Actions

Work Header

Port of Every Return

Work Text:

 

Republic Fleet, Day 10 Month 7 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

The maps kept changing. New obstacles naturally drifted over years and centuries, requiring hyperlanes to shift. It was not suspicious at first when there were more changes this year than there had been in the preceding decade. But when more Republic patrols were encountering Empire forces specifically in the area of the newest hyperlanes and pirate activity in the only possible alternate lanes increased drastically, Jedi Grandmaster Satele Shan became suspicious. The Force showed her a pattern of disruption aimed at the planet Rishi. It had been a haven for pirates for a long time.

Another pattern, one more personal to Satele, also pointed to Rishi: the current location of Theron Shan. The fleet needed to move to Yavin, and the only hyperlane left that was large enough for the Republic flagship and its fleet now went via Rishi -- although even two years earlier, it had not.

No one questioned the Grandmaster's decision to accompany the fleet. She chose the Dauntless as her flagship for the symbolism of its name and because its renovations in the shipyards were the most recent.

Satele walked through the corridors, sensing the morale of the Dauntless crew. It was good overall with pockets here and there of sharp anxiety, which she did not find surprising, attributing it to the same thing she felt anxious about: the hyperlane changes and the forces behind them. It should have occurred to her that most of her crew wasn't aware of those changes, not as anything unusual.

She was unaware of the Revanites' plan. Satele hadn't been told anything about Theron's operation on Rishi; it would have been too dangerous, too much risk that knowledge of it would get into Revanite hands, to have the word go through channels. It wasn't through any SIS briefing that she knew where her son was, but through their connection in the Force.

It was an indulgence, to go to Rishi herself aboard Dauntless. A harmless one, but Satele didn't allow herself harmless indulgences as a regular thing. To be headed there when Theron was at a nexus point of a major disturbance in the Force was not quite guaranteed to be harmless, but she felt sure the Force would warn her of any damaging repercussions.

After her walk through the corridors assessing morale, Satele retreated to her quarters to meditate. She sat cross legged on the floor and focused her mind, first inward, sensing her own unease, her fractioned care across all the crew, out to her son on the planet Rishi, to the officers of the other ships of the fleet, to refugees and children on Rishi, to every life form within sensing range as her consciousness extended further and further to see the lines of Force, the connections between people, the ones that pulled her in. There, not far enough, the jagged edges of the dark side lines, the Empire's people. Some weren't so different from her own; most, even. But a few -- the Sith -- jagged holes where their spirits should be, some of them. There was one too close to Theron, but not one of the really bad ones, a small consolation. And another tie, weaker, but with more potential -- she really should learn more about this. She focused her mind on the regions of the force that gave visions of what was unseen, what was destined, what might never be but still retained possibility within its sphere. Shapes danced in her mind, a name, a very secret, never spoken name shaped itself on her lips.

Satele's eyes flew open in shock.

 

Rishi, Day 2 Month 6 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

Cipher Nine was on Rishi, pretending to be a pirate, the leader of the Howling Tempest gang -- the most ruthless pirates of the Gordian reach, though she had no idea where that was and didn't much care. She wasn't doing a terrible job, playing along with the unexpected notoriety as well as if she'd been briefed on it, if with a bit less intensity than she would have brought had she known the reason for the ruse.

Theron Shan and Lana Beniko were hiding out on Rishi, investigating the Revanites. They'd tempted Cipher into joining them, arranging a cover story to fit their plans. Once she'd started to stir things up, they were getting breaks they hadn't before.

Theron smirked, watching surveillance footage. “Well, she seems to have survived the trip.”

Lana nodded, distracted by other thoughts -- many other thoughts -- but equally intent on watching the Cipher’s progress towards the cantina, and the upcoming confrontation with a rather weaselly Rodian. “Yes,” she murmured, indulging in a moment’s Imperial pride, “she’s solved the puzzle, and appears quite … adaptable.”

“Kinda surprised. Are all Imperial rendezvous so,” Theron’s hand waved a moment, “overly complicated?”

One pale eyebrow lifted as Lana turned to her companion. “Yes.”

Theron snorted. The tone had been serious, but he suspected Lana was teasing him. He wasn’t sure he liked it. “That must make holiday get-togethers fun, when only half the people can find the place,” he muttered under his breath.

He watched the skin around those semi-luminous, candle-flame eyes crinkle the tiniest bit, but Lana did not deign to answer.

 

Rishi, Day 13 Month 6 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

Cipher called in. She seemed preoccupied, as best Theron and Lana could make out her body language from the hologram image, but her report was direct and to the point. "The leader of the Nova Blades is someone called Margok. He'll be the one who can get us closer to the Revanites."

Lana nodded. "Yes. He will -- but he's hiding inside his headquarters, too well defended."

"The Aggressor. A crashed ship Margok turned into a fortress. Can't get in without the proper security codes." Theron's arms folded. His frustration was palpable.

"We must set his operations into disarray, scatter his forces." Lana looked over at Theron.

"I intercepted some chatter about a slave camp. Well, more like a slave island." Theron frowned.

"I heard one of their lieutenants mention it," Cipher told them.

Theron filled her in. "Basically anyone in Raider's Cove who doesn't give the Nova Blades a slice of their action, or whatever, gets locked away. Some get put into hazardous labor like mining, but most are sold as slaves to visitors from offworld. It's a lucrative business for the Blades."

"Not anymore," Cipher said confidently.

Theron agreed completely. "You got that right. Because I'm coming with you. We'll have to slip in with one of the Nova Blades' cargo shipments. I'm sure the island's heavily guarded, so try not to get me killed."

Lana smirked. "I believe Theron means to say he's concerned for your safety, as am I. May the Force serve you well." She said that often. She usually even meant it. Neither the Republic nor the Imperial agent understood what she meant by it.

Not long after that conversation, Cipher Nine and Theron were on their way. They were hiding together in a shipping crate, waiting to be picked up and taken to the Nova Blades' "slave island."

They had been in there about ten minutes when Cipher Nine started to feel restless. Theron's body was pressed up against hers in several places, and if she moved -- it might be too close. Maybe already was. "You're too close," she whispered, not entirely having meant to say it out loud.

"There's not much room in here," Theron pointed out, also whispering.

"Still."

"I can't do anything about it."

"Try."

Ten or fifteen more minutes passed. Theron was trying as best he could not to be too close for Cipher Nine's comfort. He could still feel the pressure of her shoulder against his chest, of her knee on his calf. The silence started to feel uncomfortable; words swam around in his head, safe things to say to pass the time, to ease the waiting between them. The most impersonal ones made it out. "Did you ever notice how when you've got to be quiet and hide is when the fidgeting starts?" His mouth was dry. "When there's nothing to drink, it feels like you're dying of thirst? When there's nowhere to take a leak, that's when you really need to piss?"

Cipher Nine didn't indulge herself in thoughts like that, not while she was working. "No, I haven't noticed."

"Oh."

The power of suggestion had more sway over her than she liked to believe. She shot Theron a cross look that she knew he wouldn't be able to see. "Honestly! Now I need to pee." Cipher sighed.

Theron felt her breath warm against his neck. It was probably better to stay quiet, he thought.

Soon the cargo pod that contained them both was lifted by a beam into a shuttle on its way to the island. Once it started moving, both of them focused on preparing themselves. By the time they reached the island, they were ready.

The Nova Blades hadn't expected anyone to take that route. Both operatives made it into cover without being detected. They heard banging coming from inside a shipping container much larger than the one they'd been hiding inside. It had been converted into a makeshift holding cell for prisoners, and half a dozen were inside, four humans, an Ugnaught and a Nautolan.

Theron sliced the lock and let the prisoners out while Cipher Nine watched for Nova Blades. Four of the prisoners scattered as soon as they were freed, but the Nautolan and one of the humans stayed behind. "I can't leave," the human prisoner, an older man with dark skin and hair shot with gray, told Cipher. "They'll go after my family."

The Nautolan nodded agreement. She was short, and looked afraid as she whispered, "Master Kendrun is the one."

"Get yourselves to safety. The Nova Blades won't be any problem to you. The Howling Tempest gang is taking them down." Cipher Nine put greater effort into selling the cover story than she had previously bothered to. The more she could persuade anyone bearing tales of this raid to consider it the work of a gang, rather than a couple of operatives, the better the tactic would work to convince the Revanites that was all that was going on here.

 

Rishi, Day 14 Month 6 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

Kaliyo wanted Cipher Nine to go out drinking with her after that mission. "You managed to do a mission without me successfully," Kaliyo said. "But just that one. Don't expect to make a habit of it."

Cipher had hoped to go celebrate with Theron, but he had excused himself on their return with something she interpreted as a transparent excuse to get away from her. She didn't want to admit to herself any hurt over that.

In the first bar Kaliyo and Cipher went to, the women were approached by members of another pirate gang and congratulated on the Howling Tempest coup over the Nova Blades. So word had already got out, Cipher thought.

The Rattataki woman flirted with one of the men who had complimented her personally. She pretended she'd been there for the raid. This was what they'd planned; it worked better as a cover to the Revanites, even though Cipher Nine and Theron had done the mission, to have everyone think the whole "gang" had been there.

