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Shatterpoint

Chapter Text

The two white suns burned down with an unforgiving heat, but the dark-cloaked figure barely felt it. Metal feet shuffled and stumbled through the loose sand. Dry wind whispered around his horned head.

He was close. He knew he was. The glowing blue presence in the Force, maddeningly serene and full of light, had been on his peripheral senses for days now. It had tried moving away, but Maul had dogged it every step, following it out into the wilderness, across endless dunes of sand, through rocky quarries, along ridgelines and down into gulleys.

Like a beacon he had followed it, and at first it hadn't wavered. But today there was something... distracting.

His concentration had been slipping out. Instead of focusing on Kenobi, he kept drifting to something else. Something undefined at the back of his thoughts.

Maul growled, increasing his pace and focusing harder. He pushed aside the thirst burning at his throat. The ache in his limbs from having been walking for days now, with little rest. The irritation of the sand silting through his metal joints. He called the Force to him, feeling its chill settle in his bones, cooling him against the hot Tatooine suns.

Kenobi was further away again. Maul strained to try and pinpoint his presence, letting all sound and sight fade out, losing himself in the Force until—

And there it was again. That infernal prickle.

Maul's eyes snapped open. He came to a halt, clenching his teeth and his fists. His frustration flared. Kenobi would be lost to him if this kept up. He'd have to backtrack back to his ship and circle around and around in hopes of picking him up again.

Maul prepared to shove the distraction, whatever it was, away again and push even harder through the Dark Side. But just as he was about to smother it... he hesitated.

His fidgeting stopped, confusion dazzling his senses.

There was something about the niggling presence, some odd sensation, something... familiar.

This time, Maul reached out to touch the irritation, feel it out, sense what it was. His mind tentatively brushed against the spark tugging at the back of his thoughts.

Pain washed over him in a sudden cold flash. He gasped, stumbling back, recognizing the presence with a rush of clarity.

Ezra.

In his anger at the boy's rejection on Dathomir he had severed their Force bond. Hacked away furiously at the threads of their connection until they were nothing but tatters. He was certain the boy had done so on his end as well. But some thin thread, some sliver or pinprick of connection must have still remained and been left behind.

That pinprick was screaming out in agony. Maul could feel traces of it through the Force, Ezra's fear, his pain.

He was suffering.

A roiling ball of conflicting emotions hit him. Horror, at whatever was being done to Ezra. Anger, at the Jedi and the Rebels for letting it happen, at whoever had dared to touch his apprentice. And... hesitation. Indecision.

Maul glanced towards the horizon frantically, clinging to Kenobi's presence. He was so close and yet... and yet...

Now that he knew what the flutter in the Force was it wouldn't leave him. Ezra's pain called out to him. Desperate. Terrified.

Maul found himself now straining after it instead. The sliver wavered and slipped out of his grasp, elusive and fragile. Maul stood there frozen, his mind scratching out, trying to hold onto the hairline thread.

His feet were moving before he realized it, turning him about-faced, back towards the edge of the wastes.

Away from Kenobi.

He snarled in frustration, even as he increased his pace.

Kenobi would have to wait. Maul had been patient this long, he could afford to delay his revenge.

He had a feeling the man wouldn't be going anywhere.

-SWR-

The old Jedi watched from a safe distance as the black-cloaked figure stopped in place a long moment before it abruptly jerked around and rushed off in the opposite direction.

Obi-Wan stepped out from under the ledge of the high rock outcropping in concern.

He'd been dismayed and slightly irritated when he'd first sensed Maul's presence arriving on Tatooine, leading the former Sith on a merry chase through the desert, away from civilization and people he could hurt. But now, his old and persistent enemy suddenly giving up the chase and leaving was even more disconcerting.

Maul was not known for stopping a fight.

He observed quietly as the Zabrak faded into the horizon. The Force swirled in troubled eddies around him as he slowly disappeared from sight.

"Oh dear..." Obi-Wan sighed.

He hoped feverishly, wherever Maul was going, that he wouldn't be able to hurt anyone.

Chapter Text

Three months later...

Ezra gasped softly as he startled awake.

For several moments he blinked, groggily, staring towards the door. Zeb's snoring drifted up from the lower bunk, and the Ghost's hum was quiet and familiar.

He sat up, smearing a hand under his lined, tired eyes. His legs swung over the side of the bed and hung there, as his fingers scabbed through his short-cropped hair, eventually massaging behind his neck as he sorted himself out.

His head was still fuzzy, shaking off the vestiges of his fitful sleep. His body felt dull, heavy in every limb.

He raised his head, leaning into the Force's presence.

The aches in his joints dimmed a little.

With a sigh, he put his hands on the edge of the bed and slipped down, landing lightly on his feet and already heading towards the door. He called his lightsaber to his hand as he passed the desk.

Hitting the button to the door, he stepped out into the hallway and walked straight for the exit.

-SWR-

Kanan descended the ramp, working the kinks out of his shoulder. He turned his head in a slow arc, sensing out and pinpointing the location of his padawan from the turbulence he was causing in the Force.

He approached, picking his way towards the boy.

Ezra's lightsaber was activated, and he stabbed it in wide arcs and sharp thrusts, drilling his forms mechanically. He stared straight ahead across the landing field, ignoring everything, brows narrowed and face tight in angry concentration. He didn't even glance back to acknowledge his master.

Kanan stopped a little behind and to the side of him, crossing his arms.

"Another nightmare?" he guessed.

"Don't wanna talk about it," Ezra bit out automatically. He slashed the air again, with a little more force than necessary.

Kanan waited, silently, a steady and calm presence in the Force. He stood and listened to Ezra's grunts, and the thick buzzing of the lightsaber.

Ezra sighed, giving in to Kanan's unspoken request for elaboration. "Maul was in it again," he said. His voice dropped lower, almost to a mutter. "Don't know why I keep thinking about him lately."

Kanan frowned. He wasn't surprised at the confession, just—

Suddenly worried he asked, "You're not having visions again are you?"

Ezra paused a moment in his forms. He absorbed the question. Then he resumed, letting out a relieved breath. "No, thank Force," he said. "He just keeps—" His next swipe was agitated, the motion sharp and pointed. "—popping up in my bad dreams like an annoying jungle leech." Ezra finished up his set and stepped back, deactivating his saber. "He doesn't even really do anything in them most of the time, he's just... there on the Chimaera while I'm being tortured," he continued, almost grumbling now.

Kanan was nodding. He stepped forward, reaching out a hand, finding Ezra's shoulder. "He hurt you too, Ezra," he said, softly. "Maybe not as badly as the Empire did, but still." Fingers squeezed in reassurance, a silent comfort, a reminder that Ezra wasn't alone, and then Kanan let his hand drop again. "I'm not surprised your subconscious is mixing things up," he told the boy.

Another frustrated sigh emanated from him. "I wish it wouldn't. My memories of what happened are bad enough," he complained, clipping his lightsaber to his belt.

"Yeah, I never liked that part either," Kanan dismissed with a casual shrug, tone light. Clearing his throat his asked, "Have you been doing your focusing exercises?"

A sheepish look spread across Ezra's face. "I forgot to last night," he confessed, one hand drifting up to rub behind his neck.

Kanan resisted the urge to snort. "Well no wonder you had nightmares," he said flatly. He caught Ezra's shoulder again, this time in a firm, disciplinary pinch. "The technique doesn't work if you don't use it, Ezra," he teased, vaguely chiding.

Finally the boy's mood seemed to lighten. "Yeah, yeah, I know. I was tired," he defended, a laugh behind his voice as he batted Kanan off. He shrugged. "But hey, it's morning now, it's over, I'm awake." The hand at his neck scratched a little, under his ear. "And, uh... kinda hungry?" he said, uncertainly.

Kanan chuckled, warm smile lifting the corners of his mouth. He tilted his head back towards the Ghost. "Let's go see if Hera's up yet. It's her turn to make breakfast."

With that, he steered his padawan towards the ramp.

-SWR-

Light chatter drifted around the galley. Kanan and Hera worked the small stove, passing utensils and chopped vegetables back and forth between them. The rare fragrance of spices whiffed around the room.

Ezra's heel was tapping in anticipation, as he sat at the table. He looked up as light footsteps sounded in the doorway, smiling as Sabine came in and getting up to allow her access to the seat.

Sabine returned the smile, touching his arm as she brushed past and slid in.

"Hey," Ezra greeted breathlessly, taking his seat again.

"Smells good," Sabine said, nodding towards Kanan and Hera at the stove.

Ezra grinned. "We've got Corellian redroot today."

"Woah!" Sabine exclaimed, looking suitably impressed. "How'd we manage to get our hands on that?" she asked.

"Weapon shipment we intercepted a few days ago had some food stores tucked away in another cargo bay," Ezra explained. "Hera ran point on the mission so she got first claim to what was in it."

Sabine leaned her arms on the table as she listened. There was more shuffling behind him—Ezra glanced over to see Zeb stumbling in, blinking groggily and going straight to the cupboards to rummage around in them.

A soft touch on his wrist brought his attention back to Sabine, who was looking at him with gentle eyes.

"You sleep okay?" her voice low, close to a whisper.

Ezra's smile flattened grimly. "Not really," he said, with a dismissive shrug of his shoulders. At Sabine's concerned frown he hastily added, "It's nothing. It was just a bad dream."

Zeb snorted. "Yeah, the kind where you keep kicking the wall in your sleep," he grumbled as he pulled down his box of waffles.

Ezra grimaced. "Was I?" His eyes pinched apologetically. "Sorry Zeb."

The Lasat grunted in a non-committal way.

An awkward silence fell over them. Ezra fidgeted. When he glanced to the side, Sabine was still looking at him with a pursed frown.

"What?" he asked.

"Do I need to start acting as your sleep aid again?" she said.

Ezra felt his cheeks warming as an unbidden memory passed through his mind; Sabine's warm body curled up next to him, the fragrance of her paint, the comforting pulse of her heartbeat—

He banished the memory quickly, his heart prickling with a jolt, his voice straining. "N-no! No, that's okay, I'm—I'm okay—I—" he stammered. He forced himself to stop and take a breath to calm down. When he'd composed himself he cleared his throat, looking down towards the table. "Kanan's taught me a few meditation techniques that have really been helping, I was just too busy to do them last night before I went to bed so..."

His explanation trailed off. His hands gripped together on the table. Faint echoes and snippets of his nightmare drifted through his head like wandering bits of dust before he shook his head, scattering them.

He looked back up at Sabine, whose soft worried expression hadn't wavered, and forced a faint smile.

"I'm all right, Sabine. Really, I am," he assured her.

There was doubt behind her eyes and the way her mouth pinched but she relented and shifted back in the booth. "Okay... If you say so."

They didn't have time to continue the conversation, as Hera and Kanan were finishing up at the stove, Hera swinging around with plates in both hands and bringing them to the table. She wrinkled her nose at Zeb, who'd already filled a plate full with his own food.

"Ugh, really Zeb? Waffles again?" she complained. "You need to eat something healthier than that."

He shrugged as he turned around and leaned against the counter, munching from his stack. "You know that Corellian stuff turns my stomach," he said. He swallowed, wiping his mouth and straightening a bit. "Speaking of..." he continued. "They found that sentry that went missing past the north border." His face twisted with a grimace. "What was left of 'im anyway."

"What d'you mean?" Kanan asked, as he settled into place in the booth across from Ezra and Sabine.

Zeb gestured with his hands. "Body slashed up, half-eaten, missing a limb," he elaborated.

"Stars... The howlers again?" Hera asked, quietly horrified as she set the plates down.

"Looked like. That's what, the second sentry we've lost out in that sector?" He reached back and picked another waffle from the stack, popping it into his mouth and chewing quickly. "Think ya better recommend we steer clear of that area," he said.

Ezra was frowning into his serving of redroot stew, his spoon hovering at the side of the bowl. "I don't think it's howlers," he piped up.

"What else could it be?" asked Zeb. "You've seen the talons on those things."

"Well yeah, but..." Ezra scraped his spoon along the edge of his plate. "They don't hunt in packs. At most you'll see one or two of them at a time."

"I could believe two of them could take down a man," Sabine put in, reaching across for the platter of seasoned bread and dipping a chunk in her stew. "Three to four feet long, can rise up on their back two legs..."

Sabine's description called to Ezra's mind the blurry holos that had been repeatedly shown at briefings of the lizard-like creatures, and he had to admit they definitely looked unpleasant enough to prey on humans. He didn't know how to explain his certainty that they were not responsible for the mutilated sentry.

"I dunno..." he murmured softly.

"Even if it's not howlers it's some kind of wild animal," Zeb insisted. "Stars know there are plenty of them in this Ashla-forsaken jungle."

"Hey, now, be nice," Ezra argued, grinning and pointing his spoon with a chiding gesture. "The Woolamanders are kinda cute."

"When they're not pelting you with fruit," Zeb agreed, nodding slightly. "Still," he said, straightening, "it'd be nice to get off-world again." He looked at Hera. "When's the next mission?" he asked.

Hera didn't look up from her plate. "You know as well as I do that Rebel Command has to feel out for Interdictor checkpoints before dispatching missions."

"Aren't there just the two?" Sabine asked. "The one on the Perlemian Trade Route and the one stationed over Phindar?"

Hera smiled grimly. "Three. They found another one on the Hydian Way at Ord Mantell."

Sabine's face twisted. "That's gonna be inconvenient."

"Guess we won't be making any trips into the Expansion Region for a while," Kanan mused, chewing a stewed vegetable.

Zeb grunted discontentedly, sweeping the last waffle into his hand. "Dunno what Thrawn's tryna do with all those cruisers."

"Box us in, limit our range of operations," Hera replied, swirling her piece of bread in the broth. "Feel out where we're operating from. If I had to guess."

The conversation was starting to dull out in Ezra's hearing. He stared into his bowl, zoning out, remembering the sound of Thrawn's voice, cool and placid, a calm murmur in his ears. He could just barely make out words...

He was snapped out of it as Chopper wheeled in, announcing himself with a loud series of blorts and warbles. Ezra jerked a bit in his seat, startling, but then relaxed at the droid's familiar abrasive drone.

Hera leaned out of her seat, patting Chopper's dome with a smile. "Well, we might get offworld yet; Chopper says Rebel Command is summoning us to a briefing."

"Good. Was starting to get boring around here," Kanan commented cheekily.

That drew a round of chuckles from the room, and Ezra smiled into his bowl as he ate quietly.

-SWR-

A flickering blue holo buzzed into life, showing the outline of a yellow-tinted planet.

"Corensia. A small, unobtrusive planet in the Corosi sector," Mon Mothma detailed. "Mostly covered in patches of desert, with two major oceans and several mountain ranges. Cities are clustered mainly around the hot springs and oases. The main port is Estari, here," she said, pointing to a particular blip on the map. "Pre-Empire days it was something of a local vacation hotspot." She gave a sour frown as she pressed a button to zoom in on a specific sector. "Now it's being used as a secret Imperial detainment facility."

Ezra listened intently, eyes on the senator as he stood sandwiched in-between Kanan and Hera around the holoprojector. Sabine, Zeb, and Chopper completed the circle, and Rex was standing somewhere behind them, listening in.

General Dodonna took over. "From the intel we've gathered, we've learned that a large group of Mon Calamari technicians and engineers—many of whom were sympathetic to the Rebellion—were recently imprisoned there." He looked to Hera significantly. "Rumor has it they were caught trying to smuggle out blueprints of a finished bladewing design."

Hera straightened with perceptible interest. "Quarrie's fighter was a game-changer in the blockade run on Ibaar," she mused. "If the Mon Cals have managed to refine the design..."

"...It could be a great asset to the fleet," Mon Mothma finished for her. She lifted her chin with prim seriousness. "More to the point, with the TIE defender nearing mass production, we're going to need a ship that can match it. And we certainly don't want the Empire getting to the bladewing first."

Dodonna piped in again, shifting the holomap to a wireframe display of a city layout. "The detainment center is here, three clicks off the main spaceport."

Kanan stroked his beard in thought. "Do we know what kind of fortifications the facility has?" he asked.

Mon Mothma shook her head. "Unclear, as of now, so you'll need to do some reconnaissance first."

"All right then," Hera decided. "Let's get started."

The senator nodded, stepping back from the holoprojector and folding her hands behind her back. "You'll need to be supplied with extra bacta, medkits, and water—the Mon Cals may be weakened from interrogation and prolonged exposure to Corensia's arid climate."

Hera nodded. "Understood," she said. "Oh, and if I could make a request, I'd like Captain Kallus along for this one. His ISB background and knowledge of Imperial protocol could prove useful."

"Hmm," Mon Mothma considered. "We'll see about getting him clearance. He hasn't been tested yet out on the field but with his combat experience there should be no issue with—"

The conversation continued, but Ezra could no longer hear it. He breathed in and out of loosely parted lips very slowly.

Interrogation. The moment Mon Mothma had said the word a sharp tingling prick had pierced through him. Something crawled around in the back of his chest. He couldn't help but picture it, staring through the wavering lines that formed the image of the Imperial detainment facility, his mind bringing forth vague memories of a cold metal table, murmuring voices, painful electric jolts passing through him...

He swallowed dryly. Somewhere in that building they could be doing that to someone else. Probably were. Nervous energy murmured through him. He clenched his teeth, trying to concentrate, but his mind wouldn't focus. His lungs began to pinch. His thoughts were starting to dissolve into snow...

A gentle gloved hand landed on his shoulder.

"Ezra?" Hera called.

Ezra swallowed again, trying to stop the flickering anxiety pinging through him. His gaze dropped towards the floor.

Hera's eyes were soft and full of concern. She studied him a long moment. Ezra realized his hands were shaking and moved them off the rim of the holoprojector to his sides, curling his fingers tightly.

"Out or in, Ezra?" Hera asked quietly, keeping her voice low.

The question was a private signal, a shorthand they'd come up with for Ezra to let her know when things were... difficult... for him. For when he wanted to avoid situations that made him... remember too much.

Ezra inhaled, pushing back the cold static in his brain, focusing.

There is no emotion, there is peace.

"In," he said, determinedly.

"Are you sure?" Kanan pressed, speaking up from Ezra's other side. Ezra could feel the man's tight concern, reverberating across their bond.

His hands gripped tighter. "I can do this," he insisted, with a confidence he didn't quite feel. The anxiety in him was muted, but still there, lingering like a shadow at the back of his mind. He kept his gaze leveled on the swirling lines of the holomap, watching the projection flicker and buzz.

Hera continued to watch his face carefully. "You let me know if you change your mind," she told him seriously.

She stepped back, touching him once reassuringly on the back before she headed off, joining the dispersing pilots and officers that had gathered for the briefing.

The contact seemed to still his shaking. Ezra let his clenched hands relax, looking up finally from the holomap.

Kanan was still gently probing through their bond. Ezra shifted to look at him, projecting a reassurance.

"I'm okay," he said, and it felt more genuine this time.

"You'll let us know if you're not?" Kanan checked with him.

He nodded. "Of course." He stepped to the side, giving Kanan's elbow a brief tug. "Let's go meditate."

Kanan smiled at that, and followed in Ezra's wake as the boy headed for the door.

-SWR-

A spray of red blaster shots splashed across the target.

Jonner grimaced, glancing up at Kallus.

The former ISB agent was frowning. "Sloppy. Very sloppy," he said. He uncrossed his arms, leaning down to the boy's level and pointing with his arm. "Cluster your fire towards center mass. You'll have a better chance of downing your target," he instructed.

Jonner nodded. "Right. I got it this time," he said in determination, focusing and raising the blaster for another try.

Kallus straightened back up, clasping his hands behind him as he paced along down the line, stopping next to Mart.

The boy finished emptying his clip and checked with Kallus eagerly.

Kallus studied the cluster of holes on the target, nodding in approval. "Not bad," he complimented, giving Mart a pat on the shoulder.

Mart's grin widened and he beamed, lowering his blaster to reload.

Kallus glanced up and then about had a heart attack.

"Gooti, for heaven's sakes!" he cried, leaping forward, rushing to correct the girl's grip on the laser rifle she was awkwardly holding. "Tuck in. You are going to dislocate your shoulder!" he chided.

Gooti struggled to adjust the butt of the weapon, then stepped back and threw it down in aggravation. "Ugh, my arms aren't long enough for these rifles!" she complained.

"Well, I'm sorry, we don't have Theelin-sized ones available," Kallus said flatly.

The girl rubbed a hand up behind her ear, her eyes pinching. "Maybe it'd be better if I stuck to pistols?" she suggested.

He frowned in thought, pursing his lips as he considered it, but a voice calling his name from behind drew his attention. Kallus swiveled around to see Zeb and Ezra approaching.

"Hey Kallus," Ezra greeted.

"Ezra," he said, nodding at both of them in turn. "Zeb."

Zeb tilted his head towards the range. "How goes the training?" he asked. "Ya getting these sprogs into shape or what?"

Kallus gave a shrug. "Can't complain, I suppose." Shifting his weight to one leg he leaned back and crossed his arms. "What inspired the visit?"

"We just came to tell you that Rebel Command approved Hera's request to have you on the next mission," Ezra said.

Kallus's position didn't change, but a flicker lit up in his eyes. A gleam of perceptible interest.

"You know the details or do we need to catch you up?" asked Zeb, though he knew the answer already. Kallus had eagerly kept up with the reports of every outgoing mission since he'd arrived on Yavin with the rest of them, determined not to be out the loop in case his knowledge or expertise was needed.

Still, he dismissed his excitement with a casual, "I heard about it. An imperial detention center on Corensia. Sounds harrowing." Growing serious, he paid a look of concern towards Ezra. "Are you going to be all right to—"

"I'll be fine," Ezra interrupted him, with a stubborn dismissiveness Kallus knew all too well. "Anyway, we leave in an hour, so make sure you have everything you need before then." He had already broken eye contact and was turning around to leave. "I gotta go, AP-5 wants a quick check of our medical supplies before we depart."

Kallus chuckled. "Lucky you." He decided he wouldn't let the boy escape without needling him a bit. "Try not to get caught in another argument about the merits of Imperial file sorting this time," he said.

Ezra turned back around with an annoyed glare. But then he smirked.

Oh no.

"See you at oh-nine-hundred, Alexsandr," Ezra quipped.

Kallus twitched forward, his hands stretching into claws, but Ezra had already lurched back around and he was escaping out of range, laughing as he ran.

Fuming, Kallus let his arms drop, motioning tiredly for his trainees to wrap up. "You're dismissed, Ensigns."

They scrambled to gather up their gear. Kallus's shoulders slumped as he faced towards Zeb, giving an aggravated sigh.

"What?" Zeb asked, clueless.

"Oh it's nothing," Kallus grumbled. He met the Lasat's curious look with a withering glare. "Ezra just thinks my first name is absolutely hilarious," he complained.

His friend had the audacity to chuckle. "Heh-heh. It kind of is," Zeb said, grinning to himself. He mashed a teasing fist into Kallus's ribs. "Alexsandr," he teased.

Kallus's expression pinched with exasperation. "Oh don't you start."

Jonner and Mart gave muffled snickers behind him.

-SWR-

He sat in a bubble of cold energy, just breathing. Waiting.

The ship was quiet all around him, not even the sound of air currents echoing off the metal walls and floor.

The Dark Side flowed into him easily through every inhale and exhale. He listened to the ebb and pulse of its currents, whispering in his mind like a faint breeze.

There was a ping from the dashboard.

Maul cracked open one eye, then the other, stirring from his meditative trance. He didn't move, but reached out with his mind for the bond he shared with Ezra.

It had taken him weeks to reweave it, slowly, cautiously, building it back up bit by tiny bit so the boy wouldn't notice it growing, taking care to hide and shield his end whenever Ezra checked his. Which was happening more often the stronger their connection grew.

Maul breathed out slowly.

Carefully, he felt out along the silver tether in his mind.

Ezra was on the move.

Maul felt a shiver of anticipation, and reigned his emotions in before he could get carried away. Patience. Patience. There was no need to rush.

His eyes slipped closed again as his hand drifted up, reaching out tremulously towards his apprentice in the far unseen distance.

"Ezra..." he called in a low whisper.

Chapter Text

He couldn't sit still.

Ezra fidgeted restlessly as he sat in the booth, his hands rapping on the dejarik table, shifting back and forth, toes kicking the floor.

He strained after the calming presence of the Force, anxiety coiled up tightly inside him that refused to be shaken off.

I can do this, repeated inside his thoughts. I can do this, I can.

Ezra finally stopped moving, forcing himself to hold still. He exhaled slowly, trying to picture his body relaxing.

The Jedi code recited inside his head with a practiced rhythm.

Ezra sighed in frustration, leaning his elbows on the table and dropping his head into his palms. He didn't look up at the soft footsteps that sounded in the doorway, making their way over to him.

Kanan dropped a hand on his back, warmth radiating through the contact.

"Out or in?" he asked quietly.

"In," Ezra insisted, almost growling the word. "I just need to—to clear my head and I'll be—"

"Hey," Kanan interrupted sternly. "Look at me."

Ezra reluctantly lifted his head. A flicker of guilt passed through him as he looked Kanan in the face. The mask hid whatever emotion Kanan's sightless eyes might have been displaying, but Ezra could feel it beaming through the Force—his master's concern and reassurance.

"You don't need to force this, Ezra," Kanan told him softly, gently. "If you need to back out, you can."

Eza slumped back against the seat. "I don't want to back out," he sighed, miserably. "I'm just..."

He bit his lip, holding in the words.

Kanan straightened, coming around and sliding into the booth from the other side, shifting around until he was scooted right up next to Ezra.

"Talk to me," he urged.

Ezra let his gaze drop, fiddling with the hem of his sleeve.

"I'm... worried I won't be able to keep focused during the mission, being around all the..." He waved vaguely with a hand. "...you know."

"Understandable," Kanan said. His arm crept around his padawan's shoulders, silently comforting.

"And..." Ezra trailed off, his eyes and face pinching. "I'm..." His throat tightened; he grasped his own wrist and squeezed. "Afraid of—of what might happen," he finished quietly.

Kanan fixed him with a sober look. "All Jedi have to face their fears, Ezra," he said, tone gentle, encouraging. "It's part of who we are."

"I know. I'm just..." Ezra mumbled. His hand loosened around his wrist. "I'm not sure if I'm ready to," he said softly.

Kanan smiled, rubbing Ezra's shoulder. "Well, only you can decide that," he said. "We'll support you either way. You know that, right?"

Ezra made an uncommittal sound, staring down at his hands.

Growing serious, Kanan shifted out a bit in the seat, his other hand fumbling a moment before catching Ezra's elbow and pulling the boy in closer. "We're not letting anything happen to you, Ezra," he said, voice low. "Whatever happens on this mission I promise," he emphasized earnestly, "you'll be safe."

Ezra deflated with a soft exhale. "Thanks," he whispered, leaning into the embrace and taking comfort from Kanan's glowing presence in the Force.

"Having our usual nervous breakdown?" came a voice from the doorway.

Kanan shot Kallus a glare over Ezra's head that Ezra could feel blistering through his hair.

Kallus flinched. "I apologize. That was flippant," he quickly corrected himself.

Ezra pulled himself away from Kanan, a hand scratching up through his hair. "I'm not having a breakdown..." he argued, then added, "...yet." He blew out a flustered breath. "I'm just... agitated."

"All right," Kallus acknowledged, surprisingly gently. "What do you need?" he asked.

Ezra bit his lip, thinking for a moment. "A distraction," he decided. "Where's Zeb?"

The Lasat had been in the middle of walking into the room and perked his ears up. "Right here," he replied automatically. He folded his arms. "Whadda ya need, kid?"

Ezra slipped out of the booth and stood up, ramrod straight, fists at his side. "Spar with me?" he said.

Zeb nodded, and thumbed over his shoulder. "Let's go down to the cargo hold, it's roomier down there."

He let Ezra pass by him and then followed after, walking back out of the room.

Kallus looked after them a moment or two, then turned a helpless, questioning look on Kanan.

Kanan just sighed and shook his head.

-SWR-

The spar with Zeb helped calm him, helped take his mind off the static in his head.

But only for a while.

There was a tinny buzz inside his ears that seemed to grow louder the closer they got to Corensia. His mind wanted to chase a thousand terrible possible scenarios of what might happen at the prison, speculations he couldn't keep at bay.

They dropped out of hyperspace above Corensia, the Ghost slipping in undetected and giving a false callsign to the spaceport dispatchers. Ezra sat behind Hera's pilot chair, staring at the back of her lekku, his arms curling tighter and tighter around himself as they were directed to a hanger bay.

Hera brought the Ghost in and they landed without incident. She stood up from her seat with a satisfied smile. "Okay," she said, turning to head towards the ladder, patting Ezra's shoulder along the way. "Make sure you have all your gear and let's go take a look outside," she instructed the lot of them.

She disappeared into the cargo bay, the rest of the crew starting to file behind her.

Ezra took in a deep breath, fighting his reluctance to move. A quiet dread had been building in his heart. The memories were... manageable, at least for now, but a general unease had been continually trickling through him and he couldn't shake it off. Ezra got to his feet finally, taking his place between Kallus and Sabine and climbing down the ladder.

Hot air filtered in from the lowered ramp. Ezra squinted against the light from outside, eyes adjusting quickly to see the ordinary gray hanger walls around them.

"Doesn't look like there are many people around," Hera commented, reaching the bottom and putting her fists on her hips.

"Seems like that would be a good thing," Kanan said, walking up next to her.

"Maybe," Hera considered. She pointed. "There's a terminal over there, we can have Chopper plug in and download an updated map of the city."

"You think the layout might have changed that much?"

She shrugged. "Well, you know, never hurts to be prepared. Especially with the way missions usually go for us."

Ezra watched them discuss their next steps, only half-hearing the conversation, his arms folding around himself again. He shivered. He knew the hanger was probably heavily cooled against the arid climate but he still felt oddly cold.

He caught Sabine looking at him in concern from the corner of his eye. He tried to formulate something light-hearted to say. The words were almost strung together when Chopper's indignant screeching rang out from above, startling them both and sending their necks craning upwards.

Zeb huffed in aggravation as he finished descending the ladder. "Well if you're so concerned about weird pings bouncing from the Ghost go do something about it!" he yelled up at the ornery astromech.

"What's he complaining about now?" Sabine asked.

"Beats me," Zeb grouched. "You know he's always on about something or another."

"Chopper!" Hera called from outside. "Come here for a moment, we need you."

Chopper grumbled, firing his boosters and carefully maneuvering down through the cockpit opening into the cargo bay. He dropped to the floor and skidded around Ezra, who had to yank his feet out of the way before the treads could run over him.

"All right everyone," Hera said, drawing his attention. "As soon as Chopper has the layout we're moving out. Chopper, you're on the Ghost. Spectre 5, you'll be with me, we'll take the long way around to the north side of the facility. Ezra, you're with Kanan." She glanced behind Ezra. "And Kallus, why don't you tag along with Spectre 4 and take the south side?"

There were nods all around and everyone moved to descend the ramp. Sabine paid him one more worried glance as she went. Zeb walked down next, Kallus shadowing his shoulder.

But Ezra... hesitated.

His steps slowed on the ramp. His dread was creeping back again. The foreboding felt heavier and heavier. His throat was dry and he knew it wasn't the hot desert air.

He couldn't do this.

"Wait," he called.

All eyes turned to look at him and he felt immediately self-conscious. His hands tightened on his arms and his throat pinched a little.

"M-maybe I should... stay here," he said, timidly.

Hera, Sabine, and Kanan's faces all softened with concern but Kallus looked incredulous.

"Oh come on!" he complained, his palms opening in agitated gestures. "You had plenty of opportunities to back out and you pick now to—"

"Shh!" Hera interrupted him, holding up a hand. She walked quickly back up the ramp, placing her hands on his shoulders with a soft smile. "I understand," she told him. Her lekku swished gently with her movements. "Keep your comlink line open, and be ready to fly the Ghost if we need you to," she instructed.

The relief that pooled through him was like a cold shock to his system, all the tension inside him unwinding at once. "Yes Hera," he acknowledged, smiling faintly, gratefully.

Hera squeezed his shoulders and then let go, walking back down the ramp, but Sabine was still looking after him, expression pinched, eyes intense.

"I'll stay with him," she volunteered, speaking up unexpectedly. She shrugged, crossing her arms and leaning back on one heel casually. "I need to do some repairs on the Phantom II anyway."

Hera raised a curious eyebrow but nodded. "All right. Spectre 1, Chopper, you're with me then." Her eyes darted to Kallus. "Guard the Ghost until we get back," she ordered.

His mouth dropped. "What—but—" he sputtered, while Zeb snickered behind him.

Hera's eyes were stern. "We're just going to do a quick surveillance. Take some scans and some holos," she said. "Then we'll come right back and study the data. We won't need you until then. Guard. The Ghost," she repeated.

He deflated, his shoulders slumping. "Yes ma'am," he sighed.

Kanan tried not to crack a smile as he stepped up next to Hera. "Shall we, Milady?" he offered, extending an arm.

She did smile, and slipped a hand around his elbow as they followed Chopper to the plug-in terminal.

Kallus smeared a hand down his face, glancing back towards the Ghost. Ezra and Sabine were already disappearing back inside, Sabine's hand hovering on his shoulder.

He closed his eyes, shaking his head.

"I had to open my mouth," he grumbled.

Zeb gave a short laugh and a friendly slug to his shoulder before he stepped away. "See you in a bit, mate," he said.

He joined Hera and Kanan.

-SWR-

The warbling orange C1 unit soon unplugged from the wall terminal, motioning with its pinchers for those behind him to follow.

The Spectres departed quietly, leaving the freighter behind them quiet and still in the cool hanger air.

-SWR-

"Anything else?" Sabine offered as she walked past.

Ezra shook his head, the pieces of his tinkering project already spread out across the dejarik table. "Nah, I'm good. Thanks Sabine."

She glanced back and watched him a moment. His eyes were focused on his work, but his bearing seemed so much lighter. His posture was loose, his face wasn't tight anymore... She smiled privately to herself and dropped the rest of her tools into her helmet, scooping it up like a bucket and tucking it under her arm as she swung around to face him.

"I'll be working with the hydrodrill. It's pretty loud, so if you need something you might just have to climb up the ladder and grab me by the ankle," she told him.

"Gotcha." He set down his hydrospanner for a moment, giving her a warm look. "Thanks for keeping me company. You didn't have to stay behind."

Yes I did, Sabine thought. She would have agonized the whole time if she'd had to think about Ezra waiting quietly on the Ghost for them with nothing but his haunted thoughts.

She grinned playfully. "Someone has to keep you out of trouble," she teased, swiveling on her heel and grabbing for the rungs of the ladder.

The small laugh she heard him give from behind her as she climbed up into the shuttle made her heart swell.

-SWR-

"Senior ISB intelligence officer," Kallus recited, pacing a bit. "Highly decorated combat veteran of the Imperial navy. Graduated top of my class at the Royal Imperial Academy on Coruscant."

His footsteps echoed hollowly in the open hanger space. He walked to and fro in the midst of a pile of cargo crates left by the edge of the landing platform, full of stacked construction materials for ongoing renovations it looked like.

He stopped pacing, opening his palms out towards the listening walls.

"And yet here I am, once again... babysitting," he sighed.

He leaned lightly on the edge of one of the loose cargo crates, rubbing the bridge of his nose. Why did people just keep saddling him with children?

"Ugh, the kids will never let me hear the end of this..." he muttered.

He was already dreading the thousand and one questions his squad would ask him about the mission when he got back.

Sobering, Kallus reassured himself that Hera and the others would be back soon, and this time he'd been included as a proper part of the operation. He was going to prove himself useful by the end of this. He was.

Kallus ruminated on the details of the mission for a while, going over in his head the possible setups of the facility. Imperial prisons tended to have similar layouts so if he could—

There was a flutter of movement suddenly from behind but Kallus didn't have time to turn around before a blow cracked through his skull and collapsed him to the ground.

A shadow moved swiftly away.

-SWR-

The room hummed with quiet sounds; the filtering air system cycling their oxygen, the buzz of the cold storage in the kitchen, the muted high-pitched whine of the hydrodrill somewhere above his head as Sabine worked.

It was a pleasant sort of calm that felt soothing and comforting to Ezra's ears. He fiddled with the tiny metal pieces on the table, soldering a wire here, tightening a nut there. It felt good to work with his hands. The noise in his head, blaringly loud before, was now all but tranquil.

Ezra peered down in concentration, studying the bit he was connecting. It looked like a circuit or two was still loose. He set down his soldering tool, reaching absently to pick up a pick from across the table.

Something chilled in the air behind him.

Ezra's hands went still.

His heartrate began to prick.

There was a cold presence at his back. A signature in the Force that felt horribly... familiar.

His body tightened. He lifted his head slowly, his eyes widening. Fear crawled up his back.

He sat frozen, desperately wanting it to be an illusion. A mistake. A trick of his too-wired-up mind.

Because what he was sensing wasn't possible.

-SWR-

He felt his apprentice's fear echoing out from him.

Maul let his lips curl upwards as he shadowed the doorway, flashing white teeth in a satisfied, eerie smile.

-SWR-

His throat was dry, a vice slowly locking around his neck. His mind screamed in disbelief but there was no mistaking him.

Maul.

Ezra was paralyzed, barely able to inhale, stress and adrenaline and fear reverberating through him and growing louder.

A loud grinding from the hydrodrill above merged with the shrill ringing in his head, inducing sharp fresh anxiety, reminding him Sabine was still up in the shuttle.

He swallowed. He slowly set his tools back down on the table. He tried not to tremble as his hand inched across, lowering towards his lap and then down to his belt. Carefully... carefully...

His fingers closed quietly around his lightsaber. With the tiniest of movements, he unhooked it.

The presence behind him hadn't moved.

Ezra steeled himself with a shaky exhale, praying he could at least keep Maul at bay long enough to warn Sabine. He gathered what courage he had.

Then he snapped up to his feet, pivoting out of the booth in the same movement and turning to face the doorway, his saber igniting in a flash, already lunging to charge.

Maul was quicker, throwing a hand out that sent a rush of Force energy slamming into Ezra, carrying him all the way across the room to smash against the far wall, just to the left of the ladder rungs.

Pain lanced through Ezra's head as it cracked against the durasteel and his fingers lost their grip on his lightsaber. Ezra fumbled after it frantically, but it hadn't even stopped clattering on the floor before it went sailing off, called to Maul's other hand as the first pushed harder, pinning him in place.

Bruising pressure crushed his chest and neck. Ezra's feet kicked loosely and he grabbed at his collar, trying to fight against the grip holding him suspended against the wall. His frightened blue eyes stared across the room.

Maul's hood looked more ragged and threadbare. His arms were wrapped with tattered cloth strands, and his metal legs looked sandblasted. There was an unhinged look in his eyes. But it was him.

"H... how?" he whispered fearfully.

Maul stepped into the room, hand outstretched, expression... triumphant.

"Did you really think a bond like ours could be broken so easily?" he sneered. He tapped the emitter of Ezra's lightsaber lightly against his temple. "You're right here, Ezra," he said.

Ezra extended his Force senses, noticing now the bond he'd thought he'd severed still clinging to him, thin but present. Where before he'd felt emptiness, now he could keenly feel the dark, churning mind of the former Sith. Maul probed back, a curious concern and reassurance poking at Ezra's mind.

His heart burned with anger and frustration as he pulled back behind his mental shields, shutting Maul out.

"What d'you... want?" he demanded, his words straining against the lump lodged in his throat and the invisible Force grip around his neck.

Maul's expression turned oddly soft, eyes desperate. "I need your help, Ezra," he said, plaintively. His gaze slanted off, anger furrowing the space between his brows. "My quarry proves... elusive, and... slipperier than I had anticipated. I could not draw him out alone but together perhaps..."

He stopped his delirious rant, looking suddenly back at Ezra.

"...And... and I thought I sensed..."

His eyes narrowed slightly and he frowned, studying the boy. Ezra felt keenly uncomfortable under the probing stare, and kept his mental walls up, squirming.

Maul shook himself, apparently deciding whatever it was wasn't important. "You must come with me, now," he said urgently.

Ezra glared, gritting his teeth. "Not going... anywhere... with you..." he declared defiantly.

Maul raised his hand slightly higher, his Force grip increasing. "I did not say I was giving you a choice," he snapped, something dangerous and angry festering in his eyes.

Alarm jolted through Ezra's body. Ezra gaped at Maul and then tried to call out, forcing the word out hoarsely.

"Sabin—!"

The pressure around his throat closed tighter, cutting him off, choking his voice.

"Nngh... nnngh..." Ezra strained out, squeezing his eyes shut as he scratched at his neck.

Metal footsteps sounded Maul's slow approach.

Ezra snapped his head up, his eyes wide and desperate. He watched Maul closing in, casually, holding Ezra in place with barely any effort.

No no no, Ezra thought in panic, Sabine was right there, she was right there! He reached out for the rungs of the Phantom II's ladder, stretching frantically. His arm and lungs strained. His fingers could just barely brush the gray metal, tapping pitifully, batting at it with the tips of his nails. If he could just make enough noise

But now a final metal footstep sounded hideously close and Ezra snapped his head back forward, his panic spiking as he met Maul's burning yellow eyes.

Fear racing through him, Ezra gathered up as much of his will as he could. In response, Maul raised Ezra's lightsaber, drawing back the hilt like a club.

Maul swung it forward.

Ezra sent a telepathic cry ringing through the Force.

Kana—!

The lightsaber hilt smashed into his head, shooting pain through his temple and sending him spiraling into the black.

-SWR-

"Ezra!" Kanan cried, his head jolting up and cold panic flaring in his heart.

Chapter Text

"Kanan?" Hera called, worriedly. "What is it?"

Kanan's heart pounded, the chilling certainty that something was terribly wrong reverberating through the Force, echoing with Ezra's wordless cry of distress to him.

He looked one way, than another, trying to pinpoint where the sensation was coming from.

"Ezra's in danger," he said.

Then he started running back for the ship, leaving Hera scrambling to catch up with him.

-SWR-

The hydrodrill wound down, Sabine pushing her protective goggles up. She brushed a few strands of hair out of her face, then slid herself out from underneath the panel.

She sat up, frowning a bit.

That had been the second weird thump from down below. What was Ezra doing down there?

Force, she hoped he wasn't punching the walls or something.

Sabine took a quick glance over her work, making note of what still needed to be done. Her cut could be a little cleaner, but she was out of fuel fluid.

Well, that's as good an excuse as any.

She reached up, pushing the goggles off her head. She left the tools and her helmet where they were as she got to her feet. Exhaling, she stretched out the kinks in her legs and arms and walked over to the ladder, maneuvering into position so she could climb down.

"You know, Ezra," she called lightly as she descended the rungs. "If you wanted my attention all you had to do was—"

When she reached the bottom and swiveled around, the words cut off, her eyes widening with horror and her heart stopping dead at what she saw.

A hooded figure, tall and imposing, standing just outside the room, in front of the central ladder. Vivid black and red tattoos on his face and hands, yellow eyes staring back at her in surprise.

Ezra, unconscious, hanging limp over his right shoulder.

Sabine's mind was screaming and her joints were locked up. They stayed frozen in the shock of the moment, staring across the room at each other.

Maul jerked swiftly down the port hallway.

"No!" Sabine cried, her paralysis dropping away, her feet sending her surging forward.

She crossed the common room in a burst of speed, throwing her arms out to keep herself from crashing headlong into the central ladder.

Maul was already at the bottom of the ramp, pounding the airlock controls. Sabine stumbled after him, heart lodged in her throat.

The airlock opened with a whoosh and Maul's metal legs coiled. He gave an impressive long leap, landing with a solid crunch! just as Sabine reached the airlock door, grabbing the frame before she could fall out and watching him run away.

She punched the frame, whirling around and rushing back up the ramp. She whipped left and crashed into her room, sending paint cans and tools flying off her desk in her frantic search.

Where is it?! Where's my jetpack?

Frantic seconds ticked and Sabine gave up with a growl, just grabbing the first thing she could find—the short utilitarian hilt of the darksaber—before lurching back into the hallway, her pounding feet propelling her towards the cockpit.

She took the ladder down into the cargo hold in a single slide, landing awkwardly on her feet a moment before she jerked upright and ran down the ramp, turning for the hanger door.

She barely even registered the crumpled form of Kallus as she ran past, all her conscious thoughts occupied with stopping Maul and getting Ezra back.

Panic rattled through her body the whole time.

-SWR-

Hera's lungs screamed as she tried to keep pace with Kanan, the inside of her head swirling with a thousand frantic thoughts and emotions—confusion, desperation, fear.

"Ezra's in danger."

What did Kanan mean?! How could Ezra be in danger? They had just left him!

Her mind shuffled through horrible scenario after horrible scenario of what could have happened. Had he been hurt? Had the false callsign they'd given been found out? Had the Empire discovered the Ghost and captured him? Had all her darkest most irrational fears about Kallus's loyalties proven true? Or was Ezra just having a panic attack?

Oh please let it be a false alarm, she begged, as she and Kanan pushed through the scant crowd on the street.

Zeb fell into step next to her, worry in his eyes.

"Hera I thought we were heading for the facility. What happened?" he asked, trotting along with her frantic run.

"Kanan says Ezra's in danger," she explained breathlessly. She looked back once at the trailing orange C1 droid. "Chopper, keep up!"

"Karabast," Zeb cursed, his strides lengthening as he hurried.

Ahead of them, Kanan was yelling into his comlink.

"Spectre 6! Spectre 6, do you copy?"

If there was a response, Hera couldn't hear it, and after several hailing attempts Kanan yanked the comlink down from his mouth with a growl.

"Dammit! He's not answering!"

Hera's face twisted furiously. "I told him to keep his channel open!" she shouted. If that boy had run off again, while on mission

But now they had made it back to the hanger bay and Hera's anger dissolved into fear again, seeing a limp form by the loose crates.

"Kallus!" Zeb cried, he and Chopper hurrying to the agent's side and kneeling by him. Kanan stopped dead, freezing in place, his head turning slowly as he scanned with the Force.

Hera didn't stop, her lekku whipping behind her as she thundered up the ramp into the cargo hold. She beelined up the ladder to the cockpit and stormed through the Ghost, checking every single room, every corner, every vent.

"Ezra?!" she called frantically. "Ezra!" She burst into the common room, the horrible silence deafening in her ear cones, her head jerking around, searching. "Ezra! Sabine!"

Her heart knocked against her ribs with a frightened rhythm.

Where were they?!

-SWR-

He wasn't on the ship. Kanan had already determined that moments after arriving. Neither was Sabine.

Kanan raised his comlink again. "Spectre 5, do you read me?" he called. "Where are you?"

Sabine's voice was breathless and interrupted by rapid panting as she answered.

"East hallway..." she relayed. "Heading for Hanger 8..." A bit shriller and clearer she finished, "Kanan hurry!"

That was all the prompting he needed to shove the comlink into his belt and take off. He was already long gone by the time Hera came back out of the Ghost and joined Zeb and Chopper by the fallen Kallus.

-SWR-

Sabine willed herself to be faster as she chased the hooded figure through the hanger halls.

The few beings that were about startled out of her and Maul's way, as she pursued him down the corridor.

He suddenly veered to the left, ducking through an open hanger door, and Sabine pushed off with her right leg, lunging forward, her lungs tight and protesting as her frantic speed increased.

She followed him into the hanger. His ship was there—the red and black Mandalorian gauntlet—sitting on the landing pad with its ramp down, and he was making straight for it.

No no no no he can't get on that thing, rang the terrified thought in Sabine's head. I have to stop him before

She closed the distance, slowly overtaking the man, pumping her arms and legs harder even as her pounding heart threatened to shatter her ribcage and her head spun dizzily from not getting enough air. She got just close enough to be in range...

She ignited the darksaber with an enraged yell, swinging it at his back.

He was forced to turn around and defend, igniting one of his own blades. Sabine swung again, a heavy, ungraceful blow that bounced off Maul's saber clumsily.

He threw off the blade lock with hardly any effort, sending her stumbling and flailing backwards.

He took three quick steps up the ramp.

"No!" Sabine shrieked, throwing herself on the man's back, one arm circling around his neck, one clawing at his hand on Ezra's waist, both ankles locking around his hips.

Maul grunted, fumbled back at her unexpected weight, disengaging his saber blade and staggering. He jerked around, awkwardly trying to throw her off, but she was clinging tightly and the darksaber was burning hot near his face in Sabine's left hand as she dug her fist into his throat.

"Get off me!" he snarled, bucking, tightening his hold on Ezra's belt.

"Let him go!" Sabine screeched, prying at his wrist.

Maul stuck his lightsaber on its clip and grabbed the girl's slim arm, wrenching her off his neck. He twisted, breaking her hold and violently hurling her down the ramp.

Pain pierced sharply through her head as she hit the hanger floor. Sabine lay dazed a moment, but at the sound of the ramp hydraulics felt fresh fear and adrenaline shooting through her and rolled over and back up to her feet.

"No... no!" she cried, breathless, her words choking. She grabbed up the darksaber again, stumbling up, running forward, but it was too late. The ramp clipped shut into place and the ship was already lifting off, blasting hot air into her face from the afterburners. "No!" she yelled, louder.

The engines fired, propelling the ship forward.

"Ezra!" she screamed, her voice lost in the deafening roar of the ship as it rocketed out of the hanger, disappearing farther and farther into the blue sky beyond.

Sabine's feet froze in place, rooting her helplessly to the ground. She panted hard, her chest heaving in and out with every shaky breath. Great globs of tears welled up in her eyes, blurring her vision, and she didn't even have the will to blink them away, staring out after the ship until it faded from her sight.

Ezra was gone.

She'd... failed.

"Sabine!"

Kanan's voice made her give a gasping sob. She didn't turn around as she heard him running up, numb, the darksaber hanging limp in her left hand.

He slowed, his running footsteps fading into a quick walk.

"What happened?" he asked her.

"He took him..." Sabine strained out, her voice small, still staring at the spot where the ship had disappeared. Slowly, she turned towards Kanan. Her lip trembled. She could barely face him. "Maul..." she went on, her words quivering on every syllable. "He took Ezra."

She saw the horror wash over his face, and his knees buckled slightly as he turned his head towards the open sky.

"No..." he whispered softly.

Chapter Text

Kallus winced sharply. Hera dabbed at the bleeding gash on his head with a damp cloth silently, her limbs and expression tight. Eyes intensely focused.

"Dented yer head there pretty good didn't he?" Zeb joked, trying to bring a bit of levity despite the situation.

"I'll live," Kallus commented dryly, looking over to where Kanan was trying to calm a hysterical Sabine.

"He took him right out from under me!" she was saying. "I didn't even hear him! How could I not hear him?!" she cried, her voice pitching shrill.

"It's all right, Sabine," Kanan told her firmly, feeling out for her shoulders and grabbing them. "It wasn't your fault. You couldn't have known he'd be here. I'm the one to—"

Kanan had to stop a moment, emotion clogging his throat. He exhaled softly.

"I should have sensed him," he muttered.

"But why is he here?!" Sabine burst out. "How did he find us?!"

"He must still have a connection to Ezra," Kanan reasoned. At Sabine's confusion he clarified. "When they joined the holocrons their minds merged through the Force. Maul was able to track us down that time on Atollon from fragments of Ezra's memory left behind. I thought the connection had been severed back on Dathomir but..." He shook his head. "I guess enough traces remained that he could reconstruct their Force bond."

"But why come for Ezra now?" Hera asked, speaking up for the first time since Kallus had regained consciousness. "If he wanted Ezra, what was he doing all this time?"

"Well, he was busy chasing after Obi-Wan's ghost, or so we thought," Zeb replied. "Ya think he figured out Kenobi's dead?"

Kanan looked uncertain. "I don't know..."

"Someone care to fill me in?" Kallus prompted, touching the back of his head as Hera finished applying a bandage. He shifted on the crate he was seated on, facing them. "Who is this Maul?" he asked. His brain had been playing catch up ever since he'd reawoken and still couldn't make sense of the conversation, except that Ezra had been kidnapped.

Which was honestly almost enough. Worry rang through the crew of the Ghost like a persistent alarm, evident in every word said, every small gesture.

Kanan answered Kallus's question.

"He's a Dark Side user we first encountered on Malachor."

"Malachor?" Kallus repeated, incredulous. "That planet's restricted under Section 22AG-W of the Imperial Commerce and Travel Regulations, what in the galaxy were you doing there?"

"Master Yoda sent us, there was a Sith temple... it's a long story," the Jedi summarized wearily. "But that's where we met him."

"He was being hunted by Inquisitors," Hera said. Her voice was sober with an undercurrent of fury. "He's the one who blinded Kanan."

Kallus felt the chilling of the room as everyone, even Chopper, became stone cold serious, the tension as a mountain of unspoken baggage and history was dregged back out into the open.

"Oh," he said in a small voice. "I see... so there's some personal animosity involved."

"Very personal," Zeb growled. He rolled his shoulders, bringing up his arms to cross them. "Anyway Maul took an 'interest' in Ezra and he's been after th' kid ever since," he explained. "Tried to kidnap him at least twice."

"Almost killed us a handful of times," Sabine added. She shivered, remembering the cold presence of the Nightsister witch that had taken control of her body, trapping her inside her own mind as a helpless witness.

"All but certain he's the one that knocked me out then," Kallus concluded. He sighed in frustration, meeting the Mandalorian's eyes. "I'm sorry, Sabine. I didn't hear him either," he apologized. A familiar gnawing worry was already beginning to creep through his chest. He'd never met other Dark Siders outside of the Inquisitors, but knowing a little now of what they did to young Force Sensitives...

"We can't think about that right now," Hera said as she finished snapping closed the medkit. She stood, then crossed over to Kanan, taking his hands. "Kanan, you know Maul better than we do. Where do you think he'd take Ezra?"

Her voice was composed but Kallus could see—and Kanan could most assuredly feel—the tremble in her hands as her fingers clutched the Jedi's.

Kanan bit his lip. "I'm not sure," he confessed. "Maybe back to Dathomir?"

"Nowhere populated, that's for sure," Zeb said.

"Hera, what are we gonna do?" Sabine moaned, putting her hands on the sides of her head.

"I don't—" she almost snapped, but then seemed to light upon an idea. "Wait," she said. "If we can hack into the shipyard's database and look at the arrival logs, maybe it has a record of when he got here and what hyperspace lane he was using."

"It's a starting point at least," Kanan agreed.

"Sabine, I want you, Kallus, and Chopper to slice the computer in the main terminal. It'll be heavily guarded so you'll need a distraction," Hera ordered. "Kanan, Zeb, I'll leave that part to you. We'll rendezvous in an hour. I'll pick everyone up with the Ghost." She was already heading determinedly for the ship, her back to them.

"Wait," Kallus called after her. "What about the Mon Cals?"

She stopped. He couldn't see her expression, but her entire body deflated and he immediately regretted asking.

Hera needed a moment or two before she found her voice.

"...We'll finish the mission," she decided, her words clogged and coming out strained. "We can use the prison break to lure away the guards in the terminal. But first I need to contact Rebel Command and..." She paused, sounding on the verge of tears. "...update them on the situation."

Kanan stepped forward, reaching out for her in concern. "Hera..."

She moved before he could touch her, continuing up the ramp and rubbing an arm across her face. "Hurry Kanan," she told him. "Just hurry."

She was gone before he could say anything else.

Kanan turned back to the rest of them, all-serious now.

"You heard her," he barked. "Sabine, Kallus, Chop, get going. Wait for our signal to move."

"WHOMP," Chopper acknowledged with a salute, already swiveling on his wheels and nudging Sabine forward.

Kallus held the throbbing back of his head as he stood, falling into a quick trot beside the Mandalorian as she and the C1 unit rushed off towards the hanger exit.

He had more questions, but they could wait. Hera was right. They had to hurry.

-SWR-

The mission pulled off perfectly. Charges set on the northern perimeter of the Imperial compound were set off, drawing most of the Stormtroopers away as Kanan and Zeb snuck in through the south side waste disposal tubes and quickly freed the prisoners. They led the Mon Cals to the armory and then didn't bother with stealth on the way out, taking the main entrance and shooting Imperials all along the way.

The ruckus at the prison had troopers leaving their posts in the terminal as they were called in for backup, and Sabine, Kallus, and Chopper made quick work of the few that were left. Chopper plugged in and downloaded the manifest for the whole morning—"We can sort through it later," Sabine had insisted.—before disconnecting and waving the other two back towards the Ghost.

Hera was already hovering by the time they made it back, Zeb practically throwing prisoners onto the ramp as Kanan covered them from Imperial blasterfire with his lightsaber. Kallus and Sabine drew their blasters and opened up on the troopers from behind, clearing the way for the rest of the refugees to get safely on the ship.

Kanan grasped Kallus's wrist and pulled him up onto the ramp just as it was closing. The ship jostled and vibrated as Hera brought it rocketing up out of the atmosphere. Kanan put a hand on the nearby wall to steady himself, not taking it away even when the ship's movement smoothed into the gentle tremble of hyperspace travel.

Kallus looked at the man in concern. Kanan's face was lined and pale, his expression pinched tightly.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

The Jedi inhaled shakily. "I need to... meditate," he muttered, speaking aloud but not looking up, head pointed towards the floor, chin drooping. "Away—away from the cargo hold it's—there's too much noise down here I can't—I can't concentrate," he strained out.

The distress in Kanan's voice—on his face, in his slumped posture—alarmed him. "Anything I can—?" Kallus started to offer.

Kanan held up his other hand, stopping him.

"Tend to the Mon Cals. See if anyone's injured."

Kallus nodded, then winced and added a verbal, "All right." before moving off.

Kanan exhaled heavily, then felt around for the bottom of the ladder. When his hands found it, he grabbed on, heaving himself up into the cockpit.

Hera was a tightly contained ball of worry echoing in the Force as he made it up. They exchanged no words, Kanan moving immediately to the hallway and feeling his way along. The blaring emotions from the cargo hold dimmed as he gained distance from it. His absent mind kept him walking farther than he'd intended to go, and he only blinked out of it when his hand found the corner junction that indicated where the airlock hallways and the central hall intersected.

He shuddered, leaning against the cool metal wall, his free hand pressing over his face. He reached out, and out, along his bond with Ezra, whose presence was distant and muted, straining to carry over the distance. The Force gave him no clarity, no reassurances about his padawan's condition or location, just an empty, slippery feeling that Ezra was there but moving farther and farther away.

"Ezra..." he whispered. He strained after the feeling, desperately praying it wouldn't disappear. "Where are you?"

-SWR-

Awareness came back slowly.

Ezra first felt the dull throbbing, radiating through his head, extending from an epicenter somewhere above his left ear. He stirred with a groan. His shifting movement sharpened the throbbing into hot pain. He flinched, raising a hand to his temple, feeling a sticky gash underneath his hair.

His eyes struggled open and he blinked up in confusion at an unfamiliar ceiling. He was on his back, reclining across several unfolded cargo seats it felt like. But this didn't look like the Phantom II...

As he was trying to piece out what had happened—

"Hello apprentice."

Ezra froze.

His widened eyes slowly glanced to the side.

Maul had turned the pilot's chair of the gauntlet around and was seated facing towards him.

Ezra shot up, his feet finding the floor, pressing his back tightly against the wall of the ship. His heart pounded. Everything clicked back into place and he remembered what had happened. Maul had been there on Corensia. There on the Ghost. Had half-strangled him so he couldn't scream for Sabine. Had knocked him out. And now...

He felt his throat squeeze with tension. His eyes stayed locked with Maul's and for a long, long moment he was paralyzed with mute fear.

He found his voice.

"Where are we?"

Maul continued watching him, ignoring the question. His yellow eyes flicked to Ezra's head wound.

"I am... sorry I had to injure you," he said, the words pulling out of him slowly. "But, there was no time. I had to get you away before your..." He glanced to the side, chuckling darkly at some private amusement. "...former master could arrive to stop me."

