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Prelude: Goodbye (Yavin IV)

 

They said goodbye three minutes ago.

It should have been a farewell kiss and a clean break; battlefield flings are always messy, especially one based on a truce that expires in an hour. It shouldn’t even have been a kiss. She knows better.

But if one’s going to be damned, Cipher Nine supposes, one might as well do it thoroughly.

So instead of readying her ship for departure, she’s pressed between Theron Shan and a crumbling shard of a stone ruin near the War Table, his hands buried in her hair, mouth hot against her neck and his jacket half-off. Her back holster pushes uncomfortably against her spine. She doesn’t care.

In the distance a sharp snap echoes through the jungle, a broken branch or a rifle shot; they both freeze, statue-still. After a split second’s pause, Theron grabs her around the waist and pulls her off her feet, away from the edge of the wall; she lands in a crouch in the one still-standing corner of the ruin and drops to one knee. He’s in front of her before she can rise, one hand reflexively moving toward his blaster, eyes scanning the treeline.

“Theron,” she hisses and reaches forward, wrapping her fingers around his wrist, pushing down before he draws. “Truce, remember?”

He exhales and refastens the retention strap, mumbling under his breath. “I was thinking Massassi, but-”

“It’s alright. You’ve got good instincts.” She peers around his hip, seeing nothing but leaves rustling in the hot wind, and prods lightly at his flank with one fingertip for good measure. “You’re sure I can’t convince you to defect?”

“Pretty sure, sorry.” Theron swats at her absently, still looking out into the distance. “No one would believe me, anyway- the Grand Master’s son turned traitor? Be serious.”

He does have a point, though she hates to admit it- he’d be marked as a mole from day one. Force, even she would have marked him as a mole, and she’s seen him interact with Satele enough to know that they aren’t exactly close.

You can’t blame a girl for trying.

“I’m perfectly serious.” She shifts, still pressed tight into the corner. “Anyway, I think we’re clear. I don’t see anything, and the perimeter sensors didn’t sound.”

“Didn’t they? I turned my implant off, so I’ll take your word for it.” He shrugs. “Kept getting called to the ship, but we don’t launch for an hour- figured I’d let them think I’m taking a walk.”

“A walk, hm?” Theron’s still too close for her to move away from the wall; she nudges her knee into the back of his calf. “I’m rather enjoying the scenery, myself.”

One eyebrow raised, he glances back and down over his shoulder- and blushes, taking a quick step away from her and turning to offer her a hand up. “Um. Yeah. Sorry. Drawback of close quarters cover, huh?”

“And they said chivalry was dead in the Republic,” she says as he pulls her to her feet, momentum carrying her forward until she catches herself against his chest.

“Imperial lies, clearly. Shameful.”

"We don’t do shame in the Empire.” She grins. “Guilt, on the other hand… in any case,” her fingertips rise and fall, ever so slightly, in time with his heartbeat, “if you wanted me on my knees, you could have asked.”

His pulse quickens beneath her hand.

Two beats later they’re back against the wall, fumbling at buttons and buckles and harnesses (she makes a mental note to find whoever designed his belt buckle and commit slow, painful murder), teeth and nails grazing sharp along exposed skin.

“You know this is crazy, right?” Theron murmurs in her ear. “We’ll probably never see each other again. What are we-” The rest of the words are lost against her mouth.

“Isn’t this how you say goodbye-” she arches her back as he slips a hand beneath her waistband- “in the Republic? I knew that cultural briefing didn’t sound right-”

He grins against the gasp that follows. “And I haven’t exploded yet- bad intel all around.”

Yet. Give me a few min-”

Crack- another broken branch, closer this time, and the perimeter sensor between the camp and the War Table shrills a steady chime into her earpiece until she lifts her hand to silence it.

Shit.

They both swear and spring apart; she closes her eyes with a frustrated huff, processing the input from the sensor. “Two on foot, inbound from base camp- likely looking for you, since they can’t raise you on comms.”

“Me? It might be a random patrol.”

She shrugs, voice low. “Patrol of what? Everyone’s packing up to leave, and you said yourself that you kept getting called back to dock.”

“Damn her.” He sighs, and whispers back. “I thought we’d have more time.”

“We’ve still got time. They haven’t found you yet, Theron, and they won’t find me unless I let them.” Her belt, undone by his clever hands, hangs loose off her hips and when she snaps it closed her stealth generator hums to life and her outline wavers, flickering in and out of focus for a moment. “The question is whether you want to be found.”

“Whether I want-” he looks back over his shoulder toward the treeline, then back to her with a shake of his head. “I won't turn, Cipher. I told you. I’m sorry.”

(She didn't miss her name when they took it from her; she knew, when she was made Cipher, that there were things she would not be permitted to keep, and she has a thousand aliases and a hundred faces at her disposal. But there is a faint regret in his voice when he answers, a mask slipping for a moment that makes her wonder- if she could remember her old name, how would it sound on his tongue?

She purges the thought from her mind. That is a very, very dangerous question.)

She pulls the backup unit from its slot on her generator, raising it to eye level between them. “That's not what I'm asking. There’s a scuttled Imperial transport on the far side of the clearing- Massassi fragged the engine so it’s stripped down to four walls and a floor, but we can make it there in a few minutes. It's locked down tight, so they won't be able to get in. We could be alone.”

“We could-” Theron nods, and swallows. ”Yeah. How tough’s the lock?”

“Impossible, technically. Unless you know the algorithm,” she clips the little device to his belt, “which I do. Now answer me.” The sound of troopers’ boots draws closer along the gravel path. “Do you want to be found?

His answer is a kiss, mixed lust and fear and anger and something sweeter hiding underneath but still so hard she tastes blood on her tongue. “No,” he says, “I don’t. Force help me, I want you, but we need to move.”

She flips the switch and takes his hand.

Even stealthed they have to take the long way around, behind the great stone table and off the paths, so they reach the abandoned shuttle just as a pair of helmeted figures pass through the far archway. She signs at him in smugglers’ cant- get in cover. I’ll get the door.

He arches an eyebrow, hands moving at chest height. You speak cant, too? You really are-

Never mind!

He ducks behind the landing gear as her stealth field dies and she syncs her implant to the ship’s computer, fingers dancing along the control panel: shock field reset, check; EMP burst reset, check; autoturret reset, check; door lock, disengaged. The heavy door slides open with a soft hiss and they dart up the ramp.

She slaps her palm against the door panel as soon as she’s through and drops to one knee, reaching down through a narrow gap in the floor grating. The reset lever still’s out of reach- she flattens herself onto her stomach with a shiver (her jacket’s still unbuttoned and the floor’s cold, despite the heat outside) and buries her arm to the shoulder in the space under the floor until, finally, her fingertips hook the lever and she pulls back with all her strength.

“System resetting. Security parameters engaged.” The metallic voice of the ship’s computer echoes through the cabin.

She wriggles backward until she’s clear of the grating, rolling onto her back with a sigh of relief. “You didn’t see that.”

Theron’s leaning against the wall beside her, arms folded across his chest, his facial expression shifting between relief and insouciance. “Nope. Too busy staring at your-”

She grabs him by one dangling belt strap and pulls him down.

Chapter Text

Spy vs Spy vs Emperor (Ziost)

 

She’s never liked Ziost much. New Adasta sits just above the old Sith Citadel; even Force-blind, she can feel the darkness bleeding from the ruin, turning the grass ashen and the trees to twisted horrors. It feels like Korriban, and the first time she landed on Korriban she was sick in the docking bay.

Now, as she’s standing over a dead Jedi, cleaning her knife on his robes while Lana mows down a squad of possessed troopers with a few swift strikes of her saber, it feels exactly like Korriban.

“Just like old times.” Lana sheathes the blade, scarlet light fading as the roiling auras around the fallen troopers flicker and die. “Hello, Cipher.”

She tosses the Jedi’s lightsaber toward the Sith Lord, sending it spinning end over end. “Hi, Lana. I assume the bounty on these is still in effect?”

“I’ll have the credits transferred,” Lana snatches it out of the air, “later. For the moment, we need to focus on the larger problem.”

“Normally, I’d be alarmed that there’s a larger problem than the entire division of Jedi that somehow beat me here.“ There’s a scrape she hadn’t noticed somewhere on the back of her neck; her medical probe sprays a stream of kolto against it and she hisses. “But- no, fuck that. I’m very alarmed, given that the larger problem is an entire division of Jedi who are now possessed by the Emperor.

Barely perceptibly, Lana’s right eyebrow twitches.  

“Tell me you have a plan.” There’s someone coming, dodging from pillar to pillar across the courtyard. Leveling her rifle on her shoulder, she squints through the viewfinder: young, male, hair buzzed to a micron’s thickness in the current Kaas City fashion, Sith Intelligence uniform. No red halo. She lowers her rifle. “We’ve got company.”

“I have several ideas, actually, and-” Lana pauses as the man ducks through the door, coming to rest at attention behind her left shoulder-  “ah, good. Agent Kovach. Tell me you have news for me.”

“Yes, Minister-” (Minister? she mouths at Lana; the other woman’s eyebrow twitches again), “we’ve found the shuttle, but no sign of Theron Shan.”

Theron.

His name arcs like lightning through the dark corners of her mind, the places where she shoved her memories of Yavin IV and buried them under a dozen layers of mental conditioning. He hasn’t been in the ops reports for weeks; she’d assumed the new position he’d talked about was administrative, that Satele wanted her agent (the echo of his voice curls bitterly around the words, even in reminiscence) out of the thick of things- which meant, of course, that crash-landing a shuttle on an Imperial core world was exactly the sort of half-lunatic thing he’d do...

She blinks, and returns her focus to the conversation at hand.

“He’s likely gone in search of the Sixth Line’s Master, then. No matter.” Lana gestures and the agent steps forward. “This is Agent Rane Kovach, a very promising new recruit. Agent, I trust you’re familiar with Cipher Nine.”

“Commander.” Kovach inclines his head. “It’s an honor.”

“I thought I knew all your little worker bees, Lana.” She doesn’t recognize him at all, actually, though clearly he’s heard enough stories to at least feign proper deference- not terribly unusual, she supposes, since she’s gone independent. He seems eager enough, at least. “Bring me up to speed, please. Theron’s presence explains the Jedi,” she looks to her, questioning, “but how did he find out what was happening in the first place?”

“I don’t know. I assume you didn’t-?”

(Lana figured it out almost immediately, of course.

She’d snuck back into camp with five minutes to spare and was sprinting toward the docking pad when she rounded a corner and nearly tripped over a kneeling Lana.

“There you are.” Most Sith looked like coiled serpents in their meditative postures, but Lana was serene as always; she gathered herself and stood. “I wondered where you’d gone. I’ve taken the liberty of replenishing your ship’s kolto stores- you’ll need to spend some more time in the tank once you’re en route, I think. That’s quite a bruise on your neck.” She reached out, fingertips brushing lightly over the mark.

“Here? I don’t remember getting hit-” she reached up too, resting her hand next to Lana’s on the hollow of her throat before the memory sprang, unbidden, to the front of her mind.

The shuttle’s only mostly soundproof so they tried to be quiet, mostly unsuccessfully- she nipped his finger when he pressed it, teasingly, across her lips and he laughed and bit her neck in retort and-

Lana gasped, eyes wide, and let her hand fall away. “You didn’t.

“Please get out of my head, Lana.” She cringed.

“Tell me you didn’t.”)

“Lana.” She narrows her eyes. “I may not report directly to you, but you know where my loyalties lie. More to the point, given how long these Jedi have been here, the SIS knew about the Emperor’s presence here before I did.”

“Your loyalty to the Empire isn’t in question. Given our history with Agent Shan, however, I had to ask.” Though her tone is carefully neutral, she looks exhausted. “We have a mole, then.”

“So it would seem.”

“One more problem to- oh, damn it!” She raises one hand to her ear. “No, no, don’t... yes, alright. I’ll be right there.” Lana’s shoulders droop- just a little, but she’s never seen her look so uncertain. “The Minister of Transport’s dead, and everyone else with the codes to open the spaceport’s gone mad. Twenty ships are ready to evacuate and none of them can get out. I need to-”

Two steps close the distance between them; she wraps her hand around the other woman’s wrist.  “Breathe, Lana. Tell me what you need me to do, then go. We’ll manage.”

“We’ll manage. Yes.” Lana takes a deep breath and then she’s already pulling away, already moving out the door. “Kovach, get Cipher Nine to the armory. Seal it, and get those damned turrets offline, then contact me.”

“Yes, Minister.” He salutes sharply. “Commander? This way.”

They fight their way across the plaza to the armory, leaving a trail of dead and unconscious soldiers and Sith in their wake- a few Jedi, too, and a trio of civilians wielding impromptu flamethrowers (she simply sighs and smacks each one with the butt of her rifle as she passes behind).

Someone’s following, though, leaping from ledge to ledge above them like a stalking nexu, and by the time they breach the armory doors they can see her. The woman looks Sith at first glance, her face smeared with blood, eyes yellow and her curly hair wild and matted, but her blade is blue and her armor marks her as a Jedi. She jumps, impossibly high, above the barricades, launching herself through the door; Kovach gets the forcefield up just in time. The Jedi slams headlong into it, again and again, the Emperor’s voice echoing from her throat until she screams and collapses into unconsciousness.

They leave her there and run- more are coming, haunted voices howling in unison from every corner of the plaza.

So many more.

“It’s good we didn’t kill her.” Kovach says a minute later, taking the steps up to the AA guns two at a time. “Minister Beniko thinks that every time one of his puppets dies, the Emperor grows stronger- almost as though he’s siphoning their life force.”

She turns to glare at him, replacing the pin in the frag grenade she’d nearly just lobbed over her shoulder. “You didn’t think to mention that before, Agent? I’ve killed easily a dozen people in the last thirty minutes, and-” she hooks it back to her belt, pulling a stun grenade instead and tossing it down the stairs into the growing crowd behind them- “now you tell me ‘try not to kill anyone’?”

“I’ve been trying to come up with nonlethal alternatives.” He looks decidedly defensive. “But seeing as our enemies keep trying to kill us and I haven’t got a good plan yet-”

“Get the guns powered down,” she sighs. “I’ll get the door.”

He nods.

The security console’s half-smashed (a few hard hits from a hydrospanner, by the look of it) and the panel flickers uselessly; she pulls the cover panel away and ducks beneath it, scanning quickly for loose connections- no good. The wiring’s melted. “That’s a negative on the door, actually. I can’t fix this.”

“Fine.” The roof above them comes alive with heavy mechanical whirrs, one after another. “Guns are down. We’ll go back to the armory and-”

Footsteps at the entrance, quick but uneven- someone wounded, limping. Solid heelstrikes. Probably male. She slides out from under the console, drawing her knife and crouching behind the room’s central table. Whoever it is, he’ll have to pass the table to get to Kovach- one quick shot to the hamstring should do it-

“Sith Intelligence. Hard at work, I see.”

Even before he passes the doorway, she knows his voice.

Theron’s tone is light, mocking, as he crosses the room toward Agent Kovach at the defense grid. She steels herself. He hasn’t seen her yet.

“Stop where you are.” She steps behind him, blade raised, willing the tremor from her hand. You knew this might happen. “I won’t warn you again.”

He spins around, staggering a little on what looks to be a sprained ankle; his face looks even worse, angry bruises pooling under his eyes and on his temples and char marks around his implants. His hands are empty, weapons still in their holsters. “Nine? What are you - um. Hi.”

"Hi?” She sheathes her knife. “You just started an invasion and all you have to say is ‘hi’? Damn it, Theron.”

“You know this person, Commander?” One hand on his blaster, Kovach moves hesitantly away from the terminal toward them.

“This person?” A few seconds pass before she’s sure she heard him correctly, and then her mind races as a slow chill starts to crawl its way up her spine.

(Lana knew Theron was planetside- she had agents out searching for his shuttle, even- and he’d mentioned him by name barely an hour ago. Either the quality of Intelligence briefings has gone steeply downhill in her absence, or...

We have a mole, then. Lana’s voice echoes in her ears.

Only one way to find out.)

“For fuck’s sake, Kovach, did you look at the dossier?” Upper lip curled delicately, she scowls past Theron with a look of carefully crafted contempt. “Minister Beniko may think highly of you, but it sounds to me as though you’ve been busy searching for a man you wouldn’t have recognized in the first place.”

“I-”

“This,” she says, “is Theron Shan.”

Chapter Text

Blow a Kiss, Fire a Gun (Ziost)

 

Kovach flinches as though she’d reached out and slapped him.

“Ah.” He glances down, his expression difficult to read. “No, Commander. I’m afraid in all the chaos, the reading rather fell by the wayside.”

Theron stands motionless between them for a moment, eyes flickering back and forth, before he half-raises both hands in mock surrender. “I don’t know whether to be flattered that I’ve got a dossier or glad not every Imperial knows me on sight.”

“Neither.” She steps behind him. “We have files on every known Republic agent, as you’re well aware, and he ought to have known your face. I’m going to disarm you now, so please don’t make this harder than it needs to be.”

“You need my help.” Theron keeps his hands raised, though.

Beckoning, she crooks her finger. “Agent Kovach.”

“Commander?” Kovach takes another few steps away from the console.

She gestures toward Theron. “If he runs, shoot him.”

If she wasn’t looking for it, she wouldn’t have seen him hesitate; Kovach’s hand twitches at his side, fingers curling and uncurling, before he draws and levels his blaster. “Yes, Commander.”

Traitor. She’s sure of it.

“Ni- Cipher, please. I think I know how to fix this.” Theron’s tongue catches on her name.

(“Will you tell me your name, at least?” They’re still tangled in each other on the shuttle floor, half-dressed and out of breath, with twenty minutes to spare before the end of the truce. He props himself up on one elbow.

“I’ve already told you,” she stretches, languid, kicking his jacket free of where it landed on her right boot and shrugging her trousers back up over bare skin, “my name is Cipher Nine.”

“Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. No nicknames? Anything?” Theron looks, she thinks, genuinely curious.

“You can call me Nine, I suppose.” Her hair’s come loose too, messy around her shoulders, and she tilts her chin to her chest to gather it back into its usual bun. “Why does it matter? We won’t exactly be on a nickname basis soon.”

“It still seems rude not to know what you like to be called, all things considered, so I thought I should ask. For next time.”

She arches a brow and shifts onto her side, facing him. “Next time? While I wouldn’t object, whatever happened to ‘we’ll probably never see each other again’- unless I've managed to change your mind?” Her kiss is a question, too, although a different one.

“Still no,” he says against her mouth, “and we probably won’t. But-” in reply he slides his free hand around and along the curve of her waist, undoing half her progress in reclothing herself with one swift movement- “we do still have nineteen minutes.”

“Mm.” Her arms slide around his neck as she settles back, hips tilting with the pressure of his fingertips. “Plenty of time.”)

“Fix it how- more Jedi? If that’s the sort of help you’re offering, I’ll pass.” Unhooking both retaining straps, she slides both of his pistols from their holsters and sets them, out of arm’s reach, on the far edge of the table; the knife in his right boot and the holdout blaster strapped between his shoulder blades soon follow suit, though she has to reach up the back of his jacket to get at the blaster and, grasping blindly, she misses the catch twice before she gets it on the third try and the little gun slides free.

When she does, the fingers of Theron’s right hand flicker briefly, out of Kovach’s line of sight. Good memory.

She snorts- his mouth turns up at one corner- and sits on the edge of the table, squarely between him and his weapons. “So, what was your plan, exactly? Send the Jedi in as a distraction, then get in here, get the planetary defenses down?”

“No way.” Theron shakes his head vehemently. “When word got through that the Emperor was on Ziost, I sent my people- the Sixth Line, I mean. I figured maybe they could pin him down in a way the SIS or the army can’t.”

“Even the Dark Council never managed that, and they’ve tried twice.” Perched on the tabletop, legs crossed, she sighs. “You risked your people on a very big maybe.”

“Yeah. They wanted to try.” His hands fall to his sides. “No one else knew about the op, though, so when it went bad…”

“You came to try to extract them?” Kovach chimes in from the far side of the room, aim still trained on Theron. Which you knew. Because you called him. “But your shuttle was shot down. We know that much.”

He nods. “Pretty much. The minute I landed I had thirty of the Emperor’s creepy puppets crawling all over my shuttle- had to blow the whole thing to get them off me, and even shielded I still fried my implants, but it worked. The shock did something to them.”

“Killed them, you mean?”

“Only a few. Most of them got back up, but they were out of it… confused, staggering. When I got free of the crash site they didn’t follow.” Wincing, Theron shifts his weight off his right foot. “It might be a way to stop them. I thought someone should know, so when I saw the guns go down-”

“Commander? Incoming.” Kovach’s gaze is focused on the open door. “And if you’ll permit me, I have an idea.”

Her eyes follow his; two men in Imperial uniforms are charging up the stairs with weapons drawn and the single-minded stare of the possessed. “Whatever you’re going to do, do it fast.” She readies a grenade, just in case.

He whirls around and shoots the security console.

“Kovach, what the -”

The console sparks and hisses, and as it overloads so do the shielding panels on either side of the doorway; the two soldiers are nearly through when a double arc of electricity catches them and they fall, convulsing, booted heels drumming a rhythmless tattoo against the floor for what seems like an age. When they finally lie still, she exhales.

“Well, then.” She slides off the table. “You may be onto something after all, Theron- and that was good thinking, agent, but keep your weapon drawn. We can’t be sure until they wake up.”

Theron rubs his forehead. “You’re welcome.”

He’d been right, though- after a few minutes both men awaken, completely disoriented and rather alarmed to find themselves held at gunpoint by Sith Intelligence (they’d been on patrol in the Industrial Sector, as far as they could remember). She jabs each one with a syringeful of kolto by way of apology for the impromptu electrocution and directs them toward Lana and the spaceport; once they’re gone, she turns back to Agent Kovach and to Theron.

“So the theory is sound… electricity somehow breaks the Emperor’s hold.” Kovach paces, deep in thought, along the length of the table. “If only we could hit them all-” he stops short. “I’ve got another idea.”

“I’m surprised you weren’t recruited for Science division, with all these brilliant ideas of yours.” And maybe you wouldn’t have been a traitor. Oh, well. She’s got bigger fish to fry than this one, for now.

If he even heard her over the flow of his thoughts, it doesn’t seem to register. “I’ll see if I can raise Minister Beniko. If I can get into the power systems, we might be able to catch everyone in reach of the grid, but I’ll need her authorization codes-”

“Blow the whole system. It might work.” Theron nods approvingly. “Should I tag along? You might need a slicer.”

“No, I-”

She cuts Kovach off abruptly, turning to face Theron head-on. “I don’t think so, Agent Shan. You can’t possibly imagine I’d let you run off with Lana’s pet agent- she’d be terribly upset with me.” Their eyes lock for a long moment and she smiles, just a little too wide, head tilted and teeth bared; he blinks, once, but doesn’t flinch.

“Well,” he says, slowly, “we certainly can’t have that, can we?”

Kovach, for his part, is already moving past them toward the door. “Give me ten minutes, Commander, and I’ll send you the coordinates for the next rendezvous site-” he lifts one hand to his ear- “Hello? Minister, are you there? I think I know how-”

He’s gone, then, through the doorway and out of earshot.

“Force, you’re good.” Theron slumps into a chair. “How long did it take you to figure it out?”

“Technically, about twenty minutes- here. You’re going to need these.” She reaches across to the far side of the table and slides his weapons back toward him. “But I knew the minute he saw you. He recognized you and tried to hide it, and he didn’t even need to. He had several good reasons to know exactly who you are... and then when I told him to draw on you, he hesitated.”

He tucks his knife away, sheathes his blasters. “Maybe he’s just got a conscience.”

“Bullshit.”

“Yeah, well.” Theron shrugs. “I have to say, I’m a little offended you told him to shoot me.”

She rolls her eyes at him. “It wasn’t personal. I had to see what he’d do- and anyway, it was only if you ran, which you didn’t.”

“I couldn’t have run if I’d wanted to. But still.” Resting his head in one hand, he closes his eyes; the bruises beneath them seem darker, deeper than when he’d entered the building and for a moment, she remembers Rishi. “It had to be you, didn’t it? Out of all the people who could have been in this building, it had to be you. I thought you were on Nar Shaddaa.”

“You’ve been keeping tabs on me, Theron Shan.”

He makes a face. “Maybe a little. Call it professional interest.”

“And yes, I was on Nar Shaddaa, but I go where I’m needed. I thought you’d retired from field work.” She pulls out the chair next to his and settles into it. “Clearly I was wrong.”

“Maybe I should have. This whole op’s been a clusterfuck from the beginning.”

She doesn’t answer, but slips two medpacks out of her belt pouch and onto the table in front of him. He’s silent, too, as he uncaps the first and jabs the needle deep into his thigh, but when he pulls his hand away his shoulders are straighter, his face less pained. The second needle sinks home; he rolls his right ankle experimentally.

“Better?”

He nods. “Much. Though not for long, I bet, once Lana finds out about Kovach.”

“I’d be more worried if I were him. You know Lana’s a pragmatist- she’ll likely ransom you back to the SIS, assuming we don’t all get killed. Kovach, on the other hand…” she draws one finger swiftly across her throat. “Although if this idea of his works, it may buy him a stay of-”

Theron’s jacket pocket chimes insistently until he pulls his holocomm free, setting it down in front of him. “Hey, look. Something didn’t short-circuit, for once… oh, no. No, no, no.“ He pales, pointing frantically under the table. “Hide. Fast.”

“What? Why?”

He springs out of his chair, mouthing a name as the holographic image flickers to life in front of them- Saresh.

She hits the ground.

For the life of her she cannot understand how Leontyne Saresh ever became Chancellor; the woman has a voice like diamond cutting glass and a temperament to match. She can only see Theron’s feet and hear their conversation, but it’s enough. This is bad.

“-starting with New Adasta. And this time, I expect your cooperation.”

He’s shifting from foot to foot, an anxious habit she’s noticed before. “Chancellor, please. Before you send the order-”

He really wasn’t lying. Saresh didn’t send him or the Jedi- but she found out, somehow-

“It’s too late for that, Agent Shan. The fleet is already in orbit. The invasion has begun.”

With a sharp click, the image dies. She crawls from beneath the table and stumbles over a chair, running to the door with him just behind her; they stop short, one on each side of the doorframe, and when they both look up the sky is dark, the Republic ships shadows against the sun.

“I’m going to kill him.” She isn’t sure who says it first but their voices blend together, passing sentence in unison.

Her comm rings.

 

Chapter Text

Mercy (Ziost)

 

She waits longer than she ought to before she answers.

Her lungs fill in time with the ringing rattling through her head, every breath an exercise in artificially induced calmness even as above her the first troop transports streak through the atmosphere on their way down to the landing zone. She keeps breathing; the knot of knife-edged fear that had taken root behind her heart fades into smoldering rage.

(Rage is far preferable to fear.

Fear is a problem; fear makes her overcautious and indecisive. Fear gets people killed. Anger, though? She learned long ago she works better angry.)

She switches the channel open.

“There you are, Cipher.” Lana sounds surprisingly calm, given the circumstances. “I understand from Agent Kovach that we have a plan.”

She blinks, refocusing. “Apparently we do, although he was rather vague on the details. More to the point, we need to talk about-”

“There’s no time for that. I’m nearly ready to launch the evacuation, and you need to get to the transformer array in Central district. I’m sending you a map now.” Even as Lana speaks, her wrist chimes softly- Message incoming. Connecting. “If this works, we’ll have time to talk.”

Does she not- oh, no. “Even if it works, we have a problem. How are you planning to evac through the blockade?”

The signal crackles for a moment, an angry static overlay muting the words. “-sorry, Cipher, please repeat. I don’t think I heard you properly. I thought you said- hold on, we’ve finally got the launch bay doors open. There we-”

She only recognizes about half of the curses that follow (the Basic and Huttese ones, mostly- the rest are Sith, with a few suspiciously Mando’a-sounding words in the mix), all painfully loud, addressed variably at the Jedi, the Republic in general, Theron Shan in particular and Theron Shan’s parentage in extra particular. With a wince she pulls the little transmitter free from her ear, and even six inches from her head she can still hear Lana raging. Theron leans in, eavesdropping rather less than subtly, eyebrow arching at some of the more colorful phrases.

“Lana,” he says after a moment, “you’ve met my mother. I really don’t think that description is fair.”

“I- I- you. ” Lana sputters as an ominous electrical hum crackles through the speaker. “This is your fault.”

“I swear I had nothing to do with-”

She’s pretty sure force lightning can’t travel through communications devices, but it’s probably best not to test it- she cuts Theron off with a gesture and surprisingly, he quiets. “I assumed Kovach had told you we’d located Agent Shan.”

“Yes, he did, and-” a new noise, now, metallic, and evenly spaced breaths between the words. Lana’s running. “They’re coming. I need to move. Get to the transformers. I’ll-”

The channel cuts out, and though she tries to ring back through again and again Lana doesn’t answer. From this angle she can’t see clearly down to the spaceport, but the Republic transports keep raining down like shooting stars, falling fast- too fast. They ought to be slowing. Instead the ships are still at full engine when they reach the surface; the ground shakes with the force of one impact after another and a dozen new pillars of smoke climb lazily into the already ashen sky.

“Same thing happened with the Line.” Theron rubs his eyes, the left still swollen half-shut despite the medpacks. He looks exhausted. “They get in range, he just-” he reaches up as if to pluck one of the still-falling ships from the air, makes a fist, and slams it down, hard, into his thigh.

“Great. And I get to go...” After replacing her earpiece she activates the map, letting it project into the air between them. New Adasta’s streets are linear, organized, like all proper Imperial cities, and with one finger she traces out the most direct route.

“...right through the middle of them.” With a shake of his head he pushes her hand down, drawing a second pattern that crosses her own, goes- under?   She can’t make sense of it. “No. Go this way.”

Even on second glance she can’t follow the route. “What do I look like, a selonian? That route doesn’t-”

“There’s a maintenance tunnel, but it’s not on the map. Enter here-” Theron gestures again, his left hand on her wrist guiding her outstretched finger- “exit here. The second door, not the first. Trust me.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she watches his expression carefully; he’s staring intently at the projection. “I won’t ask you how you know that.”

“I can’t tell you how I know that. Just trust me.” His grip relaxes, the pressure of his fingers fading, blending into older memories of touch. “Please.”

Any other day, from any other person, the words trust me would have made her laugh until she choked- especially, in the abstract, from an SIS agent in the middle of a war zone. Trust me is the kind of naive faith in the innate goodness of the universe that makes you believe that your side is the right one, that every deal’s fair and every promise genuine. Trust me is battles lost and missions failed; on good days it’s a panicked run for cover and on bad days it’s a funeral.

Today trust me is flying blind on borrowed intel and, even knowing that, she still mostly believes him- because he’s playing you, you idiot. Stop thinking with your-

“All right. But only because you asked so nicely.” The map disappears, and she lets her train of thought go with it. “Let’s go, then.”

Theron shakes his head again, starts a slow jog down the steps toward the plaza. “I’m taking the direct route. Wait a minute, then head for the tunnel opening- I’ll try to clear a path for you, then head toward Lana. Sounds like she needs some backup.”

“Are you insane?” He can run but she’s faster, half-wounded as he still is, and catches him by the back of his jacket halfway down the staircase. “I gave you your weapons back, but I’m not letting you out of my sight. We can use my stealth generator. Lana-”

“-was right. This is at least partially my fault.” Twisting free, he goes another few steps, down and down to the open plaza below and stepping over the fallen form of a crumpled protocol droid. “And I need to fix it.”

The major avenues look clear at first, but she can see crowds of humanoid shapes in the far distance- their path lies right, through the densest of the groups. “By getting yourself killed?”

“You know she’s in over her head.” (She can’t deny it. Lana is many things but at her core she is slow, cautious, deliberate, far better suited to the research she so loves than to a title she never wanted.)  “Besides, we may need a backup plan if whatever you're doing with the transformers doesn’t work. I have a few other ideas.”

Damn him, but he’s right.

“Fine, Theron. I’ll play along, for now. But if any of those ideas involve scarpering off with Kovach and commandeering a shuttle, I will-”

Theron stops abruptly. “Screw Kovach. If he’s the one who sold me out to the Chancellor, he can find his own way off-planet. Let me just- um.” One hand goes to his temple, reflexively, before his nose crinkles in irritation.

“Your comm’s still dead.” It isn’t a question.

He sighs. “Yeah.”

“Holo’s no good on the run, either, and I haven’t got a spare… hold on.” Slumped against a wall ahead of them there’s a dead Chiss in an Intelligence uniform (she doesn’t recognize her, either- just like Kovach, another one of too many new faces in her absence), a telltale glint of metal nestled in her ear. The lightsaber wound through her chest leaves little room for doubt, but still she presses two fingers to the woman’s throat: no pulse, no breath. No time for sentiment. She pulls the woman’s earpiece free, syncs its frequency with her own. “I am going-” turning back toward Theron, she jams the device, rather harder than necessary, into place, “-to need this back. It’s Imperial standard issue, so there’s at least a ninety percent chance it’s got a tracking device built into it. In case you were thinking about being clever.”

“Ten percent chance of escape, then. Good to know,” he grins, and takes off running.

She waits until he’s rounded the corner before she opens the channel. “Not really. Ten percent chance that the agent was still on probation, in which case you’ll be electrocuted if you leave the city limits without authorization.”

“Very funny. Start heading for the tunnel now, and I’ll let you know when I find Lana.”

True to his word, when she starts to move again the street is clearer, a gathering mob a block ahead but moving away- after Theron. “That wasn’t a joke. Be careful.”

“I’m always careful.” He doesn’t slow.

The tunnel opening is just where he said it would be: a trapdoor and a long ladder down to a gated entryway, held shut with a simple electronic lock that yields to basic codes. When she steps within the walls and ceiling are solid duracrete, lit every few meters by flickering lights casting long shadows, well-reinforced and utterly silent. Not a maintenance tunnel, despite Theron’s appellation- no cables, no hatches, no droids at work. She’d bet this was built as an escape route.

(Which raises the question, of course, of how he knew about it in the first place. Then again, she knows six different ways into the Senate Tower on Coruscant- seven, counting the sewer route which she refuses on principle to ever use again- and trade secrets are trade secrets.)

It’s nearly abandoned, that much is clear; every footstep kicks up a thick layer of dust that makes her sneeze. She tries to track her route along the map as she moves, backtracking under the military outpost and past the first door- barred with a recent-model laser grid and its frame studded with plasma mines, two holes in the ceiling above looking suspiciously like retracted turrets- leading up to the Command Center building they'd just left. Unlike the ancient tunnel, the defenses at this door look new, no more than a few years old. Something had gotten in there once, it would seem, but it wouldn’t be doing it again.

Security breach, Ziost Orbital Defense Command Center - the idea stirs up something vague in the back of her mind, a memory of a report from years ago that she probably skimmed over and deleted in the months after Corellia. Unimportant now, in any case. She’ll remember it eventually.

(In those months, in the low months where she would have gleefully let Darth Malgus and Arho tear Ilum and each other apart except that they’d pulled the whole Empire into their stupid petty Sith war, she deleted most of the reports that the Minister forwarded along. Corellia left her with three broken fingers and nerve damage that took months to heal despite Doctor Lokin’s best efforts, lingering parting gifts from her torturers; mending the mental wounds that Hunter left behind took considerably longer.  

Took- no. Taking. Sometimes she still sees Hunter when she closes her eyes. Some wounds never heal, only scar.)

It’s another fifteen minutes’ run to her exit point, another bog-standard door and another long ladder back to the surface. The hatch at the top is dented, though, and she has to drive her shoulder into it before it it swings open and she stumbles out into smoke and ruin and the acrid smell of electrical fires.

There should be a fence here - she pulls up the map, just to be sure, blinking through the smoke - and the transformers on the far side. Where’s-

She ducks behind the open hatch as a colossal shadow passes overhead, followed by tortured metal-on-stone shrieking so loud it nearly drowns out Theron’s worried voice in her ear.

“Nine, can you hear me? You need to get out of there.”

“I just cleared the tunnel. I haven’t even gotten to the array yet,” she says, then sees the cause of his alarm a few meters away: something very large, very spiky and very, very angry-looking shredding entire panels of fencing with lethal-looking claws. It doesn’t appear to have seen her, though, so she ducks back into cover and brings her stealth field up. “Ah. Giant spiky monster. Got it.”

“The transformers are shot. We’re working on a new idea,” Theron sounds amused. “Minus the giant spiky monst-”

“Monolith. We’re calling them monoliths. One of Vitiate’s creations.” Lana, on the other hand, sounds distinctly irritated. Theron must have found her after all. “Very nearly unkillable, I’m afraid, so you’ll need to avoid them.”

She remembers, again, how much she hates this Force-damned planet. “Unkillable. Great. Where’s Kovach?”

“He should be two buildings south of your location- how did you get there, by the way?- but he dropped out of contact when the monolith came through. I’m sure he’s fine-”

Theron cuts in again. “-but maybe you should go check on him. We all need to talk, right? About the new plan.” His tone is a warning. He hasn’t told Lana yet, then.

“Of course. I’ll get us both on holo, assuming I find him.” Slowly, carefully, she edges back out into the open- she learned long ago, to her detriment, that Sithspawn have a nasty habit of seeing right through stealth. The creature’s preoccupied, though, having broken through what remains of the fence, its attention focused on gnawing through an electricity pylon. “I’d imagine we’ve got rather a lot to discuss.”

The next structure to her south is a security station (she scans the inside, still, in the interest of caution- nothing alive) and beyond that a squat administrative warehouse, its sliding doors wide open. On some level she doesn’t expect to find Kovach- if he was smart, he should have gone to ground by now. If he’s still there... well, it ought to be an interesting conversation. She mutes the channel, just in case.

He’s still at his post after all; when she enters the warehouse she can hear him, voice raised mid-argument, somewhere behind a stack of crates near the entrance. She hadn’t counted on an accomplice- still cloaked, she slides her blaster free of its holder.

Angling herself between two pallets, she cranes her neck for a better view. Kovach’s pacing back and forth in front of a holoprojector, his hands outstretched. “With all due respect, you haven’t seen what I have. The power the Emperor has-”

“Do not presume to tell me how to run a war.” She's heard that voice before, today. Not an accomplice, after all. An employer. The last puzzle piece slots into place, the picture suddenly clear.

“Chancellor, please, stop the invasion. They'll all be killed.”

Saresh folds her arms across her chest. “This is a war. Casualties are inevitable. Now, unless you have an update on Sith Intelligence or the SIS, get off this channel.”

He slams his fist down onto the projector and turns on his heel as the Chancellor’s image fades. “Damn it all. This is bad.”

“I’ll say.” Dropping her field and leveling her weapon, she smiles at him from behind the sight. “And here I thought I’d need to interrogate you. How disappointing.”

He pales.

“A triple agent. Even I haven't managed that one- double’s as far as I go. Too many cover stories to keep straight, hm?”

“I- please, Commander. Let me explain.”

“Please don’t bother.” She’s heard every excuse he could possibly offer a thousand times, echoes of Hunter’s ranting and Ardun Kothe’s self-serving delusions tangling in her brain. “I’ll try to guess, instead. Sick mother? Republic plant- no, your accent’s natural. Born and raised on Dromund Kaas, I’d guess.”

He nods, lowers his head, looking at the floor instead of down the barrel of her gun. “Yes. Blind to everything, like a good citizen, until I started this work.”

“And then you realized how terrible we are.”

“You can't see what the Sith are doing?” Kovach still won't look at her. “You do this every day. How can you stand it?”

It should have been a laugh, but it comes out as a snarl. “You smug little shit. You really think you’re doing the right thing, don't you? Standing up for the forces of good against the evil Empire… oldest story in the book.” She isn’t smiling any more. “Except you flipped on the SIS, too. Fed everything straight to Saresh.”

His voice is steady. “Yes, Commander. That’s right.”

She grabs him by the collar and marches him to the door, forces his head toward the sky with her blaster still in her other hand; he barely resists. “Congratulations,” she says, turns him toward the spaceport above them, toward the troop transports still burning on the crater-pocked landing pads. “You think you’re so much better than us? This is what your good guys do.”

“I didn’t know this would happen!” Kovach closes his eyes against the view until she pinches him, hard, and his lids fly open at the pain. He doesn’t get to not look, not now. “I swear I didn’t know. If I’d had any idea-”

“What the fuck did you think she’d do? You knew calling her meant open war. We were trying-” she gestures out at the spaceport with the barrel of her pistol- “to evacuate those people, and you brought them a blockade. You killed them all.”

“I’ve been helping, now. Our plan should-”

“The plan’s a bust. If you hadn’t been so busy with your boss you’d have noticed that by now. We need to talk to Lana and Theron, figure out next steps.” She yanks him back into the room. “Figure out what to do with you, too.”

He staggers, but stays on his feet. “Lana and Theron? They’re- we’re working together?”

“It’s a thing we do sometimes against mutual enemies.” Her own holo on the floor in front of them, she stands back by his left shoulder and nestles her blaster into the small of his back. “Now smile pretty, traitor.”

She’ll give him credit for one thing- his voice barely shakes when he activates the holo.

“Minister Beniko,” he says. “I understand the plan has changed.”

“Yes. We’re just finalizing the details now.” She can see both of them in the image: Lana in front of a table-mounted holo; Theron mirrored in a portable unit behind her, somewhere else, his head bowed over a console. “But in the future, Agent, when a superior calls you you are expected to answer.”

“As you say. I-” Kovach pauses. “I was-”

Theron’s jaw tightens; she takes a deep breath in. Here we go.

Lana’s eyes narrow. “Spit it out. We haven’t got all day.”

The words flood out of him in a rush. “I was speaking to my superior. I don’t work for you, Minister Beniko. I work for Chancellor Saresh. I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?  You’re-” Lana spins toward the second holo, toward Theron, her voice razor-sharp. “Did you know about this?”

“He came looking for the SIS a month ago. We were working with him.” Theron, careful, doesn’t look up. “But I had no idea he was playing us both until I got here, and even then it was only a theory we had- I wasn’t even sure until now.”

Lana’s fists are clenched, rivulets of lightning starting a slow climb up her arms as she turns back toward the projector. “You both knew. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“There wasn’t time.” Something's wrong. She’s never seen her like this, not even on the worst days on Rishi and Yavin- she’s normally calm, but this is closer to the eye of a hurricane. “And Theron’s right. I marked him as SIS almost immediately, but the rest of it was only conjecture. Until I caught him here talking to Saresh, anyway.”

“Well, then. We won’t waste time on presenting evidence.” Gaze fixed on Kovach, she folds her hands neatly in front of her chest. “Rane Kovach, you are accused of treason against the Sith Empire. How do you plead?”

He bows his head. “Guilty, my lord. Be merciful.”

“Tell that,” Lana stretches out her hand, the projection wavering with her power, “to the people in the spaceport.”

His heels rise off the floor first, then the balls of his feet, then his toes; his fingers claw at his own throat. Kovach dangles in the air just in front of her, suspended, twitching, for what seems like an age, and when he brushes against her in his agony she recoils.

She cannot stand it. Clean kills are one thing- she’s done enough of them, Force knows, but this…

( There are no nice Sith Lords, her mentor at the Academy told her once. Nice Sith don't survive Korriban.

The ones that seem nice? They just have the longest fuses.)

Lana’s toying with him, now, like an animal with its prey; she relaxes for a moment and when he gasps for air her grip tightens, over and over again, her face a perfect black-eyed mask of fury, a thin coil of crimson smoke haloed around her head-

No.

If they were in the same room she’d slap her, shoot her, anything to break her focus on Kovach, but unlike the Force her own hands don't travel through projections. Only one option left, then: her blaster’s still in her hand. She can't reach Lana, but she can end this.

She presses the barrel to the back of his head and pulls the trigger.

“So much for mercy.” Theron mutters under his breath, face pale and expression a match to what she imagines her own must be.

Lana’s doubled over, hands at her temples, but when she straightens she is herself again, aura gone and her wide eyes their usual brilliant yellow. “My head hurts. What did I- oh. Oh.”

No one speaks for a long moment.

“So,” she says, wiping Kovach’s blood from her face, his body unmoving at her feet, “tell me about the plan.”

 

Chapter Text

Bad Examples (Ziost)

 

“Wait.” Theron pushes back from the console, almost stepping out of frame, and when he leans back in his arms are folded across his chest. “Are we really not going to talk about that?”

Lana’s still rubbing her forehead, pacing back and forth along the table in front of her. “He was a traitor, as you're well aware. His punishment-”

“That’s not what I-”

Cipher Nine scowls and steps over Kovach’s body, putting herself between it and the projector; if it’s behind her, she doesn’t have to look at it. “Stop it, both of you. Lana, is that you in there, or Vitiate?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Cipher. Of course it’s me.”

“And a minute ago, torturing the poor idiot? Was that you, too?” The moment the words leave her mouth she thinks better of them. She shouldn’t have said that; she’s seen Sith Lords kill for much less, nor is she sure she really wants to know the answer.

Lana only sighs, though, a sad half-smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “I meant it to be quick.” (Her eyebrows nearly meet her hairline; Theron clears his throat, almost but not quite covering an incredulous snort.) “But I lost my temper. I let my guard down, just for a moment, and Vitiate…” She shudders, and stops moving. “I've never felt hatred like that in my life. It made me want to- I’m not a monster. I’m not.”

“But he’s gone now, right?” The console next to Theron beeps. “Because this thing’s powered up, I think, but if the guest of honor’s still present we’re going to be spoiling the surprise.”

“He’s gone, and I won't make that mistake a second time,” Lana says. “You two need to be careful, though. I thought the Emperor had given up trying to get into my head. Clearly, I was wrong, and I’ve had practice shielding against this sort of thing. Without the Force-”

Theron chuckles. “After Master Zho and my mother? I’ll manage.”

“Still. Cipher, you especially- I got the impression before I evicted him that he’s rather upset with you.”

She exaggerates a yawn, interrupted when she spots another spray of blood on the glove of her trigger hand and rubs at it irritably. “Another member of my fan club. I’ve been mind-controlled enough for one lifetime, thank you. I’ll pass.”

“I’d imagine so. I’ve banned the use of Castellan restraints, incidentally- I read your report. What a disaster.” Lana’s in an office- not hers, hers is on Dromund Kaas, but there are enough trophies on the shelves behind her that she’d hazard it belonged to a Minister- looking over her shoulder at something out of frame. “But you asked about the plan.”

She nods.

“The original plan was to overload the electrical grid. That won’t work now, not with the damage to the main facility, but it reminded me about the pacification system-”

“-which is lethal, by the way, so that’s a charmingly euphemistic name,” Theron interjects. She can’t see the console screen behind him at this angle, no matter how she tilts her head, and she can’t see enough of the room to tell where he is. “Have I mentioned recently that you people are terrifying? Also, what are Castell-”

Their heads turn simultaneously, her and Lana’s voices raised in sharp harmony. “That’s classified.”

He blinks.

“As I was saying,” Lana continues, “after a failed civilian uprising about ten years ago, the Dark Council had the system installed in the event of a second attempt… a last resort, designed to administer a fatal electric shock to anyone within range. You said you’ve got it active, Theron- do you think you can modify it?”

“I think so.” He’s bent over the console again, intent, fingers dancing over the control panel. “But it’s not anything like you described. It’s going to take a little while.”

“Then you have as long as it takes Cipher Nine to get to your position.” Turning back to face her, Lana looks decidedly apologetic. Not a good sign. “Cipher, I’m afraid you get to be the bait.”

(She always has to be the bait.

Not on Rishi, though. Good luck, that.)

She knows the answer, but she still has to ask. “Why me?”

“The pacification system’s scope is limited, so we need to try to bring as many of Vitiate’s pawns into range as possible. Theron’s already in place on top of the People’s Tower, which is where you need to go. I’ll be moving the Logistics emergency shuttle to the tower landing pad- with luck we won’t need it, and the Minister’s dead so she certainly doesn’t, but I think it’s time we had an exit strategy-” not one of Lana’s favorite phrases, judging by her facial expression. “Which leaves you to lure them in.”

“I do love a good suicide mission. Do you think they’ll follow me, though?” Looking at the map again it’s not far from here to the Tower, a straight run up a long staircase and through the marketplace. She’ll barely cover the span of a district, let alone the whole city. “I’d guess only a tenth of them will even know I’m there.”

“I’d thought of that, actually. I’m going to patch you into the central broadcast network.” Lana sets a little transmitter on the desk, plugging it in just about where her own image must be from the other woman’s perspective. “When you’re ready, say something clever. We need to keep his attention on you.”

This ought to be fun.

She clears her throat; Lana nods, mouths the words go ahead.

“Ahem. May I have your attention, please? This is a message for Emperor Vitiate.” Her face settles into a practiced expression of aggressive pleasantness, hands clasped neatly behind her back; she can hear her own voice echoing a dozen times over through the open warehouse door. There must be broadcast terminals everywhere. “Did you know there’s a very large weapon in the middle of New Adasta? I’ve decided to use it to destroy you. I’m heading to it right now, so please do try to stop me.

Theron’s doubled over laughing by the time she finishes, and Lana shoots him a look that could etch durasteel as she unhooks the transmitter.

“That,” he says, gasping for breath, “was the best thing I’ve ever heard."

“It was certainly direct.” Lana, eyes closed and teeth sunk firmly into her bottom lip, might be trying not to smile. (She might also be trying not to burst a blood vessel. It’s often hard to tell with her.) “I’d start running now, Cipher, if I were you. I’ll get the shuttle airborne.”

The holo goes dark, and she runs.

Even by the time she’s through the doorway there’s a gathering crowd at the far end of the street, moving toward her in shambling, uncoordinated unison.

(She’s never seen possessions on this scale in her life- those cleanups were usually Sith work, or military in the worst cases- so the closest she ever came was the Killiks, but this isn’t anything like the Killiks at all. Vector, for all his lack of choice in the matter, is better in so many ways for having Joined. He sees more, hears more, knows more. He is faster and stronger and cleverer when connected to his brothers and sisters in the hive. Most of Vitiate’s puppets are just that- awkward, sluggish, jerky creatures on invisible strings- but the fact that he can do it at all to this many people makes her blood freeze in her veins.

She carefully ignores the idea of whether she would consider Vector improved had she known him before his transformation. That is another dangerous question. It reminds her too much of Keeper- of Shara.)

By the time she reaches the top of the stairs her legs throb, quadriceps and calves tense from six flights taken three stairs at a time, and still running she pulls the cap off an adrenal stim with her teeth and slams it through her trousers into her thigh. Her pulse pounds in her ears, in time with the rush of blood from her heart; her muscles ease their spasming. Most of her pursuers are slow but still they are following, a slow wave rolling up the long staircase, with another pack moving toward her through the market stalls.

A few are faster, Jedi and Sith both, flanking her from the shadows of tall buildings, a block away but closing in.

She keeps running.

The People’s Tower looms in front of her, open entryway thankfully empty but completely indefensible in the way of all Sith-designed structures. (If she had her way there’d be solid doors, heavy bars and large guns in front of every administrative building in the Empire, but the Sith idea of security has always been two apprentices with lightsabers and no amount of Intelligence persuasion will ever convince them to change.) The foyer is mostly occupied by a large projector table and a colossal statue of the Emperor- for a moment, she's sure it's staring at her- and two turbolifts, one stalled and sparking near the top, the other platform a broken mess with scattered bodies crushed beneath it.

“Theron? Lana?” She whispers into her comm. There's no other way to the upper levels that she can see, not even a staircase. “I'm here, but the lifts are dead. I need a way up.”

On the far side of the statue, three shadowed figures cross the threshold; she fades into invisibility, tucked into the shaft with the broken platform.

“Yeah, that was my fault.” Theron sounds distracted, and she can hear a steady beeping on the channel. He must still be slicing the system. “My timing was off. Meant to drop the grenade down, but it landed on the platform. I'm guessing you don't have a grappling hook with you?”

“I do, actually, but only a magnetic one. It won't get me more than three stories up without a harness. Maybe four.” She looks up. Ten floors, at least. “Any further than that, I won't be able to hold on.”

“Three will work. I can get you into the ducts from there.” He pauses. “Is there a big dead guy under the platform, by chance?”

She checks. “Yeah.” Very big and very dead, with- “Is that a rocket launcher?”

“Hence the grenade.”

“Oh.” Her pursuers (definitely Jedi, at this distance- one human, two Twileks, green blades and brown robes) round the base of the statue, fanning out, searching. They cannot see her, she knows, but this close she can smell them, smoke and blood and the ozone tang of active lightsabers, and she drops her voice even lower. “I need out of here, Theron. Now.”

“Look up- there should be a grapple point. I'll talk you through the rest of the way.”

She sees it and lets the hook fly, the attached rope gripped tightly in her gloved hands. Her aim is good, a solid latch against the bracket above the fourth-floor platform, and when she snaps the rope taut she feels her spine twinge as it pulls her abruptly upward. The acceleration is more than her generator can handle, though, and as her toes leave the floor her stealth field fails and the closest of the Jedi lunges in her direction.

He misses her by inches; he jumps again, higher by several feet than should be physically possible but not high enough to reach her. The noise he makes when he lands is inhuman, a screech that hits her like icepicks through her eardrums. When his companions take up his outcry, it’s deafening.

Swinging herself down onto the ledge, she unlatches and tucks the grapple back into its pouch. “Alright,” she says into her comm, louder than before over the howling below, “one of you two needs to tell me where I'm going.”

“I think Lana’s in the air. She's been quiet since we went off holo. Are you safe?” Theron answers her almost immediately. “Sounds like a zoo down there.”

“A few of your Sixth Line friends got a little closer than I'd like. They're unhappy, but I’m fine.” The lift entrance opens onto a short corridor, doors closed to her right and left and a metal hatch a meter square at shoulder height on the wall ahead. “You mentioned ducts, before? I see an access hatch here.”

“If I remember right, all the floors are the same. Open the hatch and go-” he pauses; she imagines him, eyes closed, tracing out a map behind his eyelids in the way he did on Rishi, on Yavin- “right. I think. You should come to a vertical shaft with a ladder.”

A few quick shots from her blaster shear the bolts fastening the grating cleanly off, and the metal cover falls, hits the ground with a clatter. She hoists herself up and in, crawling along on all fours to the right, toward the-

“It must be a left at the junction. Right’s a dead end.” At least the space is big enough to turn around (her last trip through ductwork was a much tighter squeeze, and she had to wiggle backward on her stomach after her contact forgot to mention the nerve gas canisters in the ventilation system). It was left; she can see the ladder stretching up along the back side of the cross-shaft, and once she’s close enough she gathers herself into a crouch and leaps, catching at the ladder rungs with both hands.

“Was it left? Hold on, almost done with the last... okay. System is modified, just needs to charge now.” Theron exhales. “Sorry. I was pretty sure it was right, but it’s been a while.”

She’s past the fifth floor now, still climbing. “I thought you took the turbolift up. What do you mean, it’s been a whi-” Sixth floor. The memory she was searching for in the evacuation tunnel flickers back across her brain, still elusive but coming more into focus. “You’ve been here before.”

“To borrow a phrase,” he says, “that’s classified.”

“How long ago?”

Theron sighs. “You have a disturbing talent for getting me to say things I shouldn’t, you know.”

“It’s a gift.” The ladder stops at a welded panel on the seventh floor, tiny slits enough to let airflow pass but much too small to wedge herself through, another duct heading off perpendicularly. “You’re sure this is the right way? The route up is blocked.”

“It’s been a few years and we were doing it in reverse, so my memory’s a little hazy. They've probably changed a few things, too.” She can hear him tapping on the console, another of his nervous habits. “Can you get to the other side of the building? There should be a stairwell up to the roof, if the ducts are sealed.”

“Now you tell me.” The layout’s just the same here as where she entered; flat on her back, she kicks at the hatch and on the fifth try it pops open. “A few years, hm?” She slides down into the hallway, opens the right-hand door. “So you came down through the Tower, used the evacuation tunnel to get into the Command Center, and then-”

-and then the memory she’d been searching for comes into perfect focus, and she remembers an ops report from three years ago. It was the only one she’d read cover to cover during her time on hiatus, mostly because she couldn't figure out how the SIS had managed it at all. On first glance it was a complete fiasco, a botched assassination attempt on the then-Minister of Logistics, but the real mission-

“The Black Cipher.” She grins before she remembers he can’t see her- a pretty piece of intelligence, indeed. “You stole Davidge’s Black Cipher, didn't you?”

He doesn’t answer for a long moment. “I really hope Lana didn't hear that.”

“I don’t think she’s listening, but let’s see.” She clears her throat, studying her surroundings. The corridors only wrap halfway around the building on this level- through the decorative windows looking out onto the atrium she can see the outstretched arms of the massive statue, spanning the distance between her and her destination across the way. Well, that’s one way across. “Lana, remember the last time you read my mind?”

No response.

“She’s definitely not listening.”

“Do I want to know?”

“Only if you like being lectured at.” She smashes the window with the butt of her rifle and jumps, landing crouched in the palm of the Emperor’s hand (she considers, for a moment, the irony of it). Step by step, moving carefully from palm to wrist to sleeve to shoulder, she makes her way across. “Was that your work on the Ascendant Spear, too? Throwing a blaster at Darth Karrid- that’s got you written all over it."

“You know I can’t-” he stops. “Actually, you know what? I’ll answer that on one condition.”

She’s balanced on a chiseled fold on the back of the statue’s neck. “No promises. What condition?”

“What are Castellan restraints?”

When she looks down, the ground below is teeming with Vitiate’s puppets, and she cannot tell whether the knot in her stomach is because of the height, the crowd, or the question. A pile of them are stacked, one atop the other, against the wall near the exploded platform, and others are scaling the pile like a ladder; as she watches, a few reach higher floors and disappear into the hallways beyond. “No. Also, we’ve got some climbers.”

“Why not?”

“That file’s sealed, Theron.” The granite’s slickly polished. One foot slips and she wobbles, just a little. “Release on confirmed death of subject. I’m still alive.”

He sighs. “Okay, okay. I won’t push. But when you mentioned the mind-controlled thing, I wondered-”

“When you killed Darth Karrid- assuming you did kill Darth Karrid,” she says, “the Republic probably gave you a medal, right?”

The noise he makes is noncommittal.

“I defied the will of a Darth, defended myself when he tried to kill me. For that, the Dark Council wanted me executed. The compromise was Castellan restraints.” And then, she doesn’t say, you people used them against me. “If we’re ever not enemies, ask me again. But not today.”

Ten more steps, one foot in front of the other, and she’s safely across, almost missing his reply in the shattering of the far window.

“I should have died on the Spear.” He’s quiet, serious, the usual bite of humor gone from his voice. “Half my armor off working in a hot engine room and she came at me, saber blazing. I only survived because she was completely insane, like every Sith. Cared more about saving that ship than killing me. And yes, they gave me a medal for it.”

She dives and clears the window frame with ease, rolling neatly into the corridor, and she can see the staircase at the far end. “Karrid used to be a Jedi, you know. Fed us intel on the Order for years before she finally defected in earnest. So if you’re trying to stereotype, that’s not the best example.”

“Maybe not. But compare any other Jedi to your bosses-”

“I’ll remind you I’m technically a freelancer. But at least my bosses wear their genocidal monomania on their sleeves.”

Theron snorts. “You say that like it’s a good thing.”

Five flights up. Nearly there. “It lets me know what to expect, in any case. I’ll give you one more bad example, since we’re being honest. Ardun Kothe.”

“Ardun Kothe wasn’t a Jedi.” He’s lying and knows it. She can hear it in his voice.

Four flights left. “And I’m the queen of Onderon. I didn’t hallucinate that lightsaber.”

“When did you-?“ Another long pause; three flights to go. He swears under his breath. “You were the Cipher he thought he’d turned.”

“Three files: Taris, Hoth, Quesh. Read them, then talk to his agent, if he’s still alive. Codename Chance.” Two flights. “Tell him Legate says hello, that he owes me one for Taris, and ask him about Castellan restraints.”

“I might just do that.” Last one. “I’m ready to go up here, Nine. Are you close?”

Nearly there, now, just on the other side of a long antechamber, but-

“I’m at the door, but you forgot to mention the welcoming party. I don’t think they’re happy to see me.” Pacing, agitated, lightsabers humming, a Mirialan woman and a black-tattooed Twilek cross back and forth in front of the sealed door. She ducks back down the steps, slipping into stealth, but it’s too late; they’ve seen her, and one drops a seeker probe that makes its way down the length of the room.

“Damn it! How many?” The door starts to hiss, the locks depressurizing. “I’ll be right there.”

She taps her earpiece twice and draws her knife, skirting along the side of the room, the probe’s field sweeping so close she holds her breath. Theron always targets right. She’ll do the same.

When the door opens the Mirialan’s on her right. Three blaster shots in quick succession hit the Twilek in his left shoulder and he spins, looking in the opposite direction toward Theron, who’s out of sight behind the doorframe. The woman turns, too, exposing her back, and when she gets in range she lashes out with her blade; she takes her in the right kidney and the Jedi staggers. Another quick strike severs the hamstring just above the right knee and she’s falling, and as she drops in front of her Cipher Nine pulls her knife across the woman’s forearm at the elbow- her hand goes limp, her lightsaber clattering to the floor and extinguishing, and one last pommel strike to the back of the head knocks her opponent unconscious.

Theron’s having rather a harder time with the Twilek (she’s told him time and again he needs a close-range weapon- blasters against a Jedi are useless in a one-on-one fight), but at least the blaster fire’s keeping him distracted. She closes the gap between them at a run, launching a corrosive dart that sinks into one of his lekku and whips his head back as it starts to burn.

That was the opening he needed, apparently. Two more carefully aimed shots drop the second Jedi at her feet. The Twilek grins up at her, red blood on red lips and skin, red aura licking at her boots like a living thing. “Hello, little Cipher.” The voice is the Emperor’s, with an undercurrent of anguish. “You’d better hurry. Your speech attracted quite an audience.”

“That’s enough, Master Onok.” Theron steps out from behind a column, holstering his pistols. “I don’t even know how they got here- they must have already been inside the building. Help me with him.”

They drag him back into the antechamber, next to the Mirialan, and bind them both hand and foot; neither resists much, Onok too wounded to do anything but taunt and threaten and the woman- Master Landai, he calls her- still out cold, her chest rising and falling steadily.

Theron presses two fingers to Landai’s neck. “She’ll need a medic, but she’ll live. Thank you.”

She shrugs. “You’re welcome? I doubt she’s as grateful.”

”I should never have sent them here. At least it didn’t kill them.” He straightens at the noise of footsteps on the stairs. “Come on. Let’s finish this.”

They run back to the balcony, door sliding closed behind them, and Theron pauses at a familiar-looking console on the wall below the landing pad as a little shuttle comes speeding over the top of the nearest building.

“And there’s Lana, right on time.” She peers over the edge of the balcony at the plaza below, packed edge to edge with bodies. “She’ll be pleased. Her plan seems to have worked just as designed.”

He nods, enters a final few keystrokes. “We’d better get under a shield. This’ll hurt, otherwise.” The sirens that sound when he steps away from the console can probably be heard from orbit. “Still might, if I didn't do it right.”

“Can't say we didn’t warn them.”

“Nope.” Theron sets a shield generator on the ground in between them, dropping to one knee and beckoning her inward as the dome arcs overhead. “Sorry for the close quarters. I didn't think this would be a team mission, or I'd have brought better gear.”

The generator’s tiny, its dome clearly sized for one; she kneels down beside him, shoulder to shoulder, and even then they're both just inside its margins. “Beggars can't be choosers. How long until it fires?”

“A minute from activation. Not long now.”

She nods, nudges her knee into his thigh. “It really is good to see you again, Theron, despite everything that's happened.”

“It's good to see you too, Nine.” His mouth quirks up at the corners as he nudges her back. “This actually went better than I'd imagined our next meeting. Minus the armies trying to kill us and you threatening to have me shot, I mean.”

“Better? You’ve got low expectations. Or was Yavin that bad?”

“Depends on which part you-” The door slides open, a dozen soldiers spilling out onto the balcony, and they both reach for their weapons-

The shield dome flickers as a coruscant cloud of lightning arcs around them, cascading down from the topmost point of the tower and enveloping everything along its path to the ground. The hairs on the back of her neck stand on end as the shield flickers again and she's suddenly bowed low, her cheek pressed against something smooth and cool and a half-familiar weight along her back. Even with her lids tightly closed it’s bright, so bright that her eyes ache and she sees stars.

The silence when the system’s discharged, the sirens quieted and the crowd below no longer howling, is what makes her finally open her eyes. There are bodies on the ground around her- around them; Theron’s arm is wrapped tight around her shoulders, his body a second shield between hers and the dome and her head against his chest, the coolness on her face the leather of his jacket.

“Are we dead?”

“I don't think so.” His breath ruffles her hair. “For a minute there it looked like the shield had had it, but it seems to have held. Thought I’d take the high ground, as it were. Just in case.”

“You and your Republic chivalry again.” She says it like she minds. (She usually would. She doesn't, which is a problem. Mustn't let him know that.) “Are they dead?”

“Still breathing. I think we did it.”

Lana’s voice rings out from the landing pad above. “Cipher? Theron?”

They jump apart like guilty teenagers, both looking up, and so neither of them see the woman until she’s already through the doorway. She thought she’d left the curly-haired Jedi safely behind a force field and solid walls; judging from the dust layered atop the blood, at least one of those walls probably looks decidedly worse for wear.

“A good attempt, little Cipher.” The woman’s lips curl back in a mockery of a smile. “Not good enough.” She buries her lightsaber in an unconscious soldier, who arches around the blade like an insect impaled on a pin and then goes still. Lana launches herself from the upper level, hitting the ground in a crouch behind the Jedi, but before she can even stand the woman waves a hand dismissively; Lana goes flying into the doorframe, head striking metal, and crumples wordlessly to the ground.

Theron steps forward, signalling sharply back at her- wait! “Master Surro? Can you hear me?” He takes another step toward the woman. “Try to fight him.”

“Hm,” Surro says, and raises her fist, “no. I don’t think so.”

His feet lift off the ground, arms stretched wide, and she remembers Kovach and her stomach ties itself in a dozen awful knots. Theron twists, looking back over his shoulder at her.

I’m sorry.

The Jedi unclenches her hand, flicking her fingers, and he launches into one of the duracrete columns ringing the balcony. Something cracks, loudly. It isn’t the column.

“Enough distractions.” Surro ignites her lightsaber again. “Time to die, little Cipher.”

“You bitch.” Here goes nothing. She deactivates the safety controls on her stealth generator, pulls every stim she’s got from her belt and yanks all the caps, takes two in each hand and sinks them deep. When her vision blurs and her breath catches in her chest she grins. “You’re going to wish you hadn’t done that.”

It isn’t a pretty fight; fights against Jedi never are, and with the Emperor’s power behind her a direct hit from Master Surro’s liable to slice her in half. Instead, she flickers in and out of hiding, a thousand little bites from her blade driving every poison she carries deep into every wound on Surro’s body, striking and disappearing before the woman’s saber swings around.  

After the fourth time she overrides her generator her eyes stop focusing, her brain trying and failing to process so many shifts in and out of phase. It doesn’t matter. She’s fought blind before, and she can hear the Jedi’s lightsaber and the erratic rasp of her breathing, feel the swish of the woman’s robes as she turns, frantic. She hits her again and again and again.

“There is no contemplation-” Surro finally gasps, dropping to her knees- “there is only duty.” Her saber falls and rolls away, her head lolling over her chest. “Please. I can still hear him inside my head.”

She makes it a few feet away before she’s sick, her body overtaxed and exhausted, her head swimming, and she can hear Master Surro sobbing. The stone of the balcony’s cool against her cheek; she closes her eyes.

Time passes.

When she opens her eyes again she tastes kolto on her lips, a soft mist of it raining onto her face from a medical drone, and Lana’s kneeling beside her.

“I missed the party, I’m afraid,” Lana says, and helps her sit up. “Can you walk? We need to get out of here.”

“I think so.” She’s still dizzy and phase-sick but the kolto helps. “Where’s Theron?”

“Seeing to his Jedi, but he’s badly hurt. He’s agreed to surrender. We’ll take them all to the orbital station, have the medics look over them, and open negotiations with Saresh from there.”

She nods, then stops nodding. Moving her head makes the world spin. “Surro needs antitoxin. Help me up.”

Leaning on Lana, she manages the walk up the stairs to the shuttle. Theron’s already in the back, sitting beside a cot holding the still-weeping Master Surro, her face turned toward the wall; Landai and Onok, both unconscious, are tied into their chairs. He looks up when they enter and she winces at the sight of him. His bruises are back, worse than ever, one implant cracked completely in half and his left shoulder clearly dislocated.

“You need this more than I do.” She shifts her drone over to Theron and draws a syringe from her nearly-empty pouch. “And this is for her. I had to use poison to slow her down.”

“That explains the tremor.” When he slides the needle into her arm the Jedi whimpers. “It’s alright, Master Surro. You’re safe.”

“You know,” Lana says absently, closing up the back ramp, “we really ought to study her. We could learn a great deal about the Emperor’s techniques, what his influence does-”

“Over my dead body.” Theron starts to stand and stops, right hand over his ribs. “Study yourself, if you’re so curious. She needs help, not you poking at her brain.”

“We can’t fight him if we don’t understand him, Theron.”

“We can’t fight him, period. I surrendered, yes, but I’m not letting you experiment on my people.”

“That’s enough, both of you!” The noise hurts her head, too. “Lana, he’s right. We heal them as best we can and return them to Saresh. She won’t agree to a withdrawal if we give her Jedi back with brain damage.”

Lana scowls. “Fine. Strap in, then. I’m taking off.” She disappears into the cockpit.

“I’d hug you for that, but I can’t feel my left arm and I’m pretty sure my ribs are broken. Again.” Theron shrugs his right shoulder; the medical drone chirps agreement, and he chuckles. “Well, then.”

She settles into the last vacant seat, fastening her restraints. “We’ll all be in medical for a while, I think. I took enough stims to stun a bantha. When they wear off-"

“Yeah.” He closes his eyes. “How many times did you override your generator? I hit my head pretty hard when she threw me, but I could barely keep track of you.”

“Five. Maybe six.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah.”

The engines ignite and the shuttle lifts off the platform; through the window, New Adasta blurs into a featureless haze.

Or perhaps it’s just her eyes.

 

Chapter Text

Orbits

 

Ziost’s orbital station was never meant to hold this many people.

The evacuation was an utter failure; the Republic blockade had kept anything bigger than a shuttle grounded, and only a handful of Ziost’s citizens had resisted the Emperor’s influence long enough to make it off the planet’s surface. Even so, the docking bays are packed three ships deep, every inch of floor space seemingly full of evacuees, and when the soldiers who’d met their shuttle carry their cots toward the medical bay she can hear whispers from the crowds in all directions.

Is that-

A Jedi! Three Jedi- where’s my holo? Take a picture-

Lana, striding purposefully alongside her cot, rolls her eyes and mutters under her breath. “All this showmanship. Ridiculous.”

“Marr’s doing?” She tilts her head very slowly upward, which lets Lana’s face stay mostly in focus. The stims are definitely wearing off. Her fingertips are tingly.

“Hardly. Darth Marr is en route, but the lieutenant governor’s in charge at the moment. He thought this little parade-” her tone is withering- “might boost the evacuees’ morale.”

“We’ll be having executions in the public square next.”

Lana smirks. “Let’s not give the man ideas, hm? The sooner we get this lot to the infirmary and the negotiations complete, the sooner we can put this mess behind us.”

“Shouldn’t you be coming too?” The tingling’s spread up her arms now, and when she lifts one arm experimentally her muscles feel heavy and sluggish. “That doorframe looked like it hurt.”

“I’ve had much worse. I’ll see to myself. Would you prefer the staff doctor, or one of your people?”

The hallway’s crowded, too, despite the soldiers’ repeated admonitions- keep clear! Out of the way!- and their little cortége stops abruptly; the pauses jostle their cots, and somewhere ahead of her she hears Theron hiss in pain. She closes her eyes before she shakes her head. “No one touches me but Lokin. And tell him to bring his implant kit.”

“As you say. You did well today. I don’t think I could have… “ Lana’s hand rests on her shoulder, so briefly she might have imagined it, and her voice fades into silence. “I’ll go and fetch him.”

The infirmary, when they reach it, is rudimentary- four beds, two kolto tanks, just enough to stabilize wounded or ill travelers long enough to survive the journey to Ziost’s hospital. The Jedi occupy the first three beds, Theron the fourth; her stretcher ends up on a prep table along the back wall. When the grumbling staff doctor finally makes his way over to her he flashes his handheld bioscanner’s light, bright enough to make her blink, in both her eyes. Whatever he sees, he doesn’t like it.

“Hold out your finger, please.” He isn’t even looking at her when he says it, tapping irritably at the device’s touchscreen.

She doesn’t move. “No. Why?”

“Pregnancy test. Standard protocol.”

“Rather judgmental of you,” she says, inclining her head toward the other women. “You didn’t check either of them.”

“They’re Jedi, aren’t they? Didn’t think they went in for that sort of thing.”  

“You clearly haven’t met many Jedi.” She’s pretty sure that Theron just snorted. Her ears’ve started ringing, though, so she’s only pretty sure.

The doctor pulls a capped lancet from his pocket. “No, but I’ve met plenty of Intelligence agents. Finger out.”

“Then you ought to be aware of the compulsory contraceptive implant.” Middle finger extended- he didn’t specify which finger, so she offers the one he deserves after that comment- she raises her hand up off the cot and cocks her wrist back. “But if you want to waste your time, fine.”

She barely feels the sharp little lancet or the drop of blood that wells on her fingertip before it’s drawn up into the machine, which hums for a few seconds and beeps, once.

“Hmph. Negative.” A folded cloth tunic lands on her chest. “Kit off, then, and into the scanner with you.” By the time she sits up the doctor’s already turned away from her.

Her legs dangle off the edge of the table as she removes her weapons (they’d disarmed Theron and the Jedi properly on arrival, including the communicator she’d given him, but she’s still an Imperial citizen and they’ll pry her guns from her cold dead fingers, even in medbay) and shucks off her boots and socks, gloves, belt, jacket and undershirt, leaving them on the cot beside her, piling her chrono and her earpiece on top. The sterile tile floor of the infirmary is cool under her feet as she half-stands and pulls her trousers down, revealing bruise-studded thighs and an angry-looking burn she didn’t know she had, likely courtesy of Master Surro, on the back of her left knee.

Modesty’s a virtue she’s never held much stock in; stripped to her underclothes, she leaves the hospital tunic with her discarded armor. Step by careful step, she makes her way to the scanner- that fucking doctor staring at her ass the whole way, despite all his moralizing- and onto the backboard, and when she settles onto it it slides into the enclosed tube.

She’s still in there, one foot tapping in time with the steady thump-thump-thump of the rotating scanner, when she hears a familiar long-suffering sigh.

“You’re going to kill yourself one of these days, you know.” Two fingers press against her wrist, checking her pulse (still rapid, mostly regular- she feels it fluttering in her chest), and she can sense Doctor Lokin’s disapproval leaching into her skin. “Stealth devices have safety controls for a reason. You’re lucky you didn’t give yourself a stroke.”

She knows, but wiggles her fingers dismissively anyway. He rolls her hand flat against the board; a slender needle bites deep into her vein, cool liquid streaming upward until her chest unclenches and her vision clears.

“Bloody Ciphers. Too reckless by half, the lot of you.” He swats her foot. “And stop moving. You’re blurring the image.”

Twenty minutes later the scanner quiets and stops its rotation. As she waits for the all-clear she can hear Master Surro’s quiet keening somewhere to her right, then shouting, followed by a loud thud and a metallic slam.

“Everything alright out there?”

(She learned quickly not to move before Lokin reads the scan report. The first time she did it, he threatened to staple her to the backboard.

The second time she moved, he did- only her thumb, but still.

She didn’t do it again. He’s brilliant, the only doctor she’ll let anywhere near her after what the Intelligence medics did to her, but she ought to have remembered that what he gained in rakghoul he lost in sense of humor.)

The machine chimes cheerfully as the table slides out.

“You’re clear, Cipher. Brain undamaged. Now if you’d kindly come over here, I could use an extra set of hands.” When she turns her head toward Lokin’s voice the room’s no longer spinning. He’s standing next to Theron’s cot, beckoning her over. “You’re due for another injection, as well.”

She slips down off the table- her legs are steadier, too, and her stomach more settled- and surveys the room again. The tanks are full, now, Landai in the right one and Onok in the left, both floating peacefully. “Be right there. Where’s the other doctor?”

“I caught him attempting to poison the kolto tanks. It likely wouldn’t have been a lethal dose, but still, surrendered prisoners? Poor form.” Doctor Lokin clicks his tongue disapprovingly, setting down his own portable scanner and arranging his instruments in neat rows on a silver tray. “He’s been relieved of duty.”

“By which he means he threw him through the door.” Theron, laid flat on the examining table with his eyes closed and his jacket and shirt folded under his head, points vaguely with his working arm, and when she follows the gesture the left-hand door panel’s cracked and hanging half-open. “Literally. Are you sure this your doctor?”

“He’s multitalented.” And holding up another syringe for her, too- she reaches out for it, finds a vein in the crook of her elbow and depresses the plunger. “Don’t worry. He only experiments on himself.”

(She’s never bothered to ask what’s in the blend he uses for stealth-sickness. The chemistry involved is too complicated, too far beyond her skill set to wrap her mind around, but she couldn’t have made the IX serum without him, either, and she hasn’t gone feral yet so it’s an acceptable risk.

He was also the one who pointed out that they’d named the serum after her.

She supposes she ought to be flattered.)

“Scans are negative for fracture. Now if you would just let me sedate you, Agent Shan, we could get that shoulder back in place and that implant seen to.” Lokin snaps his carrying-case shut, tucking it back into his jacket pocket, and raises the head of the table until Theron’s nearly sitting upright.

“No sedatives. I don’t-” Theron opens his eyes, looking between them. He pauses when he sees her. “Am I hallucinating, or are you not wearing clothes?”

She grins- today’s no exception to her usual fieldwork undergarments- standard issue black, unfrilly and utilitarian- and gestures downward. “If I’m a hallucination, you’ve got awfully boring taste in lingerie.”

“That…” He considers. “That might actually be true, but- never mind. Do what you need to, but no drugs.”

“Let the record state that the patient declined sedation.” Lokin reaches out, scratches the back of Theron’s left hand. “You can feel that, I hope?”

Theron nods.

“And this?” Another scratch, this one along the back of his upper arm.

“Feels fine.”

“Then we’ll begin. Do try to relax.” One hand around his wrist, Lokin slowly lifts Theron’s arm up and outward, other hand wrapped around the top of his shoulder with thumb pushing firmly against the wayward bone. “Cipher, I’ll need your assistance. Stand behind him with both hands above mine, please, and press downward.” He nods when she moves into position. “Yes. Exactly. Now, Agent Shan, take a deep breath-”

At the same time Theron inhales, she feels his shoulder roll under her hand and he flinches, breath hitching in his throat with a high whine like a wounded animal; she holds him steady. After a moment, something shifts.

“-and exhale. Very good.” Doctor Lokin winds a long bandage around Theron’s upper arm, making figure eights around his chest and shoulder, and ties the ends into a makeshift sling. “You’ll need something sturdier, but this will serve for the time being. That implant’s another story.”

“It’s a permanent socket.” He shifts. “It needs to be capped, or-”

“-or you’ll end up with an infection.” Lokin lowers the table again. “Assuming you don’t have one already, with all that exposed wiring, and that the socket isn’t cracked. I’m well aware. Still no medication, I assume?”

Theron shakes his head.

“Look right, then.” Hooking one foot around the base of the instrument tray to draw it closer, he pulls on a fresh pair of gloves. “And don’t move.”

There’s a reason she doesn’t do permanent implants, and watching Theron’s face while the doctor works reminds her exactly why. He can’t help it; his left arm’s tied down by the sling, but as the wires lengthen and detach and the broken circuits spark against his skin his right hand starts to drift upward in pain-driven reflex. She reaches out, pins his wrist against his chest.

“I changed my mind.” He looks up at her. “Give me the sedative.”

Lokin gestures toward the tray with the handle of the laser scalpel. Careful to avoid the other instruments, she palms the autoinjector with her free hand and presses it into the side of Theron’s neck.

Five minutes later he’s dozing on the table, eyes heavy-lidded and half-shut, looking past her and out the station window at Ziost below and the stars beyond. Without his restless twitching the work goes faster; before long, Lokin taps the last of the socket caps down (no deep cracks, mercifully), applies a bandage, and slides his tools back into their case. “I’ll clean these on the ship, Cipher. I’ve got samples that need rotating or I’ll lose two weeks’ research, and I’ve done as much as I can here.” He sets a little bottle and injection kit and another prefilled syringe on the counter behind him, along with the bagged shards of the implant. “I’ll leave his antibiotic here with your last treatment. Run it in slowly, or it’ll sting.”

“What about her?” She inclines her head toward Master Surro on the far bed. Sometime during their work the woman had finally quieted, her breathing steady but her expression somehow anxious even in sleep.

“Her body will heal.” Lokin shrugs. “Beyond sedatives, what her mind needs is beyond me to provide. Much as I hate to admit it, this is Jedi business.”

“Too much of that lately, I think.”

“Quite.” He pauses at the door, awaiting her dismissal. When she waves him away he slips, silent, into the hall.

The infirmary’s quiet now, just her and the others and the beeps and chimes of the kolto tanks and monitors as she prepares the medication, the powder in the glass bottle mixing with water to dissolve into milky white liquid that she draws up into the syringe. This would be easier to do on herself. After years of battlefield medicine she knows her own body as well as she knows the floorplan of her ship or the pieces of her rifle, but her crew generally see to themselves and she's gotten spoiled by familiarity.

Theron barely stirs when she wraps the tourniquet above his elbow, sliding her fingers along in search of a likely vein. Even when the needle pierces skin he only flinches, but when she unknots the tourniquet and presses down ever so slightly on the plunger, the antibiotic’s only just started flowing through the tubing before he’s already pulling his arm away.

“I thought I said no- ow!” He's awake again, though slurring a bit, and one good twitch away from dislodging the needle. “What is that? Poison?”

“It's an antibiotic, unless you'd prefer a brain infection. If I wanted to poison you you’d be dead.”

“Somehow I don’t find that-” he flinches again- “reassuring.”

She keeps slow pressure on the syringe, nearly half-empty already. “Would you rather we’d left you down there?”

“I can handle myself just fine.”

With a skeptical glance at his bandages, she resists the temptation to poke him in the ribs. “The Republic must have an interesting definition of ‘fine’.”

“I'd’ve survived. Or not. But my people needed out, and I was short on options besides surrendering and hoping Lana’s not the backstabbing type- seriously, ow. Are you almost done?”

She keeps going. “Nearly. And you know she isn't. You’ll be back with your people before long, I'd guess... three Jedi Masters and an SIS whatever-your-title-is-now? We haven't had negotiating power like that in a while.”

“Vice-Director, believe it or-” He stops. “‘s why I didn’t want a sedative. I shouldn’t have said that. But it depends who's doing the talking on our end. If it's the Chancellor, she'll let me hang to prove a point.”

“What about your moth- Grand Master Shan?”

He makes a face, and the dressing on his temple pulls up at one corner; she lets go of the syringe and reaches up, unthinking, to smooth it down.

“The only thing that’s saved me so far is that almost nobody knows we’re related, so she can’t lecture me in public. She’ll know what to do about Surro, but I'm not sure that makes things any better for me,” he says, “all things considered.”

She pulls the needle free from his arm and patches over the puncture site. “She needs Force healing?”

Theron nods agreement, struggling one-handed to settle himself into a seated position. “That was the plan. Once I can get them back to Tython-” he stops, squinting at her. “I shouldn’t have said that, either.”

“Relax, would you?” She slips her arm behind his shoulders, pushing him upright as he shifts to let his legs dangle over the edge of the table. “Of course they’re going to Tython. It’s not as if I don’t know where the Jedi Temple is.”

“Easy for you to say. You’re not the prisoner here. For all I know, they’re all Korriban-bound and I’ll be in a cell on Dromund Kaas until I break.” He eyes her again. “For all I know, you’re a hallucination and I’m already in a cell on Dromund Kaas.”

“We’re still on the orbital station above Ziost, Theron. Lana’s negotiating your release. And I’m not a hallucination.”

“I hope not. It’s either that, or my subconscious is really messing with me.”

She smirks at him and walks back to her cot. “I’m flattered, really, but if I’m confusing you, I’ll get dressed.” After replacing her chrono and earpiece, she picks up her trousers; there’s a hole in them after all, just under the thigh plate at the back of the knee, matching the burn she still doesn’t feel. “Your Jedi owes me new armor.”

“‘s an occupational hazard, I think.”

“Tell that to my operations budget.” She’s got them halfway on when Lana walks in.

“The Republic contingent will be here in half an hour,” Lana says, attention focused on the broken door, “so we’ll need to have everyone ready to move down to the lower level dock to make the exchange in about fifteen-” she finally looks up at her. “Cipher, is there a reason you’re nearly naked?”

Theron mutters under his breath. “So I’m not hallucinating.”

“Spite, mostly. Your doctor had a very low opinion of the moral character of Intelligence agents and I was proving a point. Also, I don’t like hospital gowns.” She fastens her waistband and pulls her undershirt over her head. “Then I had to play nursemaid after his little stunt.“

“I heard about his attempt on the Jedi, yes. Thank the Force he wasn’t successful. Which reminds me,” she turns away for a moment, hand to her ear, “this is Minister Beniko, calling detention block A. I’m invoking protocol 12 on our prisoner, effective immediately.”

He mouths at her behind Lana’s back. Protocol 12?

She signs back at him- airlock - and runs one finger across her neck.

He winces.

“Since you know what happened, Theron, I don’t expect that this will stay quiet. At least you can tell your people honestly that the offender has been dealt with. His behavior was unacceptable,” Lana turns back toward them, her tone crisp, “but at least the negotiations went smoothly. As it turns out, Saresh never quite bothered to request authorization from the generals before she relocated the fleet. Once their Supreme Commander got word, we barely had to send the prisoner roster before they agreed to a full withdrawal.”

“You spoke with Commander Malcom?” Theron rubs his forehead.

“Only indirectly. Darth Marr and I spoke with our counterparts- no one can raise the Chancellor, and apparently she’s not actually with the Republic force here, but we were able to contact Director Trant and, surprisingly, Grand Master Shan.”

(She can’t quite hear him over the sound of Lana’s voice, but Theron mumbles something that sounds suspiciously like they’re both going to kill me.)

“Their closest representatives on the fleet will manage the transfer,” she continues, “and we’ve allowed them thirty minutes more to withdraw the blockade before our ships arrive. Very tidy, I think.”

“I’m impressed. We may salvage this yet.”

Clearly pleased, Lana smiles. “Thank you. I need to meet Darth Marr, but we’ll be back with the escort team when we’re ready to move. Will any of them be able to walk, do you think?”

Looking at the three Jedi, she shakes her head. “They’re stabilized, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Theron?”

“I’ll manage.”

“Three cots, then.” Lana nods. “I’d like you to be present at the transfer, Cipher. There’s no indication we’ll have any sort of issue, but the Republic’s sending a three-person team and we ought to match them.”

Her fingers fumble at her boot fastenings- she’s due for her serum dose. “Fine. I’ll finish dressing after my last treatment.”

“Please do. I’ll be back shortly. And Cipher?” Lana gestures, and the broken side of the door shifts, straightens, and slides open with a gentle whirr at her approach; she inclines her head in Theron’s direction as she passes through into the corridor beyond. “Behave.”

She waits until the door closes behind Lana before she rolls her eyes.

“I have the feeling I missed something there.” Theron’s standing next to his table, trying and failing to pull his shirt over his bandaged shoulder.

“That was the short version of the lecture.” Crossing back to the counter and uncapping the last syringe, she runs her fingers across her left forearm but the vein there’s blown, a fresh bruise radiating out from the injection site. “The long version involved such choice phrases as ‘poor judgment’ and ‘compromising your objectivity’ and rather a lot of disapproving sighs.”

He’s still mostly drugged, so it takes the pieces a few moments longer than usual to fall into place. She can see when the last one clicks by the way his face changes.

“You mean- you told her about-” He sits down again, exhaling hard. “Nine. Why?”

“No!” It comes out louder than she means it to. She still can’t find a vein and her hands are starting to shake; she switches sides, searches her right arm blindly while she stares at him. “I didn’t tell her. She…” She sighs. “You know Lana can read minds, right?”

“Yeah. She tried it on me once or twice at the start, back when we first started looking at Darok and Arkous, but like I said, I’ve had practice dealing with that kind of thing. Eventually she gave up. What does that have to do with-”

“That’s how she figured it out.”

Of all the possible reactions Theron might have had, she does not expect him to laugh.

He braces his hand against his ribs. “I can almost picture it. Sounds like you got an earful.”

“Once she could talk again.” She finally finds a good vein in her right arm, sinks the needle deep. Her fingers won’t stay on the plunger. Damn it. “She was incoherent for a solid minute.”

“Why’d she try to read you in the first place? Me, I get,” he says, “but Lana trusts you.”

“She didn’t mean to- she’d noticed a bruise-” her fingers slip again, “-and got a fairly detailed idea of how it got there. You were… enthusiastic, if you’ll recall.”

“Me? I had scratches for the better part of a week.”

“I do try to make an impression.”

“Oh, you did.” His grin reminds her of then, too, and the way he looked at her when she pulled him down. “Can I ask you a question?”

“I suppose. I can’t promise I can answer it.” Even with her arm braced against the counter, she still can’t manage left-handed; she scowls at her uncooperative fingers in frustration. “First, though, will you help me with this?”

When he starts to move he’s unsteady, but he makes it over to stand beside her, wraps the fingers of his good hand around the flared end of the barrel and sets his thumb on the plunger. “I was waiting for you to say something. Tell me when.”

“Go ahead.”

She’s looking down at her arm, so focused on not shifting the needle that she doesn’t even see him lean in until his mouth meets hers. If she'd been paying better attention she could have controlled her response, tempered it into something more appropriate to the situation at hand. As it is, her brain shuts off entirely for the first ten seconds he’s kissing her and only the rush of the serum hitting it makes her realize she’s reciprocating.

Reciprocating, to borrow her own phrase, enthusiastically.

Shit.

“I’m going to blame that on the drugs, Theron.” She pulls back, takes a deep breath and a step away, out of arm’s reach, and drops the syringe onto the counter. ”This isn’t like last time. You’re going to get us both killed.”

“That was what I expected to hear.” He doesn’t follow her. “But I think I prefer your first answer.”

That was your question?”

He shrugs. “Not exactly. I wanted to know if Lana was right.”

“Right about what?”

“Objectivity. Mine’s shot to the Void, Nine, and I think you know that, but how’s yours?”

Lana’ll be back any minute and she’s still in her undershirt; she takes another few steps away from him toward the last of her armor, slips her arms back into her jacket and buckles it, slings her belt back around her hips. “You know I can’t-”

“It’s alright. I know. So- ugh, dizzy again. So,” he closes his eyes, braced against the counter, “what do we do?”

He’s worryingly pale and, by her estimate, about thirty seconds from collapsing.

“First, you need to sit down.” She grabs a rolling chair from one of the workstations and drags it back toward him, gets him settled on the seat. “We aren’t doing anything. You’re getting on the shuttle and taking your people to Tython. I’m going back to Dromund Kaas.”

“Is that what you want?”

His eyes are still closed, so he can’t see the way her mouth twists. “We’re both Intelligence, Theron. You know as well as I do that what we want is irrelevant.”

“I know.” He leans against her, right shoulder against her hip, keeping himself upright.

She lets him.

As they look out the window the station rotates and Ziost passes back into view.

“Cipher, I need you. Something’s wrong.” Lana bursts through the door, her portable holo clutched in one hand. “We’ve lost all planetside communications.”

She steadies Theron with one hand on his shoulder as she takes a step away. “What? When?”

“Just a moment ago. I’d finally reached the spaceport, but then-” In that moment, Master Surro sits bolt upright and screams, and Lana’s holo falls from her grip and shatters into a dozen pieces on the tile.  

“Lana? Lana, what’s happening?” She can barely hear herself; the Jedi’s still screaming, and Lana’s standing, transfixed, staring out the window.

Theron reaches up, grabs her wrist. “Look. It-”

The power flickers and dies, but even in the darkness she can see the shockwave, see the soft blues and greens of Ziost’s surface fade to sick, pale gray.

“Force help us all."

 

 

Chapter Text

End Transmission

 

HOLONET TRANSMISSION ARCHIVE::CORUSCANT HUB::16ATC/2/33::LOG#ID10984TI31276::ACCESSING...

01:16 <unknown@blocked> hey. not sure if this is the right address. if it is… thanks? you know what for.

01:18 <IX@imperial.emp> Not sure you have the right address, either. If this is regarding a problem with your dinner order, you ought to contact the restaurant as I have no idea what you’re talking about.

01:20 <unknown> right address, then. good to know.

<CHANNEL SETTINGS::ENCRYPTION::<ON>::user(IX@imperial.emp)>

01:22 <IX> Hi to you, too, Theron.

01:23 <TShan@sis.republic.gov) and here i thought i was just their best customer. never gotten a free implant with my delivery before.

01:23 <TShan> slow, sorry. hard to type with immobilizer on.

01:24 <IX> How’s your shoulder?

01:25 <TShan> getting better. two weeks down, so one more week until allowed to move it. getting reports done in the meantime… this one’s taking a while. can’t figure out how say “i screwed up” in a way that doesn’t make me look like a complete idiot.

01:26 <IX> I know what you mean. Feel free to blame bad intel on Kovach. He’s officially burned, so no one on our end’s going to argue with you.

01:27 <TShan> planning on it. you’re up late.

01:27 <IX> I haven’t been sleeping well.

01:28 <TShan> you, either?

01:28 <IX> I keep seeing Ziost when I close my eyes. Lana won’t even talk about it. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like, seeing it through the Force. How’s Master Surro?

01:29 <TShan> not great. they’re doing some dream work with her, but when she wakes up… well. you heard her.

01:30 <IX> I’m sorry.

01:31 <TShan> me, too.

01:31 <IX> Back to your original point- you’re welcome,  but what makes you think it’s from me?

01:32 <TShan> the note.

01:32 <TShan>  i sort of assumed it wasn’t actually from the ziost board of tourism, unless they’ve got a sideline in fried noodles.

01:32 <IX> And they’re all dead, but yes, fair. You tracked me down fast. I must be getting sloppy.

01:33 <TShan> didn’t have to- i’ve had your holonet address since rishi. lana left her commpad out on the table.

01:33 <IX> Time to scrap this address, then. Shame. I had to wait for Watcher Nine to retire to get it.  

01:34 <TShan> i didn’t turn it in.

01:34 <IX> Why? I would have, in your position.

01:35 <TShan> i was going to, but i’d hung onto it. figured i’d submit with the debrief.

01:35 <TShan> then yavin happened. like you said, objectivity compromised.

01:36 <IX> Lana’s phrase, not mine. I think it’s a little more complicated than that, don’t you?

01:36 <TShan> yes. yes, i do.

01:36 <IX> And now I have your ‘net address, too. Shall we call it a détente?

01:37 <TShan> maybe, but you know where I live. holo’s one thing, but i’d like to be able to sleep without worrying about waking up in a cell.

01:38 <IX> I don’t actually know where you live. I mean, I do, roughly, since you’re clearly on Coruscant somewhere in Goodvalor’s delivery zone, but I don’t know your actual address.

01:38 <IX> They’ve got really good dumplings if you ever get tired of noodles, by the way.

01:39 <TShan> ...and you know my usual restaurant how? you’re scary, you know.  

01:39 <IX> I prefer to think of myself as thorough, but honestly? You talk in your sleep.

01:40 <TShan> i WHAT?

01:40 <IX> That came out wrong.

01:41 <IX> You probably don’t remember- after we got you out of Revan’s stronghold on Rishi, waiting for Lana to come back with more supplies. I thought you’d gone unconscious, but then you started rambling about takeaway. You must have been starving.

01:41 <TShan> getting tortured works up an appetite. at least i didn’t say anything embarrassing. did i?

01:42 <IX> No. It was… cute.

01:42 <IX> On that note, I need another drink. Hold on.

01:43 <TShan> guess that answers my question from the other week.

01:44 <TShan> me too, actually.

01:47 <IX> That’s better.

01:47 <TShan> i’d offer to share but i’m guessing you aren’t here. don’t know what you usually drink, either.

01:48 <IX> Today? Whyren’s.

01:48 <TShan> rocks?

01:48 <IX> Blasphemy. Neat.

01:49 <TShan> i approve. you’ve got expensive taste.

01:49 <IX> Damn right I do. And no, I’m not anywhere near Coruscant. I used a courier- she holo’ed me an hour ago to tell me it’d been handled.

01:50 <IX> I figured if you were home, you’d order from there eventually. Old habits, etc.

01:51 <TShan> why, though?

01:51 <TShan> i don’t want to sound like i don’t appreciate the gesture, but things being what they are…

01:52 <IX> No, valid question. Guilty conscience, I guess? Mostly I had credits to burn- I made bounties off all four of you from Ziost. Which is weird, given that you were voluntaries, and really fucking sick given everything else that happened.

01:52 <IX> Sorry. That’s the whiskey talking.

01:53 <TShan> it’s okay. i have to admit i’m a little curious how much i’m worth, though.

01:53 <IX> 1.5 total- I think it was 500 for you, 500 for Surro and 250 each for the other two? I stopped listening after a while.

01:54 <TShan> only 500? that’s a little disappointing.

01:54 <IX> 500,000.

01:54 <TShan> oh.

01:55 <TShan> well, shit. i’m definitely underpaid, then. might just let you catch me once a year and sell me back if you promise to split the profits.

01:56 <IX> Very funny.

01:57 <TShan> only about 95% joking. and why guilty?

01:57 <IX> He- the Emperor, I mean- was gunning for me, not you. If you’d just gotten out of the way, you’d have been fine.

01:58 <TShan> not going to leave you hanging like that.

01:58 <TShan> especially then. i thought i could talk her down. I was wrong, obviously, but not your fault.

01:59 <IX> Still.

01:59 <IX> Anyway, I needed new armor and a resupply, so I made a side trip. One of my usual armorers designed the implant- new prototype. He meant it for me, actually, but he’d forgotten I don’t use them. Then I realized I still had yours.

02:00 <TShan> i wondered where it’d gone.

02:00 <IX> It was on the counter in medbay. I was going to put it back in your pocket before the exchange, but I got distracted.

02:01 <TShan> the emperor killing an entire planet’ll do that, yeah.

02:01 <IX> I meant before that.

02:02 <TShan> right. that was… inappropriate of me. chalk it up to head trauma.

02:02 <IX> Maybe. Or we’ve got poor impulse control.  

02:02 <TShan> we?

02:03 <IX> Damn it.

02:03 <IX> Whiskey again. Anyway, I had him template it off your old one, so it ought to fit. Nar Shaddaa black market’s finest, not Imperial-made. No tethers, no trackers, and he’s a damned good tech. Consider it your share of your bounty.   

02:04 <TShan> it’s an impressive design. light, too. automatic attachment. a lot nicer than what i had.  

02:04 <IX> No idea- not my thing.  

02:05 <TShan> should i try it out?

02:05 <IX> That’s up to you.

02:06 <TShan> i’m trusting you on this, but if i come out brain-damaged i’m siccing my mother on you.

02:06 <IX> Perish the thought.

02:07 <TShan> hold on, then. need a mirror to do this one-handed.

02:11 <TShan> !!!!!

02:11 <IX> That good?

02:12 <TShan> better than good. thing’s unbelievable. i… wow. thanks.

02:12 <IX> You’re welcome.

02:13 <IX> I donated the rest of the credits to the survivors’ fund. I may be growing a conscience in my old age.

02:14 <TShan> old age? you’re younger than me, unless your dossier’s wrong.

02:15 <IX> Not by much, and I hit my five-year mark as a Cipher next month. Statistically, my life expectancy’s rapidly approaching zero.

02:16 <TShan> you’re one of the best agents i’ve ever seen, you know, and that includes my people. i have a feeling you’ll beat those odds.

02:16 <IX> It’d make your job a lot easier if I didn’t, wouldn’t it?

02:17 <TShan> easier, yeah, but way less interesting.

02:17 <TShan> five years is quite a milestone. tell you what. next time we’re in the same system i’ll buy you a drink.

02:18 <IX> Next time we’re in the same system, we’ll probably be trying to kill each other.

02:19 <TShan> drinks first, then. definitely.

02:19 <IX> I don’t think-

02:20 <IX> Oh, screw it. Drinks first, then pistols at dawn? It’ll be terribly civilized.

02:20 <TShan> it’s a date.

02:21 <IX> Then I hope I never see you again, Theron, if you understand what I mean.

02:21 <TShan> yeah. i do.

02:22 <TShan> be careful out there, okay?

02:22 <IX> You too.

02:23 <TShan> i’m always careful.

02:23 <IX> Good night.

02:24 <TShan> g’night, nine.

<END TRANSMISSION::TERMINATING LOG...>

Chapter Text

 

Interlude: Carbonite Dreams

 

A planet dies and nothing changes.

So it goes in the endless war between Empire and Republic. There is no time to mourn the dead of Ziost- life goes on, with codes to crack and plans to ruin.

For a little while they all fall back into fighting. It isn’t a cold war any more (it never was, really, not since Taris, but Corellia ripped the mask off for good and the face underneath just keeps getting uglier) but on the ground it feels the same: all the same schemes and traps and machinations, a dozen Republic agents dead by her hand in a six-month span and a dozen fresh scars to show for it. She throws herself headlong into her assignments, into the comfort of work. After years of conditioning spycraft comes as easily as breathing to her, the adrenaline through her veins with each success a bliss better than any drug she’s ever tried. Work creates routine. Work creates order from disorder.

Work lets her stop thinking about Theron.

She’d been pretty sure, at first, that after Yavin she’d gotten him out of her system. She’s a Cipher, after all, and her life affords precious little room for sentiment; it should have been the same game she’s played with so many other men and women since her training days- highly enjoyable and emphatically finite. It should have been over with the end of their truce.

It should have been.

It wasn’t, for either of them, and Ziost only proved it. He hasn’t tried to contact her again, at least, but she hasn’t changed her ‘net address either.

Ciphers don’t get happy endings. The thought’s a quiet hiss in the back of her mind. Remember what happened to Cipher Three?

(She remembers. Temple held it together for an hour after she came back, then Vector found her sobbing in the ‘fresher with a holoportrait clutched in her hands.

They’d been a beautiful family. Raina looked just like her father.)

If she distracts herself enough, focuses on the task at hand or the target in front of her, there are times when she forgets, when that voice goes silent. She is detached, objective. She is an excellent liar, especially to herself.

There are times, though, when she remembers, when in the heat of fighting she pulls her knife-strikes just short enough to catch glimpses of a face in profile- just short enough to make sure it isn’t him, before she lets the blade sink in.

It isn’t him. It’s never him.

She wonders, though, every time a console doesn’t explode in her face, every time a sniper’s bullet hits wide, if there are times when he does the same thing. She wonders if a day will come when he can't.

Then Korriban falls.

They should have been more careful with this new enemy. They still believed they were invincible, then, she and Lana and Darth Marr, fresh from their triumphs over the Republic and over Revan. (They refuse to consider the horror that was Ziost, the ten thousand other atrocities the Emperor committed. To consider them is to accept them, and with acceptance they would have stopped fighting for the Empire long ago.) But Marr falls, too, and the Emperor falls, and then she is dying on the floor before the Eternal Throne.

She didn’t think dying would hurt so much.

For five long years she dreams carbonite dreams, scattered, broken dreams, with slow poison fracturing her thoughts and Vitiate’s presence ( Valkorion, he calls himself now, but she knows him for who he is) in her mind twisting them into ugly, distorted things. Still, she dreams of Theron: side by side, fighting against Revan and against the Emperor; his body crumpled on the ground, beside Kaliyo and Vector and Lana and Raina, beside her destroyed ship and all the others she knows she failed; in a stolen moment in an empty shuttle, against her and inside her and every kiss a promise they both knew they weren’t allowed to keep.

For five long years, she dies a little every day.

And then, one day, she wakes.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Interlude II: Mutual Assured Destruction (Theron)

 

He deserved the administrative leave- he did borrow the entire Sixth Line for an off-the-books mission that ended up getting half of them killed, so he’s in no place to argue- but he’d definitely underestimated how angry Chancellor Saresh really was.

Eleven weeks in, he's still on travel restriction and going stir-crazy in his little apartment. Physically he’s healed, his shoulder nearly good as new after a dozen sessions of therapy, and his mission debriefs all submitted, and with nothing to do it’s easy to remember why he’s never home. Coruscant’s all city, even the so-called park outside the Senate tower with its paved promenades and granite statues no substitute for real open space; no matter how many laps Theron runs around the plaza he can't quell the restless urge to keep moving, to keep rattling at the bars of an invisible cage.

(For so long after he'd met his mother he refused to believe they were anything alike. On days like these, he almost understands why she did it- left his father, left him, removed her need to choose by leaving only one viable choice.

Satele had it backward, though. Even with the door open, she chose the cage.)

After another week, Trant starts forwarding him current ops reports.

He only gets through two before he shoves the screen aside in frustration, pacing back and forth along the length of his apartment. Two reports, seven SIS fatalities: two on Corellia in a building collapse, and their entire team on Alderaan dead in a Killik attack. Corellia might have been an accident; the infrastructure’s been crumbling since the war restarted and buildings come down all the time, but as near as he can tell they’d been dead for hours and the computers wiped before the ceiling collapsed. But Alderaan? There weren’t any hives within a ten-kilometer radius of that safehouse, so a Killik swarm would be unlikely-

-except for a Cipher whose diplomatic attaché just happens to be a Joiner.

Twelve weeks of leave and she’s taking his entire damn division apart.

And even then, even knowing that, he still dreams about her- fragments and flashbacks of battles, mostly, where she's long been a feature in the usual fashion of his dreams, but his subconscious is getting creative lately, mixing memory and desire until he can almost feel her and he wakes, aching, in desperate need of a hard fuck or a cold shower.

Twelve weeks make for a lot of cold showers.

With judgment like that, it’s no wonder he's still on leave.

***

In the month that follows they lose their undercover agent on Dromund Kaas (throat cut and dead drop looted) and two informants (poison, both) before he’s finally recalled back to HQ.  Advisory capacity only- that’s the official word from Director Trant, at least.

“Unofficially,” the director sits down behind his desk, pulling up a file on the console in front of him, “I don’t know what you did to piss off the Chancellor, Agent Shan, but she’s not budging on the travel ban. The Imps bloodied her nose on Ziost, but I get the impression she’s somehow holding you responsible.”

He shrugs. “Her mole got himself shot and her invasion failed. If she wants to try to pin that on me, fine, but you’ve read my report. I made a mistake, yes, but-”

“We’ll talk about that later. Right now I need you to tell me about Cipher Nine. You’re the only agent I’ve got who’s survived her, and you’ve managed it twice. How?”

“You’re joking, right?” He folds his arms across his chest, ignoring the chairs because he really, really does not want to talk about this, not now. “I was working with her the first time, and on Ziost she decided she needed my help more than she wanted me dead. If I’d been anyone else, she’d have dropped me before I turned around.”

Fingers laced together, Trant eyes him speculatively. “Hm. We might be able to use that. Do you think you could draw her out again, given appropriate circumstances?”

“Yes. Can’t guarantee I’d survive, though.” He wouldn’t, and he knows it, but she might not, either. (They've got metaphorical guns to each other’s heads now, enough secrets confided to put unsurvivable targets on both their backs if they pull the triggers. Drinks and a firefight isn't a bad way to go, all things considered, compared to running from the Dark Council for the brief remainder of his life.) “With a few hours’ prep time, maybe, but on even ground... I watched her go toe to toe with Master Surro. She’ll take me apart.”

“Not an option, then. We need her out of commission, but I’m shorthanded enough without risking you getting killed.” Trant sighs. ”Any other suggestions?”

“Wherever she’s going, get there before her. Otherwise?” Turning on his heel toward the door, he looks back over his shoulder. “Either send someone expendable or stay out of her way.”

***

Trant does neither, of course, and they lose four more people before anyone starts listening, even when he writes “DO NOT ENGAGE” on every mission briefing that has anything to do with Cipher Nine.

It isn’t sentiment. They just can’t afford to lose anyone else.

(It mostly isn’t sentiment.)    

***

SIS data archive:: enter search parameters::
ardun kothe. cross-reference: taris OR hoth OR quesh AND legate.

3 files located. download?
yes

download complete. enter search parameters::
personnel files. cross-reference: chance (codename) AND taris.

1 file located. download?
yes

download complete. enter search parameters::
log out.

user “TShan” logged out. thank you for using the SIS data archive.

***

If he hadn’t been looking, he would have barely noticed the other man’s limp.

“You asked to see me, Vice-Director?”

He waves him in. “Have a seat. Chance, right?”

“Haven’t heard that one in a while- not much use for codenames now that I’m out of the field. But yeah, that’s me. Can I ask what this is about?”

“Legate says hello.”

“How the fuck-” Chance’s face goes ghost-white, and he slumps into the chair nearest the door. “If you’re going to kill me, make it quick.”

(That wasn’t the response he expected. What did they do to her?)

Theron shakes his head. “Not that kind of hello, agent, but she also told me to tell you that you owe her one. For Taris. And I need some information from you.”

“Yeah.” He swallows. “Yeah, I do. What do you want to know?”

He sits down across the table, setting a holorecorder between them, and flips the switch on. “Tell me about Castellan restraints.”

***

No wonder she didn’t want to talk about it.

***

When Korriban falls they celebrate.

He doesn’t- he remembers the last time Korriban fell, when Tython lay in ruins beside it, and it’s hard to believe they all forgot so fast- but at least they get a moment’s rest. Sith Intelligence withdraws almost completely to Dromund Kaas, a protective ring around the Council, and for a month it’s quiet.

When the unknown enemy hits Ryloth, the party ends, and one by one the planets of the Outer Rim fall silent. Darth Marr vanishes into Wild Space with a small fleet; two days later, three Republic ships leave Tython, heading in the same direction. He sends Satele a message that goes unanswered and waits for a skirmish report that doesn’t come.

The Nightshrike leaves Dromund Kaas, its destination undeclared. They track it past Rishi before it, too, disappears.

***

“Hey, Theron? Can you come take a look at this?”

He’s half-asleep at his desk despite four cups of caf, but when Riah calls over from her console he shakes himself awake and pads across the workroom toward her. “Something up?”

“Not sure. I’m getting a weird signal, but I can’t exactly tell where it’s coming from and this channel’s been quiet for years until-” she stops, her lekku twitching. “It’s gone.”

“Were you recording? Try playing it back.” He pulls up a chair, reaching for the spare headset.

She nods, flipping a few switches. “Will do. It’s a few hours old, I think. It’s relaying off Kaon, but it originated somewhere way past that.”

Something catches deep in his chest. “Wild Space?”

“Maybe. Right quadrant, at least.”

It’s definitely a weird signal, almost like- “Split the signal. Play me just the right channel.”

Her hand’s still on the console when her eyes go unfocused; he snaps his fingers in front of her face.

“You alright there?”

She blinks. “Did you hear that? Like an engine, but growlier. Makes my teeth hurt... see, there it is again. You don’t hear it?”

“I didn’t hear-”

(Master Zho used to talk about the Force that way, like a vibration just on the edge of hearing.)

He runs to his office, fires up the holocomm in the corner, and calls Tython.

***

He can’t quite bring himself to close her file.

Marr’s dead. The Emperor’s dead. How could she possibly have survived? He’s seen the propaganda coming from the Eternal Empire. She must be dead.

As a compromise with himself, he edits it instead.

Reported KIA, 16 ATC, Zakuul. Unconfirmed.

***

Two years later they are prisoners on their own planet.

They watched the blockade form and they did nothing. The Star Fortresses went up and they did nothing. Three-quarters of the Jedi Order are dead and they did nothing, even when Satele disappeared after Tython fell. Every month he submits mission requests against the invasion- reconnaissance, strike teams, anything at all- and every single one comes back to him- REQUEST DENIED, straight from the Chancellor’s office.

When the Republic finally surrenders it’s almost a relief.   

The blockade eased, he waits for orders; Trant sends his team to Balmorra.

He almost quits right there.

***

She died three years ago today, and he still owes her a drink.

Given she isn’t here, though, he drinks for both of them. He doesn’t think she’d mind.

It’s late, but he hasn’t slept well in years, so he’s in his office at two o’clock in the morning when his holo rings. Might be someone on the Taris team- another futile mission, like all of them these days, but he probably should answer. He squints at the ID screen.

Incoming call: Lana Beniko.

He shakes his head, looks at it again. Not possible. Somebody’s fucking with him.

He answers it anyway.

“Theron?” Lana’s thinner than when he saw her last, her cheeks hollow. “Oh, thank the Force. I didn’t think you’d answer. No one else has.”

He downs the rest of his glass in one long swallow. “Whatever it is you want, Lana, I’m pretty sure I’m the wrong person to ask. You’ve got ten seconds before I hang up.”

“She’s alive, Theron.” Her eyes glitter like stars. “Cipher Nine’s alive. I need your help.”

It’s not even a decision. “You’ve got my attention. Tell me where.”

 

Chapter Text

Battle Scars

 

By the time the Gravestone (an ominous name for a ship if she ever heard one) nears Odessen, Cipher Nine’s come up with nineteen different ways to kill Arcann and the hole in her belly’s nearly closed.

There’s only so much kolto to go around; they’d meant to repair the ship and to resupply on Asylum, but Arcann and Vaylin’s unexpected visit put a stop to that and with so many others wounded in the fight she refuses to jeopardize what few supplies remain. Lana and Senya take turns at her bedside, pouring Force energy through her body in a coursing arc between the wounds on her stomach and back. She’ll have scars, to be sure, but the lingering damage is all internal, and sometimes when she dozes she hears them arguing.

“I’m sorry, Senya, but I don’t have any better idea than you how to deal with something like this. Sith philosophy’s rather light on healing arts, and quite frankly she-”

"-should have died, yes.” The knight’s beside her, perched on the edge of a chair- Senya’s somehow never quite still, even at rest, her body a weapon in perpetual motion- with fingertips terribly cold against the bare skin beneath her unbuttoned jacket. (Or perhaps it’s her skin that’s hot? It’s so hard to tell, and she’s so tired.) “She still might, if this bleeding won’t stop, but I’m not sure how much more I can manage. It’s difficult to track it. Lift her up.”

She cracks one eyelid open. “I can hear you, you know.”

(One thing they have plenty of is drugs; several of Koth’s crew had done some recreational shopping during their time on Asylum, and when Lana made the rounds looking for painkillers she ended up with four different kinds of spice.

They only had two doses of anesthetic. Len and Ralo got those, and she made do with a generous noseful of glitterstim.

Glitterstim’s a shitty painkiller, honestly, but she’s pretty sure she can hear colors now, so at least she’s distracted.)

“Good. Think healing thoughts, then, since you seem to be keeping yourself alive through force of will.” One hand slipping under her back, Lana tips her gently onto her left side.

“I just spent five years in carbonite. I’m not dying now just because some little shit with daddy issues decided to shove a lightsaber through my liver.” It doesn’t hurt quite as much to move as it did a few hours ago, but when she sees the look on Lana’s face and laughs- oh, that hurts. “No offense.”

“None taken. That’s…” Senya shrugs, “a fair assessment of my son, though I’ve never heard it put quite so bluntly.”

“I'd imagine not. No one likes to tell a mother her babies are ugly.”

Senya looks to Lana with a wry grin. “You were right, you know. She does sound like me.”

“Do I?” she says, her body balanced between their hands. “Interesting, coming from the woman who disagreed with the Immortal Emperor. He must really have been different back then, if that’s what made him love you.”

Something like a cloud passes over the knight’s face, the lines at the corners of her eyes deepening for a moment before she speaks. “What makes you say that?”

“He let Arcann do this. He wants me to let him in, but I won’t, so he keeps…” she tries to find the right words for it, for the feeling when time stops and she feels him pushing, trying to shunt her into the back of her own mind. “He’s hurting me to prove a point- I doubt I could die if I wanted to. But you? You walked away.”

“Without my children.”

“But he let you go. He called it a mistake-” Senya flinches- “but he let you go. D’you know what happened the first time I got in his way?” It’s been five years and she remembers it like it was yesterday. “He killed a planet.”

Senya’s quiet, her jaw clenched.

“He’s tried to manipulate you before, Cipher? Since he’s been-” Lana’s still at the end of her bed, still holding her on her side, and gestures with her free hand, fingers circling level with her head.

She nods. “Three times, so far.”

“Show me?”

Skin against skin, palm pressed against her back, their breathing synchronizes and she lets Lana read her, lets the memories play back like a holorecording.

(They both had so many questions in the first hours after the rescue, but too much time in carbonite left her muscles weak and atrophied and her brain moving a thousand times faster than her sluggish tongue. She tries, again and again, to explain what happened at that first encounter with Valkorion, and finally when they’ve fled deep enough in the forest to rest she sits on the stump of a fallen tree and looks up with a frustrated huff.

“I can’t… ugh. Stupid body.” Head tilted, she considers her words again. “Can think it, and you can see?”

“If you're willing, yes, I can do that.” Lana reaches out toward her, nearly touching her before she stops short. “I’m sorry- I really ought to ask, shouldn’t I? It’s… easier with contact, but I can manage without if-”

“‘s okay.” She leans forward into Lana’s outstretched hand.)

She remembers; Lana narrates, quietly, for Senya’s benefit.

She remembers his first intrusion, trapped in her own thoughts by illusory pain and an imaginary monster- it must have been imaginary, since she knows from experience that blasters and blades can’t kill a Monolith- and his second, walled off from her companions but laughing in Valkorion’s face at his empty threat, at the idea that taking away her weapon makes a Sith Lord any less lethal.

Lana’s hand shifts on her back at that, just the faintest tightening of her fingers in the arm that’d been injured that day, that bore the consequence of her refusal.

“Didn’t mean for you to get hurt,” she mutters. “But I don’t want him in my head.”

“Shh. I know.” The connection remains.

She remembers the third time, her body pulled across the platform toward Arcann’s lightsaber, fear giving way to searing agony- do you feel that, Father?- and all the time the Emperor’s voice echoing over her own screams.

You cannot defeat my son without my help, little Cipher. You need me, and if I must break you before you see reason-

“-so be it.” Lana gasps out the words, pulling her hand back and bracing herself against the bed. “Oh, Force, that hurts.”

His threat hangs heavy in the air around them; she exhales, pushing the memory away with the breath that leaves her lungs. “You wanted to see. Now do you understand?”

“No. I don't.” Senya shakes her head, fists clenched so hard her knuckles crack. “He was different by the time I left him, yes, but cold, distant- he’d turned his back on me, on our children. But that...”

“I told you. I told you what he is, what he's done. He's a monster.” Lana’s behind her, still leaning against the edge of the bed, her voice unsteady. “But you refused to hear it, you and Koth both.”

She tries to push herself upright, but she can't quite manage without help- she needs her muscles to sit and even now every cough, every flinch is like a blade through her all over again- and, their hands withdrawn, she starts to fall. Senya springs to her feet and catches her, left hand cradling the small of her back, guiding her back down into her side.

“Koth still worships the memory of a god he never actually knew, but I heard you. Scyva knows, I heard you.” Eyes closed, the knight bows her head, a faint halo building around her; she can't tell, looking, whether the glitterstim’s to blame or if the glow is real. “See if the tank is ready for her yet. I'm going to try again.”

“You're exhausted. She can wait-”

Real or imagined, the light around Senya’s blinding now. It's hard to see the rest of the room.

“No, Lana, she can’t. I'm going to try again.”

She closes her eyes, too, against the brightness and the heat in her belly that blossoms outward like a dying star, and when she lapses out of consciousness she does not dream.

 

***

When she opens her eyes again she's floating.

Not frozen, not in carbonite this time- she can feel her hair drifting against her face, can feel resistance as she spreads her fingers, moves them experimentally. She inhales, or tries to; her mouth and lungs are already full, the smell of kolto in her nose and the taste of it heavy on the back of her tongue.

Oh. Kolto tank.

Not dead, then. That's good.

(She ignores the mocking laughter in the back of her mind, slots another stone into the wall she is building around the place where he lives.)

Her boots hit the floor of the tank as the kolto drains and, blinking and coughing, she looks down at herself (dressed, but for belt and gloves- she doesn’t remember that, and this isn't her jacket; hers has a hole through it now) and then out through the glass. They must be close to Odessen, wherever that is, judging by the activity level on the bridge- how did she get to the bridge? She can’t remember that, either- and Koth strapped into the pilot’s chair with SCORPIO, arms folded, looking on disapprovingly. With a hiss, the tank’s seals decompress and the front hinges open. She takes a few wobbly steps forward.

Lana’s nestled into a far corner, legs curled beneath her and gaze locked on the floor, lips moving in a silent recitation of the Sith Code. When she reaches the end of the litany she begins again, making her way through a second time before she looks up.

“‘The Force shall free me,’ hm?” She grins. “Technically true, I suppose. I just had to wait for a Sith Lord, seeing as how the Force doesn’t see fit to talk to me.”

“It should have been sooner. I-”

“That was a thank you.” When she says it Lana smiles, her expression relaxed for the first time in weeks. “I don’t think I’ve said it properly yet, which… I’d still be decorating Arcann’s vault if not for you, so I owe you that at the very least. Where’s Senya?”

“Sleeping. Her last attempt knocked you both out cold, and I couldn’t bring myself to wake her.” Rolling her shoulders backward, she stretches, unlinks her folded hands. “She’s had a terrible day. So have you, to be fair, but she blames herself- for her children, for getting the Scions involved, for Heskal bringing Arcann to Asylum. All our plans almost ruined by one idiot priest.” Lana shakes her head, her expression darkening for a moment. “If you’d died-”

“But I didn’t.” One hand under her ribs, she prods her belly tentatively. “Nor do I plan on it any time soon. Not until I feed Arcann that lightsaber of his, at minimum.”

At that, Lana grins, pushing herself up off the ground as the ship veers hard to starboard. “Bloodthirsty as ever, I see.”

“He stole five years from me, let alone what he took from all of you, and he doesn’t even care. I don’t mean anything to him at all except that I’m the puppet shell his father’s riding around in.” Her lip curls; the thought of it’s infuriating. “I want my life back. If I have to kill him to do it, so be it.”

“I’m not sure that’s entirely true. You know what they call you on Zakuul, yes? The Outlander?”

She latches onto a nearby console with both hands at another hard turn. “I’ve heard the term.”

“You feature heavily in Arcann’s speeches,” Lana says. “I’ll send you the files, but suffice it to say there are quite a few. It was my first hint that you might have survived, actually.”

“How so?”

“Using you as propaganda made sense at first. You’d killed the Emperor-” Lana’s fingers move in mock quotation marks- “insofar as he can be killed- so it was easy justification for their war. The Outlander was the perfect scapegoat. Then he kept it up, though, speech after speech, which made me wonder. So I started digging.”

She nods. “I can’t have been high priority.”

“You’d be surprised. But I spent too long begging favors from the Dark Council, and then the war took them all anyway- years of wasted time. With fighting on two fronts, it took three years to make enough inroads on Zakuul to confirm you were still alive.” The other woman sighs, her smile fading again. “Some Minister of Sith Intelligence I turned out to be.”

“You always did hate titles.”

“Yes, well, that’s one I’m well rid of.”

This time, it almost doesn’t hurt when she laughs. “Swapped one for another, then? You seem to be more or less in charge of this lot.”

“Not exactly, and this was just the rescue party- you’ll meet the rest of the Alliance soon.” The way Lana says it emphasizes the capital A, makes it sound like a title rather than a description. “The majority of them are here on Odessen trying to fashion us some sort of base. I only wish I could have found more of your old team- finding SCORPIO was a lucky accident, frankly, and Theron’s working on a lead on Doctor Lokin, but-” she pauses at yet another hard shift, this time to port, that sends them staggering into each other- “Koth, is all this lurching about really necessary?”

Koth doesn't look back, his attention focused on the terrain ahead of them. “Whose brilliant idea was it to put the docking station at the bottom of a canyon? The Gravestone moves just fine, but it's like threading a needle with a turbocannon.”

“If your skills are inadequate, Mr. Vortena, I would be more than willing to assume control.” SCORPIO’s expression doesn't change, but she’s heard that tone often enough to catch the subtext. The if ’s an interesting new addition, though. It would seem this current iteration picked up some diplomatic skills along the way.

“You can pry the controls from my cold dead fingers, droid. We’ll be on the ground in five,” Koth says; the ship’s trajectory stabilizes. “Also, that wasn’t an offer, just so we’re clear.”

Lana rolls her eyes as they untangle themselves. “Just like old times, hm?”

“Very nearly. You mentioned Theron was working on something- you’ll have to tell me how you managed to convince him. Is he still with the SIS?” She slides the question in like an afterthought.

(It isn’t one. She’s wanted to ask what happened to him all along; a part of her was afraid of the answer. She saw him dead in her dreams so many times, and she still doesn’t know how much of that was real and how much was Valkorion’s lies, but working on implies present tense, which implies alive , which at least is something.)

“No. He quit, believe it or not.”

She blinks. “He did what? When?”

“I contacted him when I found out you were still alive. It’d been years, and with the war… I didn’t think he’d even answer. But as near as I can tell, he resigned from the SIS five minutes after the call disconnected.” Lana’s looking out the window, now, at the walls of the vast canyon looming up around the ship. “He met me on Asylum a week later.”

“Now I really do need to hear the story.” It sounds impossible, so it must be true. Five years ago she would have said the Republic was his anchor. It must have been a hell of a war.

“You can ask him yourself, if you like. He ought to be here, unless he’s still off chasing after-” Lana cuts herself off abruptly. “Never mind. We’re docking, I think. Are you ready to meet the rest of the Alliance, Commander?”

“Yes, I-”

It takes a moment for the title to register.

“Wait. What?”

***

 

Theron wasn’t on Odessen, in point of fact, but when she finally gets to a secure terminal she’s got a message waiting from him- two years old and half-rambling to a degree she almost wonders if it was dictated rather than typed.

She reads it again and again and again.

Doctor Oggurobb releases her from the infirmary after three days, though the Hutt seems decidedly put out by her ongoing refusal to allow any further study of her brain- when I’m well and truly dead and not a moment before being her final answer- but Lana and Senya still treat her as though she’s made of glass.

She can’t afford to look weak, not when this fragile thing they’re calling an Alliance only survives by believing she’s strong. She has to be indestructible. She has to be smarter and tougher and scarier than Arcann, because there are only two ways to end this war and they both involve her boot on his throat, the variable being whether he’s alive or not when she brings her heel down.

(They don’t talk about the third way the war could end. Her newest scars are enough of a reminder.

She hides them carefully, though she doesn’t mind them in the abstract. She has so many already that it seems strange to focus on these, though her midriff-baring days are likely over- as they should be, she supposes, at the advanced age of twenty-sev-

No.

Thirty-two. )

She pushes herself harder, despite their cautions. It takes her another three days of ruined undershirts, of splitting her healing scabs every time she tries to help with the construction projects, before she admits that maybe she should take it easy after all.

So instead she runs laps around the base, learning names and faces as she goes. There are so many of them, more arriving every day, Imperials and Zakuulans and Republicans alike, and they all call her Commander. She meets the transports when they come in, smiles and shakes their hands and gets the new recruits sorted out between the divisions. She was never meant to be a diplomat, never meant to lead (she was meant to be the blade, not the hand that wields it), but she is trying.

And then, on the nineteenth day, she’s crossing the walkway between the war room and the docking platforms when she sees him.

The shuttle’s just landed; Theron’s standing at the top of the boarding ramp, behind two soldiers and a nervous-looking girl with a lightsaber on her hip. When he finally disembarks he turns to the left, rests his hands on the railing, looking outward toward the valley below. His implant- the one she gave him- glitters on his temple. Even his jacket’s the same, down to the scorch mark on the collar.

Five years, and he’s still wearing the same damned jacket.

She can’t help it. She cuts across the path toward him.

“Theron?”

He looks back over his shoulder at the sound of her footsteps, and she’d know his smile from a thousand meters away. “I wasn’t sure you’d remember me. It’s been a long time.”

“Not so long as that, and you’re not so easy to forget. Give yourself a little more credit.” She steps up to the railing beside him.

“A lot’s happened between then and now.” Theron turns toward her. “Though you look… you look the same.”

She shrugs, curls her fingers over the rail. “The unexpected benefits of five years in carbonite.” He wasn’t quite so lucky, it seems- he’s got a new scar along the line of his chin, at least a year old to judge by its fading, and a few grey hairs scattered at his temples. It suits him. “But you’ve managed to get better-looking, so you’ll have to tell me your secret. I suspect I’ll need it once time catches up with me.”

“Liar.” If his grin’s any indication, he doesn’t mind. His comm chimes. “And perfect timing, as usual. You’re ruining your own surprise.”

She arches a brow.

“I found something of yours that I thought you might want back.” Theron raises his hand to his ear. “Go ahead, Tora. Bring her around.”

“What did you-”   

When she hears the roar of the engines she claps her hands together in delight, and when her ship- her ship, not the great monster Gravestone that carried her here but her sleek, stealthy Nightshrike - comes speeding across the horizon she grabs his sleeve, nearly throwing her arms around his neck before she remembers how many people are watching.

He reaches up, rests his other hand over hers. “Welcome back, Nine.”

Chapter Text

All Work and No Play

 

If she didn’t know better she’d swear the rest of them were doing this on purpose.

She hasn’t had a moment to herself all week, and she badly needs to talk to Theron. She doesn’t know where they stand- she doesn’t even know if they’s the right word to use, not after so many years, not when the idea of they was an impossibility until she woke up and found the entire universe had changed- and the uncertainty of it is a distraction she can’t afford. The way he looks at her is a distraction, too, not because he stares (he doesn't; he is careful not to stare) but because there’s something in it that she can’t quite parse.

It isn’t pity, not exactly, though there’s a thread of it blended in, running deep. It’s-

She doesn’t know what it is.  

(It serves her right, probably.

In hindsight she’d been awful to Theron after Manaan, once it was clear they’d be working together for at least the foreseeable future. War is war and he was still a damn ‘pub, and she’d learned from experience that just because the Republic says they’re the good guys doesn’t mean they won’t fuck you sideways the minute you let your guard down. She’d work with him, fine, but she wasn’t going to make it easy for him.   

Even she had to admit he was quite a slicer- better than her by a decent margin, though she’d never say it to his face- and in combat he was skillful enough if more prone to injury than most, but how had he ever been a field agent? He’d never have managed as a Cipher; she could make him blush at a word, which was terribly amusing, so she flirted mercilessly. He’d look away, flustered, muttering about how she was distracting him. His hesitancy was a challenge.

She always did love a challenge.

One day on Rishi, though, she was eyeing him speculatively over the top edge of her datapad when he looked up, caught her gaze and, for once, didn’t break contact.

“Something interesting?”

He was cleaning one of his blasters; she avoided the obvious joke, just winked and went back to reading.

When she heard him chuckle, she grinned behind her screen.)

They need to talk, but the work never stops.

Her attention’s pulled in a dozen directions simultaneously and with all of them finally in the same place the War Table sessions are endless, stretching late into the night. Every plan she signs off on generates three more; they haven’t got funds enough for half of them. (Saving the galaxy’s expensive, apparently. Her bank account’s surprisingly flush- somehow she’s got five years of back pay, and Lana just smiles slyly and changes the subject when she asks- but rebellions run on contraband, not credits.)

The two of them cross paths often enough, at meetings and in the training room now that she’s cleared for it and in the canteen, but they’re never alone in those public spaces. Even her daily runs have become a group event, keeping their soldiers in good trim but robbing her of yet another opportunity for private conversation. Their rooms aren’t a good option, either- Theron’s stuck down in the main hall until they’re done excavating the lower level for Command quarters, and though she’s got her own room it’s hardly isolated, just down the corridor from Hylo’s crew and the bounty hunters, and the walls are thin. When she naps between meetings her sleep is fitful; she startles awake at every loud conversation, every stack of crates scraping down the hall. It would stand to reason, then, the reverse is probably true.

Some things shouldn’t be overheard.  

Tonight she’s actually got a few free hours (though she can’t fight the nagging idea that there’s something important she’s forgotten) and she’s entertaining the idea of hauling Theron into a storage closet- it’s a massively stupid idea, she knows, because they need to talk and that’s exactly the opposite of the sort of thing you pull people into closets to do but she’s running out of other options- when he slides in beside her on one of the long benches at dinner, pushes a cup of caf in her direction.  

“You look like you need this,” Theron says, and takes a long drink from his own mug before starting in on a sandwich.

She laughs, both because he’s completely wrong about her facial expression and because he still knows her well enough to remember her vices. “Is it that obvious? The stuff here’s awful, though.”

“Deadly, yeah.” His mouth’s half-full, and he covers it with his free hand until he’s finished chewing. “This is- sorry-” he swallows and clears his throat- “this is out of my personal stash. Don’t tell anyone.”

She wraps her hands around the cup, giving it a cautious sniff. It does smell like the real thing; she takes a sip.

Oh.

The noise she makes is somewhere far across the border of decency, and when she opens her eyes Theron’s grinning.

“You’re welcome.”

“Have I mentioned recently that you’re my favorite?” She lifts her cup and fills her mouth again, letting the bitter taste rest on the back of her tongue before she swallows. “Although I may have to confiscate the rest of this. Commander’s fiat.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” he says around another bite of sandwich. “And you told Nico yesterday he was your favorite, so I’m not sure I believe you.”

“He finished fixing the hyperdrive on the ‘shrike yesterday morning,” she spears a piece of crisp-fried potato on the tines of her fork, crunching as she talks. (Her table manners went out the window long ago with him and Lana both- too many discussions with mouths full of ration bars, walking and talking and eating all at the same time.) “I promised him a crate of Corellian Red as payment and it’s coming on next week’s transport, but I really want to fly her sooner so I needed the ignition switch back. Thankfully,” she says, and punctuates the gesture with another wave of the fork, “he’s susceptible to flattery.”

Theron laughs. “Somehow I’m not surprised. When do you think you’ll take her up?”

That gives her an idea.

“What are you doing after dinner? We don’t have a meeting, for once- I could give you the grand tour?” As she says it a trio of soldiers settle onto the bench on the far side of Theron and he shifts over to make room for them, crowding her until they’re pressed together hip to hip.

He starts to answer, his mouth already opening around a yes when he stops, forehead furrowing in irritation. “I’ve got a holoconference in ten minutes, but after that... wait. Isn’t Lana’s party tonight?”

“Lana’s- oh, stars, you’re right.” She sighs. She knew there’d been something she was forgetting. “I don’t think Commanders are allowed to skip parties in their honor, either. Normally I wouldn’t mind a chance to unwind a little, but-”

“And I haven’t got a thing to wear.” He nudges into her with his shoulder; she smiles at the familiarity of it. “Y’know, I still owe you a drink.”

“For my five-year mark. I remember.”

“Probably should be two drinks, now- ten years. That must be close to a record.”

It might be. She runs through the list in her head. Cipher Three survived longer, but he’d gone rogue long before, and Cipher Twelve- “For an active Cipher, yes, but I’m not sure I qualify any more. And after the last five years, I think I need a bottle.”

“I won’t argue with that.” Theron nudges her again, toward the edge of the bench, with a tilt of his head. “I’m buying tonight, at any rate.”

She stands to let him up. “I’m expensive, you know. Fair warning.”

“Whyren’s, neat. I remember, too.” He slips out from behind the table, switches positions with her so she can sit back down; once she’s settled back on the bench, he leans down until his mouth is level with her ear. “And the best things always are.”

By the time she turns around he’s already walking away, and the uniformed soldier who’d been sitting on the far side of Theron whistles quietly.

“Your opinion is noted,” she eyes the man’s rank badge as he quiets abruptly. Republic, with enough sense even now to fear the Ghost of the Empire. “Sergeant.”

“Yes, Commander. Ma’am.” He winks at her, though.

She finishes her dinner in her room.

They really, really need to talk.

 

Chapter Text

 

War Stories

 

The party started at ten.

Nine should have been there five minutes ago, except that even despite the caf she fell asleep at her desk reading dossiers and woke up with the outline of the console buttons imprinted into her left cheek. Wearing her armor to the party’s one thing- Theron’s joke aside, she’s only got two sets of armor, three training suits and a few pairs of running shorts and she’s not going to the party in an undershirt and trainers; all her formal outfits were on her ship, long gone to scavengers with the rest of its contents, or in her closets on Dromund Kaas- but she’s the Commander. She ought to at least try to look presentable.

So with a compress held against her face she stands in the ‘fresher, letting the water run over her body and ease the tension in her neck and back. After a few minutes she removes the cloth, running her fingertips gently over her cheek.

No indentations. It’ll have to do. Only two minutes of hot water left, anyway.

(If time and water supply permitted she’d stand here forever, but until the last generator’s finished they’re all on timers. At least she gets a proper water ‘fresher. Downstairs they’re all stuck with sonics.

Perks of being the boss, she guesses.)

She picks broken strands from between her fingers as she washes her hair- the carbonite turned it brittle as old wire, prone to snapping at irregular lengths, and she really ought to cut it short but can’t quite bring herself to do it- and scrubs the rest of her skin with the compress cloth before the stream of water cuts off with a click. As the drying jets activate she surveys her fingernails and her newest scars: both are studies in texture, her nails brittle as her hair and slashed across with deep horizontal ridges and her scars burned flat and shiny in spots and raised and puckered in others, outlined in faint squares with remnants of bacta patch adhesive.

At least they’ve stopped itching, which is something. Slow progress is still progress.

Her stash of patches, smuggled out of medbay to avoid gossip about her wounds (most of the recruits beyond the few who’d left Asylum on the Gravestone don’t know how badly she’d been hurt and it needs to stay that way), lives in her bathroom cabinet, but when she opens the mirror the space behind it’s empty but for her comb and her toothbrush, which she grabs. She must have used the last of them this morning.

Damn it.

“Vanity, my dear?”

When she closes the mirror Valkorion’s standing behind her, his face reflected to her left in the half-fogged glass. He’s intangible, as always, but still she can almost feel the chill metal of his breastplate against the bare skin of her shoulder, the faint brush of silken hems at the backs of her calves.

She doesn’t move. He isn’t real.

“I’m not your anything, you old lech, and this ‘fresher’s occupied.” She looks pointedly back toward the door and activates her toothbrush, the high-pitched sonic buzz nearly drowning out his voice. “Get out.”

“You misunderstand me.” His lips curl up in amusement. “I simply find it interesting. You retain old scars-” he lifts his hand, an outstretched finger tracing the faded line beneath her left eye; she keeps her face perfectly motionless- “though I assume you could have had them removed years ago. Yet my son’s handiwork upsets you.”

“Upsets? Hardly,” she mutters around the brush handle. “Vanity’s for the decorative. I’m invoicing. Arcann owes me damages, and I plan to collect in full.”

Valkorion nods. “Your anger does you credit. Still, you focus on minutiae, on frivolity, while my son consolidates his power.”

“What, you don’t like parties?”

He hisses and for a moment her eardrums ache, his voice a low snarl echoing in the hollows of her skull. “We are wasting time. This celebration-”

She spits into the basin. “-is important. One can't torture or brainwash all one’s allies into compliance, hard as that may be to believe. I'm not sure your Council ever learned that lesson.”

“They were a failed experiment, yes. Not one worthy of inheritance among them, not in a millennium. I had hopes that my children would be-”

“More successful?” Opening the mirror again means she doesn't have to look at him. She sets her toothbrush back on the shelf. “One dead, one insane and the last a fratricide who loathes the very idea of you. Heirs to your empire, indeed. Now leave me alone. I need to dress.”

She knows without seeing that behind her Valkorion's folded his arms across his chest, his nostrils flaring and face contorted in seething silent fury; his image is sharp and clear as a holo in her mind’s eye. He isn't real. Why-

Real enough, little Cipher. Real enough.

She doesn't need to turn to feel he's gone, and when she shuts the cabinet and catches sight of her own face there’s a trickle of bright blood streaming from her nostril, running down her chin to drip drop by drop into the sink.

***

After some consideration she leaves her guns and generator and vibroknife locked up in her quarters, though she tucks a backup blade into her boot sheath; it’s not likely to be that kind of party. Parties are easy. She’s plied her trade at a thousand of them, from the masques of Alderaan to the backrooms of Hutta and every place in between, and tonight she even gets to wear her own face, her own name. Parties are easy, even if her new title chafes like a too-tight dress.

All told she’s half an hour late, with her hair put up still damp and her lipstick matched to her nosebleed (just in case).

There’s still a length of scarlet ribbon stretched across the stage at the back of the cantina, but judging by the number of empty bottles already on tables the party’s gotten well underway without her. Lana, perched on a stool at the near end of the bar with a wineglass balanced in one hand, waves her over with the other.

“You’re late,” Lana tilts her head toward a pair of shears on the bartop. “We’ve been waiting on you to get started properly, and if the band doesn't go on soon Senya’s threatened us with a performance.”

Senya, leaning against the counter, smirks. “Fine, fine. See if I offer next time.” She lifts her empty glass, though, and clinks it against Lana’s, and when Koth uncorks a fresh bottle he slides it down the bar in her direction.

“You two seem on better terms tonight.” She arches a brow at Koth, now lining up a row of glasses and pouring a rather messy stream of something that looks like water and smells like engine degreaser into each. “And how'd you get stuck bartending? I thought we’d hired someone to do that.”

“She’s relaxed, for once- no fangs and claws. It makes her a little less intimidating. Sort of a ‘hey, maybe I’ll hunt you down tomorrow but tonight that’d ruin my mood’ vibe.” He shrugs. “Same way Lana gets, you know?”

(She does know- she’s seen Lana that calm exactly once, on their last day on Yavin. She doesn’t really do relaxed; like her, Lana works better under pressure, their instincts sharpest with their nerves stretched to the breaking point.

Which begs the question: how does Koth know?)

“And I’m just filling in. Bartender’s down there,” he points to a fine-boned Twi’lek wielding two cocktail shakers like paired swords at the far end of the counter, “but she’s got her hands full and I was getting tired of the whining.”

As if on cue, Tora elbows her way up to the bar. “‘bout time, Captain. I’m thirsty. One of those is yours, boss- we need to get you caught up.” Shoving one of the glasses into her hand, she grabs another and holds it aloft. “Bottoms up.”

From the way it burns going down, she's not sure that it wasn't engine degreaser; she coughs and sputters and swears until Theron, two seats down, looks up in alarm from whatever he’s reading and springs out of his seat, thumping her squarely between the shoulder blades until she holds up one finger and he pauses.

“I- cough- I’m okay. Breathing, at least.”

“They got you with that shit, too?” He reaches back down the bar and snags the datapad. “And I thought the caf here was lethal. It’s apparently some kind of Zakuulan specialty.”

“Normally I’d say they were hazing us, but they seem to be drinking it just fine.” Out of the corner of her eye she can see Tora and Koth at a nearby table, handing out the nearly-full glasses to the rest of the Gravestone’ s crew. She shifts her attention back to Theron and the still-lit screen in his hand. “You’d better not still be working. If I have to relax, so do you.”

He closes the cover over the screen, shoves it into his pocket with a wry smile. “Okay, okay. You know me- workaholic. Done now, though. Promise.”

“Good. I-”

Before she can finish the sentence Lana’s got her by the arm, dragging her doggedly toward the stage as she squawks in protest, and she lifts her free hand and signs at him.

HELP.

***

Theron did try, to his credit. Everyone wants to talk and drink and dance with her, though, and she’s pulled from table to table to dancefloor and after an hour she loses track of him. After two hours and entirely too many shots- it’s poor diplomacy to say no when the toasts are in your honor- she’s still dancing near the bar.

After three hours, she’s dancing on the bar, which will probably be a terrible idea in retrospect but it’s Lana’s terrible idea; once she stops laughing she lets Lana pull her up onto the counter and they dance the next three songs around a minefield of half-empty cups and bottles.

“And to think I thought you were a killjoy.” She grins, hips arcing a figure-eight in time with the music.

“Of course I’m a killjoy. At the moment, however-” Lana wobbles a bit, catching at her arm to keep herself upright as someone wolf-whistles and another round of drinks somehow find their way into both their hands- “I’m a very drunk killjoy.”

“Good. I think we’ve earned the right to let loose a little, don’t you?” As she downs the shot a flash of light down the bar catches her attention: the backlit glow of a datapad, Theron’s face illuminated as his eyes flicker across its screen. “Speaking of which- he had better not still be working. He promised.”

“I’ve been trying to get him to take a day off for two years.” Lana peers around her shoulder. “I’d have thought that with you finally here… ah, well. Go and make him stop, hm?”

The last drink’s hitting her cerebral cortex like a blunt weapon, so that sounds like an amazing idea. “I think I will.”

She never thought she'd hear a Sith Lord giggle (not in actual amusement, anyway- Darth Zhorrid used to laugh like a schoolgirl in the aftermath of her concerts, but none of that was funny to anyone but Zhorrid), but Lana's laughing, nudging her down the long counter toward where Theron sits with drink and datapad in front of him. “Good luck.”

She covers the distance to him in half a dozen steps, pausing directly in front of Theron with one booted heel poised over the still-lit screen. “Ahem.”

“Um.” He blinks up at her, snatches the datapad out from underfoot. “Hi?”

“Why are you still working?”

“Why are you standing on the bar?”

“Lana and I-” When she looks back Lana’s already down behind the counter, her expression innocent. “Never mind. It’s called a party, Theron. You should go to one sometime.”

He sighs. “I thought I was. Had a date and everything, but I think she stood me up to go dancing.”

(It’s a knife through her ribs, straight into her heart.

She knew he’d be the death of her. She’d just never thought of it in metaphor.)

She considers her next words carefully.

“Maybe she got held up. Or maybe she didn’t realize it was supposed to be a date.” She holds out her hand to him. In the strobing light from the stage she can only half-read his expression, but he reaches up to brace her, fingers round her wrist as she steps off onto the seat of a vacant stool; when she jumps down he catches her, keeps her upright until she’s steady on the ground, and when she slides onto the seat beside him he angles toward her until their feet brush together along the rail. “Just to be clear, we are skipping the pistols at dawn part, right?”

He laughs; she breathes.

Theron reaches over the bar for a wax-sealed bottle and two glasses, breaks the seal and pours two fingers’ worth of amber liquid into each glass. “Guess I’ll have to be more obvious next time. I did bring this bottle, though. Seems a shame to waste it.”

She takes the glass as he pushes it toward her. “You didn’t have to wait for me, you know.”

“Yes,” he says, “I did.”

***

They’ve been talking for at least an hour and she can tell there’s something he wants to ask, but even half a bottle in he still won’t say it. It’s making her nervous. She needs to clear her head.

“What time is it?”

Theron pushes one sleeve back to check his chrono. “Nearly three. Getting tired?”

“I was thinking of going for a walk. I could use the fresh air.”

He nods, stretching his arms up over his head. “Mind company? We could walk up to the observation platform, or- hey, you still up to that tour? Now’s as good a time as any.”

“If you like.” She stretches, too; tomorrow her thighs’ll be sore from dancing. “I should probably take a rain check on the shakedown flight, though. Right now I’m fairly sure we’d crash.”

“Probably not the best idea, yeah. We’ve still got this to finish anyway.” Theron hands her the half-empty bottle, scoops two clean glasses from behind the bar. “I did promise you the whole thing.”

“You did.” She looks around at the remnants of the crowd- the band’s long since stopped playing, but there’s a small contingent still dancing near the jukebox. Tora’s curled up on top of one table, one hand dangling down toward Len, who’s half-hidden beneath it. She hasn’t seen Senya for ages. Koth, with the precise focus that she knows from experience comes from somewhere between three and five drinks too many, is tidying behind the bar, and Lana’s resting her head on her arms, her glass empty and her face half-hidden by the drape of her scarf. “Come on. I doubt anyone will even notice we’ve left.”

Theron slides off his stool. “Lead the way.”

She’s only a little wobbly when she gets up, bottle in hand.

They take the footpath around the back of the War Rooms instead of cutting through military HQ. At this hour the paths are dark and nearly deserted save a few patrolling guards on middle watch, and before long they’re at the landing pad with her ship a black gleam in the floodlights. She doesn’t need to see the keypad to enter the codes, its contours familiar under her fingertips; the ramp opens and she starts upward.

“Permission to come aboard?” Theron calls up to her from the bottom of the ramp. “Or is this still Imp territory?”

“We’re allies now, remember? I think it’s allowed. Besides,” she says as the door slides open, “didn’t you fly her here?”

He shakes his head. “Just got enough of a look to make sure I had the right ship, but she was in rough shape. I had her towed from Corellia.”

“Corellia?” She runs her hand over the doorframe. “Not my favorite place. I wonder how she ended up there.”

“No idea. She’d been there for three years at least, computers all wiped clean. No record of how. Or who.”

“That would have been too easy, I suppose.” As they pass into the common room she turns, gestures broadly with an empty hand and the whiskey bottle. “Welcome to the Nightshrike. X70-B Phantom class, restricted use by Imperial Intelligence- or Sith Intelligence, or whatever we’re- they’re- ugh.” She pulls the cork of the bottle free with her teeth. “Come on.”

Theron hands her a glass.

The grand tour doesn’t take long. Her ‘shrike isn’t a big ship, with bunk space for five- or six, technically, with two in the captain’s bed- and it’s quiet without her crew. In her mind’s eye she can picture Kaliyo, arms folded, against the wall across from the engine room, Temple leaning over the control panel on the bridge, even Two-Vee, ever vigilant-  

“You ok?”

She blinks. They’re standing back in the main room and she must have been staring at nothing; Theron has his hand on her forearm. “Sorry. I’m fine. Just... nostalgia, I guess.”

“I bet. This must be-” he stops himself short, rephrasing. She can tell he’s getting closer to what he wants to say by the way he’s pulling his jacket sleeve down, curling his fingers around the cuff. “You've been through a lot.”

“No more than any of you. I took a long nap in the middle of a war. All of you had to fight it.”

“Before all that, I mean. With…” He perches on the back of the long couch, balanced carefully on the frame. “You remember on Ziost, our conversation about old ops?”

She nods. Where’s he going with this?   “In the Tower? Yes. Why?”

“I talked to Chance.”

If she digs her nails into her palms she can keep her hands from shaking.

“I’m sorry.”

Of all the things he could have said-

Her heartbeat rises into her throat. The room goes fuzzy, wavering lines across her field of vision until she sits down hard on the couch and rests her elbows on her knees, interlaces her fingers across the back of her neck. She needs to breathe. Oh, stars, she needs to breathe.

Concentrating on the pauses between her heartbeats, she times them out: one breath for every six beats, steady and slow and even. The couch shifts as Theron moves, around from the back to the cushion next to her, but except for the sound of liquid splashing into tumblers he’s silent.

Minutes pass; slowly, she uncurls.

He’s looking straight ahead, not at her. “I just wanted to say it. You deserve to hear that once, at least.”

“You don’t-” she reaches out for the right-hand glass, emptying it in one swallow. “Did you read the files?”

“Yeah.”

“So you know what happened. What I did. What they did to me.”

“Enough to be sorry I asked. Enough to be sorry on behalf of the entire fucking SIS. What they did-” He drains his own glass, then refills them both. “I shouldn’t even have brought it up. We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

She never talked about the Castellan restraints, about Hunter and Chance and Ardun Kothe, not really. That was the problem. While it was happening she couldn’t talk about it, not even when she wanted to; the words were locked away, replaced by comfortable lies in the same way that her traitor body danced to their song when they pulled on her strings. Afterward, it was easier not to. Medical Division had people on hand for trauma debriefings, but Medical Division had programmed her in the first place. A stray word in the wrong ear… it wasn’t safe. It would never be safe.

Except-

There’s no time like the present.

“What if I do?”

“You sat through half my life story on Rishi. The least I can do is return the favor.” Theron turns toward her, settling cross-legged on the couch. ”I'm listening.”

***

Chance had been sorry, too, Theron said. That was strange to hear.

It is easier not to watch his reactions, easier just to lie on her back on the couch, drink in hand, to stare at the beams crisscrossing the ceiling and let the words come as they please.

Somehow no one on the Republic side had known about the Star Cabal- their files mostly stopped after Quesh and when she talks about what happened after that, on Corellia and at the end of it all, he fills their glasses again, wordless, and lets her curl against his side. By the time she’s done talking the bottle on the table’s all but empty and still her mouth is dry.

He shifts as she sits up.

“So,” she says, one corner of her mouth canting upward, “am I a monster, do you think?”

He rubs his eyes. It must be near daybreak by now. “Lot of monsters in that story. Not you, though. Definitely not you.”

“That's nice of you to say.”

“Also, that might be the creepiest case of hero worship I’ve ever heard.”

She smiles despite herself. It is a little funny. “I don’t know that I’d call it hero worship. Hunter didn't want to be like me. I think she wanted to skin me and wear me like a suit.”

He shudders. “Now there’s a mental image I didn’t need. Like I said, creepy. And I can see why you don’t like Corellia much.”

“Rather like Rishi for you, I’d imagine, though I’d almost rather have dealt with Revan. He seemed less prone to punching me in the teeth than Hunter’s people were.”

“Not that much less. You saw the bruises.”

“Yeah.” That was a stupid thing to say; she tucks her legs up tight against her body, wraps her arms close around her shins. “Sorry. It’s not as though it was a competition. I shouldn’t complain about it, really- I did go voluntarily. You didn’t get a choice.”

“I don’t think that makes it any easier,” Theron says. “You had a whole cover story to keep straight. I just had to keep my mouth shut and try not to die.”

Something about the way he says it makes her laugh and once she starts she can’t stop, helpless mirth welling in her chest until she’s hiccuping and wiping tears from her eyes. Theron must have thought she was crying- she feels his hand brush her shoulder and he clears his throat, but when he sees her expression he stops and waits for her to quiet.

“For fuck’s sake.” She shakes her head after one last hiccup and rests her feet back on the floor. “That’s working in Intelligence in a nutshell, isn’t it? ‘Keep your mouth shut and try not to die?’”

He snorts. “Story of my life, for sure.” The last dregs of the bottle split between their cups, he hands her one and lifts the other into the air. “One last toast- to trying not to die.”

“I”ll drink to that.” She raises her glass to his, taps them together with a sharp clink.

“Anyway,” he says, swallowing, “if it had been a competition, you’d have won. Twenty hours- I barely made seven.”

“They wasted two hours on truth serum, so technically it was eighteen hours and thirty-two minutes. Long enough.”

“The serum didn’t work, I take it?”

“I trained in the Imperial Academy.” She eyes him over the rim of her glass. “I put truth serum on my pancakes. Of course it didn’t work.”

Theron grins. “Filing that away for future reference. They didn’t do any permanent damage, clearly. I’ve seen you work.”

“Not much, no.” It's a short catalogue. Her torturers weren't especially creative, preferring repetition of the same tools again and again and again. “Broken fingers, broken nose, broken ribs. Teeth survived somehow, lucky for me. Lots of bruises. Nerve damage, healed now. Some scars from the electricals- feet and back, mostly. Here, see-” she turns away from him and unclasps her belt, lifting the skirts of her jacket and pulling her undershirt up to expose two neat rows of burn scars in the arch of her back, raised dots like tactile messages on either side of her spine. “A few souvenirs.”

He traces them carefully with a fingertip. “I remember these from before. But what's-” he pushes her hand aside and slides her shirt up higher even as he says it, outlining the margins of the saber wound on her mid-back. “This looks new. And bad. When did you get this?”

“I thought you knew I’d been injured on Asylum.”

“Lana told me you got hurt, but I’m getting the impression she may have understated things.” When she looks back over her shoulder he’s studying her scar, bent close enough she feels his breath against her skin. “Exit wound? No. Would’ve had to have been a cannon to leave an exit like that. You should be patching this.”

“I’m fine, Theron, honestly. And I’ve been patching, front and back. I’m not an idiot.”  

He sighs. “Of course you aren’t. I just- wait. Front, too?"

“Front, too.”

“Let me see.”

Before she can stop him he’s got his hands on her shoulders and turned her around toward him, reaching for the fastenings of her jacket; she bats his hands away in irritation. “Would you please stop fussing? I’m fine.

“Liar. Let me see.”

She scowls and undoes the buckles, lets the jacket fall open. Her undershirt’s spotted red at the front, and when she folds it up beneath her breasts she can see the scab across her belly wound’s cracked, a slow trickle of blood oozing downward.

“And you’re bleeding- like hell you’re fine.” He stares at it for a second before his eyes go wide. “No. No way. That’s impossible.”

She forgets, sometimes, how much of his life he must have spent around Jedi. Of course he would know what it was.

“That’s a lightsaber wound. You took a saber straight through the gut and you’re still sitting here and-” Theron takes a deep breath. “Nine. Who- how?”

“Arcann’s blade,” she says. “Valkorion’s fault.”

His jaw clenches.

“Lana and I-” he takes her by the wrist and pulls her toward the medical bay- “need to have a long talk later. Come on. There should be some bacta patches in the cabinet. I had the repair team restock it for you.”

“Theron, would you stop-

Stars, he looks like his mother when he's cross.

The medbay feels empty without Lokin’s research bench taking up half the room and it's laid out all wrong; whoever rebuilt it must’ve worked on Republic ships. She pulls off her jacket and sets it on the examination table and while Theron rummages through the storage cabinets above the counter she scrubs dried blood off her stomach with a damp towel. The reopened area isn't as bad as it looked at first glance, probably just too-energetic dancing and the friction of her clothing. It's definitely looked worse. “Lana probably didn’t want you to worry about me,” she says.

“She knows damn well I’m going to worry about you anyway.” Her back feels fine but he’s laying a patch along it regardless, his hands warm along the edges of the cool gel. “She knows- oh, forget it. Turn when you’re ready.”

The front patch stings when he applies it but after a few seconds it settles into place, the bleeding quelled. She wonders what it is that Lana knows.

He smooths out the last of the wrinkles. “There. Done.”

“Thank you. I could have done that myself, but thank you.” She leans back against the workbench, letting her shirt back down. “And here we are again. What is it about us and medbays?”

“Wish I knew. Maybe if you’d stop getting into lightsaber fights-” As she rolls her eyes at him Theron rests his hand on her belly, over her shirt and the freshly-applied patch, but still her skin feels hot under his touch. “Sorry. Not funny.”

“It’s alright. At least you don’t have head trauma this time.”

He grins. “For once. Me and my idiot question- I’m never going to live that down, am I?”

She takes a deep breath and his fingertips move with the rise and fall of her ribs and oh, Force, she remembers the way he kissed her then and oh, Force, she's drunk and maudlin from too much whiskey and too many war stories and her timing’s terrible but she can't think of another way to do this.

“Actually,” she says, “I was hoping it’s not too late to change my answer.”

Theron’s still opening his mouth to respond when she kisses him. It's a whisper of a kiss, a shadow of something lost to darkness five years ago that despite itself clung stubbornly to the hope of light, to the hope of a rebirth that by rights should have never come. She kisses him, and he breathes his reply between her parted lips. “That depends.” He lifts his hands, palms pressed to the sides of her face. “Will I like this one better?”

If the first kiss was a hesitation mark, the second cuts down to the bone.

When she moves on him this time he's ready for her, her mouth a greedy, seeking thing on his and his response its equal, countless frantic kisses that knock the air from her lungs and distill her thoughts to laser-narrow focus.

(In thirty-two years she has wanted so many things. Even now she wants- wants Arcann dead, Valkorion gone, to not have to run and not have to fight and not have to lead an army into a war that may kill them all. But this?

She cannot remember anything she has ever wanted more than this.)

When his hands drop from her face he cups the nape of her neck to keep her forehead close against his, his fingers winding into her hair, lacing through and gripping hard enough to make her gasp, to angle her chin up toward him. If that’s how he wants it- she grins and catches his lower lip between her teeth, tugs at it until he moans and leverages her backward with the pressure of one of his thighs between hers. Her back hits the top counter of the workbench, her hips tilting, grinding against him and letting the friction build to feverish heat.

Theron’s got his other hand up beneath her undershirt. He's still far too clothed for her liking but she can't find purchase on his jacket; her palms slide under its open edges, up his chest and along his collarbones, trying to push it back over his shoulders. After a few unsuccessful attempts he finally seems to catch on- he lets go of her for a moment, slips his arms free of the sleeves and it falls to the ground behind him. With his collar gone she can finally get at his neck, teasing at the pulse point with a flick of her tongue that she thinks she remembers that he liked, that first time on Yavin-  

If the noise he makes is any indication, she recalled correctly; he sinks his teeth into the top of her shoulder and his fingertips into her hipbones, muffling curses against her skin.

“If you keep doing that-” he says, his grip tightening- she’ll have bruises at this rate but oh, she doesn’t care- “I- damn it, Nine-”

She remembers the trick to his belt buckle better this time, though her fingers still fumble a little with the clasp because she’s working blind, still worrying at his neck to hear the noises he makes, the way he says her name when she mouths along the angle of his jaw. When she feels it give way she lets it drop- he wasn’t carrying his blasters either- and unfastens his waistband, curls her fingers around the length of his cock.

Before she even moves Theron’s hard in the circle of her hand.

He breathes in sharply when she starts to work at him, her free hand slipping under the hem of his shirt to rake her nails down his back, and he lets her hips go, twists to grab both of her wrists and holds her still.

She blinks- too much? Not enough?- but in the split second her eyes are closed he kisses her again, hard and deep and tongue pushing past her lips to seek hers out. When she looks again his eyes are open too, locked on hers, the look in them familiar and oh, stars-   

“Here-” she turns her back to him, undoing her own fastenings, shrugging her trousers and her smalls down low over her hips as she bends, back arching, one hand bracing against the counter and the other reaching back to guide him- “here, Theron-”

He pulls her back upright with his hands cupped over her breasts, turns her again until she's facing him. “No,” he says, and lifts her onto the benchtop, perching her just on the edge, “I want to see you. Not like that-” he unbuckles one of her boots as she does the same for the other, pulling them off to join his jacket on the floor, the rest of the clothing on her lower body quickly following suit. He slides one hand along the inside of her thigh, parting her with two fingers that come away slicked with wetness.

“Like this?” Catching his hand in hers, she raises it to her mouth and draws his fingers in.

He enters her so hard that the back of her head hits the cabinet behind her.

She locks her ankles together behind his waist and he cradles her head and her lower back, holds her close against him as they find a rhythm. They won’t last long, not at this pace, not after five years without for her (and, she suspects, just as long for him), and he must know it too; after a minute or so he slows, moves his hand from her back in between them, the pad of his thumb finding the sweet spot between her thighs and circling in a steady counterpoint to the way he moves inside her.         

Oh- oh, Force, Theron-

She doesn’t even realize she’s saying it out loud until she hears him, too, murmuring encouragement in her ear, wanting to hear her come apart, to hear her say his name again, wanting, wanting-

She gives him what he wants, crying out as she comes, spasming around him, and he follows her over the edge.

In the minutes that follow they barely move. Her hand’s still fisted in his hair; she relaxes her hold but he doesn't pull away, just presses another kiss into the side of her neck with a scrape of teeth on skin that sends an aftershock straight through her core.

Finally, he brushes his lips against her ear, whispers something she can’t quite hear.  

“Hm?”

“I was just thinking,” he says, “I wonder what would have happened if that had been your first answer.”

 

Chapter Text

Show Me

 

“Nothing good, I suspect.” She grins and winds her arms around his neck. “Though we’d have given your Jedi friends quite a show before we got shoved out an airlock.”

Theron’s cheek goes hot where it's still pressed against hers, and when she turns her head to look at him he's blushing clear to the tops of his ears.

“Didn't think of that, did you?”

“Not at the time. But between the industrial-grade sedatives and you walking around in your underwear,” he shrugs, “I was a little distracted.” His mouth brushes hers, fingers curving beneath her as he takes a half-step back, lifting her up and drawing her forward off the counter.

When her feet touch the floor she shivers and leans against him- she hadn't noticed until now, sweat beaded on her skin, how cold it is in the medical bay. “Only a little? I must be losing my touch.”

“Okay, a lot. Less than now, but- hey, you alright?” He runs his hands up and down her upper arms; it does help a bit.

“I’m fine.” Her glance flicks downward, toward the pile of clothing (mostly hers) on the floor, toward him in shirt and boots and unfastened trousers and herself, bare below the waist, in just her bloodstained undershirt and boring practical bra and why does it even matter what fucking bra you’re wearing, idiot, it’s not like-

(Oh, is she ever in trouble.

She isn't any better at this than he is- she's almost certainly worse, since to go by his letter he's had enough practice at relationships to admit he's bad at them. She's just never bothered. In an abstract sense it wasn’t against the rules but between her assignments and simple indiscriminate opportunism she never lacked for sex when she wanted it and most of the time that was enough. ‘Close one’s eyes and think of the Empire’ seemed terribly dull, after all, and with training and practice affection wasn't hard to fake; pretend affection pleased her targets just as well as the real thing and when it wasn’t real it wasn't a liability, couldn’t be used as a weakness to be exploited.

Except none of this is pretend.)

Theron’s still trying to keep her warm but he stops for a moment, rests his hands on her shoulders and his forehead against hers. “You sure?”

“Yes. I just...” Her thoughts race a thousand parsecs a minute in a hundred different directions, sharp spikes of anxiety knifing into the back of her brain.

-it's not like you care what he thinks.

And there it is, laid out before her, a schematic she doesn't know how to read. Maybe if she says it quickly, like tearing off a bandage, it’ll hurt less.

“You’ve got my answer, but I’m not sure if the question’s even still the same. I thought, from your letter-” she takes a deep breath, trying to stem the flow of her words. “I remember what you said, but that was years ago.”

“Nine. Seriously? None of this-” he kisses her again, for emphasis- “convinced you I haven’t changed my mind?”

Something in his tone, half-amused and half-indignant and so familiar, makes her smile. The wave of anxiety breaks and she can’t help but tease him a little. “You might have just wanted me out of your system.”  

“Tried that,” he says. “Tried that for years. Didn't work, obviously.”

“Is that a bad thing?” The words come out a little muffled, caught between their lips in the narrowing spaces between one kiss and the next; she's rested enough, now, impulse driving her to accelerate the pace of things again, and to judge by the way she feels him stir against her belly he has, too.

“It made work pretty complicated. For this, though?” Theron’s hands slide down her sides, under the edge of her shirt, fumbling at the clasp in the middle of her back. “I think complicated was worth it.”

If that was really why he quit the SIS-

That’s another very dangerous question. She files it away for later.

“Mm. I don't know.” She pretends to consider even as she feels his fingers pop the hooks open, lifts her arms as he draws the last of her clothing off to join the messy heap behind them. “You’re awfully overdressed. I’m not quite sure you’ve convinced me just yet.”

“High standards- expensive and demanding? I’d better try harder-” teeth, sharp, on her earlobe, and the squeak of leather as he shifts his weight onto one foot, starting to work one boot off (their first time together he wasn’t nearly so aggressive, but what he lacked in experience he more than made up for in enthusiasm so she didn’t care; it’s hard to tell whether this, now, is confidence or liquid courage or just five years of pent-up frustration venting all at once but oh, she likes what he’s become)- “next time.”

Funny, she would have sworn a few minutes ago it was cold in here.

“Next time, hm?” The echo of his words take her back to Yavin for a moment; she turns the phrase back on him. “Not ‘we’ll probably never see each other again’?”

It takes him a moment to parse the reference, but when Theron laughs and pulls his shirt over his head she knows he's caught her meaning. “Not as long as you still need convincing.”

“That may take a while. Just for thoroughness’ sake, you understand.” She finally works his trousers off, touch roaming rather more than strictly necessary. One ought to be thorough in these things.

“I waited for you for this long. I’m not going anywhere unless you tell me to.” Eyebrow arched, he looks her up and down; she does the same, appraising. Stars, he really did get better looking and the expression on his face-

It isn't fair, the way he looks at her.

“Bed,” she says, and pivots, nudging him toward the door. “Now.”

They don’t actually quite make it there, though not for lack of trying.

By the time they make it through the medbay door they’re wound around each other like dancers, tangled arms and legs and her hair worked free of its band to fall into her eyes and brush against his face; she’s navigating from memory based on old heuristics. The captain’s quarters are halfway across the ship from the medical bay, though, and whoever replaced the lounge furniture put it back (again) out of place, so she ends up backing him squarely into a long couch that should have been at least two meters to the right.

He yelps and tries to counterbalance but they’re both still wobbly on their feet from the whiskey and with her momentum carrying them forward it’s useless. With a thump he lands on the cushions, pulling her down with him until she’s straddling his lap.

“Blasted-” She swears, moves to push herself back up to her feet. “This isn’t supposed to be here.”

Before she can right herself, though, Theron shifts beneath her, grip tightening on her hips, and just when she thinks he’s about to speak he lowers his mouth to her breast. His tongue curls; she stops moving.

Couch. Bed.

Close enough.  

He's ready for her again, pressed hard against her inner thigh as she kneels astride him; she adjusts, angling herself to catch him just so, exquisite pressure pushing deep as she sinks down to take him in completely. In this position, Theron sitting upright, she has to do nearly all the work but she doesn’t mind, not with the way he curves in her and the friction of their skin, the heat of his breath and the keen edges of nails and teeth, and she grinds her hips in slow circles against him.

“I must be dreaming.” She’ll definitely have marks tomorrow, on her collarbones and along the swells of her breasts where his mouth is roaming. “How did you know what I-” he stops, shuddering, and she slows. “I imagined this, I swear. But you’re here. You’re real.”

“Of course I am.” She nudges his head up with hers- she wants to watch him, the way his eyes go unfocused when he's close, but she needs her hands to balance. “I dreamed about you, too, you know.”

He goes utterly still.

Careful, slower, she starts to move on him again. “Your letter- you asked if I dreamed about you, the years I spent in carbonite. I did. Yavin. The shuttle.” A few words for each time he pushes into her; she hasn’t the breath left for more. “I remembered.”

Theron’s hand tightens in her hair, pulling her back into a delicate curve, his kisses like flames against the arch of her throat.  

“For me it was more. Not just memories.” His voice- oh, yes - “Things I wanted. You- always you- but so many things, even when I thought you were gone-”

When she closes her eyes for a second she pictures him, waking, taking himself in hand to the thought of her and oh, stars, what has she done? “And this dream? What do I do next?”

“I-” He bites his lip, tries to say something and stops, shakes his head, mute, blushing. “I wanted- I missed you so much-”

“I’m here now, darling. Tell me.”

“I don’t even know how-” he gasps with each roll of her hips, at the endearment that slipped from her tongue, unthinking- “Force help me, I’m terrible at this.”

“Then don’t say it.” She pauses, poised above him even as he tries to lift up toward her, keeping herself just out of reach, lifting her right hand to sign a cant message just at eye height. Show me?

Theron nods.

She doesn’t move until he starts to spell a message into the curve of her back. It’s slow at first, hesitant, but when she lowers herself down until he’s inside her again it picks up speed and she sets her pace by the rate of his fluttering fingers until-

“Oh, really?

His smile is a wicked thing.

***

They're far too tired to go to bed.

Bed- the actual bed- is still down the corridor. That would require moving, and frankly she’s not even sure that her legs work at this point and they’re both exhausted, sated and sleepy and sprawled on the couch. Instead she stretches, settling onto her back and drawing him back into her arms, into a lazy kiss and then a second, a third, slow and sweet, and her eyes drift closed-

***

When she wakes to the sound of her chrono chiming he’s still sleeping, head on her chest and arm draped across her belly, his breathing steady. Moving as little as possible, she wriggles her hand out from beneath him and lifts it to her face, squinting at the scrolling display.  

message: meeting scheduled for 1030 postponed until tomorrow, same time and location. nothing urgent to report and i’ve got a scorching headache. will you tell theron? assume he’s with you- LB.

(Of course Lana knew. Lana always knew.)

It's already nearly ten, sunlight slanting in through the viewports to illuminate the room, but with nowhere to be there’s no reason to move. When was the last time she woke up to someone else still beside her? Eight or nine years, at least; with rare exceptions she’d made her excuses to old lovers, preferring to sleep safely alone. This feels different, though. Still safe, even undressed and unarmed.

Safer, maybe.

In repose he’s relaxed, the tension lines in his forehead smoothed and his jaw unclenched. She runs her fingers idly through his hair, tracing the hardware at his temple with a pale fingertip against the darker tan of his skin- he must take after his father there, whoever he was- as her mind wanders back to things he wants and questions she oughtn’t ask.

After another few minutes he stirs, murmuring contentedly, tilting his head into her touch.

“Theron?”

“Hey, you.” He looks up at her, sleepy-eyed, and smiles. “Was I sleeping?”

She ruffles his hair. “It’s alright. I was, too, and our morning meeting’s apparently been cancelled on account of hangover.”

“Oh, good.” He presses a kiss against her ribs, just over her heart. ”Moving sounds overrated right now, anyway.”

“Mm. Can I ask you something?”

“‘course.”

She lets the words out with a breath, before she can second-guess herself. “Why'd you quit the SIS?”

Theron blinks. “That's a hell of a question.”

“I know,” she says. “Humor me?”

“You already know the answer, anyway, don't you?” He shifts, stretching, winding his arm tighter around her waist, as she shrugs. “You know Lana contacted me. We needed to-”

“But you might as well have been the Republic’s poster boy.” She's interrupting but can't help it, not in the face of a half-answer like that. “I teased you about defecting because I never thought in a thousand years you’d ever actually leave. Saresh must have been furious.”

He tenses.

She sighs. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to- you don’t have to answer if you’d rather not.”

“It isn’t that. Just- fucking Saresh.” Theron rolls onto his back beside her and she shifts over to make room on the narrow cushion. “You know she had me on full travel ban for almost an entire year after Ziost?”

“I didn’t know, though that explains why they never sent you after me.”

He nods. “Yeah. That and I told Trant I was pretty sure you’d kill me if I tried-” she winces at that, both because she doesn’t want to think about it and because it probably would have been true- “so he decided it wasn’t worth the risk. By the time she let me off-planet the war had already started and you-”

“And I was a wall ornament.”

“I thought you were dead.” He’s so quiet when he says it she turns her head to watch his mouth move, to read the words off the shape of his lips. “I thought you were dead, and I mourned you even when I shouldn’t have, and I couldn’t do anything about it. She denied every single mission I put forward, and the minute we surrendered to Arcann it was back to fighting the Empire. I couldn’t…”

She waits for him to finish the thought.

“After everything we’d done against Revan, even the whole mess on Ziost with the Emperor- we could have worked together, us and the Imperials. It wouldn’t have been you, but maybe we’d have managed something, maybe not. At least we’d have tried, you know?”

“And then Lana called.”

“Three years to the day after Marr’s ship went down.” More awake now, Theron props himself up on one elbow, balanced between her body and the back of the couch. “When she told me you were still alive I didn’t even have to think about it. Tendered my resignation, packed up my office and hopped a blockade runner off-planet. I kept enough connections in place to make the work easier, but as far as Saresh is concerned I’m persona non grata. Does that answer your question?”

She sighs. “Yes.”

His face scrunched in confusion, he reaches out with his free hand to brush a strand of hair off her face. “That doesn’t sound like you like what you heard.”

“You quit because of me.”

“I think I’d have quit eventually no matter what, but yeah. I quit because of you. Is that a bad thing?”

“I… no. It’s-” she pauses for a moment to let her tongue catch up to her thoughts. “I just don’t want you to regret it if it turns out this wasn't worth-”

He silences her, then, with two fingers pressed to her lips. “It was worth it. You could tell me to leave thirty seconds from now and it still would have been worth it. Just do me a favor, okay?”

“Hm?”

“Let me be the one to decide what I want.” When he settles back again he slides his fingertips along the length of her mouth, across and around her jawline to the back of her head, pulls her with him until she curls against his side, into a long kiss that leaves no room to doubt what that might be.

By the time they, showered and dressed, make their way back down the path toward the barracks, it’s nearly dark.  

 

Chapter Text

Under Construction

 

[hold out your hand, hunter says.

she’s standing naked in the middle of the refresher in their base on taris, back rigid, chin up, defiant. taris was messy; she’s got rakghoul bile in her hair and chance’s blood, where she tried to patch him up until the transport came, beneath her fingernails. he made her help. she’d have done it anyway. she's not a monster, and he only ever used her programming when he thought he had to.

not like hunter.

teeth bared, she smiles. but you told me not to move.

we could have done this the easy way, you know. but you have to make it difficult for yourself. hunter sighs. onomatophobia, legate. hold out your hand.

she lifts her right hand to chest height, palm up.

that’s a good girl. now let’s get you cleaned up, shall we?

when hunter activates the panel freezing water pours from the showerhead and knocks the air from her lungs like a suckerpunch. she stays standing, though, keeps her arm raised. she can’t not.

if you don’t trust me, she says, just tell ardun you think i’m a traitor and be done with it. why bother with all this?

traitor? hunter laughs. he’d just like you more. he has this thing about redemption, you know? so noble. bullshit, of course. but noble.

an upturned wineglass in her palm, quickly filling with water. heavy. she tries to balance it, hand shaking. what about you? her teeth chatter from the cold.

me? i couldn’t care less. if you’re lying, eventually you'll get sloppy and break cover. otherwise, you'll just break. the glass rings, high and sweet and ear-piercing, with a flick of a fingernail against it. fun for me, in either case.

she grits her teeth.

now- walking away, hunter’s almost out of the ‘fresher but then turns back toward her- onomatophobia. don’t move until i get back, hm? and keep your hand steady. wouldn’t want you to cut those pretty feet on broken glass.

for one hour and thirty-eight minutes she thinks of murder and her fury keeps her halfway warm. still, she’s bitten clear through her lip and her feet are frost-white and numb by the time the door opens again. the water shuts off.

much better, hunter says. come on, then.

she can feel her muscles relax, regains the ability to move. she upends the glass and it falls, shatters on the tile and she walks through it, unflinching, leaving a trail of crimson footprints behind as she stalks past.

i don’t give a fuck- she snarls, spits a mouthful of blood onto hunter’s mirror-polished boots - what you want.]

Someone’s shaking her.

Her eyes fly open but still she can’t move, pinned on her side with arms pressed in close and a heavy weight across her lower legs. Tensing, she gathers herself, ready to burst outward, to escape-

“Hey-” a familiar voice in her ear- “hey, hey, it’s okay, wake up-”

She goes limp at the same time Theron lets her go.

“Another nightmare?” When he slides his arm from under the pillow and rolls onto his back beside her she sits upright, kicking the tangle of blankets to the floor beside the bed.

(Away from the base, the lack of scrutiny compared to Odessen lets them share a bed- she can't be perceived as playing favorites, and the gossip in the Alliance is just as vicious as it ever was in Imperial Intelligence; a few of the inner circle know, but only a few. On Odessen they steal time when they can, on her ship or, quietly, in her office, or once, after they'd spent a particularly dull meeting spelling increasingly explicit messages into each others’ palms beneath the table, against the wall in the War Room supply closet.

On the handful of nights in the last month when they’ve been shipboard together they don't have to rush and he doesn't have to leave; he inevitably ends up curled around her when they sleep. She’s… adjusting to it. She likes it, she thinks.)

“Sort of.” She runs her tongue over her teeth- no blood- and glances down at her feet. No blood there either, no glass, just the usual assortment of scars. “An old memory. Not a pleasant one.”

He frowns up at her. “I know you told me not to wake you, but you’ve been shivering like we were still down on Hoth for the better part of two hours. Are they always this bad?”   

“Not always. I’ve been trying a thought suppression technique on Valkorion recently. It walls him off when I’m awake, mostly, but when I sleep-” she sighs. “He likes to go exploring, and he’s not the only nasty thing back behind that wall.”

“I can only imagine.” He turns his head to kiss her hipbone. “And I thought I was a restless sleeper.”

She drops her pillow on his face. “Very funny.”

“Mmph,” Theron mumbles, batting it away, “was a joke. Do you want to talk about it?” He sits up beside her. The patch on his back- they'd nearly made it clear of the Star Fortress’ shield generator before it blew, but the explosion sent chunks of molten shrapnel flying in all directions and one caught him between the shoulder blades; on the plus side, the fire must've warmed Hoth by at least three degrees- is halfway unstuck. She presses it back down.

“No. But seeing as how ignoring them is working so terribly well so far, I suppose I should. First, I need to shower.” The chill’s just illusion, a nightmare augmented by Valkorion’s power, but she’s learned well enough with him in her head that things that aren’t real can still hurt her just as badly as Hunter ever did. “I’m guessing it’s probably too much to hope for hot water.”

“Only a few minutes’ worth, sorry. Enough to get clean.”

They’re bunked on his shuttle, not hers, and she looks around the room for the door to the refresher, spots it next to the desk and pushes herself up off the bed. “I need heat. Clean’s secondary. Do I have time before we launch?”

“I think so.” He rubs his eyes. “Miot’s taking us up at 0600 and it’s-” he looks up at the monitor in the corner of the room, reaches up for her hand to try to pull her back down- “half past three. You should sleep, though. It's going to be a long day.”

“I've slept enough.” She shakes him off. His quarters, like the rest of the shuttle, are compact, and she crosses the room in three steps and pulls the door open. One hand on the panel, she dials the temperature to maximum. “Get me a cup of caf?”

Theron nods, reaching down beside the bed for his pants and shirt. “One cup, black, coming up. Then we’ll talk?”

“Then we’ll talk.”

When he leaves the room she sits down, cross-legged, on the floor of the ‘fresher. The water’s scalding. Eyes closed, she turns her face into the stream, lets it run over her until she can feel her skin flush and the memory of cold leach from her bones.

She gets three minutes of warmth before the pressure fails.

It takes Theron another minute to come back with the caf. She hasn’t moved, steam still rising in slow tendrils off her body, and she reaches up to take the cup from his hand.

***

Later, after they talk, she drinks a second cup in the cockpit while Theron goes over maps with Miot. The two of them are handling the route, the logistics of getting up from the surface to the Star Fortress without getting their asses shot off by the orbital station’s turbocannons, and she’s happy to let them do it. For all of her boasting, piloting was never her strongest suit. The Sullustan, on the other hand, flies the shuttle even better than Theron does, and Theron can pilot the damn thing with his implants.

They can do this.

The trial run was one thing, getting into the EPHEMERIS unit. The shield bunker was another thing- on Hoth, at least, they could get behind it where the turrets couldn’t target; she doesn’t know how they’ll manage the damned canyon on Alderaan or worse, Nar Shaddaa, where the bunker’s built straight into the wall. On Hoth, with help from the local resistance, it went down easily.

Today, they take down the station’s Exarch.

They can do this.

She wakes Lana, curled on a cot at the back of the shuttle, at five o’clock- Lana needed the rest, much as she swears she doesn’t- and they spar, hand to hand, to prepare. She needs the close combat practice. Fighting exarchs, from what she can tell, is a lot like fighting Jedi except exarchs don’t believe in things like mercy or surrender or fairness or-

Okay, maybe it’s more like fighting Sith.

There’s a reason (or ten) why she doesn’t like to fight Sith. She remembers so many years ago, running scared from Jadus on the Dominator , the Dread Masters in her head, Revan-

Revan? Pathetic. The keenest military mind of his generation- the words drip like acid off Valkorion’s tongue- destroyed by his weak-blooded descendants and a Force-blind spy.

She turns and Lana’s frozen, fist arcing through the air, Valkorion standing behind her with his arms folded across his chest. “Defeated, not destroyed. Revan chose to let go, unlike some people I can think of.”

Revan was a failure. You, on the other hand… I am not finished with you, and there is far too much at stake for me to abandon my last hope of bringing my children to heel.

She snorts. “I should throw myself into the Sun Generator just to spite you.”

Even if you were serious, which you are not-

“Are you so sure of that, old man?”

The ghost in her head walks behind her, silent. When she turns again she sees him in profile, staring unblinking at Theron, who's turned the co-pilot’s seat around to watch as she and Lana practice. She was about to counter Lana with a tricky maneuver that would have left the other woman flat on her back, and she can tell by the grin on Theron’s face that he's noticed it.

(He ought to have. He missed the dodge in training two days ago and ended up with her boot across his throat.)

She hates Valkorion's smile. In the years she's carried him in her nothing good ever happened when he smiled like that, lips peeled back from his teeth in corpselike mockery of a gesture he probably hasn't really meant in a thousand years.

Right now, he's smiling at Theron.

“You touch him and I swear I'll-”

So angry, little Cipher. I was merely calling your bluff.

When time starts to flow forward again she misses the counter. Lana pulls her strike short just before it catches her in the neck.

***

They prowl the hallways together, she and Lana, like twinned shadows. Lana strikes from  the front and she from the flank and they make short work of the skytroopers that patrol the halls of the sprawling station as they make their way, inexorably, toward its heart.

“You’re tense.” Lana gestures, lofting an exploding droid toward the forcefield blocking the ramp to the generator level. Pieces of jagged metal spray across the corridor as the barrier sparks and fails. “Did you not sleep?”

She picks off the soldiers as they march up the ramp, one by one, with a series of evenly spaced shots. Skytroopers are strange that way, shaped like sentients but their behavior purely mechanical, moving ever forward even as she piles their companions at their feet. Eight shots later, the last one falls. “Is that a polite way of saying we were too loud?”

(She’d worried Lana would disapprove, remembering that first lecture after Yavin. Instead, when she and Theron walked into the mess hall on the night after that first party- there wasn't any food on her ship and by nightfall they’d burned off the whiskey and were starving- they found Lana and Senya sitting together.

Lana, silent and smirking, lifted her hand, and Senya scowled and set a credit chit in her open palm.)

Theron’s back on the shuttle but he's guiding them through remotely, slicing into the system when he can, so the comm channel’s wide open; there's a muffled snort on the line before he mutes his transmitter.

“Too-” Lana’s saber comes around, taking the head neatly off the knight at the back of the pack- “Oh. No, that wasn't what I meant at all. You just look tense, and with your misstep during practice-”

“I’m fine.”

“The Emperor’s been meddling again, hasn't he? I thought I felt a presence earlier.”

A click in her ear- Theron, unmuting. “She had another nightmare, too.”

“No one likes a tell-tale, Theron.” She turns, snipes a probe droid off the corridor above before she shoulders her rifle. “I am fine, except for you two nagging like dormitory matrons. I keep waiting for someone to tell me my sheets are crooked or I haven't washed behind my ears.”

“Two hours of compulsory meditation, then scrubbing the floors with a toothbrush. Ah, memory.” Lana’s tone is light but her smile’s forced. “Is Valkorion-”

“Forget Valkorion. He wants me alive, for some unfathomable reason, and I can manage a few bad dreams until we take down Arcann and Vaylin.” Until. It’s always until, never if. “And it was recitations and polishing the senior students’ boots, by the way. The Academy wasn’t much for meditation. Force-sensitives all got shipped off to Korriban.”

Something's coming.

Heavy footsteps ring on the metal gratings, all in time with each other, and she and Lana freeze in place. She holds up one finger and switches on her stealth field. Pressed against the wall, they creep down the ramp into the light and heat radiating from the Sun Generator just as another squad of white-armored troopers march past, flanking a figure clad in gold-and-silver plate.

They can do this.

Go? They mouth the word, then both nod. Lana leaps to the front of the pack, and she drops the two at the back before they can turn.

By the time the guards are dead the Exarch’s fled, the coward, and they stalk him through the control rooms, destroying all the equipment they come across and pulling shields off dead knights to protect themselves from the worst of the radiation. The technology’s dangerous, too easy to sabotage and too hard on the workers who run the reactor, and they’d all agreed in the planning meetings that it wasn’t worth salvaging; unlike on Zakuul itself, though, there are no civilians on the orbital station.

When they are done, this place will burn.

They catch him on the last platform, working frantically on a console as the generator crackles and spits flame in all directions, and he turns, igniting his lightsaber. “Outlander,” he snarls at her, “If I’m going to die, Izax take you, you’re coming with me.”

As Lana engages him she slips back into stealth, gets behind him and goes low as the Sith goes high, and their blades slice into him in unison.

“No,” she says, “I don’t think so.”

He turns in a fury but she’s already dodged away and Lana binds him with lightning, slowing him as he pursues. She gets two poison darts into him before he even gets near and when he finally closes with her he raises his arms, lifting his saber to bring it down on her head-

This time, she doesn’t miss the counter. She pivots, ducks behind, brings her heel down on the back of his right ankle and sinks her knife into his left hamstring through a gap in his armor, twisting until he screams. He staggers; she twists it again, ripping it free. He hits the ground hard, armor clattering.

Lana’s on him then, lightsaber flashing through his breastplate, and after her third strike, he stops moving.

“One down,” she says, launching a grenade at the console. The smiles they give each other are feral. “Five to go.”

She kneels next to the body, pawing over the man’s broken armor- they need the exarch’s seal to open the locked door at the back of the platform- until she sees it, in two pieces, on his gloves, pulls them off and throws them to Lana. “Get the door open before this thing blows. Theron, tell Miot we’re ready for extraction.”

“On our way.” In the background, Miot says something Theron’s transmitter doesn’t pick up. “Aft hangar- it’s… um. Up to the docking level, then right. Two minutes.”

“Don’t be late. It’s getting hot in here.”

“I’ll be there. Be careful, okay?”

Just as she’s about to answer, Lana unseals the door. They dive into the lift and when it gets to the top level they run and run and run until they hit the hangar, the first waves of radiation from a dying sun-in-miniature lapping at their heels. The shuttle’s there already, the loading ramp coming down and Theron hanging onto one of the hydraulic struts, holding out his hand toward her.

Grip locked, his fingers wrapped around her wrist, he hauls her up onto the ramp and pulls her in close as Lana clambers up beside them. He grins at her. “We did it.”

“We did.”

She waits until Lana goes past before she kisses him, just for a moment before the ramp starts to close, and with the heat on her back as the Star Fortress burns she’s finally warm for the first time all day.

 

Chapter Text

Habits

 

She should have known it would be Kaliyo.

After all, she stopped believing in coincidence a long time ago and there are only so many quasi-anarchist firebug sociopaths in the galaxy. Finding one on Zakuul that was willing to work with the Alliance- of course it was Kaliyo. Who else would it have been?

Koth and Senya took some convincing. They’re both Zakuulan first, protective of their people, and state-sponsored terror is still terror, still destroys bridges and levels buildings and ruins lives. The Spire plans helped soften then a little; Koth, though, still devoted to the legend of the Immortal Emperor despite all her and Lana’s efforts to make him see reason, pushed back hard until she put her foot down.

(She understands it more than he knows. Even now she has to force herself to answer to Commander and not to Cipher or Agent, to remind herself that she isn’t really Imperial, not any more. They gave their lives to their work- all of them did, not just her but Lana and Theron and Senya and Koth too, in one way or another- and then the work changed.

Now they are remembering how to be alive.)

They need a chief saboteur. With these latest attacks they can’t afford scruples anymore, not when Vaylin’s bombing innocent planets into dust out of sheer spite, and Kaliyo’s the best they’ve got. They need to hit the Eternal Empire where it hurts. Aimless, left to her own devices, she’s blind destruction, but with guidance-

So Kaliyo stays, despite Koth’s scowls.

And when she hears when Arcann did, there’s something else she needs her for.

“So who picked the name?” Nine's on her back across two blanket-covered crates in a storage room in the soldiers’ barracks, jacket folded under her head and shirt tucked up beneath her breasts. “‘Firebrand’ has a certain panache, but it doesn’t quite fit you. Not flashy enough.”

“Like ‘Outlander’ sounds any better?” She grins. “You know me so well. I wasn’t the first Firebrand, actually, so blame that moron’s lack of creativity if you don’t like it. He got himself executed about two months after I got to Zakuul. I took over his network.” As Kaliyo talks she makes the first markings in ink along the tracing-paper template- she’d paused, seeing the saber scar, but didn't ask. She knew better. “He had a small following, too, so I kept the name. Upped the stakes.”

“Upped them too high.” She shakes her head, careful not to move the rest of her body.  “After that clusterfuck with the Wheezer I told you not to push it again. This isn’t like the old days when I could call in a Cleaner to mop up your messes. If you’d set those bombs off-”

Lips curled back from her teeth, Kaliyo scowls. “I didn’t. So if you’d all stop riding my ass about it, that’d be great.”

“You have no-” She starts to sit up before a hand on her shoulder pins her down flat on the crates. “You haven’t dealt with Arcann before, have you?”

“Nope. Knights once or twice when one of the kids got sloppy. We weren’t that high up the food chain.” The brush keeps moving when Kaliyo lets go of her, the ink cold against her skin as she copies the second line. “And after the deal with Tayv- with Administrator Slen, the guards stayed away. Had a good thing for a while there.”

“But then you got bored.” The third line goes down; she suppresses a twitch. Her ribs were always ticklish. “You never did stay with anyone for very long.”

One fingernail down the length of her side, making her twitch again, and a sly smirk- “Ouch. Right between the eyes- you kicked me out of bed, remember.”

“That was your fault, ‘liyo. Three days, and you came up for air asking for two kilograms of detonite. What did you expect I’d do?”

“Can’t blame a girl for trying. I thought you were too smart to fall for it- just had to make sure I was right.” Kaliyo shrugs, starts on the fourth line. “Shit, how long ago was that? Ten years?”

She has to think for a moment; it’s still hard to reckon time with a five-year gap built in. At least when they’d all sat down to talk Lana confirmed that she really had spent that time as a carbonite statue- Kaliyo had honestly thought she’d just cut and run. That hurt more than she cares to admit. “Since Hutta... eleven. We’re getting old.”

“Says you. So- you and the ‘pub are a thing, eh?”

That's one word for it (she’s pretty sure they’re avoiding that conversation, actually, which is just fine as far as she’s concerned). She doesn't answer.

“How long?” Kaliyo prods her shoulder. “Oh, come on. I saw you two on the shuttle flight back.”

“You remember Theron from the Revanite incursion, don’t you? We’ve been working together for years.”

“Someone’s-” her voice rises and falls, singsong, as she re-inks the brush- “avoiding the question.”

“He was giving me a neck massage- I tweaked a muscle dodging that hovertank. Not exactly the scandal of the year.”

The eyeroll that elicits could probably be seen from space. “You don't let anyone touch your neck.  How long?”

She sighs. They know each other too well for that to slip by. “A month and a half. More or less.”

“Practically domesticated. Tell me you aren't going soft on me.”

She doesn’t answer that either, just exhales as the last line goes down and she feels the template paper pull away from her skin.       

“Off-limits. Check. Not my type, anyway- too clever by half.” Kaliyo sets the little brush back into the inkpot and starts rummaging through the drawers of the toolchest against the wall. “You still sure about this? Ribs are a hell of a place for your first round.”

She’s sure. It’ll hurt like fuck, probably, but that’s part of the point. “Yeah. Let’s do it.”

“Spelling check first.” After another minute of searching- the kit, like the space, is borrowed; when she’d told her to arrange it it took all of ten minutes for Kaliyo to drag her down to the sub-basement- she looks up to the Rattataki mercenary dozing on a chair in the corner of the room. (When you need ink-work done, she’d said, find one of us. Or a Mandalorian, of course, but they were short on Mando’ade at the moment.) “Hey. You got a mirror?”

He gets up for a second, opens the lid, and tosses a little flat mirror toward Kaliyo, who catches it one-handed before she wipes it on her sleeve. “Needles in the second drawer, inks in the fourth-” he switches to Huttese, the tattooed lines running down his cheeks curving into a sneer- "and I’ll bet you a thousand she cries by the third line. Imps always do.

She manages to keep a straight face.

I’ll take that bet. She’s a lot tougher than she looks.” Shifting back, deliberately, to Basic, Kaliyo sets the mirror in her hand, folds her fingers around the glass. “Are these names? I don’t recognize any of them.”

Lifting her head, she looks at the reflection of the words written on her ribs. Five lines; five worlds she’d barely heard of before today. Five worlds no one will ever hear of again, dust and ash and bone drifting through the void of space. “Planets. They were planets.”

“Were?”

“Arcann thought they were helping us,” she says, and sets the mirror down at her side. “Hiding us in their cities, providing unofficial aid. While you played anarchist today the Fleet bombed them into oblivion.”  

Kaliyo slides a clean needle into the machine, dips it into an uncapped vial of crimson ink. “I didn’t-” She stops for a moment. “Damn it. Were they? Helping, I mean.”

“No. I only half-know what systems they were in. But I feel like I should remember them.”

She whistles, long and low. “You weren’t kidding about high stakes.”

“Welcome to the Alliance, ‘liyo.” Eyes closed, she takes a deep breath in. “Light it up.”

***

It does, in point of fact, hurt like fuck, but it’s the good kind of hurt. The cathartic kind. Two hours later, as Kaliyo cleans up, she rolls off the table and pulls her shirt down over the bandage on her ribs.

On her way out of the room she hooks her foot around one leg of the mercenary’s chair. “I haven’t cried since I was six,” she says in Huttese and kicks him off-balance; his eyes go wide, both at the sudden movement and her choice of words. "Pay up.”

***

To: Kaliyo Djannis <boom@command.alliance>
From: Alliance Commander <IX@command.alliance>
Subject: KNOCK IT OFF

If you need more supply funding, you could just ask instead of cheating at sabacc. I’ve had twelve complaints in three days, and Len still needs his clothes back from last night.

 

To: Alliance Commander <IX@command.alliance>
From: Kaliyo Djannis <boom@command.alliance>
Subject: Re: KNOCK IT OFF

Fine. I need a box of fuses and some baradium for the prototype.
I wasn’t cheating, by the way. Zakuulans are just lousy at cards. What am I supposed to do for fun?

 

To: Kaliyo Djannis <boom@command.alliance>
From: Alliance Commander <IX@command.alliance>
Subject: Re: Re: KNOCK IT OFF

We can get two grams of bisulfate, per Hylo, but more will draw attention. Is that enough?
I don’t know. Play something else. Drinking games. Take up knitting. Not sabacc.

 

To: Alliance Commander <IX@command.alliance>
From: Kaliyo Djannis <boom@command.alliance>
Subject: Re: Re: Re: KNOCK IT OFF

Two should be fine to start. Not even Centran variant?

 

To: Kaliyo Djannis <boom@command.alliance>
From: Alliance Commander <IX@command.alliance>
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: KNOCK IT OFF

I will shove that baradium down your throat, schutta.

 

To: Alliance Commander <IX@command.alliance>
From: Kaliyo Djannis <boom@command.alliance>
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: KNOCK IT OFF

XOXO. Drinks on me tonight, okay?

***

“Alright, next round.” Len reaches out to take the deck from Koth as they all set their glasses down. “Something less boring this time, yeah?”

Koth shrugs. “Luck of the draw. Anyway, I figure you've all embarrassed yourself enough already.”

In hindsight she should have been more specific on the type of game. Something harmless and short, maybe, to get her mind off the Nar Shaddaa problem- they still can’t get at the shield generator atop the Ternion building, even with a dropship approach; the last try cost them six resistance soldiers and a scuttled dropship. More annoyingly, her side’s itching under the bandage and she ought to go put salve on it. Instead, they’re all wedged around one of the round tables in a back room of the cantina, seventeen rounds in on a game of Aces, and if they go more than another few passes around the table she’s going to be too drunk to stand.  

“Let’s see.” Len draws off the deck, pushing Tora’s face away with one hand when she tries to peek. “Mistress of Coins… that's ‘I’ve never,’ right?”

It is; they all lift three fingers in anticipation. (She lost the Mistress of Staves, three for three.)

“Number one. I've never crashed a ship.” When he says it Len looks straight at Koth, who folds his thumb into his palm. She loses a point on that one, too, as do all of them but him.

Koth snorts. “Only because I never let you drive, Parvek. And I thought we were aiming for ‘less boring’ and not ‘ragging your CO.”

“Yes, sir. Um.” Len considers. “Less boring. I’ve never… um. I have never slept with more than eight people.”

“Very specific. Total, or at the same time?”

As Tora asks she grins at her- she was thinking the same thing, not that it would have made a difference- as Len looks thoughtful.

“Total.”

Senya, Lana, Len, Koth and, interestingly, Theron’s fingers stay up; Tora eyes them with an exaggerated yawn. “Ugh. I’m surrounded by boring people,” she drawls, pushing a strand of blue hair out of her face. “Next?”

“I didn’t hear any complaints last night.” As Len winks at Tora, Kaliyo scowls, and she figures out in that second exactly why he lost his clothes. Smarter than he looks, that one. “Same question, her version.”

This time, mostly unsurprisingly, she’s the only one who lowers a finger, and as she drinks she raises her free hand to bump fists with Kaliyo’s outstretched one in a cloud of raised eyebrows. While Tora draws, Theron leans over and murmurs in her ear. “You are awful, you know that?”

She covers her mouth to hide her grin when she answers. “I know.” (He’s teasing. She can tell by the rasp in his voice.)

“Is it wrong that I sort of want to hear that story?”

“Ever played stealth generator hide-and-seek?”

He nods, still whispering, as Tora holds up the Ace of Sabres and they all drain their cups; the serving droid circles the table, pouring refills. “Once or twice, in training, yeah.”

“Right before Academy graduation. Same idea. Less clothing.”

If the look that provokes is any indication, she’s just given him an idea. Before he can respond, though, Lana clears her throat loudly and they both sit up, arrow-straight. “If you’re quite finished over there,” she says, “this one requires some audience participation- not that kind, Senya-” Senya looks relieved at that, though from her previous answers in the game so far she’s had rather a more interesting life than one would have thought- “so enter your answer on the pad as it comes around. Master of Flasks. If we all got into a fight, who do you think would win?”

“How much prep time?”

“You’re overthinking the question, Theron.”

“I disagree!” She looks across the table at Lana. “It makes a huge difference.”

Lana sighs. “Honestly, you two. No prep time. Straight fight. Go.” She types something, then passes her datapad to Senya, who considers for a moment before she scrawls her answer on the screen with a fingertip and hands it to Theron.

That’s actually a good question. She has to think about it for a second- with no time to prepare that probably rules her out against the Force-users, so she narrows it down to Lana and Senya almost immediately; Lana’d win on finesse, but on power… Senya went one on one with Vaylin, and she’s watched Vaylin rip down buildings with her brain.

Senya it is.

When the datapad returns to Lana she taps the screen twice, then looks up. “Fair enough. The winner, with four votes, is the Commander. Drink up, the rest of you.”

“Oh, now you’re all just sucking up.” She snorts and points to Senya, who’s sipping, ever-graceful, from her wineglass. “Have you seen her fight? She’d squash me flat.”

“She was second place,” Lana nods. “Two votes. And it’s also her turn.”  

Senya draws the six of Coins, Theron the five of Sabres (one drink for the women, then one for the men) before she draws a card herself.

“Master of Staves... question time.” She tries to think of something unlikely to be self-incriminating as she opens her datapad, though she's still got work on the brain which isn't helpful at all on that front, and finally comes up with one. It's a bit tame, but it'll do. “Who gave you your worst kiss? It doesn't have to be anyone here, and assuming we don't get a winner on numbers we’ll all vote for the most amusing.”

Nar Shaddaa does give her a frame of reference for an answer- probably not actually the worst kiss she's ever had, but the kissing and the sex that followed were pretty terrible, even by the low standards of undercover work in seedy cantinas- and she enters the name into a standard voting template and pushes the pad to Kaliyo. While it makes its way around the table she pats at her side, trying desperately not to scratch along the bandage.

Theron hands her datapad back to her after a minute; she scrolls through the answers, tallying in her head. Three names she doesn't recognize: two look Zakuulan, so probably Koth and Len, and the third’s got a surname she's seen on Dromund Kaas which would make Lana the likely unlucky recipient there. One abstention, almost certainly Senya (poor Senya), one vote for an Archiban Kimble, which rings a vague bell from an old rant of Kaliyo’s, one for ‘your mother’ (Tora, she’d bet) and two for…

That can't possibly be right. Hers must have been duplicated- she counts the votes again. Eight votes, seven names, and she’s nearly positive the last one must be Theron’s, which also means-

Oh.

She definitely didn’t expect that.

“The winner of the worst kisser award, with two votes, is-” she focuses, very carefully, on the table in front of her, a howl of hysterical laughter threatening to claw its way out of her throat- “Jonas Balkar.”

Theron, drink already in hand in anticipation of the end of the round, freezes with the glass halfway to his mouth. “Wait. What?” Out of the corner of her vision, she can see him glance around the table, at six of them drinking and at her still staring at the tabletop, and his eyes narrow, teeth sinking into his lower lip-

In that moment, as she feels a familiar prickle in the back of her brain, Lana claps her hands over her mouth.

“Lana.” She’s desperately trying to sound stern but now Senya’s- Senya, of all people - grinning, too, and she presses her hand to her forehead with a sigh. “Get out.”

“I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help it-” her voice is muted behind her palms- “you were thinking it so loudly .”

This has gotten quite entirely out of hand. There’s nothing she likes less than a situation not under her control and Theron’s completely flustered, looking as though he’d like to crawl beneath his chair to die, so she does the only possible thing she can. She turns to him with her most practiced smirk and a delicately lifted brow.

“Well, that’s convenient, darling,” she says, sotto voce, just loud enough to know it’ll be heard around the circle; it’s a bridge too far on several fronts, yes, but more to the point it’s a distraction. “We’ve got similar taste in men.”

That pulls him back together. Returning her smirk, Theron finds her hand under the table as the rest of the group collapses into laughter, laces his fingers through hers.

(She definitely needs to hear that story. Later, though.)

They’re almost calm again when Kaliyo reaches into the middle, drawing off the deck. “Ooh.” She bridges the card between thumb and index finger, lets it snap into the air. “The Idiot. New rule.” It lands atop her glass, the horned triangle facing upward, as her nails rap an idle pattern on the table. “Let’s see.”

She knows that tone. That is not a good tone.

“Since we’re such a friendly group here,” Kaliyo runs her tongue over her upper lip- what’s she doing?- “let’s share a little more. Swap drinks with anyone at the table you’ve slept with.”

Len and Tora shrug, trading cups, and she switches her glass with Theron’s; they’re both drinking whiskey anyway, as usual, and she goes to down it when Kaliyo steals it out of her hand, replacing it with whatever frothy pink thing she’s been drinking all night.

“You’ve got shitty taste in alcohol.” It tastes like strychnine cut with sugar. Knowing her, it might be strychnine cut with sugar.

Kaliyo clinks the whiskey glass- Theron’s whiskey, technically- against the little flute and knocks it back. “You’re welcome.”

“And if you thought this was going to embarrass me, you-”

If she hadn’t been looking to her right she’d have missed it. Koth’s leaning forward across the table, lips moving, silent- Well?- holding out his half-empty glass; she tracks the trajectory of his hand by where he’s looking, though she knows, before it stops, where it’s going to end up.

Lana reaches out to take it from his grasp, drains it in one go, and turns on her heel; before any of them can move, she’s gone.

***

They end up back in her quarters, particularly since Theron’s room is next to Lana’s and he’s better off out of blast radius tonight.

“Well.” Theron slumps into her desk chair. “I’m never playing that again.”

She sets the locks before she answers, leaning her forehead against the doorframe. “Lana’s going to kill me. Kaliyo first, probably, but then me.”

He chuckles. “I doubt it, though the locks are probably a good idea. Was that just a lucky guess on her part?”

“I don’t think she had any idea- that one was aimed wide. Len turned her down and she’s sulking about it. Koth and Lana were just collateral damage.” Crossing the room to the desk, she sighs.

“Did you know?”

“I had a suspicion, but no, I didn’t. Not with any certainty. Did you?” When he shakes his head she sits on top of the desk, letting her feet dangle off the edge. “Whatever happened between them, it clearly didn’t end well.”

Theron nods. “That does explain the look he gave me the first time we met. He must have thought Lana and I-”

“You- um. Stupid question, but you didn’t, right?”

His facial expression answers that beyond any shadow of doubt. “You?”

“I don’t sleep with Sith. I never got the sense she was interested, in any case.” She rests her head in her palms. “I don’t think Koth understood at first why anyone would go to such extremes to rescue a friend- I caught him watching Lana and me more than once.”

“You two are close. I can see where he might have wondered.”

She sighs. “I should go find her.”

“Not tonight.” Theron turns the chair to face her, wrapping his hands around her forearms. “She’s tougher than that. Give her a few hours to lick her wounds and talk to her in the morning, if you feel like you need to.”

“You’re probably right.”

“I usually am.”

(He usually is- his gut instinct’s like a compass. If he hadn’t sworn he wasn’t Force-sensitive, there are times she’d wonder.)

“Hmph. That doesn’t explain Balkar, though.”

He groans. “Don’t remind me.”

“Let me guess.” Slipping out of his grasp, she slides down off the desk and behind his chair, lets her fingers creep beneath his collar. “VIP room storage closet, Dealer’s Den.”

“Is he really that predictable?”

“Not entirely, obviously, or I’d never have put his name down. I was trying for someone I didn’t think anyone else would have-” stars, he’s tense; she digs into the muscles, trying to work out the spasm- “I knew Kaliyo’d never met him. I figured you two had worked together, but… well.”

Theron leans into her touch for a moment before he sits up straighter, catching her hands again and pinning them down to his shoulders. “At least tell me it was a work thing.”

“Ancient history, Theron, and yes, it was a work thing. He’d gotten a copy of our Nar Shaddaa undercover roster about eight years ago. I was still field training Temple at the time.” Her side’s itching again, but he’s got her held tight. “Should have been an easy honeytrap for her. She said she was ready for one, but at the last minute she got cold feet.”

“So you took one for the team, as it were?”

“I wasn’t going to force the girl. Thankfully I was undercover myself, and as you’re probably aware, he’s got kind of a thing for dancers. Lifted the datapad while he was- ah, preoccupied.” She shrugs. “Mission accomplished. To make a disappointingly short story shorter, that closet’s tiny and his reputation is completely undeserved. Your turn.”

He lets her go and spins the chair around to face her, looking up beneath scrunched eyebrows with a decidedly rueful expression. “You ever get drunk enough that something really, really stupid sounds like the best idea in the world?”

“As you’re unfortunately now aware, I’ve slept with Kaliyo. So, yes.”

“That about sums it up. All the stuff with Revan… it messed with me pretty badly. I was trying to do some regular work, get my head straight, and he needed help with an op-”

“Hang on.” She eyes him, pretending seriousness. “One, phrasing, and two, this was after Yavin? You rebounded from me with Jonas Balkar? I am offended, Theron Shan.”

He laughs, hooks his index fingers over her belt to pull her closer. “You’re not upset?”

“Why would I be upset? As far as either of us knew at the time, Yavin was a one-off thing. Besides, that was six years ago. I’d be more surprised if there hadn’t been anyone else.” His hair’s mussed, and she ruffles it into neatness. “And I’m no paragon of virtue myself, so it’d hardly be fair.”

“I meant-”

“I mean that on all fronts. I’m a-” she catches herself; that ought to be past tense- “I was a Cipher. If you’re trying to shock me, you’re going to have to try a lot harder than that.”

“Is that a challenge?”

She grins.

“Well, to start with, you’re right-” he pulls her onto his lap- “that closet’s tiny.”

 

Chapter Text

Ghosts


She lets him stay.

She doesn't know why- it breaks half the unspoken rules they've set for themselves- but later that night, at the moment when they've caught their breath and their heartbeats slow to normal pace, when normally whoever doesn't belong to the place they are would get up and dress and go, she reaches out for Theron's hand as he stands up from the bed.

“If you don’t want to,” she says, “you don't have to leave.”

He stops, turning back toward her as her fingers loop around his wrist. “You know I can’t say no to you, but it’s late and I leave for Coruscant at six. I need to sleep.”

“I still don’t understand why you have to meet in person. If you get caught-”

“I won’t get caught.”

“You’d better not.” She’s been worried about it ever since he first proposed the trip, especially since he’s been strangely vague about the entire thing- support for the Alderaan shield generator mission, he said, which doesn't make sense at all. He wouldn’t say more, even when she pressed, which wasn’t like him. “That wasn’t what I meant, though. Just…” She looks up at him. “If you’d rather not brave the corridor there’s a perfectly serviceable bed here. For sleeping in.”

He doesn’t move. In the half-light of her quarters- she isn’t shy, but industrial-grade lighting isn’t flattering to anyone- his face is hidden in shadow; she can’t read his expression. Letting go of him, she rolls from her stomach to her side and pushes the pillow, marred with lipstick smudges in the precise shape of his name (they still have to be quiet here and, spurred to inventiveness by the game and the conversation that followed, tonight he’d made that very difficult indeed) away from her toward the headboard.

“But if you’d rather-”

Theron sits back down, nudging her toward the center of the bed with the pressure of his weight against hers. “Better move over, then. I thought you preferred the left side.”

She curls around him, ringing the narrow of his waist with her own body, as he reaches for the top edge of the blanket. “I do, usually, but I can’t sleep on my left at the moment. Still a bit tender.”

“I keep forgetting about that, sorry.” Bedclothes half drawn back, he stops for a moment; his hand traces the writing on her side, the callus of his trigger finger catching lightly on her healing skin. “It suits you. Didn’t know Ciphers went in for tattoos.”

“We don’t- not permanent ones, at any rate. Too easy an identifier. I would have gotten hauled in for this, once upon a time.”

“Such a rebel.”

At that, she shoots him a look of mock horror; he grins.

“Too far?”

She smirks, uncoiling, and stretches. “Let me up, hm? I need the ‘fresher before I pass out. Shall I leave you out a toothbrush?”

(Force help her, she really has gone domesticated.)

He chuckles. “You’ve got an extra?”

“The one I like only comes in sets of two.”

**

She doesn’t dream that night, but when she wakes he’s-

No, not gone. She can hear him breathing, a steady rhythm in the darkness, but she’s alone in the bed and his pillow’s gone cool. Sitting up, she scans the room as her eyes adjust.

Already dressed but for his jacket, Theron’s sitting cross-legged at the head of the stairs down to the work area; his hands rest, palms up, on his knees. His shoulders rise and fall in time with the sound of his breath. He’s-

He’s meditating.

She’s worked with enough Sith to know better than to disturb him, Force-sensitive or not. Instead she gathers the bedclothes around her body, hugs her knees to her chest and simply watches. After a while her own breathing starts to synchronize with his- in and out, in and out, a hitch after inhalation like timing a shot through a scope, relaxing in its familiarity. Minutes pass.

It’s well past five by the time he moves. His fingers curl, first, inward toward his palms before he straightens, stretching his arms overhead with an audible yawn.

“I could never get the hang of that. Always ended up falling asleep.”

“I did, too, at first. It’s easier to learn when you’re young.” Theron looks back over his shoulder, a smile ghosting at the corners of his mouth. “How long have you been awake?”

“Twenty minutes, maybe- not such a long time. I didn’t want to break your concentration.” She shrugs, wrapping the blanket tighter. “I thought meditation was a Force thing.”

For a fleeting moment, he’s somewhere far away. “It usually is. But when you do something every day for over a decade, it gets to be a habit.” Bracing himself with one hand on the floor, he pushes himself to his feet. “One of the things Master Zho insisted on- no breakfast until after cleaning and meditation were done. I gave up the fasting a long time ago, but some of it stuck. Helps clear my mind.”

“You’ve mentioned Master Zho before. He raised you?”

“He delivered me.” Theron keeps moving down the stairs, toward his belt (hanging, properly, next to the weapon rack) and his jacket (hanging, improperly, off her desk lamp). “He trained me as a Jedi. When he realized that would never happen, I don’t think he knew what to do. It- I’ll tell you the story sometime.”

She nods, watching him dress. “How old were you?”

“Thirteen.”

What would he have looked like at thirteen? Too thin, she’d bet, like the Jedi children they rounded up on Tython, all arms and legs in shapeless tunics and oversized robes. Wide dark eyes and sharp cheekbones, hair long- or clipped short, except for that silly little braid-

She smiles, despite herself, at the mental image, though she suppresses it quickly as he turns to face her again. To judge by his tone of voice, it isn’t a happy story; then again, most people in their line of work don’t have happy stories. People with happy stories, happy families- they don’t go for jobs where the average life expectancy’s on the near side of thirty.

“I’m sorry. That-”

His chrono alarm sounds; he silences it with a sigh. “Five thirty. Hold that thought until I get back, okay?”

“Be careful, Theron. I’m serious.”

“I’m always careful. But if that’s an order-” he bounds up the stairs, two at a time, and onto the edge of the bed, leans forward until his hands tangle in her hair as he kisses her- “I’ll be extra careful.”

With a few words and a touch she could drag him down, pull him into her arms and keep him there until the shuttle’s long gone; it would be a simple thing but it would be selfish, too, and the war comes first. It has to.

So she kisses him back, and then she watches him go.

***

She can smell ozone, sharp and clean, halfway down the corridor, and when she gets to the training room she nearly collides into an anxious-looking Republic scout and two apprentices all moving rapidly backward through the doorway. As she angles to pass them, a forked bolt of lightning crackles across the length of the room; she can hear the shield around one of the training dummies give way with a sharp pop, and the odor of charring duraplast mingles with the ozone as she inhales.

“I- ah, Commander, you might not-” The scout, a dark-skinned Zabrak girl with pale gray markings, reaches for her arm. “You might want to come back later, ma’am.”

“I’ll risk it.”

“Your funeral, ma’am.”

She waves them off, and the three disappear down the hall. Peering through the door, she yells in the direction of where the arc’s trajectory suggests Lana ought to be. “I’m coming in, Lana, and if you shock me to death I’m leaving Theron in charge of the Alliance.”

“Good.” The lightning stops abruptly, replaced by the low purr of an igniting saber. “I always hated titles, anyway.”

She steps further into the training hall. Normally crowded by this time of morning, the room’s entirely empty today save one very aggravated-looking Sith Lord, currently wielding a lightsaber against a trio of orb-shaped remotes. Across the way, one of the dummies smokes ominously.

“Did you want something, Commander, or are you here to gloat?” Lana’s still got her back to the center of the room, deflecting bolts back at the floating drones with each change in her blade’s angle. Her shoulders are tense, though, and her bladework uncharacteristically sloppy.

This isn’t anger. She’s seen her angry often enough to know the flavor of her rage- keen  and cool, an ice-rimed blade honed razor-sharp. This is-

This is what she’d seen during the Gravestone’s maiden flight: Lana, disarmed by Arcann’s knights, wounded, retreating to a corner of the ship to throw lightning at something until it burst into flame or she collapsed into exhaustion- anything to drive the taste of failure from her mouth. She isn’t angry, she’s brooding.  

Well, then. Past time to snap her out of it.

“Oh, stuff it, Beniko. Gloat about what? I just wanted a little practice on the wall before breakfast.” Crossing the room to the base of the exposed rock wall and pulling on her climbing gloves, she launches herself at the first ledge and starts to pull herself upward. “You know I couldn’t care less who you fuck.”

Shots fired.

The second outcropping is too high to jump to; she digs her fingertips into a crack in the rock and braces her right foot on a half-buried stone, listening for the tinny chirps of the remotes or, if she’s misjudged her mood, the sound of her own hair lit on fire by electricity. The next volley from the drones goes flying back- she can hear the impacts as she continues to climb, one handhold after the next- but when she turns to look over her shoulder Lana’s hooking her lightsaber onto her belt.

Target down.

“You certainly have a knack for vulgarity.” She’s been here for a while, clearly, face flushed and hair damp with sweat, her practice robe sticking to her back. “But it would serve me right. All my nattering on about objectivity and not letting one’s personal feelings interfere with the mission and there I go, stomping off like a sullen child. He ought to have kept his damned mouth shut.”

“I’m missing something, Lana. Force knows I'm in no place to judge- ow-” she misses a foothold and her knee skids into the wall before she hauls herself onto the topmost ledge- “and it’s not as though anyone would think less of you- besides Senya, maybe, but given her romantic history she certainly doesn’t have the high ground there. What-”

Lana folds her arms across her chest, staring up at her peevishly. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Suit yourself. You’ve been working together all this time and haven’t killed each other yet. Assuming you can keep that up, it’s business as usual.”

“I will manage, as always, but by my calculations the gossip mill will reach critical mass at eleven o’clock this morning.” Lana’s pacing, now, at the base of the wall, seven steps back and forth, still looking upward. “It’s likely to be a distraction.”

“No, it won’t.” The hanging rope’s three meters to her right, an easy jump; she walks to the far end of the ledge and turns, takes a few running steps and leaps from the edge.

Lana sighs. “I wish you’d wear a harness like a normal person. And you can’t possibly know that. Between Tora and Kaliyo-”

As the rope stops swaying she winds it around her calf and inverts herself, letting the blood rush to her head. “Kaliyo’s not a gossip, believe it or not- she’s a provocateur, but she’d rather bank her secrets and cash them out later. I doubt Tora will be talking, either. Koth threatened to throw all her tools into the garbage compactor.”

“He did what? When?”

“After you left.” She gestures, upside down, toward the door. “I was lip-reading, technically speaking, so I’m going by context, but I think you’re safe. Out of curiosity, how long did it take you to do those calculations?”

“That’s-”

She curls upward into a pike, grabs the rope again and untwists it from her leg before she releases, drops half the distance to the floor and catches hold again. The stretch on her side makes her wince as Lana reaches out; the air ripples and she feels her body start to float upward against the pull of gravity. “Let go. I’m not going to fall.”

“You have no sense of self-preservation, do you?” As she says it, though, Lana lowers her hands. “How long… hm. What time is it?”

“Quarter to seven or thereabouts.”

“About six hours.”

She slides the rest of the way to the ground. “Before or after you slept?”

Lana shrugs.

“You’ve got- what, just the quartermasters’ meeting today? I’ll take that over. You-” before the Sith can duck away she grabs her by the shoulders and turns her abruptly toward the exit- “are going to bed.”

“You’ve already got three other meetings. You can send Theron to talk to the quartermasters.”

“He left for Coruscant forty-five minutes ago, so no, I can’t. I will see you at dinner, and if I hear you’ve been out of quarters before then I will hide in the rafters and shoot sleep darts at you until you’ve got more shit sticking out of your head than an Alderaanian courtier.” She keeps moving forward until, with one last shove, they’re both back in the corridor. “Now go.”

Lana, surprisingly, does.

For her part, she shoves her gloves into her back pocket and takes the lift up to the mess hall. Today’ll be a five-cup sort of day, she thinks. At least.

***

The rest of the day passes in meetings and a stack of ops reports that badly need filing- she only needs three cups of caf, as it turns out, the near-fistfight between Hylo and Doctor Oggurobb over who’d get the last of the prototype shielding being more than enough to keep her awake for the remainder of the afternoon. (For his size, the Hutt is surprisingly spry.) By evening the reports are nearly done and she’s singing along with a cheerful Twi’leki pop song as the last few upload when, over the music, she hears a soft knock at the door.

“Door’s open.”

“I thought we were having dinner.” Lana steps across the threshold, a plastic mess tray balanced in her hands. “I waited for you.”

She’s only been working on reports for two hours, maximum. It can’t possibly be that late- and yet, somehow, her terminal insists it’s 2030. “I’m sorry. I lost track of time, I suppose, though that’s no excuse. How was dinner?”

“Gorak. Again. I swear they must have run into a flock and are trying to pass it off as rations.” Her nose wrinkled at the memory, Lana holds the tray out toward her. “I brought sandwiches. And biscuits.”

“Better than supplement bars by a long shot. Did you sleep?” She pushes the terminal screen away, studying her in its reflection; she looks better, eyes clear and hair brushed, her robes neat and unwrinkled. “We’re short-handed this week as it is without you coming apart on me.”

“I know. I slept, I promise.”

She takes the tray, sets it on the table in front of the couch as she clears her empty cups away, and gestures. “Good. Come on, then. Sit. Talk.”

When Lana starts to protest she picks up a piece of biscuit and, just as she reaches peak volume, pops it between the other woman’s parted lips.

“You’ll feel better. Trust me, nothing good ever came from pining over men.”

“I am not,” Lana says, crunching by way of punctuation, “pining. Nothing to pine over.”

She takes a bite of sandwich- some indeterminate kind of cheese, but still better than gorak for the fifth day in a row- and sits, cross-legged, on the couch. “I haven’t seen you that upset since Ziost. Even when Arcann skewered me it just pissed you off, but Koth’s got you rattled. Why?”

“I made a mistake with Koth, and then I made a second mistake trying to fix the first. I still don’t know that he’s quite forgiven me for the second.”

“After the look he gave you last night, I’m fairly sure that isn’t true. I’ve seen that look a thousand times- you could snap your fingers and have him back.”

Lana settles down beside her, pulling a pillow onto her lap and clutching at it until her knuckles blanch. “What if that isn’t what I want?”

“I’m fairly sure he knows that too, Lana. So it didn’t work out… that sort of thing happens, I hear.” She sets the sandwich back on the plate- she’s starving, honestly, now that she’s paying attention to her stomach, but it seems impolite- and turns toward her. “Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

“I- oh, damn it all. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Not in the least.”

She clutches the pillow tighter. “It happened on Arron Prime. But it started on Asylum.”

***

“You have to understand,” Lana says, looking up at her, “I’d been trying to make inroads on Zakuul for the better part of a year, completely alone. Koth was doing the opposite, of course- he’d deserted after Denon, as I think he told you- but he had leads I couldn’t have found on my own.”

Her fingers keep busy as she listens, weaving and unweaving little plaits into Lana’s hair. “He did tell me, yes. Keep going.”

“There was a record archive on Arron Prime, which seemed safer than trying to hit Zakuul directly. We got the information we needed, but we took mortar fire on the way out. Crashed the shuttle. After that, we were running from skytroopers for six weeks straight.” She sighs. “Not quite as bad as after Manaan, but it came close.”

“But you escaped.”

“We caught a Knight on solo patrol. I hid the body, Koth took his armor and stole a ship. It was an ancient cargo transport, but after almost a month of foxholes it was practically a yacht.”

Lana shifts restlessly onto her side; she adjusts the pillow in her lap, shifting it down a little to cushion between her thigh and Lana’s shoulder. “And that’s when-”

She nods, silent for a moment, before she continues. “I was so wretchedly lonely, Nine.”

“You don’t have to justify yourself. You’d been running solo for a long time- that wasn’t meant to be a double entendre, sorry- and Force knows adrenaline does interesting things to people.”

“Something you and Theron know nothing about, I’m quite sure.”

“Guilty as charged, but you’re changing the subject.” Separating out another few strands of blonde hair, she winds them between her fingers. “So you were lovers, but you said you made a mistake. What was it?”

Lana closes her eyes. “That was the first mistake. I wasn’t that kind of lonely.”

Chapter Text

Past Perfect

 

“I’m not sure I understand.” She glances down at Lana, at her anxious face and the tension lines at the corners of her eyes. “Not that kind of... you did want to, correct? Finding a new fleet captain will be tedious, but if I need to go kill Koth for you-” 

“What? Stars, no, that wasn’t what I meant at all.” Though she hasn’t even moved Lana’s hand reaches up, wraps around her wrist as if holding her in place. “No killing. Not Koth, at least.”

“Spoilsport. But then I suppose I still don’t quite follow.”

With a sigh, she lets go, opening her eyes again. “If I knew how to explain, Nine, it wouldn’t have been such a problem. I knew he trusted me after that, and I think that was what I’d been missing. I missed-” she gestures helplessly, her expression softening- “I missed something like this, I suppose. I wanted a friend, not a bed partner.”

(She smiles at that. They are friends, when it comes down to it, not something she ever thought she’d say about a Sith Lord who used to be her boss, the outsider who was handed the gutted corpse of Imperial Intelligence and told to resurrect it as a puppet of the Council. She was used to treating Sith in the same way one would treat a serpent- kept safely at arm’s length, a knife behind your back to take the head off quickly when, inevitably, the fangs came out. 

Lana, to put it mildly, had been a surprise.)

“Did you tell him that?”   

“Yes and no.” She sits up, reaching for one of the biscuits still sitting on the forgotten tray. “The next morning I told him it wasn’t going to happen again. He asked if he’d done something wrong, which was ridiculous- it was perfectly nice, honestly, but-”

Nine stops short, her own hand halfway to the plate- they may as well both eat; she’s still starving- and winces. “You didn’t actually use the word ‘nice,’ I hope.”

Shrugging, Lana mumbles around a mouthful of crumbs. “I might have. What’s wrong with nice?” 

She oughtn’t laugh- it isn’t funny, except she can picture the face Koth must have made- so she shoves half a sandwich into her mouth and turns away, nominally chewing but mostly composing herself. After a moment, her expression settled back into neutrality, she rotates back to face her. “Let’s put it this way. Imagine you’ve given me a gift, then asked me if I liked it. If I told you I thought it was nice…”

“I’d think you hated it, but you were being polite to spare my- oh.” Lana pales. “Oh, hell.”

“Myself, I used to default to ‘lovely.’ I generally save ‘nice’ for when I still have to be diplomatic but the sex was egregiously bad.”

“I should have said something else.” She flops backward, settling back onto the pillow, covering her eyes with her hands. “I should have said anything else. But it was- I don’t know. It wasn’t him. I-”

In that moment, she thinks she finally understands.

She leans over, smooths a stray piece of hair down over Lana’s forehead. “That just isn’t your kind of lonely at all, is it?”

“No. Not really.” Lana rubs at the bridge of her nose, lets her hands fall to her chest with fingers interlaced. “On Korriban it was an advantage, if anything. I saw too many other acolytes die at lovers’ hands to have any interest in romance, and frankly I preferred the library.”

“I can imagine. I had a few bad breakups in my own school days, and unlike you we weren’t being actively encouraged to kill each other.”

Lana laughs, a little, at that. “Yes, well, there was that. But then, even later-” she shrugs again. “I’m really quite fond of Koth, despite his obstinacy, and in the moment I thought perhaps… but nothing. Always nothing. And I couldn’t make him understand. He still thought it was him.”

If there’s a right way to respond to that she’s not sure what it is. I’m sorry seems wrong, somehow, placating the wrong part of the problem assuming it was ever really a problem at all, which isn’t for her to say. Instead, she lets the quiet settle around them, the only noises their breath and the occasional shout from the corridor beyond her closed door.

“You weren’t even in the records,” Lana says after a few minutes of silence. “It didn’t even matter, in the end, everything we’d done on Arron Prime. You weren’t in prison. We still had no idea where you were, whether you were alive or dead, and Koth started second-guessing the whole thing once he’d realized you were the woman who’d allegedly killed the Immortal Emperor.”

“I wish I had. Shot him clean through the heart, not that he has one-”

(Now, now, he says inside her head, and her temples throb with pressure like a tightening vise, that’s a terrible thing to say.)

She hisses- ah, that hurts; Lana tenses and sits up again, one hand on her shoulder. “Was that him? I could feel it, I think.”

“Yes.” She thinks of walls, solid walls made of stone and steel and wound around with thorns as long as her hand, until she feels his presence retreat from her conscious mind. “He tends to like to interject his opinion when he’s the topic of conversation.”

“Senya, Sana-Rae and I are still looking at possible solutions. There was a Dark Council member who might have been of help- Darth Nox was her name, and by all accounts she was a master at spirit binding, but the war took her. I haven’t heard from her in years.” A pause, then, a finger brushing above her upper lip. “Your nose is bleeding.”

“That’s the usual outcome. Beats a lightsaber through the gut, I suppose.” She vaults over the back of the couch, crossing  the room to the ‘fresher and grabbing a clean cloth off the towel bar, presses it to her nose and pinches, hard, across the bridge. “It’ll stop in a minute or two.”

Lana rises, too, reaching out. “Here. May I?"

“Thought you weren’t a healer.” She leans in anyway, toward her outstretched hands, and a faint warmth blossoms across her face as Lana concentrates.

“I’m diversifying. Someone’s got to keep the rest of you alive,” she says, “and the techniques are fascinating, actually. The different applications of energy-”  

Her eyes glaze over about ten seconds in; Lana could go on for ages about the Force, and it probably is really interesting stuff except that she doesn’t understand a single word of it, like listening to Watcher Two discuss algorithms or Doctor Lokin break down chemical formulae. She can feel the flow of blood slowing, though, so she’ll take the lecture.

“-but the Zakuulan philosophy suggests that- I’m talking too much and you’re going cross-eyed. Sorry.” She pulls her hands away. “That ought to do it.”

“Thank you.” Wadding up the cloth after wiping away a few stray drops of blood, she throws it back through the open door to the refresher. “It’s a shame Koth didn’t see this. It might finally convince him that the Emperor isn’t what he believes.”

“I doubt very much that it would be enough.”

Something in Lana’s voice makes her turn around; when she does, Lana’s still standing on the far side of the couch, her hands clenched tight.

“We fought constantly in the weeks after Arron Prime- about you, about Arcann, about what our next steps should be, about everything except what we were actually fighting about. Vitiate, especially. Always Vitiate, Valkorion, however you want to call him. Even when we thought he was gone for good, damn him, he still ruined everything.”

She comes back around beside her, rummages under the little table for the bottle she’s pretty sure ended up there last night (she knows they didn’t finish the whole thing, she and Theron, before their attention turned elsewhere) until her fingers close around its neck.

“That was my second mistake. I thought if I showed him,” Lana looks at her, grabs the bottle from her hand, pulls the cork and takes a long sip before she can reach for a glass- she never does that, not ever- “if I showed Koth the terrible things Vitiate had done, I could make him see.”

“Lana.” She knows in her gut what the answer’s going to be. Of all the terrible things the Emperor did there is one that they cannot forget, one place where they stood and watched a world die, but she needs to hear her say it. “Lana, what did you do?”

It’s almost a laugh, but for the way it pitches upward at the end. “I took him to Ziost.”

“And-”

“Have you been back to the surface? Since it happened?”

“Yes. Once. Never again.”

Lana takes another long sip from the bottle, then hands it back to her. “You know, then, what it’s like.”

“Yes.” She needs a drink, too, to wash out the memory. Thankfully, it's only half-gone. “Koth didn’t take it well, I assume.”

“He refused to speak to me for three days. We were halfway back to Asylum before he’d even look at me. As I said, I’m not sure he’s quite forgiven me even now, and on some level… you’ve hear him. He still doesn’t quite believe it was real.”

“But he stayed. Koth’s deserted once already-” Lana raises a hand to object that that, but she waves her down- “not that it wasn’t warranted, but the point stands. If he hadn’t believed in what you were doing, Emperor or no, he’d be gone by now.”

“I suppose, but-”

Her holotransmitter, set up on the table in the far corner, starts to ring, and she turns to check the display; she hasn’t got any meetings tonight, as far as she can remember, but in their ever-growing Alliance there are always a hundred fires to put out and some burn hot, even in the middle of the night.

Incoming call: Theron Shan.

Lana peeks over her shoulder at the call display. “I’ve taken enough of your time, Commander. I’ll just-”

“Oh, sit down, would you? Unless it’s an emergency he can wait- transmitter, answer call- and if you call me Commander again I will give you the longest title that I can think of and insist that every single person on this base use it in its entirety every time they so much as mention your name.”

The holo flickers to life. Theron’s sitting in what looks to be the pilot’s chair of his shuttle, feet propped up on the instrument panel and arms folded across his chest, and to judge by the wrinkles across his forehead he’s desperately trying not to laugh. “Hey, you. And Lana, I’m guessing. No one else hates titles that much.”

“Hello, Theron.” Sinking back into the corner of the couch, surrounded by a pile of pillows, Lana waves backward over her shoulder at the transmitter camera.

He quirks an eyebrow; she passes the bottle into her left hand, raising her right index finger to her lips, and he nods, spelling out a question. Koth?

She inclines her head to the right- later. “Hey, yourself. Is something the matter, or did you just miss me?”

“Mostly the latter.” He grins. “And much as I like Tee-Seven, I can only listen to binary for so long. Nothing wrong, just a few contact updates a little too sensitive to write down. But those can wait if I’m interrupting.”

“I’ve got the hour set aside as designated ‘drink and discuss the many ways in which men are inferior’ time, sorry. No boys allowed.”

At that, Lana reaches across to steal the bottle back.

“Really, though,” she says, “are you on your way to bed? I can ring back later, or in the morning-”

“Oh, I’ll be awake.” Theron stretches, arms over his head, as the astromech wheels by in the background with a cheerful chirrup of greeting. “I never sleep well shipboard. If I’m not paying attention just keep calling until I pick up.”

Should’ve taken me with you, she signs where Lana can’t see. Your fault for traveling alone.  

He smirks.

“I will. Talk to you soon, then.” Careful, neutral words, for others’ ears. Always careful.

“Yup.” The channel clicks off.

Lana chuckles. “I really should learn smugglers’ cant. I always feel as though you’re talking about me.”

“We weren’t.” It’s mostly not a lie, and she won’t tell Theron everything in any case- some things aren’t meant to be shared. “Just teasing him a bit, is all.”

“It’s funny, really. The first time you two met, on Manaan, I was sure you loathed each other.”

“Oh, we did.” She sits back down beside her, laughing. “We actually talked about that once. I believe the consensus was that he thought I was entirely amoral and completely incapable of being serious and I thought he was a humorless prude. Cute, but humorless: standard SIS field operative. They’re fun to play with, until one gets bored.”

With a toss of her head, Lana runs her fingers through her hair, working out the last few plaits. “It did rather remind me of a cat toying with a mouse. What happened in between, though? By Yavin he hated me for what happened on Rishi, but as you’ll recall-” her cheeks flush, ever so slightly- “I know more than I care to of what happened between the two of you. You can’t expect me to believe all of that was play."

“Serves you right for reading my mind. But no, it wasn’t- only at first, and even then not all of it.” She grins at the memory. “Honestly? I flirted with Theron because I thought it’d piss you off.”


15 ATC. Manaan. 

 

This was a stupid idea, she thinks to herself. This was a really stupid idea.  

When Lana called her the last time, she should have said no. This isn’t Intelligence, not anymore, where she had to jump every time some self-important Sith Lord snapped her fingers, but she hates being made a fool of and she has to admit it’s looking more and more like Darok and Arkous played them all like a Void-damned orchestra. She still can’t figure out why, either. She’s got no idea what their end game is and it’s driving her crazy.

So when Lana called, she answered, following her all the way to Manaan. Apparently they’ve got an ally now; she won’t tell her who it is, which is both annoying and worrisome. With no name she couldn’t pull a dossier before arriving. It could be anyone. It could be a Jedi.

It had better not be a Jedi.

Not that it matters now. She let Jakarro kill the scientist- all the files they need will be on the lab terminal anyway, and hopefully it’ll keep the Wookiee from ripping her arms off before they can make it back to the surface- but that kept them occupied just long enough to let her quarry escape. As she watches, their submersible pulls away from the docking tube, taking off toward the surface and-

“Um, boss?” Kaliyo points toward the door they came through, now sealed shut behind them, as a half-dozen explosions rock the station and freezing water pours in through a crack in one of the viewports. “I can’t swim. Thought now might be a good time to mention that.”

Shit.

There must be escape pods, but she doesn’t have a map of the facility either. “Lana?” She opens the channel as they run toward the far passage. “I need an exit, and you need to pull as much intel off the network here as fast as you can. They bugged out and blew the seals.”

“I’m sending a shuttle down your way.” A voice in her ear, definitely not Lana. Definitely male, Coruscanti accent. Not Imperial. “Keep heading down that hallway toward the cargo bay. It’s about ten minutes out, but you should have time.”

“This is a private channel,” she says, ducking back around a corner as two of Gorima’s engineered soldiers launch a volley of rifle fire in her direction. “If you’re there with Lana, put her on. Otherwise, get the fuck off my line.”

“She’s here. But she’s meditating, trying to track Darok and Arkous. I’m working on that data-” the accent’s not entirely Coruscanti, now that she’s heard a little more; there’s a softness to the consonants, less emphasis on the hard k. Whoever he is, she’d guess he was raised elsewhere- “but I’ll try to talk you through at the same time." 

The water here’s already up to her ankles, freezing cold even through boots and thick socks, and as they run she catches a whiff of wet fur as Jakarro charges past her into the next room. “You must be the mysterious ally, then. Do you have a name, mysterious ally?”  

“We’ll do names topside. Too many potential ears.”

“We do know how to secure a channel, you know.”

He snorts. “Maybe, maybe not. Once you cross this room there’s one more hallway before the cargo bay. I’ll- um. Hang on. There’s something-” the channel cuts out for a second.

Kaliyo looks at her. “That doesn’t sound good.”

She hands her an extra stim, an extra kolto syringe, and her last two grenades. “Let the Wookiee take point. If it gets that bad, run for the docking tube.”

Before Kaliyo answers, Mysterious Ally’s in her ear again. “Gorima had a pet project- a cyborg prototype. Shielded. It’s loose in the cargo bay.”

“Can we bypass? Dock the shuttle somewhere else.”

“There isn’t anywhere else.”

She sighs, ducking as a dead Selkath goes flying overhead. “I’m not equipped for cyborgs. I was expecting a Sith and a meat shield.”

“Oh, come on,” he says, “Lana said you were tough.”

(now that is disappointing, hunter says.

she’s curled up on the floor of the nar shaddaa safehouse, hunter called her back after hoth- she thought it was just to get her away from temple, to threaten her again, but that wasn’t it. she doesn’t know what was in the syringe; it could have been glitterstim or etching acid and she would have had to stick it in her arm anyway when hunter told her to. her nerve endings burn and it hurts it hurts it hurts and-

one finger up the back of her neck. it feels like her skin’s splitting. i thought you were tough.)

“You-” the doors to Cargo slide open and it’s standing in the center of the room, easily ten feet tall and studded with metal where it isn’t armored which is almost everywhere; that is the biggest Selkath she’s ever seen- “have no fucking idea.”

Five minutes until compression failure. The synthesized voice rings through the overhead speakers. Five minutes until compression failure. Please proceed to the nearest escape pod for immediate evacuation.

She kills the creature in three.

The decontamination jets helped, to be fair, but dead’s dead and dead and on fire’s better. She lets Kaliyo patch up Jakarro as she activates the console beside the docking chamber. “Alright, Mysterious. Where’s my shuttle?”

“Docking now. Hold on.”

The projector activates, and- oh. He’s cute.

“Well. Hello, ‘pub.” Not a Jedi, but there’s no mistaking it, looking at him- dark hair and eyes, tanned skin above a leather jacket that definitely isn’t standard-issue and cranial implants that definitely are - SIS. She’d bet good credits he’s SIS. She licks her lips. “Now I see why Lana’s been keeping you all to herself.”

He rolls his eyes. “Yeah. I’m with the Republic. I’m also saving you. Is that going to be a problem?”

“Oh, no. I can play nice.”

“Good. Door should be opening-” as he says it, the seals hiss and the panels slide open, revealing a little shuttle beyond- “now.”

“Looks cozy.” She signals, waving her team onward. “And here I was just thinking it’s been a while since I’ve gotten to ride anything Republic-issue.”

Oh, he’s a blusher. This is going to be delightful. “Oh, for-”

She hangs up on him. Time to go.

(Was that really what you said? Lana buries her head in her hands, her shoulders shaking with laughter. He did look flustered when I came out of meditation.

She tries, unsuccessfully, to look innocent.)

By the time they get back to the meeting room she’s gotten the water out of her boots and most of the blood off her face, and rearranged her hair to cover the scorched bits.

“Everyone, this is Jakarro, our new friend and import/export specialist, and his colleague C2-D4, formerly of Onderon. Jakarro, Cee-Two, this is Lana Beniko-” Lana, polite, nods her head- “and Mysterious Ally who won’t tell me his name except in person.”

He’s got his nose buried in a datapad, but at least he looks up when she speaks. “Theron Shan, Republic SIS. Hi.”

She knew it. “Hello, Theron Shan. Lana, have you introduced me?”

“I thought I’d let you do the honors.”  

“I see.” She turns toward him with a mocking little bow as he looks her up and down, tracks his eyes as they flick toward her weapons, her armor, lingering on her face. “Cipher Nine, formerly of Imperial Intelligence. I do hope my reputation precedes me.”

To his credit, he only goes a little pale. Good. “I hear Imperial Intelligence isn’t much to speak of these days.”

“We got tired of winning all the time, so we figured we’d let you see what it feels like for once.” She shrugs, her smile wide. “It was getting boring, really.”

“And we will all,” Lana sighs irritably, “be working together for the near future, so if you would please keep the sniping to a minimum-”

“Oh, you’re no fun.” She winks at him. “We’re only playing, aren’t we, Theron?”

He looks back down at his datapad as Lana, eyes narrowed, mouths a single word in her direction- Behave.

(I seem to recall hearing that a lot, that year, she says.

Well, you did deserve it.

She curls into the cushions as Lana ruffles her hair. I suppose I did.)

Chapter Text

Legacies

 

15 ATC. Rakata Prime.

If it was uninhabited, this would be a beautiful planet. The view from the landing zone, white sand beach and pristine water as far as she can see, makes her wish for a bathing suit and a drink with a little umbrella in it. The pieces of wreckage do rather spoil the scenery, though, and if her experience on Tatooine is anything to go by she’s guessing the natives aren’t friendly.

Still, Nine strips down to her undershirt while she waits to review the mission parameters, letting the sun shine on her shoulders. It’s hot, after all, the warmth a pleasant change from the chill breeze of Manaan; maybe she’ll even manage a hint of a tan. (Probably not. Probably sunburn and more damned freckles, but one can hope.)

She’s also pretty sure, as she bends to lay her jacket on the Nightshrike’s steps, that that ‘pub agent’s staring. When she looks back over her shoulder his sightline flicks upward about two degrees, settling on her back holster.

Definitely staring. Hm.

“My eyes are up here, Republic.”

He blinks, then gestures toward the small of his own back. “Just looking at your holdout.”

“My holdout. Really.” She turns fully around, drawling out the words in amusement. “Assessing my weaknesses?”

Theron- she should use his name, since the four of them seem to be stuck together for the time being (a Sith Lord, a Cipher, an SIS agent and a Wookiee- a list that ought to end with “walk into a bar,” really)- shrugs. “Let’s call them limitations, if we’re pretending to be friendly. Don’t you worry you can’t draw it left-handed?”

“Very diplomatic of you. But,” she says, lifts her right hand and waves at him as she twists her left behind her back, drawing the little blaster and bringing it forward for him to see, “limitations are for amateurs. Modified release. And a centered holster gets in the way of my rifle.”

That might have been a nod of approval; not exactly a chatterbox, him. “Fair. I’m ready when you are, by the way.”

She crosses back over to where he’s standing, looks over the planned route on the map projected onto the side of Jakarro’s ship. “I didn’t realize there were still this many Rakata alive.”

“Outside of this planet, there aren’t. There were more a few hundred years ago, from what I’ve read, when Revan was here. But ever since the Star Forge was destroyed this place has been pretty much off limits.” Theron gestures toward one of the larger pieces, a colossal shard of twisted metal at least a quarter-kilometer long. Three whole sentences in a row- that’s the most he’s said since they all left Manaan. She might actually be winning him over. “They’re dying off, little by little.”

“Normally I’d call that hypocrisy,” she says, “but given the first Rakata I met tried to turn an entire research base into cybernetic slaves, I’d call it good riddance. And didn’t Revan want to use the Star Forge? It looks an awful lot like he blew it up.”

He shakes his head. “You don’t know the story, clearly.”

“Not really, no. I know Revan was a Jedi and then a Sith and then a Jedi again, and then he tried to kill the Emperor and ended up imprisoned for three hundred years.” Until you idiots let him out and he tried to build another army, she doesn’t say. She’d read some of the Revan dossier, years ago, but they were focused on weaknesses then, not deep details of the man’s biography. “We don’t focus on Jedi history much."

“That’s-” he clearly wants to add something more, but bites his lip- “that’s the very short version, yeah. You’re missing a pretty big chunk out of the middle. But no, he tried to use it the first time. The second time he came back to- he destroyed it, that time, so it wouldn’t be used.”

She waves a hand dismissively. “Like I said, Jedi history’s not my thing.”

He shrugs and turns back to the map as Lana comes striding down the exit ramp.

“Are you ready, Cipher?” Lana, too, looks to the map. “Feel free to bring whichever of your crew you prefer. Jakarro’s agreed to be our distraction, so he’ll be heading out momentarily. I’ve tracked Darth Arkous and Colonel Darok to the temple complex here-” she points- “which is your destination. On arrival, confirm target presence and activity.”

“Wait. I thought we were all moving on the temple together. If they engage I’m going to need more than a two-man team, especially with a Darth in play.”

“Avoid direct engagement unless absolutely necessary. Jakarro will be nearby, and we’ll be monitoring you from the shuttle here and providing remote support. We need to figure out what they’re doing before we decide on a plan of attack.” Lana continues marking points of interest with careful swipes of her finger along the projection: the temple and an adjacent courtyard; a few villages along the shoreline; further inland, a stone circle with-

She eyes the map dubiously. “Is that a rancor?”

“Yup.” Theron reaches across and adds sharp claws and pointed teeth to the drawing. “Also recommend not engaging the rancor. Take the long way around.”

“Noted.” She flips him off and turns back to the Sith Lord. “Seriously, though, I’d be happier with a four-person team. I can only cover two with my generator, but can’t Theron-”

He shakes his head. “I don’t have stealth equipment with me. If you’re going in cloaked, you’re better off letting me slice from here.”

She arches an eyebrow at that. If he was involved in the Republic’s strike on Korriban in anywhere near the same capacity Lana had been for Tython he must be fairly high up the food chain, but he’s not dressed like it; as far as she can tell he’s got two pistols and probably a holdout but no longer-range guns, no decent melee weaponry, no poison, minimal armor and now no stealth. She’d pulled his dossier on the way from Manaan, though it didn’t tell her much- he’s been active a few years longer than her so he’s probably a few years older, but no codenames, a few vague links to old missions but nothing concrete which means either he’s never gotten caught or, if he did, he killed his captors. If that’s how the SIS supply their elites, no wonder she’s run circles around every ‘pub agent she’s ever met.

(Hunter didn’t count.

Hunter wasn’t SIS. And in the end, when she slipped her collar, broke free of the leash Hunter used to drag her by, she put a round straight through that bitch’s head.)

“Your people don’t give you much in the way of kit, do they?” Glancing in his direction again, she gives his gear another once-over. “You- oh, dear. You are a field agent, aren’t you? Not that there’s anything wrong with data analysis, of course, but-”

“I am not,” he narrows his eyes at her, lip curling in irritation, “a desk jockey. I can handle myself just fine.”

“Oh, I bet you can.” She grins. The expression on his face is somehow familiar- she’s sure they’ve never met before, but he reminds her of someone that she can’t quite place. It’ll come to her eventually, she’s sure.

(Lana giggles.

Oh, shut up, you.)

She ends up bringing Temple; she can still use more practice with stealth and Lana and Theron keep promising, even as they finalize the route and Jakarro takes off along the path toward the first village, that it’s just a scouting mission. She hooks the little camera over her ear, connecting the cable to her transmitter so they’ll have visual. Get in, report, hold position. Easy.

So of course it goes to complete shit less than an hour in.

The attack on the village should have drawn the Rakata guards off the shoreline path. They should have all been chasing Jakarro by now, but instead they’re fortifying the watchposts with more guards and trained beasts, fleeing the villages like cowards but running straight into her path at the same time. She and Raina get past the first two by skirting along the water’s edge but the third’s a problem- they’ll either have to wade and risk being heard, or try to get up over a rock outcropping that takes them dangerously close to the beasts.

She signals; Temple nods, and she draws her pistol and her knife, just in case, as they head up over the rocks.

They would have made it. Halfway past the guards a little sliver of loose stone goes sliding down the cliff face, though, and hearing the noise one of the creatures turns its head, takes a deep sniff- and looks straight at Temple, growling. The Rakata beside it huffs and raises a hand.

They freeze, too late.

She shoves her down as an arc of lightning takes a chunk out of the ledge above their heads and the debris breaks their stealth field. After that it’s messy, six Rakata and four warbeasts between the two of them, and even as she gets her generator up again and they wade into the sea to try to purge the scent of blood from their armor she can hear alarm klaxons sounding all the way up the coast.

“The coast route’s a no-go.” She hisses into her transmitter. “We’re blown. Requesting extraction plan from Watchpost Gamma.”

“I’m not so sure. The main complex is still quiet.” Lana answers back, her tone less confident than her words. “The alarm doesn’t appear to have reached them yet. Keep going.”

She pulls Temple into an alcove as a patrol team moves past their position. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this op. Reroute me, but I’d be ready to move in if I were you.”

“Take the right-hand path from your position,” Theron chimes in. “It’ll take you inland.”

“Past the rancor.”

“Right through it.” He sounds entirely too smug. “Unless you don’t think you can handle it?”

He’s trying to goad her, of course- it’s the favorite pastime of rival agencies since the dawn of the modern age, when they’re not actively trying to kill each other- and she isn’t going to fall for it that easily. Beside her, Temple rolls her eyes. Cocky bastard, she mouths, and she grins and nods agreement. “Watch and learn, Republic. Watch and learn.”

One can’t sneak past a rancor, not really. It’s got far too keen a sense of smell and even after their quick salt-water bath there’s still enough blood and enough sweat in their armor for a hunting species to pick up. The best she can hope for, then, is to turn the surroundings to her advantage; she gives Raina and her sniper rifle a boost up onto one of the standing stones around the ring where the creature prowls.

Still hidden, she creeps from the shadow of one stone to the next, gets back behind and downwind of the rancor and raises her knife, signaling up for the first shot as the field around her flickers out and-

She catches sight of the Rakata chief out of the corner of her right eye just before he closes on her and has just enough time to duck; his staff whips through the air above her head and she dodges, rolling forward through the rancor’s legs. A rifle shot takes it between the eyes and it roars, stomping, as she dives forward again.

“You could have mentioned the clan chief.” She has to shout to be heard over the bellowing as she peers around a pillar, launches a shock dart straight at the charging figure.

“Hold on-” Theron again, accompanied by a very loud metallic bang- “Lana’s meditating again, and I lost visual for a sec there. What are you- oh. Well, you’ve got him contained now, right?”

“For the next ten seconds, at least.” She gets around the Rakata as his limbs twitch. Her knife can’t cut through the ceremonial collar at his neck so she slashes at the backs of both legs before he can turn. “Are you two trying to get me killed?”

( Of course we weren’t, Lana huffs indignantly. It wasn’t well-scouted, yes, but-

I realize that now, she grins. But I didn’t have the best track record with SIS or the Dark Council at that point, remember. For all I knew, someone had put both of you up to taking me out.

I suppose you have a point.

She shoves another biscuit into Lana’s mouth. Of course I do. Now stop interrupting.)

“Don’t be-” he sighs. “Look, we’ll have better intel when you get to the temple. I’ve got about three-quarters of their the surveillance system sliced and I’m working on the last few now.”

The chief’s slower now, at least, staggering around and toward her as a flash off Temple’s rifle sight warns her out of the line of fire. “You’d better. I don’t do suicide missions.”

The shot, unlike her blade, gets through the collar just fine, and with no further distractions the rancor, too, goes down in relatively short order. It’s a shame they haven’t got time to take the teeth and claws- the last time she fought a rancor she’d had Vector and Doctor Lokin go over the corpse; Lokin had needed rancor bile for his research, for whatever reason, and they’d sold the sharp bits at the Mandalorian Enclave for a pretty sum- but the noise of its death has drawn a crowd, a tight phalanx of guards approaching over the rise of the hill.

Just in time, her generator recharges, and they sneak carefully away toward the temple complex.

The building itself is massive in a way that reminds her more of Korriban than Dromund Kaas. The courtyard fans out around the temple in all directions, great stone steps drawing one’s eye up to the high spire in the center, flanked by rough-hewn statues of a masked and hooded figure.

Revan. Fucking Revan, again.

When they’d raided the Foundry the rest of the strike team swore up and down that Revan had died. (Herself, she’d gotten thrown head-first into a pillar and spent the last moments of that desperate fight in stunned semi-consciousness. Not her finest moment.) He couldn’t have survived it, they said, all that lightning, even though he hadn’t left a body behind- that sometimes happened, apparently, with particularly powerful Force-users. His dream of a droid army, at least, had been quite thoroughly quashed.

They’re trying to build an army too, this group of conspirators, so she supposes it makes sense they’d end up here. Their plans on Manaan had failed- Rakata technology there, as well- and there must be some functionality left in that ancient temple. Was that what they’d been looking for in the archives on Korriban and Tython? Maps to ancient places, long lost to living memory. Places like the Foundry, like the Star Forge that used to fill the sky here...

But why ?

Theron’s voice in her ear derails her train of thought. “Hey. I’ve got visual on the temple and… um. Did you bring any ion grenades with you?”

“Only two.” She pauses. “It’s cyborgs again, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Augmented soldiers in a cordon around the entrance. Human, this time, but the tech looks a lot like what you described from the underwater facility.”

“How many?”

Silence for a moment, then- “Four? No. Six, and one in heavier armor.”

She sighs.

“Too many?”

“I’ll manage. Where’s Jakarro?”

“Close,” Theron says. “But loud. You get backup or surprise, not both.”

That’s an easy choice. “Surprise, always. Keep him clear.” He knows the protocols, she hopes, or they’re all in trouble. “Requesting radio silence.”

“Copy that. Await your all-clear.” The channel clicks off. Not entirely useless, then. Good.

The heads-up did help. She gives Raina the second grenade and they split off a hundred meters out, the range on their synchronized generators just enough to let them flank the cordon from each side of the wide staircase; the grenades drop all the soldiers, their augmentations overloaded and sparking, leaving just the commander- who, of fucking course, has a rocket pack and another six cyborgs-

No. Another dozen cyborgs, in two separate waves.

Still, she manages. She always manages, though there’s a long scorch mark across her chest where she got too close to the commander’s downdraft by the time they’re done and Raina’s got a graze along her left thigh that’s left her limping. As the other woman presses a kolto autoinjector against her leg, the needle triggering with a soft hiss, her earpiece chimes, then chimes again.

“I thought I called silence, Theron.” Now that they’ve a moment to rest her left shoulder’s hurting, too, a dull wrenching ache, and she rolls it backward and forward. “And it was eighteen Void-damned cyborgs, not six, so you’d better have good news for me or I am really going to be very cross.”

“I’m afraid it’s more bad news, Cipher.” Lana sounds strange, distracted, her words slurring together. (I remember that. I had a terrible headache, Lana says. I was hearing Revan even then, but I didn’t know it… it was just a roar. Like sticking your head in a turbine.) “Arkous knows you’re coming, and they’ve got a shuttle on the roof. You may have to engage after all- we can’t afford to let them escape again.”

“You’re on your way, I hope.”

“Yes, but-”

She flicks the tip of the transmitter with her fingernail and gets twin yelps in reply, which serves them right because they’re going to get her killed and she is not going to die here, not today. “Let me guess- but you’re not sure you can get here in time.”

“No. We can get there, but Darok just fired up the turrets and I can’t get into that part of the security grid remotely. Going to need a distraction to be able to land near the tower.” Theron’s still trying to slice in, probably, given the amount of clicking in the background.

“How lethal of a distraction?”

“The goal is still live capture, if at all possible,” Lana says, her voice a little clearer.   

She grumbles under her breath. She can hear Jakarro across the courtyard, so it’ll be three on two (the droid doesn’t count); those still aren’t ideal odds, though if she can foist Darth Arkous off on the Wookiee… well. It’s something. “Oh, all right. Shall I do it without armor, too? It’ll be an extra challenge, if you’re going to handicap me anyway.”

That earns an unamused huff from Lana, and, over the continued terminal noise, a muttered I’ve got cameras on top of the tower, right?

“You’re still transmitting, Theron. Moving to intercept.”

She imagines him blushing as she and Raina and now Jakarro, too, bounding up the steps four at a time behind them, fight their way through the entrance to the main temple, through the halls and up the turbolift to the shuttle platform.

In the end it didn’t matter.

Darok and Arkous were never going to surrender, never going to let themselves be taken alive, and she kicks herself for not suspecting the Revanite connection sooner; it explains so easily how they’d ended up here, following in the footsteps of a dead fool, though the Revanites had deeper roots than she’d imagined. She thought they’d stomped out the last of that heresy years ago, when she’d exposed the leader of their cell on Dromund Kaas- but she’d never followed that through, distracted as she was by the destruction of Jadus’ Dominator. Clearly, at least a few of the rats had dodged the trap.

She’d left her transmitter wide open while they’d fought, and as Jakarro gives Darok’s body one last ferocious kick she slumps against the rooftop console to nurse her bruised ribs and get the perimeter guns powered down. Opening the holoterminal and a slicing channel, she catches her breath as Theron and Lana flicker into view, side by side.

“You heard all that, I hope?”

“Heard and felt- the colonel is dead, too? I sensed Darth Arkous’ passing.” Her expression dour, Lana shakes her head. “It’s a shame they wouldn’t say any more.”

Theron’s shifting from foot to foot, fidgeting with his datapad. “I’m pulling data now, but there’s not much here. Damn it, we may never figure out what they were really up to. They were building an army for someone, but-”

“We’ll- oh-” Lana flinches, eyes scrunching shut as her face contorts in pain, and she staggers for a moment. “Something’s coming.”

(And to think I used to envy you that mind-reading thing, she says, nudging Lana teasingly. It seemed so useful.

It is, sometimes. But it’s hard to control. One ends up- she nudges her back, two fingers prodding at the side of her neck- seeing things one wishes one hadn’t.)

The ship’s already darkening the sky when she looks up, the figure projecting from it nearly half again the height of the tower and looming high overhead like something out of a nightmare, all cape and hood and mask and-

Raina ducks out of sight; Lana’s staring, eyes wide, up at the figure, and Theron’s gone pale and quiet and his lips move, silent- she told me he wasn’t dead, she knew-

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” She rests her hands on her hips, scowling upward in the general direction of its face, if it can see her at all. “Revan. I’m pretty sure I killed you.”

***

I don’t remember Theron saying that. Lana turns her head, eyebrow a perfect arching question mark. Who did he mean, she?

She shrugs. I assume he meant his mother... I’m not sure, actually. But you remember the rest of what happened after that, don’t you?

Lana nods. We should have waited for you on the beach, but Revan’s flagship was firing on us, too. Splitting up seemed the safest option. Then by the time I made it back to Vaiken, the death warrant was already active. Arkous’ failsafe must have kicked in the moment he died, and the word of a Darth, a Dark Council member, even posthumous, against mine-   She shrugs. I ran, and hoped you’d get my message.

And Theron did the same, and Jakarro. I only slipped the net by virtue of not technically actually existing, I think- it wouldn’t work now, not with the old Minister gone, but he used to wipe my dossier once a month. It made it rather difficult to pin me down.

Lana grins at that. A trick I wished I could have replicated, but no such luck. So it was quite a relief, really, when you showed up on Manaan again, though I’m not sure Theron felt quite the same.

He said he was glad to see me. The pillow beneath her head’s gone flat; she fluffs it carefully, and settles back down. Although asking for a mutual debriefing may have been pushing it just a little too far.

(Stuttering out a denial, he’d blushed so hard his scalp turned pink. Oh, Force, he was cute when he blushed.)

Chapter Text

 

Best-Laid Plans

 

15 ATC. After Rakata Prime.

I’ll be in touch, Lana says as they all leave Manaan, separate ships in separate directions, when it's safe.

Theron says the same, and she knows it’s really if and not when, but in spite of herself she wishes them all luck. They're going to need it.

She goes home to Dromund Kaas for two weeks, trying to keep herself on the radar and an ear to the ground at the same time, looking for any scrap of information about the Revanites or their plans; there’s nothing, which is suspicious in itself. If their network is anywhere near as big as it appears, given the number of ships in play over Rakata Prime, secret-keeping on that scale ought to be impossible. Someone gets drunk in a cantina or lets a secret slip to a mistress or talks once too often on a bugged line- intel bleed’s inevitable, yet somehow, even with all her considerable resources in play, she still doesn't know anything. It doesn't make sense.

So when, two days in a row, she sees the same man with the same black hat and tan satchel sitting on the bench outside her building, she gets the fuck out of town.

(He might, to be fair, just have been waiting for the shuttle.

But one doesn’t survive as a Cipher for long by assuming the best of people, and besides his hat was at least three years out of style. Her Kaas City apartment had been a patron-gift at the end of her training days; she’d paid a single credit to make the transfer legal, but she’s some idea of what it would have cost- more than she could afford, even now. No one with the credits to live on this block would have been caught dead wearing that hat in public.)

They hit Nar Shaddaa first, she and her crew, to get lost in the roar of it and to stock up on supplies in case they really do need to go to ground: obvious things, mostly, ship parts and rations and energy cells, but also clothes and cosmetics and contact lenses, all the usual trappings of disguise. Who she’ll need to be depends on where she ends up, but it seems likely she won’t be able to be Cipher Nine for a while. 

On Nar Shaddaa that's never been a problem- she’s got a dozen active options there, from dancer to gunrunner to dilettante. She slips from role to role, easy as life, shoring up her information networks, but even there real intel’s scarce. No sign of Lana or Theron- or Jakarro, which is remarkable, given she’s never met a Wookiee in her life who understood the concept of low profile. After a month or so, when she gets desperate enough to start asking about Revan directly, the only lead’s dodgy as anything; the Sith’s completely strung out, for one thing, eyes bloodshot with more than just dark energy and track marks down to the backs of his hands, and he points her toward a part of Shadow Town she knows better than to go anywhere near. She thanks him anyway, of course, and hands over the credits.

As she gets up to leave the cantina, a pretty dark-haired girl brushes past her on her way toward the exit, slurring an apology. It happens a dozen times a night in any bar in this district, so she’d have thought nothing of it- except that the girl doesn't smell of alcohol and her eyes are too sharp for spice and, when Nine catches a glimpse of her walking away in the mirror above the door, she's pulling a tracker from her pocket and folding it into her palm.

Sloppy little thing. Bold, to be sure, but sloppy. Not one of hers.

Outside, she ducks into the second-closest alley- not the closest; that would be the expected thing- and checks herself over, her fingers brushing over a needle-thin sliver of metal threaded into the fabric of her sleeve. It’d be alarming, really, if it wasn’t so insulting. A tracking chip. Honestly.

She stabs it into the nearest convenient vagrant, takes the long way out of the alley, and when she gets back to the safehouse she and Vector wipe it clean while the rest of them head back to the dock.

Time to go.

(I didn’t realize they’d gotten so close, Lana murmurs.

She laughs. Close was shots near enough to split your hair, footsteps echoing off pavement from feet you know are there but can’t see. Close was fingers on your throat and knives in the dark, words layered with triple meanings and poison in champagne glasses. Close was twenty hours and thirty-two minutes of pain and spitting up blood afterward in a Coronet City gutter, slung- carefully, almost, surprising in its gentleness- over SCORPIO’s cold metal shoulder because you can’t feel your own feet. Close? Hardly. It just meant I needed to change tactics.)

***

Year’s End, 15 ATC. Port Nowhere.

If she couldn't pin down the Revanites, she’d figured, perhaps she'd have better luck finding the rest of their odd little quartet. And when one wants to find someone, well- that meant bounty hunting, and given the options she’s already burned that meant Port Nowhere.

Port Nowhere’s a good place to lie low.

Imperial Intelligence always had an agent or two posted here, as did the SIS. But with no official military presence on either side and few Force-users (openly, at least) the smugglers mostly run things- the Voidhound, the closest thing this place has to a ruler, ostensibly threw her hand in with the Republic, but that doesn't mean much this far into uncharted space. There was no shortage of work to be had, either off the record for the Empire or as a freelancer, and if it ever seemed like the walls were closing in she’s got multiple exit strategies in play.

Besides, she thinks to herself, settling brown lenses onto green eyes, tucking her hair, braided and pinned flat across the crown of her head, into a neatly bobbed black wig, there’s no rule against a bit of fun along with all this work.

Kaliyo, priming the airbrush in the ‘fresher of their latest hideout, shouts over the noise of the compressor. “You had to go with ‘ravi, didn’t you? Her tattoos are a pain in my ass… every three days for a damn month. Dirala’s way easier, just that one scar.”

“Dirala got made on Nar Shaddaa. You know that.” She teases the hairline down, shakes her head to let it settle properly. “If I showed up here as her, assuming there are any of Revan’s people around, it was going to be more just than a tracker. Whereas Vairavi-” slipping out of her robe, she crosses the room to the open door, holds her arms out to the sides- “has enough of an in with the Hunters’ Guild to pull a high-credit bounty. And if you can show me an ex-Sun runner that doesn’t have tattoos I will eat my favorite hat, feathers and all.”

“Eh. Doesn’t explain why we’re still here.” Kaliyo grumbles, pressing the stencils into place along her back and around the curve of her biceps. “All the bounty leads have been dead ends so far.”

“Not entirely. We made enough money hunting side targets to get you that new gun.”

“Fair.”

The cool air through the brush hits her bare skin, making her shiver. “And we know Lana was on Tatooine six weeks ago and Jakarro passed through Molavar. Helps pin down a quadrant, at least.”

“We don’t know it was Jakarro. Still no news of the ‘pub, either.”

“Oh, come on. How many Wookiees are running around with protocol droid heads strapped to their chests?” She looks back over her shoulder. “I doubt we’ll hear much of Theron, anyway- he ought to know how to go to ground, and without an official bounty no one’s really looking for him besides the SIS and it’s not as though I can walk up and ask them.” They’d basically all committed treason, as far as their bosses were concerned, and he’d skated by with a nonlethal disavowal- whoever he is, Theron Shan’s got powerful friends.

(Lana makes a strangled little noise, her teeth sunk into her lower lip.

Oh, don’t you dare. You didn’t know any better than I did, then.)

A shrug; a change of stencil. “You could always try.”

“I could. But I thought I heard Jori Itera mention Revan last night when he was arguing with the Kelborns. Might see if I can find him and see if he’s drunk enough to let something slip.”

“And if he’s not?”

“Then we’ll all talk tomorrow about moving on. Tatooine might be worth a shot- I’ve got a contact in the spaceport who still owes me a big favor. As for tonight-” she turns at an angle to check her reflection, the clean etching of the Black Sun emblem on her right shoulder blade and decorative lines running down the backs of her arms- “it’s the last night of the year, in a bar full of Mandalorians. I’m sure I’ll find something to keep me entertained.”

Her back still needs time to dry, but while she waits, standing in front of the air vent, she pulls her skirt on and tugs it down over the tops of her thighs, clips her little gun into the waistband and does up the fastenings. Her boots are- hm.  Not next to her bed where they ought to be, nor in the trunk with her proper armor and her rifle, nor on the chair next to Vairavi’s armor (cheaper than hers, of course, assembled piecemeal as a bounty hunter’s usually was, and heavier too).

“‘liyo.” When she says it, there’s a noncommittal murmur from the general direction of the ‘fresher. “Did you, by chance, happen to steal my heeled boots when you went out last night?”

“What? No.” The tap shuts off, and Kaliyo peers out around the door. “Maybe. Steal's such a negative word.”

She sighs.

“I’ll get ‘em. Hang on.” She vanishes out into the common room (where Vector’s diligently going through bounty leads and Temple’s napping- she’d left Lokin to his work shipboard and SCORPIO guarding the dock, seeing as how unlike the rest of them she doesn’t need to sleep or eat) and comes back a few minutes later, the boots in question dangling from her fingertips. “See, good as new.”

“Just tell me you didn’t fuck that awful smuggler while wearing my boots. You’re going to give me some kind of disease by proxy.”

Kaliyo raises her left hand, places her right squarely over her heart. “I did not fuck anyone while wearing your boots. I promise.”

“Good.” The paint finally dry, she pulls a shirt over her head and smooths it down, adjusting the neckline carefully to best effect. It’s mostly a work night- it’s always a work night for her, even when it isn’t; that part of her brain never shuts off, ever- but it’s still a holiday. One plans for all possibilities.

“Although-” Kaliyo’s hand falls, her eyes wicked as she grins- “I might have been wearing your jacket.”

 

***

The first rule of bounty hunting is to never pretend to be a Mandalorian.

Officially, that’s probably about the fourth rule, but in practice everyone knows the first few- everything gets logged through the Guild, don’t steal kills, don’t try to hunt above your pay grade. Somehow, though, every cantina on every backwater in every quadrant of the galaxy contains at least one idiot claiming to be the next Mandalore. The problem’s that, as low as their numbers have gotten and as insular as the clans are, every cantina in the galaxy also contains at least one person who’s at least second cousins with the current Mandalore.

She knows better than to try. Wearing this face she’s just plain Vairavi, the kind of girl who never had a surname and ended up running with the Black Sun because, awful as the Sun was, it was better than whoring or dying, which are the other two options for girls like that in the places where the light doesn’t touch. Her contract years done, she’d lit out on her own- fame and fortune and all that trite shit. A plausible story.

Which, paired with a big enough gun and a big enough swagger, will get you just about anywhere.

But when she has to duck back from the entrance to the Drunken Rancor- the Rancor’s her usual, at least in a hunter’s guise, with the Kessel Run under Imperial surveillance and the Backfire SIS territory- because someone’s exiting it face-first, she only understands half the words hurled after him but she can guess what he was trying to do; sure enough, she finally makes it through the door and Eri Kelborn, flushed and rumpled in a tight black dress quite a bit more revealing than her usual armor, is dusting off her hands and scowling.

“Can you believe that asshole?” The woman’s not talking to anyone in particular. “Tried to claim kinship. Like I wouldn’t know my mother’s sister’s child.”

“Fuckin’ idiot.” She nods agreement as she steps past her, slipping into an undercity Coruscanti drawl. “And nice throw, too. Good loft.”

“I thought so.” Eri grins, picking up her glass from the floor beside her. “Oya, Vairavi. You just missed your friend.”

That stops her short, four steps into the foyer, and she angles herself to get her back out of the line of the doorway. “Yeah? I’ve got a few of those. Did you catch a name?”

“I was only joking. He sounded like you, only posher, ‘s all- don’t get so many Core Worlders slumming it out here. Cute enough, though. Red jacket.”

“We all sound alike, eh? I’ll have to track him down. Is he still here?” If her smile looks forced, hopefully Eri’s drunk enough not to notice. Coruscanti accent, red jacket. He couldn’t possibly be that stupid. Right?

(I told him, Lana says, he needed something less conspicuous, but I’m not sure he actually owns any other jackets.

In that moment, she resolves herself. The next time they’re anywhere with a decent tailor, she’s taking Theron shopping.)

She shakes her head over the edge of her mug. “Had one drink and left half an hour ago. If you’re bored, though, Nikko Bralor’s looking for you.”

“I’ll pass. ‘m never going to be that bored.”

“Smart woman.” Eri waves her toward the bar. “Go get a drink, at least.”

She does, ordering up a whiskey- double, neat- and leans against the counter, surveying the rest of the room: crowded, with most of the crews out of armor taking the festival week as a chance to relax, even the Ubese at the far tables in uncommonly good temper (which is to say, not actively trying to stab anyone). Jori Itera’s alone at the far end of the long row of stools, three empty glasses stacked in front of him and a fourth, half-full, in his hand, his usual pose for the last six days since he’d come back from Belsavis. Rumor had it that he and Haniya’d gone after a rogue Jedi, hoping for a big payout. He’d come back alone, though, with a shattered helmet and armor painted mourning-grey and hadn’t been sober since, but she’s certain she heard him say Revan last night in the middle of a dozen Mando’a curses.

It’s a better lead than she’s had all month.

She orders a second whiskey, slides it in front of him until it clinks against the stack of empties. “Jori,” she says, “I heard about Haniya. I’m sorry.”

He grunts and doesn’t look up at her, but when he drains the glass in his hand he reaches for the one she put down. “Girl, I’ll tell you what. You’re hunting a Sith, aren’t you?”

She nods. Only technically- with her name on Lana’s bounty it made another team less likely to claim it- but still.

“It en’t worth the payout, trust me, dealing with that Force shit.” He sighs. “Should’ve listened to Hani.”

“She didn’t want to take it?”

“She wanted to go home. Hadn’t been back in years- she was a Beroya before we got married- but her sister called a few weeks ago and asked her to come visit- said there was bad business afoot, that they might be back to fighting soon and that Torch said they’d need-” he stops. “Never mind. Not for you to know, aruetii.

Carefully, nonchalantly, she shrugs. “Means nothing to me, anyway. Was that what you were fighting with Eri and Ket about last night? Only word I understood was Revan, but I figured that’s like a swear word for you lot after what he did, yeah?”

His fifth glass, empty, hits the bartop with a dull thud, and his lip curls. “Leave it, ‘ravi. I’ll only say it once.”

“Is that a threat?” She gestures to the bartender, holds up a finger and points- even if it is, another full glass ought to go a fair way toward calming him. Jori only laughs, though, and shakes his head.

“No. But you don’t want to kick that nest.” Drink in front of him again, he takes it in hand and lifts it toward hers. “Now, I’ll take your drink for my Haniya, and then I’ll be asking you to leave me be.”

Their glasses touch; she drinks, nods, and turns away.

Well, it’s something.

Making her way back to the other end of the bar, she lifts her comm to her mouth. “Vector? I’ve got a new search for you.”

He answers almost immediately, as always. “We were just finishing the last of the reports. We’ll take the parameters when you’re ready.”

(I miss him, she says. She’d have given her eyeteeth for a dozen of him except for the Killik business. It made her skin crawl, which wasn’t his fault, of course. Poor Vector.

 But he had known, even when she couldn’t say it in that awful year when every word out of her mouth was one of Hunter’s lies, when her hands stuttered over keypads and even putting a pen to paper yielded only splotches of ink instead of letters her body flatly refused to shape, that something was wrong. In black moments he’d simply press his hands to her temples and close his eyes, humming. She’d asked him why, later, when she could, and he had said only that he was trying to help her remember the Song.)

 “Current location of Clan Beroya. Cross-reference Torch. I think it’s a nickname, but definitely a person.”

“The scent of our prey?”

“I don’t know. Something related, at least. You have until morning.” Vector had no plans to celebrate, she knew. Alcohol, apparently, did awful things to Joiner physiology.

She can already hear the soft tap of fingertips on a datapad. “As you say. Shall we call with updates?”

“Hm.” Eyes on her back, from somewhere nearby. “No. No-” louder, enough that whomever’s watching should be able to hear- “tell him the contract’s off. He must think I’m fresh out of the sublevels, giving those terms.”

“Understood.” His voice curls around the word in amusement. “We’ll speak in the morning.”

She closes the channel.

When she turns to see who’s watching she has to duck under an outstretched arm that’s about two seconds away from snaking its way around her neck. She catches said arm by the wrist and twists, driving her other hand in at the shoulder until its owner yelps and staggers and-

“I was just comin’ to wish you happy- ow!”

“Damn it, Nikko. Next time you try that I’ll break your arm.” She lets him go, rather than slamming his head into the wall like she meant to; she should let him hit the wall, honestly, and teach him a lesson given the way he’s been pestering her, but then he’d probably bleed all over her shoes. “What part of ‘fuck off’ ‘re you having trouble with?”

As he rubs his shoulder sheepishly there’s a snort of laughter from the nearest table, where a tiny woman she doesn’t recognize sits with her feet propped up, ankles crossed on the tabletop. “I told you she wasn’t interested, idiot. You owe me fifty credits.”

Lifting one hand in an obscene gesture, Nikko scowls. “Oh, shut it, Ves. Like you’d do any better with that pretty face of yours.”

She’d never seen Vesja with her helmet off; they’d run into each other at the brokerage a few times, but Ves hunted on her own, not with her brother, and had been off-station for most of her own time here. When the woman turns out of profile she can tell what Nikko meant- the right side of her face is a ruin of scars half-hidden by fair hair, three long slashes that span the distance from chin to forehead, her eye clouded white and the corner of her mouth drawn up in a perpetual smirk.

At the moment, it’s half a smirk and half a snarl as Vesja hops out of her her chair. “Double it, then.”

“It’s your money, but fine. A hundred credits.” He folds his arms across his chest, looking absurdly smug. She really should have let him hit the wall.

Her eyebrow arched, she looks back and forth between the two of them- up and down, really, with Nikko towering well above her head and his sister barely shoulder height. “Can I ask,” she says, “what exactly you’re betting on?”

Vesja sighs. “Hey, 'ravi. My charmer of a baby brother doesn’t think you’d care to join me for a drink.”

“Hi, Vesja. No offense, but your brother’s kind of a cunt.”

The other woman grins. “Ain’t he, though?”

“And I’ll take that drink on one condition.” She turns her back on him completely, his stammering disbelief delightful in its incoherence. “Tell me how you got those scars.”

“I think I can manage that. C’mon, then,” Ves says, an arm around her waist, and-

(She stops. You… probably don’t need to hear the rest of that story.  

A happy new year, indeed?

She winks drolly at Lana, who definitely doesn’t need to hear the rest of that particular story- after a handful of drinks they’d gone upstairs, and she’d spent midnight, and most of the rest of the night, with her skirt pushed up above her hipbones and her thighs clamped tight around Ves’ ears. Say what one likes about Mandalorians, but to a one they fight like demons and they fuck just as hard as they fight; it was a damn good thing that bar was loud.

Lana shakes her head. Honestly, I have no idea how you ever get any work done.

I’m very good at multitasking. Ask Theron.

All things considered, Lana says, I think I shouldn’t.)

The next morning, Vector’s report’s still running when she makes it back to the safehouse, and they all agree it’s time to move. Back on the ship, she’s changing back into her armor when Kaliyo knocks on her cabin door.

“Hey. There’s something wrong with the navicomputer.”

“Wrong how?” Hair unplaited, it stands around her face in tight waves until she shakes her head.

“It’s locked on one destination- some planet I’ve never heard of. Come see.”

Kaliyo’s right, when she looks; no matter how many times she resets it or how hard she smacks it with the flat of her hand, it’s stubbornly locked on-

“Oh.” Vector, head tilted, peers over her shoulder as he steps onto the bridge. “We didn’t realize you had already seen the results of our report.”

“What are you talking about? I can’t get this bloody thing to work properly.” She kicks it again. “SCORPIO? Get in here and fix this.”

“Rishi.” He points at the screen, at the planet they’re apparently heading to whether they like it or not. “You asked us to locate Clan Beroya. The most recent intelligence available suggests that they have settled, along with several other allied clans, on Rishi.”

That’s a hell of a coincidence.

“Well, then. I suppose we’re headed to Rishi.”

(You'd had better luck tracking the Revanites than I did, clearly, she says with a shrug. You'd been on Rishi for a while before I got there, hadn't you?

Lana nods, then shakes her head- Yes, and no. We'd been there perhaps a month, but finding them at all was half luck and half recklessness- I almost got caught on Tatooine twice. That Theron noticed your ship on Port Nowhere was a complete coincidence. We'd lost track of you, too, by then.

That hangar was locked up tight. He didn’t stumble on it by accident.

No. In his words, you poached it out from under him. He had to scramble for a new landing platform, and when he went to find out who’d stolen his secure dock he realized it was you.

That answers that question- she’s never been sure how he'd managed to slice her ship. Not remotely- no one was that good, not even Theron, with SCORPIO embedded in Nightshrike’s system- so it must have been the old-fashioned way, when she'd hooked into Port Nowhere’s database to update the astrogation charts. I did wonder how he'd pulled that off.

We weren't ready yet, not really. Hence the whole pirate nonsense. Rolling her eyes at the memory, Lana sneaks the bottle out of her hand again. She at least has the decency to look mostly sorry- though only mostly, the effect rather spoiled by the whiskey bottle at her lips. But it was either that or risk not being able to find you again. And it could have been worse.

I fail to see how.

We settled on the Howling Tempest eventually, but Theron suggested the Red Hulls. Lana grins. Who, apparently, were cannibal pirates.)

 

Chapter Text

Backfire

 

16 ATC. Rishi.

Vector’s research was right- there are definitely Mandalorians on Rishi, though she hasn’t been able to get anywhere close yet. But the clans aren’t going anywhere, as far as she can tell, so that lead’ll keep until she can work her way around to it.

Nine’s first priority is to find whoever sliced her ship.

Nobody messes with her ship.

At least no one recognizes her here. More properly, no one on Rishi seems to know who the captain of the Howling Tempest Gang actually is, so the charade’s holding nicely so far. Pretending to be a pirate is extraordinarily tedious, especially in an Outer Rim shithole like this where there's no hierarchy, just group upon group like rats gnawing on each other, squabbling for dominance. She’s had to kill a dozen cocky idiots trying to prove themselves against her.

But after only a few days’ work she’s nearly on top of her target, finally, after months of failed leads and dead ends, so if it means acting like something out of a holiday pantomime- why was it always pirates?- she’ll act the part.

(Not like Hutta, at the beginning of everything, where not ten minutes into her sojourn as the Red Blade she’d had the bad luck to run into someone who not only knew the real Blade- who wasn’t human and definitely wasn’t female- but who had him in hock for more credits than her whole operations budget.

Thank the Force for stupid men. For all his bragging Dheno had been a pretty mediocre fuck, but at least he hadn’t blown her cover.)

When the message comes in, then, she mishears it at first - but no. The droid definitely said Red Blade.

It gets her hackles up. Old business like that raises a few possibilities- besides Kaliyo there aren’t many people left who knew her that well that long ago- and none of them are good. Most of them ought to be dead and ashed. She should ignore it.

She doesn’t, of course. No point in delaying the inevitable.

When she gets to the meeting point he’s already there, facing away from the door with his head bowed over a console, but she knows the slope of his shoulders at a glance. He’d always stood up so straight one could practically hear his heels click together, like the soldier she’d always suspected he once was, when anyone else was watching. But when they’d been alone, the day Intelligence died, or the day she pressed the Black Codex into his hand-  

“Minister.” Her hand’s still halfway on her knife as he turns around toward her; in the end he gave her freedom, but he let them chain her in the beginning. They would have executed you, otherwise, he’d said once, a whisper of rationality beneath the storm of her rage. It was better this way. Wasn’t it? “I thought you were dead.”

(Lana startles. They told me- she shuts her eyes tight, face contorting in anger- the Council assured me that he’d been dealt with. No loose ends. They promised-

She curls her hand around Lana’s fist, unfolding her tense fingers one by one. The Council lies. They always have. They controlled what they could, they destroyed what they couldn’t, and when they couldn’t do either one…

They lied. And I believed them.

You were lucky, she says. You only got a lie.)

***

She wouldn’t have agreed if it hadn’t been Shara.

When she was young and stupid and fresh out of the Academy she thought the Watcher program was brilliant. Training field agents was hard enough; only three out of sixty of her cadet class went to the field, with another eight in support roles and the remainder shunted off to the Diplomatic Corps, and field work didn’t require a quarter of the skillset that Watching did. Why wait for natural talent to turn up when the ability could be bred?

The program was an abomination. She knows that now. Calling it “conditioning” made it sound somehow respectable, to say nothing of what must have happened to the failures, but it warped Shara just as badly on so many levels as the Castellan restraints had altered her. In most ways it was worse: even now, just the thought of the word onomatophobia makes her shake and sweat, but at least she’d known when her actions weren’t her own. The Watchers were so controlled, so restrained by their conditioning-

“I do have to be scared,” Shara says, her tongue tripping over the words, her magnificent brain still shattered years after Hunter’s vicious little trap. “The Empire altered my limbic system.”

Poor Shara. She deserves the chance to choose, for better or for worse.

(Sometimes, even now, she wonders what else the program altered.

She’d seen other field agents go to bed with their assigned Watchers. Intelligence encouraged fraternization on a shallow level, a sort of trust-building exercise as long as one didn’t take it too far; with Fixers or Minders it was one thing, but with Watchers she’d begun to wonder, as the years passed, whether it was genuine affection or something else. Something less voluntary and more calculated: not force- never force- but a tendency engineered, seeded deep and cultivated and shaped into thoughts that seemed spontaneous but weren’t, not really, not at their heart.

And then she thinks of other things- a hundred half-remembered medical evaluations of her own; dozens of injections she never thought to question; the Advanced Interpersonal Negotiation seminar, officially optional and available only by permission, that unofficially meant shortlisted for Intelligence assignment and that they’d unofficially subtitled Lie Back and Think of the Empire-

And she stops thinking about it at all. It’s better that way.

She’d had a choice.

She’d had a choice.)

She leaves the Minister behind, a drive full of dossiers tucked into her jacket pocket and a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Even with her own file purged, the Council knows her history, at least in part; unless she takes herself entirely off the board it's only a matter of time before the game catches up with her. If Intelligence really is reforming, with a Darth at its head-

Well. That’s a thought for another day.

***

I gave the files to you, after Yavin. Do you remember?

Lana nods. I do. Darth Marr never quite approved of most of them, but the ones that came aboard were some of my best agents. Why didn’t you keep them for yourself?

He made you the new Minister, not me, and I thought you might need a little leverage. It’s a hard game, Intelligence, she says, especially when you don’t know the rules.

***

Kai Zykken was an idiot, and she had to chase a larcenous monkey-lizard through the entire marketplace and electrocute a droid- that earned her more than a few raised eyebrows- but at last she’s headed toward the rendezvous point.

Face covered and voice distorted, the woman in the holorecording isn’t familiar. Either Zykken was even dumber than she’d first thought, though, or there’s Force trickery in play, which wouldn’t surprise her at all. The Revanites are recruiting from both sides, and with the war back on it hasn’t only been the soldiers growing more and more disillusioned with every passing year. If the woman is a Jedi, or a Sith, hopefully she’s a friendly one.

Still, she brings backup, just in case. Since they got to Rishi she’s tried to keep her crew on the ship as much as possible- if someone’s watching, they’ll only see her- but this time around she sends Vector up to the rooftops, close but not too close. When she looks up, he’s there, half-hidden behind a smokestack.

At her signal, he disappears.

Then, of course, she’s halfway down the alley when-

“You! Howling Tempest!” The thing that’s shouting looks like a Wookiee fucked a tusk-cat and it’s (he, maybe? She’s guessing, there) completely blocking her path. “You killed my brother, pirate.”

This pirate thing is getting decidedly old. She looks the creature up and down, considering: no, she definitely hasn’t killed anything that looks like that recently. “I don’t think so. I feel like I’d remember that.”

“Liar. Gorro’s dead,” he snarls, drawing a nasty-looking vibroblade, “and I’m going to rip your arms off.”

She tilts her head. She does remember Gorro, but- “The mouthy little Rodian was your brother? You’ll have to explain the genetics once you’ve stopped bleeding.”

When he lunges for her she sidesteps and draws her rifle, pops off three quick shots- kneecap, kneecap, right shoulder, launching a dart along the barrel into the side of his neck just for the sake of caution. He hits the ground hard and she grinds her heel against the back of his hand; the vibroblade clatters free and she kicks it away, out of his reach, as he scrabbles for its handle along the cobblestones of the alley.

“Cipher. If you wish us to take the shot-” Vector’s a shadow at the roofline in her peripheral vision, a voice in her ear- “step to the left, please. You’re in our line.”

“That won’t be necessary. Stand down.” She looks down at her opponent as the shadow withdraws. “What’s your name, idiot?”

He doesn’t answer. She steps on his other hand.

“Well?”

“Grumm.”

“Okay, Grumm. Lucky for you, I’ve got bigger fish to fry, but you’re still in my way.” When she lifts her foot off his fingers he flinches, but doesn’t look to his blade. “You’ve got thirty seconds to get out of it. Starting now.”

He doesn’t move particularly quickly. Then again, she did shoot both his kneecaps.

She watches Grumm hobble back down the length of the alley, rifle trained on him just in case he decides to try anything stupid, and when he’s out of sight she shoulders it and turns back toward the rendezvous point.

The woman from the holo’s leaning against a wall at the far end of the alley, arms folded across her chest and a lightsaber hilt clipped to a low-slung belt. “The Howling Tempest, I presume?” Even face to face, the woman’s voice is distorted by her mask; she can’t get a sense of an accent. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

Oh, honestly.

She sighs. “First of all, the gang is called the Howling Tempest. Their leader is called- frankly, I have no idea what their leader is called, because I am not their leader, although I’m quite sure you know that. And as you probably saw-” she gestures back toward the blood spatter on the cobbles behind her- “I’ve already shot someone today, so let’s just skip right over the pleasantries and get to the part where you tell me why I've got every idiot on this planet gunning for me, yes?”

The woman laughs, reaching up to pull off her mask, and shakes her hair free from where it was bound up in her hood-

“Lana Beniko,” she says, resisting the urge to take her by the shoulders and shake her like a disobedient child. “You realize you could have just called me.”

“It’s good to see you, too.” Lana grins. “Come inside. We’ll explain everything, I promise.”

“We?”

Theron steps out from the doorway behind Lana, looking impossibly smug. “Took you long enough. I gave you directions and everything.”

“You.” That’s it. She is going to murder him. “You sliced my ship.”

(I hate you.

Liar. But aren’t you glad I stopped you? Lana reaches across her lap to steal the last of the biscuits off the plate.

Now, yes. At the time, the only thing saving both of you was that I couldn’t decide who to strangle first.

She might be pouting; it’s hard to tell mid-bite. Oh, be nice.

Do you remember how many damned pirates I had to kill that month? She breaks a piece off the biscuit as Lana, squawking objection around a mouthful of crumbs, swats at her hand. And whatever gave you the idea I was nice?)

An hour later, mostly placated by Lana and Theron’s explanations, she sends Vector back to the ship to grab her field duffel. If they’re really being tracked as closely as the two of them seem to believe (and she doesn’t doubt it- she’s only had to dodge the Revanites, not the Empire and the Republic, too) then the less often she goes back and forth between the safehouse and the dock the better; she’ll stay there, they’d all agreed, and make do with a bedroll and a camp mattress if they can’t scrounge up another cot.

“Now, this isn’t a vacation.” She doesn’t have to tell him that, of course. Vector, like her, never really switches off. Still, she grins into the shadows as he hands her the heavy bag. “Take tonight off, but be ready for my comm first thing tomorrow. Kaliyo, too.”

“An entire evening free? We’ll need a new hobby at this rate. Knitting, perhaps.”

“Don’t get too used to it. And don’t let SCORPIO do any major upgrades. If things heat up, we need to be mobile.”

Vector nods, and she turns to set the bag down in the doorway; when she turns around again, he’s gone.

So she settles into her new quarters, setting up her bedroll in an empty corner. The safehouse isn’t exactly the lap of luxury- a few cots along the walls, an inexpensive holoprojector on a central table, a few maps- but she’s had worse: there’s a ‘fresher and a lock on the door, and the security’s actually not bad when she looks more closely, with motion sensors in the entrance hall and an exit to the roof hidden behind one of the projection screens.

It’ll do, for now.

Lana, apparently on dinner duty tonight, puts her hood back on and slips away to the market; Theron, who’d been sitting at the table with his head bent over a datapad, looks up at her once Lana’s out of earshot.

“I hope you brought ration bars, or you’re going to be hungry. I ran out two weeks ago, and the market here’s only got those vanilla ones that taste like chalk, so-”

Her duffel half-unpacked, she pauses. “Those are awful, yeah. But isn’t Lana bringing food back?”

“Yup,” he says, nose wrinkling. “It’s her night to cook.” To judge by his tone of voice she probably shouldn’t expect much. “Yesterday was my turn, so you’re up tomorrow. We go by rota.”

“I don’t cook.” (She doesn’t. She never learned to make much beyond caf and instant noodles.) “There’s a stand in the market that’s got good sandwiches. Tomorrow’s takeaway night. And as for ration bars-” she rummages in one of the side pockets. “Chocolate chip, or peanut?”

“You offering? I’ll take chocolate chip.”

She aims right between his eyes, lobbing the bar at his head. “No, I thought I’d eat them all and let you starve. Tell me there’s caf, at least.”

“Caf, yes. Cream, no.” Theron gets his hand up before the ration bar hits him, snatches it out of the air and peels the wrapper back, shoving it halfway into his mouth with the first bite. “This is seriously the best thing I’ve eaten in a month. Including my cooking.”

“I’ll take that as a warning.” As she watches, he demolishes the rest of it. “Missed you on Port Nowhere, by the way. The party didn’t pick up until after you left.”

He blinks, mouth full, and narrows his eyes. “I didn’t-” he starts, then swallows. “What makes you think I was on Port Nowhere recently?”

“You sliced my ship, you asshole. Of course you were there.”

“And here I thought we were bonding.” Theron flicks the folded wrapper in her direction; it arcs wide and she bats it down. “Okay, maybe. But I had to get you here somehow. How’d you-”

“Free advice? Lose the jacket. I recognized you on description alone, and I wasn’t even looking for you.”

“I like this jacket.”

He really is impossible. “What were you doing there to begin with?”

“Just a quick trip. Someone picked up the bounty contract on Lana. She was worried about it, but it turned out to be nothing.” He shrugs. “Random hunter. No ties to the Revanites, as far as I could tell, so I let it go. The better question is what you were doing there.”

“Me? Oddly enough-” she sits down in one of the empty chairs, kicks back and takes a bite of ration bar; she may as well eat, if Lana’s cooking is really that bad-

(I beg your pardon, Lana grumbles at her.

She winks.)

“-I was bounty hunting.”

Setting his datapad aside, Theron tilts his head and looks at her. He’s staring, really, for a solid half a minute, and she’s almost ready to pull out a mirror and check if she’s got something in her teeth when he closes his eyes, pressing his hands to his temples. “It was you. You’re Vairavi.”

“When I need to be. Or she’s me, more properly, or was. Won’t be using her anymore, I don’t think.”

“The description didn’t sound anything-” he trails off, head still buried in his hands. “Oh, Force. I am an actual idiot.”

“You won’t hear me argue.” She’s got a holo on her own datapad, now that she thinks of it, that she’d taken that last night- her and Vesja and Eri, drunk and laughing at the bar.  Pulling up the image, she slides the pad across to him. “Here. I’m sure you can pick me out.”  

Theron mutters something under his breath, staring down at the holo. “Yeah. I remember the tall one from the Rancor, too.” After a moment, he pushes it back. “Dark hair doesn’t suit you.”

“Opinion noted.” She tucks it back into her pocket. He’s right, actually. It doesn’t; the one thing she inherited from her father was his coloring, too-pale skin and red hair shading more into brown as she gets older, and the black wig makes her look sallow. That he has an opinion on it at all is-

-interesting.

“Is that your name? Vairavi?”

She doubts it. The sound of it doesn’t trigger anything, at least: no headache, none of the warning pressure that tends to kick in when she gets too close to things locked away. They’d said her name, just once, after they took it (they had to check the algorithm, Keeper said), and she couldn’t even hear it for the pain it caused.

“No,” she says. “My name is Cipher Nine.”

Angling his chair to face her more directly, Theron sighs. “Look. I know we got off on the wrong foot, and I don’t expect us to be friends or anything, but the rest of us are on a first-name basis. What-”

“I’m not trying to be difficult, Theron. That’s the only name I have.”

“You’re kidding, right?” He just looks at her again; she meets his gaze and doesn’t blink, and he’s the first to turn away. “You’re not kidding. Okay. I thought you were a freelancer.”

“I am. It’s just-” Where would she even go looking, if she wanted to remember? At the Academy, probably, but- ah. Too close, that thought. That hurts. “Old habits die hard.”

***

Theron does call her Cipher after that.

He talks more, too, though he hasn’t gotten any less prone to blushing since she last saw him (which has yet to lose its entertainment value. She’s like a serpent that way- the more he squirms, the tighter she circles- and oh, stars, she needs something to keep her mind off the ceaseless tedium of fight after fight after fight). She ought to stop. She really ought to, except that every so often she catches him watching her, appraising, and after weeks of them all stuck in the safehouse together he actually starts to answer back and-

Nothing’s likely to come of it, of course. But it helps to pass the time.

(He really is cute when he blushes.)

***

They do work well together, she has to admit.

Lana and Theron can’t join her in the field, not yet. It’d blow her cover and expose the two of them, and without any real objectives beyond “find out what the Revanites are up to and try to stop them” it’s too likely to get them all killed. But Lana’s a meticulous planner (you’re welcome, she says, preening), and with Jakarro scouting and Theron slicing from the base she’s got maps and schematics and security systems rerouted to her advantage.

They’re getting closer. They keep telling themselves that.

Rishi’s tropical, even this early in the year, and with the heat clinging like a damp blanket she can’t sleep so she stays up, working. Lana’s gone to check on Jakarro- poor Jakarro,  too conspicuous to even enter Raider’s Cove proper, except in the middle of the night- and she and Theron are crunching numbers, exactly the sort of analytics busywork she loathes. The more data they gather and the more of the Nova Blades’ network she dismantles, camp by camp, the clearer the plan becomes: the pirates are rerouting the hyperlanes one by one until every single route in the quadrant converges over Rishi.

“But why? ” She shoves her datapad away in frustration, lets her forehead hit the table an inch shy of her mostly-empty beer and her entirely-empty caf cup. It doesn’t make sense. It’s a lousy strategy for piracy, since it’d only work until everyone figures it out and then not at all, giving them perhaps a month or two of easy pickings before the traders just bypass Rishi entirely. Worse, it reroutes patrols directly past the planet, Republic and Imperial both.  “What are you playing at, Revan?”

Theron makes a noise from across the table, and when she turns her head he’s pulling headphones out of both ears. (Despite the implant on his temple he usually wore them while they worked- probably more so he wouldn’t be bothered, though he swore it was something to do with the acoustics.) “Sorry, what? I didn’t catch that.”

“Oh, nothing. Just grumbling. I’m sure I’m missing something here, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what.”

“I know what you mean.” He pokes at his own screen, then sets it aside with headphones piled on top. “With any luck you’ll pull something off Margok’s computers, but I’m not getting anywhere with what we’ve got now.”

She nods. “If I don’t get turreted to death. That ship’s a fortress.”

“As soon as you can patch me in, I’ll try to get them offline. Assuming you don’t get shot in the meantime-”

Her arm’s still healing from the last run. For far Rim pirates, the Blades have some serious artillery. “Funny.”

Theron makes a face. “Wasn’t meant to be a joke. I know you’re getting stomped out there.”

“Only a little. I’ll manage.”

“You know, you say that a lot.”

“Power of positive thinking.” She finishes off the last of her beer- beer’s pretty well toward the bottom of the list of things she’d prefer to be drinking, but anything decent here’s at least a hundred credits a bottle in the market and since her scrap with Gorro she pretty much has to stay out of the cantina unless she wants to pay for her drinks with knife fights- and flips the bottle backward into the trash bin. “If I say it enough, it might actually be true.”

That makes him laugh, at least, before his headphones crackle as the volume of whatever’s playing through them increases exponentially and he grabs for them, pressing down on the control switch. “That song got loud, sorry.”

“You apologize too much.”

“Probably, yeah. It’s a common trait in perpetual fuckups, or so my therapist tells me.” His chair scrapes along the floor as he pushes back from the table. “Not in those exact words, obviously, but I got what she meant. You want another beer?”

She snorts. “Therapists. Like they have any clue what this is like.” She gestures broadly at the room around them. “And maybe, if it’s still cold, although Lana’s probably going to roll her eyes at me when she gets back. She thinks I drink too much.”

(You do drink too much, Lana says.

She looks down at the bottle sitting between them, mostly empty, and back up at Lana. Said the pot to the kettle.

She probably does. Good luck finding an intelligence agent who doesn’t, though- it’s practically a job requirement, and frankly none of them live long enough that it ever really matters.)

“You’re still awake, right? You’re fine.” He crosses the room to the ice chest they’d rigged up to replace the broken refrigerator, since they can’t exactly call the landlord to come fix it, and flips it open. “They are… mostly cold.”

“Good enough.” When Theron hands her the bottle she presses it to the back of her neck with a contented sigh. “What are you listening to?”

“Just music. It’s too quiet in here.”

She nods, pops the bottlecap off with the flat edge of her boot knife. “Does your datapad have speakers? I wouldn’t mind music.”  

“If you want.” His method’s more conventional, a bottle opener built into a pocket multitool. “I should probably mention my music preferences are apparently not to Imperial liking. Hence-” he hooks his finger under one of the earpieces- “compromise. Hang on.”

A song’s just ending as he switches over to the speakers, not one she recognizes- but the next one to begin makes her laugh out loud.

“Yeah, yeah.” Theron goes to skip over it. “Teenage me had questionable taste.”

She catches his wrist before he can tap the screen and he blinks at her, startled. “No, leave it. You know this was the first concert I ever went to?”

“Calling bullshit on that one, Cipher. There’s no way they ever went anywhere near Imp space.”

“Concert might be overstating things, but that was what we used to call them- about ten of us sixth-formers crammed into a locked room in the sub-basement and one very degraded album recording.” Letting his wrist go, she taps out the beat along the neck of her bottle. “And it was still the best thing I’d ever heard.”

He laughs. “Teenage you had questionable taste, too. You didn’t get caught?”

“Of course we did. We were all copying lines out of the Imperial Code for days.”

“Worth it?”

“Totally.”

She doesn’t recognize all the songs he plays, but she hums along with the ones she knows and before too long Theron’s singing under his breath and-

(He has, she thinks, a very nice voice.)

“What in the Void,” Lana says, rounding the corner from the entryway, “are you listening to?”

***

The next day, when she gets back from scouting, there’s a datachip sitting on her bedroll. Fourteen songs.

It’s a much better copy than the one she remembers.

***

The raid on the main base was a bust.

When she finally got close to Margok, she wasted too much time taking on the lackeys he threw at her, afraid of getting flanked and of the turrets (Theron did his best, she knows, but the Blades had four of their own slicers countering him and he’s good but not that good), and he wiped the entire mainframe before she finally took him down. All that work for nothing.

Damn it all.

They’ve got one option left after that- two, technically, but she’s not optimistic about the second. Jakarro’s been tracking a pair of Revanites for three days, watching them go back and forth between a house on the outskirts and a boat slip, arriving every day at dusk and gone by sunrise. If they hit the house in the middle of the day, Lana says, it should be empty. Maybe they’ll find something they can use.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” She’s getting suited up; their only other lead is the Mandalorians, and knowing Mandalorians she’ll almost definitely have to fight her way through. “It’s a big if . Let it sit until tomorrow, and I’ll cloak in with Kaliyo.”

“Let us do some of the work for once, Cipher.” Lana slides the last kolto syringe into its pouch, then hands her belt over to her. “It’s just an empty house. Between the three of us, I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“And besides,” Theron mutters around a mouthful of ration bar- he’d eventually decided he preferred the peanut ones and her stash dwindled accordingly, but they’re toe to toe on caf consumption and his is better so she lets it slide- “‘m getting bored cooped up here, and maybe you’ll finally stop giving me shit about not doing field work.”

She winks back over her shoulder as she fastens her belt. “Doubt it. But if you think it’s safe-”

“It’ll be fine,” Lana says again. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

(Lana sinks down, hands over her face, until all that’s visible among the pillows are a few strands of pale-blonde hair.

Ahem.

You were right. She sighs. I know. I know.)

***

The Mandalorians are a bust, too.

She gets the nickname, now. Shae Vizla makes her run the gauntlet of both creatures and clans before she’ll even show her face, then roasts her to medium rare until finally they’re both exhausted, her armor smoldering and Torch half-blind from poison before she signals and the ring of fighters around them withdraws.

Even then, even defeated, all she does is confirm what they’d already suspected. As far as the Revanites are concerned, it is Revan leading them.

“Sure, the clans have history with Revan, all the way back to Mandalore the Preserver.” Shae scowls as the antivenom runs in. “But that was a long time ago, and when he came back-” she shakes her head. “If that’s really him, the old stories forgot to mention the crazy. He doesn’t want to save the galaxy. He just wants to watch it burn.”

“Do you know what he’s planning?” The salve on both her hands smells of lavender, sweet and floral, easing the pain of her blistered fingertips.

“No. He’s got a whole fleet in reserve, but that’s all I know. The minute he contracted with the Nova Blades I picked up my people and moved. I kept the peace with those fuckers for years, but Margok is-” she pauses- “was always a monster and with money and power behind him he was ten times worse. Hear I’ve got you to thank for taking him down. I’ve wanted to do it for years but it wasn’t worth the war it would’ve started.”

She inclines her head. “You’re welcome. There’s still plenty of fighting coming, though. Sure we can’t convince you to join us?”

“Sorry, Imperial.” Shae chuckles, pulling the syringe out of her arm, and rolls her sleeve back down. “I was fighting your wars when you were in primary school. I’m retired.”

“I know. We used to read stories about you.” She stands. “If you ever decide to un-retire, look me up. Or if you just want someone who’ll fight you properly.”

Vizla must be well into her forties- what she’d said wasn’t wrong; the Sack of Coruscant happened just before her own eleventh birthday- but her grin takes years off her face. “I might just do that, Cipher Nine. If you’ll hang on a minute. I’ll have the Beroyas run you back over to the mainland. Jos! Valk! K’olar. ” At her wave, two of the nearby warriors approach, the woman in white armor painted with wide grey stripes and the man in grey and red. “You beat them, so they owe you one.”

The woman in white shrugs. “Sorry, alor. Just distracted.”

She remembers, then. She was a Beroya before we got married. “Valk Beroya? Your sister’s name was Haniya?”

“Yeah.” When she pulls her helmet off her eyes are wary. “Do I know you?”

“I met her last year, before- well. Jori mentioned you when I went to pay my respects. I’m sorry for your loss.”

“D’you know,” Valk’s lip curls, her husband’s hand on her back and the pitch of her voice lowering to a growl, “he still won’t talk about how she died? Damn him. How am I supposed to mourn her if I can’t tell the story properly?”

“I don’t know the details,” she says. “But if it helps, they were hunting a Jedi.”

The woman blinks, nodding slowly. “A Jedi.” She turns to Shae, the next words too fast for Nine to pick out with her rudimentary grasp of Mando’a, but whatever Valk says, Shae nods and answers back, her tone surprisingly gentle.

“A Jedi,” Valk says again. “Good. Good. Come on, then. Let’s get you back to your camp.”

***

Something’s wrong.

When she gets in earshot of the safehouse she can hear Jakarro somewhere inside, raging. The sun’s just setting, and even then he never comes to the base- they always go to him.

Something’s really wrong. She runs the rest of the way down the alley. Screw being inconspicuous; if the roaring Wookiee hasn’t brought the neighbors out to stare yet, she doubts one woman running will manage it.

The door’s unlocked and open, another bad sign, and when she rounds the corner from the hall into the main room Jakarro’s pacing back and forth and Lana’s got one finger on the switch of her saber.

“There were only ten of them! We could have fought them all!”

Lana raises her other hand, her tone brooking no argument. “I know you don’t agree with me-”

“-but you let them take him, Sith!”

He’s about three seconds away from going for Lana’s throat before Dee-Four notices her. “Oh! Cipher, we have terrible news. Theron-”

“Theron’s been captured by the Revanites.” Lana looks to her, too, and takes a careful step to one side, slowly putting her between the two of them. Which is not a place she thinks she would like to be, not at the moment.  

“What does he mean, you let them take him?”

“They only saw Theron. It’s possible we could have intervened, yes, but I thought it was better-”

(It’ll be fine, she’d said. It’s just an empty house, she’d said. What’s the worst that could happen?

There are things worse than dying.)

She draws her pistol, and before any of them can stop her she aims it squarely at Lana’s face. “I think,” she says, “you ought to choose your next words very carefully.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Thicker Than Water (Rishi)

 

16 ATC. Rishi.

This might be, Nine thinks as she holds her blaster steady, finger about to switch off the safety, the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.

Which really is impressive, given the span of her career so far includes some pretty spectacular feats of idiocy (all the way back to assuming Darth Jadus was ever dead. She knows better now- never believe anyone’s dead until you’ve got your own fingers on their lack of pulse and even then, put a round between their eyes just in case- but she forgave herself for that long ago. She didn’t know the game back then, thought she was a back row piece on the chessboard when of course she was just a pawn and they played her like one. But even pawns get to the last rank of the board sometimes, and when they do-

She’s not a pawn anymore. She’s a fucking queen.)

But holding an armed Sith Lord at blaster-point? She’d thought she could trust Lana, but so had Theron- if she’s wrong about this, she’s very likely about to lose a hand or worse and he’s probably going to die strapped to an interrogation table in some Revanite base and he doesn’t deserve that, Republic or not.

No one deserves that.

No matter how many times she’s dreamed about burning the entire SIS to the ground, she wouldn’t wish torture on her worst enemy. On Corellia she’d known what was going to happen, in abstract if not in detail, and she had a mission to complete and failure wasn’t in the game plan; still, when the straps tightened and Hunter’s people started their work there were moments when she almost hoped for a cut too deep, a hit too hard or a dose just a little too high, anything to make the pain stop for a moment-

Theron would have never seen it coming.

“With Theron inside their base, he’ll be able to do what he does.” Lana blinks down the barrel, one eyebrow twitching ever so slightly but her expression unreadable. “Once we retrieve him, we can-”

“Did you plan this?” She cuts in abruptly, well past the point of caring about rudeness. Sith or not, she needs to know.

Another blink. “Did I- what?”

“Did you,” she says it again, each word sharp as knives, “plan for Theron’s capture? Was that why you wouldn’t wait for me?”

Eyes widening, Lana moves slowly, carefully, to clip her saber back to her belt. “You think I- no. No! It went all wrong, but if we move quickly we can still retrieve Theron, preferably alive, and salvage the situation. Do put that away so I can explain, please.”

“I think we’re just fine like this. Don’t you, Jakarro?” As the wookiee roars agreement she curls and uncurls her finger, just so, in line with the trigger. “Explain. Now.”

(Would you really have shot me? Still half-buried in her pillow nest, Lana looks up at her, head tilted.  

A question like that merits a drink- she reaches for the bottle and drains the last of it. I needed to narrow down the possibilities, and I didn’t have much time to work with. The blaster helped.

You may need to explain that one, I’m afraid.

Keeping in mind that I didn’t know you then like I do now, and given my previous track record with Sith- Lana nods agreement as she says it- the way I saw it there were three options. One, that you were a Revanite all along. Theron wouldn’t turn, so you had him captured and waited to see how I’d react-

When Lana’s really, honestly amused she can always tell: if she laughs in public (which she rarely does) it’s the clipped, terse chuckle that’s a native species to Dromund Kaas in its own right, the sort of laugh that doesn’t draw attention because when one grows up in the Empire’s heart one learns to conform or suffer the consequences. But in private, like now, it’s something else entirely, rising and falling, notes on a musical scale. Did you honestly believe that?

It was by far the least likely scenario- too complicated by half, and if I’d objected you’d have had to deal with me and Jakarro at the same time. In any case, you didn’t attack me when I drew on you, so that one was out.

Option two? Lana shifts over onto her stomach, chin resting on her hands and forehead crinkled in thought.

The most likely option, all things considered. You were telling the truth. The mission went bad, Theron was compromised, and you let him get captured in the hope that he’d manage to both survive and learn something useful in the process. She shakes her head. Risky and stupid, but you would have wanted to explain yourself. You would have thought I’d agree with you.

An eyeroll, a grumble, and a pillow tossed in her direction- You don’t have to lecture me again, you know. I’m aware-

Did Theron ever talk about what happened? With Revan?

No. Lana shakes her head. Even when he came to Asylum, he never brought it up. So I thought it better to let it lie rather than reopening old wounds. Did he tell you?

A little. Enough. I- she pauses. Have you ever been interrogated? Not as practice, not debriefing- actually interrogated.

A second headshake. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve seen more of them than I’d care to, given my particular talent- her lip curls, her tone dry- but before I served Darth Arkous I spent most of my time with the historians, and with your warnings about Darth Zhorrid’s proclivities I was able to keep mostly clear of her after my promotion.

Then you wouldn't understand what it’s like. Not like we do.

I don't think that's fair, Lana says. I'm sure it was painful and I know it could have gone badly, but Theron-

She holds up one hand. No. I’m sorry, but no. You don’t understand, and you don’t get to justify it.

Then why don’t you explain it to me?

If I could tell you, I... No. There aren’t words to put to those feelings, not ones that anyone else would understand (except for Theron- he understands. Maybe even better than she does). You know, it might be easier to show you. Do you remember Valkorion’s little mind games from before, on the Gravestone?

Lana nods.

Let’s try this, then. An exercise. She stands, reaching back toward her desk for her datapad. Think of that, and keep that pressure in your head, and I want you to read me.

All right. But why the datapad?

I’m going to play something in the background. With reverse interrogations that’s often all you get, assuming your captors aren’t total incompetents- snippets of conversations, a whisper they think you can’t hear. Theron was- she almost said lucky, but no, he wasn’t lucky at all- Revan liked to talk, so that helped, but… She sighs. Ten minutes. Ten minutes, then tell me what you heard.

She loads two files. First, her recording of two days ago’s logistics meeting, scanning forward to the end, to when they’d started to rehash the Nar Shaddaa shield bunker problem for the hundredth time. Second, to trigger the appropriate memory- this one takes her longer, buried six folders deep and behind three separate passwords- SCORPIO’s recording of Corellia.

(She ought to have deleted it a long time ago. It’s not healthy, probably, keeping things like that around.)

Hour ten, she thinks. A particularly unpleasant hour.

She presses play on the second file, sound muted, her attention focused on the screen. It takes a moment, even so, to pull the walls down from around the hours of time it took months of deliberate effort to suppress, but then, finally… Ah. She hisses, her head starting to throb. There it is.

Shall we begin? Remember, imagine Valkorion too, if you want an idea of what Theron felt.

Lana reaches out for her arm as she pushes her sleeve up, fingers circling her wrist. I’ll try. Show me.

Still watching the recording play, she lets herself fall back into the memory as the connection between them solidifies.

[by hour ten she was hurting bad: the truth serum was useless, of course, but they’d pushed the dose to a point that left her dizzy and feverish; her right eye aches, the lid swollen shut and her nose and three ribs broken (not her fingers yet, though- that was hour fourteen). they’ve grown bored of hitting her and it hasn't gotten them what they want.

the woman’s leaning her forward, pulling up her jacket while her body howls protest, and tapes the electrode array to the base of her spine as her partner does the same along the soles of her bare feet.

i’ve already told you everything i know, she says. this isn’t going to change anything.

the woman looks at her, then to the still-active holocomm where hunter’s standing, arms crossed. your call, boss. keep going?]

Shifting, restless and uncomfortable, Lana tightens her grip; she starts the first file, leaving it playing in the background as-

[she’s a very good liar, hunter grins. ten minutes, i think, and we’ll try again. turning, hunter eyes her up and down . oh, legate. this would be so much easier if you hadn’t changed your programming. at this rate you’re going to miss the whole party.

she smiles, lips dry. she’d kill for a glass of water; she’d kill for a lot of things, at the moment. think i’ll pass. the hors d'oeuvres were terrible.

your loss. stars, she hates that laugh. let’s begin.

it builds slowly, a prickle in her toes, crawling slowly up her legs into the muscles of her back, and at first she thinks maybe it won’t be so bad and then the man in armor, the leader of the trio holding her captive, reaches for the control box and cranks the dial up and-]

It’s hard to watch. She can almost feel it, the electricity coursing in ten-second pulses through her body until she’s arching against the restraints, and she remembers the noise she made, a inhuman keening wail she wouldn’t have known as her own voice except that recordings do not lie. There was no helping it, of course, no shame in it. But still.

After the first minute Lana curls onto her side, eyes closed, fingernails of her contact hand digging into the underside of her forearm and her other hand clenched into a fist pressed tight against her mouth. After two minutes she tries to pull away.

I said ten minutes. She lowers her arm against the surface of the couch, pinning Lana’s hand between her wrist and the cushions. Not yet.

[the stutter-stop irregularity of it’s the hardest thing- thirty seconds of rest and then five bursts in a row, then another pause and then three, then six, then two, again and again, so she can’t count them, can’t know when to fight it and when to stop fighting-]

You never do, Valkorion says, stirring in the back of her mind, brushing the memory aside like a child throwing an unwanted toy as he forces himself forward. With my power at your disposal you could bring my children to heel in the span of a heartbeat and yet still you fight me. It would be so much easier if-

(He did that on purpose. She’s certain of it. For a moment he even sounds like Hunter.)

With a gasp and a twitch she throws all her mental walls back up, knocking the datapad off her lap and sending it clattering to the floor. Lana startles, too, hands moving to her temples as her eyes fly open.

Was that-?

She sighs. Unintentional. I’m not sure what he might be able to do through a one-sided connection, but I assume you’re not particularly interested in finding out.

You would be correct. When Lana stands she’s wobbly on her feet, hanging onto the back of the couch and then the edge of the holotable as she makes her way to the refresher. Excuse me. Door half-shut behind her, barely audible but unmistakable over the sound of running water, she retches- once, twice, then splashing at the basin and the tap shutting off. When she emerges again she wipes her mouth on the back of her hand before returning to sit beside her, face colorless and lips pressed tight together and completely avoiding her questioning gaze.

That was cruel of me, she whispers after a minute into the silence between them. I apologize.

You don’t- I really did think you’d agree with me. Her head doesn’t move but her eyes dart sideways, briefly, before she focuses back on the far wall. I only had a few seconds to make the decision, and we hadn’t heard back from you. It might have been our last real chance to get to the heart of things. But- Lana wipes her face again, the pressure of her fingertips leaving faint pink marks on her forehead and down her cheeks- Force help me. No wonder you were so angry. And no wonder Theron hated me for it, if what you showed me was anything like what happened with Revan.

Reaching down for the fallen datapad, she shuts it off, sets it on the table. Different goals, so it’s not an even comparison. Close enough for our purposes, though. And again, I didn’t mean for Valkorion to interfere. That part of the exercise was supposed to be theoretical but he-

Is that what it feels like all the time? Lana interjects, finally looking at her again. I don’t know how you stand it.

No, thankfully. Only when he’s active, which isn’t terribly often. Sometimes I almost forget.

(Then I shall have to endeavor, he says, the thought snaking around her consciousness like creeping ivy, to be more memorable.)

But only almost. Going back to the point: do you remember anything you heard of the recording I was playing?

Not a damned thing. I barely knew it was there, let alone being able to focus on it. That- she bares her teeth, an expression halfway between apology and pain. Ah, fuck, that hurt so much, Nine.

That makes her blink; she can count on one hand the number of times she’s heard her really properly swear. I know. I’m sorry.

Me, too, Lana says. Me, too.

Suddenly she's tired. As they both lean back, letting the cushions bear them up, they settle against each other, shoulder against shoulder, pressure and weight comforting in their familiarity. (For a moment she thinks of Yavin IV, after the battle, huddled exhausted on a fallen pillar waiting for evac back to base camp, with her body accorded neutral territory between Theron on her right and Lana on her left. Six years on, everything and nothing at all have changed.)

What was the third option? You knew the second was the right one, but-

Oh. Yes. She chuckles faintly. Option three was somewhere between the first two. You weren’t a Revanite, but you’d run out of patience. You knew Jakarro’s intel on the house was wrong- through the Force, maybe, I don’t know how- and you set Theron up deliberately. You sent me to Torch’s island to keep me from interfering and you threw him to the wolves. Our last best chance.

You know I didn’t.

She runs her hand along the underside of her opposite wrist, along the half-moon indentations left by five neat fingernails. You were a bad liar back then, and I’m about as Force-sensitive as a rock but I know a lie when I hear one. I believed you.

I’ve had too much practice between then and now, Lana murmurs, but not to you. For the sake of curiosity, what would have happened had you decided it was option three?

If I thought that you were capable of that, after all we’d already done together? Raising her index finger, she brushes the bangs off Lana’s forehead then taps sharply, once, exactly in the center. It would have been quick. But I’d have blown your fucking head off.)

***

They rent a boat at the dock.

“A hunting party,” she tells the Rishii at the slip. Anywhere else that would have raised eyebrows, given Kaliyo’s hauling a backpack that’s half her size and entirely full of explosives- she’d told her, when she called the ship, to come loaded for bear and by the look of it she’d emptied the armory- but today the Rishii just unties the lines and wishes them good hunting.

There’s something to be said for pragmatism, though she doubts Theron would agree at the moment.

The little village on the island’s surprisingly welcoming, too, considering they’ve lost half their territory to an armed camp of fanatics; within half an hour they’ve got a temporary base set up in a stone-and-thatch hut with a good view of the valley beyond. To go by the comm traffic Dee-Four’s intercepted so far the Revanites’ main stronghold is somewhere on the far side of the island, hidden in the dense jungle, but the native scouts don’t seem to know any more than they’ve managed on their own.

So she and Kaliyo ride out on borrowed speeders, leaving Lana and Jakarro in the village to keep sorting through data.

(She’d left Jakarro a one-line message: instructions, just in case her gut instinct had played them wrong and Lana made another move in her absence.

Lana doesn’t need to hear that, though. In retrospect it was paranoia, and she’s hurt her enough already for today.)

“Bad intel and no plan. Lucky for you, I hate plans.” Kaliyo turns to her at the top of the valley path as they pull a camouflage net over the speeders; engines tuned for endurance, the bikes make far too much noise to reach the camp unnoticed but at least they’re close now. “We’re cloaking in, yeah?”

“Yes. The closer we get without alarms up, the more likely Theron’s still alive when we get there.”

She nods, adjusts the stealth device. “Syncing now. How are we playing if we’re blown?”

“Hard and fast. We don’t have time or personnel for surrenders.” Slipping her rifle free of her back harness, she checks it one last time. “Shoot to kill.”

“My favorite words. And it’s not even my birthday.” Kaliyo flashes her a quick grin but she doesn’t return it, and after a moment she shrugs and finishes tying down the net. “We’ll get there. What’s his clock at?”

She looks down at her chrono, at the third timer counting inexorably upward beneath the little dials of local and Standard Time. “Three hours and six minutes. Let’s move.”

***

The Imperial commander, a pathetic grasping little Sith of the sort ubiquitous around the Kaas City Sanctum, wants to talk and wants out of the Revanite mess but doesn’t know anything at all- utterly typical. Killing him would only waste time, though, so she sends him and his honor guard packing and moves on to the Republic camp; one less leader’s still progress, if only a little.

The Republic compound guards, on the other hand, refuse to stand down. They waste a quarter-hour trying to snipe from cover before she lets Kaliyo blow the place to pieces, a block of detonite on the back door and four grenades through the skylight an inelegant but effective solution.

They haven’t time for elegance. This is taking far too long.

The captain’s dying when they finally get through the door into the main room, his belly full of shrapnel as he drags himself toward a terminal against the far wall. She puts her foot on the back of his neck, tilts her head toward the terminal. Kaliyo moves toward it, pulling out a spike to transfer the data.

“Going somewhere?” To judge by his pallor he’ll bleed out soon. “I can make the pain stop, you know. All you have to do is tell me where to find Revan.”

The man coughs, looks up at her out of the corner of his eye as he stops resisting, going limp against the floor. “I don’t know-” another cough- “I don’t know where Revan is. But there’s a stronghold to the northeast, in the other valley, where they took Theron Shan. Revan might be-” he gasps, shifting under the pressure of her boot. “Please. It hurts.”

“Only for a moment,” she says, and fires a round into the back of his head.

***

Time since capture: four hours, twenty-eight minutes.
Probability of survival: 83 percent.

***

The captain’s data tells them four useful things.

First, that prisoners are held in the largest building in the far valley complex, surrounded by turrets and watchtowers and military-grade door encryptions, and that the codes on the spike are yesterday’s.

Second, that Revan’s warships wait on a nearby island for a signal that hasn’t yet been given, the purpose of which is still unclear.

Third, that the First Imperial Fleet, Darth Marr at its helm, will pass through Rishi space tomorrow morning.

And fourth, that the bulk of the Republic fleet, ostensibly on a patrol mission (but who brings one’s entire fleet on a patrol mission?) along the Manda Merchant Route, is due to jump to Rishi-

“Tomorrow.” She swears, and pushes back from the terminal with a frustrated huff. “That’s Revan’s plan. They’ll come out of hyperspace right on top of each other. It’ll be a slaughter.”

Lana shakes her head. “That can’t be all of it. Darth Marr wouldn’t risk the entire fleet without at least attempting to contact the Republic commander, not this far from reinforcements, and the moment Revan puts himself in play-”

“What’s the Republic flagship? Do we know?” She paces back and forth along the inside of the little hut. “If it’s Saresh at the helm, or one of her puppets, Marr may not have a choice.”

“Unclear.” Dee-Four chimes in. “I am still attempting to decrypt the remaining files, but the information is incomplete.”

The information is incomplete- it’s the chorus to a song she just can’t get out of her head.

“Then we continue with the original plan,” Lana says, head still bowed over the console. “We attempt to extract Theron from the stronghold and hope he- or we- learned something in the meantime.”

(Did I really say that? Lana wrinkles her nose. Extract. Rather like a sliver. Or a parasite.

She laughs; they’re still shoulder to shoulder, and she elbows her teasingly. It’s the right word for it, technically speaking, though Theron would probably be offended by the comparison. And yes, you did.

I don’t- I didn’t mean it like that.

I know, she says. Although he does have a knack for getting under one’s skin, doesn’t he?)

Only four kolto syringes in the bag, and another two in her belt pouch- she loads the extras in with hers, but it won’t be nearly enough. “We? You’re not going anywhere. I need Kaliyo to talk to the village leader. If they have healing supplies, buy everything you can.” She throws a credit chip across the room and Kaliyo palms it, tucks it into a pocket with a nod. “Think Corellia. And call Lokin. I need him standing by.”

Kaliyo makes a face and nods again; Lana and Jakarro simply look confused.

“I need you and Jakarro to keep running that data and try to reach the fleets,” she continues, “and I’m going to need slicing support when I hit the valley.”

“You’re not going by yourself.” Arms folded across her chest, Lana shakes her head emphatically. “Far too dangerous. If you’re captured-”

She fixes her with a flat stare as she fastens the pouch. “If I’m captured, Theron dies. Believe me, I’m well aware of the risk.”

“Cipher, please. We can’t afford to lose both of you.”

“Of course you can’t. But you ought to have thought of that before.” Turning on her heel, she leaves the hut.

***

Time since capture: five hours, forty-two minutes.
Probability of survival: 71 percent.

***

She drags the guard behind the watchpost before she comms Lana. Night’s fallen over the island and he won’t be getting up again, of course- he never saw her coming and she opened his throat, quick and quiet- but there are other guards and it wouldn’t do to have one of them notice the body.

“I need to keep moving,” she whispers. “If you can get the perimeter systems offline, it’d make my life a lot easier.”

“On it. Jakarro?” There’s a rumble of assent somewhere in the background, and after a few seconds the turrets around the watchpost power down; she watches on the monitor as the rest of the system follows suit. “I’ve got schematics for the main building. Sending the file now.”

Two quick buzzes. She pulls up the diagram, flips her eyepiece down to overlay it on her vision. (She hates the eyepiece: too many people become reliant on them, forgetting how to navigate or aim or track without artificial assistance. But she can’t afford a wrong turn, not today.) “Any cameras inside? Looks like that building goes deep.”

“A few. Just a moment. I’m getting the hang of this slicing business, but- there we- oh.” Lana trails off, going quiet. “No live feeds, I’m afraid, but there are logs from the interrogation room.”

“Timestamp?”

“Half an hour ago. Should I-”

Ah, Force, if she’s already too late- “Load it.”

The feed angle’s bad, just a surveillance camera rather than a proper interrogation recording; she can barely see Theron around the robed figure standing beside the table. The volume’s low, too, nearly impossible to hear when routed through her comm, but that’s definitely his voice, shaky and pained, and someone answering from out of frame-

Lana hisses. “Revan.”

The image shudders, static cutting across the screen, and Theron screams. She knows that noise. She’s made that noise.

(I’d forgotten that recording.

I’m not surprised, she says. It’s not something most people would choose to remember.)

Fuck.

“Get the main doors open.” She takes off across the walkway toward the main building, still stealthed but practically running, still too slow. “I’m going in.”

***

T ime since capture: seven hours, three minutes.
Probability of survival: 58 percent.

***

It is not for nothing that they call her the Ghost of the Empire, and not only because she no longer has a name.

Blasters, even silenced, make noise. A hand over a mouth, a knife edge darting swiftly over arteries or a point slipping neatly between two ribs- no wasted energy, each movement precise and possessed of a morbid sort of beauty, and there is something intensely satisfying, especially on days like today, about someone else’s blood on one’s hands.

There were ten guards roaming the quiet hallways between the front door and the main control room; now there are none, the alarms still untriggered, and her exit route is clear for another forty minutes until change of watch. Sneaking past would have been faster and infinitely less messy, but even if she can reach Theron without being detected she doubts it’ll stay that way once he’s free and he’ll be slow enough, probably, without needing to fight the guards as they flee.

An ounce of preparation, as the saying goes.

If the schematics are right the holding cells should be just through this room. As she crosses the threshold, though, the holotable in its center activates and-

pressure sensor? they can’t see me maybe it’s just a guard checking in don’t make a noise don’t get caught don’t get caught

“Hello, Cipher,” Revan says. “Excellent timing. We’re just beginning to implement the last stage of the plan. You’ll be able to witness it finally come to fruition.”

Well. That’s that.

I’m sorry, Theron.

She switches off her stealth generator. “Revan. This could have all been avoided if you’d only stayed dead, you know. Where’s Theron?”

He laughs at that, the bastard. “That’s unimportant. As are you. Do you really think you can stop what’s been set in motion?”

“I’ve heard that before. Why don’t you tell me the details and we’ll see?”

Revan laughs again, a cold metallic echo behind his mask. He isn’t here, then. He’d have come for her by now if he was here. “Bold little thing. Pity. When the Republic and the Empire destroy each other, when we craft a new world out of the ashes of the old, there might have been a place for you in it. But I suspect you’d be less than cooperative.”

“Believe it or not, I tend to react badly when people try to kill my friends.” Slowly, she starts toward the door, edging little by little along the margin of the table. If she can get to the prison corridor before the alarm sounds, maybe there’s still a chance. “Your battle hasn’t happened yet. You haven’t won.”

“So stubborn. Theron couldn’t be persuaded either, though I suppose that shouldn’t have been a surprise.” Arms folded across his chest, the hologram Revan shakes his head. “Tenacity runs in our blood, even if-”

Our?

She’s almost to the far door when it slides open abruptly, the concussive edge of an explosion in the hallway beyond knocking her back against the holotable as it flickers and dies and Revan disappears. As she struggles to right herself, a cluster of blaster bolts rockets past the open door- not through; whoever’s firing isn’t aiming at her.  

Alarms in the corridor. Footsteps, too, irregular but fairly quick, moving closer, rounding the doorframe- “Don’t listen to him! There’s still a chance.”

“Theron.” How long has she been holding her breath? Suddenly, somehow, she can breathe again. “You’re alive.”

Blaster clutched in his hand, he slaps the panel beside the door and it hisses closed, the lock engaging. “Mostly. I-” He staggers, clutching at the edge of the table, his wrist ringed with a deep gouge just visible under his jacket cuff, two fingers of his left hand unbending and the angle of his thumb somehow wrong. “We’ve got to get to their signal jammer. Revan’s blocking all communication over Rishi space and he’s got saboteurs in both fleets- they’ll take down shields, weapons, everything. If we can’t warn them before they get here, it’ll be a massacre. They-” Out of breath, he trails off.

He learned something after all. Clever boy.

“That’s the piece of the puzzle we were missing. We knew about the fleets, but not the sabotage.” Force, he looks terrible. “Here. I’ve got kolto, but we’ve got to get out of here before someone realizes all the entrance guards are dead. We can update Lana and Jakarro on the move.”

Theron finally seems to see her- how he can see anything with both eyes purpled and swollen nearly shut, his nose puffy and oozing blood and his lower lip split is beyond her comprehension. “I didn’t think anyone was going to come. I got out of the restraints and grabbed my gear, figured I could make it to the front door, but I forgot about the droids-” he gasps when he tries to straighten. “Then I heard you. I should have known you’d come for me.”

That explains his thumb- with no lockpick, there’s only one good way to get out of cuffs. Reaching into her pouch for the first two kolto injectors, she crouches next to him, presses one into each of his thighs and hits the buttons. “I had to- sorry,” she says as he flinches, “I wasn’t going to leave you. Not like this. Not after what Lana did.”

“She told you?”

“Yes."

Theron sighs. “Did she mean for this to happen?”

“No.”

“And you believe that.” He doesn’t, clearly, his mouth curling and his tone incredulous.

She chuckles, discarding the empty syringes. “I had a blaster pointed at her face. She might have been lying, but I rather doubt it.”

He blinks down at her. “You had a bl- you’re kidding.”

“Do I look-” she pulls two more syringes and sinks them home, hands him a clean cloth to hold against his bleeding mouth- “like I’m kidding?”

“Not really, no.” His color’s a little better, but only a little, and something about his posture makes her nervous. “Still, better me than you. Revan would have just killed you. He wanted me to join him, wanted me to- you heard him. Our blood. Our legacy.” When she rises he leans on her. “Fuck legacy. He’s insane.”

“You’re related to Revan.” It isn’t a question.  

Theron nods again, then stops, his eyes unfocused from too much movement. “It’s… complicated. I don’t even know how he knew. He could just tell, somehow- he got inside my head- he-”

(Did you know?

Not then. I knew of the Shan line of Jedi from my research- Theron’s grandmother Tasiele had some intriguing ideas about the Force- but it's a common name. Lana shakes her head. I didn't make the connection until I saw him with Satele.)

The entire building shakes and he stumbles again, balanced between her and the table, and a second alarm starts to shriek above the first. Power core cooling offline. Time to detonation: five minutes.

“It can’t ever be easy, can it?” She lifts his arm over her shoulders and he gasps again, inhaling, and she can feel the shudder move beneath her through every muscle of his back. “Ready to move?”

“Easy’s for amateurs.” That might have been a wink, though it’s hard to tell with his eyelids still half-closed. “I’m ready. The generator’s two rooms over, I think, with a console. I can-” he looks to his left hand, the unmoving fingers. “I can talk you through it.”

“I’ve got you.” As they start to move she has to fight to stay upright; he’s leaning on her hard and he’s at least a hand taller than she is, but she’s got him. They don’t have a choice. “Let’s go.”

(Even after all of that, she says, we would have died if not for you.

One corner of Lana’s mouth barely moves, the faintest hint of a smile. Theron taught me some slicing, those months that we were running. Without him I wouldn’t have had any idea how to disable a power core.

Well, thank the Force for that.)

***

Somehow they make it to the woods, to the clearing where she’d hidden the speeder, and when Theron slumps over onto the seat she gives him the last two injections.

“If you sit behind me, can you hold on?”

“I think so. How’s your driving?” He’s still ashen, his color off; Kaliyo’d scrounged up another half-dozen doses of kolto, though, so if they can make it back to the village he should be fine. (Should be. She needs a scanner or better, Doctor Lokin, but they’ll have to get back to Raider’s Cove for that and the fleets are less than eight hours away and-

They can do this.)

She fires up the speeder, sliding onto the seat in front of him. “Lead foot and no sense of self-preservation?”

“Liar- you keep yourself alive just fine. But in that case you should take up swoop racing.” Theron’s arms slip around her waist as she takes off down the trail, his chest against her back. “Those are pretty much the only prerequisites.”

“‘m too heavy, I think. Swoop racers are all built like birds.” Looking back over her shoulder, she checks their tail. Clear, finally.

“True. I was a lot lighter,” he says into her ear, “back then.”

She laughs, though she isn’t sure he hears her over the noise of the engine. “What, some kind of SIS cover story?”

“Way before that. Misspent youth.” When they hit a tree root he winces, holding onto her tighter. “I’ll… I probably shouldn’t, but if we survive this, I’ll tell you some of the story, alright?”

“You definitely shouldn’t, but I’m holding you to that. Just a little further.”

Theron’s quiet the rest of the way back to the village, another twenty minutes’ journey over the rough forest paths, and finally, finally, she can see the narrow way up to the hut and brings the bike to a halt just in front of it.

“We’re here-” she kills the engine- “you can let go now.”

He doesn’t.

“Theron? Are you okay?”

When she turns to look at him the twisting of her body breaks his grip; he lets go and falls, sideways, toward the dirt and his eyes don’t open and she can’t catch him at this angle and-

“Lana!” Her cry echoes off the cliff faces around them and back into the valley. “Lana, I need your help.”

 

***

Author's Notes:

-Another experimental chapter, sorry. I heard you like flashbacks, so I put some flashbacks in- hm. Quite enough of that.

-Per Annihilation, Theron was, in fact, a swoop bike racer at some point in his teens. I can see it.

Up next: Bright Spot, in which your exasperated author may just build voodoo dolls of these two idiots and scream NOW KISS at them until they decide to cooperate.

Chapter Text

 

Bright Spot

 

ATC 16. Rishi.

Even when Theron hits the ground he doesn’t wake, though he does curl in on himself with a muffled groan as Lana comes running from inside with Jakarro at her heels.

Alive, at least. For a moment as Nine watched him fall she thought that might have been the end of it, that she'd missed something despite the kolto- but no, when she kneels beside him in the dirt, pulls her gloves off to lift his head with clean hands, she can feel his ragged breath on her palms.

“Help me,” she says again, “I can't lift him by myself.”

Jakarro pushes past Lana and lifts Theron from her arms, scooping him up like he weighs nothing at all. Turning back toward the hut he growls at Lana, long and low and requiring no translation; the noise of it vibrates through the ground beneath her knees and prickles the hair on the back of her neck and only when Jakarro passes back through the open door and out of line of sight of Lana does he stop. Kaliyo, hidden somewhere inside behind the curve of the wall, swears, followed by a loud clattering and something fragile-sounding hitting the ground.

Still on her knees, she rubs her hands against her face, pushing the tension from her temples and the fatigue from her eyes- no time to be tired yet, with far too much to do and only a few hours left with Revan’s trap unsprung. When she looks up again Lana’s staring at her, teeth sunk into her lower lip.

“You’ve got-” Lana gestures to her own face- “here-”

When she glances down her palms are red-smeared, messy, and she can only imagine what her face looks like; she's usually got a nose for blood but she hadn't even noticed this time, nostrils still clogged with grenade smoke and speeder exhaust. One of Theron’s injuries must have opened up again when he fell, his blood on her hands from her failed attempt to catch him.

“Theron’s. Not mine.” She shakes her head, rocking back on her heels as she wipes her hands clean on her thighs, stains disappearing against the black of her armor. “A little too on-the-nose, hm?”

Lana starts to answer but seems to think better of it, closing her mouth just as she opens it, so fast that her teeth click audibly. Instead she pulls a cloth from her pocket and dampens it with water from the canteen at her belt, crouches beside her and starts to scrub the blood from her cheeks and forehead, from her eyelids when she closes them again, and when she is finished there she lifts one of her hands and then the other and cleans them too.

There’s still a thin red line along the edge of her left thumbnail when Kaliyo sticks her head out the door. “Hey. You have any adrenal stims left? I want to try something.”

“Yes.” She sighs, pushes herself to her feet as Lana does the same. She's been kneeling perhaps a minute, likely less, but it feels like an age. “One. Hold on.”

Stars, she's tired.

(I was saving that adrenal for myself, she says. I knew I wouldn't have a chance to sleep. But he needed it more than I did.

Lana nods. Theron appreciated it, I know. When he came to Asylum, after he’d quit the SIS, we did talk. Not about what happened, not directly, but- interlacing her fingers, stretching, Lana stifles a yawn. It’s late and she’s talked too much, probably; she never could tell a short story- about you. He felt like he owed you, I think, although I got the impression it was rather more involved than that.

That’s… she chuckles. Involved is one word for it, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves. I do have a question, though.

Hm?

After Jakarro took Theron inside, when you were getting the blood off my face- do you remember what you were going to say?

In profile she can see the corner of Lana’s mouth curve, up and then down, her eyes closing for half a heartbeat before she speaks. Not verbatim, no, but I remember thinking you were wrong about it being literal.

How so?

Lowering her arms from their stretched position, Lana looks down contemplatively at her own fingers. My hands were clean.)

Inside, Theron’s laid out on the table that had held their monitoring equipment, nose bleeding in a trickle that collects in the bow of his upper lip, still semi-conscious despite four empty vials of kolto on the ground nearby as she presses the stim into Kaliyo’s outstretched hand. “You wanted to try something?”

“Yeah. Check his pupils.” Kaliyo opens one of his eyes carefully with the pressure of her index finger on the crease of his eyelid. “Figure the stim might wake him up, at least.”

She looks closer- hm. Constricted, smaller than they should be even when she pulls a light from her pocket and shines it obliquely onto his face. “I don’t think they were like this before. Either Revan’s people gave him something slow-acting, or-” the beam flashes off his temple at the same moment the thought strikes her. “Or he’s got a pain modulator built into his implant and he overclocked it. I tried to dodge the rough trail as much as I could on the way back, but it can't have been pleasant- he's got broken ribs and fingers at minimum.”

“You do kind of drive like shit.” Kaliyo flips the cap off the injector. “Should I?”

“Go ahead. It may not help, but all I've got is antitoxin and I’m out of ideas.”

Head tilting in agreement, she presses the tip to Theron’s neck and triggers it.

For a few seconds nothing happens. Just when she starts to think nothing’s going to, that even with the kolto and the adrenal it won’t be enough, he gasps, reaches out and grabs for her hand as Kaliyo holds him down against the table with her forearm across the top of his chest.

“Fucking hell-” he gasps again, eyes open, fingers locked around her wrist. “I- what-”

“Thought we’d lost you there for a minute. You passed out, Theron,” she says as he starts to calm and she gestures to Kaliyo to step back. “We’ve got a little kolto left, but until we get back to Raider’s Cove I’d prefer you conscious.”

“‘m awake now.” He grumbles, turning his head to look around the room, at Jakarro packing up their scattered gear and Lana in the doorway, quiet, arms folded across her chest. “I lost focus when you hit that tree root, and then my implant kicked in-” He seems to realize, then, that he’s still holding on to her; he relaxes, right hand dropping to his chest, letting go. “Think I overdid it a little. I haven’t pushed it that hard in a long time.”

She nods. “Understandable. Can you shut it off for now, though?”

“Yeah. I probably should.” Taking a deep breath, Theron closes his eyes for a brief moment, then makes a face and reaches up and across with his right hand, brushing a fingertip across one of the tiny buttons on the surface of his implant. “Although- ow. Okay. It really, really hurts now.”

“You don’t have a medical station in your shuttle, do you?”

He shakes his head, then winces at the movement. “No, but I don’t need it. We don’t have time. We’ve got to deal with Revan first- the fleets-”

“I know. And we wouldn’t have figured any of that out without you, but you’ve done enough.”

“You can cut the debriefing shit, Cipher.” Snappish, Theron tries to sit up again even as she moves her hand to his shoulder, conciliatory and trying to keep him still all at the same time. “I don’t need that, either.”

“Take it from experience: yes, you do. But,” she says, quieter, “that wasn’t what I meant. I was only trying to- just rest, alright? We’ll figure things out back at base but we can’t stay here.”

He looks up at her, then; she can’t tell if he’s angry or exhausted or in pain or all three in shifting combination, the landmarks of his face distorted by swelling and rising bruises and a growing stripe of blood along his cheek and chin. His tone softens. “I- yeah. You’re right. Sorry.”

“Lana?” She turns her head toward the doorway where she’s still lingering, as Lana makes a quiet little noise and Theron, too, turns to see. “Do we have transport back yet? I don’t think the boat’s a good solution this time.”

“I’ve spoken with your Ensign Temple. She’s en route in my own shuttle,” Lana uncrosses her arms, holding out the cleaning-cloth still clutched in one hand with a few steps in her direction until she reaches across to take it, “but it doesn’t have an infirmary either, I’m afraid. Jakarro?”

The Wookiee, too, shakes his head with a muted series of roars as Dee-Four translates.

“Our kolto tank is empty, alas. Jakarro used the last of it to treat his injuries after Rakata Prime, and as he says, we’ve been hiding, not hauling cargo. The market price for a refill was more credits than were available.”

As she listens, she starts to wipe the worst of the blood from Theron’s face; he starts to protest but at her look he quiets and lets her work. When she’s finished, she folds the cloth and pinches his nose, carefully, and he nods, reaches up to hold it and his hand brushes against hers.

He needs proper medical care. The clinic in the Cove is out of the question, of course- too many curious eyes, even this late at night. That only leaves the tank in Nightshrike’s medical bay, which is out of the question, too, or at least it should be. Even under the current circumstances she shouldn’t let an SIS agent anywhere near it and there are things Theron absolutely cannot be allowed to see, but-

He shifts himself on the table, his broken hand holding the edge as he moves the balance of his weight from one side to the other, his teeth sinking hard into his lower lip muting any sound he might have made, and something in her gives way.

Desperate times, as the saying goes. What other choice is there?

She sighs, opens a channel to the ship through all their linked comms. “Vector? Are you there?”

“We read you, Cipher. ” Vector replies. “Raina has already departed in Lord Beniko’s shuttle-” Lana makes a face at that-

(Titles, Lana murmurs amusedly.)

“-with an estimated arrival in approximately ten minutes.”

“Very good. I need you to prep the medical bay and the war room, please. I’ll be bringing Agent Shan shipboard to use our kolto tank while the rest of us plan the next phase of the mission.”

Theron blinks. “I told you, I don’t need-”

She shushes him.

“Agent Shan. As you say, Cipher.” She knows Vector well enough to pick up the hint of doubt in his voice, but he would never have gone against her, not on her ship. “One moment. I’ll speak with Doctor Lokin and-"

He goes quiet. Over the comm there’s a shout, a growl, the hiss of a door closing-

“Vector?”

Nothing.

“Vector. Are you there?”

"You may wish to secure the channel, Cipher.” He finally responds, slightly out of breath. “We must report an issue.”

“An-” Oh, Force, what now? She switches over to their private channel, ignoring Lana’s arched eyebrow and Theron, trying to sit up again, restless and uncomfortable on the table. “I haven’t got time for issues. What is it?”

When he answers back, she can still hear growling in the background and- oh, no. “The medical bay may be unavailable for the next several hours. It would appear that Doctor Lokin is… indisposed.”

She knows the answer to her next question. She has to ask it anyway. “The normal sort, or his particular variety?”

“The latter.”

She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, fighting the urge to scream and drive her fist into the nearest wall- of all the Force-damned luck, of all the times for something like this to happen, why now? “Then grab the backup scanner and what supplies you can from the escape pod-” and credits, lots of credits, she thinks, mind racing over possible options before she settles on one- “and the small black box from my bedside table, then lock down the medical bay. I’ll need you at the safehouse when we arrive.”

“As you say. We’ll be there.” The channel clicks over.

When she opens her eyes everyone else is staring at her, Lana and Theron and Kaliyo and Jakarro, with the same questioning expression.

“Plan B,” she says, and starts shoving equipment into the open backpack beneath the table. “We improvise.”

(What exactly did happen? Lana asks.

You… ah. You’re familiar with Doctor Lokin’s unique physiology, yes?

I’ve read his dossier, she says, while we’ve been searching for him recently. He infected himself with rakghoul plague. But-

She nods at Lana. Mostly right. Infected isn’t quite the right word, but he uses a serum to keep the transformation stable. Apparently, one of the ingredients he’d had to source while we were on Rishi was counterfeit, and when he dosed himself with that particular batch- she snaps her fingers. We managed to contain the problem to the lab, but short of caging him there was nothing to do but let it wear off. He was very apologetic afterward.

I would hope so. And you were really going to bring Theron on board your ship?

It was a terrible idea, I know . Intelligence would have had me sent for reeducation for that if I’d still been on the roster officially. But- she shrugs- what else should I have done? You saw him. I couldn’t-

She trails off.

She could have. How many times had she done just that before, left Republic soldiers and agents and informants broken and bleeding and dying in her wake, turned her back and walked away without a single ounce of guilt weighing on the shreds that remained of her conscience? Even when she didn’t, even when it was people she’d worked alongside, it was more out of caprice than obligation: she saved Chance because she isn’t a monster and still turned the turrets on Ardun Kothe with howling savage vengeful joy because he deserved it, damn him, the way he used her. But Theron was-

Theron was something different.

I know, Lana says softly, and she doesn’t know whether she means her last words or her last thought but she’s not sure it matters. I know.)

***

The little shuttle, meant to hold three or four at most- not six, and certainly not a Wookiee- is terribly cramped on the short flight back to Raider’s Cove. It’s less bumpy and far faster than the boat that carried them over, though, and half an hour later they’re back at the alleyway safehouse.

She sends Kaliyo and Temple back to the ‘shrike . Vector, black eyes glancing cautiously around the safehouse, hands her the supply bag with an apologetic grimace. “Not much to speak of, we’re afraid. We weren’t able to access the medical bay, as you know.”

“It’s fine, Vector.” She shakes out the bag onto the central table as Jakarro starts pulling up maps, projecting them onto the screens along the walls. The scanner, a few doses of painkiller, two more kolto syringes, one patch and no splints and just two rolls of bandages- Theron’s already used twelve and they haven’t even seen to his hand yet. They’ll need more. She palms the little velvet box as it hits the tabletop. “I’ll make a run to the clinic. They’re fussy about Imperial credits, but maybe with better trade they’ll sell in quantity.”

“No.” Theron, propped up on his cot along the back wall, speaks up, pulling a spike from his jacket pocket. “You need to see this. It’s everything I could pull off the terminal in the room where they were holding me: schematics for the jammer, fortification maps, a few messages, maybe even a way to triangulate Revan’s location. We’ve only got a few hours left. I can-” he coughs, presses his lips together into a thin pain-filled line. “I can wait.”

Lana, pacing back and forth with her eyes on the largest map, shakes her head. “You’re still injured, Theron. We’ll need your help with this, and it would be better if-”

He laughs, sharp and bitter, though it trails off abruptly as he flinches again. “It would be better if I wasn’t? Yeah, it would, wouldn’t it?”

Lana’s face barely changes, a faint grief clouding her eyes for the span of a breath before it passes, but then she turns toward her with her hand outstretched. “The rest of you should start planning, then. I’ll go for supplies. Just tell me what I should sell.”

“Take this.” She opens the box, pulls out a necklace on a golden chain, its pendant a Nova ruby the size of her little fingernail. “It ought to be enough, even at black market rates.”

“Cipher, that’s- I can’t-”

It sparkles brilliantly in the lamplight as she lowers it into Lana’s hand, closing her fingers over it. “I’ve been meaning to sell it, and rubies don’t suit me, anyway- they clash with my hair. Now go.”

(Sixty thousand credits’ value. Lana shakes her head in disbelief at the memory. Beautiful. And you gave it away without even thinking.

One of the side benefits of Cipher work- I've collected lots of baubles over the years. She shrugs. That one was a gift, though I wasn’t fond of the man who gave it to me. Killed him the next day, actually, so it seemed suitably ironic to trade it for medical supplies.

Still. It was a pretty thing.

If we ever get to go hom- she catches herself. It isn’t home, not anymore- back to Dromund Kaas and my apartment hasn’t been thoroughly looted, I’ll give you the run of my jewel closet. You can have your pick of pretty things. I certainly don’t have much cause to wear them now.

Lana smiles. That’s very- she pauses. Wait. Did you say closet?)

***

Five hours before the fleets are scheduled to arrive, she loads the last of the maps into her datapad and finishes a third cup of caf, reviewing the jammer schematics one more time for good measure.

His thumb set back in joint and his hand taped and bandaged (the breaks were clean, so far as she can tell from the shitty backup medscanner, and ought to heal well- a mercy. An injury like that, done with more malice, might have crippled him), Theron’s finally stopped trying to get up and is resting quietly on his cot. The whole room’s quiet, really, with Jakarro running decryptions at the console with Vector’s assistance and Lana still not back with the supplies.

She doesn’t mind quiet most days. Tonight- today, past midnight though only barely- it’s unsettling.

“If I leave in an hour,” she says, looking up from the diagram toward Theron, “do you think that’s enough time, or-?”

He’s on his left side, facing toward the wall, and she can see him breathing but he doesn’t answer; she gets up from the table and crouches down beside him.

“Theron?”

He’d better not be unconscious again.

Carefully, she nudges his shoulder; he mutters something unintelligible. Probably not unconscious, then.

“Never mind,” she murmurs. “I’ll let you sleep.”

“-I have a number sixteen, extra crispy? Menu’s ‘n the counter-” Theron gestures vaguely, eyes still closed, at the wall in front of him. “-oh. ’nd a Goodvalor roll. ‘m starving.”

She chuckles softly. “I'll see what I can do.”

“‘kay.” He curls tighter under the thin blanket, eyelids fluttering in dreaming sleep. If she ignores the bruises he looks almost peaceful.

She lays an extra blanket over him and sets a ration bar on the cot before she moves back to the table.

***

Lana comes back a short while later, two crates on a floating cargo hauler at her side, and immediately starts unloading, handing her a dozen injectors and setting more on the table handful by handful.

“It should be enough, I think.” She shoves the first crate aside to pull the lid off the second. “The negotiations took a little while but I managed just about everything they had. I thought you’d need to take some with you, too.”

“With luck I won’t have to use them, though I’m not counting on luck today.” Grabbing a few stims off the top of the second crate, she tucks two away and shoots the third into her outer thigh. Her heart rate rises, her senses sharpening as the dullness of overfatigue slips away in a familiar chemical rush. “That’ll help, though.”

Lana nods, watching her as she refills her belt pouches before she turns her gaze to Theron. “Is he-”

“Sleeping.”

“Good. I’ll wake him once you make landfall.”

“You two need to talk,” she says. “Maybe not now, but if we make it through this- it won’t work going forward, Lana, not if we can’t trust each other.”

The second create emptied, Lana settles into one of the empty chairs around the table. “I know.”

“I’m not sure you- never mind.” Elbows on the table, she rests her forehead on her folded hands. “Focus on raising the fleets as soon as I can drop the jammer. If we can’t manage that, it’ll all have been for nothing.”

“We’ll manage. Don’t worry.”

When she closes her eyes she can almost read the schematics on the backs of her eyelids. Good. Ready, then. “Theron was right. We do say that a lot.” She looks up. “Vector?”

“Yes, Cipher?”

“Tell SCORPIO to meet me at the shuttle port. I’m heading out.”

***

She doesn’t bring SCORPIO into the field often. Their partnership was always uneasy, a thing of mutual convenience rather than loyalty (then and now, she says wryly, as Lana nods agreement- she’d mentioned more than once she found the AI disconcerting, but as the Lady of Sorrows the information network SCORPIO had cultivated on Zakuul has proven invaluable), but sometimes it takes a machine to break a machine.

She needs her. The jammer has to come down, and if SCORPIO’s lack of empathy’s sometimes a drawback, well-

Today she’s not in a particularly forgiving mood, either.

***

The wreckage of the walker smolders beside them as she crawls from behind the shielding panel. Everything hurts- a rocket to the chest knocked her nearly off the platform; she’s going to feel that one tomorrow for sure- and she can barely hear her comm over the screams of the anti-aircraft guns, carefully reprogrammed to target the Revanite ships.

The sky overhead’s filling by the second. The fleets dropped from hyperspace even as she’d fought, already firing on each other, a Republic strike fighter streaking past with engines ablaze-

There’s still time. There has to be.  

“Cipher?” Lana breathes a sigh of relief when she answers. “Is the signal jammer disabled?”

It hurts to breathe- so much for luck. She limps to the controls, SCORPIO at her heels. “Nearly. Tell Theron to start hailing the Republic.”

“Already on it,” he says, voice stronger than when she’d left. “Uploading the files to you, but you should get out of there.”

“I will, just as soon as-”

The machinery powers down as SCORPIO turns from the console, a self-satisfied smirk playing at the corners of her metallic mouth. “I have an open channel to the Imperial flagship. Shall I connect you?”

“Do it.”

She can already hear Theron speaking to someone as the holoprojector activates.

“This is Cipher Nine hailing Imperial vessel Terminus. Come in, Terminus. Do you copy?”

“I am here.” Darth Marr, arms folded, impassive, intimidating as always, fills the projector display and she has to fight the reflexive urge to kneel. “And you are on Rishi. Explain.”

“There are traitors in your fleet, my lord, planted by Revan. He survived the strike on the Foundry and his cult has only grown. Transmitting files now. Have your loyal crew detain them quickly, before any more damage is done.” (She hates my lord, the phrase like ashes on the tip of her tongue. But Darth Zhorrid, for one, had killed for lesser insults than improper deference and she doesn't know Marr’s temperament well enough to risk it.)

Marr’s head tilts. “Revan is alive?”

“Yes. He wants to destroy both the Empire and the Republic, starting here.”

Looking away for a moment, Marr gestures to someone offscreen. “Power down all weapons, Captain, and signal the rest of the fleet immediately.” He turns back toward her. “Is he here?”

“I don’t know. I don’t believe so, but-”

A second figure appears on the projector beside Marr, a petite human woman in Jedi battle armor, hair in neat plaits framing an ageless face. “Finally, an open line,” the woman says.

She’s seen her before- years and years ago, during the attack on the Brentaal Star. Her name was-

“Grand Master Shan.” Darth Marr inclines his head politely. “It appears we have been set upon each other by your ancestor.”

Grand Master Shan-

Ancestor-

Her eyes go wide before she can help herself, and it takes every bit of self-control she possesses to keep her facial expression otherwise neutral.

“Yes. We were notified by an agent of ours who’s also planetside.”

Complicated, in Theron’s words.

Quite.

When she returns to the safehouse the meeting’s already nearly ended, the room divided neatly down the middle with Lana, Vector and two armored guards flanking Darth Marr and Theron, Jakarro and two Republic soldiers behind the Grand Master.

She tries not to stare, concentrating on the plan, but this close there’s no mistaking the resemblance. He has his mother’s eyes, and when Satele says it again- my agent- she glances in his direction just in time to see his lip curl as he shifts restlessly from foot to foot. The phrase strikes a nerve, clearly.

“It’s agreed, then.” Marr rumbles. “To the fourth moon of Yavin, to end Revan’s plans once and for all.”

“I do hope you’ll join us.” The Grand Master- if she remembers her from past skirmishes she doesn't show it, her expression pleasant and her tone even- says as she starts to move toward the door, flanked closely by her soldiers. “You’ve done so much already. You should be there to see this through.”

(That was the beginning of it all, wasn’t it? If we’d never gone to Yavin- if we’d known- She trails off into silence, trying to ignore the knot tightening in the center of her chest.

How could we have known?

I don’t know. But I can’t help but think… she turns sideways in her seat, feet tucked beneath her, facing Lana directly. Do you remember what Marr said? About the Emperor?

Lana wrinkles her forehead. About Revan’s plan? I’ll admit I wasn’t entirely paying attention. Between remembering my death warrant, Darth Marr giving away the Empire’s darkest secret without so much as a pause and realizing I’d just let the son of the Grand Master of the Jedi Order be tortured by his own ancestor, I was fairly sure I was about to be murdered rather horribly.  

It was a very calm meeting, all things considered. She flashes her a smile, just for a moment, before the thought overtakes her again and she sobers. He said that Revan thought he could succeed, but that the Emperor would prove too powerful- for Revan, or for anyone else. What if Marr was right?

He wasn’t.

How can we know that? What if-

He wasn't, Lana says again, rests her hands on her shoulders and her forehead against hers. We won’t let him be.

She closes her eyes. If she keeps thinking hard enough, keeps her mind on other things, she can almost drown him out.)

***

Their visitors gone and her crew dismissed, she and Lana and Theron and Jakarro all sink into chairs almost simultaneously.

Dee-Four’s the first to speak. “That went surprisingly well, I think.”

“I wasn’t expecting a truce, I agree, and bypassing the Dark Council and the Chancellor was a neat little trick. Combining forces- we may actually have a chance at stopping Revan now. And thanks to Theron, we’ve got a destination.”

Theron glances at her with something like gratitude, nodding agreement. “It definitely could have been worse. It’s refreshing to see the Republic and the Empire working together without stabbing each other in the back.”

Everyone looks at Lana, who crosses her arms defensively and sits up taller. “It was the correct decision. You know that. Everything we learned-”

“And here I thought we could trust each other.” Raising his bandaged hand, Theron gestures around the table. “If I was wrong, I’d like to know that now.”

“At the risk of sounding egotistical,” Lana snarls, chin high, eyes narrowed, “I will not apologize for being right.”

(Oh, stars. Did I really-

Yes, Lana. Yes, you did.)

“I’m not even asking for an apology. I just think-”

“Would you both be quiet?” She drops her hands to the tabletop and in the sudden silence that follows the noise echoes around the little room like a blaster shot. “Theron’s right, Lana. Your plan paid dividends, to be sure, but you do owe him an apology.”

“Not you, too.” Lana’s focus flickers from face to face as they all stare flatly back at her; she sits back with a huff. “I- fine. Theron, I’m sorry. But if you’d been in on the plan, Revan might have been able to detect that.”

He shakes his head. “You think I’ve never been captured before? I know how to resist. My implants-”

“If they’d figured it out,” Lana says, “if you’d slipped, even for a moment, they would have killed you.”

“That’s… it’s not impossible, alright? Never mind.” Slouching down further into his chair, Theron sighs. “So. On to Yavin IV.”

Pushing back from the table, Lana crosses to her cot, lifting her already-packed duffel bag onto one arm. “Yes. We’ll speak further once we’re there, unless there’s something else?”

“I just need to gather my things, but we’ll rendezvous with the Terminus in orbit.” She rolls her shoulders backward, cracks her neck. Lokin had better be out of the medical bay by now- her back aches ferociously and now that it’s quiet her ears are ringing, and a little time in the tank sounds decidedly appealing now that Theron won’t need it; judging from the quick look the Grand Master’d shot him on her way past he’s got a lecture and a trip to the infirmary waiting, probably simultaneously, as soon as he’s off-planet. “I’ll see you aboard, Lana.”

“I’ll wipe the console while you pack,” Theron says, “and I could use a hand with carrying some of this equipment, Cipher, if that’s okay with you.”

There’s something in his voice that makes her nod. “Of course.”

Lana and Jakarro leave, then, and they’re alone, and Theron rests his head in his hand and looks at her through the gaps in his fingers.

“Go ahead. Ask.”

“Ask what?” She gets up, crossing the room to her bedroll and starting to fold it neatly.

“How I’m related to Revan,” he says as his eyes close- he looks better, less bruised and less exhausted. “Now you know. The Grand Master of the Jedi Order is my mother. Thank you for not saying anything, but I assume you’d like an explanation.”

“Of course I do, though I don’t expect one. I was only going to say you promised to tell me the swoop bike racing story-” she grins as he starts to laugh- “but all things considered, maybe you ought to start at the beginning.”

(She pauses. Some of what he said- I know you’re my spymasters, you and Theron, but I don’t want to say more than he wants known. How much do you know about Theron’s childhood?

Very little. Less than you do, I’m sure. He doesn’t talk about it often. His mother gave him up at birth, I know, and they aren’t close, but beyond that? Lana shrugs. Almost nothing.

Not close is an understatement. You know he was raised as a Jedi, yes?

Lana nods. He did mention that. But he isn’t Force-sensitive.

Correct. The Jedi who raised him abandoned him, too- I still don’t know everything that happened. He was largely on his own from what I gather, hence the stint as a swoop racer… he was barely in his teens then. The SIS came later.

What about his father? He must have had someone.

She shakes her head. I don’t know who Theron’s father is. I know he does, but he’s never told me, and I don’t think he met his father until fairly recently. I don’t think his father knew he existed until fairly recently, frankly.

That merits a startled blink from Lana. And Satele didn’t-

She gave him up as a newborn, Lana. She- how old do you think Theron was, the next time he saw his mother?

Force sensitivity almost always manifests by age ten... twelve at the latest. So even if his master waited a few more years- oh, I don’t know. When the Jedi released him, I assume. Fourteen?

She almost hadn’t believed it herself when he told her, but the way he said it, the way his mouth curled around the words- there was no faking that. Twenty-three. He was twenty-three.)

“‘My agent.’ I love it.” Theron rolls his eyes at the memory as he lifts himself back onto the stripped-down cot, the last bits of his toolkit packed away into the case on the floor in front of him before he lifts it onto his lap. He starts to lift his satchel, too, but stops, wincing. “Like it’s a coincidence we share a name. Like that’s a normal way to refer to your own kid.”

“I’ll get your other bag, Theron. Just given me a moment.” She can’t deny he has a point, though, about Satele. “You’ll have time to talk on the way to Yavin. Why don’t you say something to her?”

“I don’t know. I guess I find it more funny than bothersome at this point.” Looking up at her as she drops her own pack at the entrance, his mouth quirks at one corner into a wry little smile. “Why am I even telling you all this? I’ve fed you people so many phony backstories over the years, and here I’m boring you with my entire life story.”

“I’ve been told I have the face of a good listener.” She winks; he rolls his eyes again, though there’s something playful in it this time. “And you weren’t boring me- it’s quite a tale, though I’m afraid I don’t really remember my family so I’ve don’t have much to offer in return.”

Theron nods. “Did something happen to them?”

“I don’t-” she winces. Careful, girl. Almost too close again, there. “I remember what they look like, a little. I was a child when I saw them last, and I- that’s one of the things-” she has to force the words out; she shouldn’t tell him this, but it’s such a little thing and it seems only fair- “we don’t keep.”

“Like your name?”

“Like my name.”

“I’m sorry.”

She shrugs. “Don’t be. I had a choice.”

“As much as we ever do.” He shifts toward the edge of his cot as she nods in silent agreement. “I’m ready to get out of here whenever you are, by the way.”

“Me too. It's a shame, really.” She crosses back to sit down on the cot beside him, hauling his other bag up from the floor and looping its strap over her shoulder; everything else beyond the tech equipment he'd brought to Rishi fit into a single satchel. With his ribs still broken she’ll carry hers and his both, at least to the entrance to the docking platform- with the Republic here in earnest she likely won't be allowed anywhere near his shuttle. Alliances only stretch so far, after all. “Except for the pirate nonsense this planet seemed so nice when I first arrived. Warm weather, friendly natives-”

Theron grins. “Not to mention the delicious food, the cultists, the family bonding torture sessions… zero out of five stars. Would not recommend.”

“Not an ideal vacation spot, I agree.” When she starts to rise the bag’s strap comes unfastened, sliding off her arm and pulling her off-kilter, and she settles back to fix it. “Oof- heavy. What’ve you got in here, bricks?”

“Only a dozen or so. And all your extra ration bars. I might need a snack later, after the kolto tank and the lecture.”

She laughs. He’d had the same thought, clearly. “You can keep them. I’ve got crates of them back on my ship. So the food wasn't all bad, then- any other bright spots?”

As she speaks he’s reaching across her body to loop the strap back through its buckle, drawing it tight and sliding it up onto her shoulder. “I can think of one,” he says.

It takes her a moment to realize he’s looking at her and not at the buckle- she was watching his hands move on the strap and hadn't noticed he was working by touch- and his eyes are locked on hers when she shifts her focus and there is something in the way he looks at her that makes her stop short and-

(Well, she says, you can guess. Not how I would have wanted it to happen, but-

What do you mean, not how you wanted it? Lana, brow arching nearly into her hairline, looks at her in confusion. You’d flirted with Theron all along, ever since Manaan, and- forgive me for this, but you’ve never struck me as the type to turn down a lover.

I do have standards, you know. And we only kissed, then.

Her entire face goes pink. That wasn't what-

I know. She grins. I'm only teasing you, Lana, and I've had it said in much ruder ways by people I like far less than you. You’re right. Some other day, some other person, I'd have let him pin me to the wall and walked out with him wrapped around my little finger- Lana blushes even redder at that- but to borrow your phrase, I made a mistake with Theron. It started as a game, but-

Hm?

At some point, she says, we forgot we were playing. On Yavin, especially, but Rishi was the beginning.)

***

(There are things she does not tell Lana. This is one of those things.)

She almost pushes him away.

In the split second before Theron’s mouth meets hers she knows what’s going to happen and she almost turns her head, almost stops it before it starts, not because she doesn’t want it- she does, so badly it starts warning bells sounding in her mind- but there is no way to do this that isn’t going to hurt, in the end.

There are two ways this game can be played. Masks off, their loyalties laid bare, the first way does not apply to them. There’s no agenda for her to follow here, nothing she needs from him that she doesn’t think he’d give her willingly, and he’s been played enough, his trust a fragile thing. Pushing it further, asking even more- it would have been a cruelty beyond her capacity.

The second way is, at best, a brief bliss. This truce won’t hold forever and at the end of it they’ll be on opposite sides, enemies. But for today-

But today he kisses her, lips parted and hand still on her shoulder and body leaning into hers, eager, and she doesn’t care.

Theron tastes of caf and kolto and copper-bright blood, her tongue glancing along the cut on his lip as they shift together, awkward and fumbling as the cot tips precariously under too much weight on its edge; her hand comes up, brushing along his cheek until her fingertips glance over a still-livid bruise and he flinches and goes still.   

“I’m sorry,” she whispers, and means it. “Did I hurt you?”

“No. I mean-” when she moves she hits another sore spot and he breathes in, sharp and quick, but doesn’t draw back- “a little, yeah, but-”  He catches her hand with his unbandaged one, laces his fingers through hers as they come to rest along her neck and pulls her back in close, a soft hitch in his voice that hits her at the core like lightning. “I don’t care-”

And then they are lost, for a short shining moment, lost in kisses and the brush of fingertips on skin and the gasping little noises they make against each other’s mouths, hands starting to seek out the edges of clothing. Theron’s satchel digs into her back as she leans into the wall, his weight settling against her.

(It was no grand story, this thing of theirs, at its beginning- no birds singing with the sunrise, none of the sweetness of a romance vid or a children’s story. It was something harder, born of adrenaline and probably a little spite and under it all pure visceral want- an implosion grenade, two bodies together at the center of a swirling disaster with only the contact between them keeping the world from collapsing in on itself-

Or a better analogy, perhaps: the vortex above a sinking ship, too many near-misses and near-deaths and more still coming, dragging them down into cold and darkness. They cannot get clear of it- it’s far too late for that- so when it starts to pull the only thing to do is fill one’s lungs and fight toward the surface, toward light and heat.

And ah, stars, he is bright, then and now, and it took her far too long to realize that she was the same for him.)

Outside, in the alley, someone shouts and she and Theron both startle, looking to the entrance.

“Is that-” he tries to push himself up, but his good hand’s behind her, caught in her hair and the collar of her jacket- “damn it, that had better not be-”

“Just outside, I think,” she pants, bracing herself against the wall so he can move. “We’re okay.”

Theron nods. “We’re… yeah.” He looks at her, then, as they both struggle upright, both flushed and breathless and rumpled. “Force. I’m sorr-”

She presses two fingers to his mouth before he can finish the thought; he kisses them, unthinking, and she grins as he starts to apologize again. “Don’t. Am I complaining?”

“No.” He returns her grin as she lowers her hand. “No, you aren’t.”

“Then-” she hooks the collar of his undershirt, pulls him toward her- “shut up and-”

Her comm rings. Though she silences it- only someone shipboard, probably wondering where she is- when she looks up again the moment’s passed.

“We should probably go,” Theron says with a sigh, untangling from her, starting to stand. “I need to catch the fleet before it jumps to hyperspace, and I assume you do, too.”

“I do. Though I can think of a few things I’d rather be doing.” She rises, too, lifting his bag along with her, her voice wrapped low and sly around the words to mask her frustration, which is a problem- for fuck’s sake, he’s the Grand Master’s son, what is she doing-

‘You and me both.” He turns toward her, and as she lifts the satchel onto her shoulder he reaches out, one more time, to adjust the strap.

If they brush against each other every so often as they walk through the market they blame it on healing injuries and heavy bags. As she expected, there are guards now, posted both on Nightshrike and on Theron’s shuttle, and the armored figures on both sides stand at attention as they approach.

“I’ll see you when we get to Yavin. I’m sure we’ll have things to catch up on by then,” she murmurs as she hands him the bag, quiet enough the trooper guarding his shuttle can’t hear.

“I can think of a few.”

 ***

Author’s note:

The voodoo worked, apparently.

Apologies for the long delay. I should be back on a biweekly schedule now, but I had a few distractions last month, some of which might be relevant to your interests… (I’m on the right, of course. You may, perhaps, recognize the other person in the picture.)

Chapter Text

A Brief Bliss

 

16 ATC. Yavin IV.

I thought you seemed more irritable than usual, Lana says, on the way to Yavin IV. I just didn’t realize it was because of Theron.

Nine laughs. He surprised me a little, yes, but my mood on the Terminus had nothing to do with Theron. As I said, very little physical happened on Rishi- I might have had some new ideas to mull over, granted, but I’m perfectly capable of seeing to myself on that front.

Her last blush barely faded, Lana’s cheeks redden again.

You brought it up. But no, it was just a long ten days stuck shipboard with Darth Marr. The Council- she shudders, a twitch up her spine that drives her involuntarily to her feet- I never met most of them. I assume you can understand my apprehension, though.

He’d followed your career remarkably closely. I didn't realize it then, of course, but later, after Intelligence reformed, we spoke about you at some length. I don't think Marr ever quite knew what to make of you.

Somehow I'm not surprised. He voted on the Castellan restraints. I’ve no idea what his personal opinion on the matter was, but purging my archive files didn't make him forget. Now that she's up she's thirsty; she glances around the room- none of the good caf left, though Theron promised to buy more on Coruscant if he could, and no alcohol to be found, but there's water in the pitcher on her bedside table. He told you to keep a tight rein on me, I expect.

Lana nods. Yes. Although he didn’t phrase it as an order, specifically, so I may have been somewhat less than diligent about it.

Brave of you.

As you said, it wouldn’t work going forward if we didn’t trust each other. It wouldn’t have been fair.

No. But very little about Intelligence, or the Dark Council, was ever fair. She starts across the room and up the stairs to the bed, lifting the last of the clean glasses from atop the cabinet as she moves past. She really ought to tidy up one of these days; she's gotten too settled here, starting to let things pile up. A bad habit. Not many left alive who remember all of that business, now- only Darth Vowrawn, I think.

Not Acina?

She shakes her head. She wasn't a Darth, then, I don't think, or if she was she wasn't a Councilor. It would have been- Hadra? I can't remember. That seat turned over so often I nearly stopped keeping track. I only bothered at all so I’d know who I ought to steer clear of.

We did used to joke it was cursed, Lana chuckles, nodding when she holds up the pitcher and glass. Yes, please- but you’re probably right. Mekhis had been killed by then, good riddance to her.

You Sith do murder each other rather a lot. After a sip of water (warm, but it'll have to do), she carries both full glasses back to the couch and Lana reaches up to take one from her hand. Though from what I remember hearing of Mekhis from my training days, she probably deserved it.

She was completely insane. Scientifically brilliant, yes, but insane- though a Jedi killed her, actually, not a rival. Now that I think about it- Lana pauses, considering- Acina ought to thank the Republic. They killed all of her immediate predecessors: the Hero of Tython killed Hadra and Darth Karrid died in battle, although as to who killed her- well, no one knows, but-  

She snorts water up her nose at that. Oh, I know who killed Karrid. He told me himself, on Ziost.

On Zi- oh, no. One hand pressed to her forehead, Lana sighs. Theron? But why would he have told you that?

I was flying blind and he was leading me. We had to know we could trust each other- we both shared things we shouldn’t have, then. And Karrid was-

(-completely insane, Theron said, bitter, quiet, as she perched on the very tip of the Emperor’s outstretched finger in the middle of the People’s Tower, like every Sith-)

She blinks. Lana, you don’t happen to remember the name of the Jedi who killed Darth Mekhis, do you?

Not offhand. I’d expect it’s in her Archive file, though. Why?

She’s already reaching for her datapad as Lana speaks, fingers darting across the screen, bypassing security protocols and clearances, entering search parameters. I just thought of something, the way you described her, and I wondered.

The file loads slowly, laden with complex diagrams, but she scans forward to the end.

"Due to the destruction of the Sun Razer, Darth Mekhis’ remains were unable to be recovered, however, multiple independent-” not what she needs. She shifts back a page. “-apprehended a Republic strike team attempting to infiltrate the station, including Jedi Master Ngani Zho-”

Oh, hell.

She hands the datapad across.

What am I... oh, you can’t be serious. Wasn’t that Theron’s-

Yes.

And you think-

She shrugs. I don’t know. It’s certainly a possibility.

You two- Lana hands the datapad back, takes a long sip of water and sighs, rather more dramatically than necessary- deserve each other. Reckless, stubborn, impossible-

What would you do without us? Winking, she sets the datapad back on the table.

Sleep more, Lana grumbles, prodding the sharp point of her elbow into her side. And drink less.

***

She doesn’t do well in the heat.

Her childhood memories are hazy, odd fragmented things left behind by the memory modification process, but they couldn’t take them all- she needed her schooling, her experiences, needed to be herself only nameless- so she’s pretty sure the first time she left Dromund Kaas she was nineteen, in her second year of Intelligence training. Kaas City weather was cold, damp misery, all clinging fog and lightning storms, and after a while the chill settled into one’s soul; when she went to Tatooine to learn to track, hunting criminals through the dunes under the light of two suns, she thought her skin would melt from her bones.

And if Rishi was warm compared to Dromund Kaas, the fourth moon of Yavin’s sweltering. Even after sundown the breeze is hot and the air sodden and as she finishes driving the last tent stake into the ground she slides down against the canvas wall and fans herself furiously.

Oh, this place is miserable.

The clearing where they’d set up camp might have been a courtyard, once, though the buildings that once surrounded it are nothing more than tumbled-down blocks of stone. Despite their nominal truce the Republic’s far across the courtyard, their officers’ tents going up in the distance even as she watches. The middle ground in the center should be neutral territory- mess tents and long tables, space to train and space to relax.

Instead it’s a no-man’s-land, Imperial troopers eyeing their Republic counterparts warily and the same looks deflected right back like blaster bolts off shields. Not a promising start, that.

Lana’s supposed to be getting their cots- with the limited space they’re bunking together, which she doesn’t mind; after the little safehouse on Rishi they’re used to each other- but she’s nowhere in sight. Dinner looks to be ready, though, the first few soldiers lining up at the mess and emerging with trays laden with-

“MREs. Ugh.” She narrows her eyes, squinting at the trays. “And I thought this planet couldn’t get any worse.” 

“I was just about to warn you.” Theron, striding across the cobbles in the narrow gap between two infantry tents, makes a face that probably matches hers and holds up a packet of crackers and a half-empty bottle of whiskey. “Apparently there’ll be real food tomorrow, for what that’s worth, but I was hoping you’d be open to trading.”

With a snort of amusement, she shifts the mallet she’d been using on the tent pegs from hand to hand. “You’re on enemy turf, you know. I should knock you out and hold you for ransom.”

“If that mean no more meetings, I’ll let you do it if you promise to cut me in.”

“80/20?”

“I was thinking more like 60/40,” he grins, “but I’m open to negotiation. I also have that file on the Massassi you asked for, by the way.”

Rising, she nods. “Thanks. I’ll read it tonight- I’m in the field tomorrow, or so I have been informed, and I know less about them than I should.”

“You’re welcome, but why didn't you just ask Lana?”

“Didn't want to tell her I didn't know, to be honest. About all I do know of them is that they're a cousin species to the pureblood Sith, and we don't learn much Sith lore. If we knew all their secrets, we wouldn't need them,” she says, wrinkling her nose, “and we can't have that, can we?”

“Perish the thought.” Theron runs his hands through damp hair- kolto, she thinks, rather than sweat. Unlike hers, his shirt is dry and when he takes another step closer she can smell it, bitter-sharp, clinging to his skin. “So- dinner?”

“Let me haul my bag in and see what I’ve got. Most of my stash is shipboard, and she’s docked on Terminus, but I should have something edible.” Her duffle’s at the other corner of the tent platform, where she’d dropped it when she realized she still had to set the damned thing up; she picks it up and nudges one flap open with her hip. “Come on.” 

He follows her in, pausing as she lets the bag back down in one corner. Kneeling on the prefab floor, she pulls a lantern out first and lights it, setting it in the middle of the tent where it casts flickering shadows on the walls. That done, she unzips both outside pockets and arranges the contents in a half-circle around her: two bottles of water, a container of sugared fruit and a smaller one, half-empty, of almonds, a mostly-melted chocolate bar.

“And ration bars, of course.” She gestures at the array. “And the chocolate’s had it, so I’ll throw that in for free.”

Theron sits down beside her, adds the crackers and the whiskey to the circle. “I’ve had enough ration bars to last a lifetime. But I think we’ve basically got a balanced meal here.”

“Booze, carbs and chocolate? Works for me.”

“No cups, though.”

“Eh.” She shrugs; Theron unscrews the cap from the bottle, hands it to her and she takes a long sip before she passes it back. “I don’t mind sharing if you don’t.”

He looks as though he’s about to say something then bites it back, shoves a handful of almonds into his mouth instead, chewing for a moment before he shakes his head and takes a drink. “Your tent’s a lot bigger than mine,” he says, swallowing. “Rank thing?”

“Doubt it. Yours is probably meant for one. I’m bunked with Lana.”

“Oh.”

He looks- is that disappointment on his face? To go with the whiskey she takes a bite of fruit but even that’s gone sticky in the heat, leaves her fingers coated with half-melted granules of sugar until she licks them carefully clean.

When she looks up again he’s definitely staring.

“We should-” Theron takes another drink and a deep breath- “we should talk, right? About-”

She has to squint, then, as glare from the floodlights streams into the suddenly-ajar tent opening and Lana backs in, her arms laden with cots and lanterns and two soldiers behind her carrying folding tables and chairs.

“Cipher, I’ve got us some furniture,” she says, turning, “and some lights, and- oh. Hello, Theron. I see you two’ve found dinner.”

(Lana buries her face in her hands. Is it too late to apologize retroactively?

It wasn’t just you, believe me. Yavin was- she considers for a moment how best to say it- an exercise in frustration. We’d no free time and even less privacy.  

But you managed somehow, obviously.

She grins. Only halfway. No opportunity to do things properly, not until the end of it, though I won’t pretend we were behaving ourselves. But we’re spies, after all. Rule one: don’t get caught.

Do I want to know? Interlacing her fingers on her lap, Lana looks down the bridge of her nose in pretend sternness.

Remember all the problems we had with the relay at Watchpost Esk? We built it but never staffed it, so stonerays kept getting into the wiring and shorting out the power supply. Theron and I spent a lot of time fixing it.

Of course I remember, Lana says. It seemed like forever at the time, but we were only on Yavin for- what, two weeks? The sensor equipment there must have gone out every other day.

Nine waits, watching her expression, and she knows the exact moment when Lana gets it when the pillow hits her in the side of the head.

There weren’t any stonerays, were there? She brandishes the pillow like a weapon. I swear, you two-

In my defense, she laughs, holding her hands up to bat the blows away, there were stonerays the first time.)

***

(There really were stonerays the first time.) 

The proximity sensor on the relay down the path’s going crazy but no one’s supposed to be this far out but her. Not good. For a moment she thinks of detouring, avoiding whatever the problem might be and continuing on her way- but if it’s one of those Massassi, she might be able to sneak up on it and take it out quickly.

The damned things are already a problem, even near the base camp: one got in throwing distance of a troop transport this morning and took out both engines with hurled boulders before the guards managed to take it down; the whole thing’ll have to be scuttled, an expensive loss. They’ve lost ten scouts to them, too, the whole of the first party they’d sent out still missing, and with Revan nowhere to be found the fewer of them the bulk of the soldiers have to engage, the better.

So she continues on, pulling her speeder up short just out of sight of the watchpost and slipping into stealth before covering the rest of the distance on foot.

When she gets close enough to see, though, it isn’t Massassi at all. The first stoneray’s on the sensor, crunching metal under its claws as the electronics spark and hiss, and she sets up behind a tree and picks it off at range with a few shots from her rifle. When it falls she turns her attention to the second, trying to fly away with a length of power cable in its jaws; it lashes out angrily with its tail but she dodges to one side, lops the barbed tip off cleanly with her knife before one last shot drops it beside its mate.

Prodding at the relay with the butt of her rifle, she sighs as it gives off one last shower of sparks and the indicator light goes out.

Properly dead, then. It’ll need replacing.

“This is Cipher Nine calling base camp.” As she jogs back to fetch the speeder she opens the logistics channel- call it what one likes, it’s still really just her and Theron and Lana doing the brunt of the work; Marr put his foot down at allowing Jakarro a formal place at the War Table and neither he nor the Grand Master seem to pay attention to their comms. That’s an illusion, she’s sure- no one so much as sneezes in camp without one of them knowing- but power has its privileges. “Come in, base camp.”

“I read you, Cipher. Something up?”

They don’t really need the identifiers anymore; after this long they know each other by voice, but over an open channel the clarification’s still part of the protocol. “Hi, Theron. Do you know if there are any extra relays sitting around? Esk is down- had a little problem with the local wildlife.”

“I can check. Hang on.” It’s harder to tell with him, with less echo from his permanent implant than an earpiece comm, but it sounds like he’s moving. “You okay?”

“Oh, I’m fine. It was only stonerays, but they did a number on the hardware.”

“Good. Let me just look here-” clattering, something metallic falling over- “oops. Yeah, there’s a full extra assembly here. Should I run it out to you?”

Back at her speeder, she sits, fires up the engine. “You can just send a tech out. The setup’s just busywork. No need to waste your time with it.”

“Busywork’s still work,” he says, “and I’ve got nothing but time. Meet you there?”

She isn’t on a schedule, technically speaking. What’s a few minutes’ rest? “I’ll wait for you.”

It’s full midday by the time he gets there and the sun’s blazing; when Theron pulls up, she’s laying on the seat of her speeder in the shadow of a tall tree and still dripping sweat down the back of her jacket, face pink with heat despite all the water she’s been drinking.

He looks at her, head tilted, as she sits up. “You should get out of the sun. You look like you’re about to keel over.”

“I’m fine,” she says again. “Let’s just get this thing up and running, shall we?”

“I’ve got it. Go sit inside.”

“Inside where? There’s nothing here.”

Pulling a chemical chillpack out of the carry bag on his shoulder and holding it out in her direction, Theron nudges her toward an opening in a nearby rock face. “Follow the cable. Power supply’s in the cave there. Just- look, I’m bored out of my mind sitting in camp all day. Let me do something. Please.”

“Okay, okay.” She holds her hands up in mock surrender, takes the pack and crosses the clearing to sit in the cool dark of the cave mouth. “If it’s full of monsters and they eat me, I’m blaming you.”

“It isn’t. Opening’s too narrow for anything flying and it’s too shallow for any other local predators.”

Glancing back over her shoulder, he’s right: it extends barely two meters into the rock, with the generator powered down at the back; it probably cut out when the power cable disconnected. “Must have missed that line in the scouting report.”

“Wasn’t in the report.” With a shrug, Theron starts pulling equipment out of the bag and unstraps the new relay node from the cargo rack of his own speeder. “I spent a lot of time in caves as a kid. You learn to get good at picking out safe ones if you don’t like being woken up the hard way.”

“I may have said this when you told me before-” she unfastens her jacket and palms the cold pack, tucking it down her undershirt into the front of her bra with a contented sigh as he arches an eyebrow. Force, that feels good- “but you really did have a shitty childhood, you know.”

“Says the woman who can’t remember her own name.”

She gives him the finger and a silent smirk and he rolls his eyes, turning back to the broken equipment.

It doesn’t take him long to make the swap. She sits, quiet, watching him work; he really is good with his hands, steady and confident with the wiring and the finicky calibrations, though with a tendency to stick his tongue out when he’s concentrating that-

“Hey,” Theron says, and she blinks. Was she staring? She was probably staring. “Can you hit the generator? I think I’m done.”

“And here I was finally getting comfortable. Just a moment.” Rising, a few steps take her to the back of the cave and she flips the power switch; it hums to life, accompanied by a sharp yelp from the clearing.

She peers back outside, shadowing her eyes against the glare of the sun. Theron’s shaking one hand furiously and swearing, and when she starts to laugh he grumbles and gestures back at the relay. “Wiring diagram was reversed. I knew it didn’t look right, but-”

“That’s all ‘pub kit, so blame your people for that one.”

“Nobody's perfect.” He makes his way over to lean against the wall beside her. “Are you heading back into camp now?”

She shakes her head. “No. My actual orders are to scout the Massassi village. I only checked the relay at all because it was on my way.”

“At least you get to get out here. Damn medics still won’t clear me for full duty. I’m hoping for tomorrow, but-” Theron shrugs, slides down the wall until he’s sitting, and after a moment she does as well- “right now I’m splitting time between the kolto tank and ‘my agent’ duty.”

She nods. “I caught that again at this morning’s meeting. She does love that phrase, doesn’t she?”

“I’ll take it over another lecture, I guess, but yeah, she does. It’s like-” he wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. “Fuck, never mind. You don’t want to hear about it, I’m sure.”

Time to change the subject, she thinks. “You’ll be cleared soon enough, I think… you look better every day. How’s your hand?”

“Almost back to normal, minus that shock.” He wiggles his fingers. “Ribs almost healed, too.”

“I’m glad. Here, have this back for your hand. It’ll help with the stinging.” She fishes the chillpack out, still cool but sweat-slick from sitting against her skin; wrinkling her nose, she wipes it off on the hem of her shirt. “Ugh, maybe not. Lovely.”

“We could share.” His expression doesn’t change but his voice turns playful for a moment, the closest to himself she's heard in weeks, ever since Rishi. “I could hold it in place for you.”

(Lana chokes on a mouthful of water, claps her hand over her mouth to keep from spitting it halfway across the room. For Force’s sake-

You wanted to hear the story. Shush.)

“Bold words, Shan, and yet except for last night’s dinner you’ve been avoiding me ever since we got here.”

The minute she says it she regrets it. It wasn’t even true, for one thing, not at all; they’ve both been run ragged since the minute the shuttles touched down and they’re both snappish from heat and injury and overwork and they sigh, simultaneously, and look at each other out of the corners of their eyes.

“I haven’t been- I’m not avoiding you, I just- um.” Theron turns toward her, shifting to sit cross-legged. “I should probably apologize for what happened on Rishi. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I know we can’t-”

Raising one hand, she presses two fingers against his mouth just as she did then. “I told you before not to apologize. Can’t what?”

“Can’t-” he sighs, turns his head away from the press of her hand. “Let’s not kid ourselves, yeah? Even if we survive this, we both know this truce isn’t going to hold. We’d be breaking every rule in the book.”

“Didn't think you cared much about rules.”

“I don’t, mostly, but-”

Rolling her eyes at him, she lets her hand drop down onto his chest; he almost, but not quite, manages to hide the way his breath catches. “More to the point, you’re thinking way too far ahead. You heard the speech- right now we’re on the same side. Extramural cooperation and all that.”

“True.” He smirks. “Though I don’t think that was quite what they had in mind.”

They could dance around this forever, words and words and more words, but she doesn’t see the point of it, not when this might be the only time alone they’ll get for days. “Are you apologizing for kissing me because you don’t want it to happen again, or because you do?”

He bites his lip and doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t need to.

“Then the only thing we can’t do is get caught.”

That almost gets a reply, she thinks, the words caught in his throat as his face scrunches in consideration.

“Forget sides, Theron. No Republic versus Empire, no dossiers, no strings. Call it blowing off steam, if you like, but if you’re game for it I certainly am.”

(Stars above, she can still make him blush, but it isn’t so amusing any more. It only makes her want-

No.

Whatever this is, it is enough. It has to be.)

“You’re serious?”

She nods, studies the lines around his eyes, trying to read them for an answer. “Entirely.”

“I- okay, I- wow.” He exhales. “I don’t know what I expected, but- ”

“And you’re not going to hurt my feelings. If that's not your style, just say so.” She doesn’t think it is but she’s not sure it matters, not after the way he kissed her before, not with all her Cipher training telling her if she pushed just a little further, a little more, she’d have his heart between her teeth-  but this isn’t work. He isn’t a mark and she’ll give him the out if he wants it; in this, at least, he gets to choose. It’s only fair.

“It’s not that. I… That’s a hell of an offer.” Hands held up, helpless, Theron curls them into tight fists and she catches the barest hint of a flinch across his face as his left hand twitches. “If I said I needed to think about it?”

Well. It isn’t a no. She shrugs one last time and pushes herself up. “If you make up your mind one way or the other, you know where to find me. But I should get back to work. That village isn’t going to scout itself.”

As she steps out into the light she can feel his eyes on her back and he calls out, hard to hear over the speeder’s engine igniting. “Hey. Cipher?”

“Hm?”

“Be careful, okay?”

“I’m always careful,” she says, and goes.

(He had to think about it? Lana sits back, a bemused little smile playing at her lips. Good for him. How long did it take him to make up his mind?

Not long.)

***

She barely sees Theron that night. He grabs dinner and takes it back to his tent and she knows better than to follow. The next morning, too, she catches sight of him across the camp, storming out of the medical tent with his fists clenched and a deep scowl etched across his face- denied again.

Poor Theron.

Today she’s even farther afield, scouting all the way out to the edges of the temple complex; there’s something off about the building in the center, a creeping wrongness that ties her stomach in knots and sets her nerves on edge. Revan’s people are camped there, too, fewer in number than on Rishi but almost all Force-users, and dodging them all day’s got her exhausted by the time she’s ready to head in.

As she pilots back toward camp she’s running battle plans in her head already- she can probably take the building with just a squad, if they play it right- so she misses the first incoming message, the soft chime lost to the noise around her. She hears the second, though, a minute later, and then a third.

Odd. She pulls over to check.

They’re all from him.

Message: hey. think i may have messed up the install yesterday after all. sensor’s acting up. can you take a look if you’re going by?- theron

Message: or maybe it’s stonerays again. not sure. weird signal, though. -t

Message: i can meet you out there? let me know. -t   

When she checks the signals, Esk is down. But why’s he sending messages rather than just calling? He might be in conference, she supposes, multi-tasking as he so often did. She taps out a quick reply on her commpad.

I’m about fifteen minutes from there. I’ll swing by and check it out. -IX

His response is almost immediate.

great. see you soon. -t

She changes course, heading east toward the watchpost, and when she pulls into the clearing Theron’s already there, pacing back and forth in the cave mouth- he can’t have been in a meeting, then; if he’d been in camp she’d have beaten him here- and when he sees her pull up next to the relay he beckons her over.

“You didn’t mention you were already out here,” she says. “Did you figure out what the issue was?”

“I’m an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot. I’m sure it was-” it’s quiet. Too quiet. “You- ah, you know the generator’s off, right?”

He nods, then reaches out, takes her by the wrist; she lets him pull her into the shadows. “Yup. The relay’s fine. I needed an excuse to get out here so I… um. I may have remotely shut off the power supply. Possibly.” He presses a button on his commpad and it purrs to life.

Oh. “For future reference, ‘hey, can we talk?’ works pretty well for me.”

“Noted. So-” Theron takes a deep breath, the words tumbling out- “yes. Yes. I don’t know why I didn’t say this yesterday instead of trying to think my way through it all fucking night but-” A pause, another breath. “Yes. You're right, no-strings-attached isn’t exactly my usual, but I’d be kidding myself if I said I didn’t want it.”

She takes a step in closer until they’re toe to toe, reaches up to rest her free hand against his chest as her eyes adjust to the dim light. “Let me guess. You're usually-” she considers, teasing- “a third-date guy, hm?”

“I've made exceptions,” Theron mutters, “on occasion.”

“Well, then, if this was some Nar Shaddaa cantina I’d just drag you into a ‘fresher and go from there, but seeing as how we’re standing in a cave-”

He makes a face. “Oh, come on. That doesn’t actually happen- not to me, at least, and definitely not with someone like you.”

“You-” she grins, though when she looks more carefully he’s probably telling the truth; Nar Shaddaa ought to be ashamed of itself- “clearly don’t go to the same bars I do. Like me in what way? Imperial, or-?"

He shakes his head, focused down on where her fingers curl around his lapel. “That, too, but- Force, you’re beautiful -”

(-and she should have known, then, that they said no strings but oh, they were such liars-)

“Theron?” Her tone makes him glance up and she pulls him toward her. “Stop talking.”

He does.

***

Suffice it to say that we were interrupted again- not you, that time, she laughs.

Oh, good. Lana shakes her head. I was completely oblivious then, as you know, but I would feel bad. A little. You idiots.

Hmph. We did our jobs just fine. We were careful, she says. Just not with each other.

***

(There was more to it than that, of course.

She does not tell Lana this part, either, another one of the things that are hers and Theron’s alone.)

There was no gentleness in them that day, none of the caution of Rishi where for all their urgency he was half-afraid to touch her and she was half-afraid to hurt him.

Not today. With the first kiss he quiets but not with the second, or the third, soft noises low in his throat when her teeth sink into his lower lip and when she pulls her gloves off to run her hands up his back beneath his shirt because she wants to learn the feel of him, bare skin on bare skin, fingertips gliding over muscles she doesn’t know the lines of by sight but so badly wants to.

Her fingernails bite in, careful, not hard enough to mark- too risky with him still making daily visits to the medics, too many possible questions with no good answers- but it’s still enough; Theron pivots, half-lifts her with hands squarely on her ass until she's up on tiptoes with her back against the stone wall and his mouth laying lines of kisses that by rights should have left welts, scalding-hot things on the corner of her lip and jawline, her neck and the edge of her ear and her collarbone when he gets the top fastenings of her jacket open.

She unhooks her belt, angles herself to let it drop to the floor behind her. With that movement the last small bit of space left between them closes and ah, there, she can feel him stirring against the press of her hips-

To the Void with patience.

“Theron-” it’s undignified, really, the way she’s already falling apart from nothing more than his mouth on hers and his fingers tracing patterns on her sides and the curves of her breasts until she can’t take this any more, reaches down to cup one hand around him through the fabric still between them and fuck, he’s hard. His buckle’s fussy, slipping out of her grasp again and again when she tries to unfasten it; after another moment’s fumbling he starts to help and then stops abruptly, rests his hands on top of hers. “Theron, what-”

“We shouldn’t- I-” He flushes when she squirms against him again, his voice hoarse- Force, why’s he stopping- “I forgot to bring a fucking condom, so-”

She doesn’t have one with her, either; granted, she hadn’t exactly planned on this today. No point in coyness, though. “I’m clean, if that’s what you’re worried about,” she murmurs, shrugging- the way he startles, embarrassed by the implication, that clearly wasn’t it- “and I’ve got an implant. But it's up to you.”

He doesn’t move for a moment except to close his eyes; she waits, quiet, watching him, forehead resting against his.

(In hindsight of course he had to think about it, of course-

History has a way of repeating itself.)

Then Theron shifts, moves their hands together to undo his belt before he lets her go and stoops to let it down, a nip of a kiss against the flat of her stomach- oh- then straightens up-

And this time it’s his comm that goes off.

The noise of it’s a howl in the narrow space, so loud that they both startle and she has to turn her head so they don’t bump noses. He reaches up to mute it, but it immediately sounds again.

Silencing it a second time with one hand to his temple, he sags against her in frustration, burying his face in the side of her neck with a huff, his words muffled against her skin. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Something wrong at camp?”

He sighs. “Meeting. Again. And I’m late for it, apparently.”

“Skip it.” She winds her arms around his waist. “Fuck ‘em. Or better-” a turn of her head, nudging his chin up, dropping her hands lower; she isn’t letting him go this time, not so close, not with her pulse still beating in her ears and throbbing hot and vicious between her legs- “fuck me.”

“You are,” he gasps, closes his mouth on her throat until his teeth sink in and she goes limp between his body and the stone, “unbelieveable-”

-and his comm rings a third time.   

“Speaking of unbelieveable.” They both go still a few seconds and then Theron starts to pull away, breaking the circle of her arms as she whines in frustration and makes a face that makes him pause. “I know. I know. But I have to go.”

“I suppose,” she grumbles- she can guess who’s ringing, though, and if she’s pissed about it he must be furious- “I can take a rain check. Not sure that’s the best look for a meeting, though.” She glances down pointedly, brushes lightly along his trouser fastenings as he twitches against her touch.

“And you’re not exactly helping. Not that I’d normally be complaining, but-”

Well. There’s more than one way to solve that particular problem.

“Oh, I’ll help, Theron.” Smile wicked, she steps around him, turns him round with hands still on his waistband until their positions are reversed and his back’s against the wall. “But you’re going to owe me.”

She’s already on her knees in front of him, fingers working at his buttons, before she thinks it quite hits him. “You don’t have to-” 

If the way he springs into her hand as she pushes his trousers down over his hips is any indication, though, he certainly wants her to; when she takes him in her mouth he moans, trailing off into wordlessness and quiet little sounds as she curls her tongue against him.

It won’t be long, she thinks, wound as tightly as he is, standing statue-still like he’ll afraid he'll shatter even when she presses in more, the head of his cock deep in the back of her throat as she times her breaths with the strokes of her hand and the slow slide of her parted lips along the length of him. She glances up and when her eyes meet his he finally moves, raises one hand to the side of her head but too tentative, too cautious, holding back-

Unblinking, she rests her hand on his and then tightens her grip, makes his fingers curl and- oh, yes, that’s better-

“Stars-” Theron falls back against the wall, cants his hips against her, pulling at her hair just enough to tilt her head and make her hiss in pleasure at the sharp sting of it and the sound of his voice, not so quiet now, louder moans over the soft wet noises of her mouth- “please-”

(-oh, the way he looks at her-)

She closes her eyes, quickens her pace.

After another minute, perhaps, he brings his other hand to her shoulder and she looks up again as he starts to push her lightly back. He's nearly there now, to judge by his ragged breathing, and he pushes again, more insistent.

“I’m- ah, fuck, I’m so close, you should-”

She keeps focus on him and only nods, ever so slightly- it’s hard to move except to keep in rhythm, the way he’s still holding on to her in reflex even as he's trying to give her the option but oh, she doesn't mind it; it means he wants this, wants her, and that's the important thing- and keeps going, murmuring agreement that comes out muted, a low hum in her throat he can probably feel more than hear. Whether that's what pushes him over the edge she can't be sure, but in the next moment he tenses, bites his lip, shifts grip from her shoulder to cup the nape of her neck-

-and he comes, gasping out her name, and it sounds strange and right all at once.

She can taste him, hot and salt-sweet on the back of her tongue; she swallows, once and then again, meeting a second sharper spike that must have surprised him, too, the way his eyes go wide before he finally stills and lets his hands fall away.

With a last flicker of her tongue over the tip of his cock as she pulls away, she rocks back on her heels. He could move now if he chose, enough room to step away from the wall. He doesn't, and before she can raise a hand to wipe her face he's reaching down for her again, lifting her up to pull her close.

“Come here,” Theron says, and kisses her, even with the taste of him still on her lips- she did not expect that, could count on one hand, probably, the lovers she's ever had who've done that; she makes a pleased little sound against his mouth. “That was-” he grins, out of breath- “you are good at that.”

“You're welcome.” She tries, and fails, not to look too smug at the compliment. “But I believe you've got a meeting to go to.”

“Don't remind me.”

“At least you've got something to think about if you get bored.” She winks, taking a step back- he really does need to go, unless they want someone to come looking for him. “Like I said. You owe me.”

He smirks. “Oh, I'll come up with something. Don't worry.”

“I'll hold you to that. Now go.”

She hands him his belt and smooths down his rumpled clothing, one last teasing kiss before his comm chimes a fourth time and as he darts outside he answers it, the irritation in his still half-breathless voice palpable as he moves from earshot.

She should head back herself.

But Force, even with him gone her heart’s still pounding, a sharp restless ache deep in her core; she’ll have to take the speeder back but the idea of it between her thighs isn’t what she wants at all. She’d much rather it was Theron, his fingers or his mouth or, now that she knows the shape and curve of it, even better-  

She leans back against the wall, undoes her waistband and slides her hand down into the slick wet heat of her cunt- she ought to have more control than this, more discipline, she knows better, but she- oh- thinks of him, the way he’d feel pushing into her and fuck, fuck, fuck-

As she brings herself off, fingertips grinding frantic and ungentle until her orgasm hits her like a rifle shot and knocks the breath from her body, she says his name, again and again, into the quiet dark.

Chapter Text

Immortals

16 ATC. Yavin IV.

 

Back at camp, Nine stops by her tent first.

She desperately wants a shower. She’s got enough of an excuse for one after a day’s work in the field, tired and sore and dirty from prowling through the ruins, but more to the point she needs to refocus and cool down before the evening’s meeting. Stripping out of her armor, robe wrapped around her body and feet slipped into bathing shoes- barefoot won’t work here, not with the rough stone underfoot, and she’d normally just wrap up in a towel but given the number of soldiers between her tent and the showers that seems an exceptionally bad plan unless one likes wolf-whistles- she pads across the Imperial half of the encampment toward her destination.

They’re only field showers, of course: sun-heated water rationed out in minute-long portions, the interface flatly refusing any attempts at overrides and beeping rudely when she tries to adjust the timer up to a more reasonable three minutes.

Oh, well.

She hangs her towel from the hook in the narrow cubicle and strips down before hitting the panel and letting the water, barely lukewarm despite the solar tank, run over her skin. In the cubicle beside hers someone’s singing an old military cadence, off-key and in a bass voice loud enough to set the thin wall vibrating; after two verses, the song cuts off with a grumble and a muttered curse.

(For a moment she remembers the Academy, remembers her school days.

Privacy was a privilege to be earned there, open dormitories with their beds in long uncurtained rows until their fourth year and communal showers divided by gender until lower sixth. It was meant to break them of bad habits when they were still young enough to take the breaking without question, strip down their individuality to make them malleable- little boy-and-girl-shaped dolls to be fit into molds to make diplomats and ambassadors and Minders and Fixers as the needs of the Empire required. It worked, most of the time.

When it didn’t, one of two things could happen. Sometimes the pressure made one fragile, brittle, prone to shatter with too much force applied; those were the empty beds, the cadets there one day and gone the next. They’d all shake their heads at those, when they were old enough to understand what went home really meant, that it meant failure- weak, they’d say, pathetic.

Children could be very cruel. That, too, was molded into them.

The other thing that could happen was subtler. Sometimes one template never quite suited, never quite fit, a sly, slippery sort of resistance that made the instructors shake their heads even as they smiled behind their hands. Only one thing to do with a cadet like that-

The ones like that, the ones like her- they went to the field.)

The water cuts off with a harsh chime and she sighs, grabs her towel to blot the water from her skin. Good enough.

Back in her tent, hair piled in a damp coil atop her head and changed into training clothes, simple black drawstring trousers and a short-sleeved shirt- she's past caring about proper dress for the meetings; none of the rest of them are stuck outdoors all day in leather and kinetic plating- she lays her armor out to air on her cot with a few sprays of cleanser for good measure.

Vector’d have seen to her gear, normally, one of so many tasks he’d taken on without complaint. Despite her protests, though, he’d been commandeered for logistics nearly as soon as they’d touched down and she’s barely seen him since. The rest of her crew stayed shipboard; Kaliyo, still wary of prolonged contact with the Empire after the last time they’d tried to arrest her, chose to remain behind; Lokin was still rebuilding the infirmary; SCORPIO would have raised far too many questions and Raina- well. If either the Jedi or the Sith got scent of her-

Best to stay away. It left her short-handed, though.

Where is everyone? She thought she’d have been summoned to conference by now, but the others seem to be occupied elsewhere: Theron and Satele are nowhere to be found and Darth Marr’s clearly in his tent given the guards posted outside; when she approaches, Lana’s alone at the War Table, two datapads in front of her and maps and diagrams from three different projectors hovering in the air around her head.

Lana waves distractedly, still focused on one of the maps. “Hello, Cipher. I'll take your report when it's ready. I've got the map all ready to integrate the new data.”

“In a little while, hm? I thought I'd work on it while I eat.”

“Best do it now. Something's got both Darth Marr and Grand Master Shan in a temper today- I feel it in the air, too, but if they know what it is they haven't seen fit to share.” Her hand skates along the holos, pulling tiny renderings of soldiers from one screen to another. “Theron ran in late for some meeting she’d scheduled and I thought she'd drag him off by his ear. I'd be careful if I was you.”

“Slavedrivers, all of you,” she grumbles, suppressing a smile. Not that Satele could ever find out why he’d been late, of course, but oh, to be a fly on that wall if she did- the look on her smug Jedi face would be delicious. “If I didn't know better, I’d think you were ordering me around, Lord Beniko.”

She, predictably, wrinkles her forehead. “Of course I'm not. It's only that-”

“I know. You Force-users run things, after all. The rest of us are just your little soldiers.” She reaches up, moving one of the groupings along the projected map to the center of the Imperial Guard facility. “We’ll need those there, to begin with, but I'll get the data processing. After I get some food.”

“I don’t run-“ Lana says, then sighs. After a moment she pushes away from the table, letting the projections fade. “Oh, hang this. I’m starving. Come on.”

(And in that moment I realized the Lana I knew had been replaced with some kind of clone. Quite a good likeness, but the work ethic- she waves a hand, mouth tilting wryly- totally unrealistic.

I can relax, Lana grumbles. Sometimes.)

*** 

They sit and watch the soldiers spar as they eat. 

After the first awkward day the mood in camp’s a little lighter, a mixed group of scouts and infantry from both sides swapping fighting techniques in the ring beside the common area. Datapad on the table beside her as the day’s analysis compiles, she drains the last of her caf, eyeing one of their scouts critically as a Republic soldier gets him in a chokehold.

“He’ll never get him off balance that way. That ‘pub’s built like a wampa.” Setting her cup down, she mutters at Lana. “If that’s how they train, no wonder we’ve lost a squad already.”

Lana, mouth full, tilts her head in agreement as the scout tries another angle and ends up face-down on the cobblestones. Oh, honestly. She stands, striding to the middle of the ring.

“Look,” she says- the scout rolls onto his back, staring up at her. He’s just a pup, really, no more than twenty by her assessment and probably younger- “you’re doing that all wrong.”

“Don’t think he asked you, lady.” Stars, the man’s enormous. If he was half again his opponent’s weight he must be double hers. “Unless you think you can do better?”

Lana starts to stand up, opens her mouth to intervene; she waves her off, then holds up one finger to silence him. “In a minute. Here-” she turns back to the boy, giving him a hand up- “what were you trying to do, exactly?”

“D’you know the combat manual?” He’s got gravel pebbling his forehead and scuff marks on his trousers. “Maneuver sixteen, but I can’t make it work.”

“That was your first mistake. Starting from a throttle, that’ll never work on someone his size. Try… hm. Twenty into seven into thirty-two.”

“How does that-” his forehead scrunches. He’s trying to picture it, clearly, his hands moving little circles as he works his way through the different forms. “Sorry. I can’t-”

She turns back to the ‘pub, who’s got his arms folded across his chest- and no armor. Perfect. “I’ll demonstrate. Shall we begin?”

He grins and lunges for her neck.

Overconfident. Typical.

She darts her left arm outside his right, brings her cupped left hand down sharply at the crease of his elbow as two fingers of her right hit the hollow of his throat and dig in hard; his arm bends and he chokes as she pivots her weight into him. When his knees hit the ground she pulls back from his throat, slides her left hand grip down to his wrist and rotates, snaps it back against her thighs- a little more force and she’d have put his elbow out of joint, but this is meant to be a friendly spar; still, he flinches. She lets her own knees bend, driving her weight between his shoulder blades until he falls forward, pinned by her momentum and wrist still caught in her grasp, arm twisted behind his back-

“And then,” she exhales, looking up to the scout, “with a little leverage-”

She’s barely torqued his shoulder before he’s tapping out.

“Or if you’ve got a knife-” she doesn’t draw hers, leaving it tucked into her boot, but pushes a fingertip into the base of his skull, his back at the heartline and at the level of each kidney- “here, here or here. All good options.”

“What if he’s in armor, though?” Another scout, a stocky woman in Republic fatigues, calls out across the ring. Her demonstration took ten seconds, maybe, probably less, but in that time they’ve attracted quite an audience. Letting her opponent go, she settles cross-legged onto the ground beside him; he rolls over, rubbing his arm.

“Then you screwed up. If you got close enough to an opponent in full armor to let him get his hands on you,” she says, “you’re probably going to get your ass handed to you and you probably deserve it.”

Beside her, the soldier snorts in agreement, then coughs. She might have hit his throat a little hard.

“Yeah, okay-” another voice, behind her- “but what if-”

When the light starts to fade half an hour later she’s sweating, covered in dust from the cobblestones, and she’s put most of the gathered ring through their paces in some form or another.

Dodging one last attempt at a grapple with a forward somersault, she turns around-

The Grand Master’s standing at the edge of the ring with Theron at her shoulder, arms folded across her chest, looking entirely unamused. “Cipher, I really shouldn’t have to ask you not to injure our infantry.”

“No one’s injuring anything.” She wipes her face. “Just training. They’re playing too close to the book, your people and mine both. If they can’t improvise in the field, they’re all going to-”

Probably better not to say that out loud.

“She does have a point,” Theron chimes in as Satele shoots him a look out of the corner of her eye. “I thought you wanted us cooperating. Joint training isn’t a bad idea.”

“What you do with your leisure time is up to you. For tonight, however, I need you both at the war table in fifteen minutes. Promptly.” That last comment directed at Theron, Satele turns toward Lana. “Lord Beniko, you as well, please.”

As she heads off across the courtyard, the three of them roll their eyes in synchrony.

“Promptly.” Theron snorts. “Subtle as a lightsaber to the face. I should go take a nap just to spite her.”

She laughs; her datapad, still on the table, chirps as the compiler finishes and she walks across to pick it up. “Hear, hear.”  

Lana slides off the bench. “I’d better go finish that map. Send me that file, won’t you?”

“On its way.”

With a nod, she stacks their empty plates, dumping them back into one of the collecting bins. “See you both shortly.”

Theron tracks her as she walks away. “Lana’s still avoiding me, isn’t she?”

“Not really. I pulled her away from work when I came back. That’s got nothing to do with you.”

“I guess,” he says. “I just keep catching her looking at me. After Rishi, it’s a little disconcerting.”

“She is sorry, you know.” Her sparring partner’s still standing near the edge of the ring, waiting; she waves the woman off with a nod. “You know she is.”

“Maybe. Anyway, that looked like fun.” Perching on the table, Theron shifts his gaze toward the still-training soldiers. “I may ask you to put me through my paces soon, if that’s okay with you. With all this down time I’m definitely getting rusty.”

“Whenever you like, once you get the all-clear. I don’t want your-” she catches herself on the words- “Grand Master Satele to shock me to death if I break one of your fingernails.”

“Jedi don’t use Force lightning, as a rule. And that assumes you can beat me, so-”

She grins. “I assume nothing. I’ll stomp you flat any day of the week.”

“I’d say you could try, but I just watched you spar for the last ten minutes. Honestly, yeah, you’ll probably kick my ass.” He returns her grin. “Do I need to read that file, too?”

“No, it’s just scouting data from today’s run. I’m sure we’ll go over it shortly. In exhaustive detail.”

“I hope not. But I’d better take notes, then. I might be talking you through tomorrow if I still can’t get field clearance.” Theron makes a face, reaching into his pocket. “I- shit. I left my datapad on my desk.”

As he pushes back up off the table, she nods. “I’ll meet you over there, then.”

“Walk with me? I just need to grab it.”

They make their way through the rows of tents, lamps within casting shadows on the canvas walls, until they reach the western edge of camp and the Republic command quarters and Theron’s tent, wedged between Satele’s to its right and the brigadier’s on its left. He starts inside, gesturing for her to follow- he wasn’t lying about the space, barely enough for the two of them standing, a cot with a duffel bag tucked underneath, a tiny desk and matching chair.

(He’s always tidy, everything neatly stacked or folded away, a tendency she recognizes in herself-

They were used to running, both of them, in those days: only the essentials kept near to hand in the field, ready to shove into a bag in ten seconds or less, ready to bolt at the slightest sign of trouble. An old habit, born of necessity.

They’ve gotten a little messier, now.)   

“How did your meeting go, by the way? I heard she wasn’t happy when you made it back.”

“How do you think it went?” Plugged into a charging cable, Theron’s datapad’s on the corner of the desk; he picks it up and slips it into an inside pocket of his jacket and then turns, wraps his arms around her waist and pulls her close, face to face. “I’m standing there talking about troop deployments and getting lectured on punctuality, and all I can think about is your-”

(She clears her throat, hides a smile behind her hand. Never mind. We were still on time to that meeting, if you’ll recall.

Yes, with a minute to spare. You weren’t seriously- Lana sighs. I do not want to know. I really don’t.)

***

(“-and all I can think about is your fucking mouth,” he says, the last words muffled in the press of his lips against her forehead. “You did that on purpose, I swear.”

“And what if I did?” She slips her arms around his neck, voice pure innocence and lashes fluttering. He’s even better sport than she’d hoped for, now that he’s decided to play after all. “I thought it was better than the alternative. But if it’s too much of a distraction, I won’t do it again.”

“Not what I meant, and you know it. How much time do we have?”

Not enough. Never enough to- stars, she needs to be smarter than this. The lamp’s flickering; the power from the generators gets spotty after nightfall, especially when they’re drawing off it to run the War Table equipment. All it would take was the wrong person outside, a glimpse of silhouettes, a little too much noise-

No risk, no reward.

“Let me-” she reaches up, switches off the light (yes, that's better) and checks the time. “Minus five for walking time, that leaves us… hm. Three minutes.”

“And I still owe you.”

“Mm-hm-” he pulls at her drawstring, fingers sliding down against her skin- it’s such a cliché but ah, clever boy, his hands- “you do.”

Her knees buckle; she reaches back for the edge of the desk, something to brace against.

“Then I may need to pay my debt,” Theron says against her mouth, words against the silent ohs she’s choking back, “in installments.”)

***

He did have a point: concentrating on the maps was rather difficult after that.  

Thankfully, she’s used to working around distractions.

***

By the time they drag the Commandant from the shuttle pad down the pathway to the War Table she’s in a foul temper. 

She’s known she was in over her head the whole time they’ve been here. This entire mess, Revan and the Emperor... her training never covered anything like this. She can’t negotiate with these people. They’re completely insane, all of them, ranting about the Emperor, how he must feed, must feed- Force knows what the ghost of a Sith eats, but she’s pretty sure she doesn’t want to find out.

(Spirit, he says, a correction that snaps her head backward, sharp as a slap. Spirit, not ghost. I am beyond death.

Lana reaches for her arm.) 

“You’re not one of them,” Iven said, “you’re meaningless.”

He doesn’t even have to quantify it. She knows exactly what he means. In the annals of history, she won’t even be a footnote in this mission. Normally that wouldn’t bother her; Cipher work means passing unnoticed, after all, a quiet hand, a shot in the darkness. There’s no fame to be had for work done well, only infamy in failure.

But meaningless? It strikes a nerve.

The man’s still raving when she shoves him to the ground at Marr’s feet, even when one of her strike team hits him with the butt of his rifle. Her own shoulder’s throbbing, a lucky blow from one of the other Guards- dead now, burning in the center of the complex courtyard- and she rubs it as they close ranks around their captive.

“We won’t get anything out of him that way.” Satele gestures toward the Commandant, at the trickle of blood now dripping from the corner of his mouth. “Let me speak with him personally. Given his mental state, I think some delicacy is required.”

Marr shakes his head, a hint of irritation in his voice. “That will take time we do not have, and we must breach the temple before Revan. He will speak, whether he wishes to or not. With Lord Beniko’s talents-”

Lana looks as though she’d like to sink into the ground. “With respect, my Lord, I can’t force him. I can only tell you what I see, not pry it out. If you mean to question him, may I suggest you’d be far better served by Cipher Nine.”

She wrinkles her nose- Theron sees it before she can compose herself, the angle of his head a question she’d rather not answer. She has experience enough in the finer points of interrogation, true, but since Hunter she’s got no taste for it and Satele’s right, anyway. Hurting him won’t give them what they need. One can't break what's already broken.

“If you torture him, you’ll only kill him without learning any more than what we already know. He needs to be tricked into confidence, not beaten.” She looks down to the man, still rocking back and forth on his knees. “But I agree with the Grand Master, I must admit. It’ll be subtle work, but manageable, I think.”

Marr sighs, and if tone could kill she’d be dead at his feet. “I can always look to you,” he says, “for a particularly skewed perspective. What a pity we can’t simply command him with a word.”

Damn him. Damn him to the Void and back.

She doesn’t answer, bites down hard on the inside of her cheek to keep herself from snapping back, to keep her muscles from shaking in helpless rage. How dare he-

“Have him moved to my quarters.” Satele turns to the guards, who move back to flank the Commandant again, one on each side, hands beneath his arms to drag him away. “We’ll begin immediately. Lord Beniko, with me, please. The rest of you are dismissed.”

Meaningless.

She turns on her heel and stalks away down the path.

By the time she’s back through the archway she’s no longer bothering to hide her fury and it must show, given the way people dart out of her way as she storms through camp toward the taskboard and the speeder bikes. She needs to get out of here. There must be something on the board, some excuse-

Massassi sighted near Watchpost Dorn. Perfect.

She moves her marker to the assignment, picks a fast speeder, and goes.

***

 It was only one Massassi. Disappointing.

It never saw her coming; with poison and a few quick knifestrikes she drops the creature to its knees before she ever breaks stealth. It gets a few swipes in, none of them coming anywhere close as she dances in and out of arm’s reach and it roars, raging.

“I know exactly how you feel,” she mutters, driving her blade in deep, and it flails one last time and goes still.

Sitting down on a fallen tree beside the watchpost, she cleans her weapons and takes a few deep breaths, tries to settle her nerves.

Nope. Still pissed.

Her comm rings. She doesn’t even bother to see who’s calling, simply ignoring it; it rings again, this time on a private frequency, one they used on Rishi. Lana can’t possibly be done with the interrogation yet and Jakarro barely uses comms, which only leaves-

She answers. “What?”

“Where the hell are you?” Theron’s hard to hear, speaking just above a whisper. “You know as soon as they’re done with that lunatic they’ll want us back.”

“For what? All I’m good for is wetwork, clearly. I could have had him talking half an hour ago. You probably could have, too, and instead it’s a fucking Force-user party.”

“I know, but-” he pauses. “You okay? You sound out of breath.”

She sheathes her knife, rolling her shoulder back and forth- barely sore, now. Good. “Oh, I’m fine. My Massassi friend’s somewhat less so.”

“Your- wait, you left? ” His voice rising, Theron sighs. “Seriously. Where are you?”

“Check the board- I’m out by Dorn. I needed space.”

“Meet me at Esk again. We should talk,” he says as she starts to object- she’s really not in the mood, literally or euphemistically. “Actually talk, I mean. I’ve got a feeling you need it, the way you looked when you walked off.”

She chuckles. “Very perceptive of you."

“It’ll help, won’t it?”

“I doubt it.”

She can hear the eyeroll in his voice. “I insist.”

“Force, you’re a damned nag. Fine. You’ll need an excuse to get out of camp, though.”

“Oddly enough-” a beep over the channel, then a second; she shakes her head, trying not to laugh- “the power just went down again. I’d better go check it out. See you soon.”

She beats him there this time. Inside the cave it’s cool and quiet and peaceful; she cycles the generator back on and sits, back against the wall, beginning a memory exercise meant to calm her fraying nerves. By the time she hears him outside she’s nearly calm.

Nearly.

“So.” Theron steps out of the sunlight, blinking, looking down at her. “What the fuck was that about?”

She folds her arms across her chest, suddenly back on the defensive. “I thought we were talking. If I want someone to lecture me, I’ll take my chances with Marr again.”

“You know what I mean. I was pretty sure nothing could faze you, but you were about two seconds away from going for Marr’s throat.” He sits down beside her. “What’s wrong?”

“Thought I’d hidden it better than that.”

“You hide a lot of things,” he says, “and yes, you’re very good at it. I just know what it’s like. Also, honestly, I’ve spent way more time in the last month watching you than I care to admit, so-” he shrugs. “That was a deep cut, whatever it was.”

(Does it still bother you that much?

She makes a noise, mixed agreement and equivocation. I still dream about Hunter. I suspect I always will, even with all the desensitization training I’ve been working on, but back then I was just pretending it didn’t bother me so it was a lot worse. About a month before you and I met, before that first raid on Tython, I was trying to turn a Republic senator. She liked poetry, she murmurs, so I met her at a reading. We were discussing literary techniques.

Lana nods. I think I see where this is going.

She was particularly fond of the poet’s use of- she swallows, forces the word out, syllable by syllable- onomatopoeia. The third time she mentioned it, she says, I threw up in an ornamental rosebush. Blamed it on too much wine.)

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You were right about how to handle Iven, whether he likes it or not, and to come back at you with whatever that was… It isn’t right. Why didn’t Lana say something?” He frowns.

“She has no more idea what he’s talking about than you do, and she’s not going to speak against Marr any more than you’d speak against your mother.” Wrapping her arms tighter, she shakes her head. “It’s an old wound. Let it be.”

He’s quiet beside her, thinking; she knows by the way he’s focused on the ground in front of him. She’s spent too much time watching him, herself. “You were tortured,” he says a moment later. “Weren’t you?”

She nods.

“By the Empire?”

“No.” Mostly true. A one-word answer to an ugly question. “Please, Theron. Don’t ask me any more.”

He takes a deep breath. “I- look, hear me out. When this is over, you could defect, you know. We could protect you.”

She turns to stare at him. He didn’t know, of course, couldn’t possibly have known, but she hears Ardun Kothe echoing in her head and for a second she’s back on Quesh, facing the same offer, the chance to make a lie real-

“No,” she says flatly. “Absolutely not. Never.”

“Why? You call yourself independent, but you’re still stuck under the Dark Council’s thumb. You deserve better than that.”

He really believes that. She can see it in his face.

But Ardun believed she’d really defected, too, at first, and it didn’t stop him from using her.

“You’re so sure of what I deserve? You have no idea. Absolutely none.” Looking away, across the cave, she focuses on a thin crack on the far ceiling. “I could say the same of you. ‘My agent.’ Do you really think you’re any more free than I am?”

A bow drawn at a venture, but it hits its mark. Beside her, Theron flinches, muscles tensing, then lets his held-in breath go in a slow, sad sigh as his head falls back against the wall with a soft little thump. “No. But the Empire-”

“We don’t all want to watch the galaxy burn, you know.” She ought to apologize but he doesn’t quite deserve it; he shouldn’t have asked that of her. She doesn’t need rescuing, doesn’t need to be saved. “Some of us realize we’ve still got to live in it.”

“You should tell your bosses that sometime, then.”

She closes her eyes. “Go to hell.”

“I would.” He’s so quiet it’s hard to make the words out. “But aren’t we already there?”

It might have been funny, some other time, if it weren’t mostly true. Letting her arms fall to her sides, fingertips raking furrows in the dirt as her hands clench into fists, she doesn’t reply. After a minute he shifts, just slightly, resting his right hand on her left; when she relaxes he threads his fingers through hers.

She doesn’t move. She should, but-

“I’m sorry,” he says. “So much for letting you vent- shit, you probably think I planned that.”

“Didn’t you?”

“Not even a little bit. I just- I’ve seen what you can do, and I thought if-” he sighs again, squeezes her hand. “Forget I said anything. Please."

“I understand.” She does. She’d have done the same, under different circumstances. “But you promised, Theron. No sides. No games. Not with me.”

(He was never going to be any good at that, was he?  

She should have known better.)

“I know. But-”

Their commpads chime, Lana’s frequency; she glances down as the message scrolls, holding up her wrist so he can see it, too.  

Nearly finished. Lots to discuss. Table in 30- LB. 

The light from the screen dies and they glance at each other before Theron starts to stand. “We should get moving. I’ve screwed this up enough without getting us into more trouble.”

“In a minute.” She doesn’t follow, stays seated, a weight on his arm pulling him back down until he stops, not sure whether to hold on or let go. ”Will you sit with me,” she says, looking up, “just a little longer?”

He nods, settling back to the floor beside her, and she rests her head wordlessly on his shoulder.

Chapter Text

Risk/Reward

 

16 ATC. Yavin IV.

 

I could tell something was bothering you that night, although I thought you were just worried about the mission. Lana takes a sip of water. Even trying to sleep, you were restless-  

Were you trying to read off me?

Not deliberately. You know I wouldn’t. But you were only a few meters away. She shrugs, a silent apology. In a crowd it gets lost in the chaos, but in the middle of the night it was like trying to tune out a siren.

Nine crinkles her nose, lifting her hands to smooth a few strands of loose hair out of her eyes. She’s got no frame of reference for that kind of ability, but she’s had to sleep through plenty of sirens. Rather rude of me.

You had plenty of reasons. Several more than I realized at the time, certainly. I thought that was an odd thing for Marr to say, but- with a frown and a shake of her head, Lana looks away, staring at the strip of floor between the couch and the low table. Theron was right. That was a deep cut, and none of us said anything at all.

I don’t blame you. Back then it was rather like two people running from a rancor, wasn’t it- dealing with the Dark Council?

How so?

Sitting forward, she moves her fingers along the tabletop, two sets of little finger-puppet legs side by side. You don’t have to be faster than the rancor. You only have to be faster- her hands colliding, now, the right sending the left puppet-runner sprawling and then, clawlike, pinning it down- than the other person.

I-

I know.

*** 

It would figure that the temple has a literal killswitch.

Every time she thinks she’s got this place figured out it throws her for another loop. Secrets on top of secrets- a Sith device, of course; only the Sith would have crafted a tool to slaughter a planet wholesale and simply left it, intact, waiting to be found.

The first round of locks was hard enough. There were so many Massassi atop the temple ruins that it took her hours longer than it should have, waiting silently for lulls between patrol groups to dart in and activate each lock. How had the Revanites not figured out the devices by now? There’s nothing to them at all, a simple touch from an ungloved hand enough to set each one alight with a sickly purple glow.

Revan really must not know what they are.

By the end of the day she’s exhausted and it’s too dangerous to camp alone this far afield so she heads back into base; their meeting that night, at least, is mercifully short. She sleeps like shit that night, too, staring at the tent roof for hours punctuated by nightmares of Hunter whenever she manages to will herself unconscious.

The next morning she can barely keep her eyes open.

She’s got to finish this- it’s on her, for better or worse, and she doesn’t have a choice. If Revan gets there first, figures out the locks’ locations and mechanisms before they do, it won’t matter whether he can actually can raise the Emperor or not. None of them will live to see it.

Still, it seems ill-advised.

She gnaws on the corner of a ration bar, an adrenal stim already vibrating through her veins while she calibrates her stealth generator and gives the rest of her equipment a brief once-over. Rifle, vibroblade, darts, kolto autoinjectors, extraction beacon-

“Lot of kit for a one-person op.” Theron’s rounding the corner from the Republic infirmary, looking uncharacteristically cheerful. “You up for a field partner today?”

“Depends on who’s asking.” That grin can only mean one thing, and he’s got a rucksack over one shoulder to boot. “Did medical finally clear you?”

“As of five minutes ago, yup. And I thought you might want a second pair of eyes for all the tech- if that’s okay with you, I mean.” He pauses. “After the other day and all. Not to imply you couldn’t handle it by yourse-"

“Hush. You bring that up again, I’ll give you the long version of my recruitment speech.” She tosses the beacon at him; he snatches it out of the air, left-handed, without so much as a flicker of discomfort crossing his face. Good. “Of course you can come along. You can be the pack bantha.”

“Fair enough. I’ve got room enough for a little more in here.” Gesturing to the pack, he tucks the beacon in beneath the top flap. “D’you really think we’re going to need this, though?”

“I hope not. I tend to treat it rather like an umbrella: bring it and you won’t need it, forget it-” that ought to do it; she fastens up her pouches and stands- “and you end up in a metal bikini trying to choke a Hutt unconscious.”

Theron tilts his head to one side. “I won’t ask what that had to do with an umbrella. Maybe it’d make more sense if I could see it- there aren’t holos, by any chance?”

“Mixed metaphor. Also, I deleted all those recordings. Sorry.” With a wink, she pops the secondary unit out of its slot before she clips her generator back to her belt. “I know I gave you some shit for it back on Rakata Prime, but I assume you’re comfortable cloaking in. I’ve got no idea what’s in those caves, and given the option I’d rather be able to sneak up on it.”

“It’s been a little while, but I’ll be fine. Sync me when you’re ready.”

She nods and hands it to him, watching for a moment as he attaches it next to his right-hand holster before she hits the switch and the world around them flickers, out of focus for a moment and then nearly back, like a prism a few degrees out of alignment- except for him, clear beside her. After another thirty seconds she switches it off; he makes a face and blinks. 

“Sorry,” he says. “Like I said, it’s been a while, and I think your tech’s a little different from ours. I’ll adjust, I’m sure.”

“I’ll trust you not to try to reverse-engineer it.” Theron shoots her his best who, me? look in response- she called that one, clearly, not that she’d expect any less. (She’d have done the same, in his position. They’re far too much alike for their own good.) “We’ll only use it if we need to and I’ll go light on overrides. Shall we?”

“Lead the way.”

***

They’re half an hour out from camp, making good time toward the cave complex despite the swampy ground beneath their speeders, when her comm rings.

Cipher.” Lana sounds as though she’s got a headache. “Did you see Theron before you left this morning? He isn’t answering my messages.

(I was certainly about to have a headache, Lana mutters. Force, you should have heard her when she figured out he’d gone. She didn’t say anything, of course, but she was thinking it very emphatically.

She doesn’t need to ask who she means, only winces in sympathy.)

“Of course I did-” she swerves, diverting around a particularly large tree- “but we’re still in transit, at the moment. Can we holo you once we arrive?”

“What do you mean, we?”

He had better not have-

She kills the throttle, spins the tail of her speeder around until she’s directly in Theron’s path and he has to pull up short to keep from running into her. “Did we miss a turn? We can’t be there yet,” he says over the idling engine. “Pretty sure I still remember how to read a map.”

“Theron, is your comm off?” She eyes him over the windscreen as Lana, in her ear, makes a noise like an angry nexu.

“Maybe.”

“And did you, by chance, forget to actually tell anyone you were planning on heading into the field with me today?”

“Forget? No.” His comm was off- he raises his hand to his temple, brushing over one of the implant controls just above his eyebrow. “Forget would kind of imply I planned on telling anyone in the first place.”

She sighs.

***

 The caves go deep, hundreds of meters back and down into the rock.

 At first she thinks the prickling on the back of her neck’s because of all the creatures prowling around them- despite their best efforts at avoiding detection they stumble a few times, over stoneray nests and piles of crumbling stone and, once, the skeleton of something massive, bony fists as tall as her torso, brittle with age. As they skirt around it, a cluster of small skittering creatures emerges from its rib cage; she signals to Theron and he flanks the pack before she drops their cloaking and they pick off the creatures one by one with blaster shots and knife slashes.

 "You know,” he says as the last one falls, “that’s really disconcerting.”

“Hm?” She turns toward him as she resheaths the blade, prodding at one of the creatures with the toe of her boot. It’s twisted and pale, eyes milky and fangs thin as needles; whatever it is, she’d bet its kin haven’t seen sunlight in generations. “They are odd-looking, aren’t they?”  

“I meant you. You know you laugh when you break stealth, right?”

She snorts. “I do not. I always exhale on a backstab, yes, but that just helps focus the strike. Basic combat dynamics.”

He keeps moving forward as the cave walls open up around them. “Well, yeah, I know that. But seriously, you actually laugh. It’s kind of creepy.”

“I don’t -”

(Yes, you do. You definitely do. Lana grins. I’ve heard it myself.

I know that now- Theron took a holo of me training the next day and played it back for me. Vector told me later he’d always assumed I was doing it on purpose.) 

She stops, the odd feeling intensifying. So far everything they’ve passed through has been natural, hollows and passages worn into the stone by years of slow erosion, but the chamber ahead of them’s massive, all square corners and round columns and a domed ceiling arching high above their heads. Someone built this place.

Someone built this place a long, long time ago.  

Theron’s stopped, too, standing beside her and looking around, studying the carvings chiseled into the walls. “I think we found it.”

“I think you’re right.” She traces the letters with a fingertip. “This is Sith. Old Sith. It reminds me of the ruined temple on Dromund Kaas- the little I’ve seen of it, at least. Why didn’t Lana come with us? This sort of thing’d be right in her wheelhouse.”

“They’re all scared,” he says, “of this place. They won’t admit it to our faces, but they are.”

“So how do you know they're scared, then?”

Theron grins. “Despite her constant ‘my agent’-ing, my mother occasionally manages to forget what I do for a living. I eavesdropped on her and Marr.” She gives him a look; he rolls his eyes. “Don't give me that- you'd have done it too and you know it. The whole moon’s a nexus of dark side energy, apparently. That kind of power does bad things to people.”

“But not to us?”

He shakes his head. “Not in the same way. You still feel it though, don’t you? Like-” he reaches out, drags one knuckle from the base of her neck up to her hairline and she twitches- “that. Just-”

“I know what you mean.” Another shiver. He must feel it, too. “But those Imperial Guards were Force-blind, too, and they were all completely crazy.”

“Yeah. I raised the same objection yesterday when I found out they’d sent you out alone. If we work fast, though, we should be okay.”

“Forgive me if I’m not reassured.” Holding out her hand toward him, she gestures toward the pack. “Give me the field camera? I want to send this to base.”

Theron nods, rummages for a second and then turns her with a touch on her shoulder, hooks the camera over her ear. “I’ll call Lana.”

As she starts taking pictures she walks the length of the left-hand wall, keeping her eyes on the inscriptions. She knows a few of the letters, a double ‘r’ here and a ‘z’ there that she remembers from the plaque Darth Zhorrid had outside her chambers, but some of them are odd- that one looks more pictograph than letter, like some kind of long-legged bird. The words run to the back of the chamber; she can make out the outlines of structures there, a long, low platform topped by three more locks and a series of raised tiles along the floor surrounding a larger, central pyramid.

Hm. This wasn’t in the briefing.

“Damn it. I can’t get a comm signal.” He calls out across the room. “We might be too far underground.”

“I’ll keep documenting. At worst, they can look over it when we get back. Between Darth Marr, Lana and Dee-Four’s databases, someone ought to know how to read this.”

“With any luck,” he says, “it’s an instruction manual. ‘How to kill an Emperor.’”

She chuckles. “We can only hope.”

(That would assume, Valkorion murmurs, and for a moment she can see him on the opposite couch, arms crossed, regarding her with quiet amusement, that such a thing exists.

You protest too much, old man. She closes her eyes. When she opens them, he is gone.)

Gloves off and tucked into her belt, she rests her palms on the first lock.

Nothing happens.

Theron’s looking at her expectantly; she shrugs. “It worked yesterday. I- oh, no. There were three of the emperor’s guards left. What if we have to activate all three at the same time?”

“That’s going to be a problem, yeah. But-” he touches the carved stone pedestal- “look at the floor. Same symbol there, on that far tile.”

He’s right. Not quite so simple as yesterday, but if it was built by the Massassi, even under Sith guidance, the system couldn’t be too complicated. They’ve barely got language, for Force’s sake.

“Maybe if I stand on it?” As she steps cautiously onto the symbol it shifts under her feet, sinking downward, the same violet glow rising and winding around her legs, wrapping tight- no, no, that’s just her imagination. It’s only light.

“And then I just-?” Pulling one of his own gloves off, Theron touches the little pyramid.

She feels it a split second before it strikes, a static hum that sets her hair on end. But one can’t outrun lightning: it hits her square in the chest, mostly diffusing off her shielding but still she drops like a stone, the back of her head bouncing off the floor as electricity arcs from beneath Theron’s hand to the center point. Sprawled out, air knocked from her lungs, it’s hard to breathe- oh, that’s bright. Her vision wavers.

She can hear him swearing over the crackling lightning; after a few seconds she’s moving, dragged off the tile and out of the line of fire with his arms looped under hers. When her eyes remember how to focus he’s crouched next to her, fingers pressed to her throat as her pulse stutters and then steadies. “Hey- are you ok? Talk to me.”

“Ow.”

“It worked.”

“I noticed,” she mutters, then coughs. “You get to stand on the tile for the next one.”

When he helps her sit up her chest hurts less. “It’s staying active. I think we can sit for a minute.”

“No. I want to get out of here.” As she says it he brushes dust off her face, off her jacket; the back of her head’s stinging and when she rubs at the sore spot her fingertips come away sticky. That’d explain the headache, then. “Get me up and let’s keep going.”

“You’re bleeding.” Theron frowns. “Let me at least look at it.”

She tries to wave him away but he’s already pulling a medkit out of the pack, dabbing antiseptic on the wound that must be there- ow, ow, ow. “Only a little cut, I’m sure. I’m fine.” She swats at his hand again.

“And attracting everything in scent distance.”

He does have a point. “Hit it quick, then. Injectors hurt like hell on the scalp.”

“There’s skin glue if you’d prefer.” Theron holds up the little applicator. “Should hold.”

“Not in my hair. I’d have to shave off that whole area if you don’t place it right.”  

“That’d be quite a look, yeah. Fair.” Tucking it away again, he takes out and uncaps the kolto. “Ready?”

She bites back a yelp as the needle sinks in. That hurt more than the lightning, she thinks, though she probably deserves it for running around without her helmet- the pain’s getting off lucky compared to the lecture she’d have gotten from Lokin.

He dabs one more time at the area with the cleaning towel.  “Okay. All fixed.”

“No new scars, at least. Though you could offer to kiss it better.” For a moment she manages to keep a straight face. He's not quite so easy to fluster as she'd once thought: at their planning meetings he surprised her, sarcastic as ever but as professional as any of her old Intelligence colleagues, mask not slipping even when she know’s he’s bristling at Marr’s sly insults or his mother’s offhand comments. Even today, their first real field outing together- strange, given all the time they’ve spent working side by side- he’s acquitted himself well. But at her comment he flushes a little and she can’t help but grin. “Oh, I’m only teasing. You’re no fun at all.”

“You’ve got a weird idea of fun. I was just going to say this isn’t exactly the best place for that.”

“I’ve been on way worse dates.” That, at least, makes him smile. “That’s a relief. I was worried it might be me.”

He smirks, shifts position to nudge into her side with one hip, and as he helps her to her feet he presses a kiss behind her ear. “Nope. There- sorry for electrocuting you.”

“Much better.” She adjusts her armor, knocked out of place by the impact. “And I forgive you. Like I said, you get to stand on the tile this time.”

(As it turned out, she yawns- stars, what time is it?- the blasted tiles stayed lit after they were touched. No need for continuous pressure after all. Theron didn’t even have to dodge.

I do wish I’d gone with you. The images you took really were fascinating, Lana says, and even after over a millennium all the mechanisms still worked. One can only hope to leave a legacy like that.

Dusty ruins and wandering ghosts- I think we can do better. Don’t you?

Lana smiles.)

The final lock was in yet another cave, this one on the far side of the valley that cradled the temple complex, identical carvings along its sloped walls and shallow steps leading up to a last diamond-shaped prism twice the size of any other she’s seen. When they get close it’s already glowing, that same eldritch light pulsing with her heartbeat, slow and even and hypnotic.

“Last one.” Theron turns to her. “Should we do this together?”

She nods; they raise their hands, side by side, to chest height. “On three. Three, two, one-”

It ignites at their touch and she can almost hear it, a howl deep inside her head; the energy bursting from the lock knocks them both off their feet, sending them flying almost to the base of the steps. For the second time today she lands hard on her back, skidding along the stones until she collides with the wall and curls onto her side.

It’s so bright, so bright- oh, this was a mistake. What have they let free?

When the glow finally fades enough that she can see again Theron’s across the staircase, against the other wall with one hand pressed to his ribs- they’d better not be broken again, the Grand Master’s going to kill me- still looking up toward the lock. There’s something else there now, backlit and hard to make out, a humanoid figure making its way down the steps toward them. Its steps are silent, though, no echo of booted heels against the floor.

A man.

Not quite. The shape of a man cast in white light and soft shadow, the face of a man, scarred and draped in robes that she ought to recognize, she thinks, but-

Theron whines, barely audible but no less terror in the sound for its quietness, and presses himself harder back into the wall as the figure (a Force ghost, Lana murmurs, quiet. He must have drawn on the energy you released to be able to manifest.) draws within arm’s reach of her. “Well,” the figure says, and she knows his voice, knows why Theron’s afraid, “it’s about time. I’ve been waiting for you.”

It would almost be funny if her head didn’t hurt too much to laugh. “Hello, Revan. I knew I killed you.”

“Only in part,” he says, “as I'm sure you've gathered. But yes, I suppose you did.”

She gathers herself onto hands and knees, starts to move in a slow crawl across the length of the stair toward Theron. If he tries to capture him again, she can at least put herself between them- whatever good that would do against a spirit. “If you're here, who’s leading the cult, then? They certainly seem to think it’s you. We certainly thought it was you.”

“An abomination. A brooding monster, blinded by his obsession with revenge on the Emperor, clinging to a body that refuses to die.” As Revan continues to speak she keeps moving, ever so careful, centimeter by centimeter. “And you must not let him succeed.”

Wait. What?

“Are you seriously trying to tell me-” she’s nearly there now- “that the thing who’s hunted us halfway across the galaxy and tortured Theron nearly to death is your evil twin?”

“No. An explanation would require more time than we have, and-” Revan pauses. “Although when you say it like that, it does sound absurd, doesn’t it?”

“Just a little.”

He doesn’t respond, looking past her instead, face flickering for a moment from blank neutrality into something like grief. “Strategy only counts for so much, I’ve found. Some things can’t be predicted.”

“A very convenient excuse.” Finally close enough, she angles herself between the two of them as Theron shifts behind her, one hand on her shoulder. “You said you’ve been waiting. What do you want?”

“He thinks he can destroy the Emperor. He’s wrong.” Looking down at them, Revan sighs. “He- I was never meant to be the one to do that. I understand that now, but he refuses to see it.”

“Then tell us how to stop him before he can complete the ritual.”

He’s fading already, the light ebbing and his outline beginning to blur. “He won’t begin until he believes you’ve been defeated. Find him, and destiny will do the rest. But you won't be able to do it alone.”

“But how-

“May the Force be with you.” The words echo off the walls and then Revan is gone.

Theron exhales, breath ragged- he must have been holding his breath this entire time, the way he gasps- and sags against her. He’s shaking, his hand on her shoulder tapping staccato against the kinetic plating of her armor; he breathes again, inhaling for four heartbeats, a pause and a slow exhale, and then another.

(She knows that exercise all too well.

And in-two-three-four, the instructor says, singsong, to twenty faces in a darkened classroom. Her own feet are flat on the floor, hands resting on her thighs. Holding now- four, five, six, seven and exhale slowly to a count of eight and now again-two-three-four-

Some things are universal.)

“Sorry,” he says after another half-dozen breaths. “Sorry. I-”

She turns halfway around, not so far as to shift him off her but just enough to be able to see his face. “Shh. Don’t. It’s fine.”

“It isn’t fine. If he’d attacked us I’d have been useless. He-” His voice catches. Of course he wasn’t ready to go against Revan already, not this soon, not after the way she can guess Revan- the abomination or however they ought to call the thing hiding in the inner reaches of the temple that is and isn’t Revan all at the same time; the Force can go fuck itself- must have played havoc in his head. She should have known better. Physically he was ready, but mentally-

“Not sure either of us would have been much use,” she shrugs, forcing a note of levity into her voice. “Unless you know how to fight spirits, which I certainly don’t.”

He chuckles half-heartedly but he’s less shaky now, almost steady if still leaning hard against her side. “Not really. But still.”

“It hasn’t even been a month. I think it’s allowed. You should have seen me the first time someone tried to buy me a Cassandra Sunrise after-” She cuts herself off just in time. Regardless of circumstances, there are things he isn’t allowed to know. “Never mind. Are you hurt?”

“I don’t think so.” Sitting up straighter, he twists from side to side, bending experimentally. “No. I landed on the pack, but I’m okay.”

“Good. Let’s-”

Her portable holo starts chiming and she reaches into her belt pouch, setting it hovering in the air between them. When Darth Marr flickers into solidity she doesn’t even bother standing, just stays sitting beside Theron as the lens focuses on them.

“You had a visitor. A manifestation. The Jedi and I both felt it.”

“Yes. Revan, but not the one we’ve been dealing with. This one’s dead.” That… doesn’t seem to surprise Marr at all. Hm. “Dead-ish, at least.”

He nods. “We suspected that might be the case.”

“Is that so?” She sighs up at the holo. “If I might make a suggestion, my lord?”

The silence that follows might be assent or it might be a warning; she never quite knows. Theron moves his hand behind her back, out of sight of the camera, a shift in pressure relaying a caution she chooses to ignore.

“That would have been useful,” she says, and she does not care because her head aches and she’s got blood caked in her hair and dust in her eyes and Theron coming down from a panic attack beside her and it is not fair and she is not having a bit of it, not today- “to include in the damned briefing.”

(Lana buries her head in her hands. How are you still alive?

Luck, mostly. That and usefulness and a modicum of blackmail go a long way.)

***

You remember what happened after that, don’t you? We set up the forward camp that night.

Lana nods. I remember. We could only fit a third of the soldiers inside the boundaries of the temple. I just kept thinking- what if we failed? All of the rest of them were going to die.

Even that didn’t help some of them. She frowns. We were wrong about the Revanites’ numbers. They were all just hiding behind the walls… so many dead in the first day alone. Stars, but we were so stupid.

How could we have known?

We couldn’t have. She tucks her knees up against her chest again, trying to ignore the restless feeling stirring in the back of her head. And none of that mattered in the end, did it?

Another verse of the same song.

***

There’s nothing for them to do but wait.

It takes three days to breach the temple, three days of hard fighting with Republic and Empire side by side. She sees almost none of it. The casualty rates are still within acceptable limits but only barely- a hundred on that first day, fifty on the second and another twenty on the third before Torch and her Mandalorians arrive and finally shatter the Revanite line.

(That had been a surprise.

Maybe it really is the end of the world. If the Mandalorians are here, at the very least it ought to be quite a battle.)

They can’t risk wounds that might take them out of the fight, not this close to Revan. So they spend three long days waiting, reviewing reports and planning and sparring to keep their skills sharp.

“Stop letting me win.” Her forearm’s across Theron’s throat and her left knee on his chest as he blinks up at her, flat on his back, in the lantern light of the courtyard. “If this was a battle you’d be dead five times over by now.”

“I’m not letting you do anything. I just like to work at range.” Grabbing her arm with both hands, he rolls in the opposite direction, hauling her off-balance; she tries to dive over him but he actually holds on this time, catching her with a knee in the stomach that knocks the breath out of her.

That’s better.

She lands hard, gasping-

“All right, you lot.” Lana’s climbing down from the tall tower, feet steady on the rungs of the ladder despite the dark. “Bedtime for me. It’s your turn to take watch.”

“Just when my luck was starting to change,” Theron grumbles and rocks back onto his heels, holds out a hand to help her to her feet. “Is it both of us on middle watch again?”

She nods, breath not quite back yet, and points toward the ladder where Vector’s descending- she’d insisted on his return on their decampment and surprisingly Marr and Satele conceded without argument. Always two on watch. A formality, mostly: the line’s ahead of them and perimeter sensors behind and it’s been silent every night but orders are orders.

“We took the liberty of leaving the caf,” Vector murmurs in passing. “It’s still nearly full. We thought you might have need of it.”

“You know me,” she grins, a faint cough punctuating the words, “too well.”

They scale the ladder, her first and Theron behind her. Atop the watchtower there isn’t much: two chairs and a little brazier, the thermos of caf and four cups, one used (Lana’s, almost certainly. Vector never needed it- another side benefit of the Joining.). She stands at the inner wall, looking out toward the lights of the troop encampment.

“It’ll be tomorrow, won’t it?” The center of the complex glows like a permanent sunset, the ritual markers there primed for use but still untouched; Revan really does seem to be waiting for them. “Do you think we can do this?”

“We have to.” Pressing one of the cups into her hand, Theron leans against the wall beside her. “We don’t have much choice, do we?”

“I know, but-”

It’s colder here than at their base camp. It shouldn’t be. The breeze blowing toward them always seems to radiate outward from the temple’s core, though, no matter where one’s standing along the perimeter, carrying a damp chill with it that reminds her of home. She wraps her hands around the cup and shivers.

“Theron,” she says after a moment, “can I ask you something?”

“Hm?”

“Are you afraid?”

“Yeah. A little.” He turns to look at her. “More than a little. I'll be ready for him this time, but… are you?”

She nods. “I fought him once before. He threw me twenty meters across a room into a duracrete pillar with his mind while dueling two full Sith Lords simultaneously and dodging a missile barrage, and he wasn’t anywhere near this crazy back then. So yes, I’m afraid.”

“D’you know, that actually makes me feel better?”

“Does it?” The caf doesn’t help settle her tonight, no more than the sparring did; she drains the cup at a draught and shifts restlessly on her feet. “That’s good, I suppose.”

“The rest of them all seem so certain. I thought I was the only one who isn’t.”

(I definitely wasn’t, Lana murmurs. I was probably just hiding it well. I’ve had rather a lot of practice.)

She shakes her head. “Being scared just means you’re paying attention, I think- it's more a question of redirecting it. Myself, I prefer anger. Much more productive.”

“Me, too. I was never very good at keeping calm.” Theron sets his cup down on the stone ledge. “One of the many reasons I’d have made a lousy Jedi.”

“Many?” She chuckles. “Besides the obvious, I’m almost afraid to ask.”

“Well-” he slips one arm around her waist and she turns, glances down into the courtyard below but it’s still and silent, no one there to see, so she lets him pull her in close; she fits, just so, into the void spaces left by his body- “the whole attachment thing, for one.”

She smiles, tilts her chin up to catch him in a kiss.

(Not a debt settled, not in the open and not when they ought to have been paying attention to other things. They were not so reckless as that.

That was later, after- but there was solace enough in kisses, at least, to calm them both.)   

***

Revan couldn’t control her after all.

It was the one thing that went right.

Not that watching her allies spinning helpless in invisible cages as she runs frantic from lightning and flame and saber blows feels right- it feels awful, even as she breaks each one free to continue their relentless assault- but he couldn’t hold her, couldn’t get enough hold on her mind to trap her. It’s only fitting, she supposes. It was her destiny, Revan said.

Forget destiny. If she was born for this, the universe has a very peculiar sense of humor.

At the end of it they’re all bleeding, even Satele from a jagged slash along one cheekbone, even Marr, a dark stain welling beneath one sleeve. But they are all alive, all standing in a ring around two Revans-

And then it all went to the Void.

(Ah, Revan. His voice in her head again, honey laced with poison. Like you, in many ways- so stubborn, even to the end, and so very many interesting things inside his head. After three hundred years one gets to know a person rather well.)

***

Their soldiers lived. That must count for something.

They will not speak of the Emperor. That much was decided immediately, as soon as Revan, whole once more, had left them for the last time. Even in the face of his failure- their failure; they were all complicit in it at the end of the day, whether they admitted it to themselves or not- their troops deserved to celebrate a victory.

Revan was gone. That must count for something, too. And even freed, the Emperor was still incorporeal. How much harm could a spirit possibly cause?

(shut up shut up shut UP)

The worst of their injuries seen to, they wait for evac back to the base camp. She settles onto a fallen pillar, closing her eyes; her head’s swimming from stealth and it’ll settle in a moment as soon as the stim kicks in, but for now the world’s spinning in circles just as the rest of them were doing not ten minutes ago. Someone sits to her left, a brush of robes at her side like the air after a storm.

“H’lo, Lana,” she murmurs. “Wake me up when we’re leaving?”

“I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

They lean against each other, kept upright mostly by force of will, and after another little while she feels Theron settle on her other side. (She didn’t need to open her eyes to know it was him, though to go by size and build alone it could just as easily have been Vector. She could joke that it was his hair or his jacket, but it wasn’t-

It was just him. She could have been blind all along and she’d still have known.)

“We did it,” he says, and in the narrow space between them he rests his hand on top of hers; they sit like that, silent and exhausted, Lana half-asleep on her shoulder and her little finger twined around his, until the shuttle comes.  

***

They meet, one last time, at the War Table.

It’s over. It’s strange to think about, their odd little group still more like the punchline to a joke instead of the heroes the four of them somehow became. Six months of their lives gone, six months spent in planning and running and hiding and fighting, only to win the battle and maybe lose the war all at the same time- and in twenty-three hours none of it will matter at all.  

The truce’ll be over. Back to the Empire, back to the Republic, back to their lives.

Tonight, though, despite everything, they’ll celebrate.

“Stay a moment, Cipher.” Darth Marr holds up his hand as she starts to turn and go. “We have matters to discuss. Lord Beniko, you as well.”

She glances at Lana quickly, just a flicker out of the corner of her eye, hoping Marr won’t see; Lana, still in her usual place at Marr’s shoulder, looks just as confused as she feels. He waits, silent, unmoving, until the Republic delegation passes beyond the far archway, before he folds his arms and begins to speak again.

“Regardless of the threat the Emperor may pose, when our fleet departs tomorrow we return to war with the Republic. As such, we will require a full complement of resources, and while others on the Council have deemed it sufficient in past years to maintain our intelligence operations as a subsidiary of the military Spheres-” his tone is blistering, and she could almost swear the lenses over his eyes narrow for a moment; she can only imagine his facial expression behind his mask- “recent events have led me to reassess this approach. Your work on Manaan, on Rakata Prime and on Rishi was unsanctioned, in direct defiance of official orders from the Sphere of Military Offense, despite your knowledge of what the consequences of such actions might be.”

Silence seems the safest response to that. She swallows hard, nodding, and stands up straighter as he continues.

(You know now what he meant, obviously. I was fairly sure I was about to die.

Lana nods. I had no idea at the time. About any of it. I was fairly sure you were about to die, too.)

“And yet had you not done so, we would have fought the Republic over Rishi. The Revanites would have had their victory. Clearly,” Marr rumbles, “allowing Intelligence to work independently has benefit.”

“With all due respect, my lord,” she says as he pauses again, his head angled in anticipation of her reply, “we’ve been making that argument for years. You won’t hear me disagree.”

Lana shoots her a look at that but he only makes a noise; it might have been a laugh, if she believed he had anything approaching a sense of humor. “I would expect no less. You should be pleased, then, Cipher. Sith Intelligence will resume full operation immediately, under new leadership.”

The Minister was right after all. Does he mean-

She clasps her hands behind her back to hide the pressure of her thumb against the opposite palm, tracing tiny quick calming circles in one of the focusing techniques she learned in training, keeping her voice steady and her tone even. “Not Darth Zhorrid, then?”

“Zhorrid no longer has a place on the Council. While her lineage is respectable-“ behind him, Lana’s eyes flick toward the ceiling as she tries not to make a sound- “she has proven incapable of rising to the challenge of command. Until such time as a suitable candidate for the Sphere of Intelligence is located, I will continue to represent its interests. On an administrative level, however-”

He turns toward Lana, raises his hand in a gesture she doesn't recognize but Lana clearly does; she goes pale and still, her eyes wary.

“While Cipher Nine’s work in the field was invaluable, it was your guile and intellect that made the campaign possible at all. Lana Beniko, I hereby-” Marr gestures again- “appoint you as head of Sith Intelligence.”

You have got, she thinks, and catches the tip of her tongue between her teeth to keep herself from howling out objection, to be fucking kidding me.

For a moment, she thinks she’s going to say no. For a minute, she wants her to say no. But then Lana bows, solemn, gaze downcast.

“You do me honor, my lord. How could I possibly decline?

“Indeed.” That noise again, that almost-laugh. “A well-earned reward.”

Her head’s still lowered. “Yes. I will do my best to be worthy of it.”

Marr’s attention snaps back to her just as she manages to stop her lip from twitching- how dare he do this, reviving Intelligence and giving it over to a Sith, even a Sith like Lana but of course he’s a Dark Councilor, he can do as he pleases, could snap her neck here and now and no one would so much as blink when he stepped over her body- “You may negotiate terms of your continued employment with Lord Beniko as you choose, Cipher, although she will require your complete dossier for review.”

“Yes, my lord. As you say.” There was definitely emphasis on the complete, there. Of course there was. Shit, shit, shit.

“For now, there does appear to be a celebration beginning. You may avail yourselves of it as you see fit. Your new positions begin tomorrow, and we will reconvene in the morning to begin organizational planning.” With a dismissive wave he starts down toward the arch, toward camp and the dull clamor of music and soldiers’ voices already raised in half-drunk song. “I do not think I will join you, myself. I have a call to make.”

They both stand there, staring after Marr, and when he’s gone she turns toward Lana, starts to speak-

And Lana crouches down low, knees bent, head in her hands, muffling a sharp little scream against her cupped palms. After a minute, she looks up.

“Head of Sith Intelligence,” she says, nose wrinkling and mouth twisted around the words. “Well, fuck.”

(Is it wrong of me to say that I was a little glad you were upset?

Lana snorts. A little glad? You should have seen your face.)  

Chapter Text

Paid in Full

 

16 ATC. Yavin IV.

 

You understand that it was a punishment, yes? Lana rubs her eyes. For both of us- a reward on the surface, but underneath-

I know that now. It just took me a little while to see it from your perspective.

Lana starts to lift her water glass to her mouth but then stops, finding it empty; she keeps talking instead, and Nine rises and goes back to the bedside table to retrieve the pitcher. It could have been a fast track to a seat on the Dark Council. A worthy prize for any Sith Lord. If I’d failed, though… I was forgiven Ziost because of the Emperor’s involvement, but one more misstep would have been a noose to hang me by and Force knows- holding the glass up, she sighs- I was grossly unqualified.

You listened to advice, at least, she says, and pours the water out carefully. That counted for rather a lot.

That’s kinder than I deserve.

As I said before, it’s a hard game. She leaves the pitcher on the table, this time, after refilling her own cup. A necessary one, but vicious and ugly and hard, and you had it worse than most.

***

She ought to be in kolto, probably- no broken bones, concussions or blaster wounds this time, but she’s got char marks from lightning on both of her hands and an absolutely splitting headache- but there’ll be time enough for that on the return trip to Dromund Kaas. Tonight she’d settle for a quick shower and enough alcohol to stun a Wookiee.

That ought to take care of the headache, at minimum.

(Come to think of it, she’s never actually seen a Wookiee drunk. Jakarro ought to be celebrating with the rest of them tonight, though; maybe he’d be up for a challenge.)

Halfway clothed and halfway through her first drink, the last remnant of the bottle Theron had brought that first night, she’s still pondering the idea when Lana comes back from her own shower.

“So,” she says, pulling her shirt on over her head, "do I still have a job, or not?”

“Why wouldn’t you?” Lana’s already changed- she must have brought clean robes with her to the showers- and she looks up from towelling off her hair with one eyebrow raised.

“You’re the boss now. You heard Marr- the ‘terms of my continued employment’”- fingers putting quotation marks in the air around the words, she reaches down for her glass, taking a sip- “are up to you.”

Lana sighs. “Don’t be ridiculous. I know you’re angry, but nothing has to change. We’ll keep your previous contract in place unless you have any changes you’d like made.”

“I do have one condition: all of my people stay with me. If any of them are reassigned against their will, I walk.”

(Who were you thinking of, then? At the time I thought you meant Kaliyo, but-

She shakes her head. No. Raina.)

“Fine.” She reaches for her comb, draws it through her hair before it catches on a tangle and, wincing, she pulls it free. “Anything else?”

“All things considered, I think I probably deserve a raise.”

“All things considered, I think you’re probably right.” Towel draped over the end of her cot, Lana sits down at her desk and rests her head in her hands. “We’ll look at the numbers. I’m sure it can be arranged.”

“I’ll send you the files. And my full dossier, when I can put it together properly, though I’ll warn you now-” she can’t possibly be out of clean trousers, unless- no, no, there’s a pair tucked into the bottom of her duffel; she pulls them on- “I suspect you’ll like me rather less once you’ve read it.”

She chuckles, though it’s muffled behind her palms. “I doubt that very much. Details notwithstanding, I’m aware in the abstract of what it is that Ciphers do.”

“We’ll see whether that’s as true as you think. But-”

The pile of clothes beside the desