in surprise. "The Great Hunt? He's that skilled?"

"He's not a Mando like Akaavi, but he was always the best of us at tracking down things we needed that we couldn't buy." Jeveen smiled fondly as she thought of him. "Of the five of us, he and I were the best shots with a blaster. Yak learned to shoot, but he always preferred to help people instead of shoot them."

Smiling slightly, Elara murmured, "That sounds familiar."

"I hope you succeed, Jev," Reynarden told her as the shuttle finally landed.

Standing up, she hugged him again. "You, too, Rey."

With that, they trooped off the shuttle and headed into the Administrative Center. Jeveen led Bowdaar and Guss to the lift in the back while Reynarden led Havoc Squad over to a Kel Dor man in a prison guard uniform doing an inventory. "Excuse me, Captain Zess. I was told you could help me locate Dagger Wing's CO."

"Hmm?" Zess stopped and turned to face them. "Ah, Major, glad you caught me. Was just heading out to round up another wave of runners. The Imps are springing everyone they can. The Daggers volunteered to help get things under control so they're spread across the prison."

"What do you know about these pilots, Captain?" Reynarden sounded curious, not that Elara blamed him. A squadron of fighter pilots who supposedly went rogue volunteering to round up fellow inmates? That didn't sound right.

Shaking his head, Zess told them, "I know they got a raw deal. Those pilots were just doing their job, and they got locked up for it. Shameful." Elara bit her tongue against the urge to remind him that 'doing their job' had involved the deaths of thousands of innocent people. "Their leader, Gall, is in a high-security zone, so I can't raise him on the holo for you. The XO isn't far, though--here." He pulled out his holocomm and entered a frequency. "Harlan? Harlan, come in, this is Zess, over."

"Zess?" The holoimage that appeared was of a tall, broad-shouldered man in a prisoner uniform. "Heh, good timing, pal. We need backup, ASAP--the Imps are opening the vaults!"

Whatever the vaults were, Zess didn't like the sound of it. "Are they insane? We'll get you backup, Harlan, just hang in there!"

"Give me coordinates and I'll double-time it to your position," Reynarden interjected before Harlan could reply.

Peering over his shoulder, Harlan seemed to realize it wouldn't do any good, since Reynarden wasn't in range of the video pickup. "Who is that? Forget it, I'll take anyone you've got. We've got some Imps cornered in one of the vault entrances, but we're shot up pretty bad. We need medpacs and manpower, and we need them yesterday."

"Help is on the way, Harlan, Zess out." Turning off the holocomm, Zess looked at them. "We're out of medpacs, but there are some caches you can raid on your way to Harlan. Here are the coordinates."

Even as they exchange the data via their datapads, Reynarden said, "Captain Dorne can treat Harlan's wounded men."

"Not knowing the condition of the wounded, sir, I still recommend collecting additional medical supplies," Elara told him, touched by his faith in her capabilities.

Zess nodded, either not bothered by Elara's accent, or he didn't care. "Stay on your toes out there. This place is a madhouse."

*

Madhouse was an apt description. Beyond the fence surrounding the Administration Center, prisoners wandered freely, brandishing blasters and vibroblades alike. Anyone not in a prisoner uniform immediately drew aggression from the inmates. This made the trip to the caches of medical supplies difficult and hard-fought. Both Tanno and Yuun took some hard hits, but kolto bandages from Elara's own supplies kept them up and going. Once they gathered three kits from five caches, she turned to Reynarden, "Perhaps we should go reinforce Harlan now, sir. If we keep trying for more kits, I'll have to use the supplies on us instead of them."

"That's a good point, Dorne, let's go." Reynarden checked his holomap and set off with the rest of them in tow. They spotted Normajh, Felix, and Tharan fighting inmates near a tower, but didn't stop to chat. Who knew what sort of shape the Dagger Wing pilots would be in when they finally reached them?

They finally reached an underground facility of some kind and ducked inside. Blaster fire echoed to them and they followed the sound to find a group of men in prisoners' uniforms exchanging fire with Imperial soldiers. The tallest and broadest, recognizable as Harlan, yelled, "Dagger Wing is still kicking, you murdering cowards!"

Weapons out and firing, Havoc Squad joined the prisoners, driving the Imperial soldiers back for a time. Reynarden called over the sound of their weapons fire, "Your backup is here, Harlan, and your medpacs."

"Best news I've had all day," Harlan replied, holstering his weapon. "So, did the army finally send reinforcements or are--" he stopped short when he finally caught sight of their armor with the distinctive Havoc Squad symbol and colors. "Havoc Squad! It's our lucky day, ladies and gents. Dig in and patch yourself up--the army has sent their best."

"My CO here, Captain Dorne, is a combat medic," Reynarden told them. "She can help if someone's very badly hurt."

Elara held up the medpacs so the pilots could see them. "Here are the medpacs if you want to tend to your injuries yourselves."

"I need more than a kolto bandage, Captain," one of the men volunteered, limping over to Elara.

Nodding, she pulled out her scanner and winced at what it showed. He had multiple cracked ribs and a fractured arm. "None of these are serious, but I highly recommend you refrain from joining in further fights."

"Figured." He gave a weak laugh that turned into a hiss of pain. "Dammit."

When she finished tending to his injuries, only Yuun remained nearby. "Major Drondil is deeper in the vault, stopping the Imperial soldiers. Said your skills are of better use here."

"Thank you, Lieutenant Yuun," Elara told him, amused that Reynarden had figured she'd rather help the Dagger Wing pilots.

In short order, the rest of their wounds were bandaged and Harlan knelt behind the barrier they'd made out of pieces of rubble and sandbags. "Captain Dorne, is it?" She nodded, going through the medpacs to consolidate the supplies in them. "Why is Havoc Squad here? You're the best in Special Forces, after all. You should be on the front lines."

"High Command wants Dagger Wing on the front lines, too," Elara told him, drawing her blaster and keeping watch for Reynarden and the others. "Regardless of the bombing run that landed you here. Havoc Squad is here to extract you."

Before Harlan could reply, the rest of their squad appeared, Aric and Tanno on either side of Reynarden, who was limping. Elara waved them over. His voice tight with pain, Reynarden told her, "Damned thing bit my leg. Its teeth went right my cortosis weave."

"Not many creatures can do that," Elara pointed out, making the hole bigger so she could see the bite marks. They were an angry red already.

He shook his head. "I've never seen these before, but they won't be attacking anyone else."

"Good." Elara finished spreading kolto gel over the bite marks and loaded her injector with a general antibiotic. "Let me know if you feel faint or nauseous. We don't know what that was, so we don't know what kind of infection it could give you."

Reynarden nodded, grinning. "Yes, sir!"

"You all right there, ground-pounder?" Harlan asked, joining them.

Nodding, Reynarden took the mender Elara offered him and used it to sew his cortosis weave shut. It wasn't perfect, but it did the job. "Nothing Havoc Squad couldn't handle."

"Clearly, since you're back and they're not." Harlan's easy smile faded into a frown. "Look, I don't mean to be short with you. Captain Dorne told me that Command wants us back, but they burned us pretty bad."

Staring at him in shock, she demanded, "Am I following this correctly? You feel that your punishment for murdering thousands of unarm people was too severe?"

"We aren't murderers!" That response came as a chorus from the four pilots. Harlan continued alone, glancing at the others with some amusement, "We never would've made that bombing run if we'd known there were civilians down there!"

Frowning, Reynarden, glanced at Elara and Aric before turning back to Harlan, "What did you think you were bombing?"

"Our target was a Sith Lord, Ondorru." Elara couldn't quite stop a shudder at the name. She vaguely remembered him and his reputation as a bit of a loose cannon, even for a Sith Lord. Harlan seemed to notice her reaction and nodded. "Yeah, a real sadistic bit of scum. He's razed dozens of Republic colonies and left no survivors. Intel put him on Fest with nothing but soldiers and factories for company. We launched at full burn, dropped everything we had--and now we're here." He finished with a scowl.

Reynarden glanced at the other pilots and Elara could see from their faces that they agreed with Harlan. Looking back at him, Reynarden said, "It must've been very hard on your unit."

"If not for Commander Gall, the men would've gone rogue for sure." Harlan's mouth twisted into a rueful smile and Elara saw several of them nod. His holocomm chimed then, "Ah, speaking of the men."

A Twi'lek man appeared above the holocomm when Harlan answered it. "Harlan, sir--we've got a situation! Lin, Ty, and Symo are trapped in one of the prison complexes--we can't get them!"

"Great." Harlan's tone was sarcastic. "Hang tight, Kal, we'll get you some backup on the double." Turning off the holocomm, he gave Reynarden a lopsided smile. "What do you say, Major Drondil? You need all of Dagger Wing, right? Care to go two-for-two on rescue ops today?"

Reynarden nodded firmly. "Havoc Squad doesn't leave anyone behind."

"Glad to hear it!" Harlan sounded pleased and pulled out a datapad. "You can meet up with Kal at these coordinates. I'll get these slackers back to base and catch up with you after. Good luck."

Elara lightly touched Reynarden's arm. "Sir, I'd like to go with them."

"Good idea," he agreed with a nod, though she could see in his eyes that he didn't want to be separated from her. "Help Harlan get them back and join us when you can."

She saluted. "Yes, Sir."

"See you soon, Dorne," Aric told her before they followed Reynarden from the vault.

After a last check of the pilots, Elara confirmed for Harlan that they could be moved. "Someone will need to help--"

"Viray Par, Captain," the man who'd initially asked for her help told her when she faltered, realizing she'd never asked for his name.

She nodded, hiding her surprise that he was Jeveen, Normajh, and Yakarn's brother. All she said was, "Yes, Mr. Par here needs help."

"Would you mind doing that, Captain?" Harlan requested, almost too casually.

Elara shook her head this time. "I don't mind. I'm not hurt at all, so it makes sense."

"Thanks, Captain." Viray offered her a crooked smile that reminded her of his siblings. As they made their slow, careful way back to the base, wary of the other inmates, Viray asked, "How long have you known Major Drondil?"

She hid a smile at his too-casual tone. "Two years. Why do you ask?"

"He reminds me of someone that I used to know," he confided after some hesitation. "The same hair, eyes, freckles. Hell, he's even short like her."

After a moment of internal debate, Elara told him quietly, "If you're referring to your sister, Jeveen is alive and well. All your siblings are."

"I-- you-- what?" Viray stopped and stared at her in shock. "You've met them?"

She urged him to keep walking. They couldn't afford to be separated from the others. "All of them except the oldest. I think Jeveen said his name was--"

"Kageesh," he interjected, looking relieved. "Do they know--"

Elara shook her head. "They assumed you were KIA because you just stopped writing to them."

"Oh. Kriff." They reached the base about then.

Harlan thanked her. "You go ahead and meet up with Major Drondil, Captain. I'll make sure they're taken care of and catch up."

"Yes, sir." Elara saluted him and took a taxi to the coordinates he'd given Reynarden.

*

"Dorne, you made it." Reynarden looked relieved. "Where's Harlan?"

She smiled faintly. "Looking after his men. He'll be along once they're sorted."

"Right. Let's go get his people out." Reynarden took her hand and squeezed it gently as they set off. As they walked, he explained that the three in question were helping one of the wardens keep an eye on a particularly dangerous prisoner named Gouge. Something happened and they're stuck in one of the complexes. "So now we're off to see that they get out safely."

Elara nodded her understanding. "Right. We'll get them all out safe and sound. After a short silence, she asked, "What do you think about what Harlan told us?"

"About the bad intel?" Reynarden asked. Elara nodded. "I'm not sure. I want to believe him. It certainly makes more sense than that they simply decided to bomb thousands of innocent civilians, Imperial or no."

Yuun piped up then. "Harlan's voice rang with truth when he said that."

"I wouldn't put it past Imperial Intelligence to have fed them bad intel just to trick an elite fighter squadron into doing something to be locked up," Aric added, a slight growl to his words.

Tanno shrugged. "I don't know about that, but if they are that good, they'll get a really sweet deal, like I did."

"I saw you react to the name of that Sith Lord," Reynarden remarked, glancing curiously at Elara. "As bad as Harlan implied?"

She shuddered at the thought. "He had a reputation for being a bit of a loose cannon, even for a Sith Lord, and that's saying something."

"Kriff, I don't like the sound of that. If even his fellow Sith consider him a loose cannon..." Reynarden's voice trailed off.

They reached the coordinates about then and fought their way through the vault. Along the way, Yuun fixed the surveillance cameras. Apparently, they'd somehow stopped working in all the chaos. The three Dagger Wing pilots were understandably on edge and Reynarden kept his voice calm and reassuring, even despite Gouge's threat that he'd get loose again. Elara saw him ball his hand into a fist, but all he did was suggest locking Gouge up in another cell. "It'll be a hard run, but if you get us back to the entrance, we can take Gouge the rest of the way."

"We'll follow your lead, Major," Lin told him, looking anxious to get moving, not that Elara blamed her. "Let's get out of here."

While they'd been talking, more prisoners had found their way inside and they had to fight just as hard to get out as they'd had to get in. The twitchiest of the pilots, a blue-skinned Twi'lek man named Symo, was the most relieved when they finally got outside, "We're here! We made it!"

"Thanks, Major," Brok told them, his blaster rifle still ready in his hands. "We'll drop Gouge off at a holding cell and get back to base. See you around."

They trooped off and Reynarden's shoulders slumped. Scrubbing his face with the heels of his palms, he asked, "Who's not dead? Sound off."

"Hey, Rey!" The familiar voice startled all of them and they looked around, Reynarden the most frantic. Sounding amused, the voice called, "Up here."

They looked up to see two familiar faces peering down at them from above the entrance to the complex. Reynarden's voice came out as a choked whisper, "Fio? Kira?"

"I should have known you'd be sent here," Fiosynod replied, jumping down from his perch and landing easily on the balls of his feet.

The moment he was in reach, Reynarden pulled him into a tight hug. Kira landed next to them, a sympathetic smile on her face. "Sorry we've been gone so long."

"Where have you been? We've been worried sick about you!" Reynarden demanded, pulling back to peer up at his brother.

Grimacing, Fiosynod told him, "We were prisoners of the Emperor and still would be if not for Lord Scourge." He gestured towards the side of the complex and a Sith Pureblood man in black armor stood there, watching them with a neutral expression. "He helped get us out of the Emperor's Fortress. Scourge, this is my younger brother, Captain Reynarden Drondil, CO of Havoc Squad."

"Major Drondil, Fiosynod," Elara corrected before he could continue. "We've all been promoted since you last saw us."

Grinning, Fiosynod hugged Reynarden. "Congratulations, Rey." He looked at the rest of them. "And to you four as well."

"We cannot linger here," Scourge interjected before they could do more than nod.

Making a face, Kira said, "Much as I hate to agree with him, he's right."

"Yeah, I know." Fiosynod turned to Reynarden. "We'll talk later. I sent messages to you, Mom and Dad when I got here to Belsavis, but obviously you haven't seen yours yet."

Reynarden rolled his eyes. "Obviously. Jeveen and Norm are here, too."

"I have a question," Elara volunteered before they could move away. "Why aren't you wearing a shirt, Fiosynod?"

He moved the synthweave vest covering his left shoulder and Elara gasped at the sight of the livid Lichtenberg scar marring his bright red skin. He nodded. "It's too sensitive for me to wear armor of any kind right now. At first, I couldn't even stand synthweave."

"I'll want to take a closer look when we don't have other places to be," Elara told him.

Nodding, Fiosynod hugged her briefly, whispering, "Keep them all alive."

"Number one priority," she whispered back, awkwardly returning the hug.

Kira hugged her next. "You still owe me details."

"I have a lot to tell you," Elara replied with a weak laugh.

With that, the three of them set off. Reynarden turned to Elara once they were gone and hugged her tight, whispering hoarsely, "He's alive. Fio's alive."

*

By the time they made it back to base, Reynarden had managed to compose himself. Harlan had arrived and was talking to Conrad Gall over the holocomm when they entered. He was understandably uncertain about serving the Republic again. Not just because they'd tossed Dagger Wing into Belsavis, but also because he'd promised that Dagger Wing would help contain the inmates and that job wasn't done yet. "We aren't leaving until we've done our part."

"Havoc Squad is on board, Gall," Reynarden told him firmly, standing up straighter. "What's your plan?"

Looking relieved, Gall told them about a large contingent of Imperial personnel he'd been tracking, heading straight for the maximum security area. "If they release any of the prisoners there, it could be catastrophic."

"We'll be glad to help you intercept the Imps, sir," Reynarden assured him.

Sending the coordinates to meet him, Gall also warned them about Imperial commando teams who'd split off to ambush Republic reinforcements. After promising to take care of them, Reynarden and Gall signed off. Harlan looked pleased, "You heard the man, Major. Better get moving or you might miss all of the fun."

"Can you tell me a little about your commander?" Reynarden requested, hands clasped behind his back.

A proud smile lit Harlan's face. "He's the best there is. Wouldn't be Dagger Wing without Commander Gall. After Fest, he held this unit together, made sure we all remembered who the real enemy is." Reynarden nodded and Elara understood why he'd asked. Harlan shook his head. "Bah, listen to me blabbing. You want to know about Gall, talk to him when you meet him. Good luck out there."

"See you on the other side." Reynarden nodded to Harlan and left with Elara. He let out a deep sigh. "I only wish I could inspire that sort of loyalty."

Elara caught his hand and squeezed it lightly. He smiled and returned the squeeze. "Don't sell yourself short, Reynar. Tanno wouldn't stick around for just any commander."

"He's still in Havoc because he gets to blow shit up." He rolled his eyes, but a smile tugged at his lips all the same.

Before Elara could explain further, they'd reached the rest of Havoc. Reynarden told them the plan and they took taxis deeper into the prison. When they landed, they spotted Normajh again, looking at a holomap with Tharan and Felix peering over his shoulders. "Hey, Norm!"

"Hi, Rey." Normajh smiled, putting the holomap away. "Did I imagine seeing you earlier?"

Grinning, Reynarden shook his head. "No, you weren't imagining it. You were busy fighting and we had somewhere to go."

"We still have somewhere to go, sir," Elara reminded him.

Normajh chuckled. "Well, so do we. Perhaps we can catch up later, once we're finished with our respective missions."

"That'd be great." Reynarden leaned in. "News that can't wait--"

Grinning, Normajh interrupted him. "Fio's alive? Yes, we ran into him already."

"Sure, just spoil my fun." Chuckling, Reynarden punched his shoulder. "We'll talk later."

Normajh nodded. "Until then."

*

The commando units weren't a problem for the six of them working together. The inmates they encountered were more difficult. When they finally reached the coordinates to meet Gall, he wasn't there. They only found two of his pilots, Myles and Adan. Apparently, Ondorru was on Belsavis, leading a portion of the Imperial troops, and Gall had gone after him with a group of men. "You've got to understand... Ondorru is the reason we're all here. Commander Gall couldn't let that filth escape."

"Can you tell me where this tunnel leads?" Reynarden asked, glancing at Tanno, who'd been examining the collapsed tunnel.

Tanno shook his head. "It's thoroughly collapsed, boss. We'll have to take the long way."

"It lets out into the maximum security area," Adan told them, and then corrected himself. "Well, it used to."

Myles nodded, looking apologetic. "The only other way in is the main entrance. There's a lot of fighting over there, but it's the only option left to reach Commander Gall."

"I'll bring Gall back alive, no matter what," Reynarden promised them.

They escorted the two pilots to the main road. Then, while they headed back to the base to join their wingmates, Havoc Squad headed for the maximum security area and Conrad Gall. As they hurried along, Tanno wondered, "What's different about this thing with Gall from what happened on Balmorra?"

"For one thing, Gall is a superior officer," Reynarden told him. "For another, we're in completely different units, completely different military branches."

Elara couldn't resist adding, "And he's trying to stop the Imperials from making the situation worse. You did not."

"Not like the situation on Balmorra could have gotten worse," Tanno pointed out, pragmatic rather than hurt.

Aric growled under his breath. Reynarden turned and frowned at Tanno. "Those Resistance members who followed your lead lost their lives because you were after shiny weapons you could sell for personal gain."

"Except thanks to you, boss, I didn't get anything out of it." Tanno grumbled.

Reynarden arched his eyebrows with a smirk. "Exactly."

*

When they caught up to Conrad Gall, Lord Ondorru had him by the throat, literally. Gall kicked futilely at the air from where he was suspended by the Force. Spotting them as they ran towards him, Ondorru glanced at the Imperial soldiers on either side of him. They raised their blaster rifles and began shooting at them. "Take cover!"

They ducked behind a pillar and caught their breath. Elara saw Gall go flying into a room almost directly across from them. A few moments later, the Imperial soldiers stopped shooting. Forex announced, "The cowardly Imperials have run away, Major!"

"Let's go!" Reynarden led the charge, out into the corridor. They could see Ondorru and the Imperials running deeper into the vault. Elara touched his arm and pointed to where she could see Gall laying crumpled on the ground to their right. "Good eye, Dorne."

They hurried over to kneel beside Gall, who groaned as he managed to push himself up onto one arm. "Major? Is that you? Ugh... we never had a chance. Ondorru, he... lightning, straight out of his fingertips. Impossible." He tried to sit up, but fell back down with a groan of pain. "I can't... I can't move. You have to capture him! You can't let Ondorru escape. Only he can prove that Dagger Wing is innocent!"

"See what you can do for him, Dorne," Reynarden told her, even as she reached for her medkit.

"Hmm." Elara scanned him and didn't like what she found. "He's in bad shape--" he tried to sit up again and she gently pushed him back down. "Try not to move Commander."

Gall glared at Reynarden and Elara. "Aren't you two listening? He's getting away! He could change everything!"

Every one of them froze at the sound of stone grinding against stone, the floor shaking under their boots. Elara kept her focus on tending to Gall's numerous contusions, burns, and internal injuries. Tanno voiced what they were all thinking, "That can't be good."

"It doesn't matter--go!" Gall's agitation made it difficult for Elara to do anything for him. "Forget about me, just get Ondorru!"

"The Sith can wait," Reynarden told him firmly. "Dagger Wing needs you."

Gall shook his head, wincing the next moment. "This may be the only shot we ever get at that Sith scum! Harlan can take over Dagger Wing, and Ondorru can clear their record. I'll gladly die to make that happen. Now go!"

"Havoc Squad doesn't leave anyone behind." Reynarden stood up and moved to stand against the huge rancor they could now see approaching them. Aric, Forex, Tanno, and Yuun ranged themselves behind him, drawing their weapons.

Elara remained kneeling beside Gall, holding him down when he lunged after them. "No! Get out of here! Go!"

"Stay still, sir," Elara ordered him, ignoring the roaring of the rancor, the spat of blaster fire, and shouts of her squadmates as they fought the creature.

Gall stared at her, brown eyes wide. "You're Imperial?"

"Former Imperial, sir," she retorted, giving him kolto for his cracked ribs. "I defected over four years ago."

By the time the others returned, the rancor dead behind them, she'd done what she could for Gall. She could see both Tanno and Yuun limping and gave both of them kolto as Gall grumbled at Reynarden, "You stubborn... I guess I should thank you, but now my men's reputation may never be cleared."

"You're a good officer, Gall," Reynarden told him, not bothered by Gall's attitude. "I couldn't leave you like that."

Gall sighed, reluctantly letting go of his anger. "I appreciate the sentiment, but now my people's reputation may never be saved."

"Consider this a second chance to prove themselves," Aric suggested as Elara finished checking each of her squadmates.

Before Gall could respond, Zess arrived with a couple warden guards. "Major? Gall, you made it! They're here, men--keep those guns up and those eyes sharp!"

"Zess?" Gall stared at him. "What are you doing here?"

As Tanno helped Gall stand up, Zess told them, "We came to help, but it looks like we missed the show."

"Get your men out of here ASAP, Zess," Reynarden told him firmly. "The creatures here are the most dangerous we've encountered here."

Zess nodded, his tone wry, "Was just thinking the same thing." He looked back at Gall, who still looked shaky. "Need a hand there, Gall?"

"Thanks." Gall shifted his weight from Tanno to Zess. "I took a shot at a Sith. I'll stick to starfighters from now on."

Zess gave a soft laugh at that and addressed Reynarden, "We'll get Gall back and have him transferred to the station with the rest of Dagger Wing, Major. Been a pleasure seeing you work."

"Have the guards managed to get Belsavis back under control?" Reynarden asked, concerned.

Zess nodded. "Yeah, things are turning around." He shrugged. "But who knows what the Imps might throw at us tomorrow. Anyway, time to get out of this place before anything big and mean finds us. Good luck to you."

"See you soon, Major." Gall leaned on Zess as they headed out.

Reynarden slumped against Aric the moment the others were gone. "Reynar?"

"Just tired, Elara," he told her as she used her scanner on him.

She frowned when it confirmed what he said. "Let's get back as soon as we can, then."

"That sounds good to me."

*

"Hey Rey, Elara!" Jeveen waved at them from across the room when they entered the cantina later, Viray behind them.

Reynarden and Elara waved back. "Hey, Jeveen. Where's Norm? I thought he was meeting us?"

"He got a call from his ship just before you and Elara got here," she explained, standing up to greet them with hugs. "Something serious happened and he had to leave."

Nodding, Reynarden glanced at Elara, a playful glint in his eyes, "Should we tell Jeveen at least? Or wait until we can tell both her and Norm?"

"If you want to wait until then, we might as well wait until we can tell Yakarn, too," Elara answered thoughtfully.

Jeveen glanced from one to the other of them, her eye narrowed. "Now you have to tell me. You can't tease, and then not."

"Hello, Jev," Viray interjected quietly, gently pushing between Reynarden and Elara.

She gaped at him, blue eye widening and ocular implant spinning. "Viray? You're alive?"

"Thanks to Captain Dorne, I am," he replied, smiling nervously at his sister. "Stars, you've grown up so much."

Her surprise gave way to happiness and she grabbed him in a tight hug. "Oh, stars! It's so good to see you!"

"I'm very glad to see you, too." Viray replied, gladly hugging her back. "I'd hoped you and the others were doing all right."

Jeveen pulled back after a long moment, finally taking in his entire appearance. "That's-- you're an inmate here?"

"Not anymore." He shook his head, smiling wryly. "Apparently, Dagger Wing is too good to leave us here when there's a war to fight."

She frowned. "They told us you were KIA. What happened that they sent you here instead?"

"Bad intel," Viray told her, and then explained about the bombing run on Fest that had landed them in Belsavis. "With the end of the cold war, though, High Command wants us back in space, fighting for them."

Jeveen's frown hadn't faded. "After chucking you in here and telling your loved ones that you were KIA, they expect you to fight for them again?"

"They're not perfect, Jev, and we did kill a lot of innocents," Viray reminded her, holding her hand. "This is a chance to prove that we're not monsters."

At that moment, two familiar figures entered the cantina. Harlan grinned when he spotted Viray and Jeveen. "Trust you, Par, to find a lovely lady to chat up."

"Wait, what?" Viray stared at Harlan while Jeveen started giggling.

Next to Elara, Reynarden was laughing, too. Sighing, she decided to intervene and told Harlan, "Jeveen is Viray's sister."

"Oh!" Harlan frowned, glancing between Viray, Jeveen, and Reynarden. "Really? She looks more like Major Drondil's sister than Viray's."

Viray sighed and told the XO, "Same mother, different sires."

"Major Drondil, Captain Dorne, it's good to see you two again," Gall interjected before Harlan could make things worse.

Harlan nodded grimly. "All of Dagger Wing owes you big time. You saved the boss, which means you saved everyone else from having me in charge--that alone ought to get you a medal."

"You'd have been fine as CO, Tobin," Viray offered then. "Not that I'm not glad that Conrad survived anyway."

Reynarden, having managed to compose himself, nodded. "I just carried out my mission, nothing more than that."

"Well, from now on, anytime Havoc and Dagger are in the same cantina, your drinks are taken care of," Harlan told him grandly.

Giggling, Jeveen pointed out, "Good thing he's not much bigger than me. It won't take much to get him drunk."

"I don't get sloshed these days, anyway," Reynarden replied, grinning at her.

Gall spoke up before they could carry on further, "I never forget a debt, Drondil. If you ever need air support for one of your operations, Dagger Wing will make it happen."

"I'll look forward to working with your unit again, Commander," Reynarden assured him earnestly, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth.

Nodding, Gall told him, "Likewise. It's been a pleasure." He looked at Viray. "I hate to take you away from your sister, but it's time to go."

"I understand, sir." Viray turned and hugged Jeveen tight.

She hugged him back, pressing a flimsy into his hand. "My holofrequency. Keep in touch."

"Of course." Reluctantly, Viray stepped back and joined Gall and Harlan. Before he followed Gall from the cantina, Harlan looked at Reynarden, "Be sure to put in a good word for us with your pals up in Command ground-pounder. See you around."

They disappeared out the door. The next moment, Jeveen hugged both Reynarden and Elara, whispering fiercely, "Thank you! Thank you."

*

Captain Dorne,

I told you once that Kalor isn't well-liked around here. Truthfully, we've suspected that he's not doing his job properly, but no one he's handled has complained. If what you've told your brother is true (and I have no reason to doubt you), then you may be able to help us handle Kalor.

Regarding the hearing he attempted to open against you using information from that security guy on Taris: Kalor's planning to exploit a loophole in the investigative appeals process to reopen his 'inquiry' against you without new cause. He's convinced you blackmailed Ridu into withdrawing his testimony. From what I know of you, I doubt you used anything other than the absolute truth.

If you don't want this process to take you away from Havoc Squad, I recommend you fire the first shot against Kalor. Prove that his vendetta against you has been a waste of time and resources that could be put to better use elsewhere. Especially since we're at war again.

Just like with Ridu, the truth will be enough: every message, every report, every holocall you have recorded will be enough. Perhaps, if you're convincing enough, our superiors will take a good, hard look at the other defectors he handled.

Remember, you didn't hear any of this from me. Good luck!

Lieutenant Bryni Ekaitz

Elara stared at the holomessage in shock. It'd been waiting in her inbox when they returned to the ship and report to Garza. Since they were still deciding where Havoc could be of best use, Garza had given them permission to visit the fleet if they wished. Elara had asked to requisition more medical supplies and Reynarden had agreed, since she'd tended not only to Havoc, but also Dagger Wing. "Hey, Elara, did you finish that inventory?"

"What? Oh, no, not yet." She quickly closed the mail application on her datapad and opened up the inventory. "It should be ready shortly."

Reynarden eyed her thoughtfully, lounging in the doorway. "It's not like you to not do something you said you would. Has something happened?"

"I--" Elara sighed and began going through the cupboards in the medbay, checking the contents against her recorded inventory. "It's Captain Kalor, Reynar. A friend told me he's planning to reopen his 'inquiry', despite having no new cause."

He frowned at that. "I thought we were done with this shit."

"Apparently not." She finished the inventory and opened up a requisition form on her datapad.

Reynarden gently pushed her datapad down so she could look up and meet his angry gaze. "Is there anything you can do to put an end to this, once and for all?"

"A preemptive strike," Elara told him promptly. "I'm going to gather together every message, every report, recordings of every call, and use it to demonstrate that what he's doing is a complete waste of time and resources."

His smile was a little too sharp. "If you need permission to access Havoc's archives, I grant it gladly." He paused, a thought occurring to him. "What about the archives from Taris? I'm assuming you contacted Kalor from there as well."