Ditched by Kaliyo, Cipher went to the next bar on her own. Though one of the pirates had seemed interested in her, Cipher didn't feel any inclination to take him up on the implied offer. Her mind lingered on Theron, turning over possible reasons why he might have offered his two-dimensional excuses to be rid of her. She reminded herself that they had not yet interacted enough for her to form an accurate assessment.

The Force had led her to the same bar Theron was getting drunk in, as it happened. She spotted him at the bar moments after she walked in. The Rodian bartender set three shots of amber liquid in front of Theron and looked at Cipher Nine. "What'll you have?"

"Give me one of those," Cipher said, pointing to Theron's drinks.

The bartender made a whistling sound and gave her one. "One issberry whisky for the lady." It was a distilled liquor made from local grain and berries, very strong.

Theron looked up as Cipher sat down next to him. "Oh, it's you. I don't remember sending out invites to this pity party."

"I save my self-pity for raids that go badly," Cipher said, substituting "raid" for her real thought of "mission" because she was still playing the role of Howling Tempest gang leader.

"And ours went so well. We showed them who's boss." Theron was miserable. He drank one of his shots in a single gulp. "And they showed us something even better. Why giving a shit about your family is a one way ticket to blackmail and slavery." He slammed another shot. "No attachments, that's the way to go. Do what's right for the galaxy, not for your own kids."

"Hey." Cipher put her hand on Theron's shoulder. "We took out Kendrun. He's not going after those people's children. He's not going after anyone, any more."

At least two strangers in the bar looked at her when she said that. When they realized she'd noticed, they very quickly looked away.

"I think we could have a more private conversation in a booth," Cipher suggested. "Come on." She picked up her drink and Theron's remaining one, and went to a booth.

Since his still full drink was with her, Theron got the empty two refilled, and took them to the booth. He couldn't let the Imperial agent swipe his liquor that way. He sat down next to her because that was where she'd left his shot glass.

An unusual silence stretched between them, and Theron studied the agent’s face, not sure he really understood the delicate, cat-like smile that didn’t reach her eyes. He continued to wait for her to speak, but with the quiet sucking away the pleasant warmth of her thigh, his thoughts resumed their well-trod paths, lifting the drink in his hand to parched lips and a bitter tongue.

Delicate fingers plucked the glass from its destination, and he watched with mild surprise as Cipher took a sip, before handing the glass back to him.

“For luck,” she murmured, fiddling with a device under the table.

“What?”

Cipher flashed the tiny universal jammer in her palm before tucking it back into her sleeve.

“There. Now you can vent without restraint.”

Theron’s eyes narrowed, not enjoying the hint of condescension in that tone. “Are you implying I don’t know what I’m doing?"

The agent’s smile widened just a fraction, though her tone was inviting enough. “I’m not implying anything. We all have our parts to play, and a little breathing room can be a welcome relief. Now, what were you saying?”

“I was having a quiet drink. By myself.”

“Yes. You were, but now I’m here.” She waited to see if Theron would continue, but when he resumed ignoring her in favor of his drinks, she sighed softly. “Wouldn’t it be better… for the mission, if you just told me what was on your mind?” She laid her hand gently on his arm and he jumped.

“Are all Imperials so paranoid?”

Cipher’s head tilted to one side. “The jammer?”

“Yeahhh, that’s not a little overkill.”

“I have a counter-question -- is everyone in the Republic so stubborn? It’s perfectly obvious you’re upset.”

Theron muttered under his breath, lifted the third and final, or rather, thirteenth, drink and swallowed with masochistic abandon. His throat felt raw, almost bloody. He belched into his palm, wishing all the food here didn’t taste like Bantha droppings.

“It’s terrible, what we do to each other. We lie and steal … kill. Turn affection into a hostage, just to get what we want. That’s just how the game is played. But kids! There has to be a line. There’s a line, right? Otherwise there’s no point in family.” Theron snorted, staring at the agent’s untouched drink, before reaching over and taking it. “I’m lucky I don’t have one; message received.”

“You were an orphan?”

“As good as. No, I shouldn’t say that. I had a great father. He just wasn’t, you know, biologically related.” Theron cleared his throat. “What about you? Family?”

“Yes. Several.” Theron offered her a blank stare and Cipher smiled. “Well, you see, Imperial Intelligence is a home away from home.”

Theron snorted. “Come on. You don’t believe that.”

“I do, actually.” A brief, vivid memory of Darth Jadus constricted her throat. “Some more than others.”

“Must be nice… I don’t even know what that feels like. Having a home. Having people I consider family. I mean the one, like I mentioned…”

“Mmmm. Do you not know who your biological family is then? Surely being in the SIS you could find them.”

“Oh, I know. We’re just not… close.” He swirled the dregs of the alcohol in the glass before swallowing it. “Duty first -- for the good of the galaxy and all that.”

She nodded in commiseration. “Were they part of the military as well? That can be complicated.”

“Whoa there. This conversation just took a serious turn,” Theron interjected. He tried to change the subject. “Let's talk about your parents.”

Cipher leaned back in the booth, stretching out as far as she could, relaxing. “I’d be delighted to. What would you like to know?”

“Are you close?”

“I’d like to think so. Closer now then we were in my teens, but not as close as I remember us being when I was young.” She gave Theron a rather shrewd, calculating glance. “I wonder how much you already know -- if you’ve bothered to research me at all,” she added, laughing.

The warm laugh caught him completely by surprise, and he spent an uncomfortable number of seconds when his primary view of the presence next to him changed from an agent of the Empire to a woman enjoying herself in his company. He had a bubbling sense of impending dread, afraid he’d reveal too much, or too little -- that he’d lose her interest, or pique it too far.

His throat rattled. “Haven't really had the time. About your family... you said you’re closer now. What happened?”

“Oh, there was a bit of a schism. Half of them returned to Republic space.”

“Returned to Republic space?”

Cipher smiled in that casual, luring fashion she had. “Yes. Mother was Corellian; she and my sister returned to Corellia.” The pause seemed more reflective than baiting. “I didn’t understand the reasons then, but now… I think she was deeply unhappy living in the Empire. At the time it just seemed like an enormous fight amidst all the smaller quarrels. That night there was dinner in stony silence. In the morning they began packing crates, and by the next day, half my family had vanished.”

Breath burned in Theron's chest, his heart tripping against his ribs. “When? When did she abandon you?”

Cipher considered correcting him -- abandoned was a bit harsh; even at her most melodramatic she wouldn’t call her parents' separation “abandonment”, but she sensed she’d finally formed an inroad with Agent Shan, some measure of resonance to work with and build on. “I was fourteen when they left.”

“Did she even bother explaining? Or did she just traipse off, and expect you to pick up the pieces?”

This isn’t my mother we’re talking about any more, she realized. Cipher shrugged with exaggerated care, deciding to put a bit of spin in her answer. “I’m sure she tried.” She didn’t dare elaborate for fear of breaking Theron’s train of thought.

“Yeah. I’m sure she thought it was for the best, leaving her kid behind to go do her own thing. Not one visit, not one word. Maintaining the silent treatment until you don’t know if you even exist to her. Or at all. And it’s all a big secret; nobody can know -- oh no. Because it would ruin everything if just one person said -- hey, champ, happy birthday; bet your mom wishes she was here…”

“She must have been very beautiful.”

Theron blinked. “Excuse me?”

“Your mother, she must be beautiful.”

Theron gave her the most nonplussed stare he could manage, given the complete derailing he’d just endured. He tried for aloof. “What makes you say that?”

“Because you’re very handsome.”

He was silent a few beats too long, and he knew it. “Could have gotten it from my dad, you know.”

She seemed amused. “Did you?”

Theron thought about Malcom and suppressed a shudder. At one point, somewhere in the very distant past, he must have had one hell of a personality. “No.”

Cipher’s smile was approaching smug. “I do so enjoy being right.”

 

Rishi, Day 18 Month 6 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

Lana observed the pair surreptitiously -- one agent wrapped in a pervasive miasma of indignation, confusion and regret, and the other doing her best not to let her eye catch on the sullen figure of her curiosity. Or was it more? Had the kaleidoscopic tumult of their interactions slid from good natured teasing to genuine interest? Worrying.

Her agent -- the Imperial one -- strode over to their dwindling cache of provisions, palmed a scant handful of grain, and was using Theron’s head and shoulders for target practice, much to his displeasure - a fact Cipher ignored as she meandered from one position to the next, flicking seeds with some force.

“Don’t you have anything better to do,” Theron groused, processor deep in decoding the latest batch of intel on the Nova Blades.

“Not really,” Cipher Nine lamented with a sigh, and after waiting a few seconds to see if the conversational kindling would catch, resumed her lackadaisical torment.

Watching this was worrisome… intolerable. Lana caught Cipher’s eye, clearing her throat. “Commander?”

Cipher breathed another long-suffering sigh and smiled at the sith. “Yes, Lana?”

“If you have a moment… perhaps…”

Cipher paused, returning the remainder of her ammunition to the container of grain, and gave Lana her full attention. “Of course.”

“Walk with me.”

The two left a curious, but quietly relieved Theron to his task.

“Is something wrong,” Cipher murmured, her expression unconcerned, almost playful, through her glance, slowly winding its way along the spider web of cracks from foundation to domed roof, sharpened, denoting acute awareness.

“I’m not sure, Commander.” Lana paused for a few breaths, collecting her thoughts. “You and Agent Shan seem to be getting on well. Better than anticipated.”

An amused expression curled Cipher’s lips for a moment as her head turned to give Lana her attention. “I assume you’re referring to my initial suspicions?” At the sith’s nod she continued in the same congenial, easy-going tone. “Yes. Agent Shan and I have come to,…” Cipher paused, wondering how best to express the lessening of tensions, except the tensions hadn’t really lessened - merely changed form, apparently. “An accord,” she finished, slightly irritated at the term’s inaccuracy, but it was the best she could manage in the moment.

“An accord,” Lana pressed. A brief flicker of annoyance crossed Cipher’s features, not specifically in response to Lana's questioning her approximate choice of words, but towards their elusive object. Cipher’s mind closed like a steel trap, and it didn’t take ability with the Force to sense the mild hostility cast in her direction.

“Yes, an accord,” Cipher stated firmly, meeting Lana’s eyes. “Was there something else you were hinting at? Something you’re looking for?”

Lana met her gaze, though she had the good graces to flush a bit. “Of course not, Commander.”
Conversation stalled as their impromptu staring contest continued, each searching for something they didn’t seem to find. After a moment, Cipher relaxed, offering a softer more welcoming smile, in spite of the crinkle between the sith’s eyebrows and the calculating tautness thinning the smile she received in return. Cipher waited quietly to let Lana continue at her own pace.

“Are the two of you… friends?”

“As much as an Intelligence Officer can be friends with anyone,” Cipher answered with wry humor, not sure she was sure where this was going, and willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

“I merely worry.” Lana spoke softly, her hand shifting as if she’d considered touching Cipher’s hand or arm, and changed her mind at the last second.

A fuller, more charming curl tugged at the corners of Cipher’s lips as she wondered, very briefly, if Lana were jealous for some reason. “I’m happy for your concern,” she began, but Lana continued, and she fell silent to listen.

“I worry that this newfound ease might be a distraction from locating the Revanite base.” Lana’s fingers tapped a nervous staccato against her thigh. “I can guarantee Agent Shan is committed to the safety and security of the Republic. He’s never given me any doubt.”

Gooseflesh prickled across Cipher’s arms as anger simmered between them. “Be direct, Lana.” Warmth had fled completely from Cipher’s tone, replaced with jagged edges, and sharp, dangerous angles.

The sith seemed unperturbed. “Commander, we both know alliances can be forged or broken on a moment’s whim.” Golden eyes which had remained politely unfocused lifted, catching and holding Cipher’s own. “But entanglements should be handled with care.”

“I think I take your meaning.” Cipher cleared her throat. “I’m going to go over our surveillance logs, see if there’s anything we missed.”

Lana dipped her head in diffidence. “Of course, Commander. I’ll leave you to your work.”

 

Rishi, Day 22 Month 6 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

"We have the security codes we need to get inside the Aggressor," Cipher said. They'd found the codes they needed on Nova Blades at the slave camp, but it had taken frustratingly long to verify that fact. Cipher was sure, but Lana and Theron had held out doubts.

"We're going to have to use them. I can't get through to slice their systems from here." Theron didn't permit his frustration to erupt into physical violence, much as he wanted to slam the keyboard against the nearest hard surface. "The Aggressor has too many slicers active. I need a physical link."

"Getting in would be no problem for me," Cipher told him. "My team -- my pirate gang," she corrected herself, laughing, "can get you in there and cover you while you take their data." She found herself looking forward to another pirate raid with Theron along.

A small group was easier to stealth past the guards, while the security droids ignored them, thinking they belonged. Kaliyo, Theron and Cipher Nine reached the entrance of the Aggressor without a fight.

There were too many Nova Blades in too close quarters once they entered the fortress for stealth to be entirely effective. A pair of tough Gamorreans stationed just inside the entrance along with a Zabrak support medic gave them the good fight Kaliyo especially had been looking forward to.

The Aggressor had crashed more than a century ago. There had been time for the breaks in the hull below to allow soil and growth into the interior. Planks had been put down over top of it to walk on. In the walls, there were carbonite chambers clearly still containing prisoners. It was less clear if they were prisoners of the Nova Blades or if they had been there when the ship came down.

As they went, Kaliyo and Cipher set up quick cover, took down pairs of guards, mostly Trandoshan, Nautilan, and human, while Theron sliced the accompanying droids and disabled them from the fights. He removed their restraining bolts while he was at it; the droids would be more trouble for the Nova Blades that way when they returned. Their group came up, stealthed, behind a slicer at a large workstation which clearly had been installed very recently in the old ship. She was a Twi'lek, dressed like all the Nova Blades in a coverall with their symbol prominently displayed, but didn't have the same tough look most of the Nova Blades had in her stance or physique. She did, however, have a pair of powerful looking turrets guarding her position.

If they could take down the slicer and her turrets, Theron could probably use this workstation to slice into the Nova Blades' files and get their secrets, including further information they had to have about the Revanites.

Theron couldn't slice the turrets; their controls were locked down to the console in front of the Twi'lek slicer. Kaliyo came down hard on the left one, while Cipher and Theron targeted the right with heavy blaster fire. The slicer pulled out her blaster and started firing back. Most of her shots bounced off the quick shield Cipher had put up to cover herself and the SIS agent, but a lucky shot made it through and singed Theron's shoulder. Cipher slapped a kolto patch on him quickly and fired across where the slicer was standing, making her fall to the ground to reduce her exposure, while Theron switched his blaster to the other hand and finished off the turret.

Kaliyo's turret burst in a ball of flame and fell to pieces. Cipher put her blaster to the back of the slicer's head. "We have you, Nova Blade," Cipher said. "Let us use your comm station here, and we'll let you live." The Twi'lek went for her blaster, and Kaliyo shot her through the neck.

"She might have been useful," Cipher reminded Kaliyo.

"She wasn't in the mood to be useful," Kaliyo replied.

"No problem," Theron said. He started work on the station. "Lots of files in this one." He was putting them into a data crystal to take with them. "Encrypted, but once we get these back it's just a matter of time to take their codes apart."

"It would have been faster if the Twi'lek were alive to give us the decryption keys," Cipher pointed out.

Kaliyo shrugged. "And make your boyfriend here feel even more useless? You two should be thanking me."

For the first time since the the infamous cantina hopping on Dromund Kaas, Cipher was unable to keep her emotions in check. Her cheeks burned with the intensity of a Tatooine sunset. “He is an ally! We’ve been nothing but professional together,” she whispered furiously, resisting the urge to throttle her “fellow pirate”.

“Your face tells a different story.” Kaliyo's lips twitched up in amusement.

Theron did his best to hide his own reaction to the pointed barb, softly clearing his throat. “Almost done.” The two women completely ignored him. “Story of my life,” he muttered to himself.

“That’s not… you’re completely misreading the situation,” Cipher sputtered softly.

“Keep telling yourself that, Captain. I’m sure somebody out there might buy it.”

“And they’re still arguing.” Now that he had access to a control station within the Aggressor, Theron was able to reprogram the droids he'd sliced earlier to take out obstacles within the fortress.

Once the droids had completed their task, the three fake Howling Tempest pirates made their way to the furthest part of the ship, where a pair of locked down terminals had additional, more secret data for Theron to secure. Cipher looked up at the open ceiling of the room they entered, where the years of wear on the already damaged hull of the Aggressor had opened a skylight of sorts. Roughly covered in planks and deflector shielding, it let in the first natural light they had seen since they'd entered the Nova Blades' headquarters.

Kaliyo was taking the opportunity to scavenge what she could from the place, while Theron worked at the comm consoles. Cipher Nine watched him work, able to really look at him while he was too busy to notice her attention. She thought about their conversation they had had at the bar. She could seduce him, she thought. It would be easy. She wanted to. She wondered if she might want to for reasons other than operational usefulness, though. That might make it a bad idea.

A holo of the Nova Blades' leader, Margok, popped up, interrupting Cipher's thoughts. "This is my ship. Think you can just walk in and be left alive?"

"We walked in, and we're still alive," Cipher said.

"Is it really a ship anymore if it's been grounded for over a hundred years?" Kaliyo asked.

"It's time to get out," Theron said. "I've got the data."

Cipher could see he still had quite a bit left to copy. She wasn't entirely ignorant of slicing. "Take your time," she told him.

A strike team of Ongree warriors wearing Nova Blades insignia entered the room, spraying blaster fire. "Incoming!" Kaliyo shouted, using her grapple to pull two of them across to where she stood, then sliced the throat of one of them with her vibroknife as she pulled it from its sheath. The other readied himself in a defensive posture.

Cipher put up her cover shield and knelt behind it, taking aim. She took out another of the Ongree before he could fire.

Theron pulled his data crystal free just as the remaining Ongree shot up the comm console, sending sparks flying. He winced as the back of his neck and head burned, hit with melting plastic and crystal shrapnel. He stowed the crystal safely. Better some of the data than none of it come back with them, he thought, unholstering his blaster and firing in a single smooth motion. The Ongree who had destroyed the terminal went down.

Kaliyo took out the last one with a point blank laser rifle shot. "Got you."

"Let's get out of here," Cipher said to her team. They headed for the exit.

Ralen Margok, a huge Republic Zabrak in a broad brimmed hat that hid his horns completely, and what appeared to be the biggest of his lieutenants, a Gamorrean who was almost as large as Margok himself, stood blocking their way. Behind them were a Trandoshan, a couple of humans, a Nautolan and five military droids in formation.