"Maul," Ezra growled, his hands tightening on the edges of his seat. "Where are we?" he repeated.

Maul's gaze flicked back to him, expression flat.

"Currently, hyperspace," he said, witheringly sardonic. "But that is not important right now," he continued, waving off a hand. "What is important, is that you are here."

"What do you want from me?!" Ezra burst out, anger flaming hot in his chest. "Why are you here? You can't still think that after all this time, after everything you did, that I'd change my mind and be your apprentice!" he snapped, his face twisting furiously.

Maul was eerily calm, letting the echo of Ezra's outburst fade into the walls. "This is not about that, Ezra. Not entirely," he said. "This is about protecting you."

Ezra gawped at that, bug-eyed.

"Pro—protecting?!" he sputtered.

There was a hint of anger in Maul's eyes now, a rage behind every growling syllable that he spoke. "I could not stand idly by and leave you in the hands of those—" He practically snarled the next word. "—Rebels. Not after they failed you."

"What?" Ezra asked, bewildered. What was Maul talking about?

He didn't elaborate, continuing his delirious, nonsensical rant. "They'd fail you again if you stayed with them. They are weak. He is weak!" he spat, jabbing a hand towards the wall. His expression lost the hard edge, the anger fading away. He looked at Ezra with something akin to... fondness, and it made a shiver run down Ezra's spine. "But I will never fail you, I promise," he said, earnestly. A tiny smile was playing on his lips. "Only by my side will you be out of harm's way."

Ezra shook his head at once, holding up a hand. "Stop. Just, stop," he said. He raised a stubborn glare at the man. "Don't pretend you care anything about me! You don't. I know you don't!"

The brief silence that met him from across the way made his stomach turn sickly.

"I do care about you, Ezra," Maul insisted quietly.

Ezra's glare crumpled. "Then let me go," he pleaded. His shoulders slumped and his hands were loose on the seat edges. "Let me go back to my family, to my real master," he begged. "My home."

The hardness had returned to Maul's face. "I'm not going to do that," he said evenly.

And with that, Ezra's fury and indignance returned also.

His hands fisted. "You can't keep me your prisoner forever," he threatened. "I'll escape. I'll get away."

Maul snorted. "I sincerely doubt that," he snarked.

Undeterred, Ezra leveled his eyes at Maul, his face outwardly calm but pinched with anger. "They'll come for me," he said with conviction. "They'll find me," he promised.

Maul absorbed that, then gave a casual shrug.

"Then I shall have to kill them."

Ezra's expression was stricken a moment, shock crossing his features before he launched himself up from the seat and hurled himself at Maul, arm drawing back.

The man stood up from his chair, catching Ezra's fist as he swung his first blow, but a second made it past his guard, socking him in the cheek.

"Leave them alone!" Ezra shrieked at Maul.

Maul grunted as his head snapped back, but recovered quickly, fingers moving down to Ezra's wrist and gripping tightly.

Ezra yanked back on his left arm but found himself caught. He pulled away, his free hand grabbing at Maul's, trying to pry him off. Maul held on, his steel grip squeezing harshly. Ezra growled and punched at him again but his other wrist was grabbed, Maul's eyes narrowing, expression unamused.

"That's enough, Ezra," he warned.

Furious at being scolded like a child, Ezra jerked forward, fingers clawing like he wanted to scratch the Zabrak's eyes out. Maul stumbled a little and Ezra's struggling increased, the boy pulling this way and that, twisting his hands, kicking at Maul's legs.

"Ezra..." Maul growled.

"Let go!" Ezra cried, straining back away from Maul now, trying to slip free of the grip on his wrists.

Maul wrenched him closer, practically taking his feet off the floor and Ezra gasped.

"Stop this," Maul scolded.

Ezra's struggling just increased again. They grappled for several long seconds, staggering one way and then another, and then all of a sudden Ezra found himself crashing to the floor as Maul's foot got behind his ankle and upended him. Ezra's back hit the floor, his wrists were pinned down on either sides of his head and Ezra felt trickles of fear as Maul loomed over him, metal shins gripping his chest, holding him in place.

His wrists were pressed down and the red and black tattooed face hovered over his, glaring evenly. Ezra squirmed, his ankles scratching the floor, his body twisting, but he had no leverage; he couldn't break free from the hold.

Eventually, his struggling subsided, Ezra going still with a bit of dry fear creeping up his throat.

Maul held him in place, staring down at him impassively. Ezra's hands fisted and he wriggled under the man's grip.

"Are you going to attack me again if I release you?" Maul asked, at length.

"What d'you think?!" Ezra spat up at him, snarling through his teeth, eyes flashing angrily.

Maul gave a heavy sigh, beginning to lean his weight off Ezra.

"I didn't want to have to restrain you..." he was saying.

Something in his throat and chest tightened and Ezra felt a cold spike pass through him. Maul had let go of his right wrist and was pulling him up by his left, turning him on his front.

"Wait—" he squeaked timidly, hearing static gather at the back of his head. "Wait—!"

"...but you leave me no choice," Maul finished.

Ezra's left wrist was pressed up behind his back and his fear ratcheted as he heard the light clink of binder cuffs. Maul slipped the metal band underneath his wrist and Ezra felt it close around him, giving a harsh flinch. He bit his lip, his free hand scratching at the floor in a useless attempt to crawl away, holding himself back from begging Maul not to do it, from trying to explain about the static in his head that was growing louder and louder.

Maul reached up and grabbed his right wrist, twisting it around and down to join the other one and quickly latching the binders as tight as they could go.

Ezra stiffened with a gasp that was only half from pain.

—Pryce's gloved hands on him, on the binders around his wrists pulling them upwards, pressing into his upper back and putting pressure on his shoulders. Tension tightening and tightening until he was sure his arms would snap. Thrawn watching with cool regard as she bent him almost double. Studying his pained expression for signs of weakness, for a hint that Ezra was going to give something up. Ezra's mouth screwing up, his eyes squeezing closed, trying not to whimper

Ezra forced himself out of the memory and back to the present, but the panic clawing at his chest did not abate. He was no longer in control of his body, his limbs thrashing out, feet kicking wildly as Maul turned him back over.

"Be still," Maul growled in annoyance.

"No!" Ezra cried, shrilly.

One of his flailing feet connected with Maul's jaw with a solid crunch! Incensed, Maul seized the offending limb by the ankle.

"Ohhh I see you intend to be difficult about this," he snarled through his teeth. "Fine then." He reached behind himself towards the console, hand groping around, searching a moment before he produced another pair of binders.

Ezra grit his teeth and kicked out again—deliberately this time—trying to smash his heel into Maul's nose, but he missed, and with a sickening click! Maul had latched one binder cuff around the ankle he had hold of and was already pinning Ezra's feet together.

Ezra tried to swallow the rising ice climbing up his throat, his breathing erratic, as the binders pinched into him. As soon as Maul dropped him he scooted away as best he could, putting distance between them, awkwardly fighting the restriction the binders placed on his movements.

He wasn't going to panic. He wasn't going to panic. He was going to get out of this. Kanan would come for him. Hera would tear the galaxy apart to find him.

It's okay, it's okay. I'm okay, he repeated inside his head, willing the noise in his ears to fade.

"This would be much easier if you would cooperate," Maul said, his voice cutting into Ezra's frantic thoughts.

Ezra looked at him, angry even through the ringing in his head, and glared defiantly. "Yeah, don't see that happening," he bit.

A frustrated sound escaped the Zabrak's lips. "Can't you see what I am trying to do? I can help you, Ezra!"

By kidnapping me?! Ezra screeched indignantly inside his head. Aloud he only snarked, "Thought I was meant to be helping you. So which is it?"

Maul turned towards the cockpit, taking a seat and busying himself with the controls. "I will explain when we reach our destination," he said.

"And where's that?" Ezra demanded hotly. "Huh? Dathomir, where you let my friends get possessed by the Nightsisters? The old Death Watch station, where you tried to kill my master and my friends again?"

"Quiet," Maul barked, not looking up.

"Or maybe Tatooine? Is that it?" Ezra shifted straighter, squaring his shoulders. They had pinpointed the Outer Rim planet as the most likely candidate for Maul's cryptic "desert planet with twin suns" relatively quickly, only to learn from Rex and Senator Bail Organa that Obi-Wan Kenobi had most likely perished in Order 66. Ezra wasn't entirely convinced—Why had the holocrons shown him alive if it wasn't so?—but he wasn't about to let Maul know his doubts. "If you think for one minute I'm going to help you look for phantoms on some dusty washed up backwater planet, you're stupider than I—"

Ezra flinched and stopped talking as Maul snapped up to his feet. Simmering annoyance festered behind the yellow eyes. He unwrapped one of the strands of cloth around his arm in jerky motions and stretched it out between his hands.

He stalked over and leaned down to Ezra's level.

"Will you just—"

He shoved the strand between Ezra's teeth, making him yelp in protest.

"—stop—"

Maul twisted the ends around his head and tightened them, catching some of Ezra's hair in the knot, making him wince.

"—talking!" Maul growled.

Ezra huffed, fixing the former Sith with a furious glare. A silent battle of anger and resentment passed between their eyes a moment and then Maul went back to his pilot's seat with a grumble.

He didn't turn around again.

Ezra pulled at the binders on his wrists, his hands twisting, shifting closer to the wall. If Maul thought he was just going to sit quietly the whole way to wherever he was being taken, he was wrong.

He considered his options. He didn't think he could physically overpower the Zabrak in a straight fight—their little scuffle earlier had proved that. If he could catch him off guard... he'd still be stuck on the ship with him but if he could just knock him out long enough to figure out where they were and get a message to Kanan...

Kanan.

Ezra calmed himself, forced the ringing in his head to fade. Breathed in slowly. Closed his eyes and reached out through the Force. He didn't need a working comm for this.

Focusing, he felt out for his master's mind through their bond. It was a long reach; he was already very far from Corensia, but Ezra thought he could feel Kanan probing out too, looking for him, worrying radiating from him in—

There was a violent yank on his hair.

"Nnngh—!" Ezra yelped, his eyes snapping open to see Maul right in his face, expression livid.

"None of that," Maul hissed.

He released Ezra, moving sharply to fetch something from the other side of the ship.

"Since you clearly cannot be trusted..." he was saying, "...you force me to take stronger measures."

Ezra leaned to one side, trying to peer around Maul's back to see what he was doing. Maul turned around, something small glinting in his hand.

Ezra froze, his breath catching in his throat, his lungs stopping short.

It was a syringe.

His eyes fixated on it, paralyzed by mute terror. All coherent thought inside him had ceased, wordless panic the only thing reverberating through his head.

Maul came towards him, the needle outstretched.

"Nnn!" Ezra cried, jerking back, struggling to press himself closer to the wall.

No, his mind repeated in horror. No no no no...

The silver glint off the needle was all his eyes would focus on, everything else blurring around him. His ears filled with echos, flooding his mind with voices.

"...don't think he's coherent enough for —"

No, he thought, pushing the memory back. She's not here... she's not here...

She was here. Ezra could see her in every step Maul took as he closed in, could see her looming over him, hovering just behind Maul's shoulder as the Zabrak leaned down, gripping his hair, yanking him away from the wall, placing the tip of the needle delicately against his neck.

Ezra seized up, fear locking up his muscles. Silent screaming rang through him. He stared up, terrified, into Maul's face, begging, begging him with his frantic wide eyes to Please don't please don't, don't drug me, don't drug me, don't

For just a moment, Maul hesitated, looking down curiously at him, his expression puzzled and probing, and Ezra dared to hope—

There was a sharp prick as the needle pushed in.

"Nngh!" Ezra yelped, his whole body flinching, the sensation triggering another deluge of auditory memories that washed over him in rolling waves.

Thrawn's voice piping in from the speaker, giving instructions in his clinical monotone. Crackling pops from the electrodes as they charged up.

Glass bottles.

Muted footsteps.

Metal restraints straining as he pulled against them.

A dull warmth was spreading through his neck. Ezra could barely breathe, gasping in short wheezes through his teeth, around the gag. A horribly familiar numbness crept over him.

No, he moaned inside his head, already slipping down, falling back against the floor. His hands tugged weakly at the binders but there was already no strength in his body; the drug was working quickly. He could feel his limbs weakening, going still.

The roaring in his ears was overtaking him, dulling everything else. His coherent thoughts faded into it and he lost himself in the haze of fear and memories and darkness that was pooling up around him, filling his head.

His listless eyes lolled up, vaguely noting Pryce over Maul's shoulder, smirking down.

Then she blurred out and his eyes rolled back as the darkness rose to claim him.

-SWR-

Ezra's head slumped as he fell fully unconscious. Maul backed off a bit, quietly glancing down at the empty syringe in his hand.

He'd been expecting a bit of resistance and fear from Ezra. But the boy's abject terror at the mere sight of the needle, the pleading look in his eyes, how his mind seemed not altogether... there...

Maul was certain that was not normal. Ezra was afraid of him, naturally, but something else had eclipsed that. Something unrelated.

He looked down at the unconscious teen, sensing the lingering panic in his muddled mind.

His expression softened. He set aside the syringe, brushing a hand lightly over faint scars on the boy's face. They weren't like the two prominent lightsaber burns on his cheek. These were smaller. Narrower. Like from a thin metal blade.

"Ezra..." he whispered. "...What did they do to you?"

He tried pushing into Ezra's mind, probing through him, but even in sleep the boy's mental shields were strong, and Maul was not quite willing to damage them just to satiate his curiosity. Yet.

He shook himself, rising to his feet and moving back to take a seat in the cockpit. His hands gripped the pilot yoke steadily.

No matter. The boy would open up to him in time. Ezra would see. See that Maul was the only one who could make him strong enough to prevent this from happening again.

Reassured of that thought, he looked forward out the viewport into the swirling vortex of hyperspace.

Chapter Text

Zeb wandered out of the briefing room, rubbing a hand down the back of his neck wearily. He stopped, looking down the hallway in concern.

"Er... has he been like that all night?" he asked Sabine, pointing towards Kanan.

The Jedi was standing absolutely stock still, mask off, eyes closed, face pinched in concentration. His breathing was so soft it was almost inaudible, and he had no reaction at all to anything around him.

"He's looking for Ezra," Sabine explained. Her eyes were tired, baggy, and it didn't look like she'd gotten much sleep.

Zeb had tossed and turned much of the night himself, keenly aware of the absence of Ezra's scent from the bunk above him.

"Through their Force bond?" he guessed, coming over to stand next to her.

Sabine shrugged. "Something like that." She glanced anxiously towards the door Zeb had just come through. "Any news?"

"Scouts just reported back from Dathomir," he told her. "Nothing. No life forms. No sign of any ships." He sighed. "Think they were discussing what to do next."

"What's there to discuss?!" Sabine blurted indignantly, whirling on her heel and stalking towards the briefing room.

"Wait, Sabine!" Zeb called after her.

She ignored him, barging into the room and making straight for the knot of people gathered at the center, around the holoprojector. She elbowed her way in-between Hera and Kallus, declaring at once, "We have to find him!"

Mon Mothma turned her attention in Sabine's direction, every line in her face weary but maintaining her stoic calm. "I assure you, Lieutenant Wren, whatever resources we can spare are all being directed towards the search," she said, voice terse. "Everything that can be done is being done right now."

The fierce look in Sabine's eyes dimmed, replaced by wrinkled worry. "Has anyone checked the old Death Watch station?" she asked anxiously. "Malachor?"

"We haven't received reports back from the scouts we dispatched yet," Mon Mothma explained, leaning back from the holoprojector, her hands dropping to her sides. "But it's not likely Commander Bridger was taken there."

Sabine's insides wilted. She knew that, of course, knew it was unlikely that Maul had returned to one of the places they knew about, but her heart desperately needed some kind of hope to cling to.

"What about the arrival logs from Corensia?" she pressed.

It was Kallus who answered her this time.

"There's no record of a Mandalorian gauntlet arriving in airspace above Corensia," he said. "There was a ship that arrived about ten minutes after the Ghost, but it was registered as a Zygerrian cargo freighter. If that was Maul, it means he has a signal scrambler," he relayed grimly.

So it would be that much harder to track him down. Sabine felt her eyes beginning to burn, and stepped away from the holoprojector with a quiet exhale.

Mon Mothma turned her eyes back to Hera. "Do we know how he was able to locate the Ghost offworld?"

"I do," said Hera soberly. She held up her hand, a small metal device in her palm. "Chopper found a tracking beacon on the outside of the hull."

The room came alive with blurted questions and exclamations, incredulous shouts and gasps of horror.

"It's inactive," Hera reassured them. "Chopper disabled it before detaching it from the ship."

"Wh—when did he even put it on there?!" Sabine cried, her mind running in frantic circles.

Hera's lekku swished as she shook her head. "We can't be certain. It could have been any number of missions as far back as two months ago."

When Ezra had started coming back on missions with them. Sabine felt sick at the thought that Maul had been stalking them that long, waiting for an opportunity to strike.

Mon Mothma was frowning severely. "We may need to consider the possibility that the base has been compromised," she said. "If he was able to trace and intercept the Ghost while on-mission, there's no telling what else he may know about the Rebel fleet's movements."

Dodonna spoke up, staring Hera down seriously. "Would this Maul sell the Alliance out to the Empire, if given the opportunity?"

Hera was already shaking her head again. "He doesn't care about any of that. All he wants is Ezra." The words were dead and lifeless as they left her lips. "He won't take any action against the base or the Alliance unless—"

She stopped, biting her lip, her mind already filling in the blanks of her sentence. Maul had already attacked and murdered an entire Hammerhead corvette just to get to Ezra, planted a beacon on Atollon and threatened to reveal the base to the Empire to force him into coming with him. What else would he do, if the Alliance came between him and his prize?

"Unless he thought we could be used against Ezra," she finished. She stepped back, a hand rising to her face, closing her eyes. "Unless he thought it could break him."

A grim silence purveyed the room for a long moment.

Mon Mothma put her hands behind her back, clasping them firmly. "Let us hope then that Lieutenant Commander Bridger is as resilient as he was against the Brisney-Favvin," she said in a clipped voice. Her eyes hardened and she began barking commands to pilots and intelligence officers. "I want all our operatives contacted, follow every lead, investigate any rumor. We cannot allow Maul the chance to spill our secrets."

People at the meeting scattered, scurrying to comply. Kallus was given an assignment to comb through Imperial chatter.

He raised a hand. "Senator," he called in concern. "My squad—"

"Your duties with Ensigns Mattin, Terez, and Jin are as of now temporarily suspended," she told him, interrupting. "Have them report to Sergeant Matlock for new assignments."

Kallus nodded. "Understood."

He began to head off, glancing back once to see Rex with a comforting hand on Sabine's shoulder, by his expression saying something encouraging to her. Her own expression looked like it was teetering on despair.

He faced forward again with a sigh. She was taking it particularly hard and he couldn't blame her. They had both been right there when Maul swooped in and could do nothing to stop him.

He hoped they'd be able to find Ezra soon, or this guilt was going to kill them both.

Hera joined him at his shoulder as they swiftly exited.

-SWR-

He felt a lurching swerve that stirred him from the darkness.

Crawling slowly back to consciousness, the warmth of Force fading around his head. Struggling to stay under, to not open his eyes, trying not to return to the waking world. His eyelids groggily fluttering in time to see the surgeon reaching towards his stomach, scalpel outstretched—

Panic hit him, spiking through the haze left over from the drugs, and Ezra awoke, his throat tight, flinching.

He tensed for several seconds. Expecting to see the interrogation chamber, he relaxed, sagging against the floor, at the sight of the gauntlet's ceiling.

I'm all right... I'm all right, I'm not there... he thought. I'm not there... I'm not on that ship...

His relief was short-lived, as with a grim thought he remembered the situation he was in.

Ezra craned his neck up, peering towards the cockpit. Maul was in a heated argument with someone on the open communication channel.

"This is your last warning, Mandalorian gauntlet," a clipped, Imperial-sounding voice was saying. "Turn to heading Seven-point-Three and make your landing approach."

"You have no right to detain me!" Maul was shouting.

"All starcraft in this sector are subject to security search and must wait for clearance before leaving the system, pursuant to Order 799 by his Imperial Majesty the Emperor."

Ezra's pulse pricked and his heartrate stuttered. What was—?

Maul lurched forward over the controls, snarling, every muscle stiff from the mention of the Emperor. "Listen to me you low-ranking impertinent Imperial lapdog," he said, low and growling. "I am an Imperial Inquisitor taking a Force sensitive captive to the Inquisitorious facility on Exegol and you will not delay me."

A scoff from the other end. "I'm sure. Make your landing approach or you will be fired upon."

"I will not be commanded by the likes of—"

The ship pitched and shuddered suddenly from a hit. Ezra yelped, scrambling to try and sit up.

Maul glanced back at him, then gripped the pilot's controls with gritted teeth.

"As you wish," he muttered.

He turned the yoke, bringing the gauntlet swinging around to face towards a blue, brown, and green planet. Ezra tried to remember if he recognized it, straining to look over the console and out the viewport.

"I apologize, Ezra," Maul called back to him. "But it appears we have been unavoidably delayed. Only temporarily, I assure you." A reassuring look was sent over his shoulder. "Don't worry," he whispered. "I won't allow them to take you."

Ezra's heart hammered with fear.

-SWR-

He managed to push himself upright against the wall of the ship by the time they landed, prying at the binders on his wrists. There was a frantic charge beginning to build inside his head again, and Ezra struggled against an increasing shortness in breath.

Being stuck as Maul's captive was bad enough. Being stuck with him against the Empire, that was going to come search the ship and probably question them, was a uniquely worse scenario.

He hated that he preferred being kidnapped by Maul to falling into the Empire's hands again.

Maul got up from his chair and quickly knelt down by Ezra, undoing the binders on his ankles. He gripped Ezra's upper arm firmly, hauling him up.

"Stay close to me. Do not run off," the Zabrak told him sternly.

Turning him around Maul slipped a length of cloth over Ezra's eyes.

"Nnh?" Ezra uttered in surprise, as his sight was blocked.

Maul tied a knot at the back of his head, securing the blindfold. "I can't have anyone recognizing you," he said in explanation.

You mean you can't have me figuring out where we are! Ezra fumed, growling in frustration as Maul pushed him lightly towards what Ezra assumed was the hatch door, which was hissing open.

Soft booted footsteps sounded on the base of the ramp and a light female voice called out cheerfully.

"Welcome to Docking Bay Four," she was saying, voice pleasant and professional. In his mind's eye it conjured an image of a wide smiling face, warm and inviting. "In just a moment the scanning crew—" She stopped talking, giving a gasp. She must have spotted Ezra next to Maul, for the next thing she said was, "Oh my goodness! What—?"

She cut off with a cry of fright and Ezra heard a lightsaber snapping on, felt the woman's fear spike through the Force.

"Who is responsible for issuing clearance to outgoing ships?" Maul demanded in a low, dangerous voice.

Fabric twisted. Maul had her by the collar. She stammered out an answer.

"The—the dockmaster in the central office. But—"

She was hurled away with a sickening crack! against the floor. Ezra cried out, startled, stumbling a little as Maul grabbed his elbow and pulled him with him down the ramp.

The filtered voices of Stormtroopers sounded out from all around him.

"You there! Halt!"

Maul released him, leaving his side and charging forward with a yell. Ezra tripped a bit, finding himself suddenly without anything to anchor him and then stood in place fearfully as he heard Maul attack the first trooper. The hanger was soon filled with shouts and blaster fire, the humming buzz of Maul's lightsaber and dying gurgles from Stormtroopers.

Ezra twisted, his heart pounding. It didn't seem like the troopers were aiming at him or paying him any attention but he was still vulnerable to crossfire. He had to get out of here. This might be his only chance to escape both the Empire and Maul.

He stepped to the side, leaning down, trying to angle his arms, trying to squish himself into a ball so he could step over his bound hands and bring them to his front.

It was harder than it should have been, and Ezra grit his teeth, straining. If only he could see!

All too soon, the sounds of the fighting stopped, and Maul's presence was striding closer. Ezra yelped as his arm was seized roughly, Maul pulling him back upright.

"Can I not take my attention off you for even a moment?" he huffed, yanking Ezra forward.

Throwing caution to the wind, Ezra reached for his bond with Kanan.

-SWR-

The others' fitful murmurs came to a stop as Kanan abruptly stirred from his position against the wall.

"Ezra?" he blurted out.

Kallus, Rex, and the rest of the Ghost crew came to attention, alerting to the Jedi's movement.

"Kanan?" Sabine called anxiously, stepping up in front of him. "Kanan, do you have something?"

He didn't respond to her, still in his trance, swiveling slowly with a hand outstretched.

"Ezra, I'm here," he called.

He started moving down the hallway. It was quiet now that the briefing was over, and everyone else had filed out. Hera and Sabine had been eager to get started but lingered, not wanting to leave Kanan by himself in an empty hallway, and everyone else had wound up joining them before long. Chopper had made a brief excursion back to the Ghost but was returning now, rolling down from the other end.

He stopped, sliding back with an uneasy warble as Kanan approached.

"What's going on?" Kallus whispered anxiously aside to Sabine, watching the Jedi take slow steps forward.

"Kanan and Ezra can sense each other through the Force. I think..." Sabine took a slow inhale to steady herself. "I think Ezra's trying to reach out."

Kallus peered at Kanan's back. "You mean... Ezra can contact us from wherever he's being held?"

"In a way," Hera spoke up quietly. "I don't fully understand it myself. I just know they have a strong connection in the Force."

"Quiet everyone!" Zeb hissed gruffly, putting up a furry hand. "Kanan's trying to concentrate!"

They quickly fell silent, trailing behind the Jedi anxiously as he continued down the hall.

-SWR-

Maul took the shortest route he could to the central hanger office, swiping aside a couple Stormtroopers along the way with his lightsaber. He concentrated single-mindedly on his task, not even addressing the fact that Ezra was calling out desperately for his former master. The boy wasn't even trying to hide it.

But he could be disciplined for that later.

He slashed open the central office door lock with a wide burning swipe of his lightsaber, sending hot sparks dropping to the ground as the door slid open.

Cries of alarm sounded. Multiple people bolted from their seats to retreat backwards towards the edges of the room, eyes wide and fearful as they watched him stalk straight for the dockmaster's enclosed office. Terrified whispers of "An Inquisitor!" bounced off the walls.

Maul took some private satisfaction in the humans' fear as he kicked open the dockmaster's door, sending it banging into the opposite wall.

The dockmaster only had time for a startled yelp and to turn halfway in his seat before Maul's lightsaber was pointed dangerously at his chest.

"I-Inquisitor!" he squeaked, timidly, putting surrendering hands up. He trembled all over. "I apologize! We didn't know—"

Maul interrupted him by bringing the tip of his saber closer, burning just under the man's chin. All the cold fury Maul had shone in his eyes.

"You will grant my ship clearance to leave immediately," he ordered calmly. "Do you understand?"

The dockmaster was already nodding, already jumping to placate him. "Y-yes Inquistor. At once sir!" he said.

Maul withdrew the lightsaber a bit, allowing the man to swivel his chair back around and quickly open up a channel to the ship in orbit.

"This is Dockmaster Harran, all security scans are complete and clearance is granted for the Mandalorian gauntlet AA-573."

"That was quick," came the voice of the Imperial Maul had argued with before. "All right, hailing the Mandalorian gauntlet, you can be on your way."

The Zabrak deactivated his saber with a satisfied smile.

"Thank you," he said.

He hooked the saber back onto his belt, tightening his grip on Ezra's arm just a little as he flashed his teeth at the dockmaster.

"Your service to the Empire shall not go unrewarded," he promised, in a drippingly smooth voice.

The dockmaster just shivered as though Maul's praise had been a veiled threat. Maul gripped his apprentice and pulled him back through the door. Ezra stumbled, tripping over his feet blindly and struggling to keep pace with him.

The office crew pressed themselves against the wall as he passed, sweeping out of the room like a cold breeze.

This time, his path was clear and he was allowed to pass unaccosted, the lingering taste of fear and death permeating the hallways through the Force, blending with the terror he could feel rising off Ezra, who was still frantically calling to his Jedi master, trying to hold on to their tenuous mind-to-mind contact.

Maul's fingernails dug into Ezra's skin, as a warning.

Ezra flinched in pain, giving a small whimper.

-SWR-

Ezra's fear and his desperate call for reassurance from Kanan was about all the boy was able to convey.

Kanan tried not to let his frustration bleed through their connection. His footsteps echoed in the subterranean hallway and the anxious presences of the others hovered at his back, following quietly in his wake.

He wanted to snap at them for hovering, for hanging on to whatever news he could give them, which was nothing beyond what they already knew.

Kanan came to a stop, concentrating harder. Trying to calm Ezra through their bond, trying to get the boy to focus.

He knew there were methods experienced masters and padawans had been able to achieve, deeper connections that allowed them to convey not just emotions and feelings, the usual sense of presence, but images. Information. Outright visions, he'd heard once.

But Kanan didn't know those techniques, and he hadn't taught them to Ezra. They might have been able to figure it out with consistent and deliberate practice but there hadn't been time, there was so much more Ezra needed to know that was more important, basic Jedi teachings to catch up on in months when it would usually take years.

Kanan held back a growl, straining. His hand wavered in the air.

"C'mon kid..." he begged, "give me something."

-SWR-

The gauntlet came into view and Maul felt a shiver of satisfaction, glad to have this whole irritating display over.

He barely glanced in the direction of the female administrator, even as she timidly mumbled, "Our sincere apologies, Inquisitor." and hastily removed herself from the hanger, tripping over dead Stormtroopers along the way.

Maul chuckled to himself. "Well," he commented lightly to Ezra, "those sniveling Sith dogs actually proved... useful for something."

The quip went unappreciated, and they were almost to the ramp when Ezra suddenly—as if realizing that this was possibly his last chance to escape—dug in his heels, pulling back from Maul's grip stubbornly.

Maul squeezed harder, crushing Ezra's arm as he yanked him forward.

Ezra stumbled as he was pulled off his feet but immediately wrenched back again, fighting Maul's attempts to drag him forward.

The ex-Sith snarled. Did the boy want to fall into the Empire's hands? Maul maneuvered around behind him, his arms encircling the boy's chest.

"We do not have time for this, Ezra," he growled, picking him up bodily and outright carrying him up the ramp.

"Nnnnn!" Ezra cried. He tossed his head back and forth, his legs kicking awkwardly, heels hitting Maul's metal legs.

Maul brought him up the ramp, Ezra fighting uselessly every step, and immediately made for the compartment with the sedatives. He let go with one arm, thumbing open the compartment and picking out another syringe. A larger dose this time.

Without fanfare, he grabbed it in his fist and jabbed the needle into the crook of Ezra's neck.

Ezra gasped sharply, stiffening, that same spike of utter panic from before flaring up in him. He wasn't frozen for long, fighting like a trapped animal, twisting his head. He squirmed in Maul's grip, growing weaker and weaker.

Maul could feel the boy shaking. Ezra's breaths came in short bursts through his teeth, hyperventilating, unable to find a steady rhythm. Maul felt a twinge of regret but held on tightly, emptying the syringe into Ezra's neck.

After several seconds of fighting it Ezra slipped down into drowsiness, slackening in Maul's arms. His head fell towards his chest.

Just before the boy went fully unconscious, Maul caught something slipping out from a crack in Ezra's shields. He probed Erza's mind, getting a brief glimpse of what Ezra in his panic was seeing.

An image of a woman. Imperial uniform, dark-haired with a cold expression, holding a syringe up threateningly.

The image vanished as Ezra's mind snapped shut again, guarding his secrets once more.

Maul pulled the needle from Ezra's neck. He exhaled heavily, wearily.

Carefully, he set his apprentice back down on the gauntlet's floor. He stared down at the boy's unconscious form, frowning darkly, recollecting the features of the sneering Imperial official.

So. That was the face of one of the demons that haunted his apprentice.

The glass tube in his hand was crushed in a furious grip, cracking, splintering in his palm.

She would pay. They would all pay—and the Jedi most of all—for what they'd done to the boy. For hurting him, for failing to protect him. He would take revenge against them all.

He stalked stiffly back to the pilot's seat and prepared the ship for liftoff.

-SWR-

Kanan had been moving again. But the moment he stopped still in the hallway, freezing up tensely, everyone's hearts sank.

After a long moment Kanan let his arm drop with a sigh, coming out of the Force and opening his eyes.

"I lost him," he said, miserably. "I think he's unconscious again."

He didn't look back but the Force let him sense the others' reactions. Frustration. Fear. Sabine's presence was quivering like she wanted to scream.

He heard Kallus's light boots take a step forward. "What did he say?" the man pressed.

"He didn't say anything!" Kanan snapped, jerking his head around and flashing a glare in Kallus's direction. "That's not how it works!"

He felt Kallus flinch and back off.

Hera's warm hand landed lightly on his arm, moving up gently to his shoulder. "What could he tell you?" she asked quietly.

"Nothing." Kanan wilted, crumpling into himself, smearing a palm over his face. His insides were churning. "Nothing. He was confused. He didn't know where he was. He was—" He peeked out from under his hand, despair in the sightless look he sent Hera. "Hera," he said, his voice straining, "he was terrified."

Her other hand was beginning to take his face. "Kanan—"

He jerked away with a furious roar, slamming the side of his fist into the nearest wall. The others jumped at the harsh slam! that sounded down the corridor.

"I told him he would be safe! I promised him!" Kanan cried. He trembled with anger, his arm vibrating from hitting the wall. "And then that—that monster just swooped in and took him!" His voice cracked on his words and his body sagged.

Zeb piped up. "Kanan, you can't blame yourself. None of us thought 'e was gonna come after Ezra again." A bit of a growl found its way into his voice. "An' don't say you should have sensed him. You didn't last time he came after us, I think it's safe to say the man knows how to hide himself."

Kanan gave a shuddering exhale, deflating. Accepting Zeb's point.

"Was he hurt?" It was Sabine asking anxiously this time. Her signature shook with worry. "At least tell me that."

He rubbed his temple. "I don't think so," he told her.

Her quiet breath of relief was shaky, trembling.

Hera's hands came around his arm, gently tugging him away from the wall. "You've been up all night," she said, urging him along. "You need to rest."

"So do you," he said flatly, nevertheless allowing her to guide him away.

"WUUUUUB WUB-WUB," added Chopper, chunking along next to them. "WUUB WUB WUB."

"Chopper's right," said Hera. "We won't do Ezra any good if we're all exhausted." Her lekku brushed Kanan's shoulder as he felt her turn her head back towards the others. "Take two hours. We'll reconvene on the Ghost later this evening," she ordered.

They silently obeyed, dispersing and fading from his senses.

Now that he was out of his Force trance, Kanan was suddenly aware of just how tired he was. He was stumbling by the time Hera ushered him onto the Ghost and no sooner had she guided him to his bunk than he collapsed into it, falling at once into an uneasy and fitful sleep.

Dreaming of nothing but his lost padawan.

Chapter Text

Cold. It was so cold, and yet his blood was boiling. There was fog in his brain and mud in his veins, moving slowly with a heavy, numbing sensation. His body was heavy, so heavy... He couldn't move.

They had paralyzed him. They had drugged him over and over and now he couldn't even fight back and they were going to

It took several seconds for Ezra to realize he was awake. His mind staggered slowly out of the now-familiar groggy darkness; he became aware that he was thrashing, kicking hard against something. There were rough hands on his arms trying to hold him in place.

Ezra felt panic kick in. He cried out, his voice muffled by something in his mouth. In his mind's eye the hands took shape, becoming the gloved fingers of Pryce.

No no, get off! he thought frantically. Get off get off don't put me back on that table! Let go of

The hands shook him once, harshly, and a growling male voice shouted at him.

"Ezra!"

Ezra locked up, startled. Something was pulled off his eyes and he blinked, bewildered and confused, looking up into Maul's face.

The glowing yellow eyes were narrowed and firm. "You are not in danger!" Maul told him, insistent, practically snarling his words.

Ezra's body still screamed in alarm, but now his mind was catching up, his thoughts growing clearer, the drugged, drowsy feeling slowly leaving him.

He wasn't on the Chimaera.

He was with Maul.

His body relaxed. He shuddered in relief. And then immediately felt guilty about it. He shouldn't be relieved to see the man who'd kidnapped him off the Ghost.

He dropped his eyes in shame.

Maul watched him, gaze intense and scrutinizing. When Ezra showed no further signs of immediate panic he reached up, working the gag out of the boy's mouth.

Ezra exhaled softly as it was pulled out. His lips pressed together and he swallowed dryly, his mouth feeling like scratchy cotton. Thirst tickled at the back of his throat.

His head ached, throbbing from having been drugged twice in short succession. He hated the feeling. The fuzziness around his brain and the sore, sluggish twinge in his limbs reminded him far too much of the aftermath of the Chimaera, when the medics had had to flush his whole system just to get him coherent enough to think. But back then he'd come to in a soft medical bed, with Sabine's face the first thing he opened his eyes to and surrounded on all sides by his family.

Not on the cold metal floor of a ship, alone with a man who had repeatedly terrorized him.

Ezra bit the side of his tongue. He wished desperately he could have woken up to Sabine again. Even if she was going to cry and scream at him about getting himself into trouble. At least then he wouldn't have this gross, sickly feeling creeping around his chest.

He missed home.

"Where are we now?" he asked, hoarsely.

"Our destination," Maul answered, cryptically. He untied the knot in the cloth strip, unwinding it from around Ezra's neck and setting it aside. "Can you stand?" he asked.

"Yeah," Ezra mumbled, not looking up.

His legs shifted, bracing carefully. Maul slid a hand under the crook of his arm, pulling him upright onto his feet.

His knees were stiff, but steady. Ezra steeled himself. His energy was returning. And with it, his resolve.

He stayed quiet as Maul nudged him to turn around. As Maul fiddled with the binders, Ezra kept his head down, waiting, breathing slowly to keep calm.

The binders clicked open.

Ezra whipped around, hands outstretched, shoving with the Force.

His push sent Maul crashing heavily into the dashboard. Ezra didn't stay to watch him recover, immediately turning around and bolting for the door, slamming the button to open up the hatch.

A furious growl sounded from behind him.

"Ezra!"

Ezra didn't wait for the ramp to finish descending, his heart caught up in his throat, his pulse pounding frantically. He ran down the lowering ramp, leaping from the edge out into the open air of the night.

He landed heavily, his boots and hands sinking several inches into thick snow. An icy blast of wind gusted past him and he staggered, stumbling upright, kicking up and running.

Run, was his only thought. Don't look back. Just run.

He couldn't even hear if Maul was pursuing him over the sound of the howling wind.

He just fled.

-SWR-

His lungs were burning when he finally felt safe enough to slow down.

Ezra inhaled great gulps of frigid air, panting hard, his frantic heartbeat still pounding loud in his ears. He looked back, straining his eyes and ears for any sign of Maul.

The wind whipping puffs of snow around made it a little hard to see, but there was no hint of Maul or the gauntlet anywhere on the white horizon.

Ezra shuddered, suddenly aware of how cold it was.

All right. Step one of his hastily-constructed and impulsive escape plan accomplished; he was away from Maul.

Now what?

He glanced around in a slow arc at his surroundings. A wide white snow-covered field surrounded him, falling and rising in gentle slopes. In the distance to his left and up ahead he could see gray ridgelines, mountains maybe, capped with ice at the tips.

So... either an ice planet or a polar region. Didn't narrow it down much but it was something.

Ezra took a deep breath, tentatively reaching out with the Force. He closed his eyes, focusing, melding into the warm tranquility that whispered all around him.

He relaxed, genuinely this time, his nerves and anxiety quieting as the familiar presence of the Force wrapped around him, comforting and familiar.

His tattered bond with Maul tugged at the back of his mind. Ezra ignored it, reaching for Kanan. The distance was... far. Very far. He strained himself trying to reach across it. After a moment or two of effort, Ezra gave up on making contact over the wide gap that separated him and his master. A flicker of disappointment and fear passed through him. He inhaled again, slowly, letting the Force calm him once more.

He turned his senses closer. A few small animals tucked into burrows under the snow, something larger roaming around the foothills of the ridge. Something in the distance... humming? He looked a little further.

There. A cluster of sentients. A settlement maybe? It wasn't too far.

A hopeful tendril began to creep through his heart. Maybe he could find a ship...

Ezra opened his eyes, letting the Force fade out around him. He shivered, his hands coming around his arms as he felt the icy air again.

He turned in the direction he'd sensed the lifeforms and started walking.

-SWR-

He kept his guard up, his senses alert for any sign of Maul behind him. He didn't dare hope that Maul would just give up and let him run away, but he didn't seem to be too quick behind Ezra either.

He lost track of time as he walked, anxiously checking ahead for the settlement. The frigid air felt thin to him, and it nipped at his face and neck. The soft crunch of the snow underneath his feet, his labored breathing, and the soft gusts of the wind were all he could hear for a long, long while.

The cluster of lifeforms grew closer and closer.

A nervous prick began to run through Ezra as he closed the distance. He wouldn't have expected Maul to take him anywhere inhabited, at least not on purpose. Which meant either Maul didn't know about the settlement, or that the beings he was about to encounter weren't going to be friendly to him.

His mouth pressed together in determination.

I don't need them to like me, I just need them to have a ship that can get me away from here, he reasoned.

There was a bit of a rise coming up ahead of him, falling down into a steep slope beyond. He was starting to pick out a glimmer of lights. Ezra ducked his head a little, steeling himself with a few deep breaths.

He'd have to be very quiet and stealthy. Without his lightsaber, or even a blaster, he couldn't afford to fight his way out.

A cold tingle in the Force darted up his spine, and Ezra gasped, his ears suddenly picking out amidst the wind the screaming engines of a horribly familiar Imperial ship.

The TIE fighter passed lazily across the sky somewhere up ahead.

Dread froze every part of him and it was suddenly hard to breathe. Ezra hutched, feeling horribly exposed, wide eyes watching the TIE circle around and dip lower. It was coming in for a landing. But the only place it could possibly be going was...

With pounding heart, Ezra took a few more steps forward, just enough to peek over the edge of the rise in front of him.

The ground dropped away sharply, flattening out into a plateau. Nestled between the rise and another low ridgeline of ashen rocks was a cluster of Imperial gray buildings. Stormtroopers milled about on a landing pad, next to rows of TIEs and a couple shuttles and cargo haulers. A droning buzz of machinery ground away, the sound shrill, vibrating his teeth.

The inside of his head was screaming. His throat was tight, his pulse sounding loud in his ears as a thousand frantic thoughts rushed through his mind.

There was no way Maul had known this was here.

His feet were rooted, his body paralyzed. There was pressure against the sides of his head and his hearing threatened to fade out. Echoes sounded around him, close to overwhelming him.

A small rational part of him was yelling through his thoughts about how he couldn't just stand there, he had to go down into the vale and steal one of the shuttles, stow away on one of the cargo haulers, something. How it might be his only shot off the planet, his only way to get home.

The noise drowned it out. He couldn't think. He stared down at the Imperial facility with fixated, terrified eyes, his coherent stream of consciousness dissolving.

Gloved hands on his arms, pulling him down a hallway. Metal bands pinching on his wrists. Sparking electrodes by his ears.

He squeezed his eyes closed with a sharp flinch, shaking his head.

I can't... I can't think about... I have to go down there and... and...

He couldn't make himself move.

A burst of chatter sounded, suddenly close. Ezra gasped softly, whipping his head right to see a trio of Stormtroopers on patrol, approaching the facility from the side.

They hadn't spotted him, probably couldn't from their distance and the way the rise blocked their view, but Ezra was already reacting, already moving, his paralysis gone, bolting away from the facility and towards the mountains in the distance. Static rattled inside his head and his breaths were tight as he hurtled away, feet pounding, heart racing.

He'd take his chances out in the wilderness.

-SWR-

Kallus trudged up the ramp of the Ghost wearily, exhausted in every part of his body. He'd caught a short rest when he'd sat down for a moment in the hanger and leaned against the wall, drifting off only to startle awake at the sound of an X-wing landing. Irritable and still tired, he'd pulled himself to his feet and headed out onto the landing pad in search of the VCX freighter.

And some decent food. Zeb had mentioned Hera and Kanan had made a stew, maybe there was some still left from...

Stars, had it really only been yesterday morning? It already felt like eons ago.

He put his hand on the rungs of the ladder and was about to ascend when—

"Captain Kallus!"

Concern tightening his throat he glanced over to see Gooti, Mart, and Jonner trotting up to the foot of the ramp, their faces wearing matching expressions of worry.

"Sir!" Gooti was the first to reach and stopped, breathless. "You said we were being reassigned, what's going on?" she asked, her eyes wrinkling and pinching.

Kallus pursed his lips, wondering how much they'd been told, how much they knew from the rumormill, and how much he should actually tell them. "I don't want to worry you..." he began.

"We heard Ezra's missing," Mart interrupted, hasty and anxious.

Kallus's shoulders slumped. "He is," he confirmed.

The trio gave incredulous cries of dismay.

"What?! How?" blurted Jonner.

"He was..." Kallus sighed, deciding just to break it straight to them. "...abducted off the Ghost by an enemy of the crew. We don't know where he's been taken."

"Oh my stars..." Gooti breathed, covering her mouth in horror.

Mart pushed forward, arming her out of the way. "What enemy? Who was it? How was he—"

"Please," Kallus stopped him, holding up a hand. "It has been a long day and I am in desperate need of a meal. I can't tell you any more details; I don't know them," he said emotionlessly, voice leaden. "Just go report in. I will keep you appraised of the situation once I have any news." He looked them all in the face, meeting their eyes seriously. "I promise."

Mart looked like he wanted to say more for a moment, expression agonized, but then he pulled back, composing himself, and saluted solemnly.

"Yes sir," he said.

Gooti and Jonner followed suit, and then the three of them turned around and walked away.

Kallus turned back and climbed the ladder.

Hera and Sabine's voices caught his attention as he emerged into the cockpit. Kallus glanced down the hall, spotting both of them coming through the common room door on the far side.

"Hera, c'mon, please, there's gotta be something I can do!" Sabine was begging.

"Not on no sleep, Sabine. You still have a little under an hour, you should try to get some rest," Hera replied back wearily.

The girl's face was baldly distressed, her expression heartwrenching. "As if I could possibly sleep when Ezra's out there with that—that—"

"Then go pace the landing field again, if you want," Hera bit, just a little irritably. She stopped by her cabin door, hitting the button to open it. "I'm going to bed. I'll see you in an hour."

"Why won't you understand?!" Sabine wailed, stepping a little bit into the doorway to block Hera's way.

Hera's voice and face softened and she reached for Sabine's shoulders. "I do understand, Sabine," she told the girl gently. "When Kanan—"

"No!" Sabine cried, a sob choking her voice. "Hera, it—it was my fault! I was supposed to protect him! I was right there and he just—"

She broke off, gasping, her sides and shoulders shuddering.

Kallus shied back a little, his back brushing Hera's pilot's seat, feeling like he was intruding on something private.

"Oh Sabine," Hera breathed, folding the girl into a hug. Sabine's face buried into Hera's shoulder and she sniffled, quaking. "Don't think like that," Hera chided. "You were so brave. You did the best you possibly could." A gloved hand carded through Sabine's short purple hair. "If you hadn't stayed behind with him, we might never have known who took Ezra at all."

"I almost had him..." Sabine warbled, muffling her words into Hera's flightsuit. "If I could have just pulled Maul's hand off I could have gotten him to drop Ezra..."

"I know. I know. Shh..." Hera comforted her.

Kallus dropped his eyes, something cracking in his heart. It was almost physically painful to see the normally brash, belligerent, fearless young Mandalorian so distraught. In the short time he'd known her Kallus had never seen her so upset. It was clear that this had devastated her beyond reason, even more so than the boy's ordeal on the Chimaera.

It was awful to watch... but he understood.

She must care about him a lot, he mused.

He raised his head, clearing his throat.

Sabine hastily pulled herself from Hera's hug, wiping under her eyes. Both young women looked towards him.

"I was just about to heat up some food," he said, trying to keep his tone casual. "I wondered if you would join me?"

Sabine finished smearing her palm over her cheeks. "Yeah. Yeah, okay," she said.

Hera paid him a grateful look as he stepped forward, gently turning Sabine around and keeping a steady guiding hand on her shoulder as he led her back towards the kitchen.

Sabine curled her arms tight around herself, unexpectedly leaning into Kallus's side, her shoulder tucking under his armpit. Kallus startled a little, his arm hovering awkwardly a moment or two before he let it drop around her shoulders.

"Would you like to help me scan through comm chatter?" he asked her in a whisper.

She peeked up, her eyes glistening but a little brighter. He saw her swallow before she nodded with a soft, "Yes. Thank you."

He rubbed her arm softly.

"Don't guilt yourself, Sabine," he said. "Please."

"Too late," she muttered, as they slipped out of the hallway.

-SWR-

His fingers were numb.

The cold was seeping into him, soaking through his clothes and settling heavily into his body.

Ezra glanced up, blinking through the snow and the low light, his eyes straining.

His panic had run down long ago, slowing his mad dash into a slow trudge. The sun had been slipping beneath the horizon for the past hour, and the cold grew stronger and stronger, the wind kicking up and billowing all around him, freezing on his exposed skin.

His legs ached. And the mountain ridge in the distance didn't look any closer.

Ezra shivered hard, shaking his head.

He couldn't stop. The snow was picking up. He had to find shelter.

He shoved his hands into his armpits, prying his feet from the deepening snow and continuing on.

Night fell. The wind pushed at him from all angles, forcing him to lean forward to keep his balance. The numbness crept up his arms and legs.

Ezra chanced looking up again, a flicker of worry hitting him as only darkness and vague shapes met his eyes. His gaze darted left and right, but he couldn't pick out the mountains from the surrounding dark.

His throat tightened up on a hopeless swell. He forced it down, closing his eyes, reaching for the Force's warmth.

That humming was there again, somewhere in front of him. It sounded almost like a song. Ezra had a sense of familiarity, like he'd heard it once before.

Stiffly, he turned towards it, his numb feet stumbling forward.

For another long stretch he walked blindly, focusing. The cold deepened, and a sudden frigid blast of wind broke his concentration, making him snap his eyes open with a gasp.

He realized he could barely feel his hands.

Ezra vibrated with shivers, his breaths shuddering.

Was this it then? Was this how he died? Freezing alone on an unknown planet because he was too scared to face a few Stormtroopers?

An awful heaviness weighed him down.

Why did I run? he thought, angry at himself. That was about the stupidest thing I could have done.

The wind blasted him again, a solid tendril of cold stabbing straight through him. He wanted to keep going but he was so tired.

I wish... Kanan was here...

His knees were in the snow before he realized it, exhaustion dragging him down.

"Please..." he whispered, calling out weakly to the Force through cold, chapped lips. "Help me..."

He fell forward, collapsing.

The snow was cold on his cheek for only a moment before it seemed to melt away, warmth pooling up around him. The wind died down, or he couldn't hear it anymore. Even the snowflakes falling on his back seemed to disappear for a moment.

This isn't so bad, he thought vaguely.

The warmth rose, enveloping him, echoing inside his head, and he relaxed into it. His breathing steadied and his shivering stopped. He could even feel light pressing against his eyelids.

Wait...

Ezra opened his eyes.

It was quiet. He was laying on a wooden floor, instead of a snow drift. There was a hallway around him, walls painted in neutral colors and bathed in yellow light from a doorway.

Ezra sat up, confused. He looked up and down the hallway. Carefully, he got to his feet.

He still felt numb in his extremities, and his hips and knees still hurt. But the snow-covered field was gone.

Somewhat at a loss, Ezra's hands drifted up to grab his elbows, and he stepped through the open doorway.

The light brightened and he squinted, raising a hand to shield his eyes as they adjusted.

It was a room with pale walls. Mats lined the floor, and wooden weapons hung on racks on the wall. It looked like some kind of... training room?

He stepped further into the room, noticing now a figure off to his left.

It was a woman, dark-haired with golden-brown skin, seated serenely in a meditative position on the floor, her hands folded in her lap. She wore soft brown robes and her eyes were closed, her breathing even, a picture of perfect calm.

Ezra peered at her, feeling an odd tingle in the Force.

She cracked open one eye.

"Are you lost, padawan?" she asked.

Ezra let his arms drop to his sides. "I'm... not sure..." he said, absently. He looked around again. Where was he? "What is this place?" he asked the woman.

Both her eyes were open now, her gaze steady on him, unblinking. "A sanctuary," she answered. She nodded towards a spot next to her. "You may rest here, for a while, if you wish," she offered.

"I..." Almost in a daze, Ezra just shook his head. "Thanks," he said softly.

He walked up next to her. Carefully, he picked a spot on the floor and lowered himself down. His stiff joints creaked, making him grimace slightly before he found a comfortable position.

He shifted, feeling awkward. Glancing at the woman he saw that she'd returned to her meditation. Ezra tried to settle down, curling his legs and turning forward. He leaned into the Force but something was distracting. Some question pulling at his mind. He tried to ignore it, sitting in silence with the woman for a minute.

"You're a long way from home, Ezra Bridger."

Startled, Ezra looked up again.

"You know me?" he said.

She was smiling at him, softly, the warmth of the Force in her eyes. "Of course. My student speaks of you very highly. And constantly, seeking guidance," she added, mirth in her expression. "You are indeed a handful, little one."

Ezra squinted at her. Something in her features tugged at his memory, but he was certain he'd never seen this woman before. He shook his head. "I'm sorry, who are you?" he asked, clueless.

"Ah, forgive me," the woman said. "Let me introduce myself."

She fixed her eyes on him, her smile even and tranquil.

"My name is Depa Billaba."

Chapter Text

Depa... Depa... He knew he'd heard that name before. Depa... oh!

"Master Billaba?" Something clicked inside Ezra's memory. "You're Kanan's master," he said, recognizing her at last, the tension in his shoulders softening. "From before the Purge," he guessed eagerly, lighting up.

A trace of sadness was in her smile now, a weight that hinted at a heavy burden. "I was," she confirmed.

Ezra gave a short nod, and then his brows furrowed.

Depa Billaba had died years ago. Before Ezra was even born. How was she...?

A trace of worry crept through Ezra's heart. He bit his lip a moment.

Hesitantly he asked, "Am... am I dead, then?

A small shake of her head.

"No. Not yet." She looked solemn and grim as she went on. "But you are gravely weak." Her folded hands pressed a little tighter. "You will need to return soon."

Ezra sat and absorbed that, taking another glance around the warmly-lit training room. He unfolded from his lotus position, his legs slowly curling up against his chest, arms wrapping around his knees.

"I'm not... sure I want to," he said quietly.

Depa raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Why is that?" she asked calmly, tone light and unjudgemental.

"Well..." Ezra racked his brain for a moment, trying to decide how to put it. "There's this Dark Side user I met. He's been after me for a while. He took me from my friends and brought me here, wherever here is," he said, eyes darting back towards the doorway. "Going back means I'll have to face him and I'm..."

He trailed off, swallowing thickly.

"...afraid," he finished in a whisper. His fingers tightened on his arms and he squeezed his eyes closed.

A tick of silence passed. Then he felt Depa's hand on his shoulder, soothingly warm.

"It is the trial of all Jedi to overcome fear, young padawan," she told him patiently. "We cannot grow otherwise."

Ezra sighed. "I know. Kanan said the same thing," he muttered.

"He learned well," Depa quipped.

"It's not just Maul," Ezra said, raising his head. A stubborn reluctance pulled at him, straining to hold him back from talking about it, tempting him to bite his lip and just say nothing, force the words back down, but a month or two of practice let him push past that reluctance and say aloud the things he had to. That he needed to.

He took a deep breath.

"Something... something happened to me a few months back and I... I can't get past it," he confessed, his voice hitching on the last syllables. "I think... I'm worried that..." He could feel heat gathering around the edges of his eyes and blinked it away quickly. "...that I'm broken," he went on, his voice dropping almost to a whisper.

Depa's hand squeezed his shoulder comfortingly, reminding him so much of Kanan it made Ezra's heart swell with homesickness.

"You are not broken, Ezra," Depa said, temperately. "Hurting, yes," she acknowledged. "You have suffered greatly, and I will not pretend that your journey back from it will be easy."

It was all the same things he'd been hearing since it had happened. This was a natural reaction to what had happened to him, healing would take time, it wouldn't be overnight. Ezra felt thinly frustrated. He just wanted to be better now.

"And there isn't some magical Force trick that can just... fix me, is there?" he asked, half-rhetorically.

She shook her head.

Ezra uncurled his legs a little. "Yeah," he said, deflating. "I figured."

The warmth of the Force seemed to increase around him, like an incorporeal embrace, and in spite of his disappointment Ezra felt, for a moment, more whole.

"You have already taken many steps forward," Depa said encouragingly. Ezra glanced up to see her patient, gentle eyes on him. "When you are ready for the next," she said. "I will be here."

Her hand dropped off his shoulder.

"Have courage, Ezra," she told him, a sudden trace of urgency in her voice. "Guard your heart against the Dark Side, and trust in the Force."

That seemed an abrupt pivot. Ezra shifted, beginning to turn towards her. "What d'you mea—"

A hand gripped the front of his collar harshly, yanking him up.

Ezra gasped and found himself face-to-face with a seething Maul, the light and Depa and the training room all gone and a cold wind whipping snow into his face.

Maul glared down at him with chilled anger. "Do you wish to die that desperately?" he hissed.

He hauled Ezra up, throwing him unceremoniously over his shoulder.

"Nn... " Ezra protested, but he was too cold and exhausted to put up much of a fight, pushing weakly on Maul's back with his palms before giving up.

He slumped, letting Maul carry him away.

-SWR-

Ezra wasn't sure how long they walked. The night was deep and the snow blinding. The wind cut out suddenly and he blinked up, lifting his head a bit to see cavern walls around them.

Maul slipped him off his shoulder, dumping him ungently on the ground.

Ezra scooted back a bit, hugging himself and shivering.

Maul ignored him, busying himself with constructing a firepit. Silently he went around the cavern, gathering up loose stones, tossing them towards the floor near Ezra's feet. Ezra watched him arrange them in a pile and then pull handfuls of dry tinder from a rucksack the Zabrak slid off his shoulder.

A quick snap-hiss! of a lightsaber ignited the grass and twigs, and before long Maul was feeding fuel into the growing fire, shoving sticks into the growing blaze, the light playing starkly across his red and black face in an eerie fashion.

Neither of them spoke. Ezra's shivering began to subside, and that awful, sludging, guilty feeling returned again, creeping its way through his bowels. A quiet misery settled over him. He'd blown another chance to escape and this time it was entirely his own fault, because he couldn't quit panicking at the sight of a Stormtrooper helmet.

The calm sanctuary where he'd spoken to Depa already seemed lightyears gone.

Ezra stared into the fire, ignoring it when he sensed Maul's eyes on him, watching him. He kept his mental shields up, refusing to meet the man's gaze.

Maul finally broke the awkward silence.

"You should not have tried to run," he said, coldly.

"What choice did I have?" Ezra asked wearily, raising his head with a glare. "I don't want to be here." His legs curled up towards his stomach. "I wanna go home," he said quietly.

"That," Maul seethed, "is no longer an option."

Ezra pressed his mouth together, blinking hard to keep the tickle in his eyes away.

Maul continued, his tone dripping with sarcastic displeasure. "I was willing to be lenient, Ezra. I overlooked your repeated attempts to contact Kanan Jarrus, guided us through an Imperial checkpoint," he listed off, "and this is how you choose to repay me? By running off at the first opportunity?" His eyes narrowed, the hint of a growl in his voice. "You'll be lucky now if I let you leave my sight!"

Ezra listened to the scolding, feeling more and more indignant with every word.

"I had to try, okay?" he snapped. "I already told you, I'm not interested in whatever you're offering this time. And don't think not handing me over to the Empire wins you any points!"

"Would you like to walk back down to the garrison then?" Maul asked dryly. "The one you so foolishly nearly ran straight into the moment you left me?"

The boy's retort died in his throat. A sliver of terror and a desperate plea collided inside him. He wanted to stop the traitorous thoughts cycling through his head—that even if he was trapped with Maul, at least he wasn't with the Empire, at least Maul wasn't the Empire—but they rang through his skull anyway.

Maul regarded him coolly, seeming to guess at his answer. "I suggest you come to terms with this, Ezra," he said bitingly. "For the foreseeable future, you are under my guardianship, which makes you my responsibility. You are not leaving," he emphasized. Something dangerous vibrated in his words and Ezra felt a shiver go up his spine as Maul's glare intensified. "And you are not returning to that Jedi," he growled.

"Why now?" Ezra blurted out, burying his fear beneath a layer of anger. "Why let me go on Dathomir if you were just gonna change your mind, huh? What changed?"

Maul pinned him with a serious look.

"I felt it."

Ezra's heart jolted, and he wasn't sure why.

He swallowed nervously.

"Wha—What do you—"

"On Tatooine." Maul's voice was very even as he spoke. "I was tracking my quarry and I was close, so close, Kenobi was within my reach but..." A hand clawed at his temple, as if Maul was nursing a migraine. "...But something was... distracting..."

Ezra stiffened, tension starting to wind up his body. He almost flinched when Maul looked at him again.

"It was you, Ezra," the man pronounced, eyes hard. "A portion of our bond had failed to sever and I felt it. Your distress, your... pain... raged on my senses. I could no longer focus. You were in agony, I know it. I could—" He twitched, his eyes darting about madly. "—sense it clear as day."

Ezra felt himself beginning to pale.

The Chimaera... he realized. He felt it when I was on the Chimaera...

Something churned in the pit of his stomach. A creepy knowing gleam was in Maul's yellow eyes now as they burned on him, probing.

"You were caught, weren't you?" he guessed. His white teeth flashed as he grinned a bit to himself. "That... explains some things. Your jumpiness, your... sudden dislike of needles..."

The grin vanished.

"What happened?" he demanded, chillingly serious.

Ezra turned his face down, staring at the floor.

"Nothing," he mumbled.

"Do not lie to me!" Maul snapped and this time Ezra did flinch. "Your pain called out to me. It was blaring."

"You're delusional," Ezra muttered. "The heat must've been messing with you."

Maul gave a low growl. "I know what I sensed."

"Yeah?" Ezra challenged, raising his chin stubbornly. "Well, you also said you felt Obi-Wan out there in the desert and—" He waved a hand. "—he's dead, so..."

"He is alive," Maul corrected. "And this is proving to be a very trying distraction from my hunt for him." He sat back, regarding Ezra for a moment. Then, he shook himself, coming out of his private thoughts. "Once we conclude our business here," he decided, "we will return to Tatooine, together, to finish things with him."

Like hell, Ezra thought. The first chance he got, he was making a break for it.

"I told you back on the gauntlet, I'm not helping you with your wild Loth-bat chase," he growled.

"You do not get a say in this!" Maul snapped. "We are going to Tatooine to slay Kenobi."

Ezra's eyes were scalding. "Master Kenobi is dead," he asserted, firmly.

"Kenobi lives," Maul insisted, expression flashing with anger. "And I will have my revenge." His brows unfurrowed, his gaze averting, his voice dropping oddly softer. "But first I... needed to make sure you were safe," he said, almost vulnerably.

Something in Ezra came unhinged.

"Safe?! You think this is safe?!" he yelled, disbelieving and incredulous. He stabbed a hand out towards the cavern walls, gesturing sharply. "I'm prisoner on an ice planet crawling with Imperials, getting kicked around by a deranged Sith Lord, and that's what you consider keeping me safe?!" he gawped.

Maul seemed unaffected by Ezra's outburst. "The Imperial presence here is... unfortunate, but... not surprising," he said, his gaze sliding around past the cavern walls. He fixated on a distant point past Ezra for a few moments, long enough for Ezra to shift away nervously. Absently, Maul continued, "They have already stripped this area. We should be left well alone." He didn't explain what he meant, focusing back on him. "And you're not a prisoner, Ezra. The cave door is right there," he said, nodding towards it. "You can walk through it any time you wish to."

Ezra stared at him, wide-eyed, as he flicked his gaze between Maul and the cavern's opening, trying to discern if this was some kind of trick.

There's no way Maul would just let me...

The realization fell heavily on his shoulders.

"But you'll stop me," he guessed, sinking back into place.

"Of course," Maul said.

Ezra gave a frustrated exhale. "Then I'm not really free to leave, am I?" he said, exasperated.

Maul sat calmly, as if he hadn't just contradicted his own words. "The only one holding you here is you, Ezra. All you have to do is be strong enough to overpower me," he said.

"That's—You—" Ezra sputtered. He knew that was wrong somehow, but he didn't have the words to articulate how it was wrong or why. He just shook his head. "I'm not listening to this," he dismissed, turning away.

Maul's gaze and voice turned hard, ominously grim, pronouncing his words with a severe seriousness. "Your friends cannot protect you, Ezra," he said, tone ice cold like the wind raging outside. "What happened to you is proof enough of that."

"You don't know a thing about that!" Ezra snapped defensively, tightening his arms around himself.

The man scooted forward a bit now, earnestly. "I know you were in pain. I know they hurt you. If you had only come with me on Dathomir," he breathed, "it never would have happened."

Ezra had no response to that, looking down at the floor. Belatedly he wished he hadn't confirmed Maul's suspicions. The firelight playing on the floor filled his vision.

A thousand and one checkpoints and branching scenarios played out in his head. If he had only been able to get over himself long enough to steal a shuttle from the garrison, if he had only moved quicker at the Imperial checkpoint, if he'd just gone with Hera and the rest on Corensia instead of freaking out and staying behind...

Ezra's fists tightened.

...If he hadn't insisted on going on the mission to rescue Kallus...

He was so lost for a moment in his own thoughts that at first he didn't notice the shadowy presence hovering on the fringes of his mind, testing his shields quietly, pushing.

Ezra recoiled mentally and physically, throwing up more protection around his memories, warding the ex-Sith off.

"Don't. Don't you dare," he warned Maul, furiously.

The look Maul gave him made his stomach tighten with fear.

"You can't hide it from me forever," Maul reproved him.

The man's voice held the vaguest promise of a threat—one which Ezra was certain he'd follow through on, eventually. With effort, Ezra unstuck his tongue.

"Stay—stay out of my head," he stammered, willing his voice to stay steady, to not betray him.

Tension seemed to crackle between them for a moment. But as suddenly as it had come, the feeling of the threat vanished and Maul was shrugging his shoulders with a dismissive, "Very well."

Ezra stayed wound tight for a few more seconds before releasing his anxieties. He looked down into the firepit, shivering a bit from the cold and the lingering sense of foreboding.

"You must be hungry," Maul said abruptly. He rummaged around in his rucksack, eventually pulling out a ration bar.

As he unwrapped it Ezra became suddenly aware of the gnawing ache in his stomach. He bit his lip. He knew he hadn't eaten anything since breakfast that morning on the Ghost, before the mission, however long ago that was, but a tingling anxiety squeezed his belly, making it hard to imagine wanting food.

Maul was standing, beginning to come around to Ezra's side, and another stupid, impulsive idea came to him as he studied the firepit.

Maul leaned down, reaching the ration bar out to him.

Ezra moved in a blink, lunging forward, his hand grabbing one of the sticks from the fire and swiping it violently through the coals, flipping sparks and ash and burning bits directly into Maul's face.

He howled in fury, reeling back, dropping the ration bar as his hands covered his eyes. Ezra scrambled to his feet, adrenaline shooting through him as he lurched upright, beginning to run for the door. Where to after that, he wasn't sure, probably try finding the Imperial base again, force himself to move through whatever panic would take hold of him when he saw it.

He didn't make it far. A crushing grip took hold of him, freezing him in place. Ezra strained against the Dark Side hold for a moment before feeling himself yanked back so hard his feet left the ground.

He hit the floor painfully, the wind knocking out of him as his back met the dirt.

His heart sputtered, erratic. His arm was seized roughly and he found himself pulled up, facing Maul as the Zabrak shouted furiously in his face, eyes burning hotter than the lingering sparks.

"Do that again and I'll—!" Maul screeched, drawing his arm back in a fist.

Ezra flung up a hand, squeezing his eyes closed, bracing himself.

The blow he was expecting didn't come.

Ezra peeked up. Maul's expression was still furious, but he was vibrating, wrestling with himself.

After a moment he let his hand drop.

Ezra didn't have time to be relieved. Maul's fingers tightened on his arm, pinching painfully, and he began to speak in a low and threatening growl.

"Let me make the terms of our arrangement clear," he said. "Since you are so desperately convinced you can survive on your own, I will give you the opportunity to prove it." He pointed a stern finger at the boy. "You will be given one chance—one—each day we are here, to earn your freedom. You must best me in a lightsaber duel." Ezra's eyes widened but Maul just continued. "If you prove yourself in combat against me..." He paused significantly. "...then you are free to go. I will not stop you."

The boy's eyes narrowed again. He doubted it would be that simple.

"In the meantime," Maul went on, a severe edge in his voice, "I expect nothing but complete obedience. You will not attempt to escape."

Ezra gave an incredulous huffing snort.

"You will not attack me outside of our sessions," Maul continued, ignoring him. The anger in his eyes intensified. "And you will not try to call out for your former master," he emphasized.

Ezra glared, jutting his chin defiantly. "You can't expect me to agree to any of that," he snarled.

Maul's look was unamused. "You will not attempt to escape or—" he started to repeat.

"Or what?" Ezra interrupted, jerking his arm, trying to yank it from Maul's grip. When he couldn't pull free he just glared up at the man. "There's nothing you can do to me that's worse than what I've already been through," he seethed.

"Oh I very much doubt that," Maul said, giving a dark chuckle. He sneered at Ezra, baring his teeth. "You think you know pain, hmm? You think you know torment?" He gave a hard yank on Ezra's arm, startling him, suddenly growling. "I have felt pain that makes the worst Imperial tortures feel like child's play," he told the boy, almost hissing through his teeth. "Pain that affects not only the body, but the mind, that can hurt your very soul, bruise your spirit, bleed your will." Maul raised his head a bit, an unsettling tone of despair tracing through his words. "And oh, you will wish for death." He shook his head. "More desperately than you've wished for anything in your life. But you will not find it." The burning yellow eyes leveled on him again. "I have felt that pain." He jerked on Ezra's arm one last time, volume increasing. "And I will not hesitate to inflict it on you if you defy me again," he promised.

Ezra just glared up at Maul resentfully, eyes pinched.

Maul released him, stepping back. He tilted his head to indicate the ration bar on the ground.

"Pick that up," he ordered.

He went back to sit on the opposite side of the fire.

Ezra rubbed his upper bicep, already feeling new bruises joining the ones he already had, before reluctantly bending down for the ration bar, sitting down soberly and cradling it in his hands.

The cold of the cavern was a thin presence at his back, the heat from the fire splashing across his face and front. Ezra curled up defensively, squashing the ration bar against his chest, squeezing it.

I don't care what he does to me, he decided. I'm not staying here.

His hunger finally seemed to break past his anxiety, gnarling his stomach with a growl. Ezra wrestled a few more moments, staring at the ration bar, knowing he needed to keep up his energy and strength but stubbornly not wanting to give Maul the satisfaction of compliance. The ache in his stomach grew more insistent though, and Ezra had to give in.

Sullenly, he lowered his head and began to eat.

Chapter Text

"Grand Admiral?"

The steely red eyes did not look up from their work. "What is it, Captain?"

The officer fidgeted, reading the intensity with which the Grand Admiral was concentrating and feeling like an uncomfortable distraction. "I have the reports you requested."

"Leave them on my desk please," he said, nodding towards the corner of the table. "That will be all, Captain," he dismissed.

The officer nodded once, came forward and left the datapad on the indicated corner, then saluted and departed silently.

Thrawn glanced up briefly towards the datapad, reaching over and sliding it towards him. He read the first title and then switched the device off, returning to his current project.

He clicked back to the beginning. His eyes briefly took in the header at the top—Imperial Interrogation Records, Method Subcategory: Brisney-Favvin—before beginning to swipe through the files again, one by one.

Subject: Skorrsis Trall, Trandoshan male, Age 37

Suspected Crime/Reason for Interrogation: Accepting bounty on Imperial officer with intent on carrying out, interrogation conducted to learn identity of contractor.

Summary: Subject endured two sessions under other methods (See report A2778 and report A2779). Officer in charge ordered Brisney-Favvin when said methods did not yield answers.

Cycles endured: 20 cycles at 40mA

Result: Full confession.

Thrawn's brows pinched. It was a weaker example, but it seemed to confirm the method's effectiveness. The interrogators hadn't even had to use the Brisney-Favvin's more classic attributes.

He swiped to the next file.

Subject: Tarran Ignus, Human male, Age 31

Suspected Crime/Reason for Interrogation: Espionage against the Imperial Navy.

Summary: Subject caught attempting to transmit classified data to unauthorized sources. Suspected treason. Brisney-Favvin ordered.

Cycles endured: 43 cycles at 15mA

Result: Subject suffered stress-induced heart attack at cycle 43. Interrogators administered resuscitation. Full confession.

A traditional regimen, against a resistant subject. But something about the number of cycles...

He went on. He skimmed the relevant portions, picking out only the data relevant to his conundrum.

Subject: Rhompha, Rodian male, Age 24

Cycles endured: 57 cycles at 10mA

Result: Full confession.

Thrawn swiped forward again.

Cycles endured: 62 cycles at 30mA

Result: Premature death of subject, unable to resuscitate.

He swiped again.

Cycles endured: 38 cycles at 40mA

Result: Full confession.

His swipes became quicker, sharper. His eyes glared down at the scrolling numbers.

25 cycles... 53 cycles... 65 cycles... 46 cycles... 14 cycles... 79 cycles...

He finally reached the file he'd been looking for.

Subject: Ezra Bridger, Human male, Age 17

Suspected Crime/Reason for Interrogation: Known Rebel insurgent, Brisney-Favvin ordered to extract location of base of operations for Rebel cell Phoenix Squadron.

Summary: Initial questioning conducted personally by fleet admiral in charge. Interrogation conducted same day, under supervision of planetary governor.

Cycles endured: 91 cycles at 30mA

Thrawn frowned down severely at the next sentence.

Result: Inconclusive.

He'd known what the file said, of course. But he could not manage to wrap his head around the words no matter how many times he saw them.

He read on.

Result: Inconclusive. Subject lost consciousness between cycles, attempts to revive unsuccessful. Admiral in charge paused interrogation, to be resumed after one rotation. Subject was retrieved by Rebel insurgents before interrogation could conclude.

Thrawn's fingers curled tightly on his desk. Reading the text again... irritated him. In a way that was both uncomfortable and concerning.

"You seem distracted lately," Pryce had commented to him, just that morning.

"I am attempting to resolve an anomaly," he merely replied.

Agitatedly, he swiped back through the earlier files. It refused to make sense. Bridger had endured an unprecedented number of cycles, at a higher-than-normal voltage considering his size, weight, and species. Others of his build had frequently died on the table. Adults heavier and stronger than him had invariably given up around fifty to sixty cycles, when the method introduced its late-stage allergen and incision-based tortures. To have resisted past that...

Thrawn scrolled through the files over and over, comparing numbers and data.

He had chosen the Brisney-Favvin for its record of quick results. It was the most logical decision, given that the Rebels were soon to be quickly to the rescue. An hour, maybe an hour and a half, that was all he needed to break Bridger and get the boy to tell him the location of the Rebel base before they arrived to save him. The ideal scenario was for the rescuers to be captured themselves, before they were able to free him, to then go swiftly to the Rebel base and finish it off, but in the event that they escaped with the boy, he had planned to be right on their heels, raining down destruction from above.

Two hours in and with time running out before the rescue party—inevitably—arrived and Bridger's stubbornness had forced him to readjust his plans, order a tracking device to be surgically implanted inside the boy. Even then, the Rebels somehow discovered it early. It hadn't been enough to keep him from gleaning the location of the base, but Thrawn still found it... extraordinarily bothersome. Like a itch he couldn't scratch.

Thrawn swiped through the files yet again, his eyes straining from overwork.

The effectiveness of the Brisney-Favvin is without doubt, he mused. Every other subject had either perished from the strain or broken.

He stopped on Bridger's file again, eyes burning down at the Results: Inconclusive line with intense power, teeth clenching in his jaw.

So why didn't you?

-SWR-

Anxiety kept him from sleeping for a long time—the unfamiliar place, the knowledge that Imperials were crawling around somewhere outside, his current captivity, the nervous waiting to enact his next escape attempt, they all collided and crashed around inside him, buzzing through his head. Eventually though, whether from exhaustion or the lingering trace of sedatives in his system, Ezra must have dozed off, for when his eyes next startled open the fire was out and the night was deep.

Ezra tensed where he lay, every sense going on high alert. Slowly, heart thumping, he raised his head.

All was quiet. Maul was asleep, sprawled out on his back across the narrow cavern entrance.

Ezra took a careful inhale and then began to move.

His legs and arms shifted underneath him and he slowly pushed up to his feet, hyper-conscious of every tiny sound and shuffle he made. When he was standing, he took a slow look around, pivoting to peer into the corners of the room.

His eyes slowly adjusted to the dark.

The cavern wasn't very large—maybe fifteen feet in diameter all told. Ice crusted down the walls, plastered the ceiling in a smooth layer. Aside from the entrance they'd come through, there were two other tunnels branching off the back, one sloping down slightly, tucked in the far right corner, and one a little off to the left side, going up. Ezra looked first towards the opening to the outside.

He bit his lip. The doorway was narrow and Maul was splayed in a way that would make stepping over him very difficult. Ezra had serious doubts that he could do it without waking him.

He weighed the risk a moment or two before glancing back towards the other tunnels. The one on the left seemed promising...

He started to step towards it but abruptly stopped with a panicked thought.

Wait! Where's my...?

His lightsaber. He didn't know what Maul had done with it, but he had to try and find it. He'd feel so much better sneaking down to the Imperial garrison with its familiar weight in his hands.

Ezra strained his eyes around the cavern floor, somewhat irrationally hoping to find it just lying out. He didn't see it of course, and the panic in his head rattled a fraction louder before he stopped himself, taking a slow inhale and releasing his fear.

Focus.

He calmed himself, letting his mind empty. Remembering back to an open grassy Lothal field under the sunset, Ahsoka prodding him with coy words to prompt his thinking. How when he stilled his senses and tuned in, the song of his kyber crystal became clear as a bell.

The cave faded out and Ezra sighed with relief and a smile when the humming of his lightsaber crystal filled his head. There seemed to be more vibrations somewhere further in, but they were vague and unfamiliar, and his mind skipped over them as he concentrated, trying to pinpoint his lightsaber's position.

It felt like it was right behind...

Ezra felt his stomach sink.

Aw, c'mon... he thought, stifling a groan and slowly turning around. Please no.

He opened his eyes and with no small amount of chagrin spotted his lightsaber hooked to Maul's belt, right next to the Zabrak's own.

He stared miserably at it.

That would be just my luck, he thought.

Ezra wrestled with himself a moment or two before deciding to forge ahead. He had to have a weapon.

He racked his brain for ideas. He raised his hand, then drew it back. Maul would definitely feel that.

Gulping nervously, Ezra lowered himself to the floor, beginning to crawl forward slowly. He carefully picked his way towards Maul, hardly daring to breathe.

Dread and fear built in him. Anxiety trickled through his veins, growing louder the closer he got. He set the Jedi code on repeat in his head, trying to drown out the rising static.

No death, there is only the Force... There is no emotion, there is peace...

Maul's soft breathing sounded like the threatening slumber of a predator in its den, ready to wake at the slightest intrusion. Ezra's movements slowed to almost nothing as he willed his hand not to shake. There was no sign Maul was stirring yet, so Ezra pressed his luck.

His throat tightened and he held his breath as he reached for the hilt.

His hand closed around it.

Ezra's face screwed up in stressed wrinkles as he moved to unhook it.

It came free.

Maul stayed asleep.

Ezra gave a tiny exhale, relief tingling around his head. He started to draw his arm back—

Maul's eyes snapped open, the soft breaths cutting out sharply in favor of a pointed growl and a hand whipping across his body to seize Ezra's wrist in iron-tight fingers.

Ezra gasped, terror overtaking him.

The fury in Maul's eyes was a scorching wildfire. He moved, lunging upright and Ezra couldn't even see what happened, only finding himself hurtling into the back wall, his head striking the rock.

Pain rang through him. He dropped to his hands and knees, frantically trying to shake off the blow.

Footsteps sounded close by and Ezra's head flashed up, pinned in place by fear and panic, his wide-eyes looking up at Maul.

The man stood calmly in place, the Dark Side coiled around him like a threatening serpent as he regarded Ezra with contempt and disdain.

"I warned you," he said simply.

Ezra gulped again as Maul raised a hand.

Chapter Text

Maul was right. This was so much worse than his torture at the hands of the Imperials.

His whole being was screaming in pain. It was everything he could experience, everything he was. It felt like he was dying. No, like he was already dead and was trapped in an endless dark, cold, burning hell.

The darkness suffocated him. It was a physical thing, coiling around him, tightening around his throat, his lungs, his mind, his very core. The light inside him screeched against its touch. He scratched at his neck, but he couldn't pull the invisible tendrils away.

He couldn't see. He knew he must've been screaming—he could feel the air moving through his throat—but he couldn't hear. All was a void. An abyss of black, and silence, and agony.

The cold like knives stabbing into his flesh, slicing him up into sharp little pieces. The darkness pressing in, crushing him. An oppressive burning squeezing his body. The raw, biting power of the Dark Side gnawed him inside and out, tearing into him, invading his every crack and crevice, rending him apart.

It was so hard... to breathe...

Maul stopped. Ezra didn't know how or when, just that he was suddenly released from its grip, and came to on the icy cavern floor, prone on his side, his nerves still vibrating from aftershock.

Maul moved as if to go again.

"Stop, stop!" Ezra gasped, holding up a hand weakly.

Maul waited for him to speak, yellow eyes glaring down at him.

Ezra's breath heaved. He could feel his body trembling.

"I get it, okay?" he said, voice shaking. The back of his throat was dry, bile tickling at the base. He choked down on the sensation. He couldn't throw up now.

He inhaled slowly.

"I won't do it again," he promised.

"You won't do what again?" Maul demanded.

Heat stung at Ezra's eyes and he blinked it back furiously. His hands shook underneath him, but he raised his head in resignation.

"I won't..." His throat tightened, choking his words a moment. "...try to escape," he finished.

His spirits sank as he said it. He couldn't shake the instinct that told him he had to just get away but he didn't dare move.

He wouldn't risk that void again.

"I'll hold you to that," Maul said, moving to grab his arm and haul him up.

Ezra wobbled slightly as he was set on his feet. Fingers of Dark Side energy still felt like they were lingering on his skin and he suppressed the urge to shiver. His arms crossed, fingers curling into the fabric of his sleeves.

Maul stamped out the firepit, gathering up their meager supplies, shoving them in his rucksack and swinging it over his shoulder.

"This way," he instructed. "Follow me."

He started to head down the right-side tunnel and for a few steps Ezra did what he was told, but then he hesitated, glancing back over his shoulder towards the cavern entrance.

Pale light was spilling from the doorway, light fluffy flakes of snow drifting in from outside. Anxiety beat in his heart and his flight instinct was battling against his control, urging him to bolt through.

"Ezra..." Maul growled in warning.

Ezra flinched and face forward again quickly. "'m coming," he promised, mumbling the words. "I'm coming." He trotted to catch up and cleared his throat. "What time is it?" he asked, to distract from the fact that he had been considering escape again.

"Early morning," Maul replied, leading the way down the tunnel.

Ezra frowned. That mean's it's been... two? he guessed, days since we left Yavin. Or had there been another day in-between?

His stomach became acutely aware of how little he'd eaten. A gnawing hunger clawed at him. His face pinched. It had been... a while since he could remember his stomach being this empty. Ezra opened his mouth, then hesitated, closing it, finally deciding to speak up.

"Um..." he called, not looking up as he followed in Maul's footsteps. "Do... do we get breakfast?"

Maul didn't speak, but a withering annoyance made itself known through Ezra's senses.

"It's just—" Ezra continued, beginning to babble nervously, filling the awkward silence with his words. "—aside from the ration bar last night I—I haven't—haven't really eaten anything and—"

"We will rest when we are further within the caverns," Maul interrupted, stopping his nervous rambles.

Ezra refrained from further questions, following behind him silently.

The tunnel wound this way and that, branching off into different directions. Maul took several turns and Ezra tried to keep up with them, but soon lost track. The air in the cavern was still and chilly, but not unpleasantly so.

After a while the tunnel widened out into a large chamber. Huge icicles hung from a high ceiling, draped over a wide, flat, glasslike surface that stretched to the far wall—an underground frozen lake. A shelf of dirt and rock curled around the bank of the lake straight ahead and to their left, opening to more tunnels beyond. Pale sunlight washed in from a high opening in a far corner. It made the ice glow a pretty bluish color that reminded Ezra of a spring sky on Lothal.

As they walked along the bank, circling around the lake, Ezra's Force senses tingled. His ears seemed to hear that humming again, louder than ever. It was an almost audible ring, clear and light, a steady musical vibration.

"What's that sound?" he wondered aloud, looking around the chamber.

He wasn't expecting Maul to answer, but the man did.

"This place..." he said, glancing towards the high ceiling. "...was once sacred to the Jedi. Initiates would come here to be tested, tried by the Force and... rewarded for their faith," he explained.

"Like the Jedi temple on Lothal..." Ezra mused to himself. Something clicked in his head. "Wait are those...?" His eyes widened slightly, and he darted a look at the glimmering ice, seeing bright gleams in a few surfaces that did not appear to be natural. "Are those kyber crystals?" he asked, incredulous.

Maul nodded briefly. "Indeed."

The familiarity of the song they made in the Force made more sense now. In spite of everything, Ezra felt a slight thrill, to be standing here where Jedi of old earned their lightsaber crystals.

His enthusiasm dimmed suddenly.

"Why is the Empire here?" he asked, already dreading the answer.

"Likely mining for crystals," Maul confirmed. "They won't bother with these ones," he said, waving a hand vaguely at a couple of embedded crystals in a nearby stalagmite. "They're too small." He flashed an unsettling grin back at Ezra. "As I said, we should be left well alone up here."

Ezra shuddered uncomfortably. The beautiful cavern seemed all of a sudden suffocating and claustrophobic. Ezra had to remind himself that no matter how amazing this place seemed, it was still his prison. At least until he won his escape.

Or escaped on his ow—No, he thought, stopping that line of thought quickly, a shiver of anxiety piercing his heard.

Nervous tingles darted across his back, as he walked behind the Zabrak, watching the back of his horns, and there was an irrational fear bouncing around his head; that next time he was put through that void he wouldn't come back. That Maul wouldn't let him come back. That Maul would just keep him there, in torment, unendingly. He knew logically that would be counter-productive to the man's own stated goal but... when he thought back to the terrifying fury on Maul's face when his hand had closed around Ezra's wrist... it didn't seem all that crazy.

Maybe that was why he couldn't bring himself to turn around, or flee down one of the other tunnels, despite the shrill voice inside him begging him to.

Maul led him down another tunnel on the far side of the chamber. This one did not zig-zag as much as the others and soon opened into another cave, much smaller than the vast cavern with the frozen lake, maybe a little bigger than the one by the cave opening.

The man stopped, surveying the room, studying it for several long moments.

"This will do," he decided, sliding the rucksack off his shoulder.

Ezra stumbled gratefully to a halt. His hips and thighs still ached from yesterday, he realized, and he took a moment to massage his joints, working the stiffness and soreness out of them.

"Here," Maul said, tossing him another ration bar.

Ezra caught it and sat down, tearing open a corner of the wrapper with his teeth. He finished it all too quickly, devouring it within only a couple minutes. He stared longingly at the wrapper, darting quick glances at Maul. It didn't seem like he was paying Ezra any attention though, and Ezra reluctantly concluded that he wouldn't be getting any more food. He pushed his thoughts past the ache in his stomach, watching Maul idly.

The man rummaged through the bottom of his bag, at length pulling out a small lantern. He switched it on, adding its soft yellow glow to the pale blue sunlight filtering in through the ice.

Ezra watched him quietly as he took things out, setting up another firepit and the beginnings of a campsite.

He couldn't figure Maul out. Nothing the man said made sense to him. His motivation for taking Ezra seemed to shift all the time. First it had been to recruit him to hunt down Master Kenobi, then it had been to keep him safe—'protect him', Maul had said, which was absurdly ridiculous—from both the hands of the Empire and the 'failings' of his friends. Then he'd decided they were going after Kenobi after all, after they'd finished...

Finished what? he wondered in frustration.

Glancing at the kyber crystals glimmering in the walls, Ezra slumped, slouching down.

Testing him, he guessed. Making him prove to Maul he was strong enough. Maul had issued him a challenge—fight him, overcome him, and he'd win his freedom—and it sounded fair but...

Ezra wasn't sure if he could trust Maul to keep his promise. Not anymore.

There was something... off... about him. Something unpredictable. Unhinged. He'd noticed it in bits and pieces on Dathomir when Maul had swung moods from spittingly furious to plaintively earnest to darkly collected and back again, several times in the space of a few minutes.

Whispered words from an echoing powerful voice seemed to resonate inside his head. Once a secret is known, the Bendu had said, it cannot be unknown. When he and Maul had joined the holocrons, Kanan had told him to look away, so that the knowledge he was trying to uncover wouldn't scar his mind.

Ezra curled up a little tighter, watching Maul with fixed eyes.

Had merely knowing Obi-Wan was alive driven the man insane?

He tucked his chin on his arms, looking off vacantly.

Before... he had always been confident that Maul wouldn't actually hurt him. Hurt his friends, yes. Kill anyone who was in his way, blackmail and threaten Ezra to make him comply, sure. But never actually hurt him.

Ezra shuddered, trying not to think about the Dark Side crawling all over him inside the void.

That certainty was severely in question now. He was in unfamiliar territory, and not sure what the new rules were. The anxiety of it all beat just beneath the surface of his skin. The urge to run, to ignore everything Maul had said and just run, still jostled against his terrified aversion to being put through... whatever it was that Maul had done to him.

He didn't even want to think about it. It had been so awful. Endless dark and cold and silence and pain. He didn't even know how long he'd been under, just that he still felt chilled and uneasy inside.

His skin pricked. The man would be hyper-vigilant now. Another opportunity to escape wouldn't come for some time.

So maybe... maybe it was best if—for now—he played by Maul's terms.

It shouldn't be that hard. All I have to do is win a lightsaber fight, Ezra reasoned. His lips pursed. Well, that and try not to piss him off.

Sudden movement from Maul towards him had Ezra's head jerking up. Maul stalked over and for a frantic few seconds Ezra's mind flashed with the thought that he didn't know what he'd done wrong, what had he done wrong?!, but Maul only silently gripped his elbow and tugged him to his feet.

Maul pulled him towards one side of the room, not harshly, but not gently either, and Ezra stumbled a little along the way. The boy caught a glimpse of an odd flat metal circular device on the ground near their new firepit but had no time to wonder about it.

He was led to a narrow opening in the ice and rock. There was a small antechamber just past it—an alcove really—budding off the main room.

A cell, Ezra realized in the split second before he was pushed through.

His head whipped over his shoulder in time to catch Maul pressing a button on a metal wristband Ezra noticed he now wore and then a yellow-orange barrier snapped into existence between them.

"Hey!" Ezra cried indignantly, twisting around and lunging for the blocked opening.

His fingers tingled sharply when they came in contact with the barrier and he jerked his hand back with a hiss.

The dark silhouette outside turned around and wandered out of view.

Cautiously, Ezra reached out his hand, pressing his palm against the surface.

There was a buzzing vibration that carried up his arm. Pinpricky, like the feeling of waking up a limb that had fallen asleep, or like a static charge. Almost electrica—

The tickling sensation seemed to sting through his muscles suddenly, flashing his mind back to the uncomfortable feeling of electric jolts, and Ezra yanked his hand off, his hand grasping his wrist tightly.

It's okay! his mind immediately rushed to reassure him. It's okay it's okay it's okay it's okay repeated in his head as he squeezed his eyes shut, his face screwing, willing the sensation to fade and the pressure pounding at the back of his head to go away.

"It's okay, I'm okay..." he whispered. "I'm okay, I'm okay, I'm okay..."

The pressure lessened.

He inhaled deeply, then let out a long breath, coming back to normal. Opening his eyes, he examined the barrier.

It was some kind of energy projection, obviously, but solid enough that he couldn't pass through. Maul's form was a vague dark blur moving around outside.

Ezra frowned, remembering the odd device on the floor. That must have been what was projecting it, and the wristband Maul wore controlled it. Okay. That was going to make things more complicated.

Could he turn it off remotely?

Ezra stepped back and raised a hand, reaching out with the Force.

His concentrated thought scattered across the surface. Ezra pushed harder, concentrating again.

He couldn't sense anything past the barrier. The Force let him feel the size and shape of the alcove, the solid rock and ice surrounding him, but when he tried to feel past the barrier it was like coming up against another wall.

He dropped his hand and opened his eyes with a huff of frustration.

And it has a dampening effect on the Force. Great, he grumbled, finishing his assessment.

So he was stuck.

Ezra softly rubbed his hand again, still feeling twitchy in his fingers. The muscles of his right arm felt faintly sore.

He sighed, stepping back again and dropping to his haunches.

He should get some rest—actual rest this time—meditate and recover his strength. He'd need it for whenever Maul saw fit to let him out, let him have his chance at dueling him.

I still don't like it, he thought, glancing up at the shadow moving across the barrier. But I don't have a choice now.

He rearranged himself into a comfortable position, shaking out his arm.

And he should do his focusing exercises. With everything that had happened to him the past few days, he thought grimly, he would definitely be getting nightmares if he didn't.

Ezra let his eyes slip closed as he exhaled softly.

He drifted into the Force, settling in for a long, long wait.

-SWR-

Kanan glanced up at the sound of footsteps in the doorway. He was leaned on his elbows over the dejarik table, a nursed cup dangling in his fingers that he took slow, morose sips out of.

The light-booted steps crossed over to the booth, and the seat dipped as a body sat down heavily.

"See you had the same idea I did," Rex's voice commented.

There was a scrape of a bottle against the table and then the sound of liquid pouring into another cup, the faint scent of alcohol rising up from it.

Kanan raised his head, tired eyes blinking wearily at the old clone trooper. "Don't tell Hera," he begged.

"My lips are sealed," Rex assured him, taking a long sip from his cup.

The two men sat quietly for a moment, just sitting and drinking. Neither of them had to confirm the bad news—that the sentries had brought back nothing from Malachor or the Death Watch station, which meant their leads had dried up and there was nothing they could do now but wait and hope for new ones to come through their network.

Rex polished off his cup with a soft exhale, setting it back down on the table with a clink!

"Sleep much?" he asked.

"No," Kanan replied, shaking his head. The loose strands of hair escaping his ponytail tickled on his neck.

Rex sighed. "Yeah... me neither."

Kanan smeared a hand over his face, feeling the the dull warmth of the brandy flush under his skin. He sighed.

"He told me he'd been seeing Maul in his nightmares—more than usual—before we left," he said. His nails dug against his temple. "That should have been my first warning."

"That kind of talk isn't going to help him now," Rex scolded gently.

"I know," Kanan sighed again, hanging his head.

"And it isn't going to make you feel any better."

"I know, Rex," Kanan growled. His fingers tightened around his glass. "But it's all I can think about."

A tired exhale from the man. "Well... I can't say I blame you." The bottle lifted again, clacking against the rim of the cup as Rex poured himself another drink. "I met him once, you know. Ahsoka fought him at the Siege of Mandalore."

Kanan drew his hand away from his face, fumbling around on the table for his mask. His hand gripped the edge, but he didn't put it on, didn't even lift it yet, just holding on tightly to it like it was an anchor point.

"I wish she was here," he mumbled.

There was a sad sigh from Rex, and a sorrowful swell rose in the Force.

"Me too."

Chapter Text

It was morning again—at least Ezra thought so—when he woke up from a tepid sleep, his body stiff from laying on the rocky floor.

Ezra groaned softly as he stretched himself out, feeling his joints pop and strain, his shoulder in particular aching faintly.

He stood up, pacing the small alcove to stretch his legs for a few minutes, walking back and forth before he knelt back down to meditate again. The Force filled the cell, warming all around him, a steady calm presence.

He still couldn't sense anything outside, not even the resonance of the kyber crystals. He tried not to let that frustrate him as he breathed slowly, releasing his anxieties and tension into the Force.

After about twenty minutes, the dampening barrier buzzed and shut off.

Ezra opened his eyes with a calm, cold glare.

Maul stood impassively, hands clasped behind him, hood down. His mouth curled with a faint smirk.

"Sleep well?" he asked.

Ezra brows narrowed further. "As well as can be expected," he bit back. "Given that I'm still stuck here with you."

"Would you prefer the company of the Stormtroopers?" Maul asked witheringly, which made Ezra give a small flinch. Maul motioned over his shoulder with his head. "Come."

Ezra got to his feet. He walked out through the opening and then blinked, startled, at the messy setup of crates and storage cans and a bedroll that now sat arranged around the crackling firepit. Ezra remembered Maul coming and going several times over the course of the previous day—apparently he'd been busy hauling things over from the gauntlet.

He eyed the circular generator on the floor with suspicion. He didn't recognize the design, or the technology. It looked expensive. How had Maul gotten hold of it?

The creeping realization crept over him, uncomfortable on his skin.

How long exactly had he been planning for Ezra's abduction?

Ezra looked away from the device, pushing the unsettling thoughts aside. Maul had already sat himself down on the other side of the fire, pulling a skewer out of the coals.

There was a hunk of roasting meat stabbed on it and when the smell hit him Ezra almost tilted dizzily, mouth watering, stomach clawing his insides for attention.

Maul bit into a chunk, sharp teeth slicing through, juices dribbling down his chin, and Ezra gnawed his tongue harshly. He shook himself, pushing his hunger back to a corner of his mind. Focus. Focus on getting out of here first, he told himself. Then we can worry about food.

He crossed his arms stubbornly. "Hey. Let's go already."

Maul paid him a brief, cursory glance. "Eat first," he said. "Then we will duel."

"I'm not hungry," Ezra insisted.

The stare Maul sent him was flat and skeptical.

Ezra could already feel his determined expression faltering. He dropped his hands with a desperate huff. "Look, I don't want to spend another second here. So let's just get it overwith, all right?" he begged. He tried to square his shoulders, curling his hands into firm fists at his side. "I'm ready."

Maul said nothing for a moment, then broke off a large piece from the hunk on the skewer, holding it out towards him.

"Are you sure?" he asked calmly, a smug, taunting undertone in his voice.

Ezra's face pinched as the smell hit him again, warm and enticing.

He struggled not to let his weakening resolve show for several moments, stubbornly fighting against the insistent urge in his stomach. His body shook from conflicted instincts. It felt like claws raking across his mind. He hated the idea that Maul could control him so easily with something as simple as food.

Ezra gave a frustrated breath and gave in, stepping forward and grabbing the offered piece. He plopped heavily onto his haunches, already biting in, the gnawing in his belly already calming in relief.

He ate messily, the piece disappearing almost as quickly as the ration bar from last morning had. When he glanced up Maul had, mercifully, moved the skewer so that it sat between them, sparing Ezra the further humiliation of having to beg the man for more. Ezra just reached for another piece without comment, ignoring the yellow eyes on him.

"You are far too stubborn, apprentice," Maul observed.

Ezra pointedly bit into his piece and did not make eye contact or even glance up.

"We will have to work on that," he heard Maul mutter in aside.

He swallowed quickly. "We won't," he immediately countered. "Because I'm not staying here."

The look Maul leveled on him was chilling. Ezra's chewing slowed nervously, unable to gauge the man's mood—Amused? Irritated? Angry? There was a faint sneer on the man's lips as he asked, "You think you can best me so easily?"

Ezra curled a fraction tighter self-protectively, feeling vaguely like he'd been threatened. There was a confidence in Maul's voice that he didn't like, a self-assurance that promised the fight ahead would be... intimidating.

All the more reason to keep up his strength, then, his brain justified, fingers curling around his piece.

"I have to try," he said quietly.

Maul just chuckled in response.

Ezra shot him a glare but said nothing, taking another bite.

-SWR-

The meal passed quietly from that point, the air between the two filled only with the sound of chewing. Ezra ate until he couldn't anymore, until the rich meat started to make him just a bit sick, and then wiped his mouth on his sleeve and draped his arms over his knees, waiting for Maul to finish.

When the Zabrak stood, Ezra tramped down on a sudden swell of anxiety as he quickly scrambled to his feet. Maul tossed the skewer next to the firepit, stamping the flames down until they were only hot coals.

Ezra shifted his balance, trying to quell the urgency rising in him, physically and mentally trying to psyche himself up. He stiffened as Maul turned away and began walking towards the far tunnel.

"This way," Maul called back to him. "Let us find a suitable field of battle."

Ezra swallowed down his nervousness and followed after him.

Maul led him back up into the chamber with the frozen lake. The sunlight streamed in from the corner, throwing blue streaks through the air. The kyber crystals hummed softly. Ezra's boots crunched on the gravelly bank.

He stopped when Maul stopped, straightening as the man turned around. Maul clasped his hands behind his back casually.

"Before we begin..." he said, "...let me lay down the victory conditions."

Ezra smothered the urge to groan before it could escape him, choosing instead simply to nod.

Maul spoke very calmly, tone level. "The duel may range all throughout the tunnels," he said, gesturing around them. "Except," he emphasized, a sudden harsh note in his voice, "for the one that leads to the entrance." He pointed to it, a burning behind his eyes. "You are not to approach that opening under any circumstance, or it will be considered an attempt to escape. You will be punished for it."

Ezra's body tightened up with a shiver and a gulp, recalling utter blackness and ice cold fingers scratching through him.

He nodded again.

Satisfied, Maul resumed his casual posture. "The duel will conclude in victory for you only after I am either incapacitated... or killed," he added, an eerie gleam in his eye.

Something in Ezra's stomach turned at that. Distant memories of the Seventh Sister's body falling, of Maul snarling in his ear about Ezra's hesitation costing him next time, played briefly in his head. Ezra had learned that lesson well. Would he be able to turn it on the one who'd taught him?

Could he?

Yes.

If that's what this comes down to, he decided, I won't hesitate. I have to stop him. Keep him from coming back after us. After me.

"If you are unable to achieve either condition," Maul said, and Ezra pulled himself to attention again, "it will be at my discretion when the battle ends."

Ezra's mouth twisted. He wasn't sure he liked that.

"All that aside," Maul finished up, smirking a bit, "you are free to use any and all combat and Force techniques within your power." The eerie gleam was back. "Including those forbidden by your former master."

He felt a nervous prick at that, and pushed it down before shaking his head.

"I won't need it," he said firmly.

Maul gave a shrug of his head. "We shall see." He reached down towards his belt and unhooked Ezra's lightsaber, then tossed it across the distance between them.

Ezra caught it. It was in his hands only for one quick wonderful moment—its weight familiar, its hilt warm in his palm, its kyber crystal singing to him like it was an old friend coming home—before a snapping ignition sounded and Ezra frantically flashed his blade up to block Maul's flurry of heavy strikes.

His feet danced back as he gave ground, pressed by the weight of the blows. Maul's blade pushed against his firmly and Ezra stumbled back, getting some breathing room, only now realizing his heart had spiked into his throat and adrenaline was surging through his veins, igniting familiar panic patterns inside him.

He inhaled shakily and composed himself, bringing his lightsaber up to ready position and watching Maul closely for movement.

He had a split-second's warning before Maul lunged again. Ezra struggled to keep the burning red blade from nicking his face, feeling its heat flash on his skin. He spent the next few moments frantically defending from powerful lightsaber strokes and it became apparent very quickly that Maul was a much better duelist than him.

Ezra dodged away from an overhead sweep. He came around, sweeping his blade for a horizontal slash, which Maul deflected and sent to the right. Ezra backed up and held his lightsaber level, moving to block when Maul came at him from overhead.

He wasn't even using the second blade.

Ezra swung harder, some of his frustration bleeding through his movement. Maul blocked handily. His expression hadn't changed since they'd started—calm and focused, barely a grunt of effort escaping him.

The Force sent him a tingling warning and Ezra yanked his head back as Maul's lightsaber made a stab for his face. Aware of the wall closing in behind him, Ezra pushed off from it with his foot, twisting around and leaping up, using the corner and the Force to bounce off and maneuver behind Maul.

The man just turned quickly around and blocked the strike that had been aimed for his back.

Ezra didn't dare turn to even look at the tunnel that led to the surface, concentrating, trying to focus. He and Maul circled around as they tested blades, Ezra's arms straining under the weight and power that went into every one of his opponent's strikes.

Things came to an abrupt end when Maul—taking advantage of a gap in Ezra's defense—flashed up a hand, palm out, fingers splayed.

The Force Push shoved him back and, unbalanced, Ezra couldn't recover, stumbling, tripping, falling over his legs onto the floor. His blade came up clumsily before being smacked to the side by Maul's, a metal foot kicked his chest and knocked him down and suddenly it was all over—he was flat on his back, left wrist holding his lightsaber under one of Maul's heels, and a red blade hovering dangerously above his collar.

Ezra froze in place, panting slowly, fear pinning him down and pinging sharply through his body.

Maul stood above him, smirking.

After several long, anxious seconds, he stirred.

"I believe that is enough for today," he said.

Ezra wilted. The fight hadn't even lasted five minutes.

Maul lifted his foot off Ezra's wrist, deactivating his saber. Ezra shuddered, exhaling shakily, curling his torso upright. He glanced past Maul's legs towards the exit tunnel, eyes lingering a moment before he forced himself to look away, keenly aware of Maul standing between it and him.

Maul reached down, grabbing Ezra's right wrist and helping him up. Ezra felt his insides sinking, felt a heaviness weighing down his spirit, as he reluctantly stood up.

A palm was jabbed out expectantly.

"Lightsaber," Maul demanded.

Ezra's hand stayed at his side, fingers clutching his beloved saber just a fraction tighter, hesitating.

Maul's eyes darkened. His grip tightened around Ezra's right wrist and twisted, beginning to bend his arm back.

Ezra gasped at the sudden tension and pain, stumbling forward and quickly lifting his saber hilt, struggling to pass it into the man's hand. Maul's fingers closed around it, snatching it from him with a sense of grim finality, and he stopped twisting, though he kept a crushing vice on Ezra's wrist.

He pulled Ezra closer, lifting his arm up, the boy's eyes widening as he was brought uncomfortably face to face.

"Do not mistake my generosity for indulgence, Ezra," Maul told him, expression burning with carefully contained anger. "I have been far too lenient with your constant disobedience and your stubborn, pitiful little attempts at defiance." He regarded Ezra with cool disdain. "I recommend not pushing me past the end of my patience," he warned.

Ezra carefully unstuck his tongue. "Un—Understood," he stammered.

Maul let go.

Ezra retreated back a couple steps, holding his right wrist gingerly, his arms tucking close to his chest. He felt... numb.

He looked down and realized he was trembling slightly. He forced himself to still. He couldn't let Maul see his fear.

A quiet dread entered his heart anyway as Maul's hand landed on his shoulder, turning him around and gently pushing him back down the tunnels. He resisted the flight urge to run.

Don't even think about it, he told himself. He's already angry enough.

He let himself be guided back to their campsite. Dryness was itching at the back of his throat, a burning question buzzing his mind, as the tunnels passed them.

He glanced back timidly at Maul, swallowing hard and deciding to push for it.

"What..." he began, his voice tighter than he wanted it to be. "...what happens after... after I lose? I mean—" He looked around the room as they emerged onto their campsite "—what do we do all day when we're not—"

"That," Maul interrupted, the hand on his shoulder pinching a fraction tighter, "will depend entirely on how you behave."

Ezra's shoulders slumped. Right. Of course.

So today he was probably just going straight back into his cell.

His sobering theory was confirmed as Maul's hand slipped off his shoulder and down his arm, gripping tightly, leading him back to the narrow opening in the rock.

"I will let you out when it is time to eat," Maul said, before giving a hard shove to his back.

Ezra stumbled a bit, hearing the dampening barrier buzz back to life behind him, flinching as though it was a steel door slamming shut.

Gritting his teeth he whirled around and punched the tingling surface. Flickers danced through his fist, ripples appearing briefly on the barrier.

Stepping back, he exhaled in frustration. The walls seemed uncomfortably close, the cell too small and narrow.

He felt, for the first time, truly trapped.

Biting down the hopelessness that threatened to rise in him, Ezra took deep breaths and leaned into the Force.

He might not have his lightsaber, but he could still at least practice. He couldn't just sit still and give up.

He closed his eyes, imagining the feel of his lightsaber's hilt, and methodically began to go through his katas.

Next time, he thought. Next time I'll beat him.

He held onto that notion as the day slowly crawled on.

-SWR-

"I see. Well, if you see or hear anything, let me know."

"I will. Sorry Sabine," Ketsu said.

Kallus stirred from his concentration on the stream of Imperial chatter, some instinct making him glance up at Sabine.

She shut off the comm tersely, hands tight. Posture rigid.

A moment later she screamed and hurled the earpiece at the nearest wall, shattering it.

Kallus flinched, concern growing in him. "Are you all right?" he asked.

She slumped forward in her chair, elbows on the panel, hands wringing in her bangs, "No," she croaked. Her eyes burned, heat welling up behind them.

The ex-ISB agent sprang up and crossed over to her at once, placed gentle hands on her shoulders.

"Why don't you take a break, Sabine?" he offered. "I can cover things here for a bit. Don't worry, nothing will slip past me," he promised, voice soft and—he hoped—comforting.

Sabine raised her head with a tired exhale. "Okay." She got to her feet, letting Kallus's hands slide off her. "I'm going to get some caf," she said. "You want anything?"

"I'll take a cup."

Nodding, Sabine wandered out, her footsteps fading down the hall.

Kallus retreated to his seat, dropping into it wearily. He felt like slamming his fist into the console himself. Days had passed since their last vague "contact" with Ezra via Kanan's Force Sense and they were no closer to finding him. He was alive, that was all Kanan knew. Kallus didn't begin to pretend he understood the bond between the Jedi and his padawan, but he took solace in the knowledge nonetheless. Whatever this Maul wanted with Ezra, at least he hadn't killed the boy.

Hidden him frustratingly well though, thought Kallus sourly.

Sabine returned momentarily, two steaming mugs in hand. She passed one to Kallus, wordlessly returning to her station.

Kallus sipped from his mug quietly, peeking over the rim at Sabine. Her eyes were red, expression haggard. She drank her caf as if she couldn't even taste it.

He leaned back in his seat.

"Who's next?" he asked.

"We've got a Fulcrum in the Lagos Sector—Cassian Andor. I can try him." She sighed. "And assuming he's still using the same frequency, I might be able to contact Hondo."

"Ohnaka?" Kallus made a face. "Must we?" he groaned.

"He might be a spineless opportunistic coward, but he cares enough about Ezra that he wouldn't want Maul to have him either." Sabine gripped her cup tightly. "And the more eyes and ears we have looking, the sooner we can bring Ezra home. I don't want him with Maul another minute longer than he has to be."

He couldn't argue with her conviction. The two fell silent, letting the quiet crackle of the comms wash over them. Imperial voices droned on in a stream of useless natter, a low constant in their ears.

Kallus strained for a topic of conversation. They had been at this for hours. The silence was beginning to wear on him.

He swished the brown liquid around in his mug. "So... how long have you been harboring feelings for Bridger?"

Sabine choked on her drink. She pressed a hand to her collar and coughed once, harshly. "What?" she blurted. Suddenly defensive, she demanded, "What does that matter?"

Well it wasn't exactly a denial. Kallus shrugged idly. "I suppose right now it doesn't," he said. "But I was curious. Or," he amended, looking suddenly embarrassed, "have I misjudged?" He was making a lot of assumptions based on Sabine's reaction to Ezra's abduction, he'd just realized with chagrin.

Sabine wouldn't make eye contact, looking off towards the wall. Kallus watched her struggle to answer for a good moment.

"I don't know," she groaned finally. "It's complicated."

"What's complicated about it?" he asked. "You care for him don't you?"

"Yeah but not like—" she started to say, then stopped, flustered. "—I mean—maybe I—I don't—" She stammered several moments then waved her hands in front of her face. "Look, I don't know, okay?" A hand raked up through her purple hair and her expression was pinched. "Everything's been all mixed up since he got hurt," she explained. "I just..." She trailed off in frustration.

Kallus grimaced, feeling very much like his leather-soled boots belonged in his mouth.

"I see I've made you uncomfortable. I apologize." No more prying teenage girls about their feelings, he noted in his head. Kallus cleared his throat, changing the subject. "You said that Maul was originally from Dathomir?"

Grateful for the out, Sabine turned back to the communications panel. "Yeah, uh... Ezra mentioned something. Been there once. Fun place, if you like getting possessed by the souls of dead Nightsisters."

Kallus gaped at her, trying to discern if her light, casual tone meant she was joking or not.

"That can't have actually happened."

"Oh it did," Sabine confirmed.

Kallus shook his head in disbelief. "How do you people even survive half the ridiculous things that happen to you?"

"Honestly, Kallus, sometimes I don't know." She sobered, fingers reaching across the buttons and switches on the panel. "I just hope our luck holds out this time," she said quietly.

He nodded in agreement, attention facing back into the hijacked Imperial radio.

Chapter Text

Ezra squished himself smaller into the crevice between two walls, lightsaber clutched close to his chest, straining his ears for the sound of Maul's metal footsteps.

Two more days had passed since their first duel, by his count. Their second battle had been even more pitifully short than the first, and Ezra had nearly exhausted himself meditating and practicing forms the rest of the day.

He'd held out a lot longer in their third battle, put up a decent fight, by now used to Maul's style of swift attacks and slashing strokes, but in the end it all ended the same—with Ezra pinned down, Maul's lightsaber at his throat.

He was trying a new tactic today. As Maul had come at him with a whirling slash, both blades ignited, Ezra had ducked, rolled, and sprinted off down one of the smaller side tunnels, leading the battle away from the chamber with the frozen lake. He kept just far enough ahead of the man to avoid clashing blades too often, searching with his eyes for more advantageous terrain.

Eventually they'd found a series of short corridors, weaving in and out of each other, giant icicles draping down from the ceiling to form columns with ice on the floor. Full of hiding places, plenty of places to disappear.

His awareness of Maul's Force signature ebbed and flowed, metal feet crunching lightly from one corner of the room to the next as the Zabrak searched for him. Ezra held very still, concentrating on muting himself, wrapping a cloak of invisible protection around him.

He breathed slowly, nerves agitated, every muscle cramping and on alert.

The sound of footsteps came around the corner.

Ezra spun out of the crevice, igniting his saber, swiping high.

Maul angled one blade up to defend, turned the other around to attack. Saber clashed against saber. Ezra pushed forward until one of his strikes met empty air.

Ezra stumbled, quickly recovered, spinning around and sweeping his blade behind him as he turned to guard his back.

He startled when he realized there was no one there.

Glancing around frantically, Ezra didn't see Maul until the warning call of the Force alerted him to the dropping blade aimed at his head.

Ezra deflected it, darting to the side, squeezing between two ice columns and slipping through.

Maul didn't bother trying to follow, slicing the columns through with his saber, sending ice chunks flying and scattering.

Ezra's pulse rang frantically in his head as he ducked down a narrow hallway. He hid himself in the shadows, extinguishing his saber so he wouldn't be seen.

He waited.

Maul passed by the opening, stalking slowly.

"Come on out, apprentice," he called, the tip of his saber scraping on the icy floor. "It does you no good to hide."

"Says you," Ezra muttered. He was rather proud of himself for lasting this long. Maybe this time he could outmaneuver Maul enough to—

His line of thinking had to come to an abrupt end as Maul paused outside the hallway, and turned with a knowing smile.

"There you are," he said.

Ezra ignited his saber, throat tightening, feeling cornered. Maul came at him with a wide sweep of his lightaber and Ezra ducked it, feeling the sparks pop off his back as the white-hot blade made contact with the wall behind him. Ezra tucked in and rolled, slipping past Maul to sprint back out into the open.

Maul dogged his steps every moment, hurling strike after strike in his wake.

Ezra was beginning to feel trapped and claustrophobic in these tunnels. He ran, leading the fight back out towards the frozen lake. Back towards open space, where he'd have more room to maneuver.

Maul followed.

Ezra whipped around as they emerged into the large chamber, blocking a strike aimed at his midsection. His hands shook on his lightsaber hilt, exhaustion beginning to make them tremble.

Maul seemed to realize it too, his eyes burning on Ezra with a triumphant gleam. He pressed his attack, saber flashing so fast Ezra could barely keep up with it.

He gave ground, edging towards the rim of the lake.

Brows furrowing, Ezra whipped out a palm, only for Maul to sense what he was doing and do the same.

The Force Push shoved them both outwards.

Ezra stumbled, flailing his arms so as not to trip over, and managed to keep his feet. But he was unprepared for how quickly Maul recovered.

The Zabrak pressed his advantage, forcing Ezra to block lower and lower until he was practically on his knees, and that was when a firm kick to Ezra's chin spun him off balance and ended him in the same position as all the times before:

On his back, Maul's saber burning near his face.

Maul held that position for a while, seeming to enjoy the fury that was coursing through Ezra, the trembling rage he was holding back as he kept still, away from the blade.

"Let's return you to your room then," he said casually. The blade was brought away from his face, whirling once before being disengaged, Maul putting his saber away. "You did well today, Ezra."

Hot anger coursed through the boy, as he raised his saber again with a snarl. "I'm not done," he growled.

Maul sent a withering glance at him over his shoulder. "You most certainly are," he insisted.

Ezra rolled up to a crouch, saber at the ready. "No," he said firmly, standing. "I'm not."

Maul growled low under his breath, whipping out his saber again. "You stubborn little—"

Ezra interrupted him, lunging with his saber, pressing his blade hard against Maul's. Maul threw him off angrily.

He thrust a hand out and Ezra had no defense from the force of his push, flying back, sliding and skidding several paces onto the surface of the frozen lake.

He pulled himself upright, fear tightening his throat again, putting his saber in ready position.

Maul was glaring at him from across the way.

"Understand this, apprentice," he said, very evenly, only the slightest hint of anger in his tone.

The yellow eyes narrowed.

"You are not in control here," he said, chillingly.

The double-bladed saber was flung towards him.

Ezra braced himself, but the searing red blades struck short, at the ice underneath his feet. Ezra hopped back away from the sparks. The old inquisitor hilt was recalled back to Maul's hand and Ezra's fear ratcheted as a sickening series of cracks sounded beneath him.

Ohhhh—he began to think.

The ice gave way.

Ezra dropped, yelping as he plunged beneath the surface.

The cold was like a physical blow to his body, punching all the air and oxygen out of his lungs in a second, freezing him and locking his joints. For several terrifying seconds he was paralyzed, unable to move, unable to struggle past the sheer cold that assaulted his senses.

It felt almost like being back in the void again.

Ezra finally kicked out, struggling, straining to reach the surface. But he was disoriented; the fall into the water had upended him and he wasn't sure which way he was supposed to go. He'd lost his lightsaber at some point, he didn't know when. His empty hands slashed out, frantically, propelling him through the solid mass of ice that was the water surrounding him, fighting the frozen current that was shoving him deeper in, pushing him deeper down, pushing him away from the break and further under the ice. His fingers felt numb in seconds.