"While we were there, I took the liberty of downloading copies of my holocalls to him from there." She smiled grimly. "I knew he'd take Ridu's withdrawal as an insult and thought it best to be prepared."

Reynarden's expression softened, his smile and eyes turning warm with affection. "I love you so much, Elara."

"I love you, too, Reynar." She kissed him, sweet and swift. "I want to finish this requisition, and then I'll start going through everything I have so I'm ready when I go to Coruscant."

Letting go of the datapad so she could finish filling out the form, he said, "I'll come with you. I'd like to back you up."

"I appreciate the sentiment, Reynar, but I need to handle this myself." She paused long enough to cup his cheek. "Bringing a war hero along would seem like a diversionary tactic."

Reynarden reluctantly nodded, brushing a kiss across her palm. "I'll still go to Coruscant with you. We can stay with my parents and maybe we'll see Fio and Kira."

"That would be nice." Elara agreed with a nod.

He smiled warmly. "As soon as we get the requisition from the fleet, we'll catch a shuttle to Coruscant. Then you can put Kalor in his place and we can celebrate."

"It's a little early to be thinking that, but thank you." She smiled back and kissed him again. "Now, shoo. The sooner I finish this, the sooner I can spend time with you."

Laughing, he stepped back. "Yes, dear."

*

"Rey, Elara, it's wonderful to see you again." Bryden and Florya greeted them with enthusiastic hugs. "Did your mission go well?"

Reynarden nodded, smiling. "It did, Dad. Thanks for asking."

"What brings you back to Coruscant?" Florya asked, walking with them towards the parlor.

Elara glanced at Reynarden, who shrugged and gestured to her. Shaking her head at him, she looked back at Florya and Bryden. "I have business at Personnel Division tomorrow. Reynar came along for moral support."

"And the company, too, I'm sure," Fiosynod remarked from one of the couches.

Grinning, Reynarden vaulted over the couch and Fiosynod caught him up into a hug. "Fio!"

"It's been a long time since they've done that," Bryden remarked.

Kira laughed from the doorway. "I leave for five minutes and almost missed quite the entrance."

"Hi, Kira." Laughing, Reynarden hugged her and kissed her cheek. "It's been so very long since we last each other."

Elara smiled as she joined them and greeted both Fiosynod and Kira with hugs. "You two didn't have anywhere to go just yet?"

"No, and Fio, of course, wanted to see his parents." Kira smiled up at Fiosynod, who wasn't even wearing a shirt. The scar on his shoulder was as livid as Elara remembered.

Reynarden grinned as Fiosynod turned to kiss Kira's cheek. His jaw dropped at something he saw on his brother's back. "Fio, your shoulder--"

"I know." Fiosynod sighed, holding still as Elara moved to join Reynarden.

She drew in a breath. Another Lichtenberg scar marred the back of his left shoulder. Not as large as the one on the front, but it was just as livid. "Did Doc do anything for these?"

"He tried, but they haven't responded to treatment." Fiosynod's shoulders were tense and Kira pressed against his right side, kissing his cheek. "Scourge says it's because the Emperor used Force lightning against us."

Elara pressed her lips together into a hard line. "That explains a lot. Only Force abilities leave scars that even kolto can't heal. The stronger the Force user, the bigger the scars and the Emperor is the strongest known Force user in the galaxy."

"I can understand the scar on the front of your shoulder, but why the back, too?" Reynarden reached up to touch Fiosynod's shoulder, but stopped before his fingers could make contact. "I doubt you dared to turn your back to him."

Fiosynod shook his head. "No, I didn't. I only vaguely remember what happened at that point, but I think he cast Force lightning through me to the other members of my strike team."

"Others?" Elara repeated, and then remembered the rumor Normajh had told him. "Of course! You would hardly have gone after the Emperor alone."

He nodded, smiling faintly. Florya cleared her throat. "Perhaps we can sit and talk about other things now?"

"Right, of course." Reynarden laughed sheepishly and they all sat down to talk.

*

The next day, her dress uniform clean and pressed, leatheris boots shining, and documents carefully stored on a datapad, Elara made her way to Personnel Division. Bryni met her outside the hearing room. "Everything's ready for you, Captain. I requested a meeting with Kalor as you suggested and he should be here shortly."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Elara managed a weak smile.

Kalor arrived ten minutes later, glowering when he saw Elara and Bryni. "What's going on Ekaitz, Dorne?"

"I am exercising my right under service code one to an immediate personnel hearing," Elara informed him crisply. "Lieutenant Ekaitz, do you stand witness to my request?"

Bryni nodded, speaking as crisply as Elara. "I do stand witness, Captain Dorne."

"It has been requested and witnessed," a strange voice stated from the entrance to the hearing room. An older Miraluka man stood there, his bright red hair liberally streaked with gray. "I will hear both Captain Dorne and Captain Kalor."

Elara nodded, saluting. "Thank you, General Heinrich."

"I-- you--" Kalor sputtered for a moment before he saluted and found his voice. "Yes, thank you, General Heinrich."

He headed back inside and they followed him into the room. While Heinrich moved to sit at the desk at the front of the room, a young Cathar woman with cream-colored fur and yellow-green eyes, clearly his aide, directed Elara and Kalor to tables facing the desk. Both had slots for datapads and Elara placed hers in the one she'd been given. This connected her to the datapads the others had and the holoprojector in case she needed to play a recording. Bryni and a few others sat in the chairs behind Elara and Kalor's tables. Once everyone was settled, the aide announced the official start to the hearing. Her heart racing, Elara sat up straight, ready to settle the question of her loyalty once and for all.

*

Reynarden stood up when she approached him a few hours later where he waited outside Personnel Division. "Well, how did it go, Captain?"

Standing at attention, Elara saluted him and said, "Major Drondil, I am ordered to report that I, Elara Dorne, personnel number 22-795, am no longer classified as a 'person of concern.' The Personnel Division of the Army of the Galactic Republic has declared that I am to be treated as a fully protected legal citizen, effective immediately."

"This is great news!" Grinning, he returned her salute, and then offered his hand. "I'm very happy for you, Captain."

"I couldn't have done it without your support, Major," she told him, shaking his hand, and then falling into step with him as they headed towards the taxi droid. "Kalor never saw it coming. He was literally speechless. I provided documentation for every moment of his pointless investigation. Once the man hours and expenditures were totaled, it came to thousands of credits wasted in wartime."

Reynarden shook his head. "I can't believe it had really gone so far."

"Yes. Even after I had gathered all of that evidence, the full scale of what had happened didn't settle in until I was presenting it in the hearing." Elara still relished the look of shock on Kalor's face at the amount of sheer evidence she'd collected. Climbing into the taxi with Reynarden, she leaned into his side with a satisfied sigh. "I still can't believe this day has finally come. The suspicion, the reservation, the endless questions... they've been part of my life for so long. But no more-- I am a citizen of the Galactic Republic."

He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and squeezed gently. "It's great to see this happening for you."

"Thank you so much." She kissed his cheek, smiling. "I've never been prouder to serve the Republic. Thank you for all of your support, Reynar. I couldn't have done this without you."

Smiling, he kissed her softly. "I'd have liked to help with your hearing, but I learned to trust your judgment long ago."

"I'm touched." She rested her forehead against hers. "I imagine your parents will want to arrange something to celebrate."

Laughing, he brushed the tip of his nose against hers. "Knowing them, they've already arranged something."

"You know them better than I do, of course."

*

Reynarden was right. His parents had already made reservations at one of the fanciest restaurants on Coruscant. Elara wore a sheath dress in a rich green that matched her eyes. Kira's dress was dark blue and had a more daring neckline than Elara's. Both Reynarden and Fiosynod stared when they saw Elara and Kira. Bryden, standing with them, chuckled at their reactions. "I don't blame either of you. They're stunning."

"Thank you, Bryden," Elara told him, her cheeks heating a little under the makeup she'd decided to wear for the evening.

Reynarden finally found his voice. "Wow. You look fantastic, Elara."

"Thank you, Reynar." She smiled, kissing his cheek.

Kira arched her eyebrows at Fiosynod, who still hadn't said anything yet. "Nexu cat got your tongue, Fio?"

"Gorgeous." He finally told her, bringing her hand up to his lips and kissing the back.

She laughed softly. "Very eloquent."

"Your beauty overwhelmed me, my lady," Fiosynod replied, yellow eyes glinting with amusement as she looped her arm through his.

Florya spoke up from the other door. "It sounds like our sons learned from the best."

"That they did, my lady wife," Bryden replied, moving forward to bow over her hand and leading her over to join the rest of them. "You are ravishing, as always."

She smiled, kissing him softly and murmuring, "Flatterer."

"I speak only the truth." Bryden rejoined with a smile of his own.

Clive coughed softly from his place by the door. "You'll miss your reservation if you don't leave soon, Mr. Drondil, Mrs. Drondil."

"Of course. Let's go." Bryden and Florya led the procession out the door to their waiting transportation.

They had a lovely dinner together and Elara reveled in the knowledge that didn't have to report to Personnel Division again except to see Aleksei. She'd asked Bryni about it after her hearing. "I won't put Aleksei through everything that Kalor did to you, but he still needs to prove himself."

"Couldn't he serve in the Republic Army like I have?" Elara suggested, a little hopefully.

Bryni smiled wryly. "He could, but he doesn't want to. Apparently, he only joined the Imperial Army because it was a Dorne tradition."

"Really?" That surprised Elara, especially given the fact that he'd advanced so much quicker than she had.

Bryni nodded. "Yeah. I've been talking to people about other ways he could contribute to the war effort. Perhaps we can use his knowledge of the Imperial military."

"I hope it works out." Elara meant it, too.

They returned home and Elara led Reynarden to her rooms. He smiled in anticipation when she closed the door behind them. He raised his eyebrows when she led him over to the couch in the sitting area. "What's going on, Elara?"

"I got something for us," she told him, picking up the datapad she'd left on her bedside table. "It took a great deal of research, and quite a few holocalls to some very important people." Most of that research and holocalls had happened while she was waiting for him to return from the rescue operation. "Form 3578-K officially authorizes us to pursue a mutual romantic relationship." She handed the datapad to Reynarden so he could read it. "I hoped we could sign it together."

Reynarden smiled at her, easing her nerves over asking him to take this step with her. "I'm more than happy to make this official."

"Fantastic." Elara watched as he filled out the parts of the form that she'd left blank, and then signed it. Taking it back, she signed it and sent it to the appropriate office. Setting it aside, she turned back to Reynarden. "Now that that's out of the way, whatever shall we do?"

Grinning, he cupped her face between his hands. "I have a few ideas to share, if you'd like some input from me."

"Always." She smiled, her eyes fluttering closed when he kissed her.

That's when his holocomm chimed to alert them to a new call. Pulling back, she frowned at him. "I thought you put it on Do Not Disturb?"

"I did, but certain holofrequencies can get through." Reluctantly, he sat back and pulled out his holocomm.

Garza's holoimage appeared when he answered it. "Major Drondil, I apologize for disturbing you. A situation has come up and I need Havoc Squad to take on a special mission: a prisoner-of-war rescue operation."

"Are we after a captured general or something?" Reynarden asked, frowning thoughtfully.

Garza shook her head. "You'll be rescuing three hundred and fourteen men, women, and other beings of various ranks. The prisoners are being held on A-77, an Imperial detention center built inside the remains of an asteroid mining facility. A Special Forces operator was recent captured and taken there--because of her, we learned A-77's location. You've worked with her before: Sergeant Ava Jaxo."

"Yes, Jaxo and I did two ops together." Reynarden nodded and Elara noticed that his free hand had curled into a fist.

"Correct. Here is her message from A-77." Garza's holoimage disappeared, replaced by one of Ava wearing a prisoner uniform. "Calling any Republic vessel or personnel. This is Ava Jaxo--sergeant, Republic Special Forces. I'm being held in an Imperial prison. I've slipped out of my cell and hidden on the systems deck, but there are more than three hundred other soldiers being held here. Any rescue teams, call me first--I'll do my best to muck up the security systems for you. Now get me out of here!"

Elara rested her hand over his and gently rubbed her thumb across the tendons. "Just forward me the coordinates and Havoc will move out, General."

"A-77's coordinates are being forwarded to your holocomm now," Garza told him, nodding to someone on her end. "Contact Sergeant Jaxo once you're within range and proceed from there. Good luck."

With that, her holoimage disappeared. Reynarden let his head fall back against the cushions. "So much for a break."

"We should head back to the Fleet as soon as we can," Elara suggested reluctantly. "Or have the others bring the Thunderclap here to Coruscant."

Shaking his head, Reynarden stood up. "We'll take a shuttle to the Fleet."

"At least we get to see Ava soon," Elara offered, hoping to cheer Reynarden up.

He nodded and then shrugged. "For some reason, I have a bad feeling about this mission."

"Let's hope it's just indigestion." Despite her words, she was worried, too. Hold on, Ava. We'll get you out of there as soon as we can.

Chapter Text

They were changed, packed, and on a shuttle to the Fleet in less than an hour. Once they were underway, Reynarden sent messages to the rest of the squad to return to the Thunderclap ASAP. The plan was to leave as soon as they were aboard. Thankfully, no one stopped them once they reached the Fleet and headed for their docking bay. C2-N2 greeted them with his usual cheer, "Welcome back, Major Drondil, Captain Dorne. You're the last to arrive."

"Thanks, Seetoo," Reynarden told him with a nod. "Come on, Elara, let's get this lady launched and on her way,"

Elara nodded her agreement, dropping her bag beside Reynarden's against the bulkhead and following him up to the cockpit. "Yes, sir."

"Rey, Elara," Aric called, but neither of them broke stride. He followed them up the stairs. "What's the rush?"

Elara took the copilot's seat while Reynarden dropped into the pilot's chair. "I'll tell you once we're in hyperspace, Aric. Gather the others in the briefing room, please."

"Yes, sir." Aric retreated down the stairs as Reynarden and Elara spun up the sublight engines, using the maneuvering thrusters to guide the Thunderclap up and out of the docking bay.

Elara engaged the sublight engines to take them to the nearest hyperlane. Reynarden focused on calculating their hyperspace route. "Course laid in. Ready for hyperspace?"

"On your mark, sir," Elara told him, ready to disengage the sublight engines.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him take hold of the lever. "Engaging hyperspace in three, two, one. Punch it."

"Disengaging sublight," she reported, toggling the switches as he pushed the lever that launched them into hyperspace.

She sighed once they were safely in hyperspace. On the other side of the console, Reynarden had slumped in his chair. "Well, time to tell the others why we're rushing."

"Ava won't be a prisoner much longer," she reminded him, standing up and hugging him.

He hugged her back, resting his temple against hers. "I don't know why, but I have a feeling of dread about this whole thing."

"We'll do our best, Reynar." She rubbed his back soothingly. "That's all we can do."

Sighing, he nodded and held her for a few more moments. Finally, he let her go and they went downstairs to brief the others. They entered the briefing room to find them waiting. Tanno asked, "What's goin' on, boss?"

"Havoc has been tapped to rescue three hundred and fourteen Republic soldiers being held prisoner in an Imperial detention center built inside an old asteroid mining facility," Reynarden told them once he and Elara reached the front of the room. "We know its location thanks to a Special Forces soldier who managed to slip out of her cell and get a message out."

Aric raised a hand. "Do we know this soldier, sir?"

"The three of us do," Reyanrden replied, gesturing to himself, Aric, and Elara. "Sergeant Ava Jaxo. Once we get to the facility, we'll contact her so she can help get us inside."

Aric blinked and glanced at Elara. "...yes, sir."

"I recommend everyone prepare for heavy resistance." Reynarden stifled a yawn. "I'm going to take a nap. Dismissed."

Tanno and Yuun followed Reynarden from the briefing room. Aric caught Elara's arm when she moved to follow them. "Can I speak with you, in private?"

"Of course." Elara nodded and followed him to the crew quarters, which were thankfully empty. "What's on your mind, Aric?"

He paced for a moment, and then turned to face her. "You know Jaxo?"

"Reynar introduced us while we were all on leave," Elara told him, not surprised by his question. "I'm aware of their history and it doesn't bother me."

Aric frowned, and then sighed. "Very well. I trust you to know what's best for you."

"Thank you for checking in with me all the same, Aric," Elara told him, squeezing his arm.

He nodded, smiling faintly. She left the crew quarters and frowned when she didn't find her bag where she'd left it. "Is something wrong, Captain Dorne?"

"Where's my bag, Seetoo?" Elara asked the protocol droid. "I left it right here."

"Major Drondil grabbed both your bags," he told her. "And took them into his quarters."

Nodding, she thanked him and headed to Reynarden's quarters. She hesitated at the door for a moment before remembering the form they'd submitted together. Maybe... Taking a chance, she touched her palm to the lock. The door slid open and her heart skipped a beat. Stepping inside, the door slid closed behind her. Her bag sat on the desk chair and she opened it to retrieve her pajamas. Trying to be as quiet as possible, she changed into them, used a face wipe to clean off her make-up, and carefully slid under the covers. She slid as close as she could to Reynarden and he lifted his arm to wrap around her. "Oh! I thought you were asleep?"

"Almos'," he slurred, shifting closer to Elara. "Arms were too empty."

Touched, she nestled into his arms. "I'm here now. Sleep."

"You, too." He ended on a sigh and by the way he simply relaxed in her arms, she knew he'd fallen asleep. Smiling to herself, Elara kissed his cheek and fell asleep, too.

*

Elara woke to the sound of the door chime. In her arms, Reynarden stirred and called, his voice still thick with sleep, "Yeah?"

"We're almost out of hyperspace, boss." Tanno called through the door. "Rise and shine."

Though he made grumbling sounds, Reynarden nevertheless called back. "Right. I'll be right there, Tanno."

"Be sure to tell Dorne, too, if she's still asleep," Tanno replied, and then they heard him walking away from the door.

Reynarden glanced at her with a sheepish smile. "We haven't exactly been subtle."

"Since we submitted Form 3578-K, we don't really need to hide anything," she pointed out, kissing him softly. "Besides, I'm not ashamed of us. I love you."

He smiled and kissed her in return. "I love you, too."

Reluctantly, they got up and dressed in tank tops and shorts. When they emerged to retrieve their armor and cortosis weave, they found the others gearing up as well. Yuun noticed them first and asked, "Did you sleep well, Major Drondil, Captain Dorne?"

"Very well," Reynarden replied, stepping into his cortosis weave and pulling it up. "Thank you for asking, Yuun."

"I slept quite well, too," Elara added, ignoring the heat in her cheeks as she pulled up her cortosis weave. "Everyone's generators are fully charged?"

Aric nodded, checking generators and setting them out for everyone to grab. Reynarden's assault cannon and Elara's blaster pistol waited already. "Generators charged. Weapons ready, power packs coming up."

"Oh, I didn't check my medkit." Elara wanted to kick herself. Wearing her durasteel boots now, that would hurt. She'd been so tired, all she'd wanted was sleep.

Yuun set it down next to her as she put on her leg plates. "Yuun checked for Captain Dorne. It's fully stocked."

"Thank you, Yuun." Elara smiled, relieved, and opened it to confirm what he said. That done, she clipped it, her generators and extra power packs to her belt before putting it on. Some soldiers liked to put their belt on, and then clip everything to it. Elara found it easier to do it the other way.

Reynarden hummed thoughtfully, buckling his chest and back plates into place. "Armor, generators, weapons, power packs, medkit. Are we missing anything?"

"We're supposed to contact Jaxo once we were close enough," Elara reminded him, putting her gloves on.

He nodded, hoisting his assault cannon into place on his back. "Right, thanks, Elara."

"Ready when you are, Major," Elara told him, holstering her blaster pistol.

Nodding, he turned to the others. "Aric, Tanno, would you like to do the honors?"

"Yeah, sure boss." Tanno headed up to the cockpit.

Aric eyed Reynarden for a moment before following the Weequay. Reynarden, Elara, Yuun, and Forex settled into place facing the holotable. They stumbled a bit when the ship wobbled while coming out of hyperspace. Reynarden glanced at Elara, "We need to practice coordinating efforts some more."

"We'll discuss that when we're not on a timetable," Elara told him.

Nodding, Reynarden entered the holofrequency Garza had sent them, "Havoc Squad calling Sergeant Jaxo. Come in, Jaxo."

"After all these hours, I'd be happy to see anybody's face, but you just made my decade," Ava replied, her holoimage appearing above the table.

Reynarden sounded playful as he responded, "I couldn't leave you hanging, could I?"

"I knew there was a reason you were always my favorite." Ava grinned, and then it faded as she got down to business, "From here, I can short out the exterior defense grid. You'll be able to coast right in. But internal security is a whole other problem. We've got war droids, and plenty of 'em. There's going to be some major heat after you touch down, believe me."

Equally serious now, Reynarden nodded, "Thanks for the heads up, Jaxo."

"You'd better make your approach now." Ava warned them, glancing off to one side. "Contact me once you've made a place for yourselves. Jaxo out."

Her holoimage disappeared and Reynarden climbed the stairs to the cockpit. "Do you two think you can get us into the docking bay without bickering?"

"Sure thing, boss," Tanno's reply floated down to where Elara stood at the foot of the stairs.

She wondered if she imagined a growl from Aric, but the ship moved the next moment. They landed with only a little jarring. "Not bad. We need to work on that."

"We have other things to worry about at the moment, sir," Aric replied, a bit of a growl to his voice.

Reynarden chuckled and headed back down with Aric and Tanno behind him. Putting on their helmets, they trooped out of the Thunderclap. The docking bay was empty, but Elara could see several blindspots from where they stood. She indicated them to Reynarden, who nodded, "Yuun, Gand can see through walls, right?"

"Yuun cannot see anyone or anything in here with us, Major Drondil," Yuun answered promptly. "It is safe to proceed."

Nodding, Reynarden led them towards the docking bay doors. Yuun managed to slice the controls and open them. Security droids waited on the other side and they wasted no time taking them out. Once the droids were scrap, Reynarden pulled out his holocomm, "Havoc Squad to Jaxo. We're in."

"I'd call that a beachhead." Ava's holoimage grinned, but Elara thought it looked strained. "You'd better leave plenty of muscle behind--your ship is going to be target number one for the other droids here."

Reynarden sounded grim. "My squad will hold this position. What's next?"

"Next up is the command center." Ava's answer came promptly, as if she'd put a lot of thought into this while waiting. "That's where you'll need to go to open all of the cells. Once our people are loose, they can ride out in one of the old supply transports. It'll be a tight fit, but I doubt anyone will complain."

Nodding, Reynarden glanced briefly at Elara before asking, "How are you getting out of here, Jaxo?"

"Much as I'd like to ride out with you, I think I'd better help the others get that transport running." Ava smiled sadly up at him. "Good luck, Rey."

"You, too, Ava." Reynarden sighed as he put his deactivated holocomm away. "Right, Dorne, Yuun, you're with me. Jorgan, Vik, Forex, hold position here."

As Elara and Yuun fell into step with Reynarden, Forex settled into a waiting position in the doorway. Tanno took up position next to him while Aric moved to a stack of crates at the end of the corridor and climbed up to wait, his sniper rifle at the ready. "We'll keep the way clear, sir. You free the prisoners."

Then the three of them turned the corner and faced a gauntlet of security droids and automatic turrets, currently dormant. "Any ideas here besides simply barreling our way through?"

"Do you see those little probe droids?" Elara asked, indicating one. After a moment, both Reyanrden and Yuun nodded. "Those are alarm droids. The moment they detect blaster fire, they'll activate the nearest turret."

"So we should take those out first, unless we want to deal with additional enemy fire." Reynarden gave a firm nod.

Before he could start forward, Yuun touched his arm. "Major Drondil, Yuun can see computer terminals up ahead. Yuun believes that they will help guide us to the control center."

"We'll clear a path to those, then." Reynarden hefted his assault cannon and aimed for the small probe droid Elara had pointed out.

After fighting their way across Belsavis as a squad, it felt strange to not have the others fighting alongside them. Yuun always seemed small next to Tanno and Forex, but somehow he seemed even smaller on his own. Despite the din of blaster fire from the security droids, Elara missed the additional weapons fire from Aric and Forex. They reached the first computer terminal and Reynarden and Elara kept watch while Yuun accessed it. "Major Drondil, Yuun has finished. The next computer terminal is at the end of the corridor."

"That's where we'll go, then." Reynarden glanced at Elara. "Ready, Dorne?"

She nodded, touched that he checked with her. "Ready, sir."

"Onwards, then." Reynarden led them towards the next group of security droids.

After Yuun finished at the second terminal, they fought their way to the third one. He hesitated there and said, "Major Drondil, Yuun has found interrogation logs on each computer terminal. There is one here that will be of interest."

"I'll read it later, Yuun," Reynarden replied, still keeping watch. "We need to get to the control center ASAP."

Normally, Yuun deferred to Reynarden as their CO, but this time, he physically pushed a datapad into Reynarden's hands. "Yuun respectfully insists that Major Drondil read this log."

"Fine, fine." Reynarden slung his assault cannon on his back. Elara and Yuun kept watch while he read. "Kriffing hell. She's here because of me."

Elara frowned. "What do you mean, sir?"

"Here." Reynarden held the datapad out to Elara.

She took it and read the log: Interrogation of the prisoner housed in cell C51 has succeeded in Command directive to identify a known associate of Havoc Squad's leader, Major Drondil. After extensive exposure to our more...advanced methods, the prisoner identified a Republic soldier named Jaxo. We will continue our probe while the actionable status of the information is determined. Elara winced when she finished reading. "I'm sorry, sir."

"I have a bad feeling about this," Reynarden muttered, drawing his assault cannon again.

They continued towards the control center. When they entered, a Mon Calamari technician held up his hands, "Ahh! Don't shoot, don't shoot! I surrender!" They lowered their weapons. "You--you're Republic, right? This is a jailbreak? Please, I'll do whatever you want. Just don't hurt me!"

"Cooperate, and we'll get you out of here, too," Reynarden told him, putting his assault cannon on his back. Elara and Yuun holstered their weapons, too.

The technician dropped his hands. "Oh, thank you! Thank you so much!" He moved to the computer terminal. "You want me to unlock the prisoner cells? I can do it, it will only take a mo--" he stopped short when the holocomm in the computer terminal flickered to life and a familiar figure appeared. "Ahh! General Rakton!"

"Impressive." Rakton gazed at Reynarden with admiration. "Your time from learning about A-77 to storming its command deck was shorter than even my most aggressive estimates."

Reynarden's shoulders tensed as he retorted, "Using prisoners as bait? You're real scum, Rakton."

"Morality is a matter for peacetime," Rakton answered calmly. "It has no place in war." He gestured with one hand. "Imperial warships have maneuvered into position around A-77. The facility will be obliterated in a matter of minutes. Goodbye."

His holoimage disappeared. The technician was already checking the computer terminal. "The shields are already failing! I have to reroute power..."

"You want to give me an update here, Rey?" Ava requested over their comms. "It feels like someone's shooting at us."

Reynarden's hands balled into fists at his sides, his voice tight. "The Imps are about to blow this whole place apart!"

"They're going to blow up their own prison? This is insane!" Ava sounded just as horrified as Elara felt.

The technician burst out, clearly excited by his realization, "I can do it! I can keep the shields up! We can all make it out if I just vent the systems level."

"You can't vent the systems level--I'm on the systems level!" Ava burst in, fear creeping into her voice. "There are droids everywhere, I'd never make it out--who is this moron?"

Reynarden moved towards the observation window, looking out at the Imperial warships surrounding the facility. "Is there any other way to get the shields up?"

"There is no other way," the technician looked apologetic. "Please forgive me, but we have no other alternative. Without shields, we could never get the cells open fast enough. All of the prisoners would die."

Ava sounded desperate. "You've got to get me out of here, Rey. I can't die in this place. I can't."

"We have no choice, Reynar," Elara told him, moving forward to touch his arm. "We're clearly compelled to rescue the greatest number of prisoners possible."

Reynarden turned to give her a betrayed look. She gazed back at him, letting him see that she didn't want to say it, but they’d become soldiers to save as many lives as they could. His shoulders slumped as Ava shot back, "There's always a choice, Elara. Please, Rey--don't do this."

"When we enlist as soldiers, we give up our lives to preserve those of others," Yuun pointed out. "Our careers are merely journeys to reach that moment of sacrifice."

As the ground shook under their boots, Reynarden straightened his shoulders and his spine. "I'm so sorry, Ava, but this is my only option." He turned to the technician. "Vent the system level. Get the shields back up and prison cells open ASAP."

"Yes, yes, of course." Nodding, the technician began to do exactly that.

Ava's voice came over the comms, "But... no. It can't end like this. It can't--"

"Goodbye, Ava," Reynarden whispered, bowing his head for a moment. Elara took his hand and squeezed it.

He returned the squeeze as the technician told them, "It... worked. Shields are back to ninety percent, but they will not last forever." He clearly understood that this had been a hard choice for Reynarden. "You should return to your ship. I'll ensure the prisoners are freed and find their way to the transport."

"Don't hang around too long yourself," Reynarden told him, his voice hoarse with emotion.

The technician nodded. "I will not. Thank you. Please go, now. We don't have much time."

"Let's go." The words barely escaped, but Elara and Yuun understood him and they jogged back through the station towards the hangar, dodging the rocks that began to fall under the continued onslaught from the Imperial warships.

When they made it back to the ship, Yuun took Tanno's arm and pulled him up to the cockpit. Forex trundled off to the briefing room. Aric grunted when Reynarden shoved his assault cannon and helmet at him. "Rey?"

"Not now, Aric," Elara told him, handing him her blaster pistol and helmet. "Just-- Take care of these for us, please."

He looked concerned, but only nodded and carried them towards the armory. As he did, Reynarden's holocomm chimed. He fumbled to pull it out and jabbed at the button to answer the call. An unfamiliar human man appeared in the air above the holocomm, wearing a prisoner's uniform. "Havoc? Hey there--we just wanted to thank you for springing us. No time for introductions before. I'm Major Fel, Eighty-second Armored. I always wanted to meet the head of Havoc--this is a real honor."

"Are your people going to be all right?" Reynarden asked, his voice steady, but Elara could see the tension in his shoulders and neck.

Fel nodded. "I think so. The Imps weren't easy on us, but that's all over now. I guess you found us on account of Jaxo. Is she over there? I'd like to thank her, too, if I could."

"Unfortunately, Jaxo was killed during the escape," Reynarden told him, his voice barely breaking at the word 'killed'. Elara took his hand and squeezed gently.

He squeezed back as Fel's face fell. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize." He cleared his throat. "She ought to get a medal. We'd never have gotten out if she hadn't slipped away to call for help."

"I'll be sure to suggest it to my CO," Reynarden assured him.

Fel nodded, looking pleased. "Thank you. It seems like the least we could do it to try and repay her. I won't hold you up any longer--thanks again, Major. From all of us. Fel out."

"Kriff." Reynarden muttered once Fel's holoimage dissipated. "We still have to talk to Garza."

Elara hugged him as well as she could with both of them still in armor. "Just a little longer, Reynar. You can do it."

"Thanks, Elara." He held her for a long moment before taking a deep breath and letting it out. "Let's get it over with." They headed into the main area and Reynarden entered Garza's holofrequency. "Havoc Squad calling General Garza." Once her holoimage appeared above the holotable, he continued, "A-77 was a trap. We rescued most of the prisoners, but Sergeant Jaxo was killed in action."