"You’re outmatched. Throw down your weapons and surrender," Margok said roughly.

"Oh, let me see," Cipher said cheerfully. "I wonder if we should do that? What say you, Howling Blades? Should we surrender?"

"Nah," Theron said, subtly palming a concussion grenade. "Our guys are behind them. We've got them surrounded."

Kaliyo just smirked.

The Gamorrean lieutenant looked behind him, as did the flunkies behind Margok, but didn't see what Theron was talking about. "No one back there but our guys," the Gamorrean said in a guttural voice. "You seein’ things?

"Catch," Theron said confidently, tossing the grenade while their attention was diverted. The explosion sent a wave of heat, debris and dust flooding the room, making everyone’s eyes water.

“You idiots,” Margok shouted, pulling his carbine and firing at the rival gang.

Cipher put her shield up, and she and Theron ducked behind it just in time. Kaliyo didn't look fazed, but dodged to the side anyway. The droids behind the Nova Blades group opened fire and so did Cipher and her team, catching most of Margok's people in crossfire.

"What--" Margok began and realized there was no point talking anymore. He started shooting the droids. He used his own grapple on Kaliyo, and she tried whacking him with her rifle, but he barely noticed. She got away and took out the Gamorrean.

Margok had a powerful rifle and great aim. Anytime Cipher and Theron took a shot, he took one back. One of Cipher's blasters was already inoperable, and her shield unit was on its last power cell. If they didn't take Margok out soon, things would get dire.

Taking a risk, Cipher came out from cover where she could get a square shot off on Margok. Theron maintained cover fire for her from behind the shield unit, trying to distract him. The Nova Blades leader wasn't easily distracted. He shot Cipher right in the collar of her armor, disabling her personal comm unit and leaving a painful burn where her neck met her shoulder as the armor heated up inside. Theron lobbed a plasma grenade at Margok, and Kaliyo shot him point blank. Cipher didn't let her aim waver just because she'd been wounded. Margok finally went down under the combined fire of them and the droids.

Gritting her teeth against the pain, Cipher saw that Theron had a deep graze down his left forearm and Kaliyo's leg armor had lost several panels, one of which had broken jaggedly and cut into her thigh. "Let's get out of here and get patched up," she said.

"Droids should have the rest of the way clear," Theron replied.

They made it back to the hideout without further incident. Lana was relieved when they showed up. Having tried to contact Cipher Nine and got nothing, she hadn't expected them back so soon. She got kolto into all three of the wounded and told them not to do anything else until it had healed.

Theron argued that he needed to get the data decrypted as soon as possible, but with his injuries he wouldn't be able to accomplish much of the task until the kolto had some time to work.

"I have been learning a lot about slicing from you, Theron," Lana told him. "Let me get started on the data. You rest."

"You've been teaching the Sith how to slice?" Kaliyo asked, somewhere between surprised and amused.

"We were stuck together for weeks without much to do," Theron said. "It was less boring than listening to her go on about the Force."

"How good is she at it?" Cipher wondered.

"Too good," Theron said. "She's got natural talent. She picked it up faster than anyone I've ever seen. Made me jealous." That made Cipher laugh, which was absolutely what he'd meant to do.

 

Rishi, Day 23 Month 6 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

The next day, they were all feeling better, and Theron started helping Lana with the slicing, working on decrypting the files they'd obtained from the Nova Blades. It didn't go especially well. He was growing more and more frustrated.

"You need to take a break," Cipher said, watching Theron fume at the recalcitrant codes. "How about we go for a walk?"

Lana gave her a curious look. Cipher gave Lana a return look, cool and unrevealing.

Theron pushed himself away from the terminal in irritation. “Sure, I guess. Seems like really bad timing though.”

“We have a few moments to spare,” Cipher assured.

He followed the agent as she slipped on a jacket, offered a thoughtful smile, and led him into the evening's clammy chill. They walked in silence for a several minutes, Cipher stepping over a pile of refuse, and Theron nimbly sidestepping a pair of brawling teens.

Nerves got the better of him. Now that they were more alone, even in the midst of raucous pirates and mischievous, howling monkey-lizards, the silence ate away at his confidence. “Was there," Theron hesitated a moment, then, "something you wanted to say?”

“Theron.” The agent trailed off, and he stopped, watching her. “I thought you might be, hmm, agitated? From our conversation in the bar.”

Arms crossed over his chest reflexively, Theron said, “Not particularly, no. To be honest, I was so out of it I don’t remember much.”

“But you remember some of it,” Cipher pressed, and Theron grudgingly nodded. Cipher paused for a long moment before she continued, speaking slowly, clearly. “I wasn’t sure, at that time, how I felt about us working together. I usually operate independently, working with one or another of my team as the situation requires.”

The agent frowned, drawing his eyes to the intricate wrinkles between her brows for a moment, distracting him.

“I’m not used to working with anyone else. It’s easier in our line of work to prioritize efficiency over comradery, but I’ve enjoyed our time together.” Cipher moved a fraction closer to Theron as a group of drunken thugs staggered down the boardwalk. She studied him intently. “I feel unsure. It's a new sensation, one I’m not particularly fond of, but I thought, I wondered, how you felt about me. Whether you shared my confusion.”

Startled by the course of the conversation, Theron took a step back, putting literal distance between them, and cursed when his foot slipped into a puddle of he didn’t know what. “Great.” He shook his foot and sighed. “Look, I’m not sure what you want from me.” Theron looked up from his probably ruined shoe and Cipher's eyes caught his.

The disappointment he saw on her face surprised him. There was a chance, a strong chance, really, that she was just trying to manipulate him, get into his head -- maybe for information, maybe just for laughs, but that downward curl of the mouth…

“I’m not really good at this kind of thing. Sure that’s pretty obvious by now if it wasn’t before,” he muttered to himself. “I’m not saying I don’t, you know… feelings, and you. I’ve thought about what it might be like.” Theron cleared his throat with a loud, uncomfortable sound, not moving away when Cipher gently touched his arm, his shoulder, his face.

“I’m glad you’ve at least considered it. I have too. In great detail,” she whispered in a teasing tone.

“I don’t need to know the details,” Theron dismissed, waving a hand as his face colored. He really did though. He needed to know the details. “Anyway, what it boils down to is I’m horrible relationship material. It’s just not in the cards for me.”

Cipher hummed softly. “Why? Is it because of your,” she was about to say mother, but the stiffness of Theron’s pose warned her against it, “family?” She couldn’t decide if panic or anger won out during that uncomfortable silence, but at least he didn’t turn and walk away.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pressed,” she apologized softly. The chill she’d been ignoring suddenly seemed more important and she shivered. “We should head back, I suppose. Though I prefer having you to myself.”

"I suppose we should," Theron said, slowing his steps. "Kinda cold out here." His arm lifted before he realized what he was doing, folding Cipher into his side. He held her stiffly, awkwardly, until they’d adjusted to one another’s pace. He wondered what the hell he was doing; he wondered if she’d pull away.

Cipher nestled herself close. Theron was very warm. "A bit," she agreed. She was often a creature of whimsy, when left to her own devices. Taking Theron’s wrist, Cipher gently tugged his arm until his fingertips brushed her breast. "I have a better idea. Let's sneak aboard my ship,” she whispered, “We can share the ‘fresher, and see where things go from there.”

Theron chuckled nervously as Cipher steered them towards the landing area. “Not shy at all, are you.”

Cipher smiled, lifting on her toes to press a warm, lingering kiss to chapped lips. “Not even a bit.”

They began walking in that direction. "Exactly how great were those details you were considering?" Theron asked. Cipher laughed, but didn't answer.

 

Rishi, Day 13 Month 7 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

Cipher had taken her team and gone to look into Torch and her Mandalorians, determined she would find out what they knew about the Revanites. While she was doing that, Lana reviewed the intelligence she'd obtained from the Aggressor raid. She hadn't managed to decrypt much, and neither had Theron, but one of the first things Lana had found was the location, for the next couple of days, of the safe house where newly arriving Revanites were taken to be debriefed before going on to the Revanite base -- the site of which still eluded them.

Lana scouted the location. She didn't dare use much of her force powers, because the Revanites included many force users, and would be alerted. She had to keep her focus on suppressing her own force signature to avoid detection and exposure. So it was basic visual surveillance she resorted to. It appeared that there were usually between five and ten armed personnel in place, typically a mixed group of people who didn't look especially like pirates, but also didn't look like Republic or Imperial officers or Sith or Jedi. A few looked like bounty hunters; most would easily be mistaken for local criminal or security types. She didn't have time to watch them long enough to establish a pattern. Tomorrow night, the safehouse would be moved, and she no longer would have the advantage of knowing its location.

There was at least a fifty percent chance that they could find the site of the Revanite base on a console there, or that a terminal in the safehouse had a direct connection to Revan and his headquarters that could be traced. There was at most a fifty percent chance that she, Theron, and Jakarro could get in and out with that information without losing someone to capture or casualty.

It was an acceptable risk, Lana judged, and chose not to share it when she outlined the plan to her allies. She instead gave the details of what she had observed, and allowed Theron to draw his own conclusions, which were very similar to her own.

"We have to get in there and get the data before they move," Theron stated.

"I concur completely," Lana told him.