His lungs screamed, desperately taking in a breath and then choking on the frigid cold that entered his mouth, freezing his chest, stealing his thought away.

Air... was all he thought. Hafta get...

Where was the opening?! It should have been easy to spot but as his frantic eyes searched the blue darkness, he couldn't even pick out where the ice ended and the water began. Terrified, his legs kicked, his body floating slowly upwards, hitting a barrier, and he was clawing, scratching at the underside, his lungs growing tighter and tighter as the cold slowly sapped away all feeling in his limbs, making his body weaken, his movements lose their frantic edge.

Spots started to dance in front of his vision. He beat on the glass surface above him, fists pounding slowly, weakly.

He tilted back, feeling like he might black out, looking up at the underside of the ice deliriously.

A firm hand closed around the back of his collar and yanked backwards and up.

Ezra's face broke the surface and he gasped heavily, air surging through his lungs. He spasmed with violent coughs, expelling freezing water from his throat, bent over and doubled, feeling his body shudder from his stomach to his head.

Maul pulled him a little further onto the surface of the ice, handling him carefully, making sure his weight was spread across the glass. Slowly, very slowly, he pulled Ezra back towards the shore. He paused only a moment to hover his hand over the broken opening in the ice, pulling Ezra's lightsaber up to bob on the surface of the water, before he reached down and snagged it.

Ezra could do nothing but gasp, air blasting down his windpipe and filling his lungs, pushing the water he'd inhaled out, making it come up in wet gargles. Maul's grip was still tight around the back of his shirt, pulling him across the more solid patches of ice, only letting go when they reached the shore. Ezra got his hands underneath him, coughing continuously for several painful minutes. His chest hurt by the time he finally got his breath back.

"You—" he sputtered at Maul. "You—" He coughed again, harshly. "I almost drowned!" he cried indignantly.

The annoyed look forming on his face vanished as Maul's harsh fingers closed hard around his chin, fingers digging into his jaw. Maul squeezed his face in a vice, forcing Ezra to look up, and Ezra had to force back the brief flash of Pryce superimposed over Maul's features, his breath hitching.

Maul's eyes were cold and impassive, brows narrowed, mouth flat.

"Let me emphasize again, Ezra..." he said, very evenly. "When I say we are done for the day, we are done. You do not get a second attempt. You do not decide to continue the fight. I do. I am you master and you will listen to me."

"You aren't," Ezra squeaked, timidly, trembling with every breath but determined to fight Maul's words. "You'll never be my master."

The fingernails dug in harder, making Ezra wince.

"Another outburst like that and I will put the binders back on you before throwing you back in your cell," he threatened. "Am I clear?" he hissed.

Ezra's determination flooded away, anxious pulses prickling up the back of his skull at the thought of being restrained again. It was beginning to sink in how Maul's threat to no longer be lenient with Ezra was not an idle one. Ezra closed his eyes in resignation.

"Yes," he whispered.

Maul nodded once, satisfied.

He released Ezra's chin.

Ezra's arms immediately came around himself and he shivered hard, the chill air slowly sapping away all the feeling in his body.

Force he was cold.

"Come on," Maul snapped, striding away towards the far tunnel. "Before I lose my apprentice to hypothermia."

Ezra stumbled clumsily to his feet after Maul.

-SWR-

Kanan felt his way out of the cockpit, hand brushing over the familiar metal walls. He wasn't sure where he was going. He was tempted to head to the galley and dig out the bottle again but shook off the urge. He needed to be clear-minded. It was easier to focus on Ezra—whether through the Force or otherwise—when his brain wasn't muddled.

He was so distracted he tripped right into someone standing in the hallway.

A feminine grunt sounded and Kanan felt a soft lekku bounce off his arm. He blundered backwards, both of them reeling awkwardly from the collision.

"Hera! Sorry, I didn't—"

He felt a waft of displaced air as she waved him off with her hand. "No, it's my fault. I shouldn't have been blocking the hallway."

She sounded tired. Numb almost. Kanan straightened, keening into his Force Sense for a better read on her.

Her form took shape in his mind, glowing softly with contained calm.

"You okay?" he asked, reaching out a hand and finding the back of her shoulder, squeezing gently, reassuringly.

"I was just... thinking," she said, a soft brush of lekku against clothes as she turned her head.

Kanan frowned. He mentally retraced how many steps he'd taken from the cockpit.

"In front of Ezra's room?"

Hera gave a long sigh. "It's been almost a week..." He felt her shudder as her breath hitched slightly. "If we can't find him—"

"Hey," Kanan interrupted, stopping that line of thought before it could twist its dark way into Hera's head. "Don't think like that. We will find him. Or he'll make his way back to us." A faint, fond smile touched his lips. "He has a habit of doing that."

The words were said as almost more of an exhortation to himself, but they also had the desired effect.

Hera chuckled softly. "Well, you're not wrong there," she admitted.

His arms slipped around her shoulders and he pulled her close. He put his face right up next to hers, cheek to cheek, whispering intimately.

"He didn't let you give up on me," he said, somber tones lacing his voice. "So I'm not letting you give up on him."

There was a swell of something—Guilt perhaps?—inside Hera that she quickly tramped down on, masking it with a layer of stoic resolve. Worried, Kanan wanted to press her about it, but she was already slipping out of his embrace.

"I have to go," she said. "Rebel Command needs me. But... thank you," she told him, touching his arm as she passed him by, footsteps and presence in the Force fading from his senses down the hallway.

Kanan's hands hovered for a moment, feeling the lingering warmth of her body heat.

-SWR-

Ezra's whole body shook with violent shivers, his hands latched around his shoulders, arms pressed tightly to his chest. His teeth chattered. The heat from the fire seemed to barely touch him, wafting across his face like an effervescent mist.

Maul dropped a heavy blanket across his shoulders. Ezra clutched at it immediately, too cold to argue or even feel any awful murky guilt about the fact that he was accepting care from his kidnapper. Maul stepped around him, poking at the campfire, making the flames surge up before subsiding.

He walked a few paces and sat down in his usual spot on the opposite side of the fire.

"You will need to remove your clothes," he told Ezra.

Ezra clenched his teeth. His mind was already yelling at him to keep his mouth shut and not say anything snippy back, not test Maul's patience, not earn himself another session screaming on the floor as the Dark Side bored through him, but the idea of having to be so vulnerable in front of the man was so viscerally disgusting to him that he couldn't help it.

He shot Maul a glare.

"I'd rather freeze to death," he said flatly.

Maul was unamused. "Remove them," he repeated, every word pinched and clipped. "Or they will be removed for you."

Ezra stared at him uncertainly. His eyes darted up and down. Surely Maul wouldn't really—?

Maul made a motion as if to get up.

"All right!" Ezra said, flinching back at once and putting a hand up. "All right, fine."

He looked down at his hands. His numb fingers twitched and shook. With effort, he grabbed the edge of the wrist hem and pulled off one sodden glove, then the other. He let them drop, moving to shove off his boots. Water trickled out of them as he kicked them off.

Ezra hesitated awkwardly at his shirt, his hands moving stiffly, trying to figure out a way to peel it off without dislodging the blanket around his shoulders.

He tugged ineffectually at the hem from several angles. His shivering made it difficult to hold his arms steady, and the soaked fabric clung to his body, hard to peel off.

He struggled for a while, feeling more and more uncomfortable with every second.

Timidly, he peeked up at Maul. He swallowed and unstuck his lips reluctantly.

"I—I might—" he stammered. Humiliation crawled across his face and he dropped his eyes towards his lap, his face burning. "C-can I get... some help?"

He risked looking up at Maul only to feel a sinking disappointment as the Zabrak stared back at him with flat eyes. Maul turned away with a huff.

"I've already coddled you far more than my master ever would have," he said dismissively.

Ezra bit back the frustrated scream that wanted to burst from him. Giving him proper medical care was coddling him now?

Furrowing his face, he yanked harder, managing to pull his hand into one of his sleeves. From there a little bit of wriggling got his arm out of the sleeve.

Ezra pointedly glared at Maul and tugged the blanket tighter around himself before he ducked his head through the collar. From there he pulled the bottom hem up and over and slid it off his left arm, dropping the soaked shirt on ground close to the fire.

He readjusted the blanket before he unbuckled his belt and just slid his pants off wholecloth, his legs curling up defensively front of his stomach immediately after, the blanket pulling firmly around him.

He knew from the narrowing look in Maul's eyes that the ex-Sith had caught a glimpse of the faded scar across Ezra's abdomen.

Ezra scrunched up, looking off uncomfortably.

Don't ask, don't ask, he begged inside his head.

Maul didn't ask, didn't say anything for the longest time. Ezra felt the silence grow between them, heavy and full of discomforting tension.

He kept his mental shields up. Maul hadn't tried to probe his mind since that first day, but that didn't mean he wouldn't try again.

He'd made it very clear he wanted to know why he'd felt Ezra from the reaches of the Tatooine desert.

Maul stirred suddenly, and Ezra's anxiety pinged. The Zabrak only lifted his arm, pointing at a faint line across the underside of his bicep.

"This," he said, voice light, tone casual, "I got when a nexu nearly sliced my arm off with its barbed tail." He shifted, now pointing to a circular healed wound on his torso, just under his ribs. "And this," he continued, "was from a lucky blaster bolt from a Zygerrian pirate."

Ezra's eyes flicked up, burning a glare at him. He knew what Maul was trying to pull.

Undeterred, Maul picked out another scar. "Vibroblade," he said. "He paid dearly for it, of course." He looked at Ezra expectantly.

When Ezra didn't take the bait, Maul gave an aggravated growl and dropped his hands.

"Why do you insist upon shutting me out?" he snarled, hands curling into fists. "I am only trying to help."

Ezra tightened his arms around himself. "I don't owe you anything," he said. His glare hardened. "And I don't want your help."

"Hiding the truth from me will only prolong your... readjustment," Maul told him.

Ezra felt his skin crawl at the choice of words. He shivered inside the blanket, more from unease now than cold.

"If you would only be forthcoming with me—" Maul started to say.

"Nothing happened," Ezra snapped, interrupting him. "And even if something did, it still wouldn't be any of your business!"

"I think we both know that's a hideous lie," Maul said tersely. "And I warned you about lying to me." He placed his hands on his knees, leaning forward. His voice softened, back in that uncomfortably soothing cadence Ezra recognized from all the times Maul had tried to manipulate him before, the one that almost sounded caring. "Ezra, the reason you are here—" he started.

"I'm here because you took me!" Ezra cut him off sharply.

"Interrupt me again and you'll regret it," Maul warned him, just as harshly. "Yes, I took you. I should have taken you on Dathomir. Because your Rebel Alliance, your so-called—" He sneered. "—friends... clearly cannot protect you."

A long silence followed, Ezra curling up tighter inside the blanket.

"But you can?" he asked.

Maul's eyes were intense, almost frenzied. "I can teach you how to protect yourself."

Ezra felt a sudden dryness in his throat. "The Dark Side," he murmured. Stirring, he scooted back a couple inches. "Yeah, no thanks," he said. "Tried that already."

"I know you opened the Sith holocron," Maul continued, as if Ezra hadn't said anything. "Tell me," he urged, "how did it feel?"

A trickle of guilt passed through him. Ezra pressed his mouth together, tensing defensively.

"You felt powerful, didn't you?" Maul's teeth flashed as he spoke. "Invincible."

"At first," Ezra admitted.

"I can teach you how to wield that power," Maul said, curling his fist in front of him. "Just as I did before on Malachor, if you would only trust me."

Anger stabbed through his heart.

Malachor.

Maul's betrayal.

Kanan being blinded.

The months of guilt and shame, of feeling abandoned and alone, his only solace an insidious Sith trinket whispering poison in his ears.

Falling deeper and deeper into a darkness that he now realized only wanted to consume him.

He straightened, lifting his head, looking Maul straight in the eye.

"I will never trust you again," he said, firmly.

Maul sniffed. "We'll see."

-SWR-

Ezra spent an hour sitting there, shivering, slowly warming up from his plunge into the lake. When his clothes were dry, he quickly pulled them on, feeling much more shielded and safer.

It was starting to turn dark, the shadows in the tunnels creeping across the floor of the room. Ezra got up, and Maul followed. Ezra kept still, willing himself not to react as Maul placed a hand on his shoulder.

"I am doing all this for your own good, Ezra," he said, soothingly.

The urge to bite something sarcastic was strong, but Ezra just closed his eyes, his face and shoulders tightening.

I'm knocking him right off those stupid droid legs tomorrow, he promised himself. I have to. I can't stand another day of this.

He trembled slightly as Maul turned him towards the alcove and gave him a gentle push.

Ezra walked into the cell, trying not to shudder when the dampening barrier came on behind him.

He dropped to the floor, stretching out, promising himself he'd only take a short rest and then get up to drill more combat forms.

But, exhausted as he was from the fight, the lake, and the verbal sparring with Maul, he fell almost immediately into a soundless sleep.

-SWR-

It was working.

Maul looked through the semi-opaque barrier, glimpsing Ezra asleep on the floor. He couldn't test the boy's mental shields from behind it, but he'd been prodding at them all afternoon and evening, and he knew they were weakening, that the repetitive days were wearing on Ezra's resolve.

He could force his way in, he knew, very easily. But he didn't want to do that, not yet. Not unless he had to, unless Ezra gave him no choice.

He wanted the boy to trust him, and volunteer the secrets in his head on his own.

It wasn't hard to guess. Clearly the Empire had captured him for a time, held him long enough for him to develop an aversion to syringes. If he could only draw that out, turn the boy's anger and fear over it into hatred...

Maul stepped back, giving the barrier a satisfied once-over before ambling away.

He didn't need to break Ezra completely. He would have plenty of time for that, if it was necessary, later. He just needed to break him enough so he wouldn't actively try to escape and run away, if given the opportunity.

And when he was sure Ezra was too defeated in spirit to run, Maul thought, smirking darkly, he would return to Tatooine and slay Kenobi. Prove to Ezra the Jedi way was weak and ineffective.

He would finish... working on Ezra after that.

Maul glanced towards one of the icy walls, seeing the glimmer of a kyber crystal still glowing with the last of the daylight, an idea forming in his mind.

He raised a palm over it.

Chapter Text

Pryce loomed out of the darkness in front of him.

Ezra shrank back, terrified. She reached out a hand for him. He turned his head, trying to run.

His feet were rooted. He couldn't move.

He looked down, the fear choking him as he saw his wrist was locked in a metal restraint. Harsh white light spotlighted him. There were people moving in the shadowed corners, red eyes looking down on him from above. Pryce's harsh fingers gripped his jaw, forcing him to look at her.

"I'll ask again," she said. "Where is Phoenix Squadron?"

He heard his own voice mumbling something, incoherent.

Pryce's smirk deepened.

"Wrong answer, Bridger."

A shrill electric whine began to build in his ears.

His heartrate spiked as he saw the first crackles of electricity in the corners of his vision.

-SWR-

He woke up still feeling the first jolt.

Ezra sat up, pressing a hand over his mouth to keep from screaming. Bile curled at the base of his throat. He trembled, the chill in the quiet icy cavern leaking through him to the core.

No, please... he begged, even as he could feel clamps tightening around his lungs. Not now... Not now!

He couldn't sense Maul on the other side of the dampening barrier but he knew he was there, could feel his presence lingering there outside the cell.

Not here, please... not in front of him...

He only shook harder, violently. A roiling churn of nausea passed through his stomach and halfway up his throat before he tightened up, forcing it down.

The clamps squeezed his chest harder. His pulse pounded in his brain. The walls were too close. They were too close and he couldn't breathe and Pryce was coming, she was coming, he could hear her footsteps, she was going to take him back there, her claws were in his hair he had to get away he had to get out.

A whimper escaped him. The words began to repeat as a shrill alarm inside his head.

Get out get out get out get out get out get OUT.

With a cry he stumbled upright, staggering towards the wall. He hit the ice, bouncing off it, beating the rock with his fists, scratching with his fingers. He pushed on each of the walls frantically, shoving at them, desperately wishing one of them would give.

He could barely get any air. Pryce's voice echoed all around him, her questions and threats repeating in his ears. His eyes fixed on the opening behind the dampening barrier, delirious.

He threw himself against it. He pounded on the buzzing surface, ignoring the static tingles it sent up through his arms.

Please give, please give, please give, I gotta get through I gotta get out, he begged. I can't

A pitiful whine choked his throat. He slid to his knees, his palms and forehead still pressed against the barrier.

"Let me out," he whispered hoarsely. "Please."

The sounds of that interrogation room on the Chimaera crept over him, filling his head.

"Administer twelve milligrams of symoxin."

A comm click from above.

"Six milligrams, Governor, we do not wish to asphyxiate him."

"Very well, Grand Admiral. Six."

Crackling electricity. The IT-O droid thrumming. The glass clink of a syringe being picked up

The dampening barrier suddenly gave way.

Ezra gasped and pitched forward onto his hands and face. His head jerked up from the icy floor and he looked up to see Maul standing over him impassively.

His mind and body froze. For a horrible moment he was paralyzed with terror.

Maul gave an annoyed huff and stepped towards him.

Ezra was immediately scrambling back on his hands and heels. "Get—get away!" he cried, and he hated how pitiful he sounded, how frail and scared his voice was. "Get away!"

The echoes of the Chimaera were all around him, but the dampening barrier was gone, the opening was right there, he could get out.

Ezra ducked under the hand Maul was reaching towards him, lurching for the gap.

Maul was quicker, snagging him around the shoulders, pulling him back.

"No!" Ezra shrieked, jerking violently. "N-nnmm!"

Maul wrapped both hands around Ezra's mouth, clamping down, grunting as the boy's wild thrashing overbalanced him and sent both them toppling to their seats. Ezra's teeth rattled as they hit, as he felt Maul's dark presence all around him, smothering him.

"Calm down, Ezra," Maul ordered, hissing the words into his ear.

That only made Ezra panic harder, screaming against Maul's palms, hands wrenching and scratching at the Zabrak's iron wrists. His back arched; his legs kicked desperately, heels skidding and striking the ice.

Maul squeezed harder, tightening his grip to keep hold of him. "Ezra..." he growled.

A choked whine escaped Ezra. Through the filter of the panic rattling around inside him, the noise and the suffocating pressure around his mouth, he had an overwhelming sensation of just how unfair it was.

He shouldn't be here. Not having a breakdown in front of Maul. He should be waking up to Sabine curled next to him, the smell of her paint soothing him back to sleep. He should be shaking Zeb awake for a talk. It should be Kanan's arms around him, or Hera's, holding him close and letting him know it was okay, instead of Maul's—which were too tight, it was too tight his mind screamed at him. He would even take Chopper's grouchy presence over this.

He didn't want this. He didn't want whatever twisted form of "comfort" Maul thought he was giving.

He panted shallowly, hyperventilating, prying at Maul's fingers.

Let go let go, repeated in his thoughts. Let go I can't breathe.

Roaring static was overtaking his head again, The chamber was fading out into the interrogation room, the chaotic sounds of it close in his ears. His erratic heartbeat knocked against his insides. He couldn't think. It was all too loud. His throat was locking up. He wasn't—

He was yanked out of the chaos by Maul twisting fingers into his hair and jerking his head back harshly.

"Mngh!" Ezra cried in pain.

Maul pulled his head close, put his lips right behind Ezra's ear.

"Control your fear," he warned, and Ezra caught the implication in his menacing tone, the hidden threat:

Or I will give you something to truly be afraid of.

Ezra stilled, his terror spiking. For several seconds he didn't breathe.

His mind jumped immediately to the black void. The burning. The crushing pressure. No. He couldn't go back there. He couldn't go back into that.

With effort, he forced himself to take a slow inhale.

Air filled his lungs, loosing the clamps around them just a fraction. His head pounded. He held the breath for three seconds.

He let it out.

Again, he drew in air. Held it. Released it.

Breathe. Hold. Release.

His pulse began to slow.

Maul released his hair, placing his hand on Ezra's shoulder. It might as well have been around his neck, and Ezra couldn't suppress a shiver. He fought the fearful jolt that passed through him, threatening to send him into panic again.

Slowly, slowly, he calmed himself down.

The Chimaera faded. Pryce's voice, her hateful hands on his face, gripping his chin, slipped back into the fog of his memories. His heart slowed, no longer rattling in his chest. The clamps eased up.

There was nothing but the icy cavern walls and Maul sitting behind him, holding him firmly.

Nothing but the empty, quiet cold.

Now that his head was clear, and the distraction of his panic was gone, Ezra was uncomfortably aware of every point of contact Maul had on him. He resisted the urge to squirm, tugging at the hand still on his mouth.

"Mmn."

His breath hitched as Maul spoke in his ear again. The man sounded almost... proud.

"I knew you could do it," he whispered.

Maul released him.

Ezra took a gasping breath as Maul's hand came off, collapsing forward onto his hands. He heard metallic scrapes behind him as Maul rose to his feet. Ezra shook, vibrating with the lingering traces of adrenaline. He swallowed back another swell of bitter bile.

Maul stepped around him and reached down, offering his hand.

"Don't touch me!" Ezra snapped, curling back like a cornered feral animal.

Maul's eyes narrowed furiously. "Ungrateful child," he said, drawing his hand back. "I was only trying to keep you from hurting yourself."

You made it worse! Ezra wanted to scream back at him, but bit the words back sourly. His brows darkened furiously over his eyes and his jaw tightened.

"Give me my lightsaber," he demanded, thrusting out a hand for it.

"Eager to begin today," Maul observed. "Good. Use that anger." He drew forth Ezra's lightsaber and pressed it into the boy's outstretched palm. "Perhaps this time you'll actually stay on your feet," he said, striding around him and out into the larger cavern.

Ezra ground his teeth, barely even waiting for Maul to turn around before he ignited the blade and threw himself at him.

-SWR-

They fought. Ezra lost.

As Ezra knelt on the floor, leaning on his hands, getting his breath back from the hard fight, Maul stepped casually back a pace or two, lifting his lightsaber before turning it off and putting it away. He didn't immediately move to collect Ezra's saber, but Ezra didn't dare to hope he'd be allowed to keep it long.

A couple jostled and kicked over crates at their campsite bore witness to their duel. The early morning light was filtering into the cave, pale and blue. There was a nip to the air, softly biting, just cold enough to be uncomfortable.

Maul tilted a fallen crate back into upright position as he watched Ezra pant.

"Now that you've gotten things out of your system..." he said. He folded his arms across his chest, regarding the boy sternly, eyes cold. "...care to tell me what that panic earlier was all about?" he asked.

Ezra grit his teeth, fisting his hands on the ground and around his lightsaber hilt.

"No," he spat immediately.

An aggravated sound from Maul.

"Ezra, you are unbalanced," he said. "Unfocused." A manic look was in his eyes as he gestured sharply. "Your mind has been troubled since before I retrieved you," he pointed out.

"Kidnapped me," Ezra corrected pointedly.

Maul ignored that. "Whatever the Empire did to you," he told the boy, "you must move past it. You cannot expect to win your freedom if you are too busy cowering on the floor."

"I'm not afraid!" Ezra growled, shooting a glare, getting up to his feet. His hands trembled and he quivered with anger and stress. He didn't need this from Maul of all people.

"Denying your fear only makes it worse," Maul said flatly. He reached out his palm and Ezra wordlessly passed him the lightsaber. He clipped it to his belt and then resumed his speech. "You must learn to use your fear, channel it into power through the Force." His eyes were alight, tone passionate. It reminded Ezra all too uncomfortably of the man's enthusiasm to instruct him in Dark Side teachings back on Malachor, when he'd been stupid and eager to drink it in, believe the flattering lies Maul told him. Maul focused intensely on Ezra, speaking almost breathlessly. "What once you considered weakness you can turn into strength," he promised.

"Save the Dark Side sales pitch." Ezra crossed his arms. "It won't work this time."

"Surely you don't want to feel this weak forever?" Maul breathed, hitting upon a sore spot.

Ezra's features pinched as he tried to keep his composure. His pressed his mouth tight.

It was a trap, it was always a trap, this was what the Dark Side did—offered power and quick results only to leave you emptier than before, he reminded himself to silence the part of him that desperately wished to feel normal again.

Sensing the conflict within him, Maul stepped closer, closing in for the kill. Ezra tensed as he approached.

"Release your fear and anger into the Dark Side," Maul said. "Let it fuel you. Let it fill you with hatred. With it by your side, you can survive anything." His arms swept out in wide gestures as he spoke, and Ezra took an unconscious step backwards, looking down as Maul's gaze bored into his face. "Make the Dark Side your ally and there will be no pain, no trauma, that can ever affect you," Maul finished. A prideful smirk played on his lips. "It is what I did," he said. "You could do the same."

"Right," Ezra snorted. "Because you're just the epitome of healthy coping."

Smack!

Maul's hand flashed out, striking him across the face before Ezra could blink. He cried out as the blow snapped through his head, a hand leaping up to press against his cheek.

The yellow eyes were coldly furious, tension in the muscles of his neck, coiling tight all the way down to his fisted hands. Maul was seething, anger radiating from him like cold fire.

Through the sharp lingering pain and a grimace Ezra added hoarsely, "Exactly my point."

He flinched as Maul grabbed his collar, yanking him close.

"I have lived through worse things than you could possibly imagine, child," Maul spat. His grip quickly softened, the hand letting go of his collar and moving to his shoulder. The plaintive tone was back in his voice. "I only want you to be able to do the same," he said.

The words grated like needles in his chest. Anger flared up inside him, at the hollow falseness of Maul acting like he cared after he'd just slapped Ezra hard enough to knock him dizzy.

"Why does it matter to you so much?" he blurted, stepping back, jerking his shoulder away from Maul's touch. "I'm not your apprentice! No matter how much you've deluded yourself into thinking so!"

Maul let his hand drop by his side again. "Nevertheless..." he continued, nonplussed. "I know you hate feeling like this."

A short, almost hysterical laugh escaped Ezra. Heat pinched at his eyes and he scrunched them, closed them, shook his head. Maul wasn't even touching Ezra's mental shields but Ezra still felt like he was rooting around for secrets, scratching at his mind and trying to pick it apart. He talked like he knew about the prickling static and anxiety raking at the back of Ezra's head.

But then of course he knew, because Ezra had gone and had a panic attack right of him. Ezra's arms clenched his elbows as he curled in self-protectively. His chest felt like it wanted to tear apart. The fact that Maul had seen him like that, vulnerable and afraid, sent coils of self-hatred through him. And the idea that he wanted to fix Ezra was worse because he just couldn't deal with Maul trying to be kind. It was confusing and manipulative and all fake anyway.

I hate this, he thought. I hate this I hate this I hate this, I miss the Ghost, I miss Yavin...

More than ever he desperately wished for Kanan.

He wanted to be somewhere where things made sense.

When he opened his eyes back up, Maul was still standing there, studying him. Ezra shifted on his feet, glancing away.

Maul spoke up, breaking the silence. "Ezra, I only want to help you," he promised, a soothing velvet undertone in his voice. "But I cannot begin to do so until you stop fighting me. I am not your enemy." He extended a hand, palm up, and Ezra shivered from the drippingly gentle expression he wore. "You need to know that you are safe here, with me," Maul said, reaching out for him.

Ezra yanked back from whatever comforting gesture the man was aiming to give, his mind flashing through the sequence of manhandling, drugging, and threatening that had been his experience under Maul's "care" thus far, the hands pinching on his arms, the needles dug into his neck, how he was kept locked in a cell most of the day. Is he really that dense?! he thought incredulously.

"I was safe on Yavin IV!" he shouted hotly, his arms dropping stiffly to his sides, hands clenching into fists. A tiny alarm in his head shrieked at him to back off, but he ignored it, he wasn't apologizing. Not to Maul.

The warmth in Maul's eyes had turned to ice. His hand lowered slowly.

"And you really believe that... don't you?" he said, something terrifying in the words and tone.

A vague, confused panic took over Ezra and it must have showed on his face, for Maul shifted, clasping his hands behind him, and clarified.

"Corensia was not the first opportunity I had to take you," he said.

Ezra turned that over in his head a few times, bewildered. What does he—? He can't mean that

The realization dawned on him with a slow swell of dread. The horrifying implications of what Maul was saying seemed to climb up his spine like a series of cold needle pricks.

His eyes inched wider.

"No..." he breathed. He shook his head, trying to banish his thoughts, banish the awful conclusion he was coming to. "No that's not—the long-range scanners..." he stammered in denial. "They would have—"

"You think the Ghost is the only ship that can scramble its signal?" Maul interrupted, sneering down his nose.

No no no he can't have—that's not possible! Ezra thought frantically. I would have sensed him!

A sickening drop hit his stomach.

He had.

Cold horror shuddered through him. Ezra stepped back, in a daze, wide eyes fixating on Maul.

His nightmares. The first time he'd woken up afraid that he'd heard Maul calling for him. A cold presence in the jungle.

He backed away slowly, stopping when his feet bumped a crate behind him.

"You... you were..." he strained fearfully.

He couldn't say it.

"It did take a bit of work, tracking your Rebels down, rebuilding our Force bond so I could more easily sense you, trace you," Maul said, beginning to walk back and forth a bit as he explained. One hand extended out to gesture as he spoke. "I had to set down very far from the base, to avoid detection. I thought I was going to have to wait and observe for weeks before an opportunity arose."

Maul stopped pacing, eyes alighting manically.

"But when I made my first venture from the ship, what should I find?" he said, swiveling his head to look at Ezra.

His hand swept grandly at him.

"My apprentice, out wandering in the jungle. Alone. As if I'd called you there. As if Fate was..." He chuckled. "...offering you to me. I could hardly believe it."

The confirmation hit like a falling deadweight inside him. Ezra gulped thickly, the fear tight in his throat. He remembered the incident. He'd had a nightmare, blundered off the Ghost and out into the Yavin forest in a fit of panic. Gotten himself lost. But Kanan had commed him and given him a beacon to follow back to the base, and Ezra had been heading there when...

A sudden feeling of unease had trickled in. A sensation that... he was being watched.

He'd dismissed it as a howler when one of the things had screeched out near him, but now...

Now he knew.

Maul's eyes narrowed, and his free hand clenched tightly into a fist.

"If it wasn't for that infernal howling creature I would have taken you right there," he growled. "And no one could have stopped me. No one would even have known until we were far away." He gave a sigh. "But the moment passed, so instead I waited. Found an opening to put a tracker on the Ghost and bided my time."

Ezra shuddered, his hands coming up and clutching his shoulders at the knowledge that only the timely interference from that howler had saved him, that time at least. Additional pieces clicked together in his head.

"Those sentries weren't killed by howlers were they?" he asked, voice trembling.

Maul looked off evasively. "Unfortunate casualties in my efforts to remain hidden," he said.

Ezra's mouth screwed, his teeth pressing tightly.

An eerie gaze settled on him. Maul tilted his head. "Tell me..." he challenged in a low voice, "do you still feel safe there?"

Ezra didn't answer for a long time, the awful revelation still reverberating through him. Maul had been there. He had been there on Yavin, watching him and waiting to steal him away.

He had invaded yet another place that Ezra called home.

His fingernails dug into his arms.

"...No," he whispered.

He swallowed and raised his head, a defiant look in his eyes.

"Because of you," he said. "The man who kidnapped me. The man who won't let me go home." His voice rose, the fear turning into anger inside him. His glare hardened, furious now that Maul would ask him that question after revealing what he'd done. "You're the reason I'm not safe!" he yelled.

Maul stared back at him a long moment, and then sighed.

"I thought we were making some progress but..." He shook his head. "...clearly not."

Ezra pinched back a scream of outrage.

The Zabrak stirred, moving forward.

"Eat something," he ordered. "Then, if you can sit quietly for an hour, I will let you wash off."

Ezra turned his back stiffly, snatching a stray ration bar from the floor and pointedly walking back into his cell.

"Suit yourself," Maul grumbled behind him, just as pointedly turning on the dampening barrier the moment Ezra was inside.

Ezra's knees collapsed underneath him. He squeezed his eyes tightly, curling up.

Don't cry, don't cry, he told himself. Don't cry, keep it together.

Even as he thought the words, he felt like was slowly unraveling apart.

He let a few dry sobs escape as he sat there, cold in body and heart, his frayed mind spinning out for some kind of anchor in the darkness to cling to.

Kanan... he thought. Sabine... Hera... everyone... Please I need you. Please get me out of here. Find me.

But he wasn't so certain anymore that they could.

Chapter Text

Sabine stared dully at the blank canvas, her pen hovering over the sheet indecisively.

After a long moment she sighed, dropping her pen off to the side, and slouched forward. Her elbows leaned on her knees and her face dropped into her hands.

It's pointless, she thought miserably. I can't do it.

She'd wanted to draw something, take her mind off things just for a little bit, vent out some of her feelings into watercolors and charcoals. She had strongly considered depicting herself running Maul through with the darksaber.

But every time she tried to picture it in her mind, the image wouldn't appear. No pose or layout came to her. She couldn't even bring herself to sketch out studies.

Her sides shuddered. Force, what would her father say if he could see her now, struggling against such an impenetrable artist block?

She was an absolute wreck. The circles under her eyes were almost semi-permanent. She barely ate enough to keep her energy up. If she slept, her mind conjured a million terrible scenarios, all with Ezra lost or hurting, dying sometimes, and they followed her into the waking world as well, gnawing her through with anxiety down to the marrow.

She was tired. She was numb.

And she couldn't get Kallus's stupid question out of her head.

"How long have you been harboring feelings for Bridger?"

Sabine pressed her fingers into her eyes.

Absurd. Completely absurd. How was she even supposed to answer that? Why was that of all things stuck in her head when he was out there somewhere alone and afraid? When he needed her to be out scouring the galaxy for him instead of sitting around feeling sorry for herself and trying to figure out if she loved him.

She missed him. Finding him and bringing him home was everything to her now. But that didn't mean—

Sabine groaned, rubbing her heels against her temples, her nails digging slowly into her scalp.

This was the last thing she wanted to be thinking about right now. It was a confusing mess of a tangle and she hated it.

All she knew was that her chest hurt and her body ached and everything was awful and she wanted Ezra back.

She teetered back with a long exhale, her hands dropping. She'd never be able to sketch in this state.

Guess I'll go shoot something again, she decided.

Wearily, she got up, picking up stray paint cans and putting them back in their places. She checked the charge on her blasters before holstering them silently, her mind as blank and empty as the canvas she'd been working on.

"Sabine?" Hera's voice called to her from the cockpit. "There's a transmission for you; it's from your mother."

Sabine's spine tingled and she rushed from the room, nearly stumbling over Chopper as she ran down the hall. The droid blorted an indignant sound behind her. She flung herself into place next to Hera in the pilot's seat, grabbing the edge of the chair and the console.

"Anything?" she blurted anxiously.

The small shimmering blue holo of her mother's profile flickered, a flat look on the woman's face.

"Good to see you too, Sabine," she droned. She closed her eyes, shaking her head solemnly. "I'm sorry. Our contacts haven't turned up any news on Maul," she apologized.

Sabine deflated. Hera sent her a pitying look as she slowly dropped into the seat behind.

"That's... that's okay," Sabine said, trying to keep the disappointment out of her voice. "I just thought... I mean, I was hoping..." She sighed and shook her head. "Never mind."

Hera got up quietly, pressing a hand reassuringly on Sabine's shoulder as she passed.

"I'll be just down the hall if you need me," she said.

Sabine nodded once, listening to Hera's footsteps fading out of range. She glanced up at her mother, brain fumbling for something to say.

Her hands fidgeted in her lap.

"How, uh... how are things going?" she asked, finally breaking the long silence.

"Well you know," Ursa dismissed, a bit of a playful shrug rolling her shoulders and faint mirth in her eyes. "Starting an uprising against a galactic Empire is always a little messy." More seriously she added, "We could use a good explosives expert."

Sabine was already shaking her head.

"My place is here, mother. We have to keep looking."

"Sabine..." her mother sighed. Something wrenched in her heart at that, at the sad, pitying tone in her mother's voice. There was pity in Ursa's eyes as well, and tight concern as she looked her daughter in the eye. "I know Bridger is your friend but... there is nothing you can do for him right now," Ursa told her, her voice soft to blunt the harshness of what she had to say. She fixed Sabine with a worried, pleading look. "Come home. We need you here," she begged.

It was the closest to an "I miss you" Sabine had ever gotten from the woman and she felt torn in two.

She blinked, inhaling shakily, moisture blurring her eyes until she shook it off. She stared out the window for a long time, watching ships come and go, blips in the blue sky. Misery numbed her body, making her a statue carved of cold stone until she stirred and faced her mother, shaking her head again.

"I can't come home until I know Ezra's safe," she said firmly. Her face pinched; she squeezed her eyes closed. "Please mother don't... don't make me abandon him," she pleaded, voice trembling. "It's important to me. He's—" She stumbled a moment. "—He's important to me. Please," she finished.

Her mother stood stoically for a while, then nodded once, visibly resigned. "I understand. We'll... keep our ears out," she promised. "Oh and, Sabine?"

Sabine pried her eyes open to see her mother's gentle look of disquiet and sympathy.

"I hope you find him," Ursa said, genuinely.

She wiped a bit of something from under her eye and nodded, reaching forward to shut off the comm. Ursa's image shimmered out.

Sabine slumped in the chair. Gravity seemed to pull her down, hold her there in the seat. She stared unseeingly ahead, thoughts a thousand miles away.

She shook herself.

After they found Ezra—when they found him—she decided, then she would sort out whatever she did or didn't feel about him.

But right now she needed to go check in with Kallus.

She pulled herself up with heavy effort before trudging for the ladder downstairs.

-SWR-

Ezra wandered in a sea of lush green, a blue light like a star shining on the horizon, guiding his way. Birds sang and howlers screeched but he wasn't afraid.

And then all of a sudden he was.

All of a sudden there was a darkness, a shadow creeping up behind him, something cold chilling in the pit of his heart.

And something seized him from behind.

Tattooed hands clamped around his neck and over his mouth before he could scream and Maul was already dragging him, dragging him away from the base. Away from Kanan and the Ghost. Away from safety, away towards the ship with the lowered ramp he could glimpse as he thrashed back and forth in a desperate struggle.

"There is no point in resisting," came a chilling whisper from behind him. "You are coming with me, Ezra."

Ezra's hands were latched like vices around Maul's wrists, pulling with all his might as he shook his head. The Sith's grip just tightened, choking like a noose around his neck, yanking him backwards while Ezra could do nothing but scrape his feet along the ground and scream in muffled terror against Maul's hand.

He reached out through the Force frantically, calling for Kanan, calling for anyone.

Maul's iron grasp pinched him tighter. "He cannot help you now," the Zabrak hissed furiously, anger sizzling under his words. "You are mine. "

His breaths shortened as he felt the metal of the ramp bump up against his feet. He gasped thinly, straining for air. The darkness was squeezing... squeezing him... he couldn't breathe and Maul was taking him away and no one knew... no one knew where he was, why had he gone out alone he couldn't breathe he couldn't

-SWR-

"No!" Ezra cried as he woke.

The cold air hit his lungs sharply and he gasped it in, feeling it move down his windpipe to expand his chest.

He shuddered, sobbing gratefully at the sensation. He sat up, trembling arms and legs curling inwards.

He sat and shivered for a long, awful minute.

The scenario kept replaying inside his head. Over and over. Maul there on Yavin. Maul grabbing him. Maul wrestling him into his ship and off the planet, before anyone even knew what had happened. His emotions were in turmoil, rewatching the scene as it had actually happened with the newfound horror that Maul had been there, right there, so close to kidnapping him and he hadn't even sensed it.

Water dripped down his cheek and Ezra quickly reached up, smearing it away, but it kept coming. He rubbed at his eyes furiously.

Stop it, he scolded himself. This isn't helping you.

But something inside Ezra had come uncorked and all the homesickness, stress, hopelessness and fear were coming out, escaping in tear tracks down his face.

He smudged his eyes on the dirty hem of his sleeve. He had to get it together before—

And just like that, right on horrible cue, Maul turned off the dampening barrier to glare down at him.

Ezra jerked his arm down, pushing himself backwards with his heels, his anger lashing out.

"Get back!" he shouted, his eyes burning, trembling with fury and emotion.

An aggravated sigh came from him. "What are you blubbering about this time?" he demanded, stepping into the cell.

Ezra squished himself against the wall, bringing his knees up to his chest and curling his arms around his legs. Wet lines still marked his face but he didn't care about them anymore.

"I want to go home," he said in a small voice.

"You are not going back to the Jedi, Ezra," Maul reprimanded him at once. "Not unless—"

"I prove to you that I'm strong enough," Ezra finished in a weary recitation. "Force, why are you doing this?" he asked miserably. "Do you like beating me down?" he said, looking up with strained eyes.

"I am doing this to prove a point, Ezra," Maul replied, taking a step closer. "Your ordeal with the Empire, whatever it entailed, has cracked you, and only by letting the Dark Side in—letting me in—can you be made whole. Jedi ways cannot help you," he said, "or they would have produced results by now."

"I don't see how locking me up and terrorizing me is working any better," Ezra grumbled, a flat glare in his eyes.

Maul sneered. "You think I should go easy on you?" he challenged. "When the Empire will not? When they will wring every last drop of pain and suffering out of you if they get hold of you again, torture you mercilessly, until they finally let you die?" He gripped his hands into severe fists, snarling his words. "If you truly want your freedom then prove to me I'm not just releasing you straight into their hands! Because that," he shouted, "is exactly what will happen if I let you return to the Rebels!"

Ezra shrank under his hard eyes, biting his lip until it turned white. He didn't need Maul to remind him what the Empire would do to him if they caught him again. He knew. The crackling noise and the deluge of memories pressed hard against the dam in his mind, even now, and Ezra valiantly held it back, willing himself not to listen to it, not to be lost in it again. Not to show his weakness to Maul.

"I—I didn't—" he stammered. "I just—"

Maul watched him with disgust. "Look at you," he spat. "Sniveling and crying like a child." He leaned back on one metal leg, straightening. "You're only convincing me more and more of how much you need me."

"I don't need you!" Ezra screamed back. He smeared away the lingering tears on his cheeks furiously. "I don't need to be bullied around by someone deranged enough to think that's helping me!" he went on, his voice cracking. "I don't need any of this! I need my friends!"

"Your friends..." Maul seethed, "...let you get hurt."

Indignation rose in him, and defenses were already leaping to his tongue. His friends—his family—had been the only thing that had kept him from falling apart after the Chimaera. They had saved him, protected him, held him through fits of panic, been there for him through all of it and he had been getting better. He had. Maybe not always as quickly as he'd have liked but he was still slowly coming towards a place where he'd felt like he was... almost okay. And even that slow progress had been undone in days by Maul and he felt more broken than ever and it galled him that Maul thought any of this was better than what he'd had before.

"It wasn't their fault!" he yelled. "I was the one who—

He stopped abruptly, cutting himself off, an anxious stab stopping his words. The last thing he needed was to reveal that line of thinking to Maul, because there was no way he wouldn't laser-focus in on it and pick at it and use it to tear him down.

Instead, he huffed and crossed his arms, turning away his face.

"I don't need to justify anything to you," he said, muttering. He turned back to glare. "You're wrong. And I'm tired of listening to you."

"Well then," Maul said airily, unclipping Ezra's lightsaber from his belt and holding it out to him, "you know what you need to do to make me stop."

Ezra took in a breath through his teeth, keeping angry eyes fixed on Maul as he reached up for his saber.

-SWR-

Thick knuckles rapped against the plain gray door, but Zeb didn't wait for a response before he tapped the button to it, sliding it open.

"Hey Kanan!" he called. Upon seeing Kanan stir from yet another meditative trance and open weary eyes to him the Lasat took a step back out of the room. "Uh... you busy?" he asked.

Kanan put his feet down with a sigh, resting his elbows on his knees. "Just... trying to see if I can find him," he said.

"Ah." Zeb grimaced, rubbing a hand behind his head. "Er... should I come back later?"

Kanan shook his head, already beginning to rise to his feet. "He's out of range. And he either won't respond or can't hear me calling for him." He brushed loose strands of hair back behind his ear, reworking his wolftail again. "What do you need, Zeb?"

"'s'about Hera, actually," Zeb said, stepping aside as Kanan emerged from the room.

Kanan nodded. "How's she holding up?" he asked. Concern traced the lines of his face. "Last time we talked she seemed... distracted."

"Yeah..." Zeb agreed, rubbing his neck now. "I'm starting to get a bit..." He gave a grumbling sigh. "She'll hate me for mentioning this to you but, well..." He shook himself deciding to just forge ahead. "She hasn't stopped taking missions from Rebel Command. And they keep going worse, like she can't focus on what she's doing. She says she sleeps but I honestly haven't seen her take more than an hour's break when she's on base. And she always smells like caf, s'all I ever see her drinking." His ears drooped. "I think she's taking things with Ezra a lot harder than she's letting on. And bottling everything up."

Kanan nodded with a frown. "That's the sense I'm getting off her too." He wiped a hand across his face. "Force, this is all a mess," he muttered.

"So can you... erm... talk to her or something?" Zeb asked. "I'm really getting worried that she's just going to crack. And I don't know what I'm gonna do if she breaks over this too." He looked aside, grumbling. "Bad enough Sabine's a wreck 'cause of it."

"You know she can be almost as stubborn as Ezra and Sabine about her feelings," Kanan told him.

"She'll listen to you, I think," Zeb pushed.

Kanan sighed. "All right," he agreed. He put his hand on the wall, started feeling his way forward. "Do we have any news about Ezra?" he asked anxiously.

"Last I heard Rebel operatives were scouring Nar Shadda for clues," Zeb told him, following along at his shoulder. "But the Alliance might have to put the search on hold; Ryder's intel says the TIE Defender is nearing completion. They're talking about moving up the attack on Lothal's factories."

The Jedi groaned softly. "Can't the Empire just take a break? Just... put everything on hold for a month or two so we can get Ezra back before we have to worry about his homeworld outliving its purpose in Thrawn's plans?" he complained, every syllable tired.

Zeb chuckled. "Wish they would." He put a hand on Kanan's shoulder, patting encouragingly. "No rest for the weary 'm'fraid."

"Or for the Jedi," Kanan mumbled, repeating something he'd caught Depa saying under her breath more than once during the Clone Wars.

Thinking of her made him send up a silent entreaty to whatever was left of her in the Cosmic Force.

Tell Ezra to hang on, he begged. Please. We're trying our best to find him.

There was no response from the empty air as the two men walked off.

Chapter Text

Kallus rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, tilting his cup all the way back.

Nothing but dregs touched his lips and he blinked down at the empty bottom, disappointed.

With a tired sigh he rose to his feet. He passed Sabine where she was slumped sound asleep at her listening station, absentmindedly adjusting the blanket around her shoulders, and trudged groggily towards the door.

He fumbled for the button and punched it.

He hadn't stumbled more than a couple feet out the door when something smacked into his front.

Blundering, Kallus dropped his cup, shaking himself awake. "What in the—?" he blurted. His tired eyes took in dark hair and a yellow flightsuit. "Mattin?!" he exclaimed in disbelief.

Mart brushed himself off casually, clipping to attention. "Captain Kallus," he said.

Kallus glanced behind him, spotting the rest of the trio. "Gooti and Jonner too, I see," he groaned. He smeared a palm down his face. "It's two in the morning. What in the blazes are you three doing up? Where is Sergeant Matlock?" he asked wearily.

Jonner wrung out the sleeve of his wrist. "We uh... we kind of snuck away from general quarters," he said.

"Of course you did," Kallus sighed.

"We want to help," Mart said with conviction. His eyes burned with an intensity Kallus had never seen before. "Ezra's our friend too." A little more soberly his eyes dropped and he continued. "He was there for me when I was... going through a rough spot," he said. "I want to return the favor."

"I'm honestly not sure what you can do," Kallus told them, rubbing kinks out of his neck.

"Please?" Gooti begged. "It's awful trying to keep going about all our normal business when Ezra's off somewhere with that psychopath." Her eyes pinched under determined brows. "If we can help find Maul, even just a little..."

Kallus squinted at her. "How do you know about him?" he asked, bewildered. He was certain Rebel Command was keeping that info on a need-to-know basis.

"He's been terrorizing Ezra since long before you got here," Mart said, shrugging casually. "You said an old enemy of the Ghost crew's and we just put two and two together."

"Also Zeb told us," Jonner added.

Kallus gave an aggravated exhale. Zeb was getting far too friendly with his squadron. Kallus had a vague idea that the Lasat had deliberately sent the kids his way after answering their questions.

He stepped back, pursing his lips. After a moment or two of looking them over, seeing their brave, resolved expressions, he knew he would never be able to dissuade them.

"All right," he relented. "Come on in."

They lit up as he waved them inside the room, taking up spots at various listening stations. Sabine roused, blinking sleepily as she answered Gooti's whispered questions. Jonner chattered on something about getting food and cups of caf for everyone.

Kallus watched them all and sighed again. A little less than a year ago he could never have imagined being up at two in the morning spying on Imperial chatter with a group of plucky Rebel kids.

How is this my life now? he marveled.

He drifted off into private musings as he tuned back into the sound of the chatter.

-SWR-

Booted footsteps from the doorway startled her out of her half-drowsy thoughts. Hera's head jolted up from where she'd started slumping, quickly wiping her eyes and straightening on her seat. The knock that came moments later didn't surprise her, nor did the door opening to reveal Kanan, one hand on the frame to orient himself as he leaned over the threshold.

"Hera?" he called, softly, voice full of concern. "Can I come in?"

Hera made sure her eyes were dry and cleared her throat before she answered. "It's fine," she said. Her hand leapt up as if to ward him off and she shook her head. "I'm fine, Kanan, I was just..." She shifted backwards on the bench. "Trying to get in a quick nap before the briefing."

Kanan's frown as he came inside, walking over to her, was skeptical.

"You don't sound fine," he told her.

Hera said nothing, her gaze slowly dropping towards her lap.

Kanan sat down, shifting until he was right up next to her. Hera turned her face away from him, her eyes squeezing closed. His arm slowly slid over her shoulders, warm and comforting.

"What is it?" he asked her.

A dry sniffle escaped her, her heart welling up and breaking. Wet heat was beginning to sting at her eyes again. She reached up, pressing one gloved hand against her left eye, blotting it.

"I can't stop the thoughts in my head," she said, strained. "I can't stop worrying about him or wondering..."

She trailed off a moment, emotion and shame clogging her throat, tightening the muscles of her neck.

She peeked aside at him, taking a shaky inhale. "Did we make a mistake, Kanan?" she asked quietly, after a pause. "Recruiting Ezra?" The hand on her face clawed into her temple as she dropped her eyes again. "Did I make a mistake?" she agonized, voice trembling.

"Hera..." Kanan exclaimed, shocked and just slightly scandalized. A little more seriously he asked, "Why do you say that?"

Hera inhaled shakily, her sides vibrating. "Everything he's been through the past few months—stars, the past year—" she said. "Malachor, Maul, the Chimaera, all of it, I can't help but think... was any of it worth it?" Both hands were on her head now, pressing into her forehead. Her voice shook with emotion. "Was it worth it pushing him to the forefront of the Rebellion, if he has to endure so much pain?"

"You didn't push him into anything," Kanan said, shaking his head slightly.

"Didn't I?" she asked, giving a short, humorless laugh. She raised her head. "I urged you to test him. I was the one who wanted him on the crew," she listed. "I watched him rise up the ranks of the Alliance and said nothing, expressed no concerns about the stress and pressure and the weight of duty being placed on his shoulders, and I was the one who let him go on the retrieval mission to save Kallus." Her hands curled into fists, batting herself above her ear cones. "Agh, every time I think about it I can't believe how irresponsible I was!" she cried. "How could let him put himself in harm's way like that?!"

"Hera, you couldn't have known what would happen," Kanan pointed out. "It was something he'd done a million times before."

"He should never have had to." She blinked away the blur in her vision. "I failed him, Kanan. I should never have let him go," she croaked out. A breathless sob managed to escape her, despite her efforts. "Maybe... maybe I should never have let him join us in the first place. He could have stayed safe on Lothal. The Empire, Maul... none of it would have happened," she mused, her voice hollow and dead.

Kanan took her shoulders firmly, roughly, turning her to face him. "Hera... this is not your fault. None of it," he emphasized, his mouth pulled down in stern lines. "It was Ezra's choice to join the crew. Just like it was Ezra's choice to take the mission. You couldn't have stopped him even if you'd wanted to. You won't be able to stop him even after we get him back—which we will," he said determinedly. He let the hands on her shoulders loosen a little. "He's in this fight because he wants to be," he told her softly. "And he knows the risks and the stakes that come with it."

Hera lifted her head, a sad, self-hating smile playing on her lips. "You don't sometimes think he would have been better off? That maybe the Empire would have left him alone if we hadn't pulled him in?" she asked.

Kanan shook his head.

"He's Force Sensitive. That was never going to happen." He tugged her closer, tucking her under his arm as his other hand hooked around her waist. "Honestly? Ezra's fate was sealed when he volunteered to come with us to Kessel," he said. "Kallus told me he saw Ezra jump higher than he should have been able to. He knew Ezra was Force Sensitive after that. If we hadn't taken him in, the Empire would have hunted him down anyway. And who knows what would have happened to him then."

Hera couldn't help but shudder to think about it, as she pressed closer into Kanan's embrace. The thought of any of the Inquisitors getting their hands on Ezra...

She was pulled out of her dark imaginings as Kanan continued.

"Do I think you made a mistake in recruiting him?" He leaned his chin on her head, hugging her tightly. "No. No I don't," he told her. "But why did you recruit him?"

She sighed softly. Typical Jedi. Asking her the pointed questions to make her confront truths she already knew but couldn't articulate.

"Because..." she started, then fumbled a moment for the words. The answer came to her slowly, pulled out of her by a clarity of mind that suddenly crept over her. "Because he was hopeless, and I wanted to give him hope. I wanted to inspire him to do better, be better, because I knew he could be." Her voice steadied as she spoke, growing stronger and more certain. "Because I saw a spark in him, something that told me he could be a voice for freedom, a call to arms against the tyranny of the Empire, a rallying cry for rebellion," she said. She reached up and gripped her elbows tightly, turning her head towards him. "I saw fire in him, Kanan, and the potential to lead," she finished.

He was nodding.

"You saw the Jedi he could be, before even I did," he said.

Hera gave a tiny chuckle, staring off towards her workdesk. "I guess so," she mused.

Kanan's arms shifted. His hands took her shoulders again, sightless gaze intense even through the mask. "Listen to me," he said. "We will get him back. And he will be okay." His fingers pressed into her shoulders tightly. "Maybe not right then, maybe not for a while," he continued. A soft smile touched his lips. "But Ezra's stronger than almost anyone I know. He'll get through this. We all will. Together."

The chaos inside Hera quieted, and she felt put at ease by Kanan's words. Her eyelids dropped and she began to lean closer, raising her chin up.

A loud series of blorts interrupted them.

Hera dropped her face, sighing heavily. "What is it, Chopper?" she asked.

"WUBBUB WUUUB WUB WUUUUB WUB," the droid reported.

Hera gently pushed herself out of Kanan's embrace. "Rebel Command is calling us to the briefing," she translated. Her breath hitched, a sudden swell of sorrow threatening to make her cry again and undo all of Kanan's work.

She squeezed her eyes closed, dropping her head.

"I can't do it, Kanan," she strained. "I know what they want from me and I can't—"

"Together," he interrupted, grabbing her hand.

The warmth of the contact cut through her despair. The sob building in her chest subsided.

She nodded, mutely.

Kanan stood, helping her rise to her feet.

His hand didn't let go of hers the whole way.

-SWR-

The mood of the room was grim, and Mon Mothma wore a serious frown as she took up position by the holoprojector, addressing the room at large.

"We can afford to delay no longer," she announced. She looked significantly at Hera. "There are rumors that the TIE Defender already has an upgraded prototype in development."

Rex gave an incredulous sputter behind her.

"They haven't even put the first one on the production line yet!" he cried.

"I know," Mon Mothma confirmed, nodding soberly. "The amount of research and resources being put into this project is worrisome."

"Thrawn is backing it," Kallus pointed out, the low light from the holoprojector casting shadows on his face. "His experience and influence are highly regarded in Imperial High Command. His clout is no doubt driving the TIE Defender's unusual rapid development."

Mon Mothma's face pinched. "That also worries me," she said, "given the defeat he dealt to us at Atollon." She unclasped her hands from behind her back, leaning them on the edge of the holoprojector. "We don't have enough intel for a full attack, and Imperial comm chatter in the area is heavily locked and encrypted and difficult to parse, so we have no idea of the size and strength of the blockade's forces," she detailed. "So we are starting with a smaller sortie—no more than four or five ships—to test out the planetary defenses around Lothal. If you can break through the line," she emphasized, "the Chimaera will be your primary target."

Hera felt the woman's gaze land on her, and pulled herself out of her private thoughts.

The senator's attention weighed heavily on the Twi'lek pilot.

"We want you to try to knock out the bridge, if possible," she said. "That may be our best chance at killing Thrawn. Can you do it?"

The room was deadly quiet. Eyes were looking at her expectantly, and Hera felt the pressure of their anticipation.

Kanan's hand privately squeezed hers tighter.

Taking a deep breath, Hera resolved to make a difficult decision.

"Nothing... nothing is more important to me than this cause, Senator, and liberating Lothal especially. And," she continued, fighting the block in her throat, "I'd like nothing more than to blow up Thrawn's ship with him on it." She couldn't stop the undercurrent of fury that found its way into her voice, or how her hand fisted saying the man's name. The anger sagged out of her as she closed her eyes briefly and shook her head. "But with Ezra missing... I fear that I am too..." She swallowed thickly. "...emotionally compromised to lead this mission."

She took a small step back.

"I'm sorry."

Mon Mothma looked a bit disappointed, but understanding. She lifted her head, looking around the room.

"Is there anyone willing to volunteer to lead the sortie?" she asked.

"I'll do it," Zeb piped up.

Hera turned towards him in surprise. "Zeb—" she started to say, tone protesting.

"Hey," he stopped her, both paws landing on her arms. "You just focus on finding Ezra okay?" He grinned faintly. "I'll give Thrawn a good knock in the teeth for ya."

Hera relaxed, gratitude swelling up inside her. She reached up, squeezing one of his fingers. "Don't die out there," she told him sternly.

"I won't," he promised. He stepped back, his grin widening cheekily. "Gotta come back so I can rip Maul's head off when we find him."

Mon Mothma nodded. "Thank you, Captain Orrelios." She turned on the holoprojector and began detailing what little they knew about the blockade's current strength. Dodonna and Draven piped in, discussing attack patterns and strategy. Rex and Wedge volunteered to take part in the attack.

It all became noise floating around her head. Hera zoned out, drifting into her own thoughts. Kanan's words echoed in her head.

He seemed so certain, despite everything, that they would be able to save Ezra. That they could bring him home.

She wished she could have that certainty. She wished she could still believe their lost spectre would be found.

But day by day her hope was slowly fading.

Chapter Text

Ezra emerged slowly from a fading nightmare. His face pinched. He fumbled out with his arm, searching for Sabine to pull her closer and let the faint smell of her paint fill his senses and settle his agitated mind again.

His hand met empty air.

Frowning, Ezra stretched further, but he couldn't feel her on the bed. Where was—?

He turned his head and opened his eyes, staring uncomprehendingly at his arm lying across an icy rock floor.

After a long moment... his brain caught up.

Oh, he thought in disappointment, the realization coming over him.

He lay there a while longer, a dull feeling weighing him down. Some niggling voice at the back of his head urged him to get up, but he couldn't push past the heaviness that kept him on the floor where he was.

His mind strained to remember Sabine's scent. If he could recall it for even a moment... It was so irrational but he just wanted something to cling to, some part of home to comfort him.

Nothing, not even phantoms, came to him.

Finally, he forced himself to sit up.

His arms rested on his legs dully.

He was so... tired of this. Tired of waking up from sleeping nightmares to waking ones. Tired of throwing himself at Maul like a wave breaking on rocks, having the older, more experienced fighter indulge his efforts until he got bored of them, tripped Ezra up with a dirty trick or fancy advanced saber move to knock him down again and again. He was tired of this cell, of only being let out to eat, relieve himself, or try dueling for his freedom.

He wasn't even sure anymore how many days had passed since he'd been abducted. They were blurring together. Repetitive. Routine.

He hated all of this so much. He just wanted to lash out with the Force, wrap its fingers around Maul's neck and choke the life out of him.

He knew he had to resist those impulses. Giving in to the Dark Side wouldn't help him. It would just make everything worse.

But it was getting harder and harder every passing day.

Ezra sat numbly, his arms draped over his knees, looking between his feet. He didn't even react when Maul shut off the dampening barrier. Footsteps crunched across the gravel floor and still he didn't move.

A metal toe nudged him.

"Get up, Ezra," Maul urged.

Ezra's arms tightened around himself for a half a second, his mind briefly indulging in the idea of just ignoring Maul, but the next moment he heaved himself up, wearily, pushing past the gravity pulling him down and rising to his feet.

Maul moved out of his way and Ezra trudged out of the alcove.

He hadn't taken more than two steps when he staggered suddenly, something hitting his senses, nearly blowing him over. A sharp roiling nausea swelled in his stomach. His head felt dizzy, the ringing of the kyber crystals sounding in his ears but... distorted. Out of tune.

"What... what did you... do?" he gasped, shaking his head. His eyes darted around, looking for the source of the awful feeling. The cavern was chillier than normal, dank with a sense of dread and foreboding.

"Do?" Maul asked innocently.

Ezra's hands came up to press against the sides of his head. Cold fingers seemed to be squeezing his heart, tightening in his lungs. "The air feels... wrong," he strained, a headache beginning to build in his skull.

He looked around again, feeling vaguely like the cavern was darker than it was supposed to be somehow, and with that notion realized what was different.

He stared at the walls. A dozen of the tiny shards of kyber had darkened and were now glowing a somber, dull red.

Ezra's eyes fixated on them in horror.

He'd bled them.

The fragments of a memory came to his mind, him asking curiously about Ahsoka's white sabers, her giving a truncated explanation about how Dark Side users forced their will upon the kyber, staining it a distinctive red. He could hear the crystals in his mind, broken, screaming about what had been done to them. He could almost feel it as physical pain.

He gulped, glancing up at Maul, who seemed nonchalantly uninterested in Ezra's horrific discovery.

"Wash up, and eat quickly," he instructed, already striding over to the other side of the room, picking up a skewer and inspecting it before stoking the firepit with the end.

Ezra swallowed down the nausea that was moving through him. Shaking, he did as he was told, trying to ignore the creeping feeling of dread from the ruined crystals.

-SWR-

He did poorly for the first portion of their daily duel, the reason for the bled crystals becoming apparent in the horrible distraction it caused him. He couldn't pay attention to his movements while he heard them shrieking in the Force, and Maul used that opportunity to knock him over again and again.

He didn't call a stop to their fight, however, so Ezra used that to his advantage.

Pushing off with his foot, he launched himself in the air, the Force assisting his jump. His saber clashed with Maul's as he deftly flipped overhead, landing behind the man and using the opening to run up the exit tunnel and lead the fight elsewhere, away from the bled crystals and the dissonance they caused in his mind.

Maul seemed to realize his plan, moving to try and block him.

Ezra used his smaller size and agility to outmaneuver him, striking defensively, barely let Maul's saber glance off his before moving away, running along the walls sometimes, twisting, sliding, anything he could to keep moving past him, keep driving the fight up towards the chamber with the frozen lake.

The noise from the kyber crystals dimmed and dimmed and Ezra's head became clearer, his strikes more precise, less clumsy.

Now it was truly a match.

Maul slashed a long stroke towards his chest. Ezra blocked, ducking under the follow-up strike. He conserved his momentum, tucking and rolling to the side, coming up and thrusting his saber towards Maul's side.

Sparks flew off their blades as they clashed.

Maul struck out at him with a diagonal slice. Ezra stepped back quickly, letting it pass, kicking into the back of Maul's metal knee.

The limb slid out a bit from its solid stance, forcing Maul to readjust, backtrack to find steady footing.

Ezra rejoiced briefly for the three extra feet of ground he'd gained, but Maul didn't let him enjoy it long, coming at him hard now, trying to drive him back.

He grit his teeth as he blocked, held a saber lock, slowly pushed Maul's blade back. He was not going back down to that red kyber hell.

He disengaged, darting to the side. Maul whirled to follow but Ezra had already outmaneuvered him and was running into the open, emerging into the frozen lake chamber. Ezra planted his feet as Maul came at him, driving both red blades against his defense.

The boy held his saber steady, briefly letting go with one hand, calling the Force to him. Several icicles from the ceiling broke off, pulling down to smash against Maul's back.

The man gave a satisfying grunt of pain. He recovered, brushing bits of ice off his shoulders, gripping the hilt of his lightsaber tighter and pressing his attack.

Once, twice, three times the red blades flashed out, Ezra giving ground as he deflected them. Maul feinted a strike towards his right shoulder; when Ezra moved to block him Maul jabbed the middle of his hilt into Ezra's chin.

Ezra felt it crack thought his jaw, his throat giving a sharp muffled groan that he bit his lip on to keep in. He stumbled but managed to recover, giving way before Maul's renewed onslaught.

There was an ache beginning to build in his arms. Ezra forced himself to ignore it, focusing all his concentration into gathering Force energy in his hand. Maul was trying to drive him against the wall again, and a little bit of anger slipped through into Ezra's focus.

He waited until he saw an opportunity and then released, thrusting his hand palm-out towards Maul.

The strength of the Force Push took even him by surprise, sending Maul flying back into the wall near the exit tunnel, his head slamming into the rock.

The man slumped in place and lay still.

Ezra's eyes widened a fraction as he dropped his hand. He held his breath as he slowly stepped forward, green blade extended carefully.

There was no movement from the Zabrak.

Some odd tingling started in Ezra's heart and he glanced rapidly towards the exit tunnel. His pulse picked up, his heart audibly thumping in his chest.

He waited for a few seconds more, his feet stepping to the side, inching towards the tunnel.

Maul began to stir.

Ezra's whole body jolted with a cold prickle and he rushed for the opening.

A growl from behind warned him a moment before he felt Maul's arms come around his midsection, tackling him before he was more than a few steps down the tunnel.

Ezra's face smacked the floor and he jerked up furiously, twisting and struggling as Maul grabbed his right wrist and pinned it and his saber down, pulled his other arm up painfully behind his back.

"Get off me!" Ezra shouted, anger and desperation running hot in his veins.

Metal legs pinched his sides and Maul tightened his hold.

"You're improving," he complimented, sounding genuinely impressed. "Perhaps you're listening to me after all."

Ezra gnashed his teeth together, holding in a nasty screaming retort. His arms were released, the pressure on his back lessened up and Ezra scrambled to his feet, gasping as Maul hooked a hand tightly around his arm and pulled him back into the chamber.

"What are you doing?!" Ezra cried, stumbling as he was dragged along, blundering a couple awkward steps as Maul released him before straightening up, ramrod stiff. "I won!" he protested indignantly.

Yellow eyes narrowed at him, unamaused. "You did no such thing," Maul said.

"I knocked you out!" he yelled back, his still-ignited saber shaking in his hands as he trembled with anger.

"If I am able to immediately get back up, that does not count as incapacitating me," Maul told him, tone patronizing and flat.

Ezra's free hand slashed with agitated gestures. "That was never part of the victory conditions!" he argued hotly.

Maul shrugged. "It is now."

"You said—"

"We are done talking about this, Ezra," Maul interrupted, a dangerous glint flashing briefly in his eyes, his brows narrowing. "Begin again. We are not through with our fight," he ordered.

Ezra's face twisted, rage and despair competing for attention on his features. "That's not fair! You can't just change the rules like that!" he cried, his voice pitching a bit shrill.

Maul passed his saber from one hand to the other with nonchalant indifference. "I am changing nothing, merely clarifying what needs to happen for it to be considered your victory," he said calmly. "I will overlook your attempt down the exit tunnel as a misunderstanding, and will not punish you for it." He ignited his saber again, eyes pinning on Ezra. "Now, are you going to accept my generous offer to continue," he emphasized with dripping condescension, "or shall I have to cut this session short?"

Ezra shook, a war raging behind his eyes. His stomach was sinking, his veins were flaring hot, and his fingers gripped around his saber hilt so hard it hurt.

It's not fair. It's not fair, I was so close! rang the thought in his head.

It was followed a second later by a sinking self-revelation.

Maul was never going to honor his end of their bargain.

His shoulders slumped.

"...You don't have any intention of letting me go if I win. You never did," he concluded, the realization making his voice quiet and lifeless. "You're only doing this to wear me down, break my resolve until I give up," he continued. His hand loosened around his saber hilt. "Until I've given myself over to the Dark Side."

Maul said nothing for a long pregnant moment.

Ezra waited for him to speak, a small irrational part of him begging the man to deny it.

Maul shifted ever so slightly.

"...Clever lad," he said.

All the rage left him in a moment. The tension sagged out of Ezra's body and he wilted, hopelessness swelling in his chest and threatening to drown him.

"Maul..." he strained, his voice small, "...please..." His breaths came in soft shudders. "Just let me go," he begged, his expression agonized.

Maul's eyes were as hard and cold on him as ever. "You know what you need to do, Ezra."

Ezra could hear the whisper in his ear, the poisonous thought tempting him.

Use the Dark Side. Just once, and it will free you.

He shook his head, dispelling it. "I can't," he said, a helpless whine in his voice.

"You will never be strong enough to save yourself without the Dark Side. Embrace it. Use it," Maul provoked him, curling a hand into a fist. "You know you must."

Ezra continued shaking his head. "I won't. I won't do that," he denied.

Maul's fist loosened into an open-palmed gesture. "Then here you will remain," Maul pronounced lightly. "And we will do this again. And again." His hand dropped to his saber as he took up a ready position, eyes narrowing and tone dropping harshly. "As many times as necessary," he finished.

Ezra panted softly, the adrenaline from the fight leaving him. Heat burned behind his eyes but tears wouldn't come. All that he felt was a dull gray depression. Dejection solidified in his chest.

He should have known. Why did he ever think Maul would honor his own deal? The Dark Side was lies and manipulation and trickery and he should have known. Maul had broken his word so many times before. Why had he expected anything different?

I'm such an idiot.

Ezra allowed himself one more moment of self-pity. Then he inhaled slowly, steeling himself.

His eyes and expression narrowed stubbornly.

"No."

He switched off his lightsaber, held it out and dropped it. Then he sat down, deliberately and heavily on the floor, crossing his arms around his legs.

There was an immediate subtle flicker of rage across Maul's face. "Ezra, pick up your lightsaber," he ordered, voice terse.

"What's the point?" Ezra asked wearily, extending a hand. "You won't let me go." He tucked his arm back in. "I'm not playing your sick game anymore," he said in disgust.

Maul took a threatening step forward, fist strangling his saber hilt.

"Get. Up," he growled through his teeth.

Ezra glared at him. "Go jump in the frozen lake," he bit. He didn't care if Maul put him in the void again. He wasn't going to be cowed this time.

Maul was vibrating with contained anger.

"If you won't fight for your freedom..." he seethed dangerously, "...then fight for your life!"

The last word swelled in volume as Maul lunged. Eyes widening, Ezra flung himself to the side, out of the way, in time for the red blade to stab into the ground where he'd just been.

Not pausing, Maul whirled his lightsaber and swiped at Ezra again. Ezra flattened himself, covering his head, feeling the blade's heat sweep over his back.

He stuck out a hand and his lightsaber leapt back into his palm, but he didn't have time to ignite it; Maul was slashing at him with a diagonal stoke from the second blade. Ezra rolled left, tucking in, finding his feet and straightening. His blade sprang into existence just in time to block a fourth followup.

Heart in his throat, his lungs tight, Ezra forced himself to remember to breathe as two more heavy strikes clashed against his blade, a power and rage behind each blow that made him nervous.

The red and green locked and Ezra struggled to keep his stance steady, feeling his feet sliding towards the rim of the lake as Maul pressed him forward.

His mouth was dry and his arms trembled but he managed to hold Maul back. "What are you doing?" he asked, horrified. The ferocity and speed of the last several attacks had been on a level much greater than Maul had unleashed on him before. Had he been holding back all this time?

If I couldn't beat him before... he thought nervously.

Maul's expression was even and composed, the anger behind his strikes not reaching his face, only making flickers in the Force. "I have no more patience for your childish rebellion, apprentice," he said.

With a quick motion he broke the blade lock, thrusting, and Ezra gasped sharply and jerked back as he felt the red blade burn on his arm, grazing him.

He stumbled backwards out of range, one hand clutching the sizzling gash, wincing at the torn edges of his sleeve and the melted skin underneath.

He gaped up at Maul, fear sounding a low chord through his stomach.

The man inspected his blade casually. "If you refuse to accept my help, perhaps it is time I just got rid of you," he pronounced.

What?!

A cold splinter pierced his gut. Ezra stared in shock.

He doesn't mean that. He doesn't

Maul's eyes focused back on him and a growl sounded as he spun his blade and struck.

Ezra deflected, his mind racing. Maul was raising his fist for a blow.

"Waitwaitwait—!" he cried, holding out a hand. Maul dove under his defenses, socking him hard in the stomach. Ezra doubled over breathless a moment, holding his midsection and grimacing. "Wait!" he gasped, the word straining through his throat.

Maul just pressed his attack.

Ezra gave ground, using the one opening he got to fling himself away from the edge of the lake. He glanced back towards the exit tunnel a split second before whipping forward again, blocking blow after blow that crashed against his saber. Maul drove him back towards the wall and it was all Ezra could do to keep up.

He was too focused on blocking to see the Force Push coming; he just glimpsed Maul draw his hand back and then felt it bowl into him like a swinging weight, knocking him down, flat onto his back.

Maul pounced and Ezra rolled out of the way of a hammering saber strike, feeling it hit the ground at his back. He got his arms underneath him to push up, but the next second felt searing pain across his shoulders.

Ezra gasped, slipping back down onto his elbows, the shock reverberating through him. The saber cut wasn't deep—just a shallow straight-line gash in his back—but it stung, sharp and intense, incapacitating. Ezra's hands scrabbled for purchase on the ground, panic rattling in his head.

Get up get up get up! he yelled at himself. C'mon, move!

Before he could raise himself off the cavern floor, he felt a familiar grip take hold of his short-cropped hair, iron fingers tangling in the roots, pulling him up.

Ezra grimaced harshly, holding in a whimper, quick, frightened breaths passing through his nose as Maul hauled him to his knees and brought his burning blade level to Ezra's neck.

"I don't know why I thought you could be trained," he was saying, withering disappointment in his tone. "Look at you," he scoffed. "You can't even defend yourself."

Ezra's brows narrowed in anger and he bit his lip, quickly and carefully bringing the tip of his ignited lightsaber into the narrow gap between the red heat and his skin, thrusting up, pushing Maul's blade away from him. He pulled forward with a jerk and wrenched his hair out of Maul's grip, staggering to his feet.

He turned to face Maul, hands shaking a moment before they steadied on his hilt. He didn't wait for Maul to attack, rushing forward. His first cut was deflected, the second rebuffed by a hand pushing his wrist off-course, and then Maul was on him again and Ezra stepped back and back, giving ground. His arms flashed through block position after block position.

There was a pause in the onslaught and Ezra took it, striking out with his leg. He kicked Maul in the stomach, managing to knock him back a pace or two. Maul recovered, spinning his saber, gripping the hilt and leaping at him.

Sparks shot off Ezra's blade as he deflected. As Maul was stepping back to resume position, Ezra turned tail, bolting for the exit tunnel.

It was a flagrant breach of the rules but he didn't care, he couldn't hear the warning bells in his head over the pounding pulse in his ears and the shrill urge to run ringing through him.

But the warning bells screeched louder when an invisible cold claw latched around his torso. His breath stopped for a terrifying moment.

The Force grip yanked him back harshly, spilling him onto the ground.

"Where do you think you're going?!" Maul screamed in outrage, bringing a violent overhead strike down on him.

A dozen curses shrieked through his head, his throat locking with panic as he met the blow and sagged under it, his arms straining on his saber to hold back the crimson blade and the weight Maul was shoving down on him.

Now he was really in trouble.

Maul pressed him almost flat on his back and Ezra pushed back desperately, trying to keep his head off the floor. He kicked out again, hitting Maul's leg, a pitiful little thump that barely made the man flinch.

Ezra squeezed his eyes closed, concentrating, calling the Force to him.

He shoved up with his saber, and finally managed to break the blade lock and push Maul off him, left hand coming off the hilt.

Maul leaned back, his leg flashing out, metal foot slamming into Ezra's side as he was sitting up.

"Ngh!" Ezra cried, clenching his teeth, curling in on himself, his free hand leaping up to clutch his ribs. Pounding pain reverberated through his chest as he turned over, rolling onto his knees.

He heard a saber blade deactivate behind him, a faint swish as something moved through the air.

Crack!

Metal connected with his skin and pain exploded behind his head as Maul clubbed him with his lightsaber hilt.

Ezra hit the floor face first, arms collapsing under him, the pain pulsing through his skull, struggling to focus through bleary eyes and a dizzy head. He cried out again as Maul's foot came down pinchingly on his right wrist.

His fingers spasmed, losing hold of his lightsaber.

With a casual flick with his other toe Maul kicked it away, sending it rolling and bouncing along the floor, deactivating.

Cold terror choked Ezra's breath, splinters of it stabbing with the pain through his head.

He felt Maul step off his wrist, sensed him leaning down, passing his saber from left hand to right. Ezra's fingers curled into the ground but before he could move he felt a harsh grip seize him by the ear.

Maul hauled him up—

—only to slam him back down again, smashing his head against the floor.

Ezra felt his forehead split, another stab of pain shooting through him. Dazed, he could barely protest, barely even move, as Maul released his ear, reaching down to grip his collar instead. Ezra's hands grasped weakly at his tattooed arm as he was dragged up, body limp, feet dangling.

Maul reeled back and then flung him away, into the wall, the Force enhancing his throw.

Ezra's back hit the rock; he grunted breathlessly, his hands and arms scratching into the surface to keep himself from collapsing.

His head finally cleared enough for him to steady his feet and he pushed up, pinning himself against the wall.

"Okay okay!" he cried, putting his hands up, eyes wide with abject fear. "I'll try again! I'll do whatever you want! I'm sorry!" he said desperately.

Maul was a menacing tower in front of him, tall and imposing even from across the way. The single still-ignited blade was held at his side, pointed down at the floor, but threatening in the way Maul gripped it.

His eyes were cold embers as he glared down at Ezra.

"Do you think that will save you?" he asked, chillingly.

Horror clamped around his lungs. His raised hands faltered. Dread shrieked through his skull.

"I'm sorry..." he just repeated, whispering fearfully.

There was a horrible notion building in his head. He'd pushed Maul too far this time, he shouldn't have mouthed off, he shouldn't have tried to run because now Maul was truly angry and had stopped holding back and...

Ezra swallowed, his throat so tight the motion hurt.

He's going to kill me, he thought with certainty.

Maul rushed forward, swinging his saber wildly, and all of Ezra's instincts went into survival mode and he was ducking and flinching and covering his head, jerking out of the way as Maul slashed at him again and again, gouging the rock repeatedly, sparks falling from the blade onto Ezra's neck and back as it hit the wall.

Maul tired of his evasion and dodging after a moment, stepping back, positioning his saber in his right hand for a thrust.

Ezra tried to bolt past him. He didn't get three steps before the familiar invisible grip clenched around him, thrusting him back against the wall.

His hands flashed up—he couldn't let Maul pin him to the rock again—and he summoned his own wellspring of energy, exploding it outwards to break Maul's hold.

Maul actually staggered, stumbling back just far enough that Ezra could get by. He pushed off the wall and ran, passing on Maul's right, heading for where his lightsaber had dropped.

Maul was already turning. His hand lunged, his upper body following, and he seized Ezra's right wrist, yanking back.

Ezra gasped in pain as his arm was wrenched backwards, overbalancing, stumbling, twisting around in the hold as the muscles in his shoulder screamed in protest.

Once Maul had pulled him back into range he let go, his left hand darting around behind Ezra's head and grabbing a good chunkful of his hair, angling his head back. Ezra winced, then choked on his fear as Maul brought the burning lightsaber blade down towards his neck.

Both hands scrabbed around Maul's, holding tightly, pushing back against the man's formidable strength, straining to keep the hot blade from sizzling his throat. Closer and closer it drew, the heat off it growing sharper, its humming a loud drone that reverberated in his ears, echoing in his mind as the sound of a floating black droid—

Ezra's panic reaction was immediate; he twisted his head, dipping forward and biting into Maul's hand.

The ex-Sith screamed in rage and no small amount of pain, the saber deactivating as he tried to throw Ezra off, wrench himself away.

He let go of Ezra's hair, his hand leaping up, slapping him across the face.

Ezra grimaced, bracing against the hit, squeezing his eyes closed as the blow rattled through his jaw, but hung on, biting harder.

Maul struck him again, a heavy-handed strike that smashed into his temple. Ezra's head was knocked to the side, breaking his contact, and his hands loosened and dropped as he stumbled and tried to recover.

Maul dropped his saber, flinging it aside, growling in pure venomous anger. He reached up, both hands finding Ezra's neck and closing around him, forcing his head up, squeezing.

Ezra choked, straining breathlessly. He batted at Maul's arms as the man wrestled him down, sitting heavily on his stomach and pinning him to the floor, his chokehold tightening.

Ezra twisted frantically, his fingers raking Maul's wrists, feet scuffing weakly. Fear-filled eyes looked up into Maul's severe-set frown and furiously crunched brows. The man looked eerily calm as he strangled Ezra, a simmering rage behind his eyes as he glared evenly down at him.

The vice around his throat was crushing, bruising, and Ezra struggled for just a sliver of breath. His head was starting to feel light.

The boy's hand fumbled along the ground, searching for a weapon. His land lit upon a loose rock; his fingers tightened around it and he whipped it up and smashed it against the side of Maul's head.

Maul gave a loud grunt, reeling back, hands loosing, coming off.

Ezra inhaled sharply, flailing up, wriggling out of the hold and turning onto his stomach. His hands clutched at the ground as he dragged himself out from under the man, hurriedly crawling away, towards the smooth surface of the lake.

Maul was on him again in moments, a furious growl sounding behind him and then hands in his hair and on his neck, pinching tightly, drawing him back.

Crick!

Maul slammed him face first into the ice. Ezra yelped, clutching at the hand tangled in his hair, his cheek stinging.

Crick!

The ex-Sith banged his head against the cold surface again.

An ominous crack sounded and Ezra blinked frantically to clear his vision and noticed with pulsing worry the hairline fractures and spots of red from his split forehead on the ice as he was pulled back up.

He braced himself as his head descended towards the frozen mirror.

CRACK!

This time his head broke the surface.

The ice cold water slapped his face like a thousand tiny buzzard stings. Ezra jerked his head up, gasping, only to feel Maul position his hands behind Ezra's neck and shoulders and push him back down, plunging his face and head into the freezing water and holding him there.

Panic spiked shrilly through him.

No no no no not again! he thought, mind flashing back to his near-drowning a couple days ago, the horrible way the water burned down his lungs, the numbness in his fingers as his nails scratched uselessly at solid ice. Please not again, no, stop, stop!

Maul sat on his back and pressed on him, giving him no leverage, one hand moving to the back of his head, the other staying locked on his neck. Ezra could hear the dull splashing of his arms as they whipped in and out of the water, grabbing hysterically at Maul's hands, scratching, pulling.

His lips pressed tight, resisting the urge to open his mouth even as his lungs slowly tightened and tightened, running out of air. The water dimmed his vision and hearing, and the cold sank into his skin, stealing feeling from his face. He thrashed, kicked, shifted underneath the man's weight but he couldn't free himself.

The urge to breathe was overwhelming and blaringly frantic now. He tried to focus his senses, but could only feel his blind panic, and Maul's cold presence above him, the frayed Force bond they shared fluttering behind his head.

In desperation he reached through it, calling out, opening his mind a fraction to him.

Stop stop stop stop, please! he begged. Please, I don't want to die!

For a terrifying few seconds nothing changed. Water slipped into his mouth and he squeezed his eyes closed, terrified.

Then the pressure on him vanished.

Ezra gasped heavily as Maul dragged him up out of the water, burning lungs screaming their relief as air finally penetrated them. Maul dangled him threateningly over the lake edge, left hand holding him tightly by the hair, right thumb pinching against the bones of his upper spine as if challenging Ezra to give him a reason to dunk him again.

Water dripped down his face, soaking into his collar, mingling with the blood from his cut. Ezra was close to hyperventilating. Abject fear still pulsed in his mind. He was utterly paralyzed with it.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm sorry, Master, please."

The word slipped out, unconsciously, a desperate, pitiful attempt at appeasement. Alarms rang in his head, silently pleading for everything to just stop.

The fingers tightened in his hair.

"Pathetic," Maul spit.

Ezra cried out weakly as he was hauled up, then flung off to the side. He curled up, arms crossing over his chest, breath shaking.

His throat squeezed at the sound of Maul's approaching footsteps.

"Don't tell me this is how you faced the Imperials," he intoned scornfully, each metal footstep sending pounding doom into Ezra's heart.

He flinched as he felt Maul's shadow fall across him.

"Crying."

Maul kicked him hard in the stomach, making him yelp pitifully, rolling him across the cold ground.

"Begging for mercy."

Invisible fingers locked around Ezra's neck and collar, dragging him up off the ground, hanging him in midair. Ezra didn't even have the strength to kick.

A forceful push and he flew across the chamber, crashing into the wall, collapsing down onto his hands and knees and staying there.

Quiet, dry sobbing shuddered through him. His mind was darkening with hopeless thoughts.

This wasn't going to stop. Maul was going to drag this out as long as he could, before killing him.

His back stung. He could feel blood clotting on his forehead. His shoulder ached dully. Everything hurt.

He choked on a large lump of terror in his throat, trembling as Maul's metal feet encroached on the edge of his vision.

His whole body shook helplessly as he felt Maul lean down. Cold claws gripped around his chin, tilting his head up, so Ezra was made to look face to face with his captor, his eyes wide and filled with terror.

Maul sneered at him, not a hint of sympathy in his own narrowed, blazing eyes.

"You did, didn't you?" he accused.

The fingers tightened, curling up towards his ears.

"You were weak!" he spat.

He slammed Ezra's head back against the wall.

BAM!

Ezra winced and clamped up on a whimper, shots of fear moving through him, shaking his head weakly.

"No..." he croaked.

He reached up to grasp at Maul's arm. Maul seized his wrist harshly and pinned it to the wall next to his head, trapping him.

"You let it happen!" he shouted.

Hot tears threatened on the edges of Ezra's eyes, a flicker of anger passing through the fear and panic. "No!" he yelled in denial, hands fisting, twisting.

"Prove me wrong!" Maul bellowed in his face. His voice was at a fever pitch now. "Show me, Ezra!" He released Ezra's wrist, holding his hand above Ezra's face. "Show me everything."

A hideous pressure began to build in his head, pulsing between his eyes. Ezra felt an ice-cold knife digging in.

He gasped.

"Stop... please..." he pleaded, breathless, wrestling against the presence, desperately holding it back.

Maul dug his mind probe harder against Ezra's shields, scraping his way into the boy's mind.

"Let... me... in!" he growled.

Ezra felt dark shadows worming their way under his walls, trying to slither through the cracks. He fought back, straining desperately, but the pressure and weight on him grew heavier and heavier and Maul had found the opening in their bond and was forcing his way in.

He held out for one more heartbeat, trembling.

Then, something gave.

Ezra's eyes shot wide open and he gasped sharply. Maul was inside his head. He was inside his

His jaw was still stinging, the feel of the needle pinprick still fresh, as Pryce turned casually away from him. He felt a vague, dull warmth spreading underneath his gums, slowly, slowly encompassing his head and it felt faintly... nice, actually.

He blinked hard, trying to concentrate.

Pryce called up to the window to Thrawn and his monotone voice piped in on the intercom. He needed to brace himself. Whatever was coming, it wasn't

The shock hit him, painful static stabbing into every inch of his skin, searing and tearing his nerves.

Ezra screamed, coming to himself briefly before Maul plunged him back into the memory.

The electrodes rattled near his ears, buzzing and popping sharply as they sent tendrils of rippling pain across his body.

He shrieked helplessly until he could no longer feel it, until his body was left numb and disconnected.

"Where is the Rebel base?" Pryce asked.

He hung forward in the restraints, blurry eyes seeing nothing but the floor. He shook his head, but the fog rolling around in his mind wouldn't clear.

"Bridger."

He moaned.

"Bridger, look at me."

He refused.

The pain came again.

And again.

And again.

The memories played faster as Maul forced him to relieve them.

A syringe with a thick tube of orange liquid. Whimpering and flinching back, pressing himself against the cold metal table as Pryce brought it over.

No, not more of that, he thought.

Thin sharp metal poking into his arm, emptying a burning fluid into his veins.

The sound of his pitiful squealing turning into a long high-pitched screech as the shocks came again.

Screaming. Gibbering. Panting. Muttering. Pryce leaning forward, trying to hear him, and his head cracking on her nose, earning him a slug to the stomach and another round of torture.

Tube after tube emptying into his arms, stacking on the tray. Sedatives and truth serums and Force knew what else, pumping in endless waves through his body, followed by piercing electricity that scorched him inside and out until all he could perceive was this horrible, endless moment.

He was swelling. Gasping thinly. His throat was closing up.

Bleeding. It dripped down his face in small drops.

Bruising. Pryce's catty backhand snapped through his cheek.

He wanted it to end. He could feel words trying to pull from him, his voice mumbling and muted in his own ears. Don't give in, he told himself. Don't... don't give...

The next shock pummeled through him, making him forget everything except trying to make this all stop .

See? a voice sneered into the midst of his living hell. You are weak. Useless. A pathetic child.

The words repeated, louder and louder, mixing with Pryce's shouts and the horrible ratcheting of the electrodes.

They were charging again.

Sparks tickled the corners of his vision.

He was weak.

Useless. Worthless. Stupid. Nothing. Weak. Weak. WEAK!

"NO!" Ezra screamed, forcing Maul's presence out of his head with a rush of cold anger that flooded his body, pushing outwards, striking back.

Maul was blown back and Ezra was already surging to his feet, his lightsaber sailing to him, igniting in a flash.

He flung himself at the Zabrak with a furious shriek. The green blade became a violent whirlwind as Ezra attacked. His saber crashed against Maul's again and again.

The cold pounded in his head, a deep wellspring of rage and hate that coursed through him like lightning. Ezra's face was twisted with an expression of absolute venom.

How dare he. How dare he! He had no right!

Fear tingled in his head, lingering panic from the images flashing behind his eyes, the metal restraints and gleaming needles, Pryce's face blurring in and out, scalpels slicing at his face, the IT-O droid hovering and extending its pinchers, and he channeled it into the whirlwind inside him, letting it join the storm.

He pressed Maul back, rapidly gaining ground, a vicious light in his eyes as he forced his way forward. Maul seemed unconcerned, but that wouldn't last long, Ezra thought, throwing more strength into his swings, more power. He'd make the man pay. The Force was a dissonant, feverish pitch around him.

It was heady. It was thrilling. It was—

...Exactly what Maul wanted.

Ezra blinked out of it with a gasp, his eyes widening.

Several frozen seconds passed.

His eyes rolled up and fluttered as the shock of the energy leaving him so suddenly tilted him off his feet.

His lightsaber dropped and the icy ground rose up softly to meet him.

-SWR-

Ezra's mind slowly crept out of a deep darkness, his eyes blinking open. The dull gray ground gradually came into focus.

The familiar sticky cold clinging to his insides and the hollow wrongness filling his chest made his lungs tighten and his stomach sink with horror.

"No..." he whispered hoarsely.

I used it, the thought rang in his head. I... I used it...

He turned his head into the ground in shame.

I'm sorry, Kanan. I'm so, so...

A soft hand on his shoulder made his breath hitch and he looked up.

Maul's expression was gleaming with pride.

"I knew you had it in you," he said, fondly. He knelt down by the boy, metal legs crouching. "That was perfect, Ezra," he said.

Ezra's heart stuttered and stopped.

"Wh—what?" he gasped, his face pinching in distress.

The hand left his shoulder, fingers gently sliding under his chin, tilting his head up.

"You were never in any real danger, Ezra," Maul said, his voice and expression sickeningly comforting, gilded with a soothing tone. "All that was just a little... push..." he said, eyes drifting off briefly, "...to help you tap into the power I know you're capable of."

The breath strangled on its way out of Ezra's throat and his shoulders crunched, curling inwards.

"You..." he stammered. "You..."

Maul withdrew, picking up Ezra's fallen lightsaber, standing and beginning to pace away casually.

"You lost focus," he observed, tone neutral. His hand clasped his wrist behind his back. "But you remember all the basics. We'll have to build your control back up," he mused.

He glanced back at Ezra over his shoulder, briefly.

"Don't worry, your performance has spared you any further punishment for your little tantrum earlier," he assured the boy.

Ezra wanted to puke at the almost cheerful sincerity in the words. As if not beating him to a pulp was a favor to him somehow! He felt sick, the Dark Side still curling in whispers around him.

He's insane, Ezra thought, shaking his head. He's insane. He honestly thought forcing Ezra to relive his torture, pushing and pushing him until he lashed out with the Dark Side—something he'd sworn never to touch again after the holocrons were destroyed—was progress.

He'd deliberately hurt Ezra and considered it a kindness.

Ezra choked on his breath, shuddering, trying not to break down into gasping sobs.

Oblivious, Maul continued, talking at the wall now more than at Ezra.

"I know what you've been through," he was saying. "Truly, I do. My master... familiarized me with many of the interrogation techniques the Empire now uses, as part of my own training." He chuckled darkly. "You are lucky he is not teaching you. He would never have tolerated your backtalking."

Ezra was no longer listening, his eyes fixated on the exit tunnel.

He carefully sat up, moving silently. He crouched close to the ground for the first few cautious steps.

Then he kicked up, pushing up to his feet, and ran.

"Once, I questioned his—" Maul broke off, whipping his head around just in time to see Ezra disappearing through the opening.

Ezra heard his furious shout echo from behind him.

"EZRA!"

He didn't look back, mind numb to everything except his pounding feet.

Chapter Text

Ezra clenched his teeth so hard they rattled as he ran, his breaths frantic through his nose. His lungs were aching within minutes but he didn't stop, turning down corridor after corridor, dizzyingly.

A thousand regrets echoed through his head.

I should've ran sooner. I shouldn't have believed he'd let me go, he thought. He never should have allowed Maul to imprison him. He should have fought harder to escape.

Burning heat stung at his eyes.

I should have just gotten over myself on Corensia.

If he hadn't wussed out like a scared tooka none of it would have happened. He wouldn't have been kidnapped, he wouldn't have been terrorized and hurt, he wouldn't have used the Dark Side.

His chest hurt and tears blurred his vision.

I'm sorry Kanan, he thought again, on horrible repeat. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

He blinked to clear his eyes and then immediately had to about-face as he'd blundered down a dead end. He skidded, turning back around, his heart pounding so loudly he could hear it in his ears.

The rhythm pitched even shriller as he almost ran straight into Maul. His throat pinched. His heels skidded; he stumbled around the corner and scrambled to gain distance up the correct tunnel, his heart shooting right up into his mouth.

The brief glimpse he'd caught of Maul's expression was absolutely murderous, a spitting growl sounding behind Ezra, the creek of thunderous metal footsteps gaining on him.

Ezra panted, pumping his limbs, straining to run faster as he heard Maul catching up. His chest burned and a stitch dragged at his side, panic ringing in his head.

A loud snarl came and a heavy weight slammed against his back, toppling him face forward into the ground. Maul's arm tightened around his chest, restraining him.

Ezra twisted, kicking out, near-feral in his anger and fear.

"Let go!" he screamed, scratching out with his nails, wrestling against the hold. "Let—"

Maul shifted his grip, both hands latching around Ezra's upper right arm, pulling and pulling and pulling back, twisting until—

"Aaaah!" Ezra shrieked, feeling his shoulder give with a sharp wash of hideous pain.

Maul let go.

All the fight sagged out of Ezra instantly; he curled up on the ground, clutching his dislocated shoulder and pressing his mouth tight, whimpering as the pain reverberated through his arm and chest. He clenched his eyes against tears.

Apparently not satisfied, Maul reached down, seizing Ezra's collar and hauling the boy forcefully to his feet.

Ezra flinched but all that Maul did was get up in his face, spittingly angry, a furious storm in his yellow eyes.

"I am... this close," he snarled, his teeth baring through twisted lips, "to killing you for this defiance!"

A hot rush of anger hit him. "Then do it!" Ezra blurted.

Maul silently released his shirt.

The defiant challenge vanished from Ezra's face as horror washed over him, widening his eyes. He immediately remembered moments before, his certainty that Maul would kill him, and that he'd make the process slow.

His head prickled with horrible tingles.

He swallowed down dry bile.

"I... I didn't mean that," he stammered. His body shook, trembling nervously. "I..."

"Oh don't worry," Maul sneered, a laughing snort under his words. His hand closed around Ezra's injured arm, gripping harshly, tightening with a subtle threat. "There are plenty of ways to punish disobedience," he said ominously.

Ezra looked up at Maul with shaking, fearful breaths.

-SWR-

The X-wings dropped out of hyperspace, immediately moving to attack position.

"All right boys!" Zeb called, gripping the yoke of the craft carefully. He felt rather cramped in the cockpit actually, his knees digging into the dashboard, but he could deal with a little discomfort, for Hera's sake. "Stick close to me," he instructed. "We don't know what we're facing so let's just be..."

He trailed off, eyes widening slightly at the sight that met him.

"...cautious," he finished. "Oh boy."

The Star Destroyers around the planet had multiplied. There were a dozen of them or so at least. None Interdictors, it looked like, fortunately for them. Accompanying the Destroyers and the carriers however, were what looked like construction stations.

They looked uncomfortably like the ones that had been above Geonosis.

Zeb didn't have time to wonder about that, or entertain any dark speculations about why they might be there. "Bloody hell," came Rex's incredulous mutter over the comms. "What are they doing to the surface?"

The Lasat looked past the modules to the planet, flinching as he caught sight of the darkened clouds and scorched surface. The whole middle equator of Lothal looked like it was on fire, the blazes visible even from space.

Zeb clenched his teeth, his hands tightening. That was Ezra's home. And the Empire was destroying it like it destroyed everything. Like it had destroyed Lasan.

He took a quick peek at the Star Destroyer formation before prepping the throttle.

"All right, we're going in!" he declared. "Keep yer eyes out for the Chimaera!"

The X-wings gunned it, streaking for the formation, putting on the speed. They crossed the distance within moments, splitting apart to pick separate targets. Zeb cut loose with his cannons, strafing the side of the nearest construction module.

Several blips detached from the light carriers, moving to intercept. Green laser bolts streaked past the cockpit window.

One pinged off his windshield, making him give a flinch. He hutched over the controls but the barrage didn't continue, the TIE spewing it at him exploding shortly from a burst out of Rex's X-wing.

"Looks like they're not terribly worried or surprised we're here," the clone said.

"Karabast," Zeb muttered.

The TIEs kept coming, at least ten to each X-wing, forcing the small sortie to break apart and evade, skewing left and right, up and down, firing throttle to accelerate and twisting around to avoid the blasts of hot green lasers that dogged their wakes.

"Red Two, cut left, I'll get that bogey off your tail!"

"Watch out! Coming in point oh-seven!"

"Does anyone have eyes on the Chimaera?"

The frantic chatter was noise in his ears he barely noticed, focusing on keeping his fighter out of the reach of the TIEs swarming it.

Finally, he spotted it.

A quick glance at the underside as he blazed up above the fireball of a TIE he'd just shot confirmed which Star Destroyer was the Chimaera.

"There she is!" he shouted into the comms. "Center of the formation, back line!"

"We'll never break through to her!" Wedge said, demolishing his fifth TIE fighter in a flaming conflagration.

Logically, Zeb knew that. But he had never been very good at thinking things through with logic and reason, and looking at the angular lines of that ship—that place that had caused Ezra so much pain—he felt his emotions running hot. Felt primal, instinctual anger taking control.

He made his decision.

"Let's give it a go anyway!" he said. "Form up on me!" he ordered.

The X-wings lined up, diving down with him into the midst of a hellish barrage of laserfire, from the TIEs still being launched from hanger bays and from the gun turrets spewing anti-air defense.

Red Two went down, catching a broadside in his engines.

"Zeb!" cried Wedge in concern and alarm.

Zeb just growled pushing harder. A pulsing redhot drive pounded just behind his eyes. If Thrawn was on that ship, and they could shoot it down, blast it to pieces, burn the bastard up inside with it—

Another X-wing exploded beside him, forcing him out of his tunnel vision. Zeb looked up with dismay at the spinning pieces of durasteel.

With a sinking heart he prepped to change course.

"Break off!" he ordered. "All fighters break off! Full retreat!"

He hated having to order it. But there were too many TIEs, too much fire between them and Thrawn.

The miserable Imperial sleemo would get to live for another day.

The remnants of the sortie pulled up, breaking off the attack. TIEs dogged their tracks, straining to catch up with them as they soared away, out towards empty space.

Green bolts met nothing as all ships jumped back into hyperspace.

-SWR-

There was a hullabaloo when he landed, but not the one he was expecting.

As technicians and mechanics rushed to check the X-wings for damage and he pried himself from the cockpit, his knees knocking against the steering yoke painfully, a young voice called out across the field to him.

"Captain Orrelios!"

Karabast. Zeb looked up to see Mart rushing across the hanger, a frantic expression on his face. He pushed past the mechanics, standing under the X-wing.

"You gotta come quick!" he said.

Zeb glanced towards where Rex and Wedge were getting down from their own fighters, also spotting Mon Mothma's aide looking anxiously after them, clearly wanting to whisk them away into a debriefing as soon as possible.

"Can it wait?" he asked, his feet finding the ladder and then stepping heavily down. "Rebel Command'll want our intel right away."

"It's Kanan," Mart blurted.

Zeb stopped still on the last step.

"What about him?" he asked, ice entering his heart.

Mart came alongside the ladder, rushing through his explanation. "He felt something I think, I dunno, we were all in the galley getting some food together and then all of a sudden he stiffened and collapsed and—"

Zeb took off in a sprint, bounding across the hanger for the bay doors, and Mart was left scrambling in his dust to catch up.

The Lasat ignored the calls behind him as he ran outside, straight towards the Ghost, bounding up the ramp and thundering his way into the freighter's living room.

Kanan was sat up in the wooden chair, Hera and Sabine hovering anxiously over him. Hera clutched one of Kanan's hands in her own, her other arm around his shoulders, holding him steady. Gooti was dumping out first aid supplies from the medkit onto the dejarik table while clipped voices from the kitchen told him Kallus and Jonner were busy boiling water. Kanan himself looked pale, his face pinched tightly, staring down at the floor, mask off and forgotten on the floor next to his ankle.

"Kanan!" Zeb cried, moving into the room with a horrible, creeping dread building in him. "What is it? What's wrong?"

The Jedi raised his head, expression gaunt and fearful, fixing on Zeb from across the room.

"Something's happened to Ezra," he said, voice trembling.

-SWR-

Ezra could barely feel anything, his body almost numb as he lay on his side on the floor, save for the persistent throbbing ache in his dislocated shoulder. He stared blankly across the ground, dried tear tracks on his face.

His throat was dry and strained from screaming. Maul had put him through the void again. Kept him under so long Ezra had lost all sense of time, a painful reminder of exactly why the mere suggestion of the threat of being subjected to it had kept him in line so long.

And he'd thought he'd prefer going back through it if it meant Maul wouldn't get his way. Ha.

He'd been stupid. So, so stupid.

It had hurt so much. He'd been so desperate for it to end that he'd cried out through the Force, trying to reach Kanan, breaking the last rule Maul had set for him.

Maul had not liked that, pulling Ezra out from the void just briefly enough to slam a fist into his chin.

He'd stayed quiet after that, biting his lip and writhing through the pain until it was finally over.

Consciousness had eluded him at first. He'd floated in and out of awareness, vaguely cognizant of Maul grabbing him by his good arm and dragging him across the floor into his cell.

He lay where he'd been dropped a long, silent hour, leaking quietly from tired, red eyes.

The cold lingered inside him, a dull presence clinging to his chest. The stillness dragged out, no sound breaking through the dull roaring he could hear in his own ears. Even the static in his head was quieter, for once. Ezra remained there on the floor, listening to his own heartbeat, locked in place by his own depression and despair.

The dampening barrier buzzed off.

Ezra barely had the energy to flinch, his only reaction to pinch his eyes closed for a second.

Maul stalked up next to him, looming, a medkit clutched in hand.

"Sit up," he ordered gruffly.

With reluctance, Ezra obeyed, slowly uncurling, his stiff arms and legs and his shoulder protesting every movement. His face stayed screwed tightly until he was upright, and then he let out a little gasp of pain.

Maul knelt down, metal legs folding underneath him, and began to tend to him.

He pushed the torn edges of Ezra's shirt aside in order to smear bacta salve on the cauterized wounds, then rubbed more of the stuff on the cut on Ezra's forehead. Ezra said nothing, keeping still with his head bowed as Maul worked.

He supposed he should feel lucky Maul was treating him at all, but he couldn't manage to dreg up much gratitude. A hollow, empty feeling remained in his heart instead.

Sticky bandages were haphazardly applied to his wounds, the Zabrak clearly out of practice at handling them, and then he set aside the roll and shifted around, leaning up, taking hold of Ezra's right bicep.

"Hold still," he said.

Ezra read the underlying caution:

This will hurt.

His mouth tightened as he braced himself. He squeezed his eyes closed.

Maul slowly put pressure on his shoulder, pushing it firmly until it popped back into place.

"Nghh!" Ezra cried, stiffening, turning his head and biting down on a knuckle. The pain was sharp and horribly intense for a moment before settling back down into its familiar ache. Ezra opened his mouth, dropping his hand and panting, feeling it reverberate through him. He blinked back tears furiously.

Maul sat back, regarding him with a cold, unreadable look.

Ezra couldn't look up at him, dropping his eyes, left hand slowly drifting up to clutch his shoulder.

Please just go, he begged inside his head. You've punished me enough.

But Maul lingered, watching the pained expressions on Ezra's face, the way his chest heaved, the haggard fatigue on his features. The silence stretched out, uncomfortable.

Finally, Maul spoke up.

"I would not have had to hurt you if you hadn't tried to run," he said quietly.

"You didn't have to hurt me at all!" Ezra burst out, his head whipping up to face him. The heat under his eyes increased and he rubbed at them with his wrist, smearing his cheeks, blotting it away. "Why..." he strained, "why did you do all that to me?" His voice wavered like a frightened child's, choked and trembling.

Maul narrowed his eyes, glaring. "You disobeyed and defied me and refused to open yourself to me. I did what was necessary," he said simply.

"I thought I was going to die!" Ezra cried. He shook his head hopelessly. "I thought... I thought you were going to kill me," he confessed, all but squeaking on the last words.

A tattooed hand drifted up to touch his shoulder, gently. "I would never have actually killed you, Ezra," Maul said, tone warm and reassuring. Fingers brushed the curling edges of the bandage on his forehead, smoothing them down. "I have invested too much into you to cast you aside so easily," Maul went on.

Ezra choked. "That doesn't make any of this better!" he cried. He deliberately pulled his head back, away from the soft contact, fixing Maul with a heated, angry look. "I wish you would cast me aside!" he yelled. "At least then I'd be free of you!"

"To do what?" Maul challenged, seething. He drew himself up, hovering over Ezra like an angry stormcloud, shoving into the boy's personal space. "Cower in fear at the sight of every Stormtrooper you encounter? Flinch away like a frightened animal from the sight of needles?" He fisted a hand in front of Ezra's nose, gesturing sharply. "You need to take the pain and strike back with it. That is how you channel real power," he barked.

Ezra curled a fraction tighter at the scolding, cowering under the harsh words.

Softening abruptly, Maul shifted around in his crouch, placing both hands on Ezra's shoulders now.

"Everything I've done—everything I have been doing from the beginning—is all just trying to make you understand that, Ezra," he said, a sliver of desperate frustration in his words and tone.

"Is that why you choked me and drowned me and forced yourself in my head to look at my memories?" Ezra asked flatly, gaze firmly down.

"Oh don't be so dramatic," Maul said witheringly, rolling his eyes. He dropped his hands off Ezra. "That was not even a fraction of the things my master did when I was training with him."

"Yeah and he's an asshole too," Ezra bit. "My master this and my master that, I'm sick of it!" he said, his voice a sarcastic mimic before dropping back to normal. He glared up at Maul. "Just because he was awful to you doesn't mean you have to... be like him!"

That was the wrong thing to say, apparently, for Ezra found his neck suddenly gripped in a harsh vice, not tight enough to choke him, but threatening and uncomfortable. His eyes widened and he snapped his mouth closed quickly.

Maul's anger was a violent storm in the Force, searing behind his eyes, but he contained himself, choosing only to pull Ezra nose to nose with him.

"I am—" he snarled, "—nothing—" he emphasized forcefully, "—like him. Do you understand me? You do not ever compare us again."

He released Ezra, who reached up and rubbed at his neck quietly, but continued ranting, gesturing with sharp motions.

"Lord Sidious would have ground you into dust long before now. He would have killed you without a second thought, the moment you dared speak out against him."

Ezra had stopped paying attention at this point, trying to tune him out, but Maul didn't allow it, seizing his ear and a good handful of hair. Ezra flinched with a little gasp, staring up into Maul's severely serious expression.

"He would not have cared one. Bit. About you," the man hissed through his teeth, words venomous, eyes sizzling with anger.

He let go, and Ezra dropped his eyes again, hands curling around his arms self-protectively.

"The way you've been treating me I don't see a significant difference," he muttered at the floor. His breath shuddered as he exhaled, holding back a sob. "You said—" he started, and then his throat tightened on his words and he had to force them out. "You said you wanted to help me..." he strained out. Blurry lines appeared around the corners of his vision and he blinked hard to get rid of them. "But all you're doing is hurting me," he said, voice whimpering and cracking.

His next inhale was shaky, quivering, and his legs curled up towards his stomach. He felt a brush against his mind, Maul's presence, hovering there as though to reassure him, and his fingers clenched tighter around his arms, hating the mental touch and yet feeling almost soothed by it.

Maul's hand landed on his shoulder again, like burning acid, the same kind that filtered through his horribly gentle words. "You will understand, one day," he promised.

A sob escaped Ezra. "I don't want to," he said, his knees pressing into his chest, squashing against his arms. "I just want to go home." He was all but openly weeping now, the tears welling up in his eyes no matter how hard he tried to blink them away and he finally just had to press his hands over his face. "Please... just let me go home," he said between his fingers.

The hand on his shoulder pinched a fraction tighter, a stern warning, before it abruptly vanished. "Your home is with me now. The sooner you accept that, the less painful all of this will be," Maul told him, speaking quietly and without malice, for once. "Trust me, Ezra. You will come out of this stronger," he said.

Ezra felt him shift, gravel and ice scraping underfoot as he rose, heavy footfalls growing more and more distant, and he had to bite his lip to keep from asking Maul to stay, just so there would be someone, just so he wouldn't be alone.

The dampening barrier reactivated.

Ezra let himself break, gasping sobs leaving him, tears streaking down his face as he buried his eyes in his knees and cried.

-SWR-

Thrawn analyzed the data and reports from the most recent skirmish against the blockage, a welcome distraction from his endlessly circular pondering over the mystery that was Ezra Bridger, with pursed brow and pensive, intense eyes.

There was a vague, almost clear sense of relief in his head. Strategy, battle tactics—these he could understand. This was no great conundrum for his superior mind.

"The Preditioner sustained a bit of damage to her aftmost turbine," Pryce was telling him, "but nothing the repair crews can't have fixed within a rotation. And we destroyed two of their fighters."

His finger rubbed under his chin thoughtfully. "This is unusually... sloppy for the Alliance," he mused aloud.

"Perhaps they're getting desperate," Pryce suggested, leaning her hands on the holotable casually.

"What was this sortie even supposed to accomplish?" grumbled an officer on the other side.

"A survey, most likely, testing the extent of our forces and firepower," Thrawn determined. His eyes were caught on the simulation of the enemy's flightpaths through the blockade, extrapolated from sensor data and camera recordings from their TIE pilots. He watched the little green blips that represented the X-wings form up and make a run for the blockade, charging straight on, seemingly aiming for his command ship. "Though it seems they may have also had a secondary objective to attack the Chimaera," he noticed. "Curious though..." he said.

Pryce straightened, leaning in.

"What is?" she asked.

"The unwavering straightline attack pattern is reminiscent of Captain Syndulla's dive toward our Inderdictor at the Battle of Atollon, and earlier than that, a blockade run she performed on our forces at Ibaar," he explained, taking his hand away from his chin to gesture. He pointed towards the blip that represented the lead ship. "Yet, this is not Hera Syndulla's flying."

"I supposed that's anomalous?" Pryce guessed, keen interest showing on her face.

"Captain Syndulla has been heavily involved in nearly ninety percent of all Rebel activity in this area, especially fighter sorties and survey runs against the blockade." Thrawn clasped his hands behind him, looking thoughtful. "For her to sit out on this one is indeed... peculiar." His eyes traced the movements of the simulation again. "This was someone not accustomed to this type of mission, a relatively low-skilled pilot. He has none of Syndulla's finesse."

Though the grace and poise and expert handling of her craft had been somewhat shaky recently, if the reports from other nearby sectors were to be believed. He'd analyzed those clashes as well and yes, Hera Syndulla was present; he'd recognize her particular piloting style anywhere. So why had she suddenly, apparently, disappeared from the active stage?

He drifted off into thoughts and theories.

Perhaps her recent ill performance was indicative of some catastrophic personal event that was rattling her composure. But what could have shaken his opponent up that badly?

"The Lasat perhaps?" Pryce suggested, breaking into his thoughts.

Thrawn stirred. "Yes, I think you're right, Governor," he said. He mentally ran through the list of Hera's friends and allies, recalling to mind who had been actively recently. "And this attempted hack of our communications network last week, a decent though unsuccessful effort by a clearly practiced hand, the obvious work of Sabine Wren."

If Pryce was surprised by his abrupt tangent onto the other members of the Ghost crew, she didn't comment, her expression unchanging, though the other officer looked visibly confused now by the apparent change of subject.

"The C1 unit has of course stayed with his mistress," Thrawn mused, the gears in his head turning with some kind of prickling energy, as if he was on the verge of a revelation. "Though the Jedi hasn't been seen since the prison escape on Corensia..."

"Aren't he and the Twi'lek usually a matched set?" Pryce questioned snarkily, folding her arms.

Thrawn nodded. "Indeed. Which means—"

Suddenly he stopped, breath sucking through his teeth quietly. He leaned over the holotable controls, swiping away the battle simulation and feverishly shuffling through several of his collected reports.

"Grand Admiral?" Pryce called, a note of concern in her voice.

Thrawn couldn't hear her, his mind clicking pieces together. There was another party still unaccounted for.

The Jedi escaped Corensia uninjured, he recalled. So he is likely not the source of distress under Hera Syndulla's leave of absence. But if he also has not been active...

Of course.

It all fit together like a perfect puzzle inside his head.

Thrawn leaned back, an almost manic look in his eyes. He fixed Pryce with an intense gaze, a faintly triumphant smile tugging at his lips. She squinched her eyes, waiting to hear his deduction.

There was a vindictive undertone to his words as he spoke them.

"Something has happened to Ezra Bridger," he concluded.

Chapter Text

It was quiet in the room, the lights dimmed, indicators on the dashboard the only illumination.

Mart leaned over the slumped Kallus, carefully poking him in the side.

There was no reaction at first so he poked harder, more insistently.

Kallus jolted from his sleep, twitching harshly as he lay slumped across the communications panel, his head lifting blearily from his arms.

He gave a long groan.

"Ugh. What is it now, Ensign Mattin?" he asked, smearing a hand across his face.

Mart stepped back a bit, brushing aside unkempt hair and gesturing animatedly.

"Okay so I know you told us it was probably completely useless to keep combing through Imperial chatter," he began.

"Mattin."

"And that it was a waste of time for Sabine and I to make that filtering algorithm to narrow down the search."

"Mattin," Kallus groaned again, face pinching. His eyes blinked over at the cup by his elbow, wondering idly if there was any more caf in it.

"But I added some more keywords and I think..." He paused significantly, growing suddenly timid. "I think I might have found something?" he finished in a quiet, hesitant squeak.

"Go on..." Kallus droned, picking up the cup and squinting at it in analysis.

"Right, so I ran the search with the new filters and I didn't find anything at first," Mart explained.

Kallus nodded, grabbing at the pot Sabine had left for him on the console. The caf inside was probably ice cold now, but it was better than nothing. He poured it dismally into his cup.

"Of course," he acknowledged.

"So I backtracked a few days to right after Ezra went missing right? And expanded the range out to the Mid Rim."

"Are you getting to a point, Ensign Mattin?" Kallus said, a bit snipily, swishing the cold caf in his cup around with a dubious expression staring down into it.

Mart shoved an earpiece against Kallus's earlobe, expression suddenly very intense and angry.

"I found an audio log from the Imperial checkpoint at Ord Mantell. Listen," he ordered.

Kallus blinked slowly and did so, a confusion dropping across his features as he tuned in to the muttering Imperial voices close in his ear.

He listened for several moments, his eyes widening. Taking the earpiece from the boy he pressed it against the side of his head, making sure he was hearing correctly.

"Mart..." he said, slightly in awe, drawing the earpiece slowly away from his ear. "This... this could be exactly the lead we needed!" he exclaimed.

Mart beamed from cheek to cheek, then gawped as Kallus suddenly flung arms around him for a hug.

"Okay! Uh..." he said, flushing slightly, not entirely comfortable with this unusual display of affection from his superior.

Kallus just let go with a fond, "Good job." He hastily set his cup down, gathering up loose flimsi that had scattered across the panel. "Get this on a datachip, we need to get this to Kanan and the others right away."

"On it!" Mart volunteered, moving at once to comply.

-SWR-

The Ghost crew listened with rapt attention, every body ramrod straight as the recording played.

"D—Dockmaster Harran, please be advised..." a shaking woman's voice was saying. "There is an Imperial Inquisitor heading your way."

"An Inquisitor?" The man she was talking to sounded nervous, jittery. "Don't—Don't be absurd," he stammered. "They don't operate this far in."

"Well he has a red lightsaber and an awful temper and he's dragging a very frightened boy along as his prisoner. You tell me what I'm supposed to think," the woman replied.

Everyone in the room straightened a perceptible fraction. The faint humming of a lightsaber blade could be heard in the background, along with frightened exclamations. A loud bang sounded in the recording, and the humming grew suddenly louder.

"I-Inquisitor!" came the man's voice again, blubbering and fearful. "I apologize! We didn't know—"

A low, threatening growl could be heard from someone new. "You will grant my ship clearance to leave immediately. Do you understand?"