Garza nodded, looking thoughtful. "Hmm. I'm sorry to hear about Jaxo, but it sounds like you were very fortunate to save as many as you did. What happened, exactly?"

"If I hadn't been so slow, we might have gotten everyone out," Reynarden replied, his voice shaking a little.

Garza's face softened and her voice was almost gentle, "Don't blame yourself. The situation wasn't your fault." Reynarden shook his head, but Garza continued before he could protest, "Tell me more about Sergeant Jaxo. Was she killed during the operation, or had she been recaptured before you arrived?"

"Jaxo sacrificed her life to save the others," Reynarden told her, his voice shaking a little. Elara could see the others gathered nearby. "She deserves a posthumous award."

She nodded. "Understood. I'll get the documentation started immediately. It's the least we could do." Straightening up, she added, "General Rakton is going to great lengths to remove Havoc from the war. We're clearly on the right track. Let's keep the pressure on. Your next assignment is on a planet called Voss." She gestured with one hand. "Contact me as soon as you arrive. Garza out."

"Set course for Voss," Reynarden ordered, not even looking at them.

Tanno and Yuun nodded and headed back up to the cockpit. That taken care of, Elara followed Reynarden to his quarters. He'd already begun removing his armor, leaving it piled by the door. She did the same and opened the door to take it to the armory. Aric was waiting and he took it from her. "We got this, Elara. You handle Rey."

"Thank you, Aric." She nodded and returned to the room. Reynar had stripped down to his shorts and slumped onto the foot of the bed. Elara stripped down to her tank top and shorts and sat down beside him. "It was an impossible choice, Reynar."

He made a small, wounded sound and pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. "Small comfort. Her voice-- the way it--"

"I know." She swallowed hard, the reality truly sinking in now that the need to escape had passed. "Would she really have wanted all those people to die, just so she could live?"

Reynarden shook his head, has hands still pressed against his eyes. "No. Not when-- if she'd had a chance to think about it."

"I wish there'd been a way to save her, too." Elara wrapped her arms around him, her voice shaking with emotion.

He sighed deeply, leaning into her. "So much for the possibility of more."

"We can honor her memory best by stopping General Rakton," she suggested gently. Reynarden finally dropped his hands and turned to look at her, blue eyes glittering with unshed tears. "I'll miss her, too."

Reynarden hugged Elara tight, finally starting to cry. She hugged him back, tears trickling down her cheeks, too. Eventually, they curled up together in the bed, just holding each other as they grieved for the loss of Ava Jaxo.

*

By the time they reached Voss, the first storm of grief had passed for both Reynarden and Elara. He'd told her a bit more about his first meeting with Ava and how she'd comforted him when he found out about the civilians he'd killed. "That was first decision I'd made where I held people's lives in my hands and I made the wrong choice then."

"You made the right choice this time, Reynar," she told him quietly, idly tracing the tattoo around his right eye. "Even if it doesn't feel like it at the moment."

He sighed heavily. "Intellectually, I know it was right. My heart's having trouble understanding that at the moment."

"Give it time." She shifted closer to kiss him softly. "Everyone grieves at their own pace."

Reynarden nodded, cupping Elara's cheek. "Thank you for telling me the hard truth, Elara. I know it wasn't easy for you to say."

"It wasn't. I didn't want her to die any more than you did." Elara's voice was thick with emotion as she remembered it.

They hugged each other again just as the door chimed. "Major Drondil, Captain Dorne, we are almost to Voss."

"We'll be right there," Reynarden called back. He kissed Elara softly. "Duty calls."

She nodded, kissing him back. Reluctantly, they got up and exited Reynarden's quarters. I suppose they're our quarters now. Aric waited with clean cortosis weave and armor. "We'll be dropping out of hyperspace soon."

"Thanks, Aric." Reynarden accepted his gear and began to put it on.

Elara took her gear and did the same. "Thank you, Aric."

"I'm sorry about Jaxo," he told them quietly. "I'm clearly missing something, but I've found keeping busy helps me deal with my grief."

Reynarden nodded, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. "That's my plan. Thanks for the advice all the same."

"Thank you, Aric." Elara rested her hand on his arm for a moment.

He nodded and they headed over the holoterminal to wait for Yuun and Tanno to finish docking the ship. When they joined the rest of them, Reynarden entered Garza's holofrequency. "Havoc Squad calling General Garza. We've arrived at Voss."

"Good. Let's begin." Settling into a comfortable stance, Garza explained that the Empire had found Voss and tried to invade. They were stopped cold by the Voss, whose Mystics can apparently predict the future with great accuracy. So now both the Empire and the Republic were trying to convince Voss to ally with them. Havoc wasn't there to help with negotiations, which Elara had guessed. They were there because of Senator Evran, the Republic's representative on Voss. "He's certain that the Empire will invade again, and he's withholding thousands of front-line troops to leap to Voss's defense. This cannot continue."

His hands gripping tightly together behind his back, Reynarden asked, "How can Havoc Squad free up those troops, General?"

"You can make their presence unnecessary," Garza told him, her expression stern. "Unfortunately, Evran is a close friend of the Supreme Chancellor and has his complete confidence. Even I can't overrule him now." She looked annoyed by the thought. "Our only alternative is for your team to demonstrably destroy any and all invasion vectors the Empire has left. Once Voss is 'safe,' we can get our troops back."

Reynarden nodded firmly. "Just tell me where to begin, General."

"You'll begin by report to Senator Evran in his office in the Alien Enclave of Voss-Ka, the planet's mountain capital." She informed him, gesturing with one hand so the coordinates would be sent to their computer. "Evran has agreed to talk, but he still holds all the cards. Conduct yourself accordingly."

Another nod from Reynarden covered a soft sound of disbelief from Aric. "I won't give the Senator any reason to complain."

"Good." She looked pleased. "We have enough run-ins with the Senate as it is. Also remember that Voss is neutral territory. Imperial personnel are just as welcome as we are, so make absolutely sure that your operations remain covert. Report back to me when the situation is dealt with. Garza out."

Her holoimage disappeared and Reynarden glanced at Aric. "You have something you want to say, Aric?"

"The Senate is never pleased with how soldiers do their jobs," Aric told him, scowling. "Most don't understand that the military works differently."

Reynarden shrugged. "I'll keep that in mind. Let's go."

When they exited the Thunderclap, a group of unfamiliar soldiers waited outside the docking bay. The captain apparently in charge of them saluted when they approached. "Major. Captain Marshall, sir, Eighty-first infantry. It's a real pleasure to meet you."

"Major Drondil," Reynarden replied, returning the salute and glancing over at them. "You must be Senator Evran's reserves."

A private sitting nearby got to his feet. "You mean the 'Vacation Brigade'? That's what everyone's calling us, right?"

"Keep it down, Private." Marshall retorted, glaring at him. "Sorry, Major. We heard a rumor you might be here to get us back into the field. Is that true?"

Elara could see the way Reynarden's spine stiffened, but she doubted it was apparent to anyone else. "War isn't fun, Captain. Be glad you aren't on the front lines."

"With respect, sir," Marshall replied, lifting his chin slightly. "We've seen our share of fighting. It may not be fun, but it's our duty, and we want to do our part."

Reynarden nodded, relaxing slightly. "Of course. I understand."

"I won't hold you up any longer, sir." Marshall saluted. "Good luck down there."

Returning the salute, Reynarden led them onto the lift. He let out a breath and slumped against the wall. "Kriff, I almost wish we weren't at war. I don't want to free up any soldiers to serve on the front lines."

"We each choose our journey, Major Drondil," Yuun reminded him. "Trying to prevent their journey would lessen their choice."

Slowly, Reynarden nodded. "Thanks, Yuun. That helps a little."

*

When they entered the office that Garza's coordinates pointed them to and a togruta man greeted them. "What is your business with Senator Evran?"

"Major Reynarden Drondil Havoc Squad," he replied, his hand twitching at his side as if he wanted to salute, but resisted. "General Garza sent me to speak with Senator Evran."

Nodding, he glanced over the squad, his eyes lingering on Forex. "There isn't room for all of you. If the others can wait here…?"

"Dorne, with me." Reynarden told her. "The rest of you, at ease."

Tanno immediately folded his arms across his chest, Aric clasped his hands behind his back, Yuun and Forex remained where they were. The togruta nodded when Reynarden turned back to him. "This way, please." They followed him into the other room where an older human man with medium brown skin waited, dressed in the red and gold of the Senate's Diplomatic Corps. The togruta stepped to his side, "Major Drondil of Havoc Squad is here to see you, sir."

"Thank you, Koru." Evran spread his arms wide once the togruta moved away. "Ah! Major, please come in. Make yourself comfortable. I'm Senator Evran. Are you, perhaps, related to Senator Drondil? Jerome is a good friend."

Sighing as he sat down, Reynarden told him, "He's my uncle." Gesturing to Elara, he added, "This is my XO, Captain Elara Dorne."

"A pleasure, Captain." Evran bowed to her.

She nodded in return. "Senator."

"A Dromund Kaas accent from a Republic soldier?" Evran seemed surprised, but then he shook it off. "Welcome to the Republic, however belated it may be."

Surprised, Elara sat down beside Reynarde. "Thank you, Senator."

"I was just having dinner brought in," Evran told them, taking his own seat. "Would you care to join me? I understand it's being paired with an excellent Candrilan wine."

Reynarden shook his head. "Much obliged, Senator, but we're here to work, not socialize."

"Of course--you have a duty to carry out," Evran nodded, his practiced smile fading. "I can certainly respect that. While I appreciate that General Garza sent her best, I have reservations with her plan." He gazed seriously at them. "Military action here is very risky. The Voss have strictly forbidden violence between Republic and Imperial visitors. I maintain that it would be better to wait for the Empire to make the first move."

Sitting as straight as he could, Reynarden told him, "The first invasion didn't sway the Voss. What's another one going to do?"

"The Imperials underestimated the Voss the first time." Evran replied, lifting his chin slightly. "They won't repeat that mistake." He leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees and pressing his fingertips together. "If you believe you can completely destroy the Empire's ability to invade this planet without being discovered by Voss authorities, so be it. You'll work under my direct supervision and I'll observe your activities through your armor-cam. Cross any lines and the mission ends. Is that clear?"

Nodding, Reynarden told him firmly, "This op will go by the numbers, Senator."

"I'm glad we understand each other." Evran looked pleased and stood up, leading them over to a computer terminal nearby. "Now, take a look at these reports from the SIS: an Imperial agent called 'Deadfall' has landed on Voss." As he talked, he pressed a few buttons on the terminal to send the reports to their datapads, which they pulled out to accept the reports. "Deadfall's specialty is subterfuge: he sows confusion and chaos on a planet just before the Empire sends its invasion forces. His presence proves their intentions."

Putting his datapad away, Reynarden asked, "Do you know where he is now?"

"The SIS believes Deadfall is hiding in a cave system at the foot of Voss-Ka." Evran pointed to their datapads. "The coordinates are in their reports. I believe the best course of action is for you to search the caves for data, hopefully capturing Deadfall himself in the process. Agreed?"

Reynarden nodded firmly. "We'll make it happen, Senator."

"Then we're already off to a good start." Evran looked pleased. "And remember, I'll be watching when you leave Voss-Ka."

As they left, Reynarden muttered, "That wasn't creepy or anything." When they entered the antechamber, they found Yuun speaking with the togruta aide. "Let's go."

"Couldn't talk him into letting them go?" Aric asked as they trooped out.

Reynarden scoffed. "As if it would have been that easy. No, we have to either prove there's no threat from the Imps or take it out if there is one."

"It's very likely that there is one, sir," Elara told them as they made their way to the shuttle that would take them down from the mountain. "We all know the Empire isn't given to relying solely on diplomacy."

He nodded, his voice tight. "Yeah."

"Rey!" At the sound of Fiosynod's voice, they turned to see him and Kira hurrying towards them, Scourge trailing behind them like an annoyed shadow. For the first time that Elara could recall, Fiosynod pulled his brother into a tight hug. For his part, Reynarden clung to him.

Kira touched Elara's arm, profoundly concerned. "What happened?"

"What do you mean?" Elara asked, surprised by the question. How could they have known something happened?

Sighing, Kira told her, "Apparently, Fio and Rey's bond goes both ways now. Fio can feel Rey's sadness and regret. You were fine when you left Coruscant."

"I see." Elara glanced at the brothers, and then back at Kira. Coming to a decision, she removed her glove and offered her hand to Kira.

For her part, Kira stared at Elara's offered hand, and then Elara. "What's this?"

"I can't put it into words just yet," Elara told her, hand still extended. "I can show you, though, since you can See things."

Nodding, Kira removed her own glove and, taking a deep breath, clasped Elara's hand. Elara focused on what happened in the control center at A-77 while Kira closed her eyes. At first, Kira frowned, confused, and then she made a soft, understanding sound. When she opened her eyes, they were bright with sympathetic tears. Without a word, she hugged Elara tight. For once, she welcomed the hug and returned it gladly. "I get why Rey's upset, but you are, too."

"I've had a chance to get to know Ava and I'll miss her, despite the brevity of our acquaintance," Elara replied, not certain if Kira would understand her deeper reason for mourning.

Kira eased back to study Elara. After a moment, she smiled sadly, "There really is more to you than meets the eye."

"Why do you think I've fallen for her?" Reynarden asked with a watery chuckle.

Fiosynod and Kira swapped so she could hug Reynarden and he could hug Elara. "I wish I could take your grief away."

"We'll manage," she told him, touched. "Having something to occupy us helps."

They all stiffened when Scourge said, "If we're quite done indulging in conspicuous displays of emotion, we have work to do, Fiosynod."

"He has a point, loathe as I am to admit it," Fiosynod reluctantly stepped back. "We have to take the shuttle down from the mountain."

Reynarden smiled wanly. "So do we. Imagine that." Leaving Aric, Tanno, and Forex in Voss-Ka, the rest of them took the shuttle down from the mountain with Fiosynod, Kira, and Scourge. They even fought together until their missions took them their separate ways. "May the Force be with you, Fio."

"And with you, Rey." Fiosynod, Kira, and Scourge headed down the path they needed while Havoc Squad continued towards the cave system the SIS reports had identified.

*

When they reached the computer terminal deep inside the cave system, Elara found the holocomm controls and turned it on so they could speak with Senator. His holoimage when it appeared was stunned, "I-- I'm speechless. Is it always like that in the field? Is there always that much killing?"

"It's unfortunate, but it's necessary," Reynarden replied, with almost excessive patience.

Elara understood his reaction far too well. Her first battle, she'd thrown up afterwards. "A gruesome necessity." Visibly composing himself, he said, "Enough. Let's just get on with the assignment. I have Agent Kellor here from the SIS to assist us."

A second human man appeared above the holotable, holding a datapad. "My team will take care of the heavy lifting, Major Drondil. Just flip the consoles on and we'll slice right in."

"Don't move a finger." They all stopped short at the unfamiliar Imperial voice that came over the speakers. "I've got you dead in my sights. I'll kill you where you stand."

"You must be that guerrilla fighter we've heard so much about," Reynarden answered in an attempt at his usual cheeky humor.

Deadfall, it had to be him, didn't appreciate Reynarden's attitude. "You aren't asking the questions here: I am."

"This is your chance, Major Drondil." Evran sounded very eager, not that Elara blamed him "Take him into custody for questioning."

Glancing back at the holotable, Reynarden told him, "We'll be back in a minute, Senator."

"Good luck." His and Agent Kellor's holoimage's disappeared.

Over their earpieces, Deadfall said, "I don't plan on surrendering. Do you?"

"Surrender isn't an option," Reynarden replied, his voice as hard as Elara had ever heard it.

Deadfall didn't sound remotely surprised. "Then let's finish this."

A short but intense fight followed with not only Deadfall, but two other Imperial soldiers who appeared from stealth not far from them. While Elara tended to Reynarden's injuries, the holotable lit up with Evran and Kellor's holoimages once more. Evran wasn't pleased, "Major Drondil! You were supposed to capture him alive!"

"Some men never surrender," Reynarden told him flatly, flinching when Elara gave him a kolto injection. She then wrapped a kolto bandage around his arm.

"Save your excuses. I'm not interested," Evran waved it away. "Now, the consoles. Let's hope they have even half of the information Deadfall could have given us."

Yuun moved to the computer and turned on the consoles. "The way to the information is now open, Agent Kellor."

"Got a hit," Kellor remarked barely moments later, his eyes intent on the data he was receiving. "Multiple deliveries from Pol Blex. He's an arms dealer here on Voss."

Evran frowned with thought while Reynarden took the medkit and began taking care of an injury on Elara's side. "Blex must be smuggling weapons to the Empire. Blast, we've been watching the wrong ships!"

"Why would the Imperials pay someone else to bring them weapons?" Reynarden asked, very gentle as he spread kolto over Elara's injury.

Kellor was still busy with the data, so Evran answered the question, "Plausible deniability. If the smugglers are caught, the Empire can deny everything."

"I'm forwarding the pickup coordinates from the Imp files," Kellor told them. Elara grabbed her datapad and turned it on to receive the coordinates. "It looks like a good place for Blex to be hiding out."

Evran nodded. "Go there and question him right away, Major Drondil. And I mean that. Don't just go in shooting this time."

"So long as they don't give us trouble, we won't give them trouble," Reynarden told him, carefully bandaging Elara's side.

Sighing, Evran shook his head slightly. "I suppose that's the best I'll get out of you. Evran out."

"How are you feeling?" Reynarden asked Elara quietly.

She smiled reassuringly, taking his hand and squeezing gently. "I'm fine. You, sir?"

"Fine, too." He returned the squeeze. "Yuun?"

Joining them, he said, "Yuun is prepared to go, Major Drondil."

"Let's move out, then."

*

"Hey, Rey." Jeveen greeted him with a brief hug as they approached the coordinates Kellor had forwarded to them. "Hey, Elara. Yuun, right?"

Nodding, Yuun briefly pressed his hand to the middle of his chest. "This one is called Yuun."

"Nice to meet you." Jeveen pressed her hand to her chest as well. "I'm Jeveen Par, captain of the light freighter Starseeker. My companions are part of my crew: Corso Riggs and Risha."

Corso and Risha waved as she named them. Yuun bowed his head slightly to each of them. "It is an honor to meet any friends of Major Drondil's."

"The honor is mine to meet you." Jeveen grinned at him. Her glance encompassed all of them. "What brings you out this way? There's no Imps here."

Reynarden managed a laugh. "Following a lead to the Exchange."

"Huh, so're we." Jeveen gave him a long look. "Well, six of us can take care of them more easily than just three."

He nodded. "Yes, we can. Shall we?"

"So, I heard from Viray since we left Belsavis," Jeveen told them as they walked. "Dagger Wing has officially been cleared for combat duty. He sounded much happier."

Reynarden nodded, his jaw tightening a little. "That's good."

"Hey, Rey." Jeveen gently pulled him to a stop. "What's wrong?"

He shook his head, pressing his lips together. Jeveen looked at Elara curiously. She shrugged slightly. "We've had a rough couple of days."

"Ah, enough said." Jeveen punched Reynarden's shoulder. "You got this, whatever it is."

A weak smile peeked through. "Thanks, Jev."

"Yeah? You want something?" One of the two houks standing guard addressed them when they approached with their weapons holstered.

Keeping his hands up, Reynarden told them, "We're with Republic Special Forces. I need to speak Pol Blex."

"All right." The guard put his hand to his ear where Elara could see a communications device tucked into it. "Boss, Republic solders to see you." After listening, he nodded and gestured to the corridor behind him. "Go on in."

As they walked, Yuun told them over the headset, "Careful, Major Drondil. Stealthed--" before he could finish his warning, three mercenaries appeared from stealth and attacked them.

"Non-lethal force, Havoc!" Reynarden called as they prepared to defend themselves.

Most of their opponents they managed to knock out, but a couple went down and wouldn't get up again. A neimoidian man approached them, hands raised, "Whoa! All right, all right! Everyone, back off! Just back off!" They holstered their weapons and the neimoidian led them towards a desk. "Look, no offense, but you show up out of nowhere, you're packing major hardware. We didn't figure you were here to shop, y'know?" He looked at them curiously and maybe a little hopefully. "You're not, are you?"

"Let's talk about your other customers," Reynarden replied, clearly wanting to get their visit over and done. "I hear the Imps are big buyers."

Blex, for he couldn't he anyone other than Pol Blex, was reluctant to tell them anything, but they'd dealt with people like him often enough to be aware that would be the case. Reynarden promised to put in a word for Blex with Evran and he told them what he could, "The Imps had us bring in a bunch of tunneling equipment and a giant bomb. Looked like Republic ordnance to me, truth be told. Reverse-engineered, maybe?"

"Or maybe not." Reynarden looked intrigued for the first time since they'd gotten to Voss. "Could it be a ZR-57 orbital strike bomb?"

Blex shrugged. "I don't know, I'm no expert. Looked big enough to drop from orbit, sure. The Imps picked the stuff up here. I didn't ask where they took it or what they're planning. Not my business, right?"

He not-so-politely asked them to leave, which they did. Once they were a proper distance away, Reynarden pulled out his holocomm to contact Senator Evran. "Well, you handled that about as well as I could've asked for. Although, I'm not looking forward to finding replacements for Blex's goons..."

"Any ideas on where the Imps could be hiding the goods?" Reynarden interrupted before Evran could carry on his complaints.

"Too early to say," Kellor interjected, his holoimage replacing Evran's. "Gotta run some numbers--try and figure out where they'd go with tunneling equipment and a bomb."

Humming thoughtfully, Reynarden told him, "If it is a ZR-57 like I suspect, you can track its radiation signature."

"Good thinking." Kellor nodded. "I'll get scanning equipment out to the team."

Evran's holoimage replaced Kellor's and Elara wondered if she imagined that he sounded stuffier than before. "In the meantime, I want you back in my office, Major. An important diplomatic meeting is coming up, and Havoc Squad would make an excellent honor guard."

"Havoc belongs in the field, Senator," Reynarden replied, trying to hide his obvious annoyance.

Shaking his head, Evran told him, "We don't even know where to start looking. Let the SIS do their job."

"As soon as we have anything, Major Drondil, you'll be the first to know," Kellor assured him, sounding confident.

Evran nodded. "Now, hurry back."

"Honor guard?" Reynarden muttered, turning off his holocomm and stuffing it into his utility belt. "I don't like the sound of that."

As they made their way out of the Exchange base, Yuun remarked, "Everything leads us on the path we need, Major Drondil, even if it does not appear to be correct at first."

"That's one way to look at it," Reynarden mused after a few moments.

Elara took his hand and gave it a squeeze, which he returned with a faint smile. "Still, I hope Kellor finds the Imperials soon. I don't like to think what sort of damage they could do with an orbital strike bomb."

"Why does Major Drondil think the bomb is a ZR-57?" Yuun asked as they rode the lift up.

Reynarden gave a weak laugh. "It was the whole reason Havoc was on Ord Mantell in the first place, two and a half years ago. The Separatists stole it and it turned out the Imps were backing them and they took it off-world before we could recover it."

"It looks like we have a chance to get it back after all," Elara told him, aware that he was glossing over some aspects of the truth, likely because they couldn't be sure if Evran was listening or not.

He smiled wanly. "Aric will be glad for that."

*

As Evran had indicated, he wanted Havoc Squad to act as an honor guard in order to match the Imperial show of force with their own. Though Evran told them to let him do the talking, Elara could see Reynarden shifting restlessly as the others talked. Eventually, Gon-Sa, the Voss representative, asked, "We have thrived alone for millennia. Why join anyone?"

"The Voss could gain a lot by learning about outside cultures and technologies," Reynarden told him, clearly unable to resist speaking up any longer.

Evran glanced back at him, startled, but quickly recovered, "Thank you, Major Drondil. Yes, the galaxy is filled with amazing peoples and technologies. Your people stand to benefit greatly."

"Gon-Sa," a Voss woman arrived to speak with him, direct to the point of rudeness. "Problems have developed. You are required."

That seemed to inspire Evran. "Problems? My friend, please allow the Republic to help you however we can. Let us prove our worth."

"Yes, the soldiers. You will help." Gon-Sa looked at Reynarden, Elara, and Yuun directly.

Straightening to a position of attention, Reynarden asked, "How can I be of assistance, sir?"

"Voss commandos are trapped in Gormak territory," Gon-Sa told them. "A rescue."

Nodding, Evran turned to Reynarden and the others. "Of course. Proceed to the commandos' coordinates, Major. There isn't a moment to lose."

"We'll have the Voss's people safe in no time, sir," Reynarden replied, saluting crisply.

Lord Torius, who hadn't left yet, told him, "Best of luck, Major. I hope the mission goes as smoothly as Senator Evran believes it will. Come, men."

"Senator." Gon-Sa followed Torius and his soldiers from the office.

Evran handed Reynarden the datapad the Voss woman had provided. "Be careful out there, Major Drondil."

"We'll do our best." Reynarden transferred to coordinates to his datapad and returned the Voss one to Evran.

As they left, Elara murmured, "I don't like what Lord Torius said before he left."

"Neither do I. We'd best stay on our toes."

*

When they entered the structure where the Voss commandos were pinned down, they spotted two Gormak on the ground. Elara knelt to check them. "Dead, sir."

"Any idea what killed them, Captain?" Reynarden asked, crouching beside the other corpse.

She carefully moved the body, examining the injuries they must have sustained. "These wounds are from a lightsaber."

"This one was killed by blaster fire." Reynarden examined the other corpse. "The impacts are too large for it to be from a blaster. Must've been a blaster rifle."

As they stood up, Yuun added, "Yuun can see three beings a few meters along the corridor. Two Force-sensitives and a non-Force sensitive."

"That rules out Fio, Kira, and Scourge." Reynarden still drew his assault cannon and led them down the corridor.

Three beings stood waiting when they turned the corner. Elara recognized Normajh and Felix, but not the young woman with silver-blonde hair and unfamiliar facial markings. Reynarden lowered his assault cannon. "Norm, I should have known we'd run into you."

"Hey, Rey, Elara." Normajh smiled, deactivating his lightsaber. "You know Felix, of course. This is my Padawan, Nadia Grell. Nadia, this is Major Reynarden Drondil, CO of Havoc Squad, and Captain Elara Dorne, his XO and medic."

She bowed to them, reluctantly deactivating her lightsaber as well. "It's a pleasure to meet more Republic soldiers."

"It's nice to meet you, too, Miss Grell," Reynarden replied, and then turned to Yuun. "This is Lieutenant Yuun, our squadmate. Yuun, this is Master Normajh Par, one of Jeveen's brothers and the other gentleman is Lieutenant Felix Iresso."

Yuun pressed his hand to his chest and bowed slightly. "Yuun is honored to meet more Major Drondil's friends."

"Yuun is a Gand, Nadia," Normajh told her quietly.

The next moment, he flinched and swayed on his feet. Both Nadia and Felix grabbed his arms to steady him. Elara moved forward, concerned. "Is something wrong, Master Par?"

"'Mfine," he replied, taking several deep breaths. Glancing at her with amusement, he reminded her, "I've told you to call me Norm or Normajh."

Reynarden glanced at Elara fondly. "She's on duty, therefore you're Master Par."

"It's not something that kolto can fix, Captain Dorne," Nadia explained, her expression curious. "Just time."

Normajh drew himself into a taller posture. "And patience,"

"He really should have waited it out at the Shrine of Healing, but he insisted on continuing." Felix kept one hand on Normajh's elbow.

The professorial air faded as Normajh reminded him, "We need the reinforcements, Felix."

"Not at the cost of your health, Master," Nadia interjected.

"If you are going the same way, we can work together," Yuun suggested. "Safer for all of us."

Reynarden nodded, his smile wan. "More of us means a better chance of surviving."

"Not the first time we've worked with others today," Elara added.

Felix nodded, glancing obliquely at Normajh. "A few extra blasters certainly wouldn't hurt,"

"I'm fine, Felix." Normajh reached over and poked him.

Nadia's voice was full of exaggerated patience, "It's for our peace of mind as much as your safety, Master."

"Fine." Norm rolled his eyes. "Not as if I turn down Jev or Fio's help when we run into them."

Reynarden managed a small chuckle. "We've run into them ourselves already today."

"We met Fio at the Shrine of Healing," Normajh told them. "Haven't seen Jev, though."

Reynarden nodded. "She's fine. When we saw her, she was following a lead through the Exchange." He glanced at Felix. "You all right with taking point with Yuun, Lieutenant?"

Felix nodded and moved forward to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Gand. Elara touched Reynarden's arm. "I'll bring up the rear. You and Padawan Grell should stick with Master Par."

"I'm not an invalid," Normajh grumbled, but didn't object further when the others took their places on either side of him.

"You're not at your best, either, Norm," Reynarden reminded him, unlimbering his assault cannon. "Let's move out."

Together, they started fighting their way through the complex. Eventually, they reached the spot where they had to split up. Felix saluted them while Normajh and Nadia bowed. Unfortunately, the dizziness that had periodically plagued Normajh picked that moment to assail him and he nearly fell over. Felix and Nadia caught him before he could fall on his face. "All right, Norm?"

"I'm alright." Normajh straightened up carefully and nodded to them, his expression unusually solemn. "Good luck, Major Drondil."

Reynarden offered a tiny smile. "May the Force be with you, Master Par." As they headed towards the coordinates, Reynarden told them, "Eyes and ears open, people."

Drawing their weapons, they proceeded slowly, watching for any sign of Gormak or Imperial soldiers. Spotting a corpse, Reynarden signaled for them to stop and crouched to examine it. He glanced up at them and shook his head. The next moment, Yuun told them, "Sir, enemy footsteps mar our path. An ambush!"

"Goggles." Reynarden hissed, pulling his down over his eyes.

Just as Elara pulled her own down, a smokescreen filled the air around them. She dodged to one side just as an Imperial soldier descended where she'd been standing. Drawing her vibroknife, Elara jammed it into his leg below the leg guard. He yelled in pain and bent to grab at it. Drawing a second vibroknife, Elara pushed it up through the soft underside of his helmet into his chin. As he collapsed across her feet, she withdrew her vibroknives and turned to see how the others were doing. Both were holding their own. Two Imperial soldiers lay crumpled at Yuun's feet as he jammed one end of his elctrostaff into a third soldier's stomach. When the soldier doubled over, Yuun slammed the other end of his staff into the back of his neck, sending him to the ground along with his fellows. Reynarden took out the last two soldiers with well-aimed shots from his rarely-used blaster pistol. His assault cannon lay on the ground nearby. Breathing hard, he asked, "Who's not dead? Sound off."

"Still here, sir," Elara replied, shoving her opponent off her legs and getting to her feet.

Yuun joined them. "All enemy footsteps are silenced, Major Drondil."

"Let's go, then." Reynarden picked up his assault cannon and checked it over.

When they emerged from the smokescreen, they spotted more Imperial soldiers finishing off a group of Gormak. The officer in charge turned to face them, "That's quite far enough, Major. We have the rescue operation well in hand. Sadly for Havoc Squad, the challenge of the Gormak was simply too much. Your remains won't be recovered for some time. My condolences."

"There's no need to fight," Reynarden replied, his hands flexing on his assault cannon. "We could make this a joint operation."

A smile twitching at his mouth, the officer replied, "How kind, but there simply isn't enough glory to share in a mission like this. Some other time."

"Can't blame me for trying." Reynarden shrugged.

They opened fire at the same time the Imperials did, but they were the ones left standing at the end of the fight. As Elara tended to an injury on Yuun's left leg afterwards, Elara told them, "A common Imperial tactic and not one I've ever been terribly fond of, sir."

"I didn't think you would like a tactic so underhanded," Reynarden replied, sounding amused. "I suspected they'd do something like this, just given the way Torius said farewell."

Elara nodded, finishing her work and standing up. "So did I. Something tells me we haven't heard the last of him."

"Lord Torius is not done intersecting Havoc Squad's path," Yuun agreed, taking Elara's hand when she offered it and pulling himself to his feet.

Reynarden nodded, glancing between them. "Ready to press on? Those Voss commandos are still pinned down."

"Ready, sir!" Elara told him. Yuun simply nodded.

Together, they continued towards the coordinates, taking out the Gormak they encountered on the way. The actual rescue was rather anticlimactic. The Voss commandos were neither surprised nor angry by their arrival. They seemed to have expected it and simply proceeded past them to leave the complex. Before they could give voice to their confusion, Reynarden's holocomm chimed. When he answered it, Senator Evran looked almost frantic. He didn't wait for any pleasantries, immediately explaining why he was calling. "Major Drondil, we have a serious problem. Agent Kellor's team discovered where the Empire is hiding their bomb, but not before being spotted by Imperial security. The team's speeder was damaged during their escape. They've crash-landed in the Dark Heart, part of the Nightmare Lands! You have to get there right away!"

"Those don't sound like very nice places," Reynarden observed, his tone implying a request for further clarification.

Evran shook his head. "They're not. Koru, tell them what you've learned."

"The Nightmare Lands are no place for the unprepared," Koru told them, his holoimage replacing Evran's. "I've seen the reports. Severe psychological effects are common. You should speak with Talan-De, a Voss commando stationed in the area. He supposedly knows of a way to avoid or prevent these effects."

Reynarden nodded, looking troubled. "I'll find Talan-De and see what he knows."

"Go as fast you can, Major Drondil," Evran ordered him, his holoimage replacing Koru's. "There isn't a moment to lose."

*

When they found Talan-De, Fiosynod, Jeveen, and Normajh were already there as well. They performed the ritual together and went their separate ways to continue their missions. At the coordinates Evran had sent them, they only found the crashed speeder. "Yuun, can you make anything of these tracks?"

"It will take time to decipher the signs," Yuun replied, sweeping the area with his gaze. "The Nightmare Lands make it difficult for Yuun to read them."

Reynarden and Elara stepped back to give Yuun the space he needed to examine the ground. "Please try to hurry, Yuun."

"Understood, Major Drondil." Yuun paced around the site, crouching several times to pass his hand across the ground without quite touching it. Finally, he turned and pointed towards a cave. "The signs point to that cave, Major Drondil. Be cautious following them. Yuun senses great darkness and confusion."

Nodding, Reynarden drew his assault cannon while Elara drew her blaster pistol and Yuun his electrostaff. "Let's go. Given what we've seen so far, I doubt whatever's in the cave will be friendly to us."

"Yes, sir." Elara nodded firmly.

Together, they slowly approached the cave. Several creatures that the Voss called abominations attacked and they killed them with some effort. Beyond them, they found Agent Kellor, clearly injured and affected by the Nightmare Lands, "Wha--what? No! No, get away from me! Stay back! I'll kill you!" They halted their approach and Kellor shook his head as if to clear it. "No... no, I'm sorry. Please, help me. My head... everything keeps spinning. I can't think straight."

"See what you can do for him, Dorne," Reynarden told her, not that she needed to be told twice.

Kneeling beside where he'd fallen, Elara spoke in a calm and soothing voice, "Agent? Focus on my eyes, sir. I need you to take deep, slow breaths."

"My team...we crashed," Kellor mumbled, blinking and staring up at Elara's face. After a moment, his confusion seemed to fade. "We took shelter here, but they were plotting. Plotting behind their eyes." He looked past Elara at Reynarden. "I had to do it. They would have killed me. If I hadn't killed them, they would've killed me!"

Reynarden crouched behind Elara, sounding confused and shocked. "Why would you shoot your own people?"

"I... I don't know!" He shook his head again. What was I thinking? We were a team... we worked together for years..." He held up a datapad. "Take this. Take it! It has coordinates. The Imperials are there, tunneling. This will get you through the security door." Reynarden took the datapad and handed it to Yuun. "Tell their... tell their families... ugh!"

Kellor collapsed then and Elara practically lurched forward, checking his vital signs. "Agent? I have no pulse. He's gone."

"He was in bad shape, Elara," Reynarden told her gently, resting a hand on her shoulder. "There was nothing more you could do."

She nodded, swallowing hard against the emotion that suddenly clogged her throat. "Thank you. I just... I wish it had been enough."

"He's gone, isn't he?" Evran asked via their comms. "The whole team is gone. They were only supposed to observe--how could this happen?"

Standing up, Reynarden offered his hand to Elara, who took it so she could pull herself to her feet. "You can plan the op, but you can never predict the outcome."

"But they were experienced field agents! They should've had no problem at all." Evran's disbelief changed to anger with his next words. "I want you to go to those coordinates, Major Drondil. I want you to make the Imperials pay. Use all necessary force. Evran out."

They carefully left the cave, making sure nothing and no one threatening was nearby. "Y'know, given what we just saw, I'm kind of glad we took the time to see Talan-De."

"I am, too," Elara agreed, firmly pushing away the feeling of failure over the fact that they hadn't been able to save the SIS team. "Now let's go stop the Imperials."

He reached over and squeezed her hand, which she returned. "You read my mind, Elara."

*

Of course, when they reached the coordinates Kellor gave them, they found Lord Torius overseeing the Imperials' operations. Like most Sith Purebloods, he was condescending to them, sneering when his gaze rested on Yuun for a moment. Their plan was actually rather ingenious: they'd drilled into the mountain directly under Voss-Ka and were in the process of putting the ZR-57 into position under the capital so that, if it was detonated, it would destroy everyone up above. With the threat of the bomb destroying pretty much all of their society, the Voss would have to give in to Imperial demands. He finished by pointing out, "Don't you think it's odd that you're the only one trying to stop me? That the Voss haven't foreseen everything as they supposedly can?"

"Is that the ZR-57 stolen by the Havoc Squad traitors?" Reynarden asked, ignoring Torius's question entirely.

Torius nodded, his superior tone grating on Elara, "Yes. The orbital strike device, finally reactivated. A beautiful machine. Every detail of the operation was chosen at random from dozens of fully developed alternatives. With all possibilities equal, no single plot was foreseen. The operation has been a masterpiece of ingenuity. One that you have no place in. Guards, remove this filth."

"You're going to need a lot more guards, Torius," Reynarden shot back, brandishing his assault cannon. Behind them, Tanno, Aric, and Forex emerged from stealth. While Reynarden, Elara, and Yuun had tracked down the SIS team, Tanno and Aric had followed Talan-De's ritual and they'd teamed up before heading to the Imperials' coordinates.

Turning back to them, Torius reached for his lightsaber. "If I'm forced to dispatch you myself, all the better. Guards?"

"Havoc, scatter!" Reynarden called as two Imperial soldiers emerged from stealth as well.

They spread out, taking out the soldiers while Reynarden and Forex focused their fire on Torius. As each of the guards fell, they added their firepower until Torius finally fell under the barrage of blaster fire, vibrosword, and electrostaff. Elara examined him once he did. "No pulse... no breathing. He's dead, sir."

"Major Drondil," Gon-Sa's voice drew their attention to him and two other Voss men who'd entered unnoticed until now. One of the strangers was a commando. The other wore robes of some kind.

Walking towards them, Reynarden asked, "Gon-Sa, what are you doing here?"

"The Mystic, Ki-Ve," he indicated the Voss man in robes, who nodded in acknowledgment, "foresaw Lord Torius's actions, and yours. Voss is safe."

Elara began tending to Tanno's injuries as Reynarden asked, "If you knew about the threat, why didn't you do anything?"

"Ki-Ve saw no need for help," Gon-Sa explained matter-of-factly. "Ki-Ve comes to see this bomb. Its technology is unknown."

The Mystic spoke up then. "Give us the bomb for study. We will give weaponry in trade."

"This is top secret Republic technology," Reynarden told them regretfully. "I'm not authorized to give it away."

Gon-Sa nodded briefly. "Then we leave."

"I'll get retrieval on the comm," Aric volunteered, looking quite pleased. "Get this thing taken somewhere safe."

Tanno grinned and told Aric, "I have contact info for some heavy lifters to help out, Jorgan."

"No thanks, Vik." Aric retorted, glaring at him.

Reynarden shook his head. "Make the call, Aric. Tanno, thanks for the offer."

"Still there, boss," Tanno suggested. "Beauty like that would go-- you know what? Never mind. You wouldn't go for it."

Giving a soft huff of laughter, Reynarden shook his head. "Took you long enough to figure that one out, Tanno."

"Reynar, sit so I can take care of your leg." Elara told him sternly.

He nodded and did exactly that. Once she finished tending to his injuries, she checked Aric, Yuun, and herself. When she finished with Yuun, Reynarden called him over to retrieve any useful data from the computer. By the time he finished, the retrieval team arrived to secure the bomb for transportation. "We can handle things from here, sir. Feel free to head back to Senator Evran's office."

"Take care, Sergeant." They exchanged salutes and the six of them headed back out of the cave system. As they walked, Reyanrden remarked, "Does anyone else feel like Torius misunderstood how the Mystics' gift of foresight worked?"

Elara took Reynarden's hand with hers. "What do you mean, Reynar?"

"Once a path is chosen, those with the gift of foresight will see it," Yuun explained before Reynarden could. "No matter how they tried to veil their intentions, foresight would pierce it."

Reynarden nodded. "Exactly. If I've learned anything about the Force, it's that you can't fool it."

"It guides the Jedi and Sith who open themselves to it," Aric remarked, his gaze distant as if he was remembering something. "It would seem these Mystics open themselves to the Force much more than Jedi or Sith."

Elara sighed a little regretfully. "I almost wish we could have gone with Normajh to see Gaden-Ko become a Mystic."

"Perhaps Norm will tell us about it when we see him again," Reynarden suggested, his smile small, but genuine.

She nodded. "I'd like that."

"Good, now let's return to the senator and get off this planet."

*

Evran was very pleased to see them and congratulated them on their success. Reynarden asked if their efforts had convinced the Voss to ally with the Republic. "No, actually, it didn't. Unbelievably, even after everything the Empire did, the Voss refuse to take a side."

"I'm sure you'll convince them eventually, sir," Reynarden told him with some of his usual spark and optimism.

Evran nodded, smiling faintly. "We can only hope. In any event, you've done your part. The Empire clearly won't be invading Voss again any time soon." He studied Reynarden thoughtfully for a moment. "I hadn't quite pictured Jerome's nephew as the leader of Havoc Squad, but you aren't all bad. I'll make the necessary arrangements to free up those troops for reassignment."

"Those troops will make a big difference, sir. It's been a pleasure." Reynarden nodded to Evran, sounding amused.

Evran returned the nod. "Take care out there, Reynarden."

With that, they left the senator's office and headed for the shuttle to the orbital station. "So, boss, your parents are in trade and your uncle's a senator."

"Is there a question in there somewhere?" Reynarden asked, raising his eyebrows at Tanno.

Tanno spread his hands wide. "Why are you a soldier?"

"Well Fio was training to be a Jedi and serve the Republic," Reynarden explained after a moment's thought. "I wanted to do the same, but I'm not Force-sensitive. After some thinking, I decided the best way to do the same as Fio was to join the Republic Army." He shrugged. "Now here I am."

Nodding thoughtfully, Tanno didn't say anything in reply. Elara took Reynarden's hand and quietly told him, "I'm glad you chose to be a soldier, Reynar. How else would we have met?"

"I don't know how else it could've happened, but I'm glad we did meet." He smiled tenderly at her and Elara wished for a moment that they weren't standing in the middle of Voss-Ka.

Aric cleared his throat loudly. "Let's get back to the ship and report to General Garza."

"Who's the CO again, Aric?" Reyanrden asked, mock-stern.

Gazing back calmly, Aric told him, "You're certainly not being a CO right now, Rey."

"Very funny. Let's go." He led the way to the shuttle and they gladly rode it up to the orbital station. Elara was pleased to see Reynarden behaving more like his usual self. She doubted his grief for Ava was gone, but he was managing and that's all they could ask for.

*

Garza was naturally pleased that everything had worked out and their ground troops were on their way to somewhere more helpful to the war effort. "We're only a few steps away from General Rakton himself. He'll have to commit his personal forces somewhere soon. When he does, you'll be there to strike."

"When we get our shot at Rakton, We'll be ready," Reynarden assured her confidently.

She nodded. "I'm glad to hear it. Until then, Havoc's time is their own. I'll contact you once we need you. Garza out."

"Any ideas, people?" Reynarden asked once her holoimage disappeared.

Elara rested a hand on his arm. "Reynar?"

"I really don't want free time right now," he admitted quietly.

Aric emerged from the armory, holding a datapad. "Garza's people finally came through with the coordinates for the rest of the Deadeyes, Rey." Turning, Reynarden gestured for Aric to continue. "The data points to an Imperial outpost on Hoth. Another labor camp most likely."

"First Tatooine, and now Hoth." Reynarden winced and Elara squeezed his arm. "They really don't like the Deadeyes, do they?"

Aric shrugged, his jaw tense. "We targeted Imperial officers, Rey. They'd be pretty sore about that, I imagine."

"He has a point," Elara agreed gently.

Reynarden nodded, covering Elara's hand with his. "Yeah. Why don't you two get us headed to Hoth? I'll check in with Tanno, Yuun, and Forex."

"Gladly." Aric headed up to the cockpit.

Reynarden held Elara back for a moment. She looked at him curiously. "Reynar?"

"One thing before you go." He smiled faintly, and then kissed her softly. She responded in kind, relaxing in his arms. It'd been difficult at times to restrict herself to squeezing Reynarden's hand when she'd wanted to hug or kiss him.

She smiled when they parted to catch their breath. Reaching up to trace the tattoo around his right eye, she told him, "I wished we could do that so many times on Voss."

"That makes two of us." He kissed her again, quick and sweet this time. "Now, go help Aric."

Elara nodded and reluctantly eased out of his arms to go up to the cockpit. When she reached it, Aric was in the pilot's seat, so she slipped into the copilot's seat. "Thought for a moment I'd have to do this by myself."

"Reynar had something he wanted to tell me." Elara tried to keep her voice light and breezy as she spun up the sublight engines, but it didn't quite work, not if Aric's scoff of disbelief was anything to go by.

His fingers flew over the buttons on his side of the console, the blunt claws ticking a little against the durasteel. "Tell you, right. I doubt it was talking that you were doing."

"No, it wasn't," she admitted, since Aric had already figured it out. As they steered the ship out of the docking bay, she added, "It was very difficult at times to stay professional down there. He's still mourning, but I couldn't comfort him the way I would have liked."

Aric didn't say anything for several moments, his focus on his console. Finally, he said, "I'm happy for you two. And a little jealous."

"Jealous?" Elara glanced at him in surprise. She hadn't expected that! "Why are you jealous?"

Free of the orbital station now, they headed towards the nearest hyperspace lane. "Because you two found love in each other and are clearly mates in all but name. I haven't found that yet. All I have is this…" his gesture encompassed the entirety of the ship.

"If I recall correctly, Reynar's been urging you to do more with your life than serve in the Army for a couple years now." She gave him an arch look.

Aric grimaced, reminding Elara of how sharp Cathar teeth were. "I'll keep it in mind."

"Good." Elara glanced at her console and prepared to disengage the sublight engines. "Approaching the hyperspace lane."

He moved his hand to the lever. "Activating the hyperdrive in three, two, one. Now."

"Disengaging sublight engines," she reported, toggling the switches while Aric pushed the lever to activate the hyperdrive.

Safely in hyperspace, Aric turned to her, "Thank you, Elara. I'll keep what you and Rey have been telling me in mind."

"If I've learned anything from Reynar, it's that taking time for myself isn't a bad thing." Elara smiled faintly at him and headed downstairs before he could reply.

She found Reynarden in his quarters, dressed in a tank top and shorts, seated at his desk, and staring at the computer terminal on it with tears rolling down his cheeks. When she stepped to his side and rested a hand on his shoulder, he looked up at her. "I had a message from one of Ava's friends, Keran Vondi. Ava didn't leave an official will, but there are things that she specified be sent to certain people in case she died."

"And some of those are meant for you?" Elara asked gently, kissing the top of his head.

He nodded, wrapping his arms around her. "Yeah. She asked where she should send them, since Havoc doesn't have an official base of operations."

"I'm assuming your parents' place?" She began to rub his shoulders, finding the muscles tight with tension.

Another nod as she moved behind the chair and began to massage Reynarden's shoulders properly. "Mph. Yes. There might be a message for you, too, from Keran."

"I haven't had a chance to check my mail," Elara reminded him, digging her fingers into the tense muscles. "We're headed to Hoth, by the way."

He didn't say anything for several moments, his head falling forward. When she stopped, he made a noise of protest and turned to give her a curious look. She raised her eyebrows and he gave a soft huff of a laugh. "Headed to Hoth, good. Oh!" He gave her a sardonic look. "The Force must be with us, because Forex's next target is there, too."

"Either it likes us or hates us," she remarked dryly as she guided him to face forward again and resumed the shoulder massage.

Reynarden caught one of her hands and kissed the back. "I don't care which, so long as I have you with me."

"I feel the same." Elara confided, squeezing his hand gently. She tugged on it the next moment. "Come on, let's move to the bed."

He stood up and stared at her. "I-- what--?"

"You're drawn tight as durasteel cable," she explained, leading him over to the bed. "Best remedy for that is a proper massage."

Holding up a finger, Reynarden went into the lavatory and returned with a towel. "I know you're going to need oil, so better protect the sheets."

"Good idea." Realizing she was still wearing most of her armor, Elara quickly removed it and her cortosis weave, piling it next to the desk for the moment. Once she was finished with Reynarden, she'd take it to the armory.

When she turned back to the bed, Reynarden had removed his tank top and stretched out on his stomach on the towel. Biting her lip at the sight of him spread out like that, she found some oil she kept in her bag and spread it on her hands before beginning the massage. As she'd suspected, the muscles of his neck, shoulders, and upper back were tight and knotted with tension and stress. Elara focused her efforts on kneading the knots out of them and relaxing Reynarden so he could sleep. By the time she finished, he was mostly asleep already.

Pleased with the results of her efforts, Elara picked up her armor and carried it to the armory. Aric was there and accepted her gear without a comment. She returned to Reynarden's quarters and picked up her datapad before climbing into bed. Not quite ready to sleep, she propped a pillow between her back and the headboard and sat close enough to Reynarden to stroke his head and shoulders as she read on her datapad. He shifted until he could drape an arm across her shins and slowly fell asleep. Touched by the trust that implied, Elara began reading through her mail.

Captain Dorne,

You don't know me, but I was a friend of Ava's. I've been going through her things since she didn't leave a will. One of them is a message meant to be sent to you. I'm not sure how you know Ava, but if you're Havoc Squad, I can take a guess. If you want the message, let me know and I'll forward it to you.

Ava was a really good friend and I miss her so much.

Keran Vondi,
Gunnery Officer,
Brentaal Star

Chapter Text

Elara tried to nap after replying to Keran's message, but she couldn't stop thinking about Agent Kellor and his team. If they'd just been a little faster...! If the ritual to protect their minds hadn't taken so much time...! Deciding she wasn't going to get any sleep, she got up and headed to the workout room. It was empty for once and she taped her hands and feet and warmed up in silence.
Settling into a ready position facing the punching bag, Elara began punching and kicking it. She tried to lose herself in the familiar rhythm of her workout, but it wasn't enough. She kept seeing Kellor's dead body, or one of any number of soldiers she failed to save over the years. The last face that came to mind was Ava's, her mouth slack in death and brown eyes vacant. Stepping back from the punching bag, she pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes, her voice a harsh whisper, "Kriff."

"Elara?" Reynarden's voice startled her into looking up. He stood in the doorway to the workout room, still wearing his shorts, though he'd put his tank top back on. "Are you all right?"

She nodded at first, but then he raised an eyebrow and she slowly shook her head. "No, I'm not."

"Why not?" he approached, reaching out to touch her arm.

Elara turned away, biting her lip. "It's stupid. I shouldn't be upset over this."

"We both know emotions aren't rational." Voice gentle, he lightly rested his hands on her shoulders, warm against her skin. "Please tell me?"

Sighing, she turned back to him. "Losing Kellor-- I know it's ridiculous, but it bothers me that I couldn't save him. I keep thinking about him and everyone else I couldn't save." Swallowing hard, she met his eyes. "Including Ava."

"Oh, Elara." Reynarden drew her into a tender hug. She resisted for a moment because she was sweaty, but he insisted.

Finally, she just relaxed into the hug, resting her cheek on his shoulder. "I'm a combat medic. I know I can't save everyone."

"That doesn't mean you can't mourn for those you couldn't save," he murmured, kissing her cheek gently.

Elara sighed again, finally letting the tears fall. Reynarden held her as she mourned, strong and steady. She didn't know how long they stood there as she cried, but she felt immensely lighter when her tears finally stopped. Wiping at her cheeks, she told him, "Thank you."

"Always." Reynarden smiled and kissed her cheek.

Blushing, she kissed him properly. Always sounds perfect.

*

Eventually, Elara managed to take a nap before it was time to get up and change into her armor. "Right, so we have two missions here on Hoth."

"Again?" Tanno asked, sounding exasperated. "Let me guess: the rest of Jorgan's old squad is here and Forex's next target for his initiative."

Laughing sheepishly, Reynarden nodded. "Yeah. I want Dorne with us, this time. Jorgan's people have been there longer and there's no telling what shape they'll be in when we get to them."

"Major, I should do this on my own," Forex protested.

Shaking his head, Reynarden told him, "No, I don't want you going alone, Forex. You're in charge, though." He looked at Tanno and Yuun. "If Forex tells you to stay back, do it. This is his mission, his show. Understood?"

"Sure, boss," Tanno replied with a lazy wave of his hand.

Yuun nodded. "Yuun will follow M1-4X's path, Major Drondil."

"All right, let's get down there, get it over with, and get back up here ASAP." Reynarden gestured for them to leave ahead of him.

He raised an eyebrow at the extra pack Elara carried. Hoisting it onto her shoulder, she told him, "It's very likely the Deadeyes will be suffering hypothermia. This is to help them begin recovering from it while they wait for the evacuation shuttle."

"Good idea." Smiling, Reynarden kissed her cheek.

They went their separate ways from the Republic base and Aric led the way south to an Imperial dig site. The soldiers and droids guarding it were no match for them. They found two human men in Army uniforms at the back of the site as well as the older human man Elara vaguely remembered seeing on Nar Shaddaa. Aric addressed the two soldiers first, "Berix, Hal, you two still breathing?"

"Ugh, more or less," one of them replied. "Didn't expect to see you here, sir."

The older man scowled at them. "Nor I. Care to tell me what you three are doing here?"

"Rescuing the Deadeyes," Reynarden retorted, and then turned to Elara. "Dorne?"

Unslinging her pack, she pulled out a couple emergency blankets and handed them to the two soldiers. "Here, this will help you conserve your body heat."

"You-- you're Imperial?" one of them asked while the other seized the one she offered him and tore the packet open.

Aric growled. "Former Imperial, Berix. She's Havoc Squad's medic."

"Right, of course, sir." Berix accepted the emergency blanket and opened it, wrapping it around himself. "Thank you, Captain."

Nodding, Elara handed each of them a thermos of hot broth. "Drink this slowly. Would I be correct in assuming you haven't eaten much lately?"

"Yes, Captain," Hal told her with a nod, holding his thermos with both hands.

Reynarden addressed the older man. "What are you doing here, Zane?"

"My job," Zane told him with a sneer, waving off the emergency blanket and thermos Elara offered him. "Don't you idiots get it? This operation was never about rescuing POWs. We've been after one thing: Dusk Nine."

Aric scowled. "Impossible. That place is just a myth."

"Is it?" Zane asked, looking annoyed now. "We'll never know now, thanks to you three."

Reynarden frowned, glancing around as Elara scanned Berix and Hal, finding signs of contusions and broken bones that healed improperly as well as developing infections. "I must be missing something. What's Dusk 9?"

"It's nothing." Aric waved a hand as if to dismiss the notion. "Just a spook story the Imperials concocted to scare us.'

Elara gave both Berix and Hal antibiotic injections to help them fight the infections. "Even Imperial soldiers have only heard stories about it. Right after the Emperor's location, Dusk Nine is the Empire's best kept secret. Hundreds of black ops projects are born there."

"It's also a prison, according to the rumors," Aric added, still scowling. Elara nodded her agreement, silently encouraging her two patients to drink their broth. "The things that supposedly go on there... Too horrible to be real."

Zane shrugged, reluctantly accepting the emergency blanket from Elara, though he shook his head at the broth she offered him. "We're more interested in the intel hoarded there. We seeded thousands of bugged soldiers into the Imperial penal system, hoping for a bite."

"Why so many soldiers?" Reynarden sounded horrified by the idea.

Rolling his eyes, Zane explained with exaggerated patience, "To improve our odds, naturally. The more soldiers we seed, the better our chances of someone winding up at Dusk Nine." He shrugged dismissively. "We were using the wrong bait, though. The brass at Dusk Nine weren't interested in common soldiers, but how could they resist an SIS agent? So I bugged myself, staged a bogus rescue operation, and let myself be captured. I was awaiting transfer when you three geniuses showed up."

"If you had kept us in the loop, we could have coordinated this better," Reynarden told him, keeping his voice calm and level with some effort.

Zane scoffed, shaking his head. "And what, hope you wouldn't say anything? Now I have no choice, but to abort my mission and try again somewhere else."

"Major, we can deal with Zane later," Aric interjected, looking worried. "Let's just find the rest of the squad and get out of here."

Hal spoke up between sips of his broth. "Jorgan... sir... they're dead. The cold--" He shook his head. "They didn't make it."

"What?" Aric flinched as if he'd been physically struck by Hal's words. "Trace, Koplin--they're gone?" Both Berix and Hal nodded reluctantly. "But I thought--Zane!"

Reynarden seemed to recognize where Aric was going with his questions and told him, "Take it easy, Jorgan..."

"Stay out of this, sir," Aric snarled, and then drew his sidearm, pointing it at Zane. "You killed them. You promised them a rescue that never came. And now they're dead for it. How many other soldiers have died for you, huh? A hundred? A thousand?"

Zane flinched back when Aric pointed his blaster at him, his emergency blanket falling to the ground at his feet. "You can't kill me, Jorgan. Too many witnesses."

"Far as we're concerned, sir, the Imperials killed him," Berix interjected then, his face and voice decidedly neutral.

Shocked, Zane stared at the soldiers. "What? Wait, you can't just--?" He looked over at Reyanrden. "Major! Do something!"

"Holster your weapon, Jorgan," Reynarden snapped, catching Elara's eye.

Nodding, she reluctantly drew her own blaster and set it to stun before pointing it at Aric. "We will stun you if necessary, Jorgan."

After a long, tense moment, Aric nodded and reluctantly holstered his blaster pistol. "Fine. He's not worth it, anyway."

"Much obliged." Zane gave Elara and Reynarden a grateful nod. Then he turned a venomous look on Aric. "As for you... you think you can pull a blaster on me and walk away? I'll see you in prison for that."

"You think anyone will believe a lying worm like you over the most decorated squad in the Republic?" Reynarden asked as Elara switched her blaster pistol back to its usual setting and holstered it.

She walked over to Zane and picked up his blanket, offering it to him. "The squad who pulled your arse out of an Imperial labor camp, no less."

"I..." Zane hesitated, and then reluctantly took the blanket, wrapping it around himself. "Right. Consider my lips sealed."

His jaw tense, Aric nodded briefly. "Let's get these men back to their squad. I'll call for an evac."

"Here's some broth," Elara offered Zane a thermos again.

This time, he accepted with a brief nod. "Thanks."

"You're welcome." When she held up her scanner, he nodded again and she scanned him. He didn't have broken bones or contusions, but he was coming down with the same infection as Berix and Hal. She injected him with an antibiotic to help fight it.

Reynarden had walked over to Berix and Hal. "I'm sorry we didn't make it to you sooner."

"Well, it wasn't so bad at first," Hal explained, tugging his blanket tighter around himself. "The Imp soldier in charge of the camp was a nice enough guy, if a little odd. He was with the Imperial Reclamation Service."

Elara caught Reynarden's curious look and explained, "It was originally created to seek out Sith artifacts strong in the Force, particularly the Dark Side. Eventually, they came to search for any ancient object that would be of use to the Empire. If I hadn't chosen medicine as my specialty, I'd have probably joined the Reclamation Service."

"What happened to this Reclamation Service guy?" Reynarden asked curiously.

Glancing at Berix, Hal told them, "Well, this Sith lord--"

"She couldn't have been a Sith lord," Berix interrupted. "She was a twi'lek!"

Hal shot back, "The way she commanded him and the other soldiers? She had to be Sith."

"Sith or not, we never saw Drellik again after that," Berix replied with a sigh. "Drellik at least treated us like people. The soldier in charge after he left only cared about how much work he could get out of us."

The evac shuttle arrived then and Elara transferred copies of the scans she'd done of all three men to the medics who'd take over their care. They watched the shuttle take off and Aric sighed. "Mission accomplished."

"You doing all right?" Reynarden asked, lightly touching Aric's arm.

He shook his head briefly. "Honestly, Rey, I'd rather not talk about it right now. Let's just get out of here."

*

They made the trip back to the Republic base, and then the orbital station in silence. Not surprisingly, Forex, Tanno, and Yuun had returned to the ship already. "Elara, can you and Yuun get us into hyperspace and headed for the Fleet?"

"Yes, sir." Nodding, Elara led Yuun up to the cockpit. Once they were in hyperspace, Elara headed to Reynarden's quarters and found him sitting on the foot of the bed, in his tank top and shorts again. Elara began to remove her armor and cortosis weave. "How's Aric?"

Sighing, Reynarden offered her a wan smile. "He's glad we stopped him from killing Zane now that he's had a chance to cool off."

"You mean warm up." Elara corrected him with a light, playful smile.

He gave her a half-hearted glare. "You know what I mean."

"Yes, I do." Elara sighed and sat down beside him.

After a few moments of silence, Reynarden said, "I want to talk about something else, but all I can think about is all those soldiers waiting for a rescue that will never come."

"I've been wondering what life will be like when the war finally ends," Elara confided quietly, taking Reynarden's hand and squeezing it gently. "There will be peace eventually, but..."

Returning the squeeze, he admitted, "It'd be nice to finally take a vacation without worrying about Garza interrupting us."

"Hopefully there will be at least a few beautiful places left to visit." Her thoughts turned briefly to the ruined remains of Taris. Pushing those thoughts away, she focused on Reynarden. "All that truly matters is that I have you with me, whatever the future brings." She brought his hand up to hold it over her heart. "I want you to be a part of my life, no matter what may come. I want to be with you forever, Reynar."

A smile slowly curved Reynarden's mouth as she talked. "Is that your way of saying you want to marry me, Elara?"