Jakarro added his agreement in the inimitable Wookiee language. The droid he still wore strapped to his body chimed in enthusiastically.

Theron outlined his plan. He would go in stealthily, slice the terminal inside the safe house, get out with the data. Lana and Jakarro would stay nearby and alert him to any dangers, and be ready to provide extraction if he was caught.

To a certain point, the raid on the safe house went as planned. Theron was able to sneak past the two humans hanging around the exterior, who were chatting about a Sabacc game they'd played the night before, and make his way into the safe house through a side entrance. The hallway beyond was empty. Theron heard voices from a room to his left through a closed hatchway. There was an open door to the right. He listened at it, hearing nothing, then entered. The room had a desk with a terminal and appeared empty so Theron took the opportunity to enter the room and begin slicing.

He was engrossed in his task when a mismatched pair of Revanites, one a Chagrian and the other a Kel Dor, entered and asked him what he was doing. "Got bored with the Sabacc talk, came in here to check the net," Theron bluffed. “Lots of money on that big huttball game.”

The Kel Dor gave him the oddest look. Theron watched the alien’s hands, and yes, he was making hand signals; to whom, Theron wasn’t sure.

“Go… Frogdogs?”

"I don't know how you found us, but we'll get it out of you," the Chagrian said. He shouted something in a language Theron didn't recognize.

Two more Revanites came into the room.

Lana sensed in the force that Theron was fighting. His opponents fought to subdue, not to kill. The force told her the Revanites who had ambushed Theron would want to take him in for interrogation. It was more of an opportunity than a problem, she thought. Theron, being an SIS agent, would discover as much from their questioning as he would reveal, probably more, due to his counter-interrogation implants.

The two humans who had been lounging outside looked jolted into action, and hurried in.

"Something's got them spooked. We should go in," Jakarro growled.

"Yes." Lana wanted to get in there quickly. As she and Jakarro readied themselves to approach the house, a group of Revanites came out. Two were limping, clearly wounded. Another two carried a slumped figure between them. The final pair had their weapons drawn, making a cautious sweep around to cover the wounded and the pair with their prisoner.

"That's Theron," Jakarro whispered harshly. "I'll take out the ones who have him. You get the ones with the guns."

"No," Lana said. "We can't risk it. If we attack, they have time to destroy their consoles before we get the data. And you might hit Theron," she added.

Jakarro hesitated just long enough that the opportunity to take the shot was gone. The Revanites and Theron were all in a closed ground vehicle; they slammed the rear door and the vehicle drove off. "Then I can shoot down the vehicle," Jakarro muttered.

"And that risks killing Theron, too," Lana pointed out. "He's an intelligence agent. This is an opportunity for him to get some intel. Now, come on." She and Jakarro went into the safe house.

Most of the inhabitants had left. The two in the room with the console Lana mind tricked into believing she and Jakarro were fellow Revanites and that the force-wielding waves of her hands were their secret recognition signals. When the other two came in to see what was going on, Jakarro shot them.

Opening a line from the console to its contact point, Lana reached out with the force to sense where the other end of the connection lay. She knew that this botched raid had exposed their presence, and the Revanites would be expecting them, but this way she'd know where they were. Know where they'd taken Theron, in all likelihood. She owed it to him to arrange his extraction.

 

Revanite Base on Rishi, Day 13 Month 7 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

Theron woke up groggy, knowing exactly where he was and why. Not where in the sense of coordinates or even general direction sense, but he knew the Revanites had him prisoner. He kept his eyes closed hoping that they wouldn't guess that he was awake. His face ached, cheekbone, forehead, around his eye; the bruises would be showing soon if they didn't already.

That safe house raid could have gone much better, he thought.

He tried to distract himself from thinking about what might happen next to him by wondering what was going on with Cipher in her mission to make contact with Torch. They could be having a polite tea together, two serious ladies sipping caffeine laden hot water with dried leaves at the bottom, their guns carefully holstered, all the violence mere potential. Or they could be shooting at each other already, filling the air with flame and blaster bolts. Theron wasn't sure which he thought was more likely.

The distraction worked until the first interrogation droid entered the room.

Though it seemed when Theron tried to calibrate his implants that his captors had fried the long range communication capability, which necessarily had external parts, the inward portion was shielded. Theron could use his implants to detect chemicals in his bloodstream that were known hallucinogens or relaxants used for interrogation, and counter them. He'd programmed routines into them that sensed when he was about to say certain words and, unless he specifically subvocalized a counteracting code, stopped him from saying them. He also had a subroutine that disabled his speech centers entirely when he was in sufficient distress, unless he put the implants into combat mode. As far as Theron could tell, his implants enabled him to resist any interrogation he wanted to resist.

That didn't make being interrogated fun.

There were Revanites who were part of SIS. They'd know what the implants could do, and they'd probably have ideas how to counter, or at least they wanted to try. There would probably be experimental drugs. There would certainly be pain. In situations like this, Theron fell back on the techniques Master Zho and the Order of the Sacred Circle had taught him as a child. There is no emotion. There is compassion. Feel compassion for yourself, but not fear. Meditating and maintaining focus through torture was one of the least fun activities in the galaxy.

He thought about Cipher. She didn't have the same kind of implants he did, but Imperial Intelligence had to have something similar. There were rumors. There were files he didn't have enough access to read, but had enough access to know they existed, that explained what SIS knew about that.

A cold needle slid into his arm, injected something that burned. His eyes went dry, then blurry as he blinked to try to shed the dry feeling. A low hum began, or seemed to. The interrogation drone played a recording. "What were you looking for in that house?" a voice asked.

Theron didn't let himself answer. He thought about Lana and Jakarro, waiting outside the Revanite safehouse while he went in. They should have been able to rescue him before it came to this. In the acceptance of meditation, he noticed he was angry with Lana. A failure, he thought, of detachment. While he'd been busy persuading her he trusted her and could be trusted in turn, he'd managed to convince himself to consider her a friend on a gut level, even though he knew better. Can't expect any Imperial to be a friend, he thought, even if it's in their best interest to be allies. More anger, mixed with sadness, this time at himself, but he didn't look at it too closely, just let it go, with all the other feelings he couldn't afford in the moment.

The Revanites were asking their questions. Theron was seeing people who weren't there. Cipher wasn't there, but he saw her, heard her asking how he'd known where the safe house was. "You were there," he tried to tell her, but the words came out garbled by the implant. He saw the anger as black curling smoke in his mind, the pain was red waves like blood in water, and Cipher's look was sharp green lines cutting through it all. Why was she here? Was she rescuing him? The implants sent a warning. Levels of unknown spice analogue reaching critical. Removing in 5 unless countermanded. 4. 3.

As his mind began to clear, Theron focused. He started a procedure running that would test for a frequency he could use to hack into the Revanites' communications, a technique he'd used before. The scanner would lock onto any opening it detected and send resets, hoping to fool a linked system into rebooting and making a direct connection. From there Theron would be able to slice into the control systems of this base, get a message to Cipher and Lana, get someone here to get him out, maybe even unlock the room and escape on his own.

When the pain got too much for him to fully counteract with meditation, his implants let him fall unconscious. The interrogation drones lit up a red indicator for the Revanites. The prisoner should be given a recovery break. Questioning could resume when he woke.

 

Rishi, Day 14 Month 7 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

Having managed to turn the Republic and Imperial Revanites against one another, Cipher felt uneasy about the viability of her team’s own detente. The way Lana had dismissed her concerns about Theron rankled, and even more that Lana had felt it was acceptable to allow him to be captured the way she had; though Cipher understood the strategy behind it, and might have even considered doing the same, the situations were too similar. Would the alliance she, Theron and Lana shared fall apart as easily as the Revanites'? Perhaps it already had, and that was the source of her disquiet.

Lana sensed the turmoil in Cipher Nine when they met to discuss their next move. "The Rishii people are so reasonable," Lana told Cipher. "I would like to stay longer in their company."

"There haven’t been any problems so far," Cipher agreed, distracted by the warmth, and the fire, and her own growing irritation. She wondered what Lana was really talking about. It wasn't the bird people, she felt sure.

"Pragmatism, accommodation, trust,” Lana’s eyes drifted from the dancing flames to Cipher’s withering stare, “friendship -- difficult to come by. Too readily set aside." Lana embraced her sadness, letting it guide her thoughts.

"It's difficult to set aside one’s common sense, yes." Cipher felt the strain in the camaraderie between her and Lana. She wasn't sure she cared.

"When we first met, the Force told me our fates were intertwined completely, yours, mine, and Theron’s." Her gold eyes looked into Cipher's. "They still are. They will be for years to come, I think."

"That doesn't mean we're friends,” Cipher snapped. The sharpness of her reaction pulsed against her temples, and Cipher closed her eyes, taking a moment to collect herself. “Agent Shan is a Republic agent. You're a Sith. I'm -- one couldn’t reasonably expect us all to just get along simply because your beliefs tell you we should." Cipher wished the time she had spent with Theron had got all of that out of her system, but no such luck.

"Perhaps. Either way, some truths linger more than others.” Her voice softened. “After all the work we've done together, Theron trusted me. I don't know if he ever will again." Lana extended the force just enough to share with Cipher a portion of the regret she felt.

"It wasn't an easy choice." Cipher felt sympathy for Lana, but didn't care to show it because she was also still angry, and didn't want to be angry because, after all, Theron was Republic. "He should have known you and he weren't friends. He's an experienced agent." It was hard for her to keep it straight in her head that Theron was the enemy. She didn't feel like he was her enemy; she didn't feel like Lana was her enemy. Lana was right, it felt, deep down, like they were all friends, perhaps more than friends. Lana felt like family. Theron felt like… more than a friend, anyway. And all of that was wrong, completely inaccurate and dangerous besides.

"I've tried not to think about it, but I know you're right. I hope,” Lana's words trailed off, and she looked away, no longer meeting the agent’s eyes. She hoped they they could continue working together comfortably, at least until circumstance put them at cross purposes once more. “I hope Theron will give me the chance to explain.” Lana turned to look into the distance. "Never mind, for now. You need to retrieve Agent Shan, and if he has been able to obtain the intelligence I expect he has, we will be ready for our next move."

 

Revanite Base on Rishi, Day 14 Month 7 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

Cipher Nine made it far enough into the Revanite base where Theron was being held to be a first hand witness to his escape attempt. He'd got a good amount of information, coded files and, this time, the keys to unlock them. His implants were running decoding functions in between targeting computations in full combat mode.

He was in terrible physical shape. Combat mode and adrenaline were allowing him to run and shoot adequately, but Theron wasn't sure he would have managed a clean getaway if Cipher hadn't been there. Between them, they took out the remaining Revanites.

A holo of Revan showed up and tried to tell them about some plan that they wouldn't have time to stop. Theron didn't listen. He wasn't sure if it was the real Revan, who he thought he'd seen die at the Foundry; the one on the holo wore that mask and could be anyone. Voice was the same, though.

The information they'd need to stop the Revanites trickled into Theron's thoughts from the implants. Jammers, weapons -- Darth Marr, really? Imperial ships headed this way, a Republic fleet too. Master Satele. That was all he needed. Didn't matter what he needed -- she and Marr were on their way, possibly already here.

Theron filled Cipher Nine in as they made their way slowly back to the Rishii village on Sky Ridge Island.

 

Rishi, Day 16 Month 7 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

The Imperial and Republic fleets were here, but Theron couldn't send the decrypted files containing the list of the Revanites aboard each ship. Revan's plan to have them take over -- and after reading the documents he'd obtained during his detainment, Theron was convinced that somehow Revan had survived and this wasn't someone else taking his name -- the plan that Revan had claimed it was too late to do anything about, couldn't be stopped unless somehow the signal jammer the Revanites were guarding could be turned off.

There was far too much ground-to-air artillery in place for anything but an infiltrate and sabotage mission. Theron would have liked to go himself, but he and Lana still had documents to decrypt that would prove beyond Master Satele and Darth Marr's doubts that the Revanite conspiracy was a real and immediate threat. He hoped there would be enough time. He hoped they would finish before it really was too late.

Working with Lana was taking every bit as much toll on him emotionally as the after effects of the interrogation drones' efforts was physically. He hurt everywhere. He was angry all the time. And he couldn't take even a moment to deal with any of that. Getting the information out of those files had to come first.

He couldn't spare a moment to think about Cipher Nine, either. He'd done enough of that before he escaped. She couldn't have known what Lana was planning, could she? That was why Lana had to wait until Cipher was out of contact dealing with the Mandalorians before -- no, back to procedures. Back to not thinking. He'd never spent so long practicing the Circle's techniques, not under so many disparate stresses, doubting in every possible way. But he was going to do it. There was no other choice.

 

Revanite Base on Rishi, Day 16 Month 7 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

For the infiltration and sabotage of the jammer, Cipher Nine had brought her full team. They were making progress. Cipher and Kaliyo were fighting a Wookiee. At any other time it might have been amusing, but the Wookiee was tough. Lokin and Temple were taking down the Wookiee's ally, and Vector was doing what he could to keep the shields down. The seven foot tall furry bounty hunter kept trying to jet away, but Kaliyo's grapple kept pulling him back in. Finally Cipher got a clean head shot and the Wookiee went down. Focused fire took down his friend and they got the codes the two had been protecting.

"Must we still call you Captain?" Vector asked, putting away his datapad.

"At this point, I think the Revanites know exactly who we are," Cipher admitted. At least Revan knew, and if he wanted to tell his followers, he could have. She wasn't sure whether he would have bothered.

Stealth got them close to their next target, but Temple winced and put her hand across her eyes. "Strong force users, Commander," she said quietly, indicating the direction they were going. "Very close to our next way point." Another terminal they needed to get codes from: the Revanites had adopted the Nova Blades' style of protecting their bases, keeping multiple security codes on separate unconnected consoles to prevent remote slicing from having any chance of success.

This would be more difficult, but Cipher had confidence in her team. She only momentarily wished that Lana had come along. Her sith to counter the enemy's would be better, but this was doable. "We need to snipe them. Temple, distract as best you can. Vector, line up shots. Kaliyo, Lokin, cover us."

"One from our side, one from the Republic," Temple told them.

"The Jedi's mine, you take the other," Cipher told Vector.

Vector's Killik mind connection left Force users little ability to read him. Cipher had only her practiced will, forged against mind control the likes of which few had encountered and survived with their sanity. Between them, they coordinated shots to take out the Revanite force users before they had a chance to realize what their fate would be. The Force might have warned Master Obai and Lord Vodd, but Raina Temple managed to shield her allies from their notice until a fraction of a second before the act.

Signaling silently once she had her shot, Cipher waited until Vector had his and signaled back. They each pulled the trigger at the same moment. Lord Vodd's brains splattered onto Master Obai's robes. Obai took a blaster bolt square in the chest. He stopped breathing, then caught his breath again. His lightsaber flew through the air to his waiting hand, and he tried to stand.

Wounded as he was, though, he didn't last long against Cipher's team. "Well done," she said when they had finished.

The codes enabled them to turn the ground to air artillery against the Revanites' own fleet, and then it was safe for the team to be airlifted to the communications tower where the jammer was operating.

An enormous reinforced walker was defending it. In the fight to take down the walker, Temple was badly wounded. Lokin flooded her system with kolto, but she was out of the fight. Once Cipher reached the controls and removed the jammer, she contacted Lana. "Ready with those files?" she asked.

"Our task is almost complete," Lana said. "Put us through to the fleets." Cipher had Vector contact Darth Marr with Lana, and she put Theron through to Grandmaster Shan herself. Protocol would have had it the other way around, she knew. She was the Commander, and Vector was her diplomatic officer; she should have let him talk to the Republic, and reported to the Imperial fleet admiral herself, but it was the least she could indulge herself, she thought, after so much fighting and worry, to watch Theron set their triumph out to his mother.

"But Revan was killed," Satele was saying from the command deck of the Dauntless, clearly shocked.

"Apparently it didn't take." There was an edge of anger in Theron's voice.

Satele had her communications officer open a connection to Darth Marr, and the leaders of both fleets agreed to come to Raider's Cove to meet on neutral ground.

Cipher and her team returned carefully and at all reasonable speed. She needed to be on time to that meeting.

 

Raider's Cove on Rishi, Day 16 Month 7 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

Cipher watched the imposing figure of Darth Marr and his guard stalk towards the exit, likely to prepare his fleet for their journey to Yavin IV. The conference between the two opposing force users hadn’t felt particularly welcoming. They hadn’t even bothered waiting for her before solidifying their plans. Not that she was irritated. Not a bit.

At least the Grandmaster had taken the time to express some measure of gratitude -- an overwhelmingly sincere, yet aloof thanks -- for Cipher’s success. She would have liked to return the introduction, express suitable humility for the measure of her praise, but Marr was always so direct. During the remainder of their “wrapping up”, Cipher had tried to imagine Marr as a little boy: Marr claiming the shovel of a child too unfocused to finish his sandcastle. Marr watching some shadowy mother figure as she explained second desserts were bad for the stomach -- unblinking stare unnerving the poor woman until she handed him a treat.

Or perhaps as a teen: Marr studying intently at the great library on Korriban, pausing only to force choke those making too much noise. Marr telekinetically slamming those running in the hall to the ground, holding them there, screaming, while he listed the institutes’ rules and regulations in that glorious monotone. She shook her head -- no, it wasn’t possible. Darth Marr had never been young.

“Grandmaster, a moment of your time,” Cipher asked, catching Marr pausing under the archway out of the corner of her eye.

“Of course.” The jedi motioned her closer with a much less imperious wave of the hand than she was used to.

Cipher cleared her throat, realizing she had Darth Marr’s undivided attention now, as he’d fully turned in her direction. She could almost feel his questions burning into her skin. She wasn’t sure if she feared him or not; he was less free with whatever dark magics he communed with than previous Darths she’d encountered -- she’d never been electrocuted, suffocated, or doubled over with nausea in Marr’s presence. That was all for the good.

“With your permission, my Lord.” She didn’t bow her head -- she’d never bow or kneel for another force user as long as she karking lived -- but she did infuse the request with the appropriate level of deference. She remained motionless.

“Do not tarry.” Darth Marr turned on his heel and disappeared down the hallway.

The agent breathed a sigh of relief, a breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding. “Apologies, Grandmaster.”

A smile quirked at the corners of the jedi’s lips. “Perfectly understandable. What did you want to discuss?”

Cipher became aware Marr hadn’t been the only spectator. Theron was watching her closely from where he leaned against the console. His head wasn’t turned in her direction, and he appeared to be in a conversation with Jakarro, or the droid, or both, but she knew he was attempting to listen.

“I wanted to talk to you about Agent Shan,” Cipher said softly, motioning with a hand towards the farthest corner of the room.

The Grandmaster glanced in Theron’s direction before joining the Imperial. “Is something wrong?”

“No! No, not at all; this is more of a personal nature.” Teeth plucked at her lip as she considered how to approach the topic. “Grandmaster…”

“Satele, please.” The jedi smiled.

Cipher was surprised; the smile touched every part of the jedi’s face except the eyes themselves, which held something else: curiosity, perhaps, though Cipher wasn’t sure if the curiosity were directed at Theron or at herself. “If you insist.”

“It’s what I prefer.”

Cipher hummed, distracted. “Satele, then.” The name tasted odd, too familiar as it rolled off her tongue. “I wanted to ask you about Agent Shan.”

The Grandmaster closed her eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath, as if collecting her thoughts, and Cipher got the tiniest prickling sensation, like gooseflesh, that crept across the back of her neck.

“I’m not sure how much I could tell you that you don’t already know, Commander.”

The pause had been slight, almost undetectable, but Cipher was almost certain the jedi had been about to call her something else, and replaced it with Commander at the last moment. Her eyes narrowed. “You do know you’re related.”

The Grandmaster crossed her hands in front of her stomach, one cupping the other. “I’m aware. We’ve both known for some time.”

“Don’t you want reconciliation? Jedi or not, he’s still your son.” Cipher winced, realizing that sounded much more abrasive than she intended. “Forgive me. It’s not my place to bring such matters to your attention, but I know the silence between the two of you isn’t helping anyone.”

A dark eyebrow quirked as the jedi studied Cipher. “You know?”

She had the good graces to flush, looking quite embarrassed. “I believe I do, yes.”

“How close are you to my son?” Satele asked quietly.

“Not as close as I’d like to be,” Cipher muttered, horrified with herself even as the words formed on her lips. The flush deepened. What was wrong with her?

“I see.” The words were low, barely above a whisper. Satele straightened, the softness of her expression relaxing into neutrality. “I’m sorry,” again there was that niggling pause, “Commander. Theron has made it very clear to me our relationship should remain strictly professional. Some things shouldn’t be forced.”

“It’s hurting him. You can… sense things! Surely you know Theron doesn’t know what he wants, let alone what he needs,” Cipher whispered.

“I am… unsure of the outcome,” Satele replied, resisting the urge to turn her head to watch Theron. When her son had come to her to tell her of Zho's death, the passing of his own foster father, he had emphatically not wanted her to acknowledge their relationship. She remembered how hard it had been to pull away from Malcom when it was necessary. When she looked to the Force, there was no indication of whether reconciliation with her son would help or harm. Likely it would give him nothing but a new potential source of sorrow.

“But if you had the chance, would you pursue it,” Cipher pressed, letting her features reflect the sincerity of the question. If she could just broker a peace, an armistice in this ludicrous cold war, she was sure she could help Theron reconnect with his feelings -- get past the fear of abandonment. And then maybe she’d have a chance to… No, she shouldn’t get ahead of herself; this was for Theron’s sake, not her own. Probably.

“The future is always in motion. I wouldn’t know until the moment had come.”

Cipher's sigh was explosive, cacophonous, filling volumes of frustration. “That’s such an ambiguous answer,” Cipher whispered, hand lifting to press against her temples, “I was hoping for something a bit more concrete.” She studied the jedi’s face carefully, hoping for a response, any response, but the woman’s features remained as motionless as a pillar of marble. A different tactic then.

Cipher made sure her back was to Theron before speaking. She ran fingers through her hair. “If I could convince Agent -- Theron -- to approach you, to … I don’t know, share a meal, have drinks, talk about the weather… would you have a conversation with him?”

Satele seemed amused. “We’ve conversed before, Commander.”

She wondered if Satele was being deliberately obtuse. “As mother and son?”

This answer came slower, with more of a pronounced pause. “No.” A longer pause yawned between them before Satele continued. “Very well. I’ll be making arrangements for the fleet in preparation for the journey to Yavin IV. Have Theron contact me aboard the Dauntless if he agrees.” The jedi reached for Cipher’s wrist, holding it quite firmly. “Be cautious, Commander. Theron’s suffered many disappointments.”

Grey-blue eyes captured Cipher’s attention, and she squirmed. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask whether Satele considered Cipher one of those disappointments, but she reigned the impulse in, deciding instead to mirror the jedi’s hold, so that they grasped each other, palm to wrist. Cipher squeezed gently, reassuringly, and watched as the Grandmaster followed the path Darth Marr had taken, towards the exit.

Cipher rejoined her companions clustered around the table, noting the conspicuous lack of camaraderie, and frowned.

“That went surprisingly well, I think.” For such a unique intelligence, D4 was glaringly oblivious when he wanted to be.

“Yeah, it’s nice to see the Empire and the Republic can work together without stabbing each other in the back,” Theron muttered, glaring in Lana’s general direction.

“It was the right move, arranging for your capture. We’ve succeeded, haven’t we?” The color rising in the sith’s cheeks came as no surprise to Cipher. She wondered if Theron had caught on, was objective enough to match behavior patterns: the more something emotionally affected Lana, the more she retreated into logic.

“Unbelievable. Where’s the trust? Huh? Did it go wander off someplace, or was it never there to start with?” Theron had noticed, but since he was angry with Lana, letting himself wallow in the anger, in fact, he didn’t care.

Lana knew Theron was angry with her, and resented it. She thought he should have realized letting him be captured was the right move, especially once Cipher had retrieved him and he was safe again. She let a little of it show, corners of her mouth downturned. “At the risk of seeming egotistical, I will not apologize for being right.”

Cipher closed her eyes momentarily. Oh, Lana, she thought with resigned exasperation.

“That’s all you have to say?” Theron asked, incredulous.

“This sounds ominous. Was there something I missed?” Cipher interrupted. The infighting was only going to get worse, she thought, and she was attempting to ward that off. She had not actually missed anything. She wanted Lana to rethink her position and, Cipher hoped, choose a different, less provoking one.

Lana slumped minutely. “Theron, I recognize I betrayed your trust, and for that, I am sorry.” He really would not ever forgive her, she feared. A small measure of power roiled through her at the thought, flared yellow in her eyes and tingled in her fingers.

Theron grunted, folding his arms across his chest and dismissing the sith entirely. He refused to acknowledge her apology in any manner. He shifted in his seat so he faced Cipher squarely, and Lana not at all. “So, you and Satele -- the two of you seemed chummy.”

“Mmmm.” Cipher quirked an eyebrow. She had noted Theron's shift, and thought it best to distract for the moment. She made a mental note to circle back tactically and address the point later. “I wouldn’t worry, Theron. I don’t think I’m her type.”

A strangled sound caught in the back of Theron’s throat as he struggled and failed, rising to the bait of her teasing. “Tell me you didn’t just hit on the Grandmaster of the Jedi Order.”

Cipher offered Theron an exaggeratedly earnest look. “Fostering good relations is an important aspect of cooperation.”

“Commander, I … ” Lana, at a loss for words, turned to the Wookie instead. “Jakarro, we should see to preparations for the ship.” She rose and bowed slightly, making an elegant, if hasty, retreat.

Jakarro uttered a long sound of agreement, shaking his head as he followed the sith.

Cipher and Theron sat in silence until the door closed. “That was awkward,” he lamented.

“She declined the offer,” Cipher teased offhandedly. Theron just starred. Cipher studied him for a moment, taking in his disheveled, battered and bruised appearance. “But seriously, I was surprised by how congenial she was to me. I had a completely different idea of who the Grandmaster would be,” she continued as she fetched a medkit. She sat on the table beside Theron, taking items from the kit she could use to clean and disinfect his wounds. “Not that I’ve had many dealings with jedi -- as you can see, I’m alive and free -- but even so, I was surprised.” Cipher looked into Theron’s eyes. “She was nothing like I imagined.” Cipher pulled an empty kolto pad away from his face, squinting at the barely healed injury that was revealed. Antiseptic-laden cloth in hand, she dabbed carefully at the cut.

Theron winced, shying away from the antiseptic gel with a scowl. Cipher gave him a reproachful glance as he leaned back further in the chair. “It stings, you know.”

“Pain is part of the process,” Cipher said firmly, then paused, considering. She pulled one of Theron’s hands from his crossed arms and slid it across her thigh, not so high up as to be a distraction for herself, but enough to redirect his attention.

“What,” Theron began, glancing nervously between his right hand laying almost between Cipher’s thighs and the woman herself as she resumed her cleaning. Finishing with his face, she replaced the kolto bandage and began to consider Theron's hand.

“Now, hold still, and let’s get this over with.” Theron lapsed into passivity, and she continued. “Why don’t you tell me about your mother? I should know what I’m getting into, if we’re going to be working with each other.”

“She’s … precise.”

“That’s got to be the most vague field report I’ve ever been given.”

Theron lifted his left hand and ran the fingers across his head, spinning corkscrews and jagged peaks through sweaty bangs, leaving Cipher full possession of his right hand as she worked. His knuckles stung, yes, with antiseptic gel, and the prodding of the barely-beginning-to-heal wounds hurt, but despite that, he felt himself relaxing as she continued to address the damage he'd accumulated fighting the Revanites. “I’m not sure what you’re looking for here. She’s stern and uncompromising, and somehow manages to live up to her own unrealistic expectations." Theron thought about how that might be possible. "Maybe by pushing away anyone who might give a damn, I don’t know.”

Cipher paused in her cleaning of the abrasions on his knuckles and wrists. “Are you one of them, those people who might give a damn?”

Maybe I used to be, Theron thought, and snorted. “Why should I? She’s never given me a reason to care.”

Cipher made a thoughtful sound, tilting her head. “All right. Strip.” Theron gave her an incredulous stare. “I’m serious; I can’t get to the other wounds with your shirt on.” He reluctantly slipped out of his upper clothing, and Cipher winced, noticing the inflamed patches surrounding the numerous injection sites, and the skin darkened with with electrical burns. “This must have hurt,” she murmured, gently removing, cleaning and replacing kolto patches.

“It wasn’t the most fun I’ve had during an interrogation.” Theron didn't let himself think about it enough to give her anything but a canned response. He didn't feel like remembering what had hurt and what hadn't. There was something else he ought to tell Cipher sometime, about that, but he wasn't ready yet.

Cipher thought of one of her own complicated relationships, not the most convoluted: her ever evolving interactions with the man who’d been her closest contact during the early years of Imperial Intelligence, first Keeper, and then Minister of Intelligence, and now whatever he was. “It’s difficult, forgiving betrayal. Even if the outcome is favorable.” She took a deep breath. “A spy’s life is tenuous -- compromise after compromise -- I still find myself wondering if the good can outweigh the sacrifice.”

Theron looked uncomfortable sitting there, a patchwork of kolto and old wounds, barely visible, just beneath the skin. Cipher smiled. “Here,” she said, and helped him back into his shirt.

“If this is about Lana…” Who had apologized to him, right after saying she wouldn't, Theron thought.

Cipher shook her head. “It’s not though. It’s about how we deal with loss. All of us.”

Theron’s eyes narrowed. “She betrayed me. We were allies, and she just left me there…”

“Yes,” Cipher interjected, “she chose the mission over the people she was working with.”

“We’re not just people--”

“Well, I’m not just people,” Cipher agreed, letting a hint of a smirk curl her lip.

“We’re supposed to be allies. Friends even, or so I thought,” Theron continued as if Cipher hadn’t interrupted.

Cipher resisted the urge to point out the hypocrisy of an SIS agent screaming foul after “befriending” a sith and an enemy agent. Your people have done worse to me, she thought, and with an effort let it go as unproductive and likely to reverse her hard won progress. “It must have been a difficult decision; one I wouldn't envy.” She let a tinge of sadness creep into her tone. “It would be difficult to sacrifice you, even if it saved the galaxy.”

“Not good enough. Lana should have trusted me. I’ve been in situations like that before. But she just… lies and leads me into a trap, and leaves me there to rot!” Theron fumed.

“We all worked very hard to get you back, Theron. Lana included.”

Theron waved his hand dismissively. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Why doesn’t it matter?” Cipher asked softly.

“Because she abandoned me!” Theron’s eyes glinted hard as shards of mica.

Cipher had to tread carefully here, but it seemed the best point in time to draw the connection. She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Theron, whispering, “Like your mother.”

Theron stiffened in her arms, and she tightened her hold around him, unwilling to let him physically retreat. “Don’t… don’t you dare use my mother as a reason to forgive a sith of betrayal.”

“I wouldn’t do that. I would never do that, Theron.”

“Then what was your point?”

Cipher sighed. “People make poor, or difficult decisions for all sorts of reasons; we can’t control that, and right or wrong is completely subjective as far as I’m concerned. For the good of the Empire, or for the good of the Republic -- pretty words, grandiose words, cutting, terrible destructive words. It’s all just words, Theron. But we control how they affect us.

“Think about what you would have done in her place, but think about it honestly. Give it a good think, and then, if you want to be angry at Lana, by all means -- but we still need to work together. She apologized, Theron. Do you have any idea how miraculous it is for a sith to apologize for anything they do? Would you have said you were sorry were the situation reversed?”

Theron would have. He suspected, though, that he might not have completely meant it. He started to try to sort his thoughts into words. Cipher had her arms around him tightly. It hurt because he had at least one broken rib. It felt good because it was her holding him. He made a sound, compounded of both feelings, and something she heard in it made her loosen her grip.

Cipher laid her fingers gently against Theron's lips as he started to speak. “Shhh, I’m almost done. People make mistakes. I may be making the most horrible mistake of my life, right now, speaking to you like this. I may be throwing away any happiness which might have happened if I’d just kept my kriffing mouth shut.” She brushed away the tears that threatened to fall and took a deep, steadying breath. “My point is, if you give people the chance, they’ll tell you how sorry they were, and when it really matters, they’ll mean it."

Theron took a mirrored breath, one much deeper than he had been breathing, enough to make the broken rib ache. He let it out as slowly as possible. "You--" He wasn't sure what to say. He was so bad at relationships. Should he tell her he was sorry, Theron wondered, or was he supposed to tell her she hadn't thrown anything away? Words probably weren't enough. He pulled her off the table onto his lap and kissed her. The weight on his injuries hurt, and he ignored it, not minding much -- not enough to let her go. He kissed her long enough that the words were ready by the time she pushed him away to catch a breath. "You know there's no chance I'll actually make you happy," he whispered into her ear. "For that, I'm sorry. If it matters."

At least that made her stop crying. She put an arm around his shoulders and cupped his less injured cheek in one hand. "Oh, Theron," Cipher said, wondering if she'd gone too far, steeling herself to go further while she still could. "There's always a chance. If you're willing to give it to me."

He nodded, twice, turned his face and kissed her palm. "Yeah."

"And," Cipher paused and smiled a different, gentler smile, "would you give Satele a chance to talk to you before we go to Yavin? She's told me you're invited to call her on the holo and, well, catch up a little. I think she'd like it."

"I don't get why you care," Theron admitted. He tilted his head back, looked Cipher in the eyes, remembering the green lines of her gaze from his drugged vision.

Something glittered in the mica depths of Theron's look. Cipher watched him, transfixed. She wondered if she could she explain without offending him. "The past is a trap," she offered. "You can't let yourself care about her, and you can't stop caring either. I think if you would talk -- it would free you."

"And her?" He tried to see past her surface to her intent, but couldn't. Everyone was easier to read than Cipher, even Lana. Even the Wookiee. Even, okay, the kriffing droid.

"I don't care about Satele for her own sake. Only for yours." Was that enough, Cipher wondered? Or was it too much?

Theron sighed. "She calls me her agent, like it's sheer coincidence we have the same name. Just -- an odd way to refer to your kid, you know? But, okay. For you, I'll give it a chance. Maybe she has something she wants to get off her chest."

 

Dauntless, Day 17 Month 7 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

Satele sat at her console in the conference room aboard the Dauntless, paging through lists of the crew positions in her fleet now vacant because the crew member had been a Revanite. The officers of each ship had sorted their requirements by criticality. Another list, across from the first, had far fewer names: those crew members loyal to the Republic who could be spared from their tasks, along with their qualifications and experience. Carefully she began attempting to match the most vital needs to the available personnel.

There were nowhere near enough. She had considered recruiting from among the locals on Rishi, but it was too great a risk -- there would not be time to investigate each of them thoroughly enough to make sure they weren't Revanites.

A message light flashed, indicating an incoming holo connection. Agent Shan was calling from Rishi. A tight band of an emotion she refused to name constricted Satele's chest. She sent the half finished work to her executive officer for immediate attention, stood, stretched, then answered the holo.

 

Rishi, Day 17 Month 7 Year 15 after the Treaty of Coruscant

Cipher Nine sat at a makeshift table with Kaliyo and Vector. From there, she could see Theron standing by the holo, talking to Satele. There was defensiveness in his stance, and she thought she could make out similar tension in the jedi's, though the wavering hologram made it difficult to be sure.

“Well, that’s sweet. And stupid. Why are we here again? Micromanaging your own love life from afar, Agent? Now we can all join in.” Kaliyo's feet were up on the table next to a bottle of local ale. Her lips curved in a smirk.

“You’re welcome to leave, Kaliyo.” Cipher smiled sweetly at the Rattataki. She was too pleased at the moment to listen to any of Kaliyo's nonsense or let it bother her.

“And miss the show?” Kaliyo took several swallows of ale from her bottle.

Cipher, ignoring Kaliyo, watched raptly as Theron's body language began to relax. His arms uncrossed, he took a step to the side and his feet were closer together, no longer marking a careful balance. His head even tilted a little. A bubble of relief rose in her chest.

Vector looked at her, bemused. “We aren’t sure why this meeting brings you joy, but we share the happiness we sense as it comes to pass.”

"Thank you, Vector," Cipher told him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Revan might be about to kill all of us, but at least I got one thing right. That's why I'm happy."

"We see you making accurate assessments quite often," Vector said, still unclear.

"Indeed," Cipher said. "Let's hope it stays that way."

She continued to watch Theron and Satele conversing. Despite uncertainty about how the looming existential threat would work out, Cipher couldn't help feeling like it was all going to be just fine.