Kanan nodded in grim confirmation. "That's him," he said. He never thought he would be so relieved to hear the sound of Maul's voice, even if the quiet, terrified yelp he could hear in the background from Ezra sent pulsing fury coursing through his body.

Sabine was leaning back on her heels. "And he bluffed his way through that checkpoint by pretending to be an Inquisitor?" she asked, slightly incredulous.

"I'm surprised that worked," commented Hera.

"I'm not."

All eyes looked towards Kallus, who only frowned with a serious expression.

He raised his head. "I learned from... experience that when the mystics with the strange powers and the arcane laser swords show up, you don't ask questions, you just get out of the way," he explained.

Understanding nods circled around the room. Zeb punched a fist into his palm.

"Right, so," he said. "When do we leave?"

"Hold on," Hera cautioned, holding up a hand. "All we know is that Maul and Ezra were on Ord Mantell after he was kidnapped. It's a good starting point to look but we can't exactly waltz into an Imperial checkpoint and ask them nicely where they went."

"We don't have to go to Ord Mantell itself," Kanan suggested, rubbing a finger under his beard. "We can start in the adjacent systems first." He frowned suddenly, dropping his hand with a sigh. "But it's still going to be difficult to get into that sector. The Empire's got it locked down pretty tight."

Silence fell for a moment, and Kallus was keenly away of the straining expression on Sabine's face, hopeful and agonized.

Hera finally spoke up.

"I might have a way in..." she said, hesitantly. She cast an apologetic look up at Kallus. "But you're not going to like it."

Kallus just pursed his lips.

-SWR-

The flickering holo visage of Saw Gerrera's face chuckled from some deep, private amusement.

"You must be desperate," he said, the undertone in his voice darkly withering. "If you're coming to me for help."

Hera sighed deeply. She already regretted this. But the Alliance was stretched thin, their already limited resources pushed as far as they could go. They had already plied their contacts in the criminal underworld. They had called everyone they could think of. This was her last recourse.

"We are desperate," she admitted.

"Rebel High Command has denounced me, you know," he pointed out.

"With good reason," she heard Kanan mutter behind her, out of earshot.

Hera glanced behind her at the gathered company inside the cockpit. Kanan stood against the doorframe, arms crossed. Kallus stood behind her, his posture deeply uncomfortable but keeping up a bravely neutral expression. Chopper hovered between them, antenna extended to boost their private communications signal.

She turned forward again, placing her hands on the panel quietly. "This is about Ezra, Saw. I'm not asking you as part of the Alliance," she told him. "I'm asking you," her mouth twisted a bit on the words, "as a friend. All we want is to bring him home. Can you get us into that part of the Mid Rim or not?" she asked.

Another chuckle. "Sure, sure. I'll give you my intel on safe hyperspace lanes, Imperial patrols, spy stations, all that." He cast a suspicious glance back over Hera's shoulder. "Are you sure you want to share that information with the... present company?" he asked, eyes narrowing on Kallus. "He was working for the other side not even a year ago."

"I'm aware," Hera said flatly. "Kallus has proven himself several times over. I trust him."

She made a quick look back, seeing some emotion welling up in the man's eyes, a subtle little flicker of immense gratitude.

Saw gave a shrug. "Well I guess if you're convinced," he said dismissively, though his tone was deeply unsatisfied. "Stand by for transmission," he said.

Hera nodded, muting the audio. She swiveled in her seat.

"Make the final preparations. We're going as soon as we have a way in," she ordered.

Kanan nodded, uncrossing his arms and moving to go down the hallway. Hera caught Kallus's eyes, her face softening.

"Thank you," she said.

"For what?" he asked, genuinely confused.

Hera bit her lip. Replying 'everything' seemed a bit much, and still inadequate for the overwhelming surge of hope that had been steadily beating through her as soon as he'd brought them the audio log.

She settled for a simple, "For bringing us this lead. It could be the breakthrough we needed."

"Ensign Mattin and Sabine deserve most of the credit," he deflected. "They've been at this tirelessly, pinging our deep space listening devices, slicing into comm records..." He let out a heavy sigh. "I just... I do hope it helps. And," he added, that grateful gleam in his eyes again, "I am glad to hear that you trust me. I... wasn't entirely sure."

"I did have some lingering doubts," Hera admitted, straightening her glove out, tugging on the hem. "But whatever misgivings I've had about you don't matter anymore." Her eyes burned with determination. "I just want my son back," she said. "That's all that matters now."

He nodded in understanding. He shifted, leaning off the leg he'd been favoring. "May I... come along?" he asked. "If I can be of any help—"

She interrupted him with a smile. "I'm sure you can be. But Iron Squadron might have to stay here."

Kallus grimaced. "I'm not entirely certain I can dissuade them from coming," he told her.

Hiding her grin now, Hera turned back around, beginning to press buttons and flip switches on her console. "Well, give it your best shot."

The man smothered down a protest, but acknowledged that she probably knew a thing or two about wrangling stubborn and rebellious teenagers.

He clipped his heels with a nod and turned to follow after Kanan.

-SWR-

Maul swiveled the end of his poker in the glowing coals of the firepit. The red embers burned with a soft warmth to contrast the cold kyber in the walls.

Setting aside the poker he leaned over and picked up the remainder of his meal, glancing across at his apprentice as he brought it to his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

The boy sat quietly with his legs folded underneath him and his hands on his knees, eyes closed in meditation, breathing softly. Maul watched him for a few moments, biting off a large chunk and mashing it up in his teeth.

Ezra had been... remarkably well-behaved the past two days. He said nothing and obeyed without question, and Maul had spent more of their daily duel that morning correcting his stance and technique than anything else.

He still hadn't tapped into the Dark Side again, though Maul goaded him often, but Maul was still pleased with his progress. It seemed he had broken the boy's will after all. His attempted escape after the beatdown and mind probe had worried Maul at first, but his quiet compliance after his punishment reassured him that it had been a last, desperate gasp at denying the inevitable.

It hadn't taken nearly as long as he'd thought it would.

Maul smirked privately, his eyes and thoughts drifting off.

I should begin making preparations to depart for Tattooine, he decided. Kenobi would not continue to evade him this time, especially now that he had the boy in tow. Kenobi's soft heart would not be able to resist a soul in trouble. He'd begin moving things back to the gauntlet once Ezra was asleep. They'd probably leave in the morning. Yes, it was all coming together.

He no longer had those traces of uncomfortable regret for forcing his way into Ezra's mind. It had been the right course of action, he was confident of that now. Ezra had accepted things. He understood his place. Maul was certain.

He was musing on the best hyperspace route around the Ord Mantell checkpoint when there was a sudden flicker in his danger senses through the Force and a vague flutter like the sound of padded feet in the periphery of his hearing.

He snapped up, tensing, keening his eyes and ears for the source of the disturbance.

For several long seconds the cavern was quiet.

Then, a noise like a low, growling breath.

Maul jerked to his feet, ramrod straight, swiveling his head slowly to pinpoint the source of the noise.

From the shadows of one of the side tunnels emerged a shape, slowly peeling away from the darkness, following behind eerie golden eyes that peeked out, hungrily.

Maul's feet scuffled the gravel as he shifted apprehensively.

The creature was feline in nature, curled low to the ground with its long limbs stretching slowly beneath its body. Gray-blue fur covered its lean, powerful shape, mottled and smooth-looking. An almost beaked snout disappeared into a rounded head, and the white fangs curling out from under it were sharp and drooling.

Maul's eyes narrowed at it, his brows furrowing. There shouldn't have been any native wildlife in this area of the mountain range. The Empire's mining must have driven it farther north.

The creature crouched, watching Maul with burning eyes, two-toed feet curling its long claws into the ice.

He drew his lightsaber out, igniting it in warning and preparation. He glared back at the creature, meeting its threatening gaze with his own. The lightsaber hummed steadily in his hand.

A hissing growl, this time from behind him, and a warning spike in the Force.

Maul whipped around in time to dodge under the powerful leap of another creaturethis one a bit smaller, fur white and gray, the twin sensory tendrils on its back whipping around as it twisted in the air. Talons flashed in front of Maul's face as he ducked, the second blade of his saber igniting in a blink and striking the creature across the flank as it tried to come about.

It hissed, howling with fury, stumbling as it landed.

"Ezra, get back!" he shouted in warning, brandishing his saber and glancing it off the larger creature's snout as it pounced forward.

The animal spat blood, its head knocked to the side. Its smaller mate and recovered and lunged again, crashing into and splintering a supply crate when Maul yanked out of the way.

Maul battered aside the larger creature again, casting his eyes about for his apprentice.

Ezra was still seated calmly in place, his face serene, one hand outstretched.

Shock and bewilderment flickered through Maul before being replaced by an immediate and boiling hot surge of absolute fury.

Ezra hadn't moved, hadn't reacted to the creatures... because he was controlling them.

Maul's teeth gnashed in outrage.

You little—!

His lightsaber gashed one of the creatures as it charged again, and he flung a hand out to grab and lift the other one and throw it hard towards the cavern wall. Ice particles and snow dislodged as it slammed into the rock and dropped.

Both felines stunned for the moment, Maul whipped around with a harsh jerk, stalking violently towards his apprentice.

He seized Ezra's throat, yanking him up, continuing on towards the boy's cell and dragging Ezra along with him.

Ezra's eyes startled open; he choked slightly from the pressure on his neck as his connection to the creatures broke, grabbing at Maul's hand, his heels dragging on the floor.

Freed from his influence, the felines paused a moment, tilting their heads and snuffling in confusion. But normal hunger and predator instincts soon took over and they growled, snapping their jaws.

Maul pulled Ezra into the cell and dropped his lightsaber, slamming the control on his wrist. The dampening barrier sprang up just in time for the larger creature to bash up against it, yiping at the static charge it sent. Claws slashed several more times at the barrier, the growls and hisses slightly muffled behind it.

For a moment the ex-Sith and the boy were tensed, listening to the creatures rage and storm outside, finally giving up on the barrier and crashing around the campsite instead, with loud banging and snarling.

Still furious, Maul knelt down, slamming Ezra to the floor, both hands locked around his throat now.

"Call off the creatures!" he demanded.

Ezra looked up at him with a steely, burning glare.

"No."

Maul let go with one hand, punching Ezra across the face. Ezra grunted in pain, flinching. Maul's hands gripped him again, mashing the fabric of his collar, threatening to cut off his air.

"Call them off!" he ordered again, louder. The hot anger burned through him, a thrashing storm ready to burst.

Ezra lifted his chin. "Kill me," he hissed in challenge.

Maul was sorely tempted to, for a moment, his hands tightening a fraction around Ezra's neck, eliciting a quiet choke from him.

But no, that would make everything he'd done, all his work, all his efforts since taking the boy, a waste. He would be no better than Sidious. No better than the man who'd left him for dead without a second thought.

He fumed, his hands twitching around Ezra's neck as Ezra stared up at him with a defiant look of I know you won't.

He trembled with anger. The boy's rebellion infuriated him and Maul knew he had to quash it right away, or he would lose all control over his apprentice. Ezra couldn't be allowed to think he could provoke a confrontation and then get away with it.

His fingers pressed bruisingly into Ezra's skin, pressure increasing ever-so-slightly, as Maul lifted up his head, looking the boy straight in the face and speaking very slowly, carefully contained fury in every word.

"Do it... or I will drag you down to that Imperial garrison..." he told Ezra. A growl entered his voice. "...and make sure to leave you where they will find you," he threatened, deadly serious.

Finally, there was a satisfying flash of terror in Ezra's eyes, a spike of anxious emotion Maul could feel through their bond in the Force. His breath had hitched, the defiant posturing gone from him. His frightened blue eyes looked up pleadingly at Maul.

He made sure the boy found no compassion or mercy in his narrowed gaze.

Ezra wilted, squeezing his eyes closed, inhaling shakily through his nose... and nodded.

Maul loosened his grip a bit, reaching across to his left wrist, jabbing the button to shut off the barrier.

The creatures outside in the cavern raised their heads at the noise, growling low. The smaller one coiled tightly and then sprang forward, bounding towards them.

Ezra flashed up a hand frantically, a wordless warning ringing through the Force. Maul could almost hear it as audible words, a strong, panicked impression of Don't! and Danger!

The creature gave pause, stopping suddenly in its tracks. Its eyes seemed to soften suddenly, as if in concern.

Maul sensed Ezra push harder, sounding his warning again, begging the pair to get away before they were hurt.

They stayed frozen in that moment for a long heartbeat.

The larger animal gave a huff, loping around and padding out down a side tunnel. A moment or two later its mate followed, the sounds of its panting breath fading away into the distance.

Ezra kept his hand raised a moment or two more and then sagged.

Maul struck him across the face, heel of his palm slamming Ezra's temple, and threw him down, making him cry out.

He retrieved his saber and jerked stiffly upright, storming out of the cell, hands fisting at his sides. He practically mashed the button to raise the barrier again.

Anger still rang in his head, echoing through his skull, but he let the hot edges of it ebb away, cooling into something more controlled.

He glared down at the remains of the campsite, surveying the damage.

Everything was smashed, claw rips tearing jagged lines through supply crates, items upturned, the lantern leaking yellow liquid on the floor. The creatures had destroyed nearly everything.

He took quick inventory.

Most of their food, ruined. The binders, crushed underfoot, useless. The sleeping mat, slashed and in tatters, survival gear scattered in pieces. The food was the most worrisome. The ravenous creatures had somehow quickly eaten through nearly a month's supply in minutes, leaving barely more than scraps. Some of it he could probably replace with a quick trip down to the garrison, but it would be noticed quickly if it became a regular habit.

Blasted boy.

Peeved, Maul kicked aside some shredded ration bars with his metal foot. He was only fortunate the creatures hadn't damaged the barrier generator; at the very least he could still contain Ezra.

Frustration flared in him. The boy had been doing so well. Maul hadn't had to lay a hand on him for two days, had allowed him out of his cell practically all day yesterday. And yet the ungrateful brat had squandered all that good grace in less than five minutes with this childish stunt.

A low growl rumbled in his chest.

I've been too lenient on him, he decided. I underestimated his stubbornness and resilience. That ends now.

A shock collar should keep him in line.

Maul mused on the idea, a brief flash of memory coming to mind; that of a cold metal band clamping around his own neck as a child, his small fingers tugging at it with a whimper, punishment for some infraction he didn't remember anymore.

He pushed the thought quickly aside. It was necessary. Ezra had brought this on himself. However cruel it seemed, Maul knew the method was effective.

But that he definitely wouldn't be able to find on-planet.

Maul chewed on his tongue for a moment or two, glancing towards the cell. The vague orange blur moving behind the barrier told him Ezra was pacing anxiously.

It was risky to leave him behind, but it would be even riskier to bring him along. Too many factors, too many variables.

Maul made his decision, straightening, walking stiffly out of the cavern.

An icy wind blew sharply on him as he stalked through the blowing snow to the gauntlet, hidden away in a shallow pocket on the ridgeline. He lowered the ramp and strode up, shaking flakes off his arms as he went straight to the side compartment, pulling the last syringe out of the drawer, ironically the one thing he hadn't transferred over from the ship.

How fortunate, he grumbled to himself.

He returned to the caves, the frigid air of the night and the long walk back down the tunnels cooling a bit of his anger.

He crossed the room towards the cell, casually flicking off the barrier.

Ezra was still pacing, clearly anticipating some kind of punishment, his anxiety a static prickle Maul could feel in the Force. He froze when the barrier went down, his eyes wide and frightened, his elbows clutched tight as if to make himself smaller.

Maul pushed into the room and Ezra stepped back, swallowing, looking up fearfully.

The ex-Sith fixed him with an even glare.

"I am going offworld," he said. "I shall be gone a few days. You," he emphasized, pointing sharply with his free hand, "will remain here."

"You're leaving?" Ezra blurted out. His face filled with apprehensive confusion. Maul could see him trying to wrap his head around the words. "Wh—why?" the boy stammered.

"To fix your mess!" Maul snapped, some of his earlier anger returning.

Ezra flinched away immediately, the muscles in his neck tight.

Maul's teeth clenched a moment, before he spoke again. "Do not think you have escaped being punished for this," he said, threateningly. "You are in for it when I return, Ezra Bridger," he promised.

There was a satisfying tremble from him, vibrating up and down his thin body. Maul let the weight of his threat sink in for a moment. He was about to open his mouth when—

"Were... were you really going to leave me with the Empire?" Ezra asked, peeking up with timid eyes.

"Yes," Maul replied automatically with a growl, brows narrowing.

Ezra froze at that, trying to muffle a spike of terror that Maul could feel shooting out from him.

He rolled his eyes. "I would have returned for you, once you had learned your lesson," he said, sneering. "But my threat was not an idle one, Ezra. If I have to turn you over to the Empire for a while, to regain some perspective—" he spat, "—I will do so."

Ezra squished himself smaller, trembling again, harder now, ripples and echos of smothered panic reverberating across the bond.

Now that he'd made his point, Maul continued.

"I am leaving you whatever rations remain. I suggest you conserve them carefully." He jerked his horned head towards one of the walls. "Use the corner if you need to relieve yourself." He leveled eyes on Ezra. "Do we have an understanding?" he asked.

The boy pried apart dry lips, dropping his arms to his sides, eyes down. "Yes sir," he whispered thinly.

It wasn't 'Master', but it would do for now. Maul brought out the syringe and extended a hand, expectantly.

"Hold out your arm," he ordered.

Ezra backed up a step, shying away, covering his right arm protectively.

"Don't," he begged. "Please..."

The tortured look in his eyes sent irritation through Maul. As if the boy had any right to ask for lenience now. "Give me one reason why I shouldn't," he growled.

Ezra's face was pinched, expression pleading.

"You know I hate it," he said quietly.

Maul reached forward, grabbing Ezra's wrist, pulling him closer sharply and shoving up his sleeve. Ezra gasped, trying to tug out of Maul's grip, but with a firm pinch his elbow was held steady, and Maul pricked the needle under his skin.

"Then you should not have pulled that stunt with the creatures," he said, depressing the stopper quickly.

He pulled the needle out, letting go of Ezra's arm, and the boy clutched himself, breaths tight, face freezing in mute horror.

Maul stepped back, putting away the syringe, looking off elsewhere as he tuned out the pinpricky anxiety rising from Ezra.

"I'm disappointed, Ezra. I thought I had reached you," he said. He shook his head, grimly. "But it seems you still have much to unlearn."

He looked up, seeing Ezra begin to wobble on his feet, his balance unsteady, his eyes unseeing, filled with static as he stared past Maul.

An uncomfortable twinge passed through him. Maul took a deep breath, letting his annoyance cool.

"I did not want to do this," he told the boy quietly. "But you forced my hand."

His toes scritched the ice as he started to go.

Ezra stumbled after him, falling over, fingers clawing at Maul's arms and chest. Maul turned back, watching in concern as Ezra clutched at him, the boy's fear reverberating out from his head, washing over Maul's senses.

"Bastard..." Ezra hissed, even as he clung tighter, afraid to let go. His eyes were unfocusing, his knees beginning to sag. Maul patiently took hold of his elbows, holding him up as his strength sapped away. Ezra's frantic, panicky breaths were slowing. His gaze grew bleary. He looked so betrayed. "I... I hate..."

He didn't finish, trailing off as his eyes rolled slowly back in his head. He fell softly limp, knees bending, feet dragging flat on the floor.

Maul carefully lowered Ezra back down, catching traces of the familiar lingering panic drifting up from his unconscious body.

He shoved down the vague sick feeling rising in his stomach. Ezra was fine. He would wake up groggy and probably angry at him but so what? His anger would give him strength. The more Ezra hated him, the closer he would fall towards the Dark Side.

Something in him still felt... saddened by that. Somber and grim that Ezra would never, apparently, come to trust him. Ezra would never look at him again with the same innocent eyes he had on Malachor.

Little fool, he thought, pulling himself away, stepping back out of the cell. It doesn't have to be like this. It never did. You should have just come with me on Dathomir.

Remembering the boy's rejection stung like a hot brand inside his chest. He'd offered Ezra power, strength, a glorious destiny side by side with him, and he'd spat it back in Maul's face. And what had that led to? Nothing but pain and a broken mind, haunted by the unseen ghosts of his Imperial tormentors. And yet still he resisted the one thing that could help him. The one thing that could turn all his suffering around into power. For the sake of the people he called 'friends'.

Maul's teeth grit inside his head as he gathered up what little was left of the rations.

They could not have him back. They would ruin him. They had ruined him. Ezra was his, and Maul was going to make him accept his destiny no matter how much force he had to use.

"No matter what it takes..." he muttered to himself. His eyes darted back towards Ezra, eerie light in them. "You will see, you have to see..."

He had to, or it was all for nothing.

He made sure the dampening barrier was on, and then he departed, disappearing swiftly into the night.

-SWR-

Sparks popped off the metal as Hera welded the last seam together.

"How's that refuel coming?" she called down to Sabine, underneath the belly of Ghost.

Sabine kept her hands steady on the hose clamp, listening to the fuel gargle up through the tube. "Almost done!" she yelled back.

Hera finished and shut off her welding torch, pushing her protective goggles up. Standing up from her crouch she moved over to the scaffolding ladder pushed up next to the Ghost's hull, descending quickly as she pulled off her headgear.

Mon Mothma was standing there on the landing field, quietly watching, her expression neutral.

Hera nodded briefly at the woman as she put her tools away, pulling off her welders gloves and replacing them with her normal ones.

The woman spoke up.

"Are you sure you can trust Saw?" she asked.

Hera frowned grimly. "I trust him not to sell us out to the Empire," she answered.

That seemed to be enough. Mon Mothma shifted subtly, hands clasping formally behind her.

"Be careful," she told Hera. "And may the Force be with you."

Hera nodded again, turning swiftly, yelling at Sabine to finish up.

The ship's whine grew in volume and pitch as the engines revved, Hera methodically going through her pre-flight checklist with clinical efficiency.

Switch seven, flip, dampeners on, hyperdrive programmed with the coordinates.

The rest of her crew bustled up and down the ladder and the hallway behind her, prepping the ship for departure.

Hera fired up the repulsorlifts, guiding the freighter slowly up off the landing platform. She didn't let herself think about anything except the methodical process.

The Ghost lifted, sublights kicking on and propelling them up and up, out of the atmosphere. The blue sky turned slowly blacker as stars behind to fill her viewport.

Voices rose up from somewhere behind her, somewhat muffled, Kallus yelling hysterically and Mart, Gooti, and Jonner's shouts rising in protest. Apparently Kallus had just discovered that they were still on board.

Hera smiled privately to herself. Ezra certainly knew how to pick his friends.

No time to turn around. She gunned the hyperdrive, surging them forward into the streaking blue tunnel with rush of acceleration and speed.

-SWR-

Maul kept his hood up. He'd rewrapped his arms, hiding as much of his distinctive skin as he could, and stuck to the shadows as he made his way.

The shop was unobtrusive and hidden—a dimly lit hole in the wall with an entrance out of eyeline from the street—but Maul recognized it easily and slipped in.

His contact was busy chatting with another buyer when he entered, but Maul shoved the customer's merchandise off the counter, dumping his own bag pointedly in its place.

Both men looked as though they wanted to protest for a moment, but Maul fixed his contact with a steel glare, watching the alien pale and swipe a nervous hand through greasy hair as he was recognized.

A visible gulp stretched his thin throat. "Lord Maul!" he squeaked. The slaver wiped his palms on his clothes. "What—what an unexpected surprise."

"Spare me the pleasantries, Raggar," Maul growled. He dropped a datapad on the counter in front of the man and it clattered, uncomfortably loud in the small space. "Shock collars, electro prods, and Force suppressants," he listed. "I require them." After a moment of thought he added, "And a new set of binders." He sneered, pleased to have the slaver's full attention now that the man's customer had shied off in apprehension. "That shouldn't be too hard for you," he said.

Dun Raggar nervously hastened to assure him. "N-no of course not." A grimace spread his face. "Well, the suppressants are..." He glanced up at Maul apologetically. "...they might be a bit more difficult, my lord."

Maul's eyes were hard and firm on him. "You will accrue them for me, and I won't end your miserable existence," he repeated, the darkness seeming to grow stronger around him with his threat.

His customer now cowering against the opposite wall in terror, Dun Raggar had no recourse but to acquiesce.

"Y-yes sir. At once sir," he stammered.

Maul's expression smoothed into pleased satisfaction. His thoughts anxiously returned, as they always did, to Ezra, locked in his cell on a world far away, waiting for his return.

Soon, he promised the boy in his head.

Chapter Text

Ezra stayed on the floor with his body clenched tight for several long minutes after he clawed his way back to consciousness, shaking, his head agitated, clamps tight around his lungs. He grit his teeth, waiting it out, keeping his mind as blank as he could. Trying to remember Kanan's exhortations and instructions on how to handle an attack hadn't helped him this time, because Kanan wasn't here, Maul had left, he was alone, alone and trapped, and that thought train had spiraled him back into panic.

Finally, it subsided. Ran its course and ran dry.

Ezra exhaled, uncurling, and sat up, feeling stiff and uncoordinated.

That steaming pile of bantha dung! he thought indignantly.

He fumed silently for a few moments before letting go of his anger and calming himself.

It had been an impulsive decision to call the creatures to their cavern. He didn't know what he'd hoped, exactly, to accomplish with it.

But now Maul was gone. For how long, he couldn't be certain, and he didn't know when he'd be back.

He wasn't missing this opportunity.

Ezra stood carefully, looking past the shimmering surface of the dampening barrier, making sure the cavern beyond was empty.

Once he was satisfied, he took a step back.

He examined the opening from every angle, poking at the edges, seeing where and how the field attached to the rock. Static tingles stung through his fingers often. Ezra bit his lip and forced himself to ignore them.

Picking at the borders didn't seem to do much; even when he managed to gouge out a finger-sized hole in the crumbly rock the barrier immediately buzzed him and stretched to fill the tiny gap.

Frustrated, Ezra banged a fist on it.

He moved back, kicking at the barrier, shoving his shoulders against it.

It was no use. It wouldn't give.

Trying to ignore the rising flickers of panic that were whispering at the edges of his head again, Ezra raised his hand and closed his eyes, concentrating with the Force.

As before, he couldn't penetrate past the actual barrier. He could feel the cavern beyond, an empty space just out of reach, but he couldn't force his way through and touch it, manipulate anything past it. He couldn't turn off the damn emitter that was keeping him in here.

Ezra focused harder, his face straining, his hand vibrating with effort as he tried again.

C'mon, c'mon... just give...

Nothing happened.

Ezra gave up, his hand dropping, panting heavily. Dejection curled in his stomach.

He sat back down, shivering softly, looking at the infernal barrier with tired, burning eyes.

Who am I kidding? he thought. I'm stuck. Stuck and trapped like I always was and now Maul isn't even here to let me out.

His breath shuddered, and he lay his forehead across his knees, holding his legs quietly.

He wasn't going to cry. He wasn't going to give up.

He just... needed a moment.

-SWR-

"Hello my friends!" Hondo's voice was bright and entirely too chipper, and it made Hera suddenly feel like a migraine was pulling at her temples. "So glad I managed to catch your frequency," he went on. The holoprojection of his face glitched out a brief moment, as he leaned in closer to the camera. "You are very difficult people to get hold of you know," he told them.

Hera sighed heavily, rubbing her forehead. "What do you want, Hondo?" she groaned.

The clear blue skies of Ithor outside the viewport were dotted with clouds, the sunlight gleaming off silver and white rooftops. The Ghost was parked on a landing platform in one of the smaller floating cities. They had made contact with the Alliance's operatives that morning, and had been plugged in to the underground network, gathering intel, doing what they could to glean information about the Imperial checkpoint a sector away.

Zeb and Kallus had gone into the port, to see what they could find. Iron Squadron had been left behind on the ship, but didn't seem to mind, enacting dozens of little repairs to the Ghost and the Phantom II to keep busy, ticking off a laundry list Hera had been meaning to get around to but never had the time to do so.

Kanan had been agitated since they'd arrived, spending most of the morning out on the platform meditating. Hera had just gone out to fetch him when Sabine had frantically called to them from the loading ramp, explaining in a hurry that Hondo had commed them.

"He says he has a lead!" she'd explained.

The Jedi and the Twi'lek had exchanged a quick glance before rushing up the ramp.

Kanan now stood behind her, arms crossed as he leaned slightly against the wall. Sabine was seated in the copilot's chair, leaned forward on her seat. Her elbows rested on her knees, hands clasped up by her face, and she was biting her fingers, every muscle tensed as she listened in on the conversation.

Hondo moved back from the camera again.

"Well I was just so devastated to learn about what had happened to my dear friend Ezra," he said, his voice pitching with its usual overdramatic cadence but a genuine twinge of worry in the lines of his face. He glanced aside at them. "I have met Maul before you know, a dastardly creature, very ill-mannered," he said, rubbing his chin. "Horrible breath."

Hera felt her migraine intensifying.

"I told myself, 'Hondo, you must do everything in your power to make sure Ezra Bridger escapes this fiend and goes home safe!' So I have been sniffing around with my old contacts in the underworld you know, making reaccquaintance, asking around," Hondo rambled. "By the way, I hope you know my association with you is doing terrible things to my once fearsome reputation," he tangented. "So many people want to kill me now."

Chopper, hovering behind Hera's elbow, gave a grumble that sounded very much like, Like that's anything new.

"They say, 'You have gone soft, Hondo!'" he exclaimed, sounding so offended by the notion. "Preposterous! Never in all my years have I been so insulted! Just because my ventures are not as profitable as they used to be does not mean"

"Spit it out, Hondo!" Sabine interrupted hotly, her hands opening sharply to the air in frustration. She glared at the hologram of the old Weequay. "Do you have a lead for us or not?!" she demanded.

Startling and coming to himself, Hondo blurted, "Yes! Well!" The pirate straightened, scooting the chair on his end a bit closer. "You know my old business contact Prylfor, right?"

"No, but keep talking," Kanan spoke up.

"It happens that he was on Iridonia the other day, in the shop of a particular scumbag, Dun Raggar. I believe you're familiar with him?" Hondo asked, checking with Hera with a quick peek.

"We've met," Hera said, frowning darkly.

Hondo nodded once before continuing. "And Prylfor told me he received a very strange order recently." He reached up, adjusting his hat a moment. "Someone he apparently knew from the old days came in and asked for very specific items: a shock collar, binders, electric slave prods..." Hondo paused a moment before delivering his final part, looking seriously at them. "...and Force suppressants."

The three of them straightened. Chopper gave a low whistle.

"I said to myself, 'This is a most peculiar order.' and so I asked my friend, what did this mysterious buyer look like? And do you know what he said?"

They could already guess, but the satisfaction of hearing it from Hondo's mouth was a vicarious thrill shooting through them.

"'A Zabrak, with red and black skin and yellow eyes.'"

Sabine sat back in her seat, eyes wide. "It's him," she breathed. "It's got to be."

Hera leaned her arms on the dashboard, looking Hondo straight in the face.

"Hondo, are you sure?" she asked. Hope was straining to burst through the cautious shields in her heart, but she wouldn't let it swell, not yet. "It wasn't someone else?"

"How many Zabraks do you know who would be looking to buy Force suppressants, my dear Captain?" Hondo asked, tone slightly sardonic now. He huffed his shoulders, rubbing his chin with vigor. "It seems a very big coincidence."

Kanan stepped up, a hand grasping at the back of Hera's pilot chair. "Hondo, where was he headed?" he pressed anxiously. "Did your friend see where he went? Hear anything?"

Hondo looked pensive a moment. "Raggar needed some time to complete the order. I don't believe our mutual enemy has picked it up yet."

Kanan immediately locked on where Hera was. "Hera," he said urgently, "we—"

"Have to intercept him before then," she finished. "I know." She whipped out of her seat, maneuvering around Chopper towards the door. "Sabine, ping Zeb and Kallus back to the ship. We need to hurry."

"If there is a daring rescue to pull off, Hondo demands to be involved!" the pirate's voice called sharply after her.

"We'll take whatever help you can give, Hondo," Kanan told him, his fingernails digging slowly into the fabric of the pilot's chair. The thought of Maul looking for things like shock collars and Force suppressants, with the intention of using them on Ezra...

Kanan took a deep breath and steadied himself in the Force. Hera was already barking orders up and down the ladders at Iron Squadron. Kanan stumbled his way around the chair and dropped into it, relying on muscle memory to reach across the console and begin the startup sequence.

The Ghost began to hum to life.

-SWR-

Ezra bashed his shoulder hard against the barrier and only succeeded in earning himself a particularly sharp zing.

"Ow!" he exclaimed stumbling back and clutching his bicep. "Kriffing..." he muttered.

Hissing through his teeth he let himself drop to his haunches, looking up and glaring at the barrier with hard eyes.

The electric tingle lingered in his muscles, uncomfortably bringing back shadows of the Chimaera. Ezra squeezed his eyes closed, willing away the echos beginning to whisper in his ear.

They only seemed to get louder.

Ezra pressed his hands into his forehead, his nails digging into his hair, feeling his breaths shorten, hearing a murmuring slowly resolving into snatches of Pryce's voice.

"...base, Bridger? I don't want... order another... your heart can't take much..." The words drifted in and out, fading in-between the static prickles of anxiety.

No no no, he begged. Just go away, please just go away...

Why was he so useless? Why couldn't he focus for five minutes without spinning into irrational panic?

Frustration simmered hot within him. He wanted to tap into the anger circling just beneath the surface. Wanted to let it swell up around him. Wanted to let the cold that was whispering behind his head flood through him, surge with its power so he wouldn't feel helpless anymore.

He struggled against the temptation longer than he was proud of.

Ezra exhaled, letting his anger go.

He dropped his hands, shifting, looking around miserably at his cell.

His small food store was almost spent. Ezra didn't relish the thought of being hungry again and almost wished Maul would return soon just for that. The water, also, was diminishing quickly in its little canteen. The cell was beginning to stink more and more from the corner. And all his efforts against the walls and the barrier were no use.

And worst of all were the constant anxious thoughts buzzing his head, stabbing through him and slowly tightening his chest and drowning his head over and over again.

Maul was going to hurt him when he came back. If he came back. What if he never did? What if he'd just abandoned Ezra to slowly starve and dehydrate inside this cell?

No, he said he wouldn't.

And he was a known liar and Ezra couldn't believe anything he said and—

Ezra smacked a palm against the side of his head, deliberately breaking the chain of thought before it could send him into yet another round of panic, of frantic beating at the walls while his lungs choked and his head screamed.

"Stop it," he muttered. "Focus."

He couldn't.

Ezra could feel a bleak hopelessness slowly crawling up his back. He strained past the murmurs in his head for something to help him.

Kanan... he thought. I could really use you right now. I'm not any good at this without you.

His next breaths shuddered a bit. Kanan wasn't with him. Maul wasn't either. They were both far away. He was alone. The only one who could help him was himself, and he was too traumatized and broken to do it.

Something... nudged his mind at that. Ezra seemed to feel, all of a sudden, a shift in the air around him, a thought almost like a voice whispering in his head.

Not alone.

Ezra glanced up, confused and curious.

The cell was still and quiet. But something seemed to filter through the clouds in his mind. Kanan's voice echoed from a memory in his head, warm and gentle.

"The Force is with you, Ezra. Always. You're never alone."

Ezra strained to recall when he'd said it. It seemed so long ago. Ezra thought they might have been on the plains of Lothal, practicing something that blurred for him now, but he remembered tuning Kanan out and Kanan complaining that he didn't listen, and a lecture on how the Force was always speaking to them, they just had to open their ears to hear it.

He exhaled slowly.

Okay, he decided, his body calming down, the shaky nerves inside him stilling, for once. Okay, I'm listening.

He waited for a moment, holding his breath, quiet.

Calm settled into him, lengthening the space between his heartbeats. He waited to hear what the Force would whisper, opening his mind and ears.

The next memory that drifted into his head was that of the golden training dojo, the warm brown hand on his shoulder, a kind face speaking encouragement to his heart.

"You have already taken many steps forward. When you are ready for the next... I will be here."

Ezra mulled over that a moment or two. Then, he shifted position, getting up on his knees, relaxing his shoulders and laying his hands flat on his thighs.

All right, he thought, a calm resolution settling over him. I think... I think I'm ready.

He let out a long breath, closed his eyes, and reached out in faith to the Force.

Warmth pulsed slowly around him. His breathing relaxed, the clamps easing away, melting into softness.

He slipped deeper and deeper into meditation. His mind stilled, all thought and sensation fading away, into the fabric of the Force, which ebbed and flowed, drifting around him, through him, steadying his breaths.

All sound quieted.

The warmth rose around him, intensifying. A shift in the light on his closed eyelids told him he was there.

He opened his eyes to the yellow-lit training room, and Depa Billaba seated calmly across the mat in front of him.

She smiled.

"Hello padawan," she said. "I'm glad to see you."

Chapter Text

"Master." Ezra bowed his head respectfully, dipping his chin. "Sorry it took me so long to come back."

Depa tilted her ear to the side, studying him. "Something has changed since the last time we spoke," she said in observation.

Concern tugged at the depths of her eyes.

"I sense... shame," she stated softly.

Ezra's brows flinched, his face squeezing with emotion. "I..." he stammered. He couldn't look up, couldn't bear to see Depa's eyes on him. He struggled against the hesitation lodged in his chest. Swallowing, he pushed ahead. "I used the Dark Side," he confessed quietly. "When I was fighting Maul."

His breath hitched.

"I was just so... afraid and... and hurt and... and I lashed out." His hands tightened on his thighs, curling quietly into fists. "I'm sorry," he said, mumbling, his head sinking even further.

If there was any judgement in Depa's expression, her voice didn't betray it, tranquil and neutral. "And why do you feel ashamed of that?" she asked him.

"Because I promised Kanan, promised myself, that I wouldn't." Ezra's sides shook, but he steadied his voice and continued. It felt... freeing... to say all this. "I told myself that... Maul wasn't going to change me, no matter what he did to me. And I failed."

"But did you pull yourself back?"

Ezra blinked, his head startling up. "What?"

Patiently, Depa started again. "When you realized you had tapped into the Dark Side, did you continue to use it, or did you stop?" she prompted.

"I... stopped," Ezra replied, confused.

"Why?"

"Because..." Now that he had to actually articulate it, the words were hard coming. Ezra thought a moment, going back over his thought process when he'd snapped out of the Dark Side. "Because that wasn't... wasn't what I wanted to do. No matter how much Maul was hurting me I didn't... want to be like him."

A smile softened the corners of Depa's mouth, proud and fond. "So you chose to reject the Darkness," she concluded.

Ezra's face fell a bit. "But I still lost myself to it," he argued.

Depa was shaking her head. "You are only lost if you choose to be, Ezra," she told him. "If you give up." Her hands slipped softly into the opposite sleeves of her robe as she folded her arms, assuming the pose and demeanor of a teacher. "The Light and Dark exist in all of us, young one. You must chose, every day, to resist the Dark, stand firm against it. You may stumble. You may fail. But you must keep striving forward," she said. She settled back, straightening a fraction. "That is what it means to be a Jedi."

The words resonated with something deep inside Ezra. The Force's warmth seemed to be closer around him, ringing with the truth of Depa's words.

...But doubt trickled back into his heart. His gaze drifted, shifting towards one of the far walls, the calligraphic ink art on the neutral panels.

"Something else troubles you?" Depa asked.

Ezra racked his brain for the words, trying to put his thoughts together coherently.

"The last... time we spoke..." Force, that felt eons ago. "I mentioned that... that something had happened to me."

She nodded sagely. "Your ordeal on the Chimaera."

"Yes," he confirmed, suppressing a shudder. He tried not to think about the cold tendrils of Maul inside his mind, holding him under his memories like he'd held him under the water, drowning him in them. He took a breath, continuing. "The reason that I used the Dark Side was because... because Maul forced himself in my head and... made me relive some of it."

His voice strained on the last few words, and Ezra's throat tightened, trying to keep control. The memories pressed on the sides of his head; his own voice screaming, the sludging trickle of the drugs in his system, the sharp crackling pop of the electricity all around him...

Depa sat quietly for a moment. Then, wordlessly, she rose from her seat and crossed the short distance over to him.

Kneeling down by his side, she opened her arms.

Her soft sleeves enveloped him, and Ezra melted into the embrace, his temple falling against her shoulder, feeling the pleasant scent of aging wood and smoky incense tickling his nose.

Her fingers carded softly through his hair. "I am truly sorry, Ezra," she told him.

He gave a shuddering breath. "'s'okay," he mumbled into her robes. A stray tear dripped from his eye, soaking into Depa's sleeve. "I'm... used to reliving stuff from it now." He reached up, wiping his face, pulling away and sitting up, his head shaking. "But I think there are some things I haven't... haven't dealt with about it yet and Maul was able to get inside that and... twist it until it gave him what he wanted," he explained.

Depa sat back, assuming her former meditative position. "So what do you want to do, Ezra?" she asked him, gently.

Ezra was quiet for a long moment, thinking.

The resolution crept up on him, moving like a quiet whisper up through his body, until it formed fully inside his head.

He knew what he needed to do.

He straightened, his shoulders squaring in determination.

"I won't let my trauma be used to make me fall," he told Depa. The fierce look in his eyes softened, faltering. His shoulders slouched again. "I... I need to... make peace with it somehow. I think," he said.

A soft rustle of fabric sounded as Depa got to her feet. Her arms folded inside her sleeves again. "Then, are you ready to face what happened to you?" she asked.

Ezra closed his eyes briefly, inhaled slowly through his nose. Gathering his courage.

He opened them, expression tranquil.

"Yes," he said.

Depa extended a hand to him. "Come," she urged.

Ezra reached up, taking her offered hand, letting her help him to his feet. They turned towards the door, their footsteps almost silent as they crossed the room. Depa led the way, Ezra trailing at her shoulder.

The light dimmed as they stepped through the doorway. The warm yellow glow faded into shadow, and Ezra blinked, squinting, peering through the dim haze. He couldn't see the hallway he remembered from before, but Depa seemed to know where she was headed, taking long, resolute steps into the darkness, so Ezra just followed, keeping close to her wake, rather determined not to lose her.

The shadows seemed to shift, vague shapes taking form around them. Dim light filtered in from somewhere up ahead. Ezra felt the air grow chillier, the warmth of the Jedi training dojo morphing into something else. Something clinical and stale.

He smelled the room emerging up ahead before anything else—smelled the metallic tang of electricity and a vague whiff of burning flesh.

Ezra's lungs tightened a little. His head started to pinch. A nervous question started to rise up his throat and then all of a sudden they had arrived. The walls around them were Imperial gray, a window set high up behind them, and he could see himself strapped to the interrogation table, hanging slack, his lungs giving great exertion.

Pryce stepped out of the shadows and gave a motion to her left.

Sparks popped to life all around the body of the Ezra on the table, and he threw his head back with a loud screech of pain.

Ezra gave a violent flinch, shying back. Now that he was here, he really didn't want to watch this, his heart beating wildly, throat closing. Echos and mirrors of what he was seeing with his eyes were starting to murmur in his ears.

Depa was suddenly next to him, her hand squeezing his shoulder tight.

"It's all right," she told him. "I'm right here."

Ezra involuntarily relaxed at the contact, the murmurs siphoning away until he couldn't hear them anymore. He looked again at the scene before him, steeling himself with a long breath.

The techs shut the electricity off, allowing the boy on the table a chance to sag again, panting heavily.

He looked... absolutely pitiful. Burns and cuts all over the exposed skin Ezra could see, clothes ragged and singed, and Ezra hated most how the illusionary him rolled his head, groggy from the drugs, eyes barely open, and when they did peek out, unfocused.

The Ezra on the table tugged weakly at the restraints on his wrists, slurring something in a thin whisper. The Ezra standing by and watching felt phantom twinges around his own limbs, the memory of metal digging into his skin, drawing blood, and clenched his hands tightly, trembling with anger.

He hated seeing himself so helpless.

Depa had taken her hand off his shoulder by now, observing in silence as the image of Pryce conducted the interrogation, and the image of Ezra suffered for it.

"What do you see, Ezra?" she asked him.

Ezra's hands gripped tighter, the nails digging into his palms. "Something I deserved," he muttered bitterly.

"Why would you deserve this?" Depa questioned.

Ezra exhaled shakily, emotion welling up inside him. "It was my extraction plan. My idea." His voice began to waver as he spoke, as the screams of his past self rang like horrible bells in his ears. "Kanan thought it was too risky, said it would put me in too much danger, but I insisted." His gaze dropped, and he pressed the base of his palm hard against his right eye, trying to hold back the tears. "I thought I could get Kallus out all on my own. That I didn't need anyone else with me. I barely agreed to let Chopper and AP-5 come along."

His throat tightened too much for him to speak for a moment. He pinched his lips, his eyes squeezing closed, as he collected himself.

"And look what that got me," he strained, voice clogging. The vision of his interrogation blurred around his tears. "I took a stupid risk and everyone else had to come save me." Both hands pressed against his eyes now, blotting the tears away, smearing across his face. "It's... it's my fault. My fault I'm so messed up. So useless." His throat cracked on the words. "I brought this on myself."

There. He'd said it. Spoken aloud what he'd been avoiding admitting to all this time. Like a festering sore on his mind it had lingered, infecting him with doubt and negative thoughts, a poisonous voice in his head that berated and chided him, and something he'd never let himself verbalize completely until now.

It seemed to break everything apart for a moment, and Ezra had a few seconds of horrible clarity.

A firm grip grabbed at his left wrist. Ezra blinked up at Depa, startled, as she swiftly pulled his hand away from his face.

"No living being deserves to have trauma and violence thrust upon them," she told him fiercely, a stern expression on her face, her eyes steel. "Whatever mistakes you made, whatever arrogance you think you were being punished for, this is not your fault, Ezra." She pointed towards the phantom Pryce. "She did this. Not you."

Ezra's next breath shuddered through him, a strange sort of calm tingling in his head. His eyes slowly slanted back towards the image of himself on the table, his face pinched.

He knew that, on an abstract, intellectual level. Thrawn was the one who had ordered his torture, Pryce was the one who had carried it out.

"But I wouldn't have even been here if—" he started to argue.

Depa stopped him with a gentle squeeze around his wrist. "You came because you had someone to help," she said. "You are a Jedi, Ezra. It is your nature. We can never stand by while there are people in danger."

"But in the end I needed help," Ezra said miserably.

"And do you blame yourself for that?"

"Yes." He almost whispered the word. His eyes fixed on his mirror-self, watching the image writhe as he was electrocuted. "I should—" His throat tightened up again. "—should've been stronger..."

All he saw, looking at himself, at what was being done to him, was how broken he was. How weak.

Warmth rang through the air as Depa stepped up next to him. "That is not what I see," she said, as though she'd heard his thoughts. "I see a young man enduring through great pain, standing firm against a relentless evil." She turned a fond smile on him, pride shining on her face. "Like a true Knight of old."

The warmth intensified, melting into his chest, making his heart... stutter softly from emotion. It crept across his face, and he lowered his head.

"I was just... trying to protect everyone," he said quietly.

"And you did," she assured him.

Ezra found himself calming at that, taking in the words like a soothing balm on his mind. He glanced up again at the image before him, seeing now the frustration in the fake Pryce's face, the anger that tensed her shoulders after every round ended with her unable to force him to reveal anything.

His sense of clarity returned, but it was no longer cold around the edges.

Ezra gave a soft exhale.

That's right... He hadn't broken. They'd thrown everything they'd had at him and he'd told them nothing.

He had endured.

That wasn't the mark of someone weak.

A light feeling was starting to trickle into his heart. A strange sort of tranquility.

Depa turned her head down at him and he glanced up at her when he felt her gaze. Her face was calm, composed, not smiling, but still open and warm.

"You are not defined by what happened to you, Ezra Bridger," she told him.

Wordlessly, she directed him to look at the image ahead. He did so, feeling the vision grow starker, clearer, absorbing the space around him.

It must've been near the end of his interrogation, Ezra thought. The IT-O droid was floating back away from the mirror-him's face, a sharp scalpel in one of its instrument arms and a freshly bleeding cut across the boy's face.

The vision-Ezra wheezed thinly through struggling lungs, fighting against the beginning stages of allergic shock, a state Ezra knew now that he'd been deliberately kept in for the last few rounds of the Brisney-Favvin.

"C'ming for me..." he murmured under his breath.

Pryce pushed her way forward, eyes angry.

"There is no one coming for you, Bridger," she hissed. "The only way you leave this room is by telling me what I want to know." She got up in his face, practically snarling. "Where. Is. The. Rebel. Base?" she demanded, emphasizing the words slowly and pointedly so even his drugged-up mind could understand.

Ezra watched himself spit a mouthful of blood into her face.

Pryce screeched in fury, grabbing his chin, fingernails digging hard into his cheeks.

"Why you little—!" she shouted.

The vision-Ezra's eyes cracked open just a moment, deliriously, and Ezra felt the ring in the Force that told him his past self was reaching out to it, letting it fill him, before his eyes closed tight.

"Oh no you don't," Pryce growled, dropping his face and stepping back. "Another round," she barked at the techs in the corner.

They complied, prepping new syringes, switching the electricity on again. The electrodes charged up, their whine growing higher and sharper. Pryce stood back, watching with a glare.

Then, suddenly, she seemed to change her mind, motioning for them to stop.

"Wait," she called.

Looking confused, the techs shut off the electrodes, and the shrill whine pitched down again until it fell silent. Pryce had stepped forward again, lifting up Ezra's chin, turning his face from side to side as she examined him closely, eyes pinched.

A soft crackle from above preceded the calm voice of Thrawn piping in from the observation room.

"Is there a problem, Governor?" he asked.

Pryce peered at the boy on the table, expression neutral.

"He's unconscious," she announced. Her hand fumbled out towards the medical tray, grabbing up a small green canister in a silver dispenser. "Administering a stim shot."

Ezra straightened a bit. This was all new to him. He watched as Pryce brought the tip of the dispenser up against his mirror-self's neck.

A sharp hiss! and the green liquid inside the canister disappeared.

The room waited for several seconds. Then several more. Then almost a full minute.

"No effect, Governor," one of the techs said, staring down and studying the readouts on his panel.

"I can see that!" she snapped. She grabbed hold of one of the IT-O's arms and sharply pulled it down level with her, flicking on the diagnostic display and scrolling through it. "The IT-O doesn't even show any changes in his vitals. His heartrate and adrenaline levels should be rising..." she muttered under her breath.

"Perhaps another stim?" Thrawn queried.

It was the head technician who spoke up now, moving to Pryce's side and studying the IT-O readouts for himself. "I wouldn't advise that, Grand Admiral," he said. "With his blood pressure and vitals the way they are right now, any more stim could flatline his heart." He stepped back, shaking his head. "And I'm not sure we could revive him."

Ezra risked a glance up towards the observation window and caught a glimpse through the glass of Thrawn, his mouth pulled down in perturbed disquiet. The Chiss looked vaguely frustrated and Ezra let himself take a bit of petty satisfaction in that.

After a long, silent moment, Thrawn reached down to press the call button.

"Put away your tools. We will resume the process after one rotation."

A deflating seemed to resound throughout the room at that. Pryce huffed and pulled out a cloth, rubbing furiously at the stain where Ezra had spat on her. The technicians stirred from their posts with a shuffle, moving to shut things off. Ezra caught a snatch of one them muttering about, "Absolutely unprecedented, pausing a Brisney-Favvin." Even the IT-O returned to its station and powered down.

Sound seemed to fade as the interrogation concluded, the images growing duller once again.

Ezra exhaled softly.

It had been just a bit... satisfying, seeing his tormentors give up in aggravation.

"Thank you, for showing me this," he said, turning. "I think I needed—"

He stopped. Depa was no longer next to him. He looked for her in the graying fog but she was nowhere to be seen.

"Master?" he called. There was nothing around him now except a vague mist. "Master Bilaba?"

Even the interrogation room was gone now. He was alone.

The sharp ignition of a lightsaber made the breath catch in his throat.

Ezra turned slowly around, seeing the glow of a red blade piercing through the shadows, silhouetting a dark shape that seemed to loom out from a long tunnel towards him.

"Nauseating," a voice withered.

Ezra gasped, startling back, his body tensing as Maul's voice rang through the space between them, fear beating a frantic rhythm in his veins.

The shape seemed to tilt its head, and Ezra could pick out Maul's horns, backlit by an eerie crimson glow. "Do you believe you are healed now?" Maul asked, mockingly. "That some pretty words from a long-dead Jedi can undo months of weakness?"

Ezra took another terrified step back as the shape moved towards him. Then he forced himself to stop and hold his ground.

It's not real, he told himself. This is just like back at the Jedi temple on Lothal. It's not real and it can't hurt you. Not if you're not afraid.

He swallowed down the lump in his throat.

I'm not afraid.

The shadow stalked slowly in his direction, confident steps silently pounding on the floor.

"Face it, this changes nothing," Maul was saying, only now his voice sounded wrong, younger and more casual, with an Outer Rim drawl.

His voice, Ezra realized in horror.

"You're still broken, Ez." The shadows seemed to peel back from the shape's face and Ezra was startled to come eye-to-eye with a dark-haired boy his age, wearing his face, dressed in loose-fitting black clothes, wild hair pulled back in a topknot, skin tattooed with vivid black patterns.

Like Maul's.

Vindictive yellow Sith eyes fixed on him, and the boy gave a mean smirk.

"This won't fix you."

Ezra stiffened, giving a soft hiss through his teeth.

"Who are you?" he demanded.

The thing that looked like him but wasn't him tilted its head, like it though the question was cute. "I'm you," it said matter-of-factly. The Not-Ezra cracked another cruel smirk at him. "If you ever decided to wise up and realize how pathetic you are."

Ezra narrowed his eyes, his shoulders squaring up. "No," he said, gripping his fists. "You're a me who gave up. Who gave in."

"Because that's the only way you're getting out of this, Ez," the Not-Ezra told him. It spun its lightsaber casually, and Ezra's teeth gnashed inside his head at the sight of the red blade coming out of his saber hilt, the wounded scream of his kyber crystal crying out in betrayal at him. The Not-Ezra brandished the saber at the end of its flourish. "You know you can't win against him."

"Maybe not," Ezra admitted, hand straying towards his own saber. "And maybe I'll never feel completely whole again. But that doesn't matter." He gripped the hilt with determination, unhooking it, but not igniting it, not yet. "I won't stay stuck here."

"Then embrace the darkness," the Not-Ezra urged. "Break your chains. Take revenge against everyone who ever hurt you."

Ezra shook his head. "No." More firmly, almost growling, he added, "Never. I know what lies at the end of that path." Maul himself was a prime example, nothing but misery and desperate grasping out at any sense of power or control he could. All his grand talk about the freedom of the Dark Side was just to mask how pitifully empty he was, how thoroughly the Dark Side had twisted him until he could never be normal again. That wouldn't be him. Ezra's fingers brushed against the ignition switch of his saber. "And I'm never walking down it again," he determined.

He wasn't going to perpetuate this horrible cycle. He wouldn't turn around and hurt people, just because he'd been hurt.

"You don't know the power you're giving up." There was an odd trace of desperation in the vision's voice now. "You don't know how much stronger he can make you."

"I know how much he hurt me," Ezra countered. "How much he's hurt you."

The Not-Ezra's face flashed with a sudden uncertain vulnerability. "I..." it stammered, then shook its head. "Ev-everything he did was for my own good. He made me better."

Ezra snorted. "Yeah. Sure." More seriously, igniting his saber at last, he fixed his eyes on his mirror-self and said determinedly, "You're wrong. The path I choose might be harder—a lot harder—and slower, and not as easy. But it's the one I have to take. I won't fall to the Dark Side."

The Not-Ezra gnashed its teeth, lunging with a furious swing of its red blade.

Ezra blocked handily, exchanging several blows—two, three, four, dodge—before locking blades with his mirror-self.

The face before him twisted, teeth baring in anger. But Ezra felt only pity for him.

"You aren't real," he said, the sparks popping off their lightsabers, illuminating his face. "And you never will be."

He broke the lock with a swift twist of his saber.

"I will never become like you," he declared.

He thrust forward with his lightsaber, burying it hilt deep in his other self's chest.

The Not-Ezra glanced down at the burning blade with an odd look of... acceptance. Several long, apprehensive seconds passed. Then, raising its face, it melted with an expression of relief, the edges curling away into mist, fading away into nothing.

The mist seemed to clear all around him, revealing a cavern lined with blue-white crystals. Pale light filtered in somewhere from above, and the soft hum of kyber murmured around him.

Ezra sighed in relief, straightening up.

"Excellent work, padawan."

Ezra almost tripped as he turned around. Someone new was standing there, a man in Jedi robes with hands clasped proudly behind him. No hair crowned his head, and though his face was lined it was not old. Intense eyes spoke of a deep wisdom, and he held himself with quiet dignity and authority.

"Who are you?" Ezra asked, truly confused now.

A smile seemed to tug at the corner of the man's mouth. "A friend," he said simply. "Now," he went on, turning and taking a few steps off to the side. "I understand you're having trouble escaping from a locked room."

Ezra grimaced, reaching up and scratching behind his head. "Yeah, um... that... that pretty much sums it up." Curious, he dropped his hand, peering towards the man's back. "Can you help me?"

"I cannot," the man said. "Like Master Bilaba I can only advise you."

"Great, so." A few notes of snark crept into Ezra's voice, thin frustration showing on his face. "What is your advice?"

The man turned back over his shoulder and fixed him with a look.

Ezra quickly corrected his tone. "Master," he said. Somehow that seemed like the correct form of address.

The man turned forward again, neutrally observing a large protruding spine of crystal. "Under your own strength it could not be done," he said. "But your ally is the Force, and the Force is always with you."

Ezra smothered down a sigh. "I tried that. It didn't work."

"You're focusing too much on the barrier itself," the man told him. "What about the surrounding walls?"

That gave Ezra pause a moment, if only for how incredulous a suggestion it was. His face slowly scrunching skeptically Ezra asked, "So... use the Force to... bore through solid rock?" He shook his head. "That's impossible. I'll pull the whole roof down on top of me."

"Our problems often seem impossible and daunting at first glance." One hand reached out and placed itself on the protruding piece of crystal, palm smoothing across its surface almost reverently. The man looked aside at him, a sad, somber concern in his dark eyes. "I know the task ahead of you seems inescapably big," he said.

Ezra had the sense that he wasn't just talking about escaping from his cell, but about everything. Confronting Maul. Coming to grips with what had happened to him on the Chimaera. Managing it somehow. Healing from it. Getting out of this whole mess.

His shoulders slouched a bit, his eyes dropping. "Yeah..." he agreed, admitting it with quiet defeat.

"So break it down." Ezra glanced back up as the man took on an authoritative, teaching stance. His hand moved down the length of the crystal spire, fingers brushing close to the surface, searching for something. "Separate it out into smaller steps," he was instructing. "Start at the beginning, with the easiest, most manageable thing you think you can do. And do it." His hand curled underneath the crystal, finding a hairline crack. "Then do the next thing. And the next. And then—"

His fingers pressed against the surface of the crystal and with a tinny burst it cracked, splintering into tiny fragments that trickled onto the floor like shards of glass.

"Everything else will follow."

"Woah!" Ezra gasped, his eyes wide with awe. He stared up, amazed, at the Jedi Master. "How did you...?"

The man leaned down and picked through the pieces, held up a small blue sliver, displaying it to Ezra in his fingers. "I found a weak spot. A hairline flaw in the composition. A shatterpoint," he explained, walking calmly over. "If properly attuned, you can see these points, and put pressure on them through the Force."

Brown fingers reached down and took his wrist, holding his hand palm up and placing the sliver gently in Ezra's hand.

"One small action," the Jedi Master was saying, a fond smile playing on his face, "to take down a much bigger obstacle."

Ezra looked reverently at the man for a few moments. His eyes dropped to the sliver in his palm.

Sobering, he closed his fingers around it.

"I should go," he muttered.

"You should," agreed the Jedi Master with a nod. "Your ordeal is not yet over." He straightened. "But first..."

He stepped back, his posture authoritative and commanding once more.

"Kneel," he said.

Confused, Ezra obeyed, sliding down to his knees, hands drifting to rest on his thighs.

The man unhooked a lightsaber from his belt—chrome and black with golden accents, a polished, beautiful hilt—and ignited it at his side, revealing a shockingly purple blade.

"A long journey and many trials are still ahead of you, padawan," he said. "But this test, you have passed."

Ezra felt a pounding of anticipation move through him. His pulse prickled with a strange excitement.

The man brought his saber up, gently motioning as if to tap it to each of Ezra's shoulders in turn.

"By the right of the Council, by the will of the Force..." he recited.

He drew the saber away with pride.

"Rise, Ezra Bridger."

Chapter Text

Ezra slowly opened his eyes, coming out of meditation.

The cavern, and his head, were quiet.

He blew out a breath.

The sensations inside him, lingering in his chest, felt familiar.

Different... but the same.

He grinned fondly at the memory. Uncurling, he got his legs beneath him and pushed up to his feet.

Sobering, he took a closer look at the walls of his cell.

The ice and rock couldn't tell him very much, alternating textures spread across the walls like swatches of paint. Blue-white faded into gray and the pale daylight that was managing to filter into the room made faint sparkles in the ice crystals. Ezra was reminded again that, in other circumstances, these caverns would be beautiful. Worthy of capturing in inks and charcoals, immortalized on canvas.

...Force he missed Sabine.

He shook his head firmly. Focus. He had to focus.

And he could now, he thought. At least a little better than before. He stepped up closer to the opening, studying the rock with purpose now. He wasn't quite sure what he was looking for. A crack? Some kind of weakness?

As he peered closer he absentmindedly leaned forward.

The moment his hand touched the barrier a jolt went through him, and Ezra cursed sharply, feeling his head ring with static and loud echoes sound in his ears and pound through his skull as he clutched his hand.

His face pinched tight and he inhaled slowly, letting the echoes play for a moment, close to overwhelming for a few horrible seconds, before they faded back out. His palm tingled uncomfortably.

He shook out his hand, grimacing.

Okay, so... his brain still didn't like that. That was okay. One thing at a time.

He looked up, scanning the ceiling now. His eyes searched the worn rock. There were ridges and lines that could have been gouges, or could have been shadows.

His searching eyes found a particularly dark patch. Ezra pressed his lips together and then tentatively reached out with the Force.

The surface of the rock came into focus as his mental fingers brushed up against it. He could feel every pockmark and bump. And then... a small, tiny crack.

Ezra came out of the Force and looked up skeptically at it. It really didn't seem like much. But it was what he'd found so...

He blew out through his lips, steeling himself.

Okay. Start small. Break the problem down.

He closed his eyes, reaching up with a hand and the gentle, pulsing touch of the Force.

-SWR-

"Absolutely not!" Kallus snapped.

"Aw come on!" Gooti protested, standing elbow to elbow with Mart and Jonner right behind her as they crowded Kallus around the central ladder. "You let us come this far!"

Kallus splayed his palms out stiffly, near-incredulous with frustration. "Only because I didn't notice you were still on the ship!" he countered shrilly. "You will not be coming with me to the exchange and that is final," he told them.

"Maul doesn't know any of us," Mart pointed out. He had his arms crossed in their usual stubborn posture.

"We could totally get close without attracting suspicion," Jonner added, looking entirely too eager and excited by the prospect.

"I'm not taking that risk," Kallus said firmly. He dropped his hands with a heavy, tired sigh, then raked his fingers through his uncombed—graying, he'd noticed—hair. "Look... I don't want you to come because... because I don't want to put any of you in danger," he said, spitting out the admission with reluctance, feeling awkwardly vulnerable for it. "Because I don't want any of you getting hurt. I could never forgive myself."

He looked up at them with pinched face and wrinkled eyes, practically begging.

"So please, listen to me, for once," he pleaded.

The trio wore matching begrudging expressions of acceptance, and did not continue to argue. Gooti was even letting her eyes drift sideways, guiltily.

"Fine," Mart mumbled, looking down at his shoes.

"Aww Kallus, you do care," came a teasing lilt from further down the hallway.

Kallus sent a glare towards the colorful figure of Sabine, leaned up casually against the door to her room. Her helmet was on but Kallus could see the smirk she wore underneath it.

"Sabine, don't undermine me in front of the ensigns," he bit.

She shrugged. "Too late." She hefted something in her hands, tossing it to him. Kallus caught the small comlink in his palms, glancing back up at her as she spoke again. "Hondo just convinced Raggar's lackeys to transfer the merchandise to us," she said. "We've got ten minutes before the drop."

He nodded soberly. "Understood." Gesturing towards his squad he asked, "Can you watch them? Make sure they don't do anything foolish?"

"Hey!" Jonner protested, giving a mildly offended look.

Sabine pushed off from the wall with a huff. "No offense, but I'm not exactly under your command."

Kallus gawped, incredulous. "I outrank you!" he cried.

The grin he could perceive behind her visor widened. "That doesn't mean anything," she told him, shrugging again.

Kallus looked for a moment like he wanted to argue further, but then just dropped his hands with a long exhale, letting the matter go. He pocketed the comlink inside his jacket, quickly zipping it up and moving past Sabine towards the cockpit.

The Mandalorian's demeanor seemed to shift completely as he exited, turning serious as she crossed her arms.

"Be careful," she told him, calling across the hallway as he entered the cockpit. "He's very skilled, and he has the Force."

He nodded. "Duly noted," he said, grabbing the handles of the ladder as he started to descend.

-SWR-

Zeb was twitchy when he joined them at the bottom of the landing ramp.

"I don't like this," he was saying. "Someone should go with him."

Kanan was already shaking his head. "Maul knows us all too well," he said. "And he'll sense me long before I'm close enough to do any damage."

"Perhaps I could—" Hondo started to pipe up.

All three men turned as one to bark a vehement, "No!"

"Sorry Hondo," Hera added apologetically. "But given that you've also had past dealings with Maul..."

"You cannot risk tipping him off, I know," sighed Hondo in disappointment. He clutched a fist dramatically. "Oh but for the chance to take my revenge against that horrid villain!" He cupped a hand around the side of his mouth, whispering a conspiratorial aside at Kallus. "He once humiliated me in front of my own crew, you know."

"I'm sure that was not very hard," Kallus drolled.

Kanan pushed the delivery crate on its repulsorlifts towards him. "Trackers are planted," he said. "Leave your comm open. If you run into trouble—"

"I'll be sure to let you know," Kallus assured him. He took the crate, pushing it gently, maneuvering to the hanger bay door. Kanan and Zeb shadowed his shoulders, while Hera and Hondo returned to the ship.

The three of them were silent as they stepped into the hallway traffic, tense with nerves and anticipation. They kept their heads down, veering to the crowded sides whenever they passed a Stormtrooper patrol.

Kanan peeled off first, finding a place under a stall awning and taking out his comlink, holding it ready in his hand. Then Zeb left him, wedging himself between two check-in kiosks to wait.

Kallus felt his nerves tighten even more, his hands stiffening on the edges of the crate. His heartrate was creeping up.

He forced himself to calm. This was for Ezra. This was the second time he'd been to blame—at least partially—for the boy's capture and he was determined to remit himself once again.

A couple more turns and the drop site came into view. It was a side lounge off one of the larger hangers. A glimpse inside the doors revealed the nose of a luxury S-161 XL instead of a Mandalorian gauntlet, so Maul was either using a decoy or had parked his own ship somewhere else.

His hands gripped tighter, inhaling slowly through his teeth as he spotted the dark figure waiting for him.

Maul wore a ragged hood and black, sand-faded clothes. He was skinnier than Kallus had imagined, slightly emaciated, but still wirey. He glanced up when he noticed Kallus's approach, and even though Kallus had been told about his vivid yellow Sith eyes and bold black and red skin patterns it still startled him just a bit. The eyes reminded him all too uncomfortably of the Grand Inquisitor's, and the same strangely sickly... aura seemed to cling to the Zabrak's clothes and skin.

The Dark Side, Kanan had called it. Maul was 'strong' with it, he'd warned. Kallus gave a shiver.

Maul straightened up, uncrossing his arms and angling to face his visitor. "You have my items, I presume?" he asked.

Kallus cleared his throat, flattening his Core World accent a bit as he spoke. "Of course."

He floated the crate to a stop, keeping a healthy distance between them. A prickly, protective anger was beginning to fester inside him. This was the man who'd stolen Ezra out from under his watch. Hera had charged him specifically to guard the Ghost, trusted him with the protection of her crew, and it hadn't even been five minutes before Maul had clonked him from behind because he wasn't paying proper attention. It was hard not to ball his fists in outrage. He inhaled slowly through his nose.

Kallus tried to keep his face completely impassive as Maul stepped closer. He didn't like the way the yellow eyes were narrowed at him.

Maul turned his gaze up and down the ex-ISB agent, a vaguely distracted look on his face.

"Do I know you?" he asked. "You seem... familiar."

Karabast! Had he already been made?

Kallus clamped down on the nervous flickers that threatened to shoot straight through him.

Stay calm, he told himself. Show no emotion.

"I can assure you, we have never met in our lives," he said, in what he hoped was a dispassionate, bored tone.

It seemed to work. Maul's eyes flicked towards the crate. "Everything is in order?"

Kallus unlatched the crate and slid the lid off, stepping back. "See for yourself."

Maul stepped forward, peering over the edge. Kallus stayed wound tight and tense, watching as Maul's eyes scanned the contents. The trackers were well-hidden under the foam pads lining the inside, but Kallus still felt irrationally like they were fully visible.

The Zabrak nodded though, moving back again. "All appears to be as I requested," he observed.

Kallus's hands shook slightly as he slid the lid back in place and latched it again, making sure it was locked. He steadied himself, extending a hand. "Then I will happily relieve you of Dun Raggar's payment," he said, trying to project a tired malaise into his words, as if this business transaction was boring him and he was ready to clock off and hit the bars.

Maul had gotten out a fat handful of credits by now and held them in his hand... but did not pass them over.

His nervousness pricked up again. "Is there a problem?" Kallus asked, covering up his anxiety with irritation.

Maul's fingers shuffled through the credit stack, a suspicious, probing stare on him.

"Are you sure we have not met before?" he asked.

It was rapidly becoming harder to keep his composure. Kallus felt his palms sweating, and stepped away from the crate, shying from Maul's slow approach.

And now he's coming towards me, why is he coming towards me? came the slightly panicked thought in his head.

"As I already said, I—"

He cut off with a small garble as Maul's hand reached out abruptly and snagged him by the collar, pulling him forward, checking behind his head for something.

What in the blazes is he—? Kallus thought indignantly before the realization hit him. Oh no...

The still-healing gash from where Maul had bashed him was visible beneath his short hair.

Maul released him as if stung, pulling back with a stiff motion, aghast with fury and shock and outrage.

"You're with them!" he cried, growling the words, the horrible aura around him seeming to intensify.

Sithspit.

Kallus was frozen for a moment, but then straightened, squaring his shoulders and dropping the pretense.

His nerves twisted harshly inside him, but he hardened his features bravely.

He fixed the ex-Sith with a calm, even glare.

"I don't know you," he said quietly, gesturing with a finger, his voice wavering slightly but low and threatening. "But if you've hurt that boy I swear..." His teeth tightened. "...there is no rock that you can possibly hide under."

Maul snorted haughtily.

"Save your empty threats," he growled, coiling like an animal about to strike.

Kallus went for his sidearm.

Maul flashed up a hand. Kallus was upended, blown back by an unseen force that flung him across the lounge and into the wall. He just barely managed to keep his head from cracking against the duracrete, hearing through the ringing pain the sound of Maul's lightsaber igniting. Maul slashed through the top of the crate with a wide sweep, splitting it open.

Sparks popped across the floor. Maul slipped a rucksack off his shoulder, reaching in and scooping the items up, shoving them inside quickly before taking off at a sprint, thundering past Kallus out the door.

The Rebel peeled himself up from the floor, hands pressing over his face in frustration and reverberating pain, fumbling around in his jacket pocket for the comlink, which was shrilling with Kanan's frantic voice.

"Kallus! Kallus, what's going on?! Do you have him?"

"Arrgh, I don't have him!" Kallus groaned, growling with aggravation. "He took the items from the crate and he's heading your way!" he reported, barking into the comlink.

The shift in Kanan's tone was immediate.

"Move in. All Spectres, move in!" he ordered.

Kallus lurched up to his feet, kicking into a run as he burst out of the lounge.

-SWR-

Sabine had been in the cockpit with Hera and Iron Squadron, chewing on her fingers, so close to the edge of her seat she was practically falling off it, but shot straight upright at Kanan's order, spinning out of the chair and grabbing the rungs of the ladder, throwing herself down into the cargo hold.

"Sabine!" Hera's furious shout echoed from behind her.

She heard Hera, remembered the warnings and stern admonitions and the orders to stay on the Ghost, but she didn't care. She wasn't letting Maul get away a second time.

"Chopper!" she barked on her way down the ramp. "Come with me!"

The droid pivoted, boosters firing up and thrusting him out of the hold. He dropped to the hanger floor, squealing along quickly after Sabine as she ran towards the door to find him a terminal.

-SWR-

Maul was furious as he shoved past the people in the hallway, casting his senses about for the Jedi, who was assuredly on hand somewhere. He couldn't believe he was being forced to do this again.

Beneath his anger beat a faint undercurrent of fear. How had they found him? He knew they could not have planted another tracking device on Ezra, or they would have gone straight to him and retrieved him.

Unless they already had retrieved him and they were now just coming after him for reven—No, no, he told himself, smothering the frantic thought. Ezra is safe. He is still where I left him. They have not found him.

His hands gripped into fists as he ran.

They would not.

His senses warned him before an attack from the side came flying heavily towards his head. Not the Jedi, not yet, just the hulking Lasat, his stench filling Maul's sensitive nose and making him recoil with disgust and fury.

The Lasat swung at him again, Maul ducking and maneuvering back, eyes narrowed warily. He knew how to handle this one. He was all brute strength and power, no finesse at all. Maul would simply outmaneuver him.

Or at least, that was his plan.

Zeb came at him with a furious snarl; Maul leaned back low to swipe a hard kick across the Lasat's face. Zeb's head snapped back, but he... shrugged it off, continuing to charge forward, large hand coming up and snagging Maul by the neck.

Maul's eyes widened incredulously as he was slammed back against the nearest wall, drawing shocked gasps and cries from onlookers.

The Lasat's face was twisted with anger, his teeth bared as he growled low in his throat.

"I oughta wring your neck for what you did to th' kid!" he said, the meaty fingers tightening.

Maul chuckled darkly, breath straining through his windpipe. "Do, and I promise," he said, slightly choked, "you will never find him."

A quick ignition of his lightsaber got the brute to release his grip and back off, giving a short howl as he didn't quite manage to pull back enough from Maul's stab. Maul took satisfaction in the sizzling wound on the Lasat's right side, that he glimpsed briefly as he lunged past, scattering terrified civilians as they stumbled to get out of his way.

-SWR-

Zeb hissed through his teeth, hand clutched tight on his side. A sizeable chunk of flesh had been bored out of his stomach by the tip of the lightsaber blade, and he was cursing himself for getting close enough to be a target.

Wincing, he craned his chin up, looking over the heads of the crowds to spot the rapidly-fleeing figure of Maul.

"Zeb!"

Kallus's concerned shout had him quickly looking the other direction, already waving the other man off.

"Don't fuss about me!" he said. "We can't let him escape."

To his credit, Kallus didn't slow down, simply joined Zeb as the Lasat turned around to continue their pursuit.

A loud klaxon suddenly sounded across the hanger.

"Aw karabast!" Zeb cursed.

Kallus pulled out his sidearm, gripping it firmly and keeping a wary eye out.

"That can't be good," he groaned.

-SWR-

Chopper screeched out at Sabine from his position by the data terminal, already plugged in and rooting through the arrival logs.

"I know, I know!" she shouted back at him. "Just ignore it! Find his ship!" There was no point to trying to disable the alarm now. It had triggered as soon as the system registered the security intrusion. It was what Sabine had been afraid of when they'd landed, with little less than an hour to spare before the exchange, but with Maul about to escape again it didn't matter anymore.

Chopper clicked his probe through the terminal for several tense seconds, his head swiveling around to face her.

"WUB WUB WUUUB WUB WUB. WUB WUB."

"No gauntlets?!" Sabine repeated, her heart clenching a little. "That's impossible, we know his ship is here, there has to be—" Her eyes widened. "Wait." She leaned down, crouching by Chopper's side. Acting on a hunch she urged him, "Check for Zygerrian freighters."

The droid swiveled back, clicking and clicking a few moments more before giving a triumphant blort. He spat out the bay number, quickly disconnecting.

Sabine's relief came out in a sharp laughing breath. "Let's go!" she said, shooting back up, taking off at a run as white-booted footsteps started to sound around the corner behind her.

-SWR-

The blaring klaxon seemed to pound through Kanan's skull, making it difficult to concentrate on other sounds, difficult to focus on the sinking cold pool in the Force that was Maul's presence. He strained his ears, searching under the wild alarm, the frantic shouts, the muted shuffle of footsteps all around him, for the tell-tale clanking of Maul's artificial legs.

A chill touched the edge of his senses. Kanan lasered in on it, about-facing, blundering into other beings as his concentration was taken up with zeroing in on the dark presence, the Force Sight that was his normal means of navigation being shoved to the backseat in favor of single-minded tracking.

"Excuse me. Sorry," he muttered over and over as he banged into other beings again and again. After a few more moments the crowd seemed to realize he was in a hurry, shying away and parting before him, making his way much easier.

Kanan turned a corner and the cold flared up in his senses, and his ears finally detected the metal clinking and clanking of Maul's feet.

Anger flared hot in him.

"Hey!" he barked across the way.

The rapid pace of the footsteps faltered, stumbling around, and a swell of hideous fury rose from the signature that belonged to Maul.

Heedless, Kanan clapped together the pieces of his saber, the blade flashing out in a blink.

"Where's Ezra?!" he shouted.

The snap-hiss! of twin blades sounded, Maul recoiling back, the fury Kanan could sense intensifying.

"You will not take him from me, Jedi!" the man screeched, apoplectically, a swoosh of air telegraphing his wild strike.

Blades met with a thunderous crash, and screams punctuated the air around them. Kanan dove into the Force to keep up with the spinning red blades, alternately blocking and pressing his attack.

He scanned down the man's signature, twitching furiously when he sensed a familiar kyber crystal at Maul's midsection. Ezra's lightsaber was clipped to Maul's belt, like it was a damn trophy, and Kanan struggled for a moment to keep his temper in check.

"Where is he?!" he demanded again, bringing his saber forward in a hard double-handed bash.

Maul caught the blow with his saber, locking the blades briefly. "Not here," he sneered. "Did you think I would be foolish enough to bring him along?"

"You left him alone?!" Kanan gawped incredulously, his fury increasing in spite of himself. He was practically trembling with it now, stepping back as the blade lock broke. It was hideous to think about. Ezra alone, trapped somewhere by himself, left to wonder if Maul would even come back for him.

Kanan drove at Maul again, growling, sabers clashing with resounding crackles, feet dancing lightly across the floor as they bobbed and weaved. Maul lunged with a violent ferocity, forcing Kanan to bat away his heavy strikes, keep out of range of the Dark Sider's tumultuous storm of blows.

With nothing but the Force to guide him, Kanan kept his blade in constant motion, spinning high then thrusting low, blocking and stabbing, energy moving through him in a seamless stream.

His momentum was broken as a warning sounded in the Force from behind him, letting him know about the sizzling red blaster bolts moments before they came.

Kanan jerked himself out of their path, feeling their sizzling heat streak by his ear.

Maul gawped as a lucky strike got through, the collision of the bolt popping with a metallic sound in Kanan's ears. Maul broke off their fight and fled, forcing the Jedi to deal with the new threat. The telltale sound of the E-11 blaster rifles issued to Stormtroopers popped from behind him, and Kanan whipped around to block and counter the deadly bolts.

He gnashed his teeth inside his head. He didn't have time for this! Ezra needed him, and the one person who could tell him where his padawan was was rapidly fading from his senses!

A chime came from his comlink, and then Hondo was on the line.

"I have some bad news, I'm afraid, my friend! I believe our actions have attracted some unwanted Imperial attention," he informed Kanan helpfully.

"Oh, you think?!" Kanan yelled sarcastically in frustration, blocking and repelling bolts as they came at him. Two troopers fell from his reflected shots, their dying shouts echoing across the way, but Kanan could hear more gathering.

Slowly, he gave ground, waiting until he had an opening before turning around to pursue Maul.

-SWR-

The Zabrak hurtled through the hanger halls, heedless of anyone in his way. His teeth were grit so tightly inside his jaw it was almost painful, vigorous fury still coursing through his head. He could sense his pursuit behind him, dogging his tracks relentlessly, and pushed forward, increasing speed, metal limbs sending rattling jolts through his torso.

He burst into the hanger with his ship, storming straight up the ramp, heedless of anything else.

The gauntlet soon powered up, engines whining and charging with a shrill pitch.

A small feminine figure quickly scrambled out from underneath the hull, flinging herself out of the way as the repulsorlifts fired up and the sublights boomed. She scrabbled to join a C1 unit who was hovering in the clear, both of them unnoticed by the being who had just boarded the ship.

Sabine's heart was pounding in her throat as she watched the ship lift off the ground. She covered her head as blistering exhaust seared over her.

Kanan reached the hanger moments later, followed on his heels by Kallus and Zeb, all three of them shouting in dismay at the sight of the gauntlet lifting off.

"No no no!" Kanan cried. "He's getting away!" He yanked his comlink out, mashing the button furiously. "Hera—"

He was interrupted as Sabine straightened up, walking confidently over to them as the gauntlet boomed behind her, thrusting forward.

"No," she declared, her walk almost sauntering as she gave a wide grin, "he isn't."

That declaration rang through the air for a moment. Sabine's walk slowed as she joined them.

She held up a small device in her hands, triumphantly.

Behind him, Zeb gave a whoop, and Kallus laughed in relief and pride.

"Ha!" he said. "Well done, Lieutenant Wren!"

Kanan's head swiveled back and forth between their voices. "What?" he asked, clueless. "What is it? What has she got?"

Sabine walked up to him, glowing in the Force with victory. "You remember that tracking beacon Maul used to follow us to Corensia?" she asked.

Her grin stretched her face, and she shrugged with a smug tilt of her head.

"I gave it back to him," she said casually.

Chopper warbled a happy confirmation behind her.

Hope stung a sharp jolt through Kanan's heart, followed by an immense swell of pride. He let out a braying laugh of his own.

He couldn't help himself.

"Sabine, you're wonderful!" he told her, reaching to scoop her up, snag her off the ground and give her an elated spin.

She laughed, wobbled a little dizzily when he set her back down, using his arms to steady herself as she got her balance back.

She looked up, vigorous determination shining in her eyes.

"Let's go get Ezra," she declared.

Chapter Text

Thrawn's feverish... fixation with the currently unknown whereabouts of Ezra Bridger was beginning to unnerve her.

He was compartmentalizing it well, seeming to show proper prioritization to other important things—the TIE Defender project was proceeding on schedule, for example, though there was unsettling talk their funding might get pulled in favor of other Imperial projects—but whenever he had a spare moment, Pryce could see him sneaking glances at his datapad, excusing himself to his office, or just zoning out with a faraway look that telegraphed his mind was working overtime behind his eyes.

She didn't want to question it. The Grand Admiral was clearly convinced that puzzling out whatever had caused the young Rebel to be noticeably absent from insurgent operations was important, and from experience she knew his instincts were usually right. And she would admit that it was always thrilling to be along for the ride whenever Thrawn made his clever insights and implemented his chessmaster-precise strategies to the utter devastation of their enemies.

Still, she couldn't help wondering if it was becoming a bit too much of a distraction.

Pryce was watching him now, as they sat and listened to a junior officer give his regular summary of the reports from the Interdictor checkpoints. Thrawn had been the one to request them of course, and after much convincing and persuasion the Emperor had seen fit to allow their installation at strategic choke points. The skeptical voices against the proposition had been quickly quieted, and were now well-pleased by the overall reduction of rebel activity in the surrounding sectors around the checkpoints. Pryce kept up with the reports as a matter of pride now, eagerly sitting in on them with the Grand Admiral.

Even now their officer was practically gushing about the capture of three CR90s, presumably en route to Kashyyk, with suspicious contraband cargo that had been traced to a Rebel theft a week ago. The cargo and the ships' passengers and crew had been swiftly taken into custody.

Pryce glanced over at Thrawn, who as usual sat and absorbed the news with nary a flicker of emotion on his face. She snuck a peek at the screen of the datapad he had hovering by his elbow, noticing with a flat purse of her lips that he was re-reading their newest all-sectors bulletin about the latest sighting of the Ghost. Apparently Hera Syndulla and her crew had been causing trouble on Iridonia. A rather long way from their area of normal operations, Pryce knew, but her Chiss ally had yet to figure out the reason for that. Pryce was sure he would conclude it was related somehow to Ezra Bridger's disappearance.

"Though the Instigator has not pulled in any officially confirmed insurgents yet," the officer read from his file, "we continue to intercept smugglers and petty criminals on a regular basis."

"Have there been any disruptions to Imperial supply lines?" Thrawn asked, neutrally. "I seem to recall that was a concern of Governor Tyrill's."

"No sir, no issues other than a small mix-up incident a while back."

Pryce came to sudden full attention with annoyance. "Pardon me, a mix-up?" she repeated.

"Um..." The junior officer looked taken aback and nervous, glancing down at the file in his hands.

Thrawn also stirred a bit, leaning forward slightly in his seat. "Elaborate on that, if you would please," he requested, very politely.

The officer scanned through the notes that had been left for him. "Er... It says that about two and a half weeks ago the checkpoint accidentally detained one of Vader's Inquisitors," he reported.

Pryce's teeth ground inside her head. That was a slight step beyond a mix-up and straying into dangerously incompetent territory. From what little she knew of Vader and the Inquisitorius, they did not like to be inconvenienced.

"Did the Inquisitor identify themselves as such?" she asked sardonically.

The officer was sweating now, quickly clicking through footnotes in his file. "I'm... not sure Ma'am, Captain Rhelick's incident report claims he failed to provide the proper clearance codes so they ordered him to land for questioning and—"

While he was still babbling Pryce shoved back her chair, standing up stiffly and stalking over. "Give me that!" she snapped, snatching the pad from him. She scrolled through the incident report herself with a dour frown. "Oh, they let him kill twenty-six Stormtroopers before it was resolved did they?" she said, voice withering with condescension. "Lieutenant, do I need to explain why calling an incident like this a 'mix-up' looks bad?"

He cowered under her glare.

Pryce turned back towards Thrawn, her irritation fading a bit as she noted the keenly interested light behind his eyes.

"Curious," he mused. "Lord Vader has made no mention of any Inquisitors operating out of the Mid Rim." He motioned for her to bring the report notes to him.

"The Emperor's pet mystic is hardly answerable to you, Grand Admiral," she said, rolling her eyes as she complied.

He ignored her comment, taking the datapad and flipping down to the relevant section. He read for a moment, taking in the report quickly. "Are you familiar with the Exegol system, Governor?" he asked her.

She frowned, brows scrunching. "No. It's not a planet I've heard of," she admitted.

Thrawn's expression mirrored her own. "An unknown destination planet... a belligerent reluctance to provide necessary clearance..." He looked up, fixing their junior officer with a stare. "Is Captain Rhelick quite certain that it was an Inquisitor he cleared through?"

The officer fidgeted, coughing lightly into his fist and clearing his throat. "There's... a note from Dockmaster Harran... I think he mentions he carried a red lightsaber?" he offered timidly.

Thrawn dropped his eyes back down to the datapad, scanning the text.

Pryce saw him stiffen.

He jabbed the datapad back towards her. "Look at this, Governor."

Intrigued and slightly apprehensive, she leaned in, looking over his shoulder at the passage he was pointing out.

"A Zabraki male, age indeterminate, red-skinned with tattoos, entered the office brandishing a red lightsaber," the notes read.

Her eyes widened at the next part.

"...accompanied by a teenage human boy wearing an orange jacket."

Thrawn let her pull the datapad back out of his hands, indignantly. "They had Ezra Bridger?!" she snarled, outrage bubbling up inside her. She stared down at the words on the screen. She couldn't believe it. "They had him and they cleared him through?!"

"In fairness, Governor," Thrawn said, tone still placid and showing nothing in reaction to the news aside from a satisfied gleam in his red eyes, "there was no way for them to positively identify him given this undetailed description and their limited knowledge of Bridger's appearance."

Pryce simmered down. She read back a ways, something else stirring her thoughts. "And the Zabrak mentioned..."

Thrawn nodded, already ahead of her. "Matches the description of the individual Kanan Jarrus was witnessed openly dueling on Iridonia," he finished.

Pryce felt the familiar thrill of chasing after the Grand Admiral's quick mind creeping up on her. Both of them were ignoring the junior officer now, Pryce seating herself back down, a slow smirk spreading across her face.

"So," she concluded. "We have the identity of Bridger's... I presume kidnapper?" she checked with Thrawn.

"That is the most likely conclusion," he agreed.

"But it's not an Inquisitor?" she pressed, trying to see if she had it right.

A small headshake. "They should have readily given the proper clearance codes, if they were truly an Imperial Inquisitor." He shifted forward in his seat, pressing a button on his desk and bringing up a holomap of the galaxy. "The only thing left to decipher, then, is where they have taken Bridger."

Pryce set down the datapad with the report, leaning her arms eagerly on the desk. "You're dismissed Lieutenant," she said, waving off the junior officer. "Oh," she amended, her spine straightening. "Put out an alert to all Imperial outposts in the Mid Rim and beyond to be on the lookout for the Ghost, or our Zabrak friend. I want to know the minute someone spots them."

He saluted sharply. "At once, Governor."

He exited, leaving the room quiet save for the soft buzz of the holoprojector. The blue light reflected off the contours of Thrawn's face, reflecting in his eyes as Pryce watched him study the map and shivered with anticipation.

-SWR-

Ezra dropped his hand, panting heavily, a thin sheen of sweat coating his face.

He wasn't sure how long he'd been trying for this time—at some point he was pretty sure he'd slipped into some kind of trance, deep in the Force, feeling out every tiny crack and crevass of the surrounding rock—but from the ache in his hips it had been... a while.

Time to take another break, he decided.

Ezra sat down, his joints stiff as his legs curled up underneath him. He grabbed up his canteen, shaking the last few sips of water into his mouth. The liquid tickled down his throat, easing the itch there from his exertion.

He swallowed, wiping his mouth and looking back up towards the ceiling. There was no visible progress to be seen—not yet—but Ezra's probing with the Force had not been unproductive.

For starters, he had learned that the antechamber's ceiling, instead of being completely solid rock as he'd thought, was rivered through with cracks and fissures, places where water had trickled in and frozen and then melted again, eating away at the rock slowly over time. He wasn't sure how useful the knowledge was to him yet.

He still couldn't see the—What had the Jedi Master in his vision called it? The shatterpoint?—supposed weak spot he was looking for. He wasn't sure if it was because he wasn't focusing enough or not attuned enough or maybe just not skilled enough in the Force to find it.

He exhaled heavily through his teeth.

This was frustrating.

Strangely, he didn't feel very tired. He was certain he hadn't slept in the interim between rousing from his Force Vision and now, but his body must have registered the long stretches of immersion in the Force as restful enough to count.

Ezra sighed. Back to work then.

He set aside his canteen and stood slowly, closing his eyes, reaching out with a hand and with the wellspring of the Force.

His concentration melded against the rock again, slipping into all the little tiny openings he'd found before, following them down to their endpoints.

Okay, first step, he thought. What was the smallest, easiest thing he could do now?

He traced his mental fingers through the wall, feeling around. This deeply connected to it, he had to marvel at how fragile the rock felt. Like there was pressure building up in it, weight leaning heavily on one side in particular. He followed the slope of it downwards, thought tendrils poking around.

They came up against an obstruction; a large boulder wedged in tight between two slabs of rock. Ezra poked at it from several angles.

It's big, he deduced, feeling it out with his mind. Maybe too big. He focused. Smaller. Need to think smaller.

He narrowed his concentration, sensing out the rocks and gravel and snow around the obstruction. He picked a tiny, fingernail-sized pebble and nudged it out of place.

It could have been his imagination, but his mind heard a slight tinkling sound as it dislodged.

Okay, next.

He found another small piece of gravel. Pushed on it. Moved it forward.

Then another.

He slowly cleared the cracks around the rock, feeling its edges take more concrete form.

-SWR-

After another hour Ezra emerged again, his mind feeling... stretched. Like he'd overstrained something. He panted slowly for several breaths, smearing a sleeve across his forehead.

Poisonous negative thoughts were starting to nip at his ears. This was useless, they said, he was too weak, he'd never be able to do it.

Ezra shook his head.

Shut up. I'm not listening to you, he thought back at them.

He inhaled deeply.

Try again, the Force urged.

So he did.

He found his way through the wall so easily now, coming up against the boulder, feeling like he could sense vague wafts of air moving in the cracks around it. He studied for a moment. The connection at the top edge seemed a little thinner.

He considered his next step.

Maybe if I push on it a little...

He imagined it like laying his palms flat against the surface, applying pressure.

Slowly. A little more now... A little more...

Was it shifting?

His eyes pinched tighter. He pushed just a little harder. Just a little bit—

Something dislodged.

Ezra gasped, his eyes snapping open as the air suddenly filled with rending and crashing, pieces of ceiling crumpling off and dropping towards him.

He pulled away from the walls, flinging his hands up, stopping the debris before it clipped his head. Dust and snow still peppered his hair, silting off his shoulders and slowing, drifting down to the floor.

Ezra stayed wound tight for several seconds.

When it looked like the debris had stopped falling, he lowered his arms, dropping the rocks and ice pieces so that they clattered harmlessly on the floor.

He let out his breath, his head jerking up towards the ceiling, straining through the dust to see.

A small shot of excited adrenaline thrilled through him, as he saw that his efforts had opened up a fissure in the wall, set high up, almost at the ceiling, above and just to the left of the top of the opening where the dampening barrier buzzed.

Ezra flattened his mouth, studying the opening.

It was small. Very narrow. Almost like...

Like an air vent.

He held in a chuckle.

Well, he certainly knew how to navigate those.

He took a last glance around the cell, stepping back a pace. With a couple running steps he leapt, the Force aiding his spring.

He cleared the necessary height easily, his hands catching on the edge of the fissure, but the rock seemed to crumble in his fingers even as they tightened and Ezra scrambled for a few tense seconds, trying to find a solid hold.

He thrust his arm into the crack of the fissure, bracing. His toes slid loosely against the icy wall as he sought purchase.

He slipped, losing his grip for a terrifying second, his feet kicking and dangling. Gritting his teeth, Ezra tightened the muscles of his stomach, swung his legs towards the wall and pushed off, using the momentum to shove himself further into the fissure.

The light dimmed as his head jabbed into the hole. Ezra shoved his shoulder against the rock, using the leverage to reach forward, grab a handhold, and pull.

He dragged his torso across the lip of the opening.

The relief in his body at the ease of tension resounded through him.

Ezra let out a soft gasp, relaxing slightly. Now that he wasn't immediately going to drop back down to the ground, he could focus on the way ahead.

He squinted. It was hard to see through the dark. Though he could smell fresher air up ahead, there wasn't an exit he could immediately see.

He couldn't keep hanging half out the hole, however, so he steeled himself and reached with both hands for new grip on the walls, sliding himself further in.

Immediately in front of him he was forced to duck down, flatten himself as small as he could to avoid the top of the fissure bulging in.

Ezra grunted softly as he contorted to fit the narrow opening. Rock scraped against his skin and clothes, gravel trickling into his collar. The walls of rock squashed him in-between them, making twinges of claustrophobia crawl up his back. Ezra bit his lip, holding in a squeal as he fumbled blindly, his feet working in tandem with his hands to propel him deeper.

This is why I don't do this anymore, he thought, straining to pull through a particularly small bit.

Well, this and because the last time he'd been in an air vent it had been Imperial and he'd been caught and unceremoniously pulled out of it by Stormtroopers.

That had not been a fun day.

Ezra shook his head, trying to rattle those thoughts out of his mind. Focus. Kanan always emphasized he needed to focus. He crawled slowly through the narrow gap, the walls around him feeling heavy and crushing though they were barely touching him. Inch by inch, he gained ground.

Ezra paused a moment, catching his breath. It had only been a minute at most but it already seemed like ages. He needed to move quicker.

He pushed with his feet and then had a moment of panic when his body didn't move forward.

He shoved again, his arms tensing, tightening as he tried to pry himself loose.

He didn't pull free.

Ezra hissed, straining his head to look down, twisting, his lungs starting to pinch.

No no no no, he thought. I can't be stuck, not like this!

His legs scraped the floor as he tried to angle himself, the roof of the fissure digging in hard to the small of his back. His hips wouldn't budge and in his scrabbling his right arm had gotten wedged. Cold pinpricks were starting to bristle at his neck. Anxiety pulled at him. He didn't—

Break the problem down, repeated in his thoughts.

Ezra gave a shuddering exhale.

Okay. Okay okay. Don't panic. I can do this. I can do this, he recited in his head, willing himself to calm back down. He concentrated only on his breathing and heartbeat for a few moments, until they had slowed back down enough for him to think.

First step, free his arm.

He shifted his torso to the left, gaining just enough space to slide his arm out of the jam. He pulled free. He breathed out in relief, curling his hand close.

Next step.

He tugged forward with his arms, but he was still stuck. Puzzling out the reason, he reached down, maneuvering his hand down towards his waist. His belt buckle felt like it was caught on something.

With a straining press of his fingers, he managed to get it loose, unhook it from being jammed against the floor.

All right. Legs now.

He brought his knee in tight, shoving with his toe, and with a swell of relief inside his head felt himself move again.

Bit by bit, he crawled his way through the fissure again. One hand reach forward, then the other, push with his legs, repeat.

The crack seemed to be getting just a little wider around him. Ezra looked up, blinking through the dirt in his eyes. Was that light filtering through?

There were some loose rocks in his way. Ezra crouched, putting his hands flat on one and pushing it.

It fell loose, out into open air, and Ezra almost knocked his chin on the rock as he fell after it, sliding down the slope, spilling out the other side.

He dropped a dizzying second, keeping his wits enough to twist around so he wouldn't land on his face.

Thud!

He hit the floor.

For several moments, he just stared up at the ceiling and breathed.

The knowledge began tingling around his head, slowly filling him with a light, weightless feeling. Ezra gave a short laugh through his panting breaths.

He was out.

He... he was out.

He was pinched and aching and dirt was smudged all across his face and clothes, the bacta bandages were dry and peeling off at the edges, but he'd done it.

Ezra sat up and marveled, looking at the other side of the fissure he'd opened. It looked so much shorter from this end.

He shook his head. He couldn't stay to be proud of himself; his stomach was already tickling with the beginnings of nausea from the soiled red kyber cystals. Ezra's eyes pinched at them as he shifted his legs and pushed up to his feet. He wished he had the time to fix them. He hated the thought of them left there, screaming out in pain.

The sound of them was pressing on the sides of his head, and he pinched his hands over his temples a few moments, trying to concentrate.

He glanced over, his eyes narrowing into a glare.

Well, there was one thing he could take care of.

He grabbed up one of the rocks that had fallen out before him, gripped it tightly in his hands.

He walked over to the barrier generator, raised the boulder over his head, and smashed it down on the device.

It took two bashing clubs before a satisfying fizzle and crack sounded within it, the metal surface denting and buckling sharply, inside circuitry breaking. Across the way the dampening barrier sputtered and petered out, disappearing softly with a final buzz.

Ezra gave the device one more solid hit for good measure, then tossed the rock off to the side.

Exhaling, he turned around and trotted out the exit tunnel.

-SWR-

"Got a ping!" Sabine announced.

Kanan and Hera alerted, both of them leaning forward towards Sabine's station in the co-pilot seat.

Sabine lifted the the signal tracker. "Tracking beacon just went active," she relayed. "Maul's just dropped out of hyperspace."

Hera nodded, lekku bobbing as she called back towards the hallway. "All right, Chopper, plug into the navicomputer and adjust our course," she ordered.

Chopper whomped in affirmation, scooting in next to Sabine and connecting up with the Ghost, quickly importing the data from Sabine's receiver and relaying it to the navicomputer.

Kanan sighed quietly in relief behind them. Finally they could stop circling around the backalleys of hyperspace. His gripped fists loosened by his sides.

We're coming, Ezra, he thought towards their unseen destination.

Meanwhile, Hera was frowning as she looked over the coordinates. "Chopper are you sure?" she asked him. "That's our heading?"

Chopper blorted a rather indignant response.

"What is it?' Sabine asked, curiously.

Hera brought the data up on her screen, scrolling through it. "Well, the coordinates are good—we're not gonna bump into another star cluster or anything like that—I've just..." She shook her head, her lekku swinging. "...never heard of there being any planets out here. I thought this whole area was empty space."

Kanan shifted his balance a little. "What sector is it in?" he asked.

Hera peeked down at her information, pressing a couple buttons. "Says here it's the.. 7G sector?" she said, her voice unsure and conveying doubt.

Kanan stiffened, his body freezing up.

Hera couldn't fail to notice, swiveling in her chair to face him. "Love?" she called. "What is it?"

Kanan's mind was racing. It made a terrible sort of perfect sense. Where better to hide a Force Sensitive from unfriendly eyes than a planet that was—at least last time he'd checked—strong in the Force itself? Conflicting anger and elation warred inside him. Realizing Hera and Sabine were still waiting on an explanation, he pulled the words out.

"There is a planet there," he said. "Somewhere very sacred to the Jedi."

Hera's eyes widened slightly. "You mean...?" she started.

Kanan nodded.

"Ilum," he confirmed. He breathed out reverently as he said the words. "Ezra's on Ilum."

-SWR-

Maul swore loudly as soon as his ship registered the unknown beacon activating. His mind spun in feverish, frantic whirlwinds.

They must have tagged his ship on Iridonia. It was the only explanation.

Gnashing his teeth, Maul brought the gauntlet in lower, taking care to avoid Imperial detection on his way down. The last thing he needed was them on his trail too.

Crawling anxiety wormed through his heart. They couldn't stay there. He had to get Ezra offworld immediately.

Tatooine. Yes, it was time to return to Tatooine. Ezra might not have been defeated enough for his liking, but he had no choice now.

And besides, he thought idly, at the back of his mind, he had the collar now if the boy stepped out of line, or tried to run.

The thought soothed him a little, as he brought the ship in for a landing, setting it down in its previous hiding place just along the ridge.

Maul loosed his hands from the steering yoke, hissing as he fiddled with the joint of his right metal knee—damaged by the lucky bolt in the firefight—before getting up stiffly, snatching his rucksack off the floor even before the ship was finished with its landing sequence, stalking over and punching the button to lower the ramp just as its struts were settling into the snow.

He thundered down the ramp and onto the field, metal feet kicking up powder with every angry step.

First he turned swiftly underneath his ship, searching the hull for the tracker. He gave a growl when he found it, reaching up and yanking it from the metal plates, crushing it in his hand before hurling it violently away.

It smashed on the rocks, giving a last pitiful spark as the pieces dropped.

Maul whipped around and headed down.

Infernal Jedi! he thought furiously. If you interfere again I swear I will slay you like the dog you are!

This crew of Ezra's was eternally troublesome. He regretted not being able to kill them on the Death Watch station when he'd had the chance.

I will do it myself this time, he vowed. I won't leave any doubt, any room for escape.

So absorbed was he in his thoughts, as he tramped in through the cavern entrance and across the chamber to the right hand tunnel, that he didn't notice his apprentice until the boy crashed right into him.

Maul grunted, stumbling back, shock taking root inside him and bolting down his feet as he gaped in disbelief and rising anger.

-SWR-

Ezra froze. His chest locked up. Something in his head screamed at him to move, but he was paralyzed, his throat and head seizing up with abject fear. Panic strangled him, keeping him in place, even as he watched Maul's wide eyes narrow and shift from bewilderment to irritation to outright fury, giving a terrible howl and reaching for him, seizing his left ear in a horrible claw-like grip.

"How did you get out?!" he screamed, yanking, wrenching Ezra to the side.

The boy cried out weakly as he was flung to the ground onto his side, the panic tightening his chest until he couldn't breathe, an awful urge to prostrate himself and beg pounding on his consciousness.

I'm sorry, I'm sorry, don't hurt me, I won't do it again, please, I'm sorry! were the thoughts pressing on his head, trembling on the tip of his tongue. Ezra held them back, swallowing them down in defiance even as he flinched and curled up, raising his hand to ward off the inevitable next blow.

But Maul didn't hit him.

Ezra opened his eyes and risked looking up. Maul was still looming above him with clenched fists, trembling in every limb with anger, but holding back, keeping himself contained.

The man's teeth flashed as he gave a huffing snarl.

"It doesn't matter," he spat, acidly. "Get up," he ordered. "We're leaving."

Several conflicting emotions hit Ezra all at once. Relief and sharper panic and confusion and apprehension collided inside his head. "What?" he asked, truly befuddled.

"Do not make me repeat myself, Ezra," Maul snarled, his eyes flashing dangerously. "Your punishment for this will be severe enough. Get up," he repeated.

Ezra cowered into his shoulders as he quickly scrambled to his feet. He hung back, though, terrified, not wanting to take a step while Maul was still standing there in front of him.

Though he looked suddenly disinterested in Ezra now, craning and keening his head towards the walls and something unseen, eyes darting madly.

"We can no longer stay here," he was muttering. "They're coming."

Ezra felt his chest crushing under a vice of terror. "The Empire?" he squeaked, voice choked and fearful.

Focusing in on him briefly, Maul growled a vicious, "No."

That bewildered Ezra for a few moments, freezing him with more confusion. "Then—" he started to say. Then his eyes widened as he made the realization.

Maul had only ever been this profoundly angry and paranoid when ranting about Kanan. About his friends.

Hope pulsed inside him, sounding a thundering beat in his heart. "They found me..." he breathed, his face slack with awe, his body giving a thrill.

He could practically hear Maul cursing inside his head as the Zabrak turned a firm glare on him.

"A mistake I will not make again," he said, his hand lashing out and seizing Ezra's left wrist, gripping painfully, pinching tight. "We. Are. Leaving," he emphasized, turning on his metal heel, yanking on Ezra's arm.

Ezra shook out of his hope-filled stupor long enough to realize what was at stake if he let Maul move him now. Impulsively his free hand lunged for his saber on Maul's belt, grabbing it as his back was turned, turning it on and swiping it in a long gash across Maul's shoulders.

Maul yawped and released him, whirling around, a mixture of betrayal and outrage on his face.

His hands were shaking on his saber hilt, but Ezra firmly planted his feet and lifted the emerald blade.

"I'm not going," he said, determination projecting from his voice.

The ex-Sith in front of him was like a wavering thunderstorm, vibrating with hot emotion. His hands gripped into tight fists.

"This..." He struggled for words for a moment. "...tantrum will only serve to bring you more pain, Ezra." He took a threatening step forward. "I will drag you to that gauntlet, unconscious, if I have to!" he snarled. "And you will be sorry once you wake up!" he finished. "The Empire's torments will be nothing," he added harshly will a firm promise, "to what I will do to you."

Ezra swallowed nervously, but kept his blade between them, silently warding Maul off. His feet widened into a ready stance.

"You think you're so different from your Master?" he challenged. "Prove it." He narrowed his eyes into a glare. "Prove you have a fraction of the honor and sense of fair play he didn't!"

Maul's head reeled back rabidly, eyes flaring wide, lips curling back past his teeth, the anger Ezra could sense off him intensifying into a wild blaze.

The rucksack on his shoulder was dropped heavily.

He shook his head, reaching down for his lightsaber.

"Oh ho ho, you will regret this," he promised darkly, casually unlatching it, hand returning to his side as he ignited both blades.

Ezra felt reams of fear coursing through him. This Maul wasn't an illusion, a figment of his mind that couldn't actually cause him harm unless he let it. This Maul was real, very real, and would hurt him.

He unstuck his tongue. He breathed in carefully, willing away the anxious alarms flaring in his head. Remembering his words to his mirror-self down in his cell, he readied for combat.

One way or another, this was ending today.

There is no emotion, there is peace.

Centering himself with the mantra, he tightened his grip on his saber and faced the monster in his nightmares.

Chapter Text

Ezra waited.

The tension in the air between the two combatants was chokingly thick, fear still pinging around inside the boy as he tried to keep his mind clear, tried not to entertain all the terrible thoughts about what Maul would do to him if he lost.

He couldn't lose. His friends had found him. They were coming for him. He wasn't letting Maul take him away from them again.

The resolution hardened inside him, repeating along with the soothing words of the code. He raised his blade higher, feet shifting, planting firmly.

There came a warning tingle in the Force.

Ezra flashed his blade up.

The tension snapped like a metal wire as Maul hurled at him, red blades a whirling flurry of spins and thrusts. Ezra blocked carefully, letting himself take a few steps backward to exhaust most of the strikes' strength in the open air, the heat from the saber blades whooshing loudly. But he didn't let Maul keep driving him back down the tunnel.

As soon as there was a gap in Maul's attacks Ezra lunged, slanting his green blade towards Maul's middle.

He was blocked, as he'd expected, but used the momentum from the deflect to shift position, moving closer to the tunnel wall. Maul had to circle in response, moving away from the exit opening, no longer blocking the way into the wider cavern where they had spent their first night.

Maul realized immediately what Ezra had done and drove forward as Ezra started his dodge to the side, trying to prevent him from moving that way. Ezra felt the red heat of the double blades slashing through the wall behind his back, as he outmaneuvered Maul just enough to fling himself into the clear.

He felt relief tingling in his head at being out of the tunnel—perhaps his crawl through the wall had made him a bit more claustrophobic than he'd thought—but it was short-lived as Maul came at him again, blades flashing viciously, so quick Ezra could barely see them.

Ezra reacted from instinct, from muscle memory, relying more and more on the Force to move his body for him. He quickly thought through his options.

Overpowering Maul was impossible and he knew it. Being aggressive with his own strikes would only tire him out and make him desperate, sloppy. No, he would stay on the defensive. Evade and dodge. Use his agility and smaller frame. He thought back through their daily duels up to this point, remembering the sessions that had lasted the longest; they were always the ones where Ezra had played to his strengths as a fighter. Used the environment, used his cleverness, been unorthodox in his methods.

All right then. Let Maul be the aggressor. Let him tire himself out for once. Ezra just had to keep him at bay long enough to get an opening.

His arms moved in quick jerks, blocking and deflecting blow after blow that Maul brought crashing down on him.

Ezra's feet trotted lightly backwards, leading the fight, slowly bringing them across the cavern towards the other side tunnel. He paid a darting glance towards it, then brought his eyes forward again, in time to skid a strike off Maul's blade, throwing the man off-balance briefly.

Maul seemed to favor one leg as he steadied his feet again. Ezra peeked down, observing the black carbon scoring smudge across the knee piece of Maul's right metal limb.

He made a note of that for later. He backed up with a running jog, waiting for Maul's next barrage.

Maul didn't disappoint, flourishing his blade before spinning it towards Ezra's head.

Ezra leaned back, letting it pass dangerously close to his face, caught the second follow-up strike with a swift underhand and dodged again, bringing them closer to the other side tunnel.

He kept the tactic up for two more clashes, evading the lancing double blades, keeping just out of Maul's reach.

Maul seemed to grow frustrated with his slippery movements, bringing his saber sweeping up, forcing Ezra to block high while the ex-Sith directed a Force Push into his stomach.

Ezra knocked backwards, breathless for a moment, rolling up as soon as his back hit the ground. His somersault put him back on his feet quickly, and exactly where he wanted to be; he ran up a few paces into the tunnel and turned to wait for Maul.

The man lunged, blades glancing off the narrow walls and sending sparks popping as he followed Ezra up the tunnel.

He thrust sharply at the boy.

Ezra swung his blade from right to left, knocking the red tip aside, sending it stabbing into the wall.

One hand let go of the hilt and fisted, punching hard into the tattooed face.

Maul grunted as his head snapped back.

Ezra whirled his saber up, slashing it across the stalagmites in the ceiling and raining down his own shower of sparks onto them.

Maul covered his face with one hand, stepping back to avoid, as Ezra finished turning and conserved momentum by whipping around and bolting up the tunnel.

The ground sloped underneath him, gradually tilting up. Ezra spotted a light and an opening up ahead and moved faster, wanting to get a bead on the new terrain before he had to contend with Maul again. Vibrations jolted up through his shins as his feet pounded.

He cleared the opening and immediately had to jerk back, the ground suddenly falling away under his feet.

Ezra skidded, pinwheeling his arms a moment, leaning back frantically to keep from spilling over the edge.

Regaining his balance he took a quick look around at the new chamber.

The cliff dropped away into a deep, cavernous well, frozen water sloshing at the bottom, ice pieces floating on the surface. Several snow-covered pillars stabbed up from the water, rising to various levels, and shelves lined the walls as well, as though there had been a pathway down a long time ago. Everything gradually met at a wide shorebank, not unlike the one by the frozen lake, but this one lined and covered with solid ice, dripping down the walls, hanging in giant icicles, glittering in the faint beams of sunlight that slanted across the chamber from cracks in the ceiling.

Ezra's head whipped back once as he heard Maul thundering up the tunnel behind him and then he faced forward again, inhaling, pushing off from the very edge of the cliff with one foot, the Force assisting his leap to the first pillar.

He stumbled a bit as he landed heavily on the top, one palm pushing off the ice for support. Getting his feet under him he straightened, heart tight, turning to face the tunnel opening.

Maul had slowed upon approaching the cliff's edge, burning glare studying the new environment for a moment before he backed up.

His growl sounded low across the chamber as he jumped.

Ezra took a nervous step back as Maul landed with a booming crunch! on top of the pillar with him. The rock beneath the Zabrak's metal feet cracked from the impact.

Maul slowly uncoiled, like a wary predator considering its prey. Ezra's eyes scrunched into a defiant glare as his arms stiffened, hands tightening around his saber.

One red saber blade swung back and over and the fight began again.

Crashing sabers exchanged quick blows. Ezra let Maul drive him back towards the edge, springing back into the open air right as Maul was letting loose a heavy horizontal swing.

Maul's face spasmed with fury as he watched Ezra land on the next nearest pillar.

"You can't evade forever!" he shouted.

The echo bounced off the cavern walls, reverberating harshly, and a second later Maul flung himself down to the next pillar, growing more infuriated as Ezra ducked his two-handed overhead strike, evading yet again.

I don't have to evade forever, Ezra replied inside his head. Just long enough.

Still, he met Maul's blade with his own, resounding crashes bouncing off the icy walls. There was a delicate balance to strike between making Maul angry enough to become sloppy, and making him too angry, so that he swelled with the overwhelming force of the Dark Side.

His brain methodically numbered off block positions as he fended Maul off.

Ezra caught a narrow uppercut from Maul's saber on his, batting it down towards the ground, pressing in. He lunged forward, shoulder-checking the man in the chest.

Maul gave a winded grunt and staggered back, but just as quickly drew his elbow back and struck Ezra across the face.

BAM!

Ezra saw stars for a terrifying moment, stumbling, tripping and tumbling over, unable to tell where he was until his legs slipped out into open air.

He gasped, shaking himself back alert, grabbing frantically at the edges of the pillar.

He managed to catch himself enough from falling completely off. Cold terror seized his heart at his vulnerable position, his head jerking up to see Maul already advancing towards him.

The red saber swung down towards his arms.

Ezra let go.

He dropped several meters before latching onto another handhold in the rock, his right shoulder pulling roughly. Ezra grimaced, the pain shooting though him. He hoped he hadn't dislocated it again.

He craned his head up, throat tight, seeing Maul standing at the edge, looming, glaring down.

No sooner had the man bent down, flatting his stomach to the rocks and reaching a hand out to try and snatch him than Ezra braced his legs on the pillar and shoved away.

He twisted in the air, the Force directing his leap, grabbing hold of another pillar with both hands this time. His left fingers squeezed tight around his saber and his precarious handhold, willing himself not to drop his weapon.

His feet scratched on the rock, trying to find purchase. He was acutely aware of Maul at his back, and the Force sounded a shrill warning that rang down his spine.

Ezra flinched, ducking into the pillar as sizzling plasma gashed the rock just over his head. He heard the whoosh of air as the saber was recalled back to Maul's hand, and an ominous creaking of rending rock inside the pillar.

Inhaling shakily, Ezra braced himself.

The pillar shifted beneath his arms, leaning, beginning to crumble apart. Ezra held on until his piece was almost at a thirty-five degree angle and then he pushed up, scrambling up the falling chunk. The Force filled his head, guiding his frantic steps as he ran up the collapsing pillar.

It collided with another pillar, and then the nearest wall, rock splintering and sending up dust clouds and bits of rubble. Ezra's feet stepped lightly over broken pieces as he kept just ahead of the debris, gaining altitude.

He leaped out as the last piece fell beneath his feet, sailing through open air a moment before collapsing onto his arms onto a wide shelf set in the wall.

He lay there only a moment, before shoving up to his feet, about-facing with his lightsaber.

Maul stared at him from across the gap, frowning, seemingly annoyed at the distance he would now have to cover to reach him.

Ezra didn't give him time to think about it. His free hand raised, his eyes closing as he called upon the Force.

Debris from the crashed pillars shifted, rising into the air, soaring up to frame him.

He shoved the cluster towards Maul.

Maul caught it, left hand flashing up, stopping the rocks and sharp bits of ice in midair.

He hefted them back at Ezra.

Ezra snapped open his eyes and narrowed them, his teeth gritting, expending more effort. The pieces slowed, stopping still between them, their wills contending against each other until—

Cra-Crackle!

Rock and ice splintered, shattering, exploding outwards into dust. The pieces crumpled into nothing, tiny shards dropping to the water below.

Ezra dropped his hand, panting.

That was more energy than he should have poured in. He could feel an ache in his body, a sliver of creeping exhaustion moving through his limbs.

He raised his saber again, taking up ready position.

Maul had backed up to the opposite end of his pillar.

He surged forward, the Force catching him as he pushed off, and Ezra backed away, leaning down, one hand passing over the ground, letting himself slide a bit down the slope of the shelf to avoid Maul's landing.

It was a harsh one, sounding across the chamber with a devastating BLAM!

Once again the rock crumpled under Maul's feet, but this time he, also, buckled, wobbling with a sudden spasm as his injured knee groaned.

Ezra hoped for a moment Maul would be unbalanced enough to fall backwards into the water, but no such luck; the Zabrak straightened stiffly and was on him again, pushing hard attacks at his defense, driving him backwards.

The boy's feet slipped on the slick ice, but he managed to stay upright and planted, blocking the blows with wearied determination.

Break off, he told himself. You have to recover.

He looked for an opening to move but Maul gave him none, pressing his advantage, positioning Ezra close to a gap in the shelf.

Ezra thrust at Maul's stomach, finally forcing his opponent to back off, and used the opening to hop over the gap to the next portion of broken shelf.

Slowly, the two combatants descended the remnants of the ancient pathway, red and green sabers popping and crashing and sparks flying off the ignited blades.

They were almost to the shoreline now. Ezra ducked around behind a huge dangling icicle, leaving Maul to cleave it two to continue pursuing him.

Ezra reached the open space first, running towards the middle and then whipping around to catch Maul's renewed attack.

A heavy set of blows rattled through his joints, Maul's viciousness coming through and vibrating in Ezra's arms.

He tightened nervously, pushing Maul off, shoving.

Ezra could sense Maul's fury just underneath the man's outwardly only irritated-looking expression, hot and frothing, feel that same anger in every savage blow of the double-bladed lightsaber. Ezra kept stepping back and back, trying to make as many of Maul's strikes a waste of energy as he could. The strength of Maul's barrage had not seemed to diminish and that worried him a little. Was his strategy going to work?

Ezra danced back and blocked high as Maul struck high—once, twice, three times and then a low follow-up with the second blade. Ezra adjusted position to deflect.

In the gap between when Maul would normally spin his saber away to recover, Ezra abruptly reached in, grabbing the middle of the hilt and shoving it up to crack against Maul's nose.

The ex-Sith muffled a curse, stumbling back in surprise. He had an eerie gleam of pride on his face when he finally looked back at Ezra, and Ezra grew uncomfortably aware of who exactly he'd borrowed that trick from.

His instinct reaction was to make a quip—some dumb comment recalling "I steal from the best."—but no, this wasn't the time or place, Maul didn't deserve that, he wasn't Ezra's teacher and he never would be. So Ezra smothered down the words and merely gripped his saber tighter.

Maul came at him again; Ezra ducked a forceful swing from one blade, came up and blocked the second as it spun towards him.

Disengage, gain distance. Check with his Force senses behind him to make sure he wasn't going to run into anything. Wait for the next attack.

It thundered at him like a crackling storm, red blades skidding and sliding along his own. Parry, feint, twist away, turn back to face him.

A familiar ache was starting to pang through his arms. Ezra leaned further into the Force, willing it to guide him, and take away his fear, his weariness, his doubts.

He clashed with Maul again, the slashing red blades skimming closer than he liked. Ezra jabbed a thrust to force him back, one hand leaving his saber hilt as he crouched low, grabbed up a handful of pebbles from the floor, and flung them into Maul's face.

An angry screech and a swell of Dark Side cold hit his ears and senses. Maul flailed blindly with his lightsaber, forcing Ezra to quickly back away to avoid the lancing heat.

When Maul had recovered, he fixed wide, rabid eyes on Ezra and then lunged with a ferocious growl.

Ezra locked his arms stiffly in order to block and keep the weight of the blows from crushing him. He felt his wrist give an uncomfortable pang from the pressure.

Let it go. Let the pain flow into the Force, he told himself, Kanan's voice echoing in his head. Concentrate. Find your center.

It was getting harder now. The Dark Side curled and coiled around Maul, imbuing him, shoving through him, through his burning saber blows. Ezra paid a darting, rueful look back at the pillars.

Maybe he should have tried to stay up there...

A hard kick slammed into Ezra's right knee.

The sharp pain broke Ezra's focus. He gasped, crumpling, staggering back but managing not to collapse. His face pinched tight with the reverberating pain, one hand pressing on his thigh.

Vindictive, Maul pressed his attack. Ezra clumsily blocked a saber strike only to get the length of Maul's forearm slamming into his gut.

He went down, skidding across the icy floor. Ezra sucked in a breath, quickly fumbling to his feet to meet the next barrage.

Maul had a mean, smirking grin, his yellow eyes alight and feverish.

"No bravado, apprentice?" he taunted as he brought his attack against Ezra's defense. "No pithy words about how you're going to beat me this time?"

Ezra's jaw pinched, his teeth gripping inside his head. Don't listen to him, he told himself. He's just trying to unbalance you. Stay focused.

He had to win this. He didn't know what he was going to do if he couldn't.

Ezra backed off, renewing his strategy of waiting for Maul to strike and then evading. Maul made it difficult for him to get space in-between flurries, lunging in swiftly, giving him no time to think, no time to maneuver, only enough time to react.

Anxious tingles started to prick up his arms and spine. He blocked with more and more exhaustion, trying feverishly to regulate his breaths.

Maul hurled a wide, double-pronged sweep at him, both red blades swooping up and crashing against his, knocking the green saber askance.

Before Ezra could recover and put his guard back up, Maul reached in with one hand, fingers closing tight around his throat.

Ezra strained, choking a bit as Maul lifted him with an angry heft, slammed him back, into a large dangling icicle, pinning him there as he struggled to breathe.

Maul had fixed him with an even glare. "This little... insurrection of yours ends now, Ezra," he growled. "If you give me your saber now I won't have to—"

He was interrupted by Ezra spitting in his face.

Howling, Maul's eyes flashed hot furiously as he pulled Ezra away from the icicle, turning and hurling him off in another direction.

Ezra felt his left side bashing sharply against the edges of the rock, as the Force-enhanced throw tossed him through a side opening into another chamber. His teeth bit into his lip, muffling a cry.

As soon as he felt solid ground under his back he rolled over, trying to rise to his feet.

His side gave a painful split, collapsing him to his knees again. Ezra fumbled, hands and arms trembling as he forced himself up, running deeper into the new chamber.

Icy water bubbled in a wide pond to his right, and icicles intermingled with large clusters of crystal along the walls, humming softly with the song of kyber.

Ezra stumbled behind a pillar, sinking down with his back pressed to it, breathing hard. The hand he'd clutched to his side drew away, and Ezra hissed through his teeth, flinching.

The skid against the wall had ripped away the bandages and bacta patches and reopened the wound, which was now lightly bleeding, had stained his fingertips red.

Ezra stared down at his hand with rising fear choking his throat. Panicky alarms prickled at the back of his skull.

"You infuriating little—!" Maul stormed from the other chamber, and Ezra cringed into himself, curling up, muffling down a whimper.

Maul's footsteps echoed from the other room.

Doubt and despair were beginning to tighten Ezra's chest. His thoughts were starting to dissolve.

I can't, I can't, he's too strong, I can't even delay him long enough for the others to find me, he's going to take me away again, I can't

Breathing frantically, Ezra cast his eyes about. They fixated on a large cluster of crystals on the wall, and for some reason, that seemed to tug his thoughts away from the hopeless repetition inside his head. The cluster recalled something from his memory, a vision of a Jedi Master with calm, soothing words and gentle hands passing along the facets of a similar cluster.

Break the problem down.

The words tingled inside his head, replacing the alarms. Ezra struggled for a moment, trying to decide what the first action was.

Slowly, he took a deep breath.

The tightness around his lungs faded. His head cleared some. The immediate panic was broken.

He held the breath for another split second, and then he exhaled.

And opened himself wide to the Force.

Everything came into sharper focus, the kyber hum resonating within him.

It was like an open beacon calling Maul to him; Ezra immediately sensed a stir of Dark Side energy behind him and a staticky warning in his head.

He hunched, curling up to his feet and clearing the pillar right before Maul thundered through the room and stabbed his saber through the rock.

Ezra ran to the other side of the cave, turning around and facing him. He breathed in again carefully, shedding the negative thoughts into the ether.

Break the problem down.

Maul ripped his saber from the pillar and began to advance.

Ezra angled right and slashed his blade through the nearest crystal cluster, breaking off a dozen or so large pieces, the first of which he reached down for and hurled towards Maul.

Taken aback, the chunk beaned him in the face, making him reel. He gave an angry yell.

Ezra had already lifted another piece with the Force and held it waiting. He didn't give Maul a chance to recover, shooting it off towards him. He knew it wouldn't stop him, wouldn't even hurt him, but it would hopefully buy Ezra just enough time.

Maul whipped up his saber, slashing the chunk to pieces in a single stroke.

Ezra sent another chunk sailing towards him.

Break the problem down.

One quick cut of red blades and his projectile vanished.

His eyes scanned down his opponent. C'mon Ez, think! he told himself. What's the easiest way you can incapacitate him?

Two more large crystal chunks hurled in rapid succession, red blades striking violently through them as Maul gained another step.

Ezra backed up slightly, raising his next volley.

Diaphragm? No, it was probably metal. Smaller.

Sparks and splinters flew as Maul tore apart the next crystal shards.

Ezra's eyes trailed down, drawing towards the metal limbs.

Smaller.

He flinched slightly as the deadly flourish of Maul's saber slashed apart his next barrage. Something about his advance caught Ezra's attention and his gaze drifted towards Maul's right knee.

Even smaller.

Another piece hurled with more force this time, deflected with a quick, angry sweep.

Ezra considered the carbon score marks on the metal plates, his eyes squinting. There was something...

Another piece. Another deflection.

And then he saw it.

The shatterpoint.

A screw on the side of the joint had been damaged by blasterfire; some of the greeves were missing and it was loose in its socket.

Ezra felt a quick shot of relief tingle inside his head. He didn't need to shatter the screw, didn't even need to crush or break anything with the Force. All he had to do was pull.

Anyone could pull.

He ran out of projectiles just as Maul closed in and brought up his saber, meeting the savage clash with a calm defense. Calling upon one last surge of adrenaline he tightened his grip on the hilt and fought back.

The blows rattled through his shoulders, heavy, crushing. Maul was all serious, frown grim as he pressed his attack.

Their blades locked once, twice.

Ezra shoved away the weight, his lungs screaming in exhaustion. Maul just came at him again, relentless, driving. Ezra's head shrieked at him to make his move now.

He let go with his left hand, blocking high as Maul slashed at him, his fingers lightly curling.

He reached out to grip with the Force...

...And pulled.

The small piece of metal tore free from the joint, shooting across the room.

Maul's eyes widened as the leg suddenly failed him. His high overhead strike faltered as he took his next step, his shin wobbling out from underneath him, sending him backwards.

He spilled back onto the ground, so startled he dropped his saber.

With a quick dart in and a snatch Ezra grabbed it, and hurled it into the pond where it disappeared with a small plop!

Both hands gripped his lightsaber as the green blade leveled in front of Maul's face.

The ringing in Ezra's head stopped.

Ezra locked his joints, panting hard, his chest heaving. He gasped in and out in loud wheezes. Adrenaline still pounded through him, rushing through his veins in a heady tingle. His immersion in the Force slowly diminished.

He stood with planted feet, battered, bruised, bleeding and weary, but head thrilling with the spark of victory.

Maul lay half-prone gaping up at him. The man's emotions were a frozen concoction of shock, bewilderment, anger... and fear.

-SWR-

Maul couldn't move past the shock of how quickly things had turned around. His mouth hung apart incredulously, staring at Ezra.

Terrified, trembling Ezra, who held his life in his very hands now.

The apprentice had challenged the master and won.

He thought through a couple options for how to break their stalemate but realized quickly that, with Ezra tensed and hyper-focused on him like that, the boy would cleave pieces off of him if he so much as made a threatening move.

Maul smothered down the fear threatening to rise in him, shoving it down under festering anger and a calm sort of acceptance.

So. This was how it ended then. Ezra would kill him and return to his friends, go crying and sniveling back to the people that had failed to protect him. The thought made him sick.

His mouth closed into a sour scowl, brows twisting down furiously.

He waited, but the boy only stood there, hesitating to strike.

Maul suppressed a growl. Hadn't he learned this lesson?

"What are you waiting for?" he challenged. He jut his chin up in defiance. "Do it. Take your revenge," he snarled.

He sensed frustration flare up inside Ezra, and the boy's hands readjusted on his saber hilt, raising the blade a fraction higher, warning him off.

Maul leaned back, expression cooling, settling into quiet contempt. "Don't you want to kill me?" he asked quietly.

He could sense Ezra's quavering anger. Sense the dark thoughts pulling at him, whispering in his ears, urging him to do it. Ezra struggled against the temptation for a long moment.

His mouth peeled open slowly. "I don't—" he started to deny, and Maul almost leaped in with a biting snap about how they both knew that was a lie, but Ezra surprised him by finishing, "—want to have to." His head gave the barest of shakes. "I'm a Jedi, it's—it's not—not what we do." He looked oddly vulnerable as he stammered. "I—I just... wanted you to stop. Stop hurting me and let me go."

Flickers of fury ran through Maul's chest. "You would cling to your foolish morals and ideals, the weak, merciful ways of the Jedi," he spat, his words practically venomous, "even now?"

Ezra's expression flattened in determination.

"Yes," he said, tone firm. His posture was calm, his expression chilled, mouth set in a neutral line that just barely turned down at the corners. His eyes tightened narrower, into an even glare. "I'm not like you," he added.

Maul blinked, taken aback by Ezra's conviction. For a moment he saw the shadow of an older Jedi standing there, a man with infuriatingly kind eyes, battle-hardened and weary, who refused to give in to anger even as Maul struck down everything and everyone he'd ever loved. Kenobi's defiant spirit lived in Ezra, and his nobility and sense of honor, and even—Maul noted—the same disgusting traces of pity.

It was naive. It was sickening.

...And it was the only reason he was still alive.

Another half-second flash passed before his eyes. The last time he'd been on the ground, crawling prostrate, cowering under the threat of his master, begging for a mercy that would not be granted.

In his mind, their positions switched, but it was not his master he saw quivering on the floor, hand stretched out pleadingly, but Ezra, quailing—as he had once quailed—under the shadow of a man determined to hurt him.

An uncomfortable feeling passed up his back.

He looked up at Ezra, seeing the boy almost like he was aglow in the Force, staying his hand despite having his enemy unarmed and defenseless before him.

A sinking tugged down his insides.

He had become the monster he hated. And Ezra had not. Would not. Would never be what Maul wanted him to be. Would never prove him right.

Maul would never be able to control him.

The weight of the knowledge pressed heavily on him, settling into bone and metal. The sour, familiar taste of futility was in his mouth, and Maul accepted the reality now revealed to him.

Prying apart dry lips, Maul softly acknowledged, "No. No... you are not."

Ezra stayed tensed, a little apprehensive at Maul's sudden, somber turn. The ex-Sith's gaze was off somewhere far away for a long moment. His eyes returned to Ezra, a resignation and defeat inside their depths.

He looked at his would-be-apprentice and marveled softly.

You are indeed a Jedi.

The cave fell quiet a moment, heavy thickness in the air.

Maul lifted his head.

"Go."

Ezra startled softly. Maul felt a thin ray of hope breaking through him. "What?" the boy said, bewildered.

"You've earned your freedom," Maul continued softly. "I..." He ducked his eyes. "...will honor our original bargain." He lost himself in contemplation for a moment, and when Ezra hadn't moved, raised his gaze softly and repeated himself. "Go," he said quietly.

Hardly daring to breathe, nervous hope flickering through him, the boy began to edge around Maul, keeping the tip of his saber trained on him, as if fearful Maul would turn around and lunge at him, pluck the weapon from his hands.

He carefully stepped around and around until he was angled with his shoulder facing the cavern opening.

Then he lowered his lightsaber and ran out of the cave.

Maul sat up straighter, shaking his head wonderingly at the boy as he caught glimpses of him leaping from pillar to pillar out in the chamber beyond, making his way up towards the surface.

You are remarkable, Ezra Bridger, he thought with sad fondness as he watched the young Jedi disappear from sight.

Chapter Text

Ezra stumbled out into the open air and stopped to take a moment to pause and breathe.

The biting chill nipping at his face had never felt so good. He took a deep inhale, feeling it move through him. His body still reverberated with adrenaline, a tingling sensation loud in his ears, vibrating through his bones.

The cold sharpened the soreness he felt. Ezra bent at the middle a moment, hands on his thighs, recovering.

The hardest part had been crossing the gap between the broken pillars. Ezra had wound up scrambling down first, almost to the gurgling water, hopping from broken piece to broken piece before painstakingly climbing up the first intact pillar, a feat that his side was still hating him for.

Ezra exhaled and straightened back up. No time to rest. He was getting off this iceball today.

He took a few long steps away from the entrance to the caves, looking back and up, straining to see. He thought he could glimpse the folded wingtips of the gauntlet poking out behind the ridge. Ezra considered it hesitantly. After Maul had just let him go it seemed almost rude to repay him by stealing his ship.

Almost.

Ezra's feet had only taken two steps towards the Mandalorian craft when a blazing flare came to his senses through the Force, whipping his head back the other direction.

His breath caught at the familiarity, at once warm and recognizable.

Kanan. Kanan was here.

Ezra's heart almost leapt but the flare was tinged with something else. A foreboding. A prickling sense of... danger.

A bit worried now, Ezra turned around, facing towards the wide flat fields, straining after the feeling. The Force was unhelpfully vague, only calling him more insistently in that direction.

With a quick glance back and forth, between the gauntlet and the plain, Ezra surrendered to its will, and let his feet start to carry him away from the mountains and out into the wilds. Fresh snow squashed under his boots with a soft squeaking.

The wind picked up, nipping at him with a prickly chill.

Ezra's steps slowed momentarily, his arms coming around himself as he bit his lip at the vast distance before him. He really didn't want to have to walk all the way...

Considering, Ezra took a deep breath, closing his eyes and reaching out, melding into the Force around him.

After a few moments, a soft feline puffing could be heard, and soft footfalls padded their way to him.

Ezra opened his eyes, smiling at the smaller gray one of the creatures he had summoned before. It stood there before him, blinking curiously, its head tilted. The gash in its side from Maul's lightsaber had nearly healed up, but still looked ugly and red under its short-cropped fur.

"Hey girl," he called soothingly, reaching out a hand to touch the bony, cartilaged nose and tufted forehead. "Sorry you got hurt on my account."

The feline's throat rumbled deeply, a low bass purr, as it leaned into the gesture, affectionately.

"Do you think you can give me a ride?" Ezra asked softly, impressing the request through the connection as well, gently, touching the creature's mind with calm serenity.

The feline swiveled, crouching sideways, nudging at his legs with its shoulder. Ezra carefully swung a foot over its back, settling himself low across the creature's shoulders, in-between its trailing sensory tendrils.

The creature waited until he was settled, his fingers gripping tight handfuls of its short gray-white fur, and then it took off at a swift lope, bounding across the snow-covered field.

He ducked into the creature's back, hanging on as cold wind whipped over his head.

-SWR-

"Anything?"

Sabine shook her head, still doubled over her receiver in the co-pilot's chair. "Plenty of Imperial chatter on the fringes but nothing from the beacon." She finally sat back in defeat. "Maul's probably destroyed it."

Hera's hands tightened on the steering yoke. If Maul had already gotten to Ezra...

She shifted in her seat, her shoulder bumping up against Kanan's hand on the back of her chair, and she tried to relax, glancing back at him. His other hand was extended softly, reaching out, as if searching. He seemed to be in meditation.

He spoke up, sensing her concerns. "Ezra's here," he said, his voice tinged with relief. "He hasn't left the planet."

Suddenly he frowned, distracted. Hera turned a bit in her seat, her mouth opening to ask—

Kanan suddenly jerked back in alarm.

"Hera, look out!" he shouted in warning.

The next second the onboard sensors flagged an incoming ship. Hera reacted on instinct, yanking the steering column hard to the left.

Sabine gasped and latched onto whatever she could to keep from losing her seat, and somewhere in the galley she heard a dismayed and indignant yelp from the Iron Squadron kids, Kallus, and Zeb.

A heartbeat later the roar of an Imperial TIE fighter accompanied the stinging blasts of the laser volley that streaked just shy of their starboard.

"Sithspit!" Hera cursed. "Chopper, plug in and try to remote-jam that thing's transmissions; if it sounds an alert we'll have a whole squadron on our backs!"

"WHOP?" Chopper protested. "WUB WUBBA WUB—?"

"Let me and Sabine off," Kanan interrupted him, speaking to Hera. "We'll find Ezra. You deal with the TIE." He looked down towards where Chopper's blorts were coming from and gave the droid a little nudge with his toe. "Do as she says."

Chopper saluted with a snappy, "WHOMP." and rolled over to plug into the console.

Springing from her seat, Sabine grabbed onto Kanan's wrist, helping him around and out into the hallway. Kanan left her at his door, opening it soundlessly and rummaging around in his room for his lightsaber, while Sabine continued on to her own room, loading up a satchel full of explosives and slinging it across her back, grabbing the darksaber and clipping it to her belt as well.

The galley door hissed open and a concerned Kallus stepped out, the kids trailing behind him.

"What's going on?" he asked.

"Imperial TIE," Sabine explained breathlessly, emerging from her room while awkwardly struggling to attach her jetpack. Eventually she was forced to slide the satchel strap off first, quickly rearranging herself as she joined Kanan back in the cockpit. "Hera's gonna drop us off to go look for Ezra while she handles it."

"We'll go too!" Mart volunteered, brushing past Kallus's right while Gooti and Jonner dodged left around him.

Kallus made an ineffectual and half-hearted grab for them before watching them crowd Sabine and Kanan at the ladder down to the cargo hold.

"Hey!" Zeb yelled from the open living area door, leaning heavily on the frame, his side half-bandaged. "Where are you kids going? You haven't finished patching me up!"

-SWR-

A frigid blast of cold and snow eddies blew into the cargo hold as the ramp lowered, Kanan running down as soon as he could hear the struts locking.

Kanan leapt, his shins rattling as he landed. Then Sabine hopped down, her feet sinking into the snow next to him, and heavy thumps followed after her as Iron Squadron followed.

The Ghost lifted off, the ramp already retracting behind them, not waiting for them, already lifting back up in pursuit of the TIE fighter.

The five of them rushed into the white void.

-SWR-

"Kallus, get down in the nose gun!" Hera shouted down the hallway.

Kallus obeyed quickly, settling into the worn leathery seat and gripping the handles.

"This feels familiar," he muttered under his breath.

"Ya better get used to it," came Zeb's voice over the comms.

Kallus squinted, peering out the front window through the snow for signs of the TIE. "What are you doing up in the turret?!" he cried. "You shouldn't be straining your injury!"

"I'LL BE FINE, STOP TALKING AND BLAST THAT TIE!" Zeb shouted back.

"You are all going to give me a premature heart-attack!" Kallus complained as he opened up with the nose gun, sending fiery blaster bolts after the fleeting form of the TIE.

-SWR-

The Ghost banked sharply, rising up in pursuit of the small metal Imperial vehicle now desperately climbing away from it.

-SWR-

The nose gun's shots flew true, and with a bright orange burst the TIE fighter exploded into flame.

Hera flew through the sizzling pieces, bringing her ship up and around. She leveled out, trying to see what she could from their high altitude.

Artificial lines and patterns dotted the gully below them. It looked like an impressive Imperial setup. A landing pad, refueling station, drilling facility and refinery. Hera could only think of one material on the planet worth anything to the Empire and her mouth pursed into a frown.

Nothing good could come from their harvesting kyber.

Spotting several moving dots lifting from the landing pad and rising towards them, she called in warning over the comms.

"We've got incoming!"

Zeb's growl sounded in her radio. "I thought Chopper jammed its transmissions!"

Chopper gave an indignant and profane string of binary.

"He did, but, not quickly enough," Hera translated, irritation coming through her voice. "Aaaaand now there are more of them."

"Well that's just... fantastic!" Kallus pronounced in exasperation.

"Don't panic yet, I know a few tricks," Hera growed, throttling forward to meet their charge.

They would find their lost Spectre. In that, she had faith. She just needed to stall the Empire's forces and keep their attention off the others on the ground until they could.

Hurry Kanan, she begged inside her head, as she dove into the blazing dogfight.

-SWR-

There was a bustle in the control tower like nothing the mining facility had ever seen. An operator ran up to the officer in charge, breathless.

"Pilots identified the unknown craft, sir," he reported. "It's a VCX-100 light freighter. Markings match those of the Rebel vessel known as the Ghost."

"The Ghost?!" the officer repeated. He leaned down over the nearest sensor station, watching the blips of the TIE fighters ping the strange bogey. "There's an all-sectors alert out for that ship, ordered by Grand Admiral Thrawn himself." He jabbed a finger towards another station. "Send a transmission out to the nearest sector patrol, tell them we have Rebel insurgents and require backup immediately!"

The technician nodded. "At once sir!" he promised.

-SWR-

Sabine tugged at Kanan's sleeve to signal him to hunker down, glancing back and making hand motions to tell Mart and the others the same.

He and Gooti and Jonner quickly obeyed, crouching low and creeping up next to her as she stretched herself flat along the edge of the ridge.

She peeked down into the vale.

Bright strobes lit up the landing pad, which flurried with activity as mechanics rushed to fuel and check fighters, which launched one by one, rising up slowly into the sky and streaking off in the same direction; over their heads and behind them. The garrison didn't have a very large outfit—maybe twenty fighters all told—but they were all in use now, the only ships left on the pad the temporarily-grounded cargo haulers. The mining drills continued working, their shrill buzz grinding with vibrations that unsettled her teeth inside her skull.

Kanan carefully pulled out his comlink, switching it on soundlessly.

"Hera, we're at an Imperial garrison," he whispered. "Sounds like they're pretty excited down there."

"Yeah I noticed," Hera quipped back, the roar of the Ghost's engines sounding in the background. "They're trying to bring that excitement up here to me."

Sabine leaned her head back over her shoulder, peering through the gray clouds. She could only faintly catch flashing glimpses of silver off the hull and tiny green and red bolts.

"Where are you?" Kanan asked, also craning his head and straining his ears.

"In cloud cover for now," Hera said. "I'll try to draw them towards the mountains and away from the facility."

"All right," Kanan acknowledged. "Be safe."

"You too."

Sabine heard the unspoken admonition. Find Ezra. She gripped her hands, nails scraping against her palms, determination in her heart.

She wasn't leaving this planet until they had.

She felt Kanan leaning in closer.

"Talk to me Sabine," he said, one hand on the back of her arm. "What do you see?"

Sabine squinted down at the facility. "Entirely too much Imperial gray for my taste." Mart nudged her from the other side and she angled backwards, gratefully taking the offered macrobinoculars. She brought them up to her eyes, taking a closer look through them. "Sentries on the landing pad..." She glanced up at the gray-tinted buildings. "And the command center. Turrets on the roof, looks like maybe one troop transport floating behind that cargo hauler." She sucked in a breath through her teeth. "And they are loading up a lot of kyber."

"I know," Kanan confirmed. "I can hear it."

"Isn't kyber the stuff they put in lightsabers?" Mart asked, looking through the macrobinoculars himself as Sabine handed them back to him.

"It is." Kanan had an oddly distracted look on his face. "We should be on the other side," he said absently.

Sabine peered aside at him at the cryptic remark, but in typical Jedi fashion, he didn't elaborate.

"It'll be hard going around all that without getting spotted," Gooti pointed out, leaning up a bit on her arms, lips pursed. She scanned across the vale with her eyes. "Best bet's probably going to be going through the refinery," she said, pointing.

Sabine agreed with a nod.

"Let's move," she urged, tugging at Kanan's arm.

The group of them slowly rose, creeping low, and picked their way along the ridge.

-SWR-

"Captain Payla!"

The woman turned sharply from her conversation with an annoyed look at her underling.

"This had better be important," she grumbled.

The lieutenant clipped to attention, shoes scuffing the bridge floor with a squeak. "We've picked up a transmission from Mining Outpost GG57 in Quadrant 10, ma'am. They claim to have spotted a Rebel ship—the Ghost, formerly of Phoenix Squadron."

The captain's amber eyes lit, and her idle conversation was forgotten entirely. She stabbed the air as she ordered, "Reply back to them at once, tell them we are on our way and they are not to let that ship escape!"

He scurried at once to comply and a palpable excitement pricked up on the bridge as technicians whispered furstively, scrambling to their stations.

"And beam a message out to Imperial High Command!" the captain snapped in afterthought, taking up her place on the bridge.

Several "Yes ma'am"s rang out as the Imperial light cruiser lumbered to life, sublights thrumming up as it diverted course from its patrol route, turning to head into hyperspace.

-SWR-

Ezra nearly collapsed off his mount as the creature finally padded to a stop. Groaning, he slid from its back, shaky legs wobbling unsteadily underneath him as he found his balance. His hand crept back to his side, wincing with a drawn-out hiss through his teeth. The bleeding had slowed, he thought, but a slow stabbing ache had been emanating persistently from his injury, aggravated by the rough unsteady ride, the jolt of the ground rattling up through the creature's feet. It hurt when he inhaled too deeply and he was beginning to worry that his rib was cracked.

He shook his head, straightening. His free hand patted the feline, feeling its warm coarse fur against his palm. "Thank you," he whispered to it, reaching out one last impression to its animal mind.

Go in peace.

The creature lazily loped around, padding back through the snow and heading off towards the mountains.

Ezra straightened, shivering slightly in the open air. The Force was still calling him further south and Ezra knew exactly what lay over the next rise, which was why he'd stopped the creature before they reached it.

He hung back for as long as he could stand, before the insistent tug from the Force pulled at his feet, giving him the will to climb the last few steps.

As he peeked over the edge of the rise, he steeled his mind.

There seemed to be more Stormtroopers than last time, more than was probably normal, actually, all very anxious, running this way and that on the landing pad. The TIE fighters were all gone, and he didn't see any shuttles, just a couple heavily guarded cargo haulers.

His brain prickled with faint static at the familiar cacophony of Imperial noise, but there was also a certainty pulsing in his skull, a conviction that his path home lay ahead of him.

Ezra bit his lip, hesitating, reluctant

Are you sure? he asked the Force.

His feeling of certainty didn't waver. And Kanan's warm presence was close, so close now he felt like he could reach out and touch it.

With a heavy exhale, Ezra pressed forward, prying his feet from the snow drifts, descending into the vale like a quiet shadow.

-SWR-

It was emptier inside the facility than he expected it to be. Everyone must've been up in the command center or out on the pad. It was easy enough to avoid the occasional pair of Stormtroopers patrolling the halls.

Ezra's mind was agitated, his body on painful edge as he snuck through the facility. He wasn't sure what he was looking for. Kanan, maybe—the man's signature in the Force was growing stronger by the minute. He thought about calling out to him, but the anxious buzz inside his head made it hard to focus.

He stopped and shook himself, willing away the trickling adrenaline, trying to tell his heart to calm.

I'm not on the Chimaera, he reminded himself. I'm not there. I'm going to find Kanan. I'm going home.

A couple slow inhales steadied him for a moment. He was okay. He held in a breath and crept along the wall, listening intently, passing his hand along the cold surface.

The noise of the drills was a lot louder down here, the squeal of them mashing against Ezra's ears like ringing hammer blows, tingling through his jaw uncomfortably. Rock screeched against metal, a horribly electric sound and for just a moment Ezra's thoughts started to drift...

He stopped again, squeezing his eyes closed, tensing and waiting it out. Breathe in slowly. Exhale. Don't think about what it sounded like. It was a drill. It wasn't that table. He was okay.

He focused on the steady clatter-thump of rotating wheels under the shrill whine. The kyber was humming warmly underneath all the noise. There was a frantic sort of edge to their song. It sounded almost like a warning.

Ezra paused at a fork in the hallway, confused for a moment which way to go. Kanan seemed no nearer than before.

After a few moments of indecision he just picked a direction.

He was only a few steps down the hallway when he glimpsed Stormtrooper helmets coming around the next junction.

Cursing inside his head Ezra flailed back, nearly skidding and sliding on his feet in his rush to about-face and turn around, lunge back behind the corner.

Not quickly enough.

"Hey! Who's there?" came the sharp demand.

Ezra's breath tightened in his throat and he didn't stop running, increasing his speed as he heard the thumping sound of pursuing boots behind him.

Less okay, he thought, scrambling down a service ladder into what looked like a generator room.

He could hear the Stormtroopers on his tracks, armor clanking.

"Comm Ops, we have an intruder on Level Five. Possible Rebel saboteur," someone was reporting.

The generators roared to his left, but not loud enough to hide the clanking of the metal scaffolding under Ezra's frantic feet.

"There he is!" someone shouted.

Blaster shots rang out from behind him.

It was a practiced instinct so automatic he was moving before he could stop himself, lightsaber flashing into his hand, igniting with a surge of green as he whirled around and expertly batted away the two deadly red bolts, deflecting them harmlessly into the walls.

A surge of panic and dread immediately filled his stomach, freezing him momentarily in horror.

"Jedi!" came the screech of recognition from several voices, and now troopers were climbing down after him, shooting with vigor now.

Less okay! screamed inside Ezra's head as he turned to run from the room, frantic echoes following behind him.

-SWR-

Gooti and Jonner were whispering to themselves as they studied the controls to the whirling, grinding refinery mechanisms, trying to discern which lever would power the machinery off. There were definitely far less people here, but the gears and ramps and pounding hammers themselves made picking their way through treacherous. Sabine only caught snatches of their conversation under the cacophonic noise.

"—doesn't seem right to just let this place keep—" Gooti was saying.

Mart leaned in close over her shoulder, his own murmurs covering her own. "—reveal ourselves either way, we might as well—"

Sabine glanced up from the interface in her gauntlet. Kanan was standing a ways apart from them, distracted, staring off into the smoke billowing up from the belching engines.

Suddenly he took off at a run.

Alarmed, Sabine jerked up from her crouch.

"Kanan!" she hissed through her teeth, but the man had already disappeared, Jedi reflexes finding him a path of quick steps and Force-assisted leaps through the machinery.

Sabine bit her lip, staring after the place he'd vanished worriedly.

-SWR-

It was hard to stem the echoes pounding at his ears, hard to stop the stream of panicked thoughts rushing through his mind. Ezra gulped, backing towards the wall where they'd cornered him, three troopers, closing in. They'd cut him off just short of what sounded—from the open-air feel of faint wind blowing through—like a concourse, more footsteps tapping around the corners and from other hallways.

He kept his blade in guard position, nervously stepping back as the three troopers moved to surround him, blasters raised.

"Nowhere to run, kid," growled one of them.

Ezra fought back against a swell of memories that threatened to press on him. Hands latched on his arms, burning, cackling electricity, Pryce mashing his chin with her sharp fingernails as she gripped his jaw

No, he told himself, forcing himself free of the deluge. No. I can do this. Break the problem down.

His lightsaber trembled slightly as he collected himself, focusing only on the next breath, the next heartbeat, the next second.

From around the corner in the concourse, another patrol alerted to something, yelling in alarm, blaster shots ringing out.

And being met with the sound of another lightsaber.

The trooper nearest him started back ever so slightly in bewilderment and that was the split-second Ezra needed to rush in and slam his body into the man's diaphragm, knocking him over.

A quick slice through the barrel of the next nearest blaster pointed at him. A hard Force push sending the other two slamming into the wall. And then Ezra barreled down the hallway and whipped around into the concourse—

—to stop dead as he saw Kanan pulling his lightsaber from the last trooper.

-SWR-

The clunk of armor against the floor as his adversary dropped was almost drowned out by the blaring vibrance in the Force.

Kanan tightened up with a soft gasp, turning towards the presence.

His sightless eyes strained behind the mask. The warmth felt so much like him, had to be him, couldn't be some kind of cruel trick like Luminara in the Spire prison, it was too clear and too strong and—

He swallowed carefully, emotion lodged in his throat.

"Ezra?" he called.

A soft breath. The gentle hum of a lowering lightsaber.

"K... Kanan?" a voice called back, timidly.

Ezra's voice.

The dam broke and their Force Bond rang and Kanan lurched forward with a soft cry.

-SWR-

Ezra took two steps and met the man's embrace, Kanan's arms gripping around him tightly and Ezra following suit, clutching handfuls of the back of Kanan's shirt, burying his face in his chest.

"Oh stars!" Kanan cried, his voice shot through with sheer relief, the whole air around them ringing with it. "Ezra."

"Kanan..." Ezra strained. He hiccuped, a sob choking up halfway through his chest as his eyes squeezed closed, blurring as he pressed his nose into Kanan's front. "Are—are you—?"

"It's me, Ezra," Kanan assured him, squeezing the boy with a firm strength. "I'm right here, I promise. It's really me."

Ezra's breath shuddered, tears dripping from his eyes and down his cheeks. All the terror, the static tingles, the lingering panic inside him seemed to melt away, softened into warmth as Kanan held him. He trembled, shaking all over as it sunk in that this was real. It was really happening. A hand stroked gently though his hair and Kanan's beard tickled against his forehead and he was safe—he was safe—Kanan was here holding him and everything was okay.

They lingered in the hug, the bond between them pulsing with reassurance and comfort on both sides. Ezra's fingers curled into the fabric of Kanan's shirt and clung tight, his shuddering breaths slowly steadying and calming into softness.

The embrace ended all too soon, Kanan pulling back slightly in order to turn off his saber and hang it from his belt. Both hands returned to Ezra's shoulders, running down his arms, brushing the sides of his head, checking him.

"Are you hurt?" he asked anxiously. His fingers found the peeling edges of the bandages on Ezra's forehead, lingering there.

Ezra stepped back, his saber arm dropping, reaching up with his free hand and wiping both his eyes in turn. "Yeah..." he replied, voice tight. In so many more ways than one. He took a shaky inhale. "But it can wait until we're back on the Ghost," he determined.

Kanan's trailing hands found the gash on Ezra's side and stopped. "Are you bleeding?" he asked, horror dropping a few notes into his tone.

"I was, but—"

Kanan's hands tightened on Ezra's arms protectively. "Where's Maul?" he demanded, almost growling. "Did he do this?" He looked off behind Ezra as if he could stalk over to the man himself and give him a beating. "I'm gonna—"

Ezra grabbed at him in alarm when it looked like he was going to stomp off to confront him. "Kanan—Kanan, it's okay!" he assured him quickly. "He's not here. He..." Ezra paused. "...he let me go."

Kanan's head whipped down, incredulous. "He what?" he said in disbelief.

Ezra scratched his free hand behind his head. "Well... I kind of had to beat him in a lightsaber duel first."

The man leaned back at that, staring—or seeming to stare—at Ezra, looking both shocked and impressed. "You... beat him in...?" he repeated slowly.

He was silent a moment, processing.

He shook his head, pulling himself to the present.

"Well, we'll have to talk about it later," he said. His voice turned soft, expression warm. "Let's just get you out of here," he continued.

Ezra nodded, watching Kanan pull out his comlink and switch it on.

"Spectre 1 to Ghost," he reported. He turned his head back towards Ezra, face tingling with a smile. "I found him."

"Ezra?! Is he okay?" came the immediate frantic question. "Is he hurt?"

Ezra blinked back a fresh round of relieved tears at Hera's voice. "Hera..." he responded. "I'm okay, I'm..." He swallowed down the emotion in his throat. "...ready to go home."

He could hear her smile as she said, "All right. Let me get these TIEs off my back and I'll be right there."

"We're on our way up," confirmed Kanan. He switched off the comlink and pocketed it again. The lightsaber flipped back into his hands and ignited with a casual hiss!  "Let's go, kid," he urged, smiling.

Ezra grinned and raised his lightsaber as he followed Kanan out the concourse.

-SWR-

They fought their way up and out onto the landing pad. The troopers grew thicker as they went, coming at them from both sides now, flanking them. Ezra worried for a moment that they might get pinned down outside the gates, but Kanan ricocheted a blaster shot off his saber and into a cargo crate full of kyber crystals.

Their ringing hum became audible, shrill and pitching higher. Stormtroopers immediately whipped heads around, recognized the sound, and scattered, tripping over themselves in their haste to get away and clearing a gap that Kanan darted them through, his hand clasped tight to Ezra's wrist, before the crate exploded, sending splinters everywhere.

They ducked behind a boarding ladder for a moment, and Ezra's chest heaved, his side burning painfully. He was starting to feel a little light-headed, the ringing in his ears continuing long after the kyber had shattered.

Kanan tapped him worriedly. "You okay?" he asked.

Ezra sucked in a breath, his side panging sharply at the motion and his face twisting. "I'm good," he insisted, heaving himself up.

Just have to hold out... a little longer... he thought, slightly delirious.

Stormtroopers set upon them again, charging forward. Kanan pushed Ezra on ahead of him, urging him forward, shielding his back as he blocked rapidfire volleys from the multiplying blasters.

Ezra glanced up the slope they still had to climb to get out of the vale, feeling a bit of vertigo. Determinedly, he holstered his saber, grabbed handholds, and began to ascend.

Blaster shots nicked the rock next to him and he flinched. He couldn't turn to help Kanan block, he was exposed on the slope and he could hear the turrets on the rooftop ratcheting up, swiveling towards them.

Then suddenly there was a whirling whoosh of air as a projectile flew, and a rending of metal as something exploded apart.

BLAM!

Ezra strained his neck, craning around, glimpsing a flying figure buzzing the turrets, going methodically from gun to gun and taking them out, and the troopers manning them along with them.

He laughed in relief and elation, eyes watering at the graceful form. He had never been so happy to see Sabine.

Kanan was next to him now, yanking at his shoulder, and Ezra had to turn and concentrate on climbing for a few moments, his side screaming at him for every move.

He was panting heavily when they finally made it to the top, unable to get off his knees until Kanan slipped a hand under his arm, pulling him up.

"Almost there," came the whispered promise.

Ezra clung to that thought as his shaky legs steadied under him.

The whine of speeders battered his ears now, a pair of them soaring up over the ridge, laying on a pursuit. Kanan tightened his grip on Ezra's arm, trying to pull him along faster, Ezra's lungs tightening up and holding his breath to keep himself from shrieking at the jostling pain in his side.

The speeders were closing in. Ezra could practially feel their exhaust heat behind him.

But then underneath their whine there was a bass roar of familiar engines.

Ezra's head jerked up as he felt the Force tingle, heart leaping to see the Ghost swooping down.

Three shots and the first speeder blew apart. Four more and the second was destroyed, its pilot flying off with a yell.

The Ghost roared as it passed low over their heads, turning around and slowing to land.

Another blast sounded behind them from the facility—Ezra glanced back to see smoke pluming from the engine of a cargo hauler—and then Sabine was zipping through the smoke and passing above them as well, turning in a sharp circle and dropping rapidly.

She landed moments before the Ghost did, feet sinking into the snow.

As soon as her balance was steady she was hurling herself forward, face pinched with emotion. Behind her the Ghost's ramp lowered, Kallus trotting out and quickly down it, sidearm brandished for threats.

The relief he felt at seeing them was dizzying, and Ezra had to straighten his spine to keep from falling over.

Sabine ran straight for him.

"Ezra!" she cried, voice heartwrenching.

Ezra shoved off Kanan and stumbled forward as Sabine flung her arms around him and they crashed into a desperate embrace.

They held on so tightly it hurt, but Ezra didn't care, Sabine's warm, fragrant, paint-tinged scent was melting into him, taking his mind back to soundless nights with her breath and her heartbeat by his side, soothing away his nighttime anxieties. She was shaking, gasping, he was pretty sure both of them were crying, their breaths shuddering against each other as they hugged.

"I'm so, so sorry!" she was choking out, her voice muffled against his neck. "It was all my fault!" Her voice quavered, clogging around her words. "I said I'd protect you and I didn't even—"

"Don't say that!" he interrupted sharply, squeezing her tighter, eyes pinched closed. "Sabine... I'm so glad you're here," he breathed in a thin whisper.

That set off another round of sobbing breaths, and Sabine pressed into him like he would vanish if she ever let go.

His hand drifted up behind her head, tangling in her hair, and he pulled his face up as Kallus reached them, wearing a worried expression.

"Where are the ensigns?" he asked, glancing anxiously back towards the facility.

Sabine swallowed, pulling a bit away from Ezra and composing herself enough to answer. "They're coming," she assured the ex-ISB agent. "Said they had something to do first."

"What could they possibly—" he started to ask, but then an explosion, louder and more concussive than ever, blasted across the vale, fire searing up from the buildings behind them.

The whole group startled, stumbling from the aftershock, and a couple Stormtroopers cresting the ridge flailed and shrieked as they were blown away.

Plumes of smoke billowed high, belching into the atmosphere.

"Karabast," came a muttered voice from the Ghost's ramp. Ezra uncovered his head to see the Lasat leaning against the closest strut, hand pressed to a bandaged side. He marveled at the conflagration rising over the ridge. "That's them all right," he said, nodding sagely.

The three of them were crawling over the tip of the slope now, breathless and grinning. Mart carried Sabine's now-empty satchel of explosives.

They ran for the Ghost, calling Ezra's name with excitement as they came within range.

"Gooti? Jonner?" Ezra said, bewildered. He couldn't believe it. "Mart?"

He grunted loudly as all three of them captured him in a tackling hug, staggering back breathlessly.

"Oh my gosh we were so worried!" Gooti trilled.

"You look like hell, buddy," Jonner commented, pulling back first. "But it's really good to see you," he added, genuinely.

"You too," Ezra marveled, shaking his head. "You all came for me?" he asked.

Mart nodded once, seriously. "You would have done the same for any of us," he said, conviction burning in his eyes.

Kallus was still gawping between the fire on the garrison roof and his charges. "What—but—how did—what in—what did—what was—" he sputtered, gesticulating helplessly.

"Oh." Mart glanced back at the conflagration and then turned forward again, shrugging. "We blew up the refinery," he said.

Kallus pressed a hand over his eye, closing both of them tightly.

"Of course you did," came his strained acceptance.

"We figured we couldn't let the Empire keep strip-mining the kyber so we overloaded the main circuit breaker for the cooling pumps and planted a few charges in the gearboxes," Gooti explained.

Kallus had his head pillowed in both hands now, leaning forward.

"Good work Ensigns, I'll write you a commendation when we get back," he muffled through his fingers.

Zeb was laughing from the ramp. "They'll be cleaning that up for months!" he crowed.

His guffaws cut out as blaster bolts pinged past his head, singing his delicate ears. More Stormtroopers had ascended the ridge and were closing in on foot, shooting as they came.

"We'll have to finish this reunion later," Kanan determined, feeling out for whatever shoulders he could find and urging the youths they belonged to to get moving.

Zeb unslung the bo rifle from his back, planting his feet and laying down cover fire. "Get inside, everyone!" he barked.

They didn't need to be told twice. Iron Squadron scrambled across the distance and up the ramp quickly. Kanan guarded their backs with his saber, deflecting shots as they peppered the fleeing forms of the Rebels.

Ezra tried to hurry along, but felt a sudden exhaustion dragging down his steps.

Sabine slowed in concern, looking over at him. "You okay?" she asked.

His head was swimming. Now that he was here, so close to finally being able to go home, his energy seemed to be running thin, and he suddenly realized how tired he was.

"A-actually..." he stammered, feeling his head spin and the snow covered plains warp around his vision, "I—I might need—"

His knees buckled. Sabine gasped and caught him before he collapsed, her arms coming up underneath his, holding him steady.

"Easy," she whispered. "I've got you. It's okay."

He just murmured in response, leaning on her heavily as she walked them across the short distance to the ramp and helped him up.

-SWR-

"What do you mean there are no TIEs left?!" the officer screeched.

His junior officer's face pinched with discomfort. "The Ghost destroyed them all. We have none left to pursue them," he repeated as calmly as he could.

The officer's face was red-hot, fuming and steaming as he struggled to come up with a strategy. "Well... shoot them or something!" he said. "We can't let them escape!"

Another junior approached nervously, expression clearly reluctant. "Uh, sir?" she called, timidly. "Technicians in the refinery are reporting that the uh..." She coughed. "...the kyber seems to be absorbing the energy of the fireblasts and um..."

She fidgeted on her feet.

"...starting to charge," she finished.

The officer blanched, glancing back towards the raging fire he could see from the control room.

"Oh hell..." he said in a small voice.

-SWR-

The Ghost shuddered from a hit from the troop transport's cannons, jostling the occupants as it lifted. Sabine helped a weakening Ezra down the central hallway, awkwardly smacking her hand on the control button to open the door to his and Zeb's room.

"Ya can take my bunk for now," the Lasat said as he shouldered past, making his way towards the top turret again. A genuinely soft look was turned on the boy. "Rest up, Ezra," he said. "You've been through a lot, I reckon."

He only mumbled an incoherent agreement, already beginning to sag as Sabine brought him across the room and to the lower bunk. She helped him into it, pulling her knees up onto the bed and laying his head across her lap, holding his shoulders softly.

"It's okay, Ezra," she told him, whispering tenderly. "Just sleep. I'll be right here," she promised.

He settled quietly against her, his breaths growing longer and deeper as he lost awareness, exhaustion overtaking him.

Sabine held his head, as he fell asleep in her lap. She stroked her hands through his hair and down his cheek tenderly, watching him breathe, tingling with the knowledge that he was here, he was safe, he was in her arms and they were going home.

Her hands stopped and a vague annoyance crept into her head as she sensed, rather than saw, Kallus behind her, staring at her back.

The ex-ISB agent had pursed lips and a severe frown on his face. Irritation crept through Sabine, and a rising irrational hostility.

Kallus watched her cradle Ezra for a long, uncomfortable moment. Then—

"Are you sure you don't have feelings for him?" he asked.

Her hands tightened around Ezra's head and she glared at the wall. "Bugger off Kallus, or the next time I catch you asleep," she threatened flatly, "I'm painting your face green."

He held up his hands and backed off, leaving them alone and walking away.

-SWR-

Hera gunned the throttle, pulling more power from the sublights to rocket them away from the facility. The weak shots from the troop transport faded, Kanan's hand on her shoulder as they poured on speed.

The ship rattled from a last shockwave, blowing through the hold and the cockpit as the refinery disappeared into flames, but they were soon too high up for the blast to reach them.

The air turned white, and then clear, and then exploded into black as they left Ilum's gravity.

Proximity sensors screeched out a warning, sounding the arrival of a large ship, but the hyperdrive was already engaged and stars were streaking out the window and they were pulling away, pulling away—

Gone.

-SWR-

No sooner had they emerged from hyperspace than a flashing blue bolt seared past their port window, sending shockwaves crashing into their bridge.

Sensors trilled in alarm and sparked popped from a damaged console. The captain uncovered her head, coming out of her flinch.

"What was that?!" she cried.

Her second-in-command checked over the data readings and the captured record of the fleeing ship's transponder. "I... think that was the Ghost, ma'am," he reported with a thin voice.

Captain Payla blanched, her face draining of all its color as she tilted upright. She glanced back towards the back of the ship, as if she could see the Rebel vessel escaping even through the durasteel and metal.

"Ohhhhhh-ho the Grand Admiral's not going to be happy," she said, voice wavering, eyes crinkled in distress.

-SWR-

She was right. He wasn't.

Pryce glanced nervously at the Grand Admiral as he sat and listened to Captain Payla's report with an ever-increasing frown. The hapless sector patrol captain babbled helplessly as she explained the damage to the mining outpost, the retrieval of Ezra Bridger from his apparent captivity, and how her light cruiser had arrived only just in time to watch the Rebel vessel escape. She apologized profusely several times throughout her rambling, and it was only the tightened knuckles Pryce could see clenched against the desk table that betrayed Thrawn's absolute fury with the situation.

She watched the Grand Admiral take a careful breath, seemingly composed as he queried, "And I suppose you were also unable to locate Bridger's captor?"

Payla's image shifted nervously in the holoprojection. "Actually... I ordered a sweep as soon as I set down. We did manage to locate where the Zabrak was keeping Bridger but..." She looked aside, grimacing uncomfortably. "Well..." She fidgeted for several moment. "I... have a recording from the patrol that encountered him."

She nodded at an unseen party and the projector switched focus, piping in what looked like headcam footage from a Stormtrooper helmet as the owner approached a Mandalorian-style craft.

The trooper in the headcam footage stepped cautiously, weapon extended. A figure could be seen staggering drunkenly down the gauntlet's ramp, limping on a bad leg, stopping when he noticed the troopers around him, staring blankly ahead at them.

"You there!" came the barking order of a trooper. "Halt!"

The Zabrak in the recording paused halfway down the ramp, head swiveling in confusion, as if he couldn't quite comprehend the soldiers around him.

"Where is my apprentice?" he asked, an absent look on his face.

The troopers in the periphery of the camera view stepped closer, brandishing their weapons.

"Put your hands up and come quietly!" someone ordered. "We have questions for you about who you are and what you're doing here."

A manic look appeared in the yellow eyes, a strange clarity and certainty.

"He's not here, is he?" the man asked. "He has escaped."

All of a sudden he chuckled, his laughter growing stronger and more unhinged the longer the moment dragged on.

The troopers in the footage murmured nervously to each other.

"Is he on something?" someone asked next to the headcam.

The Zabrak's eyes fixated on the troopers, shining with madness. "You want to know about Ezra Bridger then?" he guessed, dissolving into another round of insensical chuckles before he continued. "Let me tell you a secret," he said conspiratorially. He took a step down the ramp, causing all the troopers to back up in apprehension. "You cannot contain him," the man arms gestured with vague motions as he continued. "Just when you think you've broken him, when you think he's surrendered and defeated, he will surprise you."

He turned and looked straight into the eyes of the helmet camera, as if addressing the unseen listeners.

"You will underestimate him, and it will be your doom."

He dissolved into hysterical guffaws.

"I've heard enough," someone off-camera declared. "Stun him."

The Zabrak's laughter brayed out even more loudly, his face twisting as twin red blades ignited and whirled, the man flinging himself towards the camera to a startled, terrified scream from its owner.

The blade slashed across the feed and it cut out, dissolving into static.

Payla replaced the footage, looking down in embarrassment.

"That's... that's all there is," she admitted. "And... there was no trace of the gauntlet when the second patrol arrived."

Thrawn inhaled very slowly through his teeth.

"So he has escaped too," he concluded flatly.

"It would appear so, Grand Admiral," the captain confirmed, shrunk so low into her shoulders Pryce thought she'd wilt outright.

Thrawn gave a careful exhale, his face utterly unreadable, pinched with only the barest traces of anger.

"Thank you Captain. That will be all," he said.

Fear flashed across the woman's face through the holocam. "Grand Admiral I assure you I did everything I—"

"That will be all, Captain," Thrawn repeated, tone far less neutral, laced with a distinct irritation.

Payla nodded meekly and nodded, ending the transmission. The room fell utterly silent, a tension lingering in the air.

Pryce wrung her hands behind her a few moments, watched the Grand Admiral sit stiffly at his desk.

After a long minute, he rose from his seat, quietly clasping his wrist behind him and stepping over to look at his sample of Sabine's wall graffiti, red eyes staring straight ahead at it.

He hadn't said a single word and Pryce still felt the weight of his disappointment, his anger, his trembling frustration.

She pinched her lips, taking a step to approach him, reaching out with hesitation towards his arm. "Thrawn..." she called, soft and informal, with the worried tones of a friend.

"Leave me, Governor," came the short, sharp reply, and Pryce flinched, her hand withdrawing. A bit quieter, Thrawn turned his head and added a neutral, "Please."

Pryce acquiesced, dropping her chin and nodding, going quietly out of the room. Her footsteps slowly faded from hearing, and then a low hiss from the door sounded her exit.

Thrawn let out a harsh growl, losing composure, hurling his fist into the surface of the wallpiece.

Bang!

The massive boulder tilted slightly from the force, wobbling back into place.

Thrawn exhaled heavily, straightening back up, looking down at his still-vibrating, half-clenched hand in distress.

He tried to comprehend what he was feeling. He was flushed, feverish, his face cold and clammy and his collar hot.

This... this couldn't be natural. This was devilry, some kind of fiendish Jedi magic. Or... perhaps he was simply ill?

He latched onto the thought, his mind settling. Yes, that was it. His breathing steadied, the strange anxious feeling inside him fading back out into chilled anger, heating his veins. His hands clasped behind his back, his eyes narrow, glaring at the painted Loth-cat on the wall chunk. The laughing words of the red Zabrak echoed in his mind.

His fists gripped, his frown stiffening.

"I will not underestimate him," he muttered to himself, voice carrying a sharp edge. "Not again."

Ezra Bridger was an anomaly but he was not remarkable, he was a statistical error and Thrawn would understand and correct it.

The boy would not surprise him again.

-SWR-

Hera hovered softly in the doorway, watching Ezra sleep with a fond expression. Sabine had nodded off too, her head slumping back against the ladder, arms settled loosely around him. They looked at peace, just breathing softly together, curled up on Zeb's bunk like children exhausted after vigorous play.

All her doubts from before had vanished, conviction settled into her bones. This was where Ezra belonged. No matter what being part of the Rebellion had put him through, she knew he didn't regret a thing.

And now, neither did she.

Heavy boot thuds clipped down the hallway and then Kanan's arms were wrapping around her waist, his lips pressing a soft kiss to her temple.

"Hey," he greeted, whispering so as not to wake the sleeping teenagers. "How is everything?"

"Better," she replied, winding her arm around his at her midsection. "Now that we have him back."

"I told you we would," he teased smugly.

"So you did," she chuckled. "You have more faith than I do sometimes."

He shrugged. "Practice, or something."

Hera's gaze turned somber, her smile fading. She took in the haggard lines on Ezra's sleeping face, his bruised, bandaged skin, his worn dirty clothes that needed a washing yesterday and a thorough mending for the rips and tears, and the faint, shallow wheeze in his breaths as if he was still feeling some pain.

"He's hurt." She meant physically, but the two words seemed to encompass the entirety of what Ezra must have been through.

Kanan nodded. "I think his rib is cracked. He insisted it could wait until we were on the Ghost."

Hera groaned softly, stepping out of his arms and moving into the room. "Ugh that's just typical," she sighed, crossing over to the bunk.

Sabine stirred immediately when Hera shook her shoulder.

"Wha?" she blurted, groggy.

"Naptime's over," Hera said. "Ezra needs medical attention."

Sabine obediently started prying herself loose, her movement disturbing Ezra's sleep and rousing him.

"'biiiiine," he whined, grabbing for her petulantly as she slipped off the bed and he lost his pillow.

She creeked as she straightened, grimacing and rubbing her back. "Gonna feel that one tomorrow," she complained.

Hera was helping Ezra sit up, carefully, hands around his left bicep steadyingly.

"Hey sweetie. Come on, get up," she urged. "We're just going to fix that rib, okay?" she promised, soothingly.

His face squeezed as he finished straightening, movements sluggish and tired. "Okay," he rasped without protest.

"Do you need anything else?" Hera asked, cupping his cheek.

Ezra tilted his head against her hand for a moment, eyes peeking open, shining with gratitude.

"I'm... really hungry," he confessed.

From the doorway Kanan smiled. "I think we can fix that," he said, moving off down the hallway.

Hera eased her hands under Ezra's armpits and helped him up from the bunk, not letting go as they slowly made their way past the central ladder into the living room, angling past Sabine, maneuvering around Kallus and Zeb and the kids—it was now quite crowded on the Ghost—and settling him down in the cushioned wooden seat.

She left him there for a moment, already bantering animatedly with Zeb, complaining at him about, "Your bunk stinks, pal! Didn't you shower at all while I was gone?" to Zeb's huffy protest of, "Hey! We were all under a lot of stress! Hygiene wasn't exactly our top priority!" She joined Kanan in the kitchen. He was feeling around in the cupboard for the pots, and she nudged him aside and got the large one down for him before crossing over and opening up the cabinet with the medkits.

"So what happens now?" Kanan asked, hand brushing across the utensil rack, searching.

"What do you mean?" Hera asked absently, reaching up into the cupboard.

"Well, Maul knows about Yavin," Kanan replied. He squeezed open a jar of spice. "Though it sounds like he won't be coming after us again." He placed the cutting board flat on the counter.

"One can only hope," Hera muttered. She took a deep breath. "I was thinking... we should go back to Lothal."

"Really?" Kanan said, surprised. He angled his head at her. "Is that something you want?"

"It's what I think Ezra wants," she explained. "We'll stay on Yavin long enough for him to get healed up. But I'm pretty sure he'll want to go home to help his people, once he learns what's been going on."

Kanan absorbed that a moment, then shrugged. "All right. Sure," he agreed. "At least we know what to expect there. No surprises."

Hera's face pinched with chagrin and slight embarrassment. "Actually..." she drawled. She set down the medkit supplies. "About that..."

She turned around, reaching over and capturing Kanan's hands, stopping his work.

He shifted to face her, concerned. "Hera?"

She pulled her face up seriously.

"I have something to tell you."

-SWR-

From outside the galley, all the others heard was an incredulous, "You're what?!" that stopped the conversation dead in confusion.