"Well... in the Empire, at least, it is still customary for the man to propose to the woman." Elara could feel her cheeks growing warm, but didn't look away from him. "But if I want to be with you... and you want to be with me... then why not make it official?"

His smile brightening, he shifted to kneel on one knee before her. "Will you marry me, Elara Dorne? Let's face the future together."

"You mean it?" She hadn't expected him to ask her properly and it made her heart soar. "I... oh, yes! I will gladly marry you, Reynarden Drondil."

Laughing, Reynarden caught Elara when she slid off the bed to embrace him tightly. He hugged her back and a few happy tears escaped down her cheeks. "You've made me the happiest man in the galaxy."

"And I'm the happiest woman," Elara replied, pulling back to smile at him.

Smiling back, he drew her into a tender kiss. When they parted, he nudged his forehead against hers. "I don't have a ring for you to wear, but I'll get one ASAP."

"I look forward to it." She kissed the tip of his nose. "For now, just know that I'm yours. Now and forever."

Reynarden kissed the tip of her nose in return. "I'll always be with you."

"I love you."

*

When they finally reached the Fleet, they had a message waiting for them. When Reynarden set it to play, General Garza's holoimage appeared above the holoterminal. "Major, a situation has developed in the Senate. A hearing, to investigate Special Forces' recent activities. You've been called to testify. Contact me as soon as you receive this message."

"So much for visiting the Fleet," Reynarden muttered, entering Garza's holofrequency.

Her holoimiage appeared promptly. "Major, thank you for contacting me so quickly."

"Why is the Senate suddenly interested in our activities again?" Reynarden asked.

Garza shook her head briefly. "The situation is complicated. I'll tell you more when you arrive. Garza out."

"Great." Reynarden sighed deeply. "Yuun, Aric, set course for Coruscant. Everyone, dress uniforms. We want to present the best image of Havoc that we possibly can."

Yuun and Aric headed up to the cockpit. Tanno headed to the crew quarters. Elara followed Reynarden to his quarters, which were now her quarters, too. They'd officially moved her things there during the trip from Hoth. She'd been surprised at how much of her belongings had ended up there already. Now, Reynarden pulled both of their dress uniforms out of the wardrobe and handed Elara's to her. They changed quickly and Elara took a moment to check her bun in the lavatory. It looked neat enough and didn't detract from her dress uniform. Satisfied, she emerged and followed Reynarden from their quarters just as the ship landed. Reynarden waited until they were all standing at the hatch before opening it and descending to the ground. Once they were all out, Seetoo closed the hatch behind them. When they entered the waiting area, they found General Garza and Jonas Balkar both waiting for them. Reynarden hastily saluted, followed by Elara and the others. "General Garza, I hadn't expected you here, or Agent Balkar."

"The Senate situation is more complicated than I could explain via holo," Garza told them, returning their salutes almost as an afterthought. "I couldn't be certain my office wasn't being monitored." That explained why she was meeting them here instead of the Senate Tower. "What I said before was accurate: the Senate called a hearing to investigate the actions of Special Forces, Havoc Squad specifically. But what I couldn't say was that the Senator behind these proceedings is actually an undercover agent for the Empire. The entire hearing is a sham."

Reynarden sounded puzzled as he asked, "How could the Empire possibly get an agent elected to the Senate?"

"They didn't," Balkar replied with disgust. "They just bought someone who was already in place." Pulling out a datapad, he handed it to Reynarden. "We have the evidence right here. His name's Zian; he represents a tiny little rock in the middle of some very profitable trade lanes."

As Reynarden accepted the datapad and skimmed through it, Garza picked up the explanation. "With the help of Imperial Intelligence, Senator Zian has slowly gained influence. Now, he's turning that influence against us."

"It's just another shot from dear old General Rakton," Balkar added as Reynarden carefully clipped the datapad to his belt. "Zian gets Havoc suspended, Rakton gets the break he needs to turn the war back his way."

Looking from one to the other, Reynarden asked, "What's our move? Arrest Zian?"

"Not exactly." Garza shook her head. "The military doesn't have that kind of authority, and detaining Zian would only fuel his accusations that we abuse our power." That had occurred to Elara when Reynarden suggested arresting Zian. "I want you to attend the hearing just as the Senate has asked. We can't risk him getting away. Go and conduct yourself respectfully." They all heard the unspoken 'no smart remarks or sass, if you please' tacked onto the order. "When it's your turn to speak, present the evidence the SIS has gathered. The Senate will have to investigate, and we'll be free to resume operations."

Reynarden nodded, standing as tall as he could. "I'll get this cleared up in no time."

"Remember: Senator Zian will do his best to paint you as a loose cannon," Garza reminded them, her glance encompassing the whole squad. "Don't do anything to prove him right. I'll be waiting in my office. Report back to me as soon as the hearing is complete. Dismissed."

As they saluted Garza and she returned them, Balkar added, "Have fun, Major Drondil."

"See you shortly, General." With that, Reynarden led them out of the spaceport and past the taxi to the Senate Tower gleaming in the sunlight. As they walked, he said, "Should've known Rakton would try other ways of keeping Havoc out of the fight."

Elara brushed her hand against his, wishing they didn't have to be professional now. "If it's any comfort, the fact that he's trying to keep Havoc from joining the fight directly is a sign that he respects us and our ability to fight and stop him."

"I'm not sure if that's a comfort, but..." Reynarden trailed off with a shrug.

After a short silence, Aric told him, "This isn't the same as that informal inquiry we were called in for a couple years ago, Rey. Keep that in mind."

"I will, Aric." Reynarden glanced over at him with a wry smile. "I've seen recordings of hearings my uncle participated in. I know how I'm supposed to behave."

Elara could see that he was nervous despite the bravado of his words. She caught his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "We're all behind you, Reynar."

"Thanks, Elara." He returned the squeeze with a grateful smile.

When they entered the hearing room, Aric, Forex, Tanno, and Yuun were directed to stand beside the door where they entered. Elara and Reynarden were directed to a table near the front. A chagrian man stood at another table on the other side of the room. The senator in charge of the hearing nodded respectfully to Reynarden, "Welcome, Major Drondil. We appreciate you taking the time to come and respond to our concerns in person." He nodded to the chagrian senator. "Senator Zian, you may proceed."

"Thank you." He nodded respectfully to the head of the committee. "As many of you are aware, Havoc Squad is widely considered to be the finest infantry team in the Republic military. Their reputation earns them a great deal of leeway--so much that they have become a danger to the Republic itself." As he proceeded to question Havoc's activities, Elara could see Reynarden's hands, which he'd clasped behind his back as always, grip each other tighter and tighter. Under his dress uniform, his muscles were tense. Elara restrained her impulse to comfort him by accidentally-on-purpose brushing her shoulder against his. He relaxed fractionally as Zian finished his speech: "I will end with this simple fact: Since the war broke out, Havoc Squad hasn't made a single trip to the front lines. If all of the Republic's battles are being won and lost without the help of our best team, then it's time we made changes."

The head of the board nodded to Zian. "Thank you, Senator Zian. Major Drondil, if you'd like to make a response, you may begin now."

"Sentaor Zian speaks very persuasively, but not truthfully," Reynarden began, unclipping the datapad from his belt and holding it up. "I have evidence here proving that Senator Zian is a paid agent for the Sith Empire."

Before he could speak further, Zian interrupted, looking almost panicked, "This is outrageous! Are we really going to tolerate wild accusations like this?"

"Major Drondil deserves more than to be dismissed out of hand," the cathar senator answered before either of the others could. "His service record before joining Havoc Squad is impressive in its own right."

As Reynarden handed the datapad to an aide, who took it to the computer terminal at the front of the room, Zian sputtered out his response, "Preposterous! I called this hearing to present facts, not paranoid delusions."

"The Imps paid you to shut us down," Reynarden shot back, his posture more confident now that he'd said his piece. "That's what this is really about."

The mirialan woman spoke up before Zian could try to formulate another response, her voice calm and soothing, "Please, let's all remain calm. I see no reason we couldn't delay these proceedings momentarily to evaluate this new evidence."

"Guards, seal the area and allow no one to leave until we are prepared to reconvene." With that directive, they had no choice but to wait.

Reynarden and Elara joined the others and Aric had a small smile on his face. "Looks like saving Senator Krasul from Wraith has paid off."

"Which one is Krasul?" Elara asked, glancing up at where the three senators were reviewing the evidence on the datapad.

Aric gestured with his chin. "The cathar. Before Garza sent us to Taris, Wraith kidnapped him. We had to choose between saving him or capturing Wraith."

"I hadn't heard about those civs yet," Reynarden added, his hands clenching into fists at his sides for a moment. "I figured I would get Wraith eventually, but I wasn't about to let someone die when I could prevent it."

Tanno made a considering sound, looking impressed for once. "Seems that choice is paying off in a big way today, boss."

"Zian's far too agitated," Elara remarked quietly, watching the chagrian pace on his side of the room. No one was speaking to him.

Reynarden nodded, glancing over at him as well. "He knows he's done."

"And Havoc Squad will be back in business," Tanno agreed with a nod.

Shortly after that, the three senators finished reviewing the evidence and returned to their original places. Reynarden and Elara quickly resumed their previous spots, waiting for their decision. "Senator Zian, in light of this evidence, I must order that you be detained by the Senate Guard pending charges for high treason."

"But, this is insane!" Zian protested as two human men in Senate Guard uniforms marched forward, blaster rifles ready. "Whatever you've seen, it must be a forgery! Some kind of military conspiracy."

Reluctantly, he left the room with the guards on either side of him. The mirialan woman addressed Reynarden, "Please accept our apologies, Major Drondil. I hope you understand that you were called here with the best of intentions."

"You have a duty to ensure that we're acting in the Republic's best interest," Reynarden replied, sounding more understanding than Elara would have expected.

She nodded, looking relieved that he understood. "That's right, and rest assured that your tireless efforts in the Republic's defense are greatly appreciated."

"Given the change in circumstances brought by new evidence, I hereby adjourn this meeting immediately," the human man announced. "Major Drondil, you're dismissed."

Saluting, Reynarden turned to leave with Elara and the others in tow. Out in the corridor, another human man in Senator's clothes stopped him. "Major Drondil."

"Senator Drondil," Reynarden remained stiff and formal for all of a nanosecond before he relaxed and hugged him. "It's good to see you, Uncle Jerome."

The senator returned the hug, grinning. "Good to see you, too, Rey. They wouldn't let me say anything in your defense, since you're my nephew."

"It's all right." Reynarden smiled reassuringly at him. "This is the rest of Havoc Squad: Captain Elara Dorne, Lieutenant Aric Jorgan, Lieutenant Yuun, Corporal Tanno Vik, and M1-4X. Everyone, this is my uncle, Senator Jerome Drondil."

Senator Drondil nodded to each of them as Reynarden named them. "It's good to meet you all. I doubt you can stay, Rey, but try to make time to see your parents. They wanted to speak to you about something."

"I already planned on stopping by," Reynarden assured him. Then he leaned in to whisper something that Elara couldn't hear. Nodding, the senator pressed something into Reynarden's hand that he quickly tucked into a pocket. "Hopefully, when we next have leave, you'll still be here on Coruscant."

Chuckling, Senator Drondil nodded. "I should be here for the foreseeable future. We can visit then, whenever it happens."

"Sounds good." They hugged briefly and the Senator moved away down the corridor. Reynarden led Havoc Squad in the other direction.

Elara lengthened her strides so she could walk alongside Reynarden. "What did he give you?"

"I'll tell you later," Reynarden replied, glancing at her with a playful smile.

She gave a huff of annoyance, but didn't press the issue. I hope later comes soon.

*

A young mirialan woman met them at Garza's office, smiling brightly in greeting. "Major Drondil! I'm Lieutenant Mai, General Garza's new assistant. It's a real honor to meet you."

"It's good to meet you, too, Lieutenant," Reynarden replied, polite and friendly. "General Garza asked us to report to her once our hearing was done."

Mai looked apologetic. "I'm afraid General Garza had to leave due to an urgent situation on Corellia. I can put you through to her via holo, if you like."

"Yes, please do, Lieutenant." Reynarden nodded, relaxing into a more casual pose.

"One moment, please." Nodding, Mai pulled out a holocomm.

Barely a second later, General Garza's holoimage appeared above the unit. "Major Drondil, I understand our dilemma has been taken care of. Reports are already circulating about Zian's secondary income. Rakton could have buried us with this one. If the SIS hadn't come through--if you hadn't convinced the Senate to review their evidence--we would be finished. Well done."

Reynarden nodded, his voice calm, but Elara could see him clenching his hands again. "I'm just glad everything worked out."

"We were fortunate, there's no doubt about it." Garza nodded firmly. "Join me on Corellia as quickly as possible. General Rakton has taken the field personally. This is the opportunity we've been waiting for."

Reynarden nodded. "I'll get Havoc to Corellia on the double, General."

"I'll give you a detailed briefing after you touch down. Garza out." Her holoimage disappeared.

Mai turned off the holocomm and tucked it away. "General Rakton! It sounds like you'd better hurry, Major Drondil. Good luck!"

"Let's go." Reynarden led them out of the Senate Tower. Out in the sunshine, he turned back to them. "Everyone, head back to the ship. I have a quick stop to make first."

Elara gave him a Look. "I'm coming with you, Reynar."

"I figured you would." He smiled faintly at her. He looked back at the others. "We'll be along shortly. Get moving."

Aric nodded and gestured for the others to follow him. Yuun and Forex obeyed him promptly. Tanno took his time trailing after them. Reynarden took Elara's hand and led her in a different direction, towards a taxi that she hadn't noticed before. "What's this?"

"One of the perks of having an uncle who's a senator." Reynarden pulled out a card and swiped it through the reader. Once it beeped in acknowledgment, they climbed into the taxi and it set off. "He hasn't been on Coruscant for a while, though. That's why you haven't seen him before now.'

Elara nodded, leaning against him with a sigh. He wrapped his arm around her waist and kissed her cheek. "Is that what he gave you?"

"Nope, though I was lucky he got my message in time to bring it." He squirmed for a moment, reaching into his pocket. "I didn't get it myself, but--"

Her heartbeat speeding up, she looked down to see a ring resting in Reynarden's palm. Made of delicate silver, its only decoration was a simple small green gem of some kind. She looked up at him. "Reynar, it's beautiful."

"It's yours if you want it," Reynarden told her with a tender smile. "It's a family heirloom from before we came to prominence. Most of the women in recent generations have wanted fancier engagement rings, but I thought you'd prefer something simpler that you can wear under your gauntlets."

Elara nodded and extended her left hand. After a moment of surprise, his smile brightened and he slid the ring onto the third finger. It fit perfectly and she eyed him thoughtfully. "Did your uncle take the time to have it resized?"

"Yeah." He laughed sheepishly. "I measured your finger while you were sleeping once."

Smiling, she hugged him and kissed him soundly. "Thank you, Reynar. I love you."

"I love you, too."

*

"Rey, Elara!" Florya and Bryden greeted them with warm hugs. "We hoped Jerome would give you our message."

Reynarden nodded, kissing his mother's cheek. "He did, but we planned to stop by anyway."

"Does it have to do with the ring on Elara's finger?" Bryden asked, taking her hand to look at it closely. She blushed as realization dawned on his face. "This is one of my family's earliest rings." He smiled warmly at her. "It suits you."

Elara nodded as Florya took her hand to look at the ring, too. "Yes, Reynar and I think so, too." She glanced at him and he nodded encouragingly, "I'm wearing it because we're engaged."

"That's wonderful!" Florya hugged Elara again, her eyes suspiciously bright. "Congratulations, both of you."

Reynarden laughed as she hugged him tight once she finished hugging Elara. "We can't stay to celebrate properly, but soon."

"We'll hold you to that." Bryden hugged each of them as well. "You two received packages, though the return address is puzzling."

Clive appeared then, offering two boxes. Reynarden and Elara accepted them and Elara's heart clenched when she saw the return address on hers: Ava's name and address had been scratched out, replaced by Keran's name and address. Staring down at his box, Reynarden cursed. "Kriff, we haven't told you."

"Told us what, Rey?" Bryden asked, prompting them to turn to face them.

Reynarden's shoulders slumped and he swallowed hard. "Ava-- she-- I-- Kriff!"

"She was killed in action shortly after our last visit here," Elara took over the explanation, shifting her box to one hand so she could wrap an arm around his waist. "On a mission with us. It's been... hard."

Florya stepped forward to hug Reynarden. He leaned into her embrace with a shuddering breath. "I'm sorry, Rey. I know you two were close."

"Yeah." He couldn't get any other words out and Bryden hugged both Reynarden and Florya.

Elara joined the group hug the next moment, offering the same strength and comfort Reynarden had offered her on the way to Hoth. They stood like that for several moments until he straightened up. "Thanks, everyone. I wish we could stay."

"Come back to us, Rey." Florya kissed his forehead gently.

Bryden hugged him and Elara together. "Both of you."

"We certainly intend to come back." Reynarden managed a grin at his parents. "We have a wedding to plan, after all."

Elara smiled, taking his hand. "I'll do everything in my power to keep us both alive."

"That's all we can ask."

*

Once Reynarden and Elara returned to the Thunderclap, it took off. A peek into the cockpit showed Aric piloting by himself. Reynarden handed his package to Elara and slipped into the copilot's seat. Aric nodded, but that was the only acknowledgment he made. Elara returned downstairs and headed to their quarters. Much as she wanted to open the package from Ava, the trip to Corellia would be short and she needed to change into her armor. She set the boxes on the desk and proceeded to change. Just as she was double-checking the buckles on her chestplate, Reynarden entered. Without being asked, he walked over to check the buckles on her backplate as well. "All secure. Tanno and Yuun are already suited up and checking our generators and weapons. Aric's suiting up right now."

"I'll leave you to do the same," Elara told him, a little reluctantly.

He smiled and kissed her softly. "We'll have time for us soon."

"I know." She returned the kiss and left their quarters reluctantly. Crossing the main area, she retrieved her medkit and double-checked its contents, ensuring it was fully stocked. When she joined Tanno and Yuun, three belts were laid out alongside Reynarden's assault cannon, Aric's sniper rifle, and her blaster pistol. She picked up her belt and checked the charges on both of her generators before clipping her medkit to it and putting it on.

While she checked her blaster pistol, Aric arrived, fully armored, and checked his own equipment. "Get everything done that you needed to, Dorne?"

"Yes, we did, Lieutenant," she replied with a nod. "I'm sorry you didn't get a chance to visit your family this time."

He shrugged, finishing with his rifle and clipping it in place on his back. "There'll be other opportunities in the future."

"Especially if I have anything to say about it," Reynarden interjected, joining them just as the beep to announce their impending exit from hyperspace reached them from the cockpit. "Tanno, Yuun, would you care to do the honors and bring us out of hyperspace?"

They nodded and headed up to the cockpit. Alone with Reynarden and Elara, Aric asked, "Are you two all right? You smell sad."

"We had to tell Reynar's parents that Ava's dead," Elara explained. "It wasn't easy."

Aric nodded and reached over to clap Reynarden's shoulder. "Focus on the mission and you'll be fine, Rey."

"Thanks, Aric." Reynarden offered a tiny smile, his voice rough.

They finished gearing up in silence and Reynarden waited for Tanno and Yuun to join them before entering General Garza's holofrequency. When her holoimage appeared, she looked pleased, "Major, good. Now that you've arrived, we can begin our operations in earnest. Imperial forces, including General Rakton, have invaded Corellia in full force. Local resistance fighters have barely held them back from total victory. Corellia is the tipping point for the entire war. If the Imperials win here, they could reverse all our hard-fought advances."

"Corellia won't fall to the Empire on my watch," Reynarden told her confidently though Elara could see him clasping his hands tightly together behind his back.

Nodding, Garza told them that their target was the Bastion. Rakton had seized it during the initial invasion of Corellia. Apparently, part of Corellia's leadership had betrayed the Republic, basically selling their planet to the Empire. Elara could hardly fathom that anyone could betray their people, but then she remembered Senator Zian. "The Bastion is one of the most heavily secured fortresses in the galaxy. Your team will need a lot of support to take it. To get the necessary manpower in the field, we're working with a local resistance leader: a Corellian Security officer named Locke."

"What do we know about this Locke person, General?" Reynarden asked, sounding curious. Behind his back, Elara could see that he'd relaxed the grip of his hands on each other at the mention of support.

A tiny smile appeared on Garza's face. "A great deal, actually. Before he entered CorSec, Locke served in Republic Special Forces under my command. He's a dependable soldier and he knows Corellia very well." That explained why Garza was working with him. "We'll discuss the details once you arrive. We've set up our command center in a former cantina, the Gilded Descent."

"I never thought I'd see you inside a cantina, General," Reynarden quipped and Elara could just picture the teasing glint in his eye.

Garza gave him a stern look. "Very funny. Watch for targets of opportunity, Major. Imperial commando teams are all over the area. See you soon. Garza out."

When her holoimage disappeared, Reynarden's shoulders slumped. "The Bastion, huh? Rakton had to have a good team to take it in the first place."

"We're better, Rey," Aric told him, thumping his armor with one gauntleted fist.

"Yes, we are." Reynarden nodded and straightened up. "Let's go. It's not polite to keep a lady waiting at a cantina."

Falling in beside him, Elara asked, "You do realize we're not going to be drinking there, right?"

"Nothing alcoholic," Reynarden pointed out with a wink. "We'll toast to our victory afterwards, though. Sound good?"

She smiled and squeezed his hand. "Sounds good."

As they left the ship, Elara was relieved that Reynarden was being so lighthearted. She'd worried that having to tell his parents about Ava would upset him again. Though it had, he was recovering quickly and that pleased her.

*

When they reached the cantina in question, Special Forces soldiers directed them to a private room where they found General Garza talking with a young human woman and an older human man. As they approached, it became clear she was arguing with the woman, who was arguing right back, and the man was trying to keep things civil between the two. Coming to a stop beside the table, Reynarden asked, "What are you all arguing about?"

"Questioning authority," the man answered blandly. "Standard operating procedure around here."

Garza indicated the man, "This is Locke, the CorSec officer I told you about." Reynarden nodded to Locke, who nodded back. "His associate is Captain Phaeris, a contract pilot who's volunteered to help us." The woman eyed Reynarden thoughtfully while Garza continued. "As I've explained, breaching the Bastion will require substantial manpower. Captain Phaeris and her associates will be responsible for bringing that manpower to Corellia unnoticed."

"Resistance is going to be heavy," Reynarden observed, his focus on Garza. The need to remain unobserved explained why they weren't using troop transports.

Captain Phaeris' voice drew Elara from her contemplation of the departure from standard operating procedure. "Everyone in my crew can slip a blockade in their sleep That's the least of our worries."

"The landing bays where the volunteers' ships are docked have been captured by Imperial forces," Garza explained before Phaeris could continue. "We need Havoc Squad to clear them out, fast. Understood?"

Reynarden nodded, standing straighter. "The ships will be freed up in no time."

"Music to my ears," Phaeris replied with a sly smirk.

Locke pulled out a datapad and handed it to Reynarden. "There's your coordinates, Major Drondil. I look forward to watching Havoc at work."

"Good luck, Major," Garza added as Reynarden transferred the coordinates to his own datapad and handed Locke's back to him. "Dismissed."

They saluted and left the room. When they reached the main area, they found Aric talking with Jeveen, Corso, and Guss. Forex, Tanno, and Yuun stood clustered a short distance away. Jeveen spotted them first and waved. "Hey, Rey, Elara."

"Hey, Jeveen." Reynarden shook her hand, and then Corso and Guss's, with Elara following suit. "What brings you to Corellia?" She scowled, her hands clenching into fists at her sides, much to Elara's surprise. Most of the time, the freighter pilot was too easy-going to get upset. Reynarden must have noticed, because he moved closer to touch her arm. "Jev?"

She shook her head and glanced at Corso pleadingly. He took her hand and squeezed it tight. "Turns out we've been played for suckers by Darmas and Dodonna." Corso scowled as well. "Darmas is an Imp agent and he flipped Dodonna. The two of them have been using Jev here to do dirty work for the Voidwolf."

"Kriff." Reynarden muttered, glancing at Elara, who shrugged. "That's awful, Jev. Are they why you're here on Corellia?"

Jeveen nodded this time, her voice rough. "Yeah. They're planning to help the Imps win here. My goal is to find and capture them so justice is served." She wiped away a tear that had escaped from her eye. "All this time, I've been working against Rogun the Butcher when I should've been working with him." She took a deep, shuddering breath. "Might've run into Kag sooner if I had."

"Wait, what?" Reynarden frowned, glancing at Corso, who nodded with a lopsided grin. "He's your second-oldest brother, right? The one who joined the Justicars?"

She nodded again. "He slipped off Coruscant after the Sacking and ended up joining Rogun the Butcher because he didn't have any better prospects."

"We need to get going, Jev," Corso interjected gently after glancing at the chronometer. "Have to keep on Darmas's trail while it's still slimy."

Another deep, shuddering breath and a nod. "Right, of course." Jeveen glanced at Reynarden apologetically. "And I bet you guys need to get going, too."

"Yes, we do," Elara answered, relieved that she didn't have to remind Reynarden about their work for once.

They shook the others' hands and trooped out of the cantina, heading towards the coordinates Locke had given them. Jeveen, Corso, and Guss followed them out and turned to head the opposite direction.

*

It felt good to fight as a team again. Yuun didn't seem dwarfed by Tanno and Forex anymore, but like he fit with them, slipping in and out and around them to swipe at the Imperials with his electrostaff. Forex's blaster fire filled in the gaps between Reynarden's assault cannon and Elara's blaster pistol, punctuated occasionally by Aric's sniper rifle. Between Forex's sensors and Aric's infrared scope, any stealthed enemies didn't remain stealthed for long. Once they cleared all Imperial soldiers and droids, Yuun indicated a computer console sitting between two of the grounded ships. "There is the source of the obstruction, Major Drondil."

"Right, no time to waste." Taking careful aim with his assault cannon, Reynarden destroyed it with one shot. The forcefields disappeared and he pulled out his holocomm to inform General Garza of their success.

No sooner had she informed them that Phaeris and her pilots were on their way than Locke's holoimage joined hers. "Hey, you've got Major Drondil on the line, good. We've got a serious problem. Imperial troops are firebombing the residential districts. The people still hiding there won't have a chance. You've got to move fast, Major. Take the Imperials out before it's too late."

"We'll move out right away," Reynarden answered promptly, only for Garza to hold up a hand to stop him from ending the holocall.

Looking grim, she told him, "Not so fast. We need to consider the overall operation before we act. While the Imperials are wasting time with the residential area, Havoc can slip behind them and eliminate the men guarding their dropships." Elara was grateful only Reynarden was in range of the video pick up. She didn't think she could hide her appalled expression at Garza's suggestion. "Once the dropships are secured, Captain Phaeris's associates can hijack them and bring in more troops for our assault on the Bastion."

"It's more important to save lives than dropships," Reynarden retorted, his jaw tense.

Garza's reply made Elara shake her head in dismay. "We will save more lives by stopping Rakton than by stopping this raid. We need to focus."

"But those are families' homes," Locke interjected, looking upset by Garza's suggestion. "There's no telling how many people are still hiding out there1 Look at how long it's taken Coruscant to recover. We can't let that happen again. Not here."

Reynarden nodded, his voice steely, "If we can help these people, we have to try."

"Thank you, Major Drondil," Locke replied, looking very relieved by Reynarden's decision.

Garza, meanwhile, looked rather annoyed, but only said, "Return to base when you've finished, Garza out."

"Kriff," Reynarden muttered, turning off his holocomm and shoving it into his utility belt. "Dropships over civilian lives?"

Elara took his hand and gave it a squeeze while Aric reminded him, "Is it such a surprise after all this time?"

"No, not really." Reynarden shook his head and drew Elara into an awkward hug.

As they jogged from the hangars, a group of civilians dressed similarly to Captain Phaeris and led by her entered. "Oh, hey, Major. Thanks for clearing out the Imps."

"Not a problem, Captain," Reynarden nodded to her. "Fly well."

She grinned, sharp and hungry. "Always do."

*

Stopping the firebombers wasn't a problem for Havoc Squad. The smoke from the fires caused them more difficulty, especially since Reynarden, Elara, Aric, and Tanno had foregone full-face helmets and didn't have a way to prevent smoke inhalation beyond soaked handkerchiefs tied over the nose and mouth. Those didn't last long and all four of them were coughing badly by the time they emerged from the tenements. Elara wasted no time removing her gloves so she could put together kolto injections. As she worked, Tanno observed, "That's a nice, shiny ring you have there, Dorne."

"Vik," Aric growled warningly as Elara gave him his injection.

Tanno grunted when Elara gave him his injection. "Just makin' an observation, is all."

"Yuun congratulates Major Drondil and Captain Dorne on their decision to unite the journeys of their lives," Yuun declared as Elara gave him an injection as well. Though he didn't have to worry about smoke inhalation, the heat from the fires had still been intense.

Forex dipped his chassis so he could examine Elara's hand closely as she injected Reynarden. "Their lives are already united in their service to the Republic."

"They want to share their lives completely, Forex," Aric explained patiently as Elara injected herself and began to pack her medkit.

Reynarden gave an exasperated sigh. "Look up engagement and marriage on the HoloNet when you have a chance, Forex. We need to head back to base."

"Reynar," Elara began, closing her medkit. "I'd like to stay and help the civilians. If we were this bad off after our brief exposure…"

He nodded, smiling fondly. "Of course. I expected you'd ask."

"Thank you." Smiling, she decided professionalism in this circumstance was ridiculous and leaned in to kiss him softly.

Reynarden kissed her back with a bright smile. "Contact me when you're done here and I'll let you know where you can catch up to us."

"Of course." Elara nodded and stepped back, watching them go.

It took some effort, but she eventually convinced the Corellians she was there to help them and soon had a makeshift medical center started, treating them as best she could with the supplies from her medkit. Just as she began to worry she'd run out before everyone was treated, a familiar figure arrived: Yakarn Par, looking a trifle uncomfortable in his durasteel armor with the Republic Army Medical Corps insignia on it. A contingent of soldiers with matching insignia followed him. "Captain Dorne, thank you for all you've done, but we'll take it from here."

"Yes, Dr. Par." She transferred the medical data she'd collected to the computer terminal two of the soldiers set up nearby. "I did what I could, but--"

He smiled reassuringly and nodded to another soldier, who offered her a fresh medkit. "I understand and thank you for your work. Here's fresh supplies to replace those you used."

"Thank you." Elara smiled and accepted the medkit, transferring the little supplies she hadn't used to it. "Most of these people are suffering from--"

Yakarn gently but firmly cut her off. "We were briefed that they were victims of firebombings and any particulars will be in the files you transferred. Now go join the rest of your team. I have a feeling they'll need your skills soon enough."

"Yes, of course." Smiling sheepishly, Elara made her way to the cantina. Not surprisingly, she didn't find General Garza or the rest of Havoc Squad there. Locke still remained, though, looking over maps and several datapads. He looked up at her entrance and smiled. "Captain Dorne! Major Drondil told us you'd stayed to help the civilians."

She nodded, feeling her cheeks grow warm. "I did, sir. The RAMC took over their treatment. It should be safe to move them soon."

"Already working out the details." He waved at the pile of datapads he'd been going through. "The rest of Havoc is in Labor Valley now. They're preparing to ambush a large infantry force in a factory there."

Elara nodded again, accepting the datapad he handed her. When she looked at it, though, she didn't see coordinates like she expected. When she looked back at Locke, he was smiling sheepishly and offering a different datapad. Accepting the new one, she transferred the coordinates on it to hers. "Thank you, sir. It's been an honor."

"Thank you, Captain. Good luck." He saluted and she returned it.

*

When she boarded the tram to Labor Valley, she was surprised to see Fiosynod already aboard it with Doc and Teeseven. He waved and glanced around curiously. "Hi, Elara. Where's Rey?"

"In Labor Valley already," she told him, sitting down opposite him after shaking his hand. "I stayed behind to help civilians who needed medical attention."

Fiosynod chuckled, looking amused. "Of course you did."

"Where's Kira?" Elara asked, glancing around pointedly.

Clearing his throat, Fiosynod looked out the window. Elara glanced at Doc and Teeseven. Rolling his eyes, Doc explained, "Fio's been appointed the supreme commander of the Jedi on Corellia, Master Par and Padawan Grell excepted. Since he needs to be free to search for Master Braggart...?"

"Master Tol Braga," Fiosynod corrected with a sigh, turning back to them. "He led the strike team that infiltrated the Emperor's Fortress. I can't look for him and lead the Jedi forces myself, so I named Kira my second-in-command. She'll see to it that the Jedi carry out my orders."

Elara stared at him in surprise. Corellia's importance in the war was much clearer with even the Jedi dedicating forces to the fight. "I wish her luck. Being in command is never easy."

"You said it, Elara." Fiosynod nodded with a rueful smile. After a moment of hesitation, she slipped off her glove and showed him her ring. He stared at it for several moments. "That's an old family ring. Meant only for--"

She nodded when he glanced at her inquiringly. "Yes. He asked, I accepted--well, it was more of a mutual decision."

"Congratulations, Elara." As the tram slowed down, he sat down beside her so he could hug her. "I'd be honored to call you my sister."

Elara hugged him back, careful not to put pressure on his shoulder. He was wearing slightly heavier armor, but it was clearly still sensitive. "Thank you, Fio."

"Thank you." He smiled as he sat back, clearly understanding the significance of her using his nickname rather than his full name.

The tram stopped and they trooped off, going their separate ways. Elara turned on the stealth generator she'd requisitioned at the cantina and made her slow, careful way to the factory Locke had told her about. As she drew near, she could see the rest of Havoc Squad standing outside. Aric had his head up, testing the air with his nose and Forex was swiveling his chassis from side to side. "Sir, there is a human approaching under stealth."

"Not just any human," Aric added as Elara drew even closer. He reached out and touched her arm. "Hello, Dorne."

Dropping the stealth, she smiled at them. "Hello, Jorgan, everyone."

"You're just in time for the party," Reynarden told her with a grin, reaching out to take her hand and squeeze it.

She returned the squeeze. "So I understand from Locke."

"Let's do this." Reynarden led them inside. A large group of humans were gathered inside, wearing a variety of leatheris jackets or vests, reinforced pants, and boots. Most were armed with blaster pistols or rifles. Three men stood grouped together, one almost as big as Tanno with fair skin, brown hair, and green eyes, one as tall as Aric with dark skin, brown hair, and brown eyes, and a third a little taller than Reynarden with tan skin, black hair, and brown eyes. "Gentlemen, this is my XO and medic, Captain Elara Dorne. Captain, these gentlemen lead resistance cells: Hendrick, Oudon, and Sherro."

Before she could say anything, Hendrick said, "Everybody's here, let's get this party started. We brought plenty of explosives and plenty of shooters. We're ready."

"Who knows this factory best?" Reynarden asked, looking not only at the three men in front of them, but everyone gathered nearby.

Oudon answered the question, his calm voice a contrast to Hendrick's rough, eager one. "Hendrick and I were both employed here before the invasion began."

"Yeah, I've been thinkin'--we could rig a lot of this equipment to blow," Hendrick suggested, looking very eager. Out of the corner of her eye, Elara saw Tanno perk up. "You know, really tear the Imps to shreds!"

Oudon looked appalled by the idea. "What? Stop and think, Hendrick. If we destroy this place, where will we work when the Imps are gone?"

"We're here to wipe these Imps out," Hendrick objected. "Rigging the equipment to blow in their faces is the best way to do it!"

Reynarden shook his head. "Coruscant's been rebuilding since I was a teenager. I refuse to see the same happen to Corellia. Let's leave the factory intact."

"Consideration for local infrastructure is always preferable," Elara agreed, ignoring the stares she got from the resistance members when she spoke up.

After staring for a moment, Oudon nodded. "I'm glad you agree. Now, let's get everyone into position and get ready."

"Dorne, try to stay out of the fighting and do what you can for injured people, both Havoc and resistance," Reynarden told her as the resistance members led the way to the factory floor. Most of them gathered along a half-wall overlooking the factory floor, crouching behind it. Aric climbed up to a perch that gave him a good vantage point of the entire factory. Tanno, Yuun, and Forex waited nearby, ready to follow Reynarden.

She stifled a sigh, watching a group of resistance members take up position behind the others. "If they'll let me near them."

"Give them time." He patted her shoulder, and then turned to find the leaders waiting.

Sherro glanced around. "We're ready. Do you have any final orders, Major Drondil?"

"We all want to send the Imps packing," Reynarden reminded them, projecting his voice enough to be heard by everyone. "The best way to do it is to hold the line and work as a team."

Sherro nodded. "We'll follow your lead."

"Let's make 'em pay!" Hendrick added, drawing his blaster pistol.

Reynarden led Tanno, Yuun, and Forex down to the actual factory floor, the four of them scattering to hide behind crates and boxes, ready to fight. They waited in tense silence as Imperial troops entered from the other side of the factory and began slowly crossing the floor. Over Havoc's comms, Forex reported, "The enemy is almost upon us, sir."

"Now, Havoc." As a group, Reynarden and the others ducked out of hiding and shot the first group of Imperial soldiers. Another group followed close on their heels and the din of blaster fire made it almost impossible to hear anything. The smoke of the blaster bolts made it difficult to make anything out. Elara could only sit and wait, ready to help.

*

"Dorne!" Tanno's voice distracted her from tending to a graze Aric had received from an Imperial sniper.

Her heart sank when she saw Reynarden's limp body in his arms. "Vik! What happened to Major Drondil?" Elara exclaimed as he set Reynarden down on a pallet.

"Damn Sith knocked him back against some equipment." Tanno explained as Elara removed Reyanrden's helmet. "He was barely conscious when I got to him. Said he could barely move his right arm and his back felt like a herd of rontos ran him over."

Elara and Aric paused in the middle of removing Reynarden's armor to stare at Tanno. "I beg your pardon?"

"His words, not mine," Tanno replied with a grin, holding up his hands. His errand complete, he headed back to help Yuun and Forex.

Nodding, Elara set aside Reynarden's armor, taking note of the fact that the backplate had definitely taken damage. "He might need a kolto tank," she warned Aric as they removed his gloves and bracers. "Depends on how serious the damage is and it did knock him out."

"You're the medic," Aric agreed as they unzipped the cortosis weave and began to peel it down. Even unconscious, Reynarden groaned as it peeled away from his right side. Aric quietly asked, "You all right, Dorne?"

She gave him a dry look as she began cleaning the jagged slash Reynarden had gotten along with everything else, "I'm fine. I'm not injured."

"You're a terrible liar. What happened to you?" Aric carefully held Reynarden still as Elara spread kolto over the gash in his side.

She didn't meet his eyes as she dug her scanner out of her medkit to run it over Reynarden's torso and arms. "Nothing, and that's the problem."

"They didn't want you near them because of your accent?" Aric asked, sitting back on his heels as she examined the scanner data. She nodded shortly, frowning at the information from her scan: bruised ribs and fractured right arm. "That's ridiculous." Raising his voice, Aric addressed the resistance members in general. "Captain Dorne is a valued member of Havoc Squad and has saved both my life and Major Drondil's. She just happens to have been born in Imperial space and I'd better not hear a word against her, am I clear?"

Reynarden's eyes finally opened as she injected kolto into his arm to speed up the healing process. "Who's CO of Havoc again, Jorgan?"

"You were unconscious and Dorne wasn't going to speak up for herself, so I did," Aric answered unrepentantly as Elara wrapped a kolto bandage around his arm.

Keeping her tone business-like tone, Elara informed him, "Your ribs are bruised and you've fractured your right arm, but you'll live."

"All thanks to you, Captain." Reynarden grinned despite the pain as she and Aric helped him sit up so she could look at his back.

Elara helped him remove the tank top he wore under his cortosis weave and drew in a soft breath when she saw his back. "Oh, my."

"That bad, huh?" Reynarden asked, peering at her over his shoulder.

She couldn't stop a soft chuckle even as she began spreading kolto over his back. "I see now why you felt like you'd been run over by rontos."

"A whole herd of them," he corrected, relaxing as the kolto did its job and eased the pain. "How'd you know that?"

Before she could explain, someone cleared their throat nearby. Odoun offered a nervous smile. "Apologies, Major, Captain. We're used to hearing certain accents and-- well--"

"It's quite all right." Elara didn't stop what she was doing, but she was resigned all the same.

Odoun shook his head. "No, it's not. You're in Havoc Squad for a reason and we-- that is, I hoped you could look at some of our men. Most of what our medics know they learned on the fly."

"I'd be glad to help." Elara was relieved that she'd be able to help. "Just let me finish patching up Major Drondil and I'll be right over."

He nodded, looking very relieved. "Thank you!"

"If anyone gives you an attitude because of your accent--" He turned enough to look at her over his shoulder.

She gently pushed his head back around. "I'll handle it, Reynar, thank you."

"Good." He reluctantly sat up straight so she and Aric could wrap a kolto bandage around his torso from his armpits down to his waist. "I feel like a mummy."

Elara squeezed his shoulder gently. "Contact General Garza and find out if it'd be safe to put you in a kolto tank for at least an hour, maybe two."

"Do I really need one?" Reynarden looked at her in concern.

She gave him an arch look. "You fell unconscious. It'd be for the best."

"Understood." Reynarden began pulling his gear back on while Elara got up to help the Resistance members with their injuries. She hadn't even noticed that the fighting had stopped with how focused she'd been on her work. Pulling out her scanner, she set to work once again.

*

"Captain Dorne, status report," General Garza requested once Reynarden was in the kolto tank. "How's Major Drondil?"

Double-checking his vitals and comparing them to her initial scans, Elara told her, "Half an hour in the tank should be enough, General. He'll still be a little sore, but able to fight."

"Good. When you're done here, please come see me for the briefing on the next phase of our plan." Garza told her, looking satisfied.

Elara nodded, too focused on her work to salute. Garza didn't seem to take offense, just turning and walking away towards an office. Satisfied that Reynarden was responding to the treatment, Elara walked over to where the others were resting and having a bite to eat. "Lieutenant Jorgan, please join me for Garza's briefing."

"Of course, Captain." Finishing his ration bar, Aric stood up and followed Elara to the office where Garza waited.

Inside, she sat behind a desk with Locke standing off to one side. Garza looked disgruntled and Locke looked worried. Wondering what they'd disagreed about, Elara stopped in front of the desk and saluted. "Captain Dorne and Lieutenant Jorgan reporting as ordered, General."

"Thank you, Captain, Lieutenant. Let's get straight to it." Garza barely glanced at the computer terminal in front of her. "Captain Phaeris and her pilots are returning with our forces and we need to clear them a place to land."

When Garza looked at Locke, he explained, "The best bet here in Axial Park is the Corellian Museum of Starships. They have a big, open-air landing pad that our people can slip right onto."

"Unfortunately, that landing pad is occupied by a famous Corellian warship, the Lucky Lancer," Garza added, looking grim. "We need Havoc Squad to deal with it."

Elara glanced from Garza to Locke, suspecting that this was the source of their disagreement. "How, exactly, do you want Havoc to 'deal with it,' General?"

"I'd prefer you simply destroy it," Garza replied with a shrug. "But Lock seems to feel that it's very valuable."

Looking passionate, Locke told them, "The Lucky Lancer is the most famous Corellian ship in the galaxy! We can't just blow it up to clear a parking spot!" Calming down, he continued, "Look, I've got volunteers ready and willing to fly the Lancer out and hide it someplace safe. All Havoc has to do is escort them to the museum."

"Escort missions are risky and time consuming," Garza objected, looking nettled. "Destroying the ship is a far better option."

Elara's mind was made up the moment Locke offered an alternative to blowing up the ship. "Destroying a valuable historical item is a valued Imperial tactic, meant to oppress people further. I refuse to be party to such tactics. We'll escort the pilots." She met Garza's eyes steadily. "I know Major Drondil would choose to save the Lucky Lancer, too."

"If you feel Havoc can save the ship and still serve our objectives, so be it." Garza looked quite annoyed, but Elara didn't care. She'd defected from the Empire for a reason and she'd been very disappointed to realize that some tactics weren't solely Imperial in nature. "Just keep it quick."

Locke looked relieved that Elara had sided with him. "Thanks, Captain. Everyone on Corellia is going to sing Havoc's praises for saving that ship."

"A historical ship like that is irreplaceable," Elara told him as they left the office.

He nodded, walking with her to the kolto tank where Reynarden floated. He smiled wryly. "Major Drondil has such a larger-than-life personality, it's strange to see him so still like this."

"He likes surprising people," Elara told him, checking the readouts on the datapad connected to the tank. "Another ten minutes or so should be enough."

Aric stepped forward. "Good. That's enough time for you to eat, Captain."

"Let me know when Havoc is ready to go," Locke told them, looking amused. "My pilots will be ready and waiting."

He walked away before Elara could respond. Reluctantly, she followed Aric over to the rest of Havoc Squad and ate without really tasting her rations. Not that they had much taste anyway. The entire time, she kept an eye on the datapad, monitoring Reynarden's status. She'd been so scared when she saw him unconscious in Tanno's arms. For a moment, she'd worried that he was dead. He didn't die. He won't leave you now, Elara.

*

Reluctantly, Elara brought Reynarden out of the kolto tank when he was healed enough to fight. She'd have liked him to stay a little longer, but time was of the essence. He munched on a ration bar as Elara, Aric, Tanno, and Yuun helped him into his repaired armor. As they worked, Elara briefed him on the plan to escort Locke's pilots to the Corellian Museum of Starships to fly the Lucky Lancer to a safer place. He nodded when she finished explaining. "That's exactly what I would have suggested if it'd been me in the briefing."

"I know." Elara nodded, smiling shyly at him. "We've lost too much history. If we can avoid losing more, we should."

Reynarden finished the last of his ration bar. "Exactly."

"Good to see you up and about, Major Drondil," Locke announced his arrival before anyone else could say anything. "I almost wish I could steal Captain Dorne from you."

She blushed and ducked her head as Reynarden laughed. "You'd have to convince Captain Dorne to leave the Republic Army first."

"That's not going to happen," she retorted, hiding her embarrassment over their praise. Giving Locke an apologetic look, she added, "The Army is where I belong, sir."

He chuckled. "I wasn't serious about poaching you, but if you ever change your mind..."

"I'll let you know if I do." Elara shook her head with a sigh.

Reynarden accepted his assault cannon from Tanno, easily slinging it over his shoulder. "I understand from Captain Dorne that we'll be escorting two of your pilots to the Lucky Lancer?"

"Yes, they're waiting in the other room." Locke led them there to a human man and a neimoidian man, both in flight suits. They stood up when they spotted Locke approaching with Havoc in tow. "Okay, people. Havoc Squad will escort you to the museum. Keep your heads down, follow orders and get Lancer out of there."

They chorused their answer: "Yes, sir!" The neimoidian continued alone. "Where do you want us, Major?"

"In the middle of the group so we can protect you," Reynarden told him, smiling reassuringly. "Our medic is the best in the Republic Army. She'll keep you alive if it comes to that."

A little hesitantly, they moved into the middle of the group. Elara and Yuun took up positions on either side of them. Aric and Forex brought up the rear while Reynarden and Tanno led the little parade out of the base and into Axial Park. They moved at a brisk jog along the road, the two pilots keeping up easily. Most of the Imperial soldiers they saw seemed to think twice about attacking such a large group of Republic soldiers. As they drew close to the museum, Elara spotted a familiar trio jogging towards them. "Hey, Rey."

"Hey, Fio." Reynarden smiled as his brother fell into step with him. "Where are you headed?"

Not even out of breath, Fiosynod told him, "The Corellian Museum of Starships. Need to borrow an Imp shuttle they have stored there. You?"

"Our Corellian friends--" Reynarden pointed over his shoulder at the pilots, "--are going to fly a Corellian warship out of the way so we can land our own troops."

Fiosynod grinned and nodded. "Sounds like a good plan." He peered over his shoulder at the pilots. "What's the name of the ship?"

"The Lucky Lancer," the human man replied, eyeing Fiosynod warily.

Elara stifled a sigh, catching a familiar resigned expression on her future brother-in-law's face. "Fio is a Jedi Knight, gentlemen, and commands most of the Jedi forces here on Corellia. He's on your side just as much as Havoc Squad."

"Yes, of course, Captain." Both men had the grace to look abashed by their mistrust. "Our apologies, Knight Fio."

Smiling faintly, Fiosynod corrected them, "Knight Drondil. I accept your apologies. Let's keep going, hmm?"

"Commanding the Jedi forces here?" Reynarden asked as they jogged along, surprised. "When did that happen? And how did Elara know already?"

Laughing, Fiosynod explained about being appointed upon his arrival and naming Kira as his second-in-command. "As for how Elara knows already, we saw her on the tram from the Blastfield Shipyards to Labor Valley and I told her then."

"Huh. All right." Reynarden gave his brother a sly look. "Did Kira have any warning you were going to name her second-in-command?"

Fiosynod shook his head, matching his brother's grin. "Nope."

"Bet she loved that," Reynarden chuckled, nudging Fiosynod with his elbow.

Still grinning, Fiosynod nodded. "Yep."

*

They parted ways in the museum: Fiosynod, Doc, and Teeseven to a lift and Havoc Squad and the pilots to the Lucky Lancer on display opposite the lift. "There she is! Thanks for the cover, Havoc. We'll handle things from here."

"Have a safe flight," Reynarden told them as Yuun deactivated the force field protecting the Lucky Lancer.

Looking amused, the neimoidian replied, "I don't know about 'safe', but we'll be careful."

"Now, let's see what this baby can do," the human muttered as they headed towards the ship.

An Imperial battledroid and soldier charged into the room just then, shooting wildly. As the pilots started the ship and prepared to get it airborne, Havoc Squad fought to give them the time they needed. By the time both the droid and the soldier were smoking corpses on the floor, the Lucky Lancer was long gone. When Reynarden called General Garza to report the success of their mission, Locke thanked them again for saving the Lucky Lancer. Garza sent coordinates to meet her in the Drall Library in the Government District for the final stage of their plan to attack the Bastion. "Before you report here, sweep the area around the museum for any Imperial sensor emplacements. We can't afford to have our plans discovered now. Garza out."

"Right, need to keep the Imps in the dark as much as possible," Reynarden muttered, turning off his holocomm and putting it away.

Yuun nodded as they headed back out of the museum. "We must blind our enemy as to the true nature of our path until it is too late."

"Exactly." Reynarden sighed, glancing back at the museum. "Something tells me Jeveen would love that museum."

Elara reached over to clasp his hand. "Maybe once she's done with her efforts here, she can take some time to visit."

"I hope I get a chance to tell her about it." Reynarden squeezed her hand, a gesture she returned, and they set to work taking out as many Imperial sensor emplacements as they could. Once they finished that, they jogged back to the Republic base and took the tram to the Government District. "Hey, Norm."

"Oh, hi, Rey." Normajh smiled distractedly at Reynarden, and then looked back out the window at the city rushing by.

As they settled into seats across from him, Tharan, and Nadia, the other two waved. "Hello, Rey." "Hi, Rey."

"What's up with Norm?" Reynarden asked, setting his helmet in his lap.

Nadia answered for both of them, her expression sympathetic as she glanced at her master. "He's worried about the First Son."

"First Sun?" Reynarden frowned, puzzled.

Shaking his head, Tharan explained, "No, first son, as in you are your parents' son."

"Right, so who is the First Son?" Reynarden inquired, looking from one to the other. "Or what is he, for that matter?"

Normajh finally turned to them, lines of stress around his eyes and mouth. "Did Fio ever tell you about the Children of the Emperor?"

"Yes, Kira was once one of them, but she isn't anymore." Reynarden nodded, looking pleased that he knew that much. "Is that what the First Son is?"

Tharan bowed his head and clenched his hands into fists. Normajh gently covered one. "I guess you could call him the leader of the Children of the Emperor. And it turns out he's Master Syo Bakarn of the Jedi Council."

"Kriff," Reynarden muttered, scrubbing his fingers through the tight curls on the top of his head. "I'm sorry, Norm. When did you find out?"

His jaw tight, Normajh told them, "Earlier today. Felix downloaded intel from an Imp ship we were trying to hijack and it included a holorecording that revealed his identity."

"We've been trying to find him ever since," Nadia added, biting her lower lip. "Master Norm believes he can be saved."

Straightening his shoulders, Normajh told them, "Kira broke free of the Emperor's conditioning and she wasn't even a Jedi Knight at the time. Surely a Jedi Master on the Jedi Council is just as capable of doing the same."

"Kira hadn't been fully indoctrinated, or whatever it's called," Tharan reminded him, looking pained. "The First Son has been lurking under the surface for decades, Norm."

Normajh shook his head. "I refuse to give up on Master Syo. I won't kill him if there's the smallest chance I can help him."

"Thank you," Tharan whispered, ducking his head.

They finished the trip in a contemplative silence.

*

When they reported to Garza, she informed them that Captain Phaeris and her crews had landed safely with their troops, who were approaching the Bastion as they spoke. Havoc Squad had two last objectives before they joined the attack on the Bastion. First, they needed to block Rakton's communications. "Once Havoc has placed signal jammers at key locations outside the Bastion walls, we can cut off all comm traffic."

"If the Empire's top general drops off comms, they're going to notice," Reynarden pointed out, sounding concerned.

Garza shook her head, though she seemed pleased that he'd thought of that. "Based on the comm traffic we've measured so far, we're confident you'll have enough time to complete your objectives before anyone notices the blackout. The gate is effectively impervious to frontal assault, so you'll need to commandeer an Imperial crawler tank and use it to pass through undetected."

"I'm always up for joyriding in a hundred-ton war machine," Reynarden replied with a cheeky grin, making Elara shake her head in fond exasperation.

Giving him a deadpan look, Garza told him, "Try not to get carried away." She handed Reynarden a datapad. "Scouts have spotted a crawler operating at these coordinates with a minimal escort. It's your best bet." Accepting the datapad, Reynarden transferred the coordinates on it to his own as Garza continued her briefing. "Once you've ridden the crawler through the Bastion gate, you'll secure the gate controls, then contact me via holo to begin the final assault. Is everything clear?"

"Plant the jammers outside the gate, hijack the crawler, secure the gate controls," Reynarden rattled off, setting Garza's datapad down on the desk. "Clear, General."

Nodding, she told them, "Time is tight. That crawler won't be in the field forever. Set your jammers and get there as quickly as possible. Don't let anything slow you down. Dismissed. And good luck."

Saluting, they waited for Garza to return them, and then left the office she'd been using. They saw Jeveen talking with Normajh, but Reynarden didn't do more than wave at them. Both waved back, but didn't seem to expect them to stop and chat. Gathering up the rest of Havoc Squad, they left the Republic base. Once they were outside, Elara asked, "Joyriding in a hundred-ton war machine, sir?"

"Why not?" Reynarden asked with a grin. "I hope you know how to operate them, Dorne."

"It shouldn't be too different from any other Imperial vehicles," she agreed with a nod.

The others looked confused, so they explained their objectives while they headed to the Bastion to put the jammers in place. They encountered more Imperial soldiers than ever, most of whom seemed determined to stop them. Not that they let them. When they reached the coordinates Garza had specified for the jammers, Havoc kept watch while Yuun installed them. "The enemy is now mute and deaf as well as blind, Major Drondil."

"Right, let's go hijack that crawler and take it for a spin." Grinning, Reynarden set off for the other coordinates Garza gave them.

As she followed behind Reynarden, Elara remarked to Aric, "I haven't seen him like this for months. I've missed it."

"That makes two of us," Aric admitted reluctantly. "Either the prospect of kicking Rakton's ass has perked him up, or something else entirely."

Elara glanced down at her left hand. She couldn't see it through her gauntlet, but she could feel the ring on her finger. "I'd say it's the latter.'

"Yeah, me, too," he agreed with a grim smile.

With that settled, they hurried to catch up. The minimal guards were laughably easy for Havoc Squad to take out and Elara set the crawler to head to the Bastion without any trouble. Once they were on their way, she checked in with the others, taking care of any injuries they'd sustained. That done, she sat down beside Reynarden and leaned against him. He wrapped his arm around her waist and kissed her cheek, whispering, "No matter what goes down, Elara, remember that I love you."

"I love you, too, Reynar," she whispered back. Since the only people around them were their squadmates, she kissed him properly.

She heard Tanno whistle, followed by a growl from Aric, but she didn't care because Reynarden kissed her back. No matter what awaited them in the Bastion, they would face it together.

Chapter Text

"Havoc calling General Garza," Reynarden reported once they finished clearing out the Imperial soldiers just inside the Bastion's outer gate. "Objective complete. The Bastion is secure."

It may have been Elara's imagination, but Garza's holoimage looked pleased. "Excellent work, Havoc. Everything we've fought so hard to achieve is finally within reach. Our forces will rendezvous with you shortly. Once they do, the operation will be in your hands."

"Sir?" He looked surprised and Elara's heart went out to him. Garza had never hinted that this would be the case, though it made sense from a practical standpoint.

Garza nodded. "I cannot lead this final push from the outside, Major Drondil. I'm counting on you to assess Rakton's defenses and lead our forces to victory."

"I won't let you down, General," Reynarden told her, straightening to his full height.

Another nod, followed by her raising a hand to keep them from ending the call just yet. "Remember: General Rakton is one of the greatest enemies the Republic has ever faced. He is a very dangerous man, both mentally and physically. He likely plans to use the information in the Bastion's databanks to command an unstoppable campaign against us. You must not fail."

"General Rakton won't defeat us, General," he assured her, though Elara could see that his free hand was tightly clenched at his side.

Garza looked pleased once again as she told them. "The finest military units available are under your command now. Your Republic is counting on you to put them to good use. Good luck, Havoc Squad. Garza out."

"So, no pressure or anything," Reynarden muttered once her holoimage disappeared, tucking the holocomm away.

Elara hugged him as tight as she could. "You're not in this alone, Reynar. I'm here, and so is the rest of Havoc Squad. We have your back."

"Thanks, Elara." He hugged her back, their armor clinking a little in the process. Sighing, he added, "Hugging or kissing in armor is stupid."

She laughed softly, kissing his cheek. "The sooner we finish our mission, the sooner we can take our armor off so we can hug and kiss properly."

"That's a form of incentive I hadn't considered before." Reynarden grinned at her, and then cupped her cheek. "I love you."

Elara traced the parts of his tattoo not covered by his helmet. "I love you, too."

"Right, let's get going." Reluctantly, he stepped back and headed out to where Havoc Squad waited, with the Republic soldiers that would hold the gate against Imperial reinforcements. Elara could see a group from the RAMC setting up a triage center under Yakarn's direction. His durasteel armor, so pristine when Elara had left him to take care of the firebombing victims, was smudged and dented. Clearly, his tour of duty on Corellia hadn't been restricted to helping the wounded, but he had to have expected as much.

Looking up from his work, Yakarn saw Elara watching him and waved. She waved back, and then turned to join Reynarden and the others as they jogged through the Bastion to the rendezvous coordinates Garza had given them. Lieutenant Coria of the Safecrackers waited there, as well as Captain Marshall of the Eighty-First Infantry, and an advozse man who was a captain, going by the insignia on his armor. While all the soldiers and walkers marched into formation and prepared to wait, Elara checked with the rest of Havoc Squad before taking up her position and saluting Reynarden. "Major, all personnel and equipment are up to protocol and ready to begin operations."

"Good of you to invite the Safecrackers out for the main event this time, Major Drondil." Coria eyed the Bastion with a practiced eye. "This will be the biggest fortress we've busted yet."

The advozse nodded his agreement. "Major, I am Lesher, commander of the Fifty-third Armored Platoon. We march at your command."

"It's a pleasure to have you all here," Reynarden told them, clearly falling back on the manners and etiquette his parents must have taught him.

Looking slightly amused, Lesher told him, "Being here is the highest of honors, Major Drondil."

"Intel shows three routes to the Bastion's main complex," Coria informed them, apparently deciding it was best to carry on with the mission. "Aerial scans confirm and Rakton has different defenses set up on each route." Elara nodded. That fit with what she'd been taught and what she knew of Rakton. "First approach, we've got walkers and war droids. On the second, a full infantry company. And the last one has all the fun toys: mines, turrets, you name it."

Reynarden listened carefully to Coria's report, looking thoughtful. When he finished, Reynarden looked at Elara, "Captain, any thoughts on how to proceed?"

"Imperial doctrine teaches that Republic tactics favor combined, directed assaults rather than the broader tactics favored by the Empire," she explained, aware that her unique situation would be very beneficial here. "We should use their expectations to our advantage and surprise them by attacking all three routes at once."

The others nodded their agreement and Elara felt a flush of pleased pride that they agreed with her suggestion. That hadn't always happened before she joined Havoc. Lesher offered the first addition to her idea, "The first route, guarded by walkers and war droids, is most dangerous. I suggest matching strength with strength. My armor against theirs."

"Or we could mix it up," Coria offered with a slight nod to Lesher. "My people can handle walkers and war droids. Not easy, but doable. Leave Lesher's walkers to trounce their infantry."

Reynarden looked thoughtful, looking at the Republic walkers waiting nearby, and then the soldiers in armor that matched Coria's. Finally, he gave a nod, "Lieutenant Coria, the walkers are all yours."

"They'll never know what hit 'em," Coria assured him with a sharp grin. "Route two is all infantry: a full company. They're dug in and ready to fight."

Lesher tilted his head slightly. "Would you like my walkers to engage these defenses? Or do you wish to do so yourself?"

"Take your walkers and push straight through," Reynarden told him after thinking for several moments, taking time to weigh his options.

Lesher nodded sharply. "With pleasure, Major Drondil."

"I guess that leaves the automated defenses for you, Major." Coria winked. "Enjoy."

Before Reynarden could dismiss them, Elara spoke up again, bringing up something that she'd just remembered, "One of General Rakton's most celebrated victories involved sending elite commandos behind his attackers via speeders to flank and disorient them." Reynarden nodded and gestured for her to continue. "I suggest holding part of Havoc Squad back in case he tries a similar tactic here. All units can then regroup upon breaching the main complex."

"All right. We all know our jobs and what's at stake here," Reynarden informed them, standing as tall as he could, his voice ringing with confidence. "If we fail here, the entire Republic is on the line. Are we going to let that happen?"

Coria shook his head, speaking crisply. "Sir, no, sir!"

"Move out!" Reynarden gave the order and the others saluted. Once he returned it, they turned and left to speak with their soldiers, snapping out orders. Elara wished she could hug him, but settled for giving his hand a quick squeeze. He squeezed back and addressed their squadmates. "Yuun, you're with me and Dorne. Jorgan, you, Vik, and Forex stay back in case Rakton tries to flank us. Help Captain Marshall and his troops hold the gate otherwise."

Aric and Yuun both saluted. While Yuun moved to join Elara and Reynarden, Aric led Tanno and Forex over to Captain Marshall. "Yuun is ready to tread this path with Major Drondil and Captain Dorne."

"We'll be facing droids and automated defenses, so speak up if you have any ideas or suggestions," Reynarden told them. "Let's go."

They headed towards one of the routes to the Bastion and spotted a probe droid almost immediately. Elara shot it down and crouched to examine it. She nodded and looked up at Reynarden. "This is a scanner probe, sir. They're designed to repair other droids and, perhaps, automated defenses."

"Target them first, then," Reynarden murmured thoughtfully. "Good thinking, Dorne."

They continued along the route and Yuun stopped them next. "Oil traps, Major Drondil."

"Hmm, that floor will get increasingly slippery," Reynarden studied the corridor as the oil puddles spread. "Time for a little creativity."

They watched as he lightly leapt onto a nearby ledge and carefully walked across it before jumping across to the next one. He grabbed a bundle of equipment dangling from the ceiling and used it to swing across to another ledge, and then jump over the last puddle of oil. He turned and waved them across. Taking a deep breath, Elara followed his example. They'd practiced this on both the ship and at his parents' home. She'd never been fond of obstacle courses, but that practice paid off here. Reynarden gave her a bright smile when she reached him and they turned to see Yuun grabbing the same piece of equipment she and Reynarden had used. Unfortunately, the chain securing it to the ceiling must have had a weak link because it broke as Yuun swung across, sending him flying towards them. They caught him and Elara made sure his head wouldn't hit the floor. Gands may have exoskeletons, but she didn't want to push their luck. "Yuun thanks Major Drondil and Captain Dorne."

"Not a problem, Yuun." Reynarden accepted Yuun's hand and he helped Reynarden stand. "That's one way to get across."

Elara let Reynarden help her up and they continued further down the corridor, fighting droids and turrets as they went. Eventually, a closed gate stopped them. Elara frowned and shook her head. "This is Republic protocol, Major. I don't know it the way I do Imperial."

"Yuun has been looking and Yuun recommends that we destroy the substations." He indicated two panels nearby.

Shrugging, Reyanrden drew his assault cannon and shot both panels. The gate remained stubbornly closed, but, "Look, Major. Those fuel cells are vulnerable now."

"Good eye, Dorne. Stand back." Reynarden pulled out one of his detonators and waited until they'd all taken shelter. Then he lobbed the detonator at the fuel cells and ducked down. A moment later, an explosion sent heat and debris sweeping past their position. When they carefully looked, the fuel cells were destroyed, as was the fencing beside it. "Heh. Who needs a door when we can just make one for ourselves?"

When they stepped into the fenced area--careful of the smoking fence--Yuun headed for the control panel on the wall opposite the fuel cells. "Now the Imperials have no power."

"Good thinking, Yuun." Reynarden thumped his armored shoulder, and then winced, rubbing his hand. He waved Elara off when she raised her eyebrows at him.

The next room contained an anti-aircraft cannon as well as the usual droids and turrets. As they cleared the room, a request reached them via their comms, "This is Lesher: enemy bomber spotted. We need anti-air support immediately!"

"On it, Captain!" Reynarden replied, heading for the control panel for the anti-aircraft gun. His hands moved across the control panel with assurance. A few shots from the AA gun and the bomber went down. Unfortunately, its trajectory sent it careening towards the gun.

Elara grabbed Reynarden and pulled him out of harm's way just before the bomber crashed into the gun, sheltering his body with hers. Ignoring the shrapnel that hit her between her chestplate and backplate on her right side, she asked, "Are you all right, sir?"

"Forget me, what about you?" Reynarden asked, peering carefully at her. "Something hit you, didn't it?"

Yuun interrupted before Elara could reply, "An enemy blocks our path, Major Drondil, Captain Dorne. The next stop on our journey lays beyond."

"Stay back here," Reynarden told her, helping Elara to move off of him and into a sitting position. "Yuun and I can handle this."

Biting back her protest, Elara watched her squad mates deal with the artillery droid. Once it was gone, she carefully stood up and walked with them to the rendezvous location. Ignoring the pain in her side, she helped clear out the rest of the Imperial soldiers and droids. As the troops gathered, she found a spot out of the way and tried to pull the shrapnel out of her side. Unfortunately, she couldn't get a good enough grip on it without contorting herself. "Hey, Dorne, what's the problem?"

"I can't get this shrapnel out," she told Tanno, relieved to see that he looked largely unharmed beyond smudges of soot on his armor.

He knelt and peered at it. "Yeah, that's not a good angle for you. Want some help?"

"Yes, thank you." Elara picked up the kolto patch she'd prepared. "On three: one, two, three."

Tanno pulled the shrapnel out and Elara bit her lip against the pain, quickly covering the spot with the kolto patch. "How did you get somethin' like this stuck in you?"

"A bomber crashed into an AA cannon and Elara pushed me out of the way," Reynarden explained as she prepared a kolto injection.

Taking the injector, he carefully pressed it against her side above the kolto patch. She relaxed as it dulled the pain in her side. "Thank you, Major."

"Thank you, Elara," he answered quietly, finding the mender in her kit so he could fix the tear in her cortosis weave.

Aric joined them the next moment, saluting. "Major, Captain. We're ready for the next stage of the mission."

"Right, of course." Straightening up, Reynarden offered his hand to Elara.

She reached up with her right hand first, and then winced when it pulled on the kolto patch. Before any of the others could show concern, she reached up with her left hand and pulled herself up. "If you give me a few minutes, I'll have a status report, sir."

"I'll be with the others when you have it," he told her.

She nodded and checked both Tanno and Aric before they could move away. Satisfied that they were in fighting shape, she walked over to speak with Yakarn, who'd set up another triage station. He smiled wanly when she joined him, "A few serious injuries, Captain, but no casualties. I've done what I can."

"Thank you, Dr. Par. I'm sure the soldiers appreciate your work," Elara told him.

Before she could move away, he scanned her. "As long as you're careful of that injury on your side, you should fine to finish this."

"Yes, sir." Elara nodded, and then turned to join Reynarden, Coria, Lesher, and Marshall.

When she reached them, Reynarden asked, "Report: what's the status of our forces?"

"Havoc Squad is at full operational status," she answered first. "Zero casualties."

Coria answered next, looking a little sad. "The walkers put up a tough fight. We lost some good people, but the Safecrackers are still in fighting shape."

"Enemy infantry only managed to disable one of our walkers before we routed them," Lesher made his report next, looking satisfied. "All other walkers now defend this point."

Marshall answered last, "A few serious injuries amongst my soldiers, but no casualties."

"We've made a major advance against the Empire's best," Reynarden told them, looking quite pleased. "You should all be proud. Now you just have to hold this position until we get the man we came for. Stay sharp!"

Lesher nodded briskly. "We will not fail you, Major Drondil!"

"In all likelihood, General Rakton is directing his forces from the command center," Elara told him quietly as they made their way to where the rest of Havoc Squad waited. "You have the coordinates. We are ready to proceed when you are."

Taking a deep breath, Reynarden let it out in a long sigh. "Right, this is what we've been gunning for since the Gauntlet, people. I want Dorne and Jorgan with me for this. Yuun, Vik, Forex, help the others hold this position. We'll try to make this as quick as possible."

"The Republic will prevail, no matter the cost!" Forex declared.

With that, they headed into the command center, weapons at the ready. Her blaster in her left hand, Elara was glad she'd practiced aiming and shooting with either hand after what had happened on the Gauntlet. A shiver trickled down her spine when she saw General Rakton waiting for them with two elite guards at his back. While they both carried assault cannons, Rakton himself had a sniper rifle on his back. Rakton recognized them as they approached and began to speak: "The one worthy opponent in the entire Republic. Ironically outmaneuvering all of my plans to save the Republic's people." Elara raised her eyebrows in sheer disbelief at his statement. Save them? "Can you not see your corrupt and weak-minded leaders are dragging you down? Your Republic will fall, either by the hands of the Empire or by the weight of its own decadence. The end is inevitable. Why prolong the suffering?"

"Is this how you greet everyone you meet?" Reynarden retorted, his tone light. From where she stood, Elara could see his hands tightening on the grips of his assault cannon.

Rakton stared at him in surprised disbelief for a moment. "You think this is a joke?"

"No, but the idea that you're saving the Republic by attacking it is." Reynarden shrugged, his weapon still aimed at the others.

Shaking his head, Rakton countered, "You delude yourself. Like so many others, you willfully accept the lies of people weaker than you. The people of the Republic are crushed by bureaucracy, neither encouraged nor allowed to reach their fullest potential." Elara resisted the urge to counter that the Empire did that, with its tendency to punish even the smallest of mistakes with death rather than allowing people to learn from them. "Under Imperial rule, your people will be free to excel, to take charge of their own fates. I will give your people the future they deserve."

"The Empire doesn't free people," Reynarden countered, sounding as angry as Elara had ever heard him. "It conquers them."

Rakton's reply made Elara wonder if he had any idea what life in the Empire was like for people without his privileged status, "It is unfortunate that you will only partake in a civilized way of life when forced. The people of the Republic are cowed and complacent, when they could be fully engaged in the great works of the Empire. With the intel I've collected here, I can wage a war so destructive that your Republic will fall in a matter of months. So I offer this: return to your masters. Convince them to surrender unconditionally. Avoid millions of deaths trying to prevent a victory that could free your people!"

"I have you cornered, Rakton," Reynarden reminded him, shifting his assault cannon into a better position. "You expect me to just leave now?"

Glancing from Reynarden to Elara to Aric, Rakton asked disbelievingly, "You actually think you can beat me? With a traitor and alien filth at your back?" Aric's growl was audible even without their comms. Elara scowled and settled herself more firmly into a firing stance. "Why does no one see sense, even after all this time? I hope the image of your corpse will encourage your subordinates to see reason where you could not. If you have any final words, now is the time."

"For the Republic!" Reynarden shouted even as Rakton activated a stealth generator and disappeared from view.

This left them to face his guards, both of whom opened fire. They returned fire, whittling down their shield generators until they flickered and died. Shortly after that, both lay crumpled on the floor. Elara carefully checked them while Reynarden and Aric covered her. "They're both dead."

"Jorgan?" Reynarden asked quietly.

He nodded slightly, whispering, "I can still smell him in here."

"He won't leave until we're dead," Elara added, keeping her voice quiet.

Aric climbed up onto some of the computer equipment next to them, using his scope to find Rakton. "In the corner. He has his rifle up and ready the moment you appear in his line of sight. This equipment is hiding you from his view."

"We have stealth generators of our own," Elara reminded them.

Reynarden shook his head. "He probably has an infrared scanner on his scope like Aric does."

"I got a good look at it while he was babbling," Aric replied, peering down at them. "It's a regular scope. I put an infrared scanner on mine after that ambush."

Nodding, Reynarden glanced at Elara with raised eyebrows. "Ready, Dorne?"

"Ready." She stepped close to him and took his hands in hers. "We can do this."

He nodded, squeezing her hands. "We'll take opposite routes around the computer equipment. Aric will tell us when we're both in position. Then we strike."

"Yes, sir." Reluctantly, they stepped back from each other and activated their stealth generators.

Moving as quietly and stealthily as she could, Elara moved around the equipment and towards the corner Aric had indicated. "Rey's in position. Another meter, Elara." She could see the flicker of both Rakton and Reynarden's stealth fields now and moved to where Aric meant. "Now!"

At Aric's signal, they fired their weapons together. Elara and Reynarden's bolts hit first, disabling Rakton's stealth field. Aric's bolt hit next, scorching Rakton's arm. Dropping his sniper rifle, he grabbed his blaster pistols and attempted to shoot both of them at the same time. Realizing what he intended to do, Elara, shifted out of the way so the shot at her went wide. Reynarden gave a cry of pain, but he didn't stop shooting. Neither did Elara or Aric. Rakton kept shooting, too, until well-aimed shots from Aric knocked first one, and then the second blaster pistol out of his hands. He scrambled for his snipe rifle, but Reynarden slagged it with his assault cannon. The smell of burned flesh and leatheris reached them as Rakton stared at his ruined hands in disbelief. "Hold fire!"

"So this is how it ends." Rakton glowered up at them, unphased by the fact that both Reynarden and Elara had blaster pistols aimed at him. "A lifetime of service to the greatest cause in galactic history." Aric climbed down from his perch as Rakton talked and stalked over to aim his blaster pistol at him, too. "What happens now? A simple execution? Or will the last civilized man be paraded through the streets of Coruscant as a trophy for your ignorant masses?"

"You're too dangerous to the Republic to let you live, even as a prisoner," Reynarden explained, looking resigned, yet determined. He glanced at Elara and Aric, who both nodded.

As one, they shot Rakton, point blank, and he crumpled to the floor. Elara knelt to check his vital signs. She could hardly believe it, "General Rakton has finally been beaten." She looked up at the others. "This will send shock waves through the entire Empire."

"We got him," Aric remarked as Reynarden helped Elara stand up, shaking his head in disbelief. "It's finally over. Hard to believe."

Coria rushed in then, "Major Drondil! Serious heat's coming in, the scanners are completely off the-- whoa, is that... was that him?"

"What heat are we looking at, Lieutenant?" Reynarden asked, distracting him from Rakton's corpse and reminding him that time was of the essence.

Frowning as he dragged his mind back to duty, Coria said, "Uh, we can't get a definite fix. A whole lot. The Imps must've figured out that Rakton's off comms. They're sending everything they've got this way. It's too much to handle, sir." Calm now, though urgent, he added, "With respect, I think we'd better bug out. Everyone has their evac points set, you just have to give the word, Major."

"You're cleared to evacuate, Lieutenant Coria," Reynarden told him formally. "Make sure everyone gets the word. Priority to those in need of medical attention."

Nodding, Coria saluted, "Understood, sir. I'll let everyone know right away. It's been a real honor, Major Drondil. See you next time."

"See you next time." Reynarden returned Coria's salute and he dashed out. He looked at Elara and Aric. "Come on. Time to bug out." They ran out of the command center after Coria. As they did, they could feel the fortress start to shudder with impacts from Imperial weaponsfire. The repeated impacts made it difficult for them to keep their feet under them. When they finally made it outside, they saw Yuun, Tanno, and Forex waiting by a last shuttle. "Everyone aboard, now!"

Tanno obediently started up the ramp, but Yuun and Forex stayed where they were. "Not until all of Havoc Squad is present, Major Drondil!"

"We're coming, Yuun!" Reynarden yelled back, stumbling as the ground gave a particularly hard shake the next moment. "Kriff!"

Ducking and dodging, they finally reached the shuttle and hurried up the ramp together. It was still closing behind them when they felt the shuttle lift off. Elara couldn't stop a pained groan from escaping as her side protested. "Oh, stars."

"Clear a space," Reynarden snapped, helping her to sit down. "Let's get your armor off."

Elara couldn't stifle gasps of pain as they removed not only her chest- and backplates, but also her gauntlets and bracers. She didn't even try to unzip her cortosis weave, letting Reynarden do that for her and help to push it down to her waist. He drew in a sharp breath when he saw her side. She looked down and bit her lip. The kolto patch was soaked with blood, as was her tank top, because the gash from the shrapnel had opened further. "Here is Captain Dorne's medkit."

"Thanks, Yuun." Reynarden accepted it and handed it to Elara to hold as he replaced his gauntlets with surgical gloves. He accepted the tweezers she offered him and used them to carefully remove the kolto patch. Exchanging the used patch for the clean gauze she pulled out next, he used it to clean the blood. It hurt as the antiseptic in the gauze sterilized the wound and the skin around it. "It's still bleeding a little, Elara."

She nodded and picked out another kolto patch, bigger than the previous one. "Use this patch."

"You need an injection, too," Reynarden reminded her, carefully unwrapping the patch and placing it over the gash, sealing it on all four sides.

Rolling her eyes, she rummaged through the kit for the appropriate vials. "That's S.O.P., Reynar, you know that."

"Yes, I do." He took the injector and used it once it was ready.

Taking it back once that vial was empty, Elara ejected it and inserted a second one, handing it back to Reynarden. "Just to be safe."

"Yes, dear." He grinned and injected that one as well. "Antibiotic?"

She nodded, holding the medkit steady as he packed everything back into it. "No telling what might have gotten in there before we took care of it."

"Of course." He sat down beside her and Elara immediately leaned against him.

Stifling a yawn, Elara asked, "Is anyone else hurt?"

"None of us are hurt, Dorne," Tanno volunteered from nearby. "Looks like you're the only one."

Reynarden wrapped an arm around her shoulders as she nodded. "That's good. I'll check all of you myself when we get back to the ship."

"If you're awake to do it." Reynarden remarked with a laugh.

Elara tried to object, but another yawn interrupted her. "Good point."

"Let yourself sleep," he whispered, kissing her cheek. "We've earned a rest."

She nodded and let her head drop onto his shoulder, drifting off to sleep the next moment. I hope we have a nice, long leave after this.

*

When Elara woke up, she was in their quarters aboard the Thunderclap, her head pillowed in Reynarden's lap as he read something on a datapad. He smiled tenderly when he saw that she was awake. "Welcome back to the land of the living."

"I didn't even wake up when we transferred from the shuttle to the Thunderclap?" she asked, her voice still thick with sleep.

He nodded, gently smoothing her hair back from her face. "Yeah, but we did our best to keep from waking you up."

"Mmm." Reluctantly, Elara sat up and stretched. Her ruined tank top had been replaced with a clean one. "Thank you. Where are we headed?"

Reynarden smiled and reached for a glass on the table on his side of the bed. "Coruscant. We need to report to Garza there."

"Do you think we'll get leave?" she asked, accepting the glass and taking a deep drink of water, easing the dryness of her throat.

He nodded firmly. "We better. We need a break."

"Yes, we do." Elara finished drinking and leaned over to kiss him.

Reynarden smiled as he returned the kiss. "I have a question for you: do you want a long engagement?"

"Not really." She shook her head, settling against his side. "We've both had close calls. I don't want to wait any longer than necessary."

He nodded, slipping his arm around her waist. "Same here. You mentioned a military wedding before. Is your heart set on that?"

"You don't want a military wedding?" Elara stared at him in surprise.

Reynarden shook his head this time. "No, I don't. We may have met because we're both soldiers, but that doesn't define us."

"I've only ever considered a military wedding when I even thought about getting married," she admitted thoughtfully. "I have no idea what a non-military wedding would look like."

He grinned, gently squeezing the arm around her waist. "I had some mail from Mom waiting for me and I bet you have some, too."

"Ideas for our wedding already?" Elara asked, laughing softly.

Laughing, too, Reynarden nodded. "Yes. She's already considering ideas for my wedding suit and sent me a bunch of holoimages. I bet you have holoimages for wedding dresses."

"I don't want a big ceremony," she told him, resting her head on his shoulder. "Just our family and friends, really."

He kissed the top of her head. "I thought as much and told Mom in my reply."

"Boss, Dorne, we're almost to Coruscant," Tanno called through the door just as Elara started to drift off to sleep again.

Groaning, Reynarden called back, "We'll be right there."

"Time to get ready." Elara reluctantly got up and headed into the lavatory. Her hair pulled back and other business tended to, she emerged to see Reynarden already changed. She raised her eyebrows. "Dress uniform?"

He nodded, holding up hers. "Yes, Garza requested it in particular."

"Very well." She changed quickly, adjusting it as they felt the shudder of the ship emerging from hyperspace. When they left their quarters, they found Forex and Tanno waiting, the latter looking very uncomfortable in his dress uniform.

He grinned when he saw them. "Feeling better, Dorne?"

"Yes, thank you, Tanno." She smiled back, amused by his way of showing concern.

When the Thunderclap finally landed and they heard the engines shutting down, Aric and Yuun descended from the cockpit to join them, both in their dress uniforms. Together, Havoc Squad left their ship and headed to the Senate Tower.

*

No sooner did they reach Garza's office than she led them back out and up to the Supreme Chancellor's office. Instead of Dorian Janarus, who'd been the Supreme Chancellor since shortly after the Sacking of Coruscant, a Twi'lek woman with yellow-green skin and purple eyes waited for them: Leontyne Saresh. Elara remembered her from Taris: determined and fiercely dedicated to seeing Taris thrive again. She smiled warmly as Garza led Havoc Squad in, though it flickered when she looked at Elara. Clearly, she remembered Elara as well as she remembered Saresh. "General Garza, hello! Please, come in, make yourselves comfortable. And Major Drondil, so good to see you again. It seems like I can't blink without you winning yet another incredible victory for us."

"It's good to see you, too, Your Excellency," Reynarden replied, his voice carefully neutral.

As they settled into comfortable stances facing Saresh, she told him, "I didn't become fully aware of Havoc Squad's achievements until I took office. Your service to the Republic has been truly remarkable. For your exemplary service in the defense of the Republic, you are hereby awarded the Chancellor's Service Medal. Congratulations, Major Drondil."

"Will the other members of Havoc Squad be recognized as well?" Reynarden asked, glancing at them, and then back at Saresh. "I wouldn't have accomplished nearly as much without them."

Nodding, Saresh added, "Each of your squadmates will be awarded Silver Crescents to recognize their contributions to your defeat of General Rakton."

"With Rakton gone, the Imperial military is weaker than ever," Garza interjected when Saresh finished. "For the first time in many years, we have the advantage."

Sounding thoughtful, Reynarden asked, "Do you think the Empire might give up the fight?"

"At best, we'll drive them back to the fringes of the galaxy and spend decades hunting them across obscure Rim worlds.” Garza replied with a resigned look. “The people of the Republic will be safe from their assaults and that is what our work is all about."

Saresh nodded her agreement. "We're all fortunate to have defenders as skilled and clever as yourselves. Meeting with you has been a very great pleasure." Elara didn't miss that she kept most of her focus on Reynarden. "I wish you good fortune in all your future missions, and know that the Republic is proud of everything that you've achieved."

"Thank you very much for your time, Your Excellency." Garza nodded to her, and then led Havoc Squad back out of the Supreme Chancellor's office.

As they walked, Reynarden asked Garza, "What happened to Chancellor Janarus?"

"He was assassinated," she told him, keeping her voice quiet, but loud enough for all of them to hear. "By a bounty hunter sent by a Sith Lord named Tormen."

Reynarden sounded impressed, "The hunter must be very good, to have made it through all the security to Janarus himself."

"The SIS is still analyzing the recordings we have of her attack," Garza replied, leading them into her office.

Lieutenant Mai greeted them with a smile. "General, Major, welcome back! How did your meeting go?"

"Very well," Garza assured her. "The Supreme Chancellor was impressed with Major Drondil's accomplishments and those of Havoc Squad itself. You have gone above and beyond the call of duty, Major."

Reynarden stood as tall as he could, his hands clasped behind his back as usual. "I'm just proud to do my part, General."

"You do far more than just your part," she countered, looking amused. "No matter how much is asked of you, you always deliver."

She cautioned them that they may be called to serve again soon, but granted them leave for now. Saluting, they left and Reynarden dismissed them to do what they wished with their time. When it was just him and Elara, he asked, "I'm guessing you're going home with me, Elara?"

"As if I would go anywhere else, Reynar." She smiled warmly at him.

Smiling back, he kissed her softly. "Let's go home."

*

"Rey! Elara!" Florya and Bryden greted them with warm, tight hugs. "You're home!"

They returned the hugs, Reynarden with warmth and Elara with some awkwardness. "As if I'd go anywhere else now that I'm on leave."

"My home is with Reynar," Elara added as they finally trooped into the penthouse. "So where he goes, I go, too."

He smiled, looping his arm through hers. "And my home is with you, Elara."

"This is rather sweet and touching," a familiar voice remarked from the parlor doorway.

"Aleksei!" Gently disengaging her arm from Reynarden's, Elara hurried forward to hug her brother tight. "It's wonderful to see you!"

He hugged her back with a chuckle. "I'm glad to see you, too, Elara." He gently eased her back so he could look her over. "The Republic uniform suits you."

"Thank you." Smiling, Elara looked around curiously. "Where's Lieutenant Ekaitz?"

Before he could reply, Reynarden stepped forward. "Perhaps explanations can wait until after we've changed into more comfortable clothes?"

"Yes, of course." Elara nodded her agreement and hugged Aleksei again before leaving to change as Reynarden had suggested. Her things were still in her rooms and she changed into a nice blouse and skirt. When she returned to the parlor, Aleksei sat on one of the couches, talking with Florya and Bryden.

As she sat down beside her brother, something caught his eye and he gently grasped her left hand, looking carefully at the ring. "You're not much for rings, Elara. Is this--"

"An engagement ring, yes," she confirmed with a smile, having wondered how long it would take him to notice. "It's a Drondil family heirloom."

He nodded, looking past her towards the doorway. When she followed his glance, her heartbeat sped up at the sight of Reynarden standing there in a nice shirt and trousers. "As long as he makes you happy."

"He does." Elara turned towards Reynarden as he sat down on her other side. Smiling, she kissed his cheek. "Very happy."

Kissing her cheek in return, Reynarden added, "And Elara makes me happy."

"I congratulate you both, then," Aleksei replied, looking between them with a fond smile.

Reynarden reached across Elara to shake Aleksei's hand. "Thanks, Aleksei. It means a lot to me that you approve."

"As if Elara needs my approval." Aleksei shook his head with a fond smile for her. "Or anyone's for that matter."

She shook her head, taking Aleksei's hand after Reynarden released it and squeezing it firmly. "No, I don't need your approval, but I'd like it all the same."

"You have it, of course," he told her with an amused smile.

Nodding, she then raised her eyebrows and glanced pointedly around the room. "Where's Lieutenant Ekaitz?"

"As I'm sure you guessed, your hearing with Kalor prompted an investigation into everything he'd done at Personnel Division," Aleksei began, shifting into a comfortable position. "He'd apparently tried to be assigned as my handler, but his superiors felt it would be best if we had different handlers."

Elara nodded. "I was relieved that you'd been assigned a different handler. I didn't want you to deal with Kalor too."

"It didn't stop him from interfering with Bryni's work on my behalf," Aleksei grimaced and shook his head. "Once he wasn't blocking her efforts to move my case forward, I was cleared to begin working and prove my loyalty to the Republic."

Reynarden leaned forward, resting his chin on Elara's shoulder as he asked, "So what are you doing to prove it? Elara joined the Army."

"I never wanted to be a soldier," Aleksei admitted quietly, looking down at his hands clasped together in his lap. "I only joined the Imperial Army because it was a Dorne family tradition and I couldn't go against that and disappoint our parents. Especially Father."

Elara saw Florya shift in her seat as if she was going to say something, but Bryden stopped her with a hand on her shoulder and a shake of his head. Turning to her brother, she asked, "Since there's no tradition to follow in the Republic, what are you doing?"

"I'm a data analyst for the SIS now," he told her with a wry smile. "My background means I can spot certain patterns that a typical analyst might miss because they don't have the context for it that I do."

Smiling warmly, she leaned forward to hug Aleksei tightly once again. "I'm very happy for you."

"Thank you, Elara." He hugged her back just as tightly.

*

Aleksei stayed for lunch, and then left for his apartment. By that time, Elara and Reynarden's footlockers had arrived from the Thunderclap. As she unpacked hers, Elara found the package from Ava that Keran had sent to her. She'd yet to open it and now she wasn't sure she was ready for whatever Ava had meant for her. Deciding she definitely didn't want to face the contents alone, Elara left her rooms and headed to Reynarden's. When she knocked, he didn't answer. Frowning, she knocked again and called through the door, "Reynar?"

"Come in, Elara," he called back in a strained voice. "The door's always open to you."

She slipped inside and spotted him curled into a ball on the sofa. "It's still polite to knock instead of simply barging in."

"We're going to be married soon," he replied, clearing his throat the next moment. "I doubt that's why you're here."

Shaking her head, Elara sat down beside him on the sofa. "No, it isn't. I still haven't opened my package from Ava. I wanted to be with you when I did."

"You're wiser than I am." Reynarden gave a watery chuckle, and then gestured to the low table before the sofa. "I opened mine from her already."

Looking at the table, she finally noticed the opened box and deactivated holocomm. She reached for the latter, and then stopped. "May I watch?"

"Yeah. She recorded it after we said good-bye, but before she left." He shifted his position so he could hold Elara's hand.

Nodding, Elara set the holocomm to replay Ava's message. When her holoimage appeared, Elara remembered the desperation and fear of Ava's last words. Pushing the memory away, she focused on Ava's holoimage. "Hey, Rey. If you're watching this, that means I'm dead. I hope it meant something in the end. I'm recording this because I wanted to say a proper good-bye to you, just like the one we just shared. I enjoyed the times we had together. If things had been different, I might have tried to keep you for myself. Elara is a lucky woman and I hope the two of you have a long and happy life together." Here the holoimage paused for a long moment. "I… There should be a datapad, too. When this message finishes, a decryption code should go to the datapad so you can read it. I hope you understand why I did what I did. You're the best, Rey. Stay alive, you hear me?"

"Have you looked at the datapad?" Elara asked gently once Ava's holoimage disappeared.

Reynarden shook his head, wiping away tears. "Not yet. Open your package from Ava first."

"All right." She carefully opened the box and found a holocomm inside. Setting it on the table, she set it to play.

Ava's holoimage appeared again, looking uncertain. "Hey, Elara. I hope you don't mind that I'm sending this. After that good-bye with you and Rey-- I don't do feelings and I don't usually share. With you and Rey, though, it meant something. I almost wish I didn't have this mission so we can sort this out. Anyway, you're only supposed to be seeing this because I died before we had a chance to do that. I'm flattered that you're clearly willing to share. Thank you for that and I hope you and Rey have a long and happy life together. You two take good care of each other for me, all right?"

"It's my fault she's gone," he muttered, wrapping his arms around her and holding her close.

Elara hugged Reynarden back, uncaring of the tears trickling down her cheeks. "If you want to blame anyone for Ava's death, blame Rakton."

"And he paid for it." He gave a fierce smile at that.

She nodded, resting her cheek on his shoulder. "Exactly. Now, what about that datapad?"

"Right." Reynarden stretched out one leg and used his foot to pull the box closer. Once it was close enough, he grabbed it and pulled out the datapad inside. Holding it so they could both read it, he turned it on. A list of two files appeared on the screen. Reynarden tapped the first one and it brought up an official birth certificate for a boy named Jaydee Jaxo. The person listed as the mother was Ava Jaxo and the father was Reynarden.

Recovering from her surprise, Elara looked at the date of birth for Jaydee: just before they left to confront Commander Tavus. Some mental calculations put his age at around two. She glanced at Reynarden and he was just staring at the datapad. Gently, she nudged him and said, "There were two files. What's the second one?"

"Good question." Sounding stunned, Reynarden closed the birth certificate and opened the second file. It was a letter.

Hey, Rey.

Yeah, I know I told you my birth control was up-to-date. I thought it was, but apparently not. When I found out I was pregnant, I didn't want to simply abort the baby. You're a good man. But we both had careers to think about. So, I gave Jay up for adoption. I hope you can forgive me and, if you ever meet him, be a good dad or uncle or whatever to him. Take care of yourself and stay alive.

Apologetically,
Ava Jaxo

After a short silence while they absorbed that information, Elara found her voice first. "What do you want to do about your son?"

"I'd like to find him if at all possible," Reynarden admitted quietly, switching to the birth certificate. "I want to know him at least, even if we don't raise him."

She hugged him gently. "No matter what you decide, I'll support it."

"What kind of life could we give him?" he asked after thinking for a few more minutes. "We're on missions most of the time. Mom and Dad would end up raising him at the rate we're going."

Biting her lip, Elara decided now was as good a time as any to address the question of children in general. "Would you like more children? Not right now, of course, but hopefully soon?"

"I'd love to raise kids with you, Elara," Reynarden told her, smiling brightly. "Not just Jaydee if we find him, but any we might have together."

She nodded, laughing when he placed one hand over her stomach. "I'm not pregnant right now, Reynar, but I'd love to have your children. Teach them all about medicine, biology, legal terminology…" Smiling tenderly, she cupped his cheek with one hand. "I'd tell them about their brave and noble father, who took the stuffy Imperial no one liked and made her the happiest woman in the galaxy."

"Any kids you raised would be smart, brave, and have a good conscience," he replied, turning his head to brush a kiss across her palm. "They'll have plenty of aunts, uncles, and grandparents to help take care of them."

Elara shifted closer to him, almost climbing into his lap. "I'd like to get married first, but I definitely want to have your children someday."

"Right, wedding first, and then children." Reynarden grinned and gently kissed her. "I love you, Elara."

She kissed him back with a smile. "I love you, too, Reynar."

*

"Good morning, Rey, Elara," Fiosynod greeted the next morning when they reached the breakfast room.

Reynarden grinned, hurrying around the table to hug his brother. "Fio! Kira! When did you two get home?"

"Late last night," Kira explained, kissing Reynarden's cheek when he hugged her.

Elara had followed her fiancé around the table and hugged Fiosynod. "Good morning, Fio, Kira. It's lovely to see you both."

"Hi, Elara." Fiosynod kissed her cheek, smiling. "You're looking very well."

Kira hugged Elara next, eyebrows raised. "You called him Fio, not Fiosynod."

"I did." She held up her left hand for Kira to see her engagement ring. "He'll be my brother-in-law soon enough."

Taking Elara's hand, Kira studied the ring closely. "It's beautiful. I can sense its age."

"A Drondil family heirloom," Bryden explained as they finally sat down at the breakfast table. "Rey's idea."

Spreading her napkin over her lap as she waited for Clive to bring in the food, Kira said, "It suits you quite well, Elara. I--"

Clive brought in the food before Kira could give voice to whatever was on her mind. Once they'd taken the edge off their appetites, Florya asked, "How long will you be on Coruscant, Fio?"

"A week or so," Fiosynod replied, taking a sip of his juice. "Master Satele strongly suggested I visit the mind healers on Tython."

"Mind healers?' Reynarden asked, frowning. "What for?"

Clearing his throat, Fiosynod explained, "I still haven't remembered what happened to me while I was the Emperor's prisoner. The mind healers may help me with that."

"Are they like psychologists or psychiatrists?" Elara asked with a slight frown.

Kira nodded. "Yes, they serve a similar purpose, though they use the Force, of course."

"Of course." Elara nodded, amused.

Frowning herself, Florya asked, "If you need a mind healer, Fio, why haven't you seen one before now?"

"There were things that I had to do." Fiosynod stared down at his plate and Kira reached over to take this hand.

He smiled at her and his shoulders relaxed. Smiling at Fiosynod, Kira added, "Those are done now, though, and he's free to see the mind healers now."

"If we can help in any way, do let us know," Bryden told him with an understanding smile.

Fiosynod smiled back at his father. "Thanks, Dad. I'll keep your offer in mind, I promise."

*

After breakfast, Fiosynod and Kira went back to bed to sleep a little more. Elara and Reynarden sat down with Florya to begin making firm plans for their wedding, such as an actual date, the size of the guest list, the type of ceremony they wanted, and where they wanted to hold the wedding itself. By the time they stopped for lunch, Elara was ready to take a break. After lunch, Reynarden, Elara, Fiosynod, and Kira headed out to meet Jeveen and Normajh at the cantina in the Old Galactic Market. When they ordered their drinks from the bartender, someone spoke up from behind them, "Put their drinks on my tab."

"You sure about that, Viray?" the bartender asked.

They turned to see Viray Par standing behind them, wearing civilian clothes and a familiar crooked smile on his face. He nodded to the bartender. "I'm sure. If not for Reynarden and Elara, I wouldn't be here right now."

"Whatever you say." The bartender sighed and left to mix their drinks.

Reynarden shook Viray's hand. "It's good to see you again. Jeveen said you and Dagger Wing were back in space."

"Yeah, we just came back from a mission over Corellia," Viray told them, shaking Reynarden's hand, and then Elara's.

Accepting his drink from the bartender, Reynarden told him, 'We were just there, too. Jeveen and Norm, too." He indicated Fiosynod and Kira. "And Fio and Kira here."

"Friends of yours?" Viray asked, eyeing them carefully.

Offering his hand, Fiosynod told him, "I'm Jedi Master Fiosynod Drondil and this is Jedi Knight Kira Carsen."

"Brothers?" Viray glanced between Fiosynod and Reynarden, startled, as he shook Fiosynod's hand. Then he gave a rueful chuckle. "I really shouldn't be surprised, considering my own family situation."

Reynarden laughed as Viray shook Kira's hand. "No, you really shouldn't."

"Are Jeveen and Normajh here, too?" Elara asked once they all had their drinks. "We're supposed to meet them."

Nodding, Viray began gently herding them towards the same private room they'd used before. "Yeah, they're here, and so are Kag and Yak."

"Yakarn was on Corellia, too." Elara couldn't resist telling Viray. She'd hoped to see him again before they left, but that hadn't happened.

Reynarden snapped his fingers, nearly spilling his drink in the process. "That's right! He's a very good doctor."

"Yes, he is." Viray nodded his agreement.

They entered the room just then. More furniture had been added since their last visit. A long couch now stretched almost completely across the far wall, the ends curving forward slightly. Jeveen sat on the couch, Corso to her left with Normajh on his other side. A strange ratattaki man sat on Jeveen's other side, listening as she talked. Yakarn sat on a smaller couch nearby, talking with Normajh. Moments after their entrance, Jeveen looked up and grinned. "Rey, Elara, Fio, Kira! Good to see you!"

"Hey, Jeveen." Reynarden grinned back as he returned her enthusiastic hug, careful not to spill his drink on her, and kissed her cheek.

When Jeveen hugged her next, Elara was ready and returned it with only a little awkwardness. "Hello, Jeveen."

"Hi, Jeveen." Fiosynod chuckled as he hugged her back, wincing a little when she put too much pressure on his left shoulder.

By the time she pulled back to hug Kira, Fiosynod's wince was gone. Kira returned Jeveen's hug with a laugh. "Hi, Jeveen."

"Come and sit." Jeveen urged them towards the couch. "You all know Norm, of course. And-- wait, I know Rey and Elara know Yak, but what about Fio and Kira?"

They shook their heads and Fiosynod told her, "No, I don't believe we have."

"I'm Dr. Yakarn Par," Yakarn told them, having stood up as they approached.

Jeveen continued the introductions as Fiosynod and Kira took turns shaking Yakarn's hand. "These two are Fiosynod Drondil and Kira Carson, Jedi Knights."

"Actually, Fio's a Jedi Master now," Kira corrected, glancing up at him proudly.

Normajh stood up to shake Fiosynod's hand. "Congratulations, Fio. When were you promoted?"

"Yesterday." Fiosynod answered with a sheepish smile. "I didn't expect it at all."

Kira rolled her eyes as Corso shook Fiosynod's hand and congratulated him. "You've done a lot for the Jedi Order in a short amount of time, Fio. I'm surprised it took them so long."

"Norm was promoted before me," Fiosynod reminded her, gesturing to the Zabrak.

Shaking his head, Normajh told him, "It was more of a formality, Fio."

"The point is, Fio's a Jedi Master now," Jeveen interjected.

Reynarden had set his drink down on the low table in the center of the room and took the opportunity to hug Fiosynod. "Congratulations, Fio. When are you going to tell Mom and Dad?"

"Soon?" Fiosynod answered with a sheepish smile.

Shaking his head, Reynarden lightly punched his arm. "That'd better be later today."

"Of course." Fiosynod made a face, rubbing his arm where Reynarden had punched it.

Elara hugged him as well. "Congratulations, Fio."

"One more introduction," Jeveen announced once they parted, eyeing Elara thoughtfully. She gestured to the rattataki man. "This is our second-oldest brother, Kageesh Par. Kag, Major Reynarden Drondil and Captain Elara Dorne, CO and XO of Havoc Squad. And Jedi Master Fiosynod Drondil and Jedi Knight Kira Carsen of the Jedi Order."

Kageesh smiled politely as he shook each of their hands in turn. Close up, Elara could see that he had bright green eyes instead of the usual pale gray. She held his hand for a moment longer, struck by a memory. "We did meet before, though I would hardly call it a meeting."

"We did?' Kageesh frowned, studying her carefully. "Don't remember."

She nodded, finally releasing his hand. "It was about a year ago. You bumped into me as I was a leaving the cantina by the Senate Tower and you were arriving."

"Apologies." He smiled crookedly. "Was distracted."

Elara nodded again. "Apology accepted."

"Good." He continued on to shake Fiosynod's hand, and then Kira's.

That done, they all sat down to begin catching up. Jeveen looked at Elara. "You used Fio's nickname, Elara. You don't use nicknames normally."

"I do if I feel close to them and, well, he'll be my brother-in-law in a few months." Elara held up her left hand so Jeveen could see the ring.

She gave a low whistle and grinned. "Congratulations to you both." She pulled off the glove on her left hand and held it up so they could see the ring on the third finger. "Corso proposed to me while we were on Corellia."

"I planned to do it right," Corso explained with a sheepish smile. "Romantic dinner, candles, all of that. Then we were in the shuttle, on our way to face the Voidwolf, and I just sort of blurted out the question."

Reynarden chuckled, slipping an arm around Elara's waist and kissing her cheek. "It was less of a proposal and more we agreed that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together."

"In the Empire, men usually propose," Elara explained, feeling her cheeks grow warm. "I wasn't sure how Reynar felt about the idea of marriage, so I brought up the possibility of a future together and it went from there."

Normajh lifted his half-empty glass. "Congratulations to all four of you. I wish you all long and happy lives together."

"To the happy couples," Fiosynod added, raising his mostly-full glass.

The others raised their drinks and chorused, "The happy couples!"

*

Jeveen insisted on a holoimage with all of her brothers before Yakarn and Viray left, "This is the first time the five of us have been in the same room together since before Viray joined the Navy. Let's commemorate it!"

Corso took the holoimage. Jeveen stood in the middle of the group, Viray and Kageesh on one side of her, Yakarn and Normajh on the other side. All five had matching crooked smiles. Once Corso finished, Viray and Yakarn said their good-byes and left. Kageesh disappeared from the room shortly afterwards, but Jeveen didn't seem worried. Down to the seven of them, Fiosynod said, "When we told Mom and Dad we were meeting you, they asked us to invite you for dinner tonight. Nothing fancy, come as you are."

"I'll be glad to go," Normajh answered with a grateful smile. He looked at his sister. "Jev?"

"We'll come, too," she replied after some thought. "Me and Corso."

Normajh whispered something to Jeveen and she whispered something back with a nod. He nodded back and they followed Reynarden, Elara, Fiosynod, and Kira from the cantina. They had to take two separate taxis to the penthouse with such a large group. Jeveen and Corso climbed out of their taxi and stared up at the penthouse with wide eyes. Reynarden chuckled at their reaction. "Welcome to our home, Jev, Corso."

"Nice place your parents have here," Jeveen remarked, her tone light, but Elara could see that she was holding tight to Corso and Normajh's hands.

Corso shook his head slightly as they trooped into the penthouse. "I don't think there's anywhere on Mantell as nice as this. Wow."

"I can assure you that there isn't, Corso, but that's not a bad thing," Reynarden told him with a chuckle, leading the way to the parlor. "Mom and Dad will be happy to see you, Jev. I think they were starting to wonder if Fio and I made you up because they've yet to meet you."

Jeveen's answer came with a studied casualness, "I've just been busy, that's all."

"Mom, Dad, we brought guests," Fiosynod announced as they entered the parlor where Florya and Bryden sat, quietly reading. They looked up at their entrance, smiling. "You know Norm, of course. These two are Captain Jeveen Par of the light freighter, Starseeker, and her fiancé, Corso Riggs. Jeveen, Corso, these are our parents, Florya and Bryden Drondil."

Silence descended on the room as Bryden slowly stood up, staring at Jeveen. Elara could hardly blame their surprise. Jeveen's resemblance to both Reynarden and Bryden was unmistakable. Bryden stopped less than a meter away, Florya right behind him. Softly, he asked, "Your mother is Dyonne Par, isn't she?"

"She was," Jeveen answered, no trace of a smile on her face, holding her head high.

Bryden's shoulders slumped and Florya touched his arm. "Oh. I never heard from her afterwards. I should have realized she wouldn't tell me."

"That was Mom's choice," Normajh told him quietly. "She refused to ask for more help from our sires. She didn't even accept help from our brothers when they were old enough to make their own way in the galaxy."

Bryden glanced at his younger son with a wry smile. "You must've guessed after you met Rey."

"No, I knew," Jeveen answered with a shake of her head. "I have a copy of my birth certificate and Mom named you as my sire, Mr. Drondil."

Normajh squeezed Jeveen's hand. "After the Sacking, when my Force abilities woke up, the Jedi Order did some genetic tests on both of us. My sire was KIA, but Jev's was alive. They offered to put Jev in touch with you."

"We'd done just fine without you up until then," Jeveen explained, her voice gentle. "I was determined that it would remain the case."

Bryden ran his fingers through his hair. "If you'd come to me, though…"

"If her mother refused to ask for further help," Florya pointed out, looping her arm through her husband's, "do you really think Captain Par would ask a perfect stranger?"

Jeveen nodded, looking relieved that Florya understood. "Who doesn't know about the Drondil family? I wanted to make a name for myself based on my own merit, and not based on familial connections."

"I don't blame you, Jev," Reynarden replied with a stifled chuckle.

Elara voiced the question they were probably all thinking, "Why come now, Jeveen?"

"I have made a name for myself and I want to get to know my sire," Jeveen glanced at Bryden and Florya uncertainly.

Bryden glanced at Florya, his eyebrows raised. She glanced from him, to Jeveen, to Fiosynod, and back to Bryden. A small smile curved her lips and she nodded slightly. He nodded back, smiling, and turned back to Jeveen. "I understand your reasons and I'd like to get to know you."

"I'd like that, too." Jeveen gently freed her hands and offered one to Bryden. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Drondil."

Still smiling, he shook her hand. "It's lovely to meet you, too, Captain Par. Please call me Bryden. Even if we weren't related, you're Rey and Fio's friend and that counts for something."

"I'm pleased to meet you, Captain Par," Florya added, taking Jeveen's hand when Bryden released. "Please call me Florya."

Grinning crookedly, Jeveen told them, "If I'm to call you by your first names, then you can call me Jeveen or Jev."

"Please, have a seat." Florya told them, gesturing to the chairs and couches scattered around the parlor. "Dinner will be served shortly."

They sat and Elara noticed that Corso looked a little uncomfortable and worried, glancing at his fiancée and away before she noticed. Whatever's on his mind, I hope he and Jeveen work it out between them.

*

Whatever the problem, they sorted it out, because Corso and Jeveen were married before Fiosynod and Kira left for Tython. It was a small, simple affair, with a limited guest list: Viray, Kageesh, Yakarn, Normajh, Reynarden, Elara, Fiosynod, Kira, Bryden, Florya, Risha, Bowdaar, Akaavi, Guss, Rona, Nadia, a young twi'lek man named Jett and a Jedi master named Yuon Par. They later learned that she was Jeveen's aunt. Elara held tight to Reynarden's hand throughout the short ceremony. It was beautiful and sweet, with both Jeveen and Corso barely able to take their eyes off each other.

The following morning, Fiosynod and Kira said their goodbyes and left for Tython. They promised to return for Reynarden and Elara's wedding. Planning and preparing for it rather took over their lives. Amongst the planning and preparation, Elara and Reynarden found time to visit with Aleksei and the Par brothers. Normajh stayed on Coruscant for several weeks before heading to Tython. Yakarn's efforts on Corellia had earned him some notice and he began making trips to tend to the soldiers on the front lines. Kageesh took up residence at the Dealer's Den cantina, serving as Rogun's contact on Coruscant. Viray, and the rest of Dagger Wing, used Coruscant as their main base in between flying support missions for the various battles still taking place throughout the galaxy. None of them were very surprised by the news that Reynarden was yet another half-brother to Jeveen. "Great, another little brother and he's smaller than me." "Another brother, good." "I already figured that out myself."

They also made time to visit Jerome and his family so they could get to know Elara. She held tight to Reynarden's hand as they followed his parents to the door of a fancier penthouse apartment. He squeezed her hand as the door opened and a human woman a few years older than Fiosynod answered it. She smiled brightly when she saw who waited, "Uncle Bryden! Aunt Florya! It's wonderful to see you!"

"Hello, Kylara." Bryden laughed when she hugged him tightly in greeting. "Always good to see you, of course."

"Hi, Kylara," Florya took her turn greeting the woman. "Look who we brought with us."

She peered past Florya at Reynarden and grinned. "Hey, Rey!"

"Hey, Kay," Reynarden replied, laughing when she made a face. "You leave yourself open to it every time."

Reluctantly laughing, she hugged him. "And you can't resist it every time, coz."

"Nope, I can't." He hugged her back. "I'd like you to meet my fiancé, Captain Elara Dorne of Havoc Squad. Elara, this is my youngest cousin, Kylara Drondil."

Elara offered her hand with a polite smile to hide her nerves. "It's a great pleasure to meet you, Miss Drondil."

"Nice to meet you, too." Kylara eyed Elara for a moment, and then glanced at Reynarden. When he nodded encouragingly, she shook Elara's hand. "Well, come on in, Mother's here, but Father's still at the Senate with Heston."

They entered the penthouse and Elara couldn't help staring at the understated elegance and opulence of the décor. Florya and Bryden's home was beautiful and elegant in its own way, but there was a warmth and hominess to it that she couldn't see here. It was meant to impress, most of the furnishings designed to be admired, but not touched. They followed Kylara down the corridor and into a parlor. A human woman stood up when they entered, around Bryden's age, thick black hair liberally streaked with silver pulled back into an elegant updo. She smiled and moved forward to greet Bryden and Florya with warm hugs. "It's always wonderful to see you, Bryden, Florya."

"Likewise, Willa," Bryden replied, hugging her tight.

Florya hugged her warmly in turn. "Of course, Willa."

"Hello, Aunt Willa," Reynarden told her once she finished hugging his mother.

Willa smiled and enfolded him a warm hug, kissing his cheek. "Rey, you grow handsomer every time I see you."

"Flatterer." He kissed her cheek in return, and then gently freed himself, turning to gesture to Elara, who'd hung back. "I'd like you to meet my fiancé, Captain Elara Dorne of Havoc Squad. Elara, this is Uncle Jerome's spouse, Willa Drondil."

She offered her hand with a polite smile, wondering why he hadn't said wife. "It's always a pleasure to meet more of Reynar's family."

"Well! Jerome mentioned meeting you briefly," Willa replied, shaking Elara's hand, gray eyes a little wary. "He never suggested that you were more than colleagues."

Reynarden laughed softly. "He only saw us when we were on duty. We try to keep our relationship lowkey at those times."

"I see." Willa nodded, and then spread her hands at waist level. "Do sit down. Jerome and Heston should be home anytime now."

They sat down and Reynarden immediately took Elara's hand in his, squeezing it gently. She squeezed it back, grateful for his support. "Where's Charlie these days?"

"They're out with the trading fleet, as Bryden and Florya should know," Willa explained, slipping her feet out of her shoes and tucking them up underneath her in her chair. Both of them nodded when Reynarden looked at them.

Smiling reassuringly, Bryden told him, "They should be back in time for your wedding."

"Even if the trading fleet isn't back, Charlie will," Florya added with a laugh.

Kylara sounded a little wistful. "It'll be nice to have the whole family together again. With Rey and Fio off on missions, Heston helping Father, and Charlie traveling with the fleet, it doesn't happen often enough anymore."

"If I may ask," Elara gently inquired. "What do you do, Miss Drondil?"

She smiled brightly. "We're going to be cousins, so you may as well call me Kylara. As for what I do, I'm a nurse."

"I'm a combat medic," Elara told her, unconsciously sitting up straighter. "It's why I joined Havoc Squad."

"Part of it, anyway." Reynarden chuckled. "A whole base of Republic soldiers and she was the only one who bothered to help us with our mission."

She leaned against Reynarden's side. "Reynar was the first person to listen to me. He didn't care that I sounded Imperial."

"She didn't bat an eyelash when she met Fio, either." Reynarden slipped his arm around her waist. "Just acted as if it wasn't remarkable."

Smiling faintly, Elara admitted, "I was surprised, but it would have been bad manners to show it, so I didn't."

"I'm sure Fio was very glad you didn't make a big deal about it," Florya added with a chuckle.

They turned at the sound of a cleared throat in the doorway. Jerome stood there with a young human who could have been his twin if not for the difference in age. Jerome smiled warmly as he remarked, "I see we missed the introductions. Captain Dorne, it's good to see you again. This is my son, Heston Drondil. Heston, Captain Elara Dorne of Havoc Squad."

"My fiancé," Reynarden added as they stood up to shake Jerome and Heston's hands.

Jerome's smile broadened as he shook Elara's hand. "I wondered if the ring was for you. It suits you very well."

"Thank you, Senator Drondil," Elara replied, touched by his reply

Heston shook Elara's hand next, his smile just a little wary. "Uncle Bryden and Aunt Florya clearly support your engagement, so I'll trust their judgment."

"You'll trust my parents' judgment, but not mine?" Reynarden asked with feigned anger.

Meeting his cousin's gaze with a bland smile, Heston only said, "Yes."

"She's Havoc Squad's medic and Rey's CO," Jerome pointed out as he joined Willa, who draped her legs over his lap. "And she's earned three Medals of Valor in just five years of service in the Republic Army."

Elara felt her cheeks grow warm as the others looked at her with surprised admiration. "All true."

"If Rey likes you enough to want to spend the rest of his life with you," Kylara began, leaning forward in her seat, "then we should get to know you. Please tell us about yourself, Elara."

She'd never liked talking about herself, but Elara was prepared for this. "I was born on Dromund Kaas to a prominent Imperial family…"

*

Fiosynod and Kira returned from Tython a couple weeks before the wedding. Both seemed more relaxed and less inclined to watch their surroundings. When she asked them about it the evening of their return, Fiosynod said, "Well, it was partly thanks to the mind healers, partly thanks to being back on Tython and immersed in the Light Side of the Force, and--"

"Wait, Fio. Are you sure you want to tell them so soon?" Kira interrupted, covering his hand with hers.

He brought her hand up to kiss the back. "If we can't trust my family, who can we trust?"

"True." She smiled, stretching up to kiss him softly.

Fiosynod looked at them. "Kira and I have decided to get married. We're going against the Code just by being together as it is."

"Are you sure?" Florya asked, looking between the two with some worry.

Kira nodded firmly. "Absolutely. I love Fio and I want at least some of our friends and family to know, even if we can't tell the entire galaxy the way Rey and Elara or Jev and Corso can."

"Which of your friends and family?" Bryden asked, glancing around the room. "Obviously the four of us. Who else?"

Counting on his fingers, Fiosynod told them, "Jeveen, Corso, Norm, and Master Kiwiiks."

"Are you sure you want any fellow Jedi to know?" Reynarden wondered, looking concerned.

Both Fiosynod and Kira nodded firmly. "Norm has maintained his attachments to his siblings and turned down a seat on the Jedi Council because he felt it was too soon for him to take it." They nodded to acknowledge that. It had been a bit of a surprise when Elara heard about it. While some might have thought he was crazy to turn it down, she thought he was very wise to recognize that he still needed time.

"Why Master Kiwiiks?" Elara asked quietly, remembering her one brief conversation with her.

Kira smiled softly. "She's the closest I have to a mother figure and she encouraged Fio to maintain his attachments to his family. And she gave me a chance when she caught me trying to steal from her."

"We'll trust your judgment here," Florya told them after whispering to Bryden for a moment.

Reynarden looked at Elara, eyebrows raised. She nodded after a moment's thought. He nodded back. "Yeah, we'll support you, too."

"Thanks." Fiosynod's eyes looked a little bright, but then he blinked and they looked fine. "Do you mind if we do this before Rey and Elara's wedding?"

Elara smiled warmly. "I don't mind at all. Jeveen and Normajh are coming for that anyway."

A few days later, in a very private ceremony, Fiosynod and Kira were married. Their marriage license was encrypted that would only be removed if they decided to retire from the Order. Before then, only the people present at the ceremony could access it.

*

The following morning, Kira asked Elara if she'd seen Fiosynod. "Not even married a day and he runs off without telling me."

"Reynar was gone when I woke up," Elara told her. "Maybe they went somewhere together?"

Kira sighed heavily. "Where would they go without us?"

"We'll find out when they get back," Elara assured her.

That didn't happen until lunch, both with bandages wound around their left upper arms. Luckily, their parents had made plans, so the only inquisition they faced were from their wife and fiancée. "Where did you two go that you need kolto bandages?"

"And couldn't warn either of us beforehand?" Elara was sure it wasn't bad because she couldn't see any sign of injury besides the bandages.

Fiosynod and Reynarden glanced at each other, and then nodded. Taking Kira's hands in his, Fiosynod told her, "We met Jev and Norm at a tattoo parlor."

"The four of us got matching tattoos," Reynarden added, and then laughed sheepishly. "Well, sort of matching. They're all on our left arms, but they look slightly different for each of us."

Elara wished she could see the tattoos. She was very curious. Kira asked, "Is it the same person you saw for your other tattoos?"

"Yeah, he certainly earned his keep today." Fiosynod laughed softly.

Kira hugged her husband tight. "Next time, please warn us."

"Or even ask if we'd like to come along." Elara kissed Reynarden's cheek.

Smiling, Reynarden kissed Elara's cheek in return. "Of course. I'm sorry we worried you two. It wasn't our intention."

"We've just been planning this with Jev and Norm for months and this was going to be our last chance to do this for the foreseeable future." Fiosynod kissed Kira's forehead softly.

She gave him a wicked grin. "Oh, you'll have to do more groveling, mister."

"As my lovely wife commands." Grinning, Fiosynod followed Kira from the room.

Reynarden looked at Elara with a grin of his own. "Do I have groveling to do?"

"Not just now," Elara replied, keeping her voice as prim and proper as she could.

Chuckling, he offered her his unbandaged arm. "Let's go out to lunch and leave Fio and Kira to their privacy."

"Something tells me not to expect to see them again until tomorrow," Elara told him, taking his arm with a fond smile.

He nodded as they headed out the door. "Somehow, I don't think Mom and Dad will mind."

"I don't think they will, either."

*

That evening, as they prepared for bed, Elara finally got to see Reynarden's tattoo. It was actually a series of four tattoos down his upper arm. At the top, on his shoulder, was a lightsaber with a blue blade. Below it was a pair of mis-matched blaster pistols. Next was a saberstaff with green blades. Last, just above his elbow, was an assault cannon. Not just any assault cannon, either, but Reynarden's assault cannon. When she realized that, Elara looked at the other tattoos more closely. "These are their weapons, aren't they?"

"Yes. We each have all four weapons, but the order is different for each of us." Reynarden looked pleased that she'd figured it out without any hints. "Perhaps you can figure out the others' orders on your own?"

Elara carefully spread kolto over the tattoos as she thought. "Fio's is the reverse of yours because you're brothers."

"Yes, but that's easy." Reynarden chuckled as she carefully bandaged the tattoos. "What about Jev and Norm?"

She considered that as she removed the surgical gloves she'd worn and tossed them in the recycler, picturing Reynarden and Fiosynod's tattoos side by side. Their brother's weapon is uppermost, so Jeveen and Normajh would have done the same. She put the kolto away, trying to picture Jeveen and Normajh's tattoos side by side, too. Spinning to face Reynarden, who'd been carefully shaving while she thought, Elara told him, "Saberstaff, assault cannon, lightsaber, and blaster pistols for Jeveen and the reverse for Normajh."

"I knew you'd figure it out," he told her proudly, wiping the remains of shaving cream from his face before leaning over to kiss her.

Elara kissed him back, amused, and handed him his aftershave. "I believe you still have some groveling to do?"

"Of course. I'll join you in a moment." He winked and opened the aftershave to put it on.

Elara walked into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed, her heartbeat speeding up with anticipation. She'd been thinking about this since lunch. When he emerged, she pointed sternly at the floor in front of her. "Down."

"Yes, my lady." Reynarden promptly knelt at her feet, his head bowed in contrition. "What can I do to make up for worrying you earlier?"

She lightly scrubbed her nails through the hair on the top of his head. "A few ideas come to mind…"

*

Finally, their wedding day arrived. The weather was beautiful and Florya assured Elara that everything was under control. Jeveen, Kira, and Jeannie helped her into her wedding dress and style her hair. After that, they didn't have long to wait before the ceremony itself. Elara knew others were present. She and Reynarden had made the guest list together and sent out the invitations. But Elara only had eyes for Reynarden during the ceremony itself. He was smiling, bright and happy, and she didn't bother trying to hide her own smile. She blinked back tears as Reynarden said his vows, "Not long after we met, I knew you were a strong, brave, determined woman." He chuckled when she started to open her mouth, but quickly closed it. "Deny it all you want, but you are all of those, Elara. You turned your back on the only life you ever knew and surrendered to your enemies. You served alongside soldiers who distrusted you and never bothered to get to know you. And you spoke up when you were expected to keep your head down and your mouth shut. I wanted to get to know you and found a kind, generous woman who just wanted to protect the innocent and save lives. I want you to be happy and, for some reason, that includes marrying me. I'm very much looking forward to spending the rest of my life with you, Elara."

"When we met, you were the first person to listen to my concerns in years," she began, clearing her throat first. "You always listened to others' opinions, even if you didn't agree with them. You were the first person to ask me why I defected from the Empire. You offered me a place to stay when I had nowhere else to go. While others doubted my loyalty to the Republic, you never did. You trusted me and I've always tried to be worthy of that trust. You took a stuffy former Imperial and reminded her that there's more to life than working and studying. I'm very happy with you in my life and I look forward to spending more time with you in the years to come, Reynar."

They exchanged rings, both bands matching Elara's engagement ring. The metal still cool on their fingers, they shared a quick, soft kiss that promised more later. Then they turned to face their guests: Bryden, Florya, Fiosynod, Kira, Jerome, Willa, Heston, Charlie, Kylara, Aric, Forex, Tanno, Yuun, Jeannie, Aleksei, Bryni, Jeveen, Corso, Normajh, T7, Doc, Tharan, Nadia, Felix, and General Garza. Once the officiant announced them as husband and wife, they walked back down the aisle together, arm-in-arm. This is exactly how I want to spend the rest of my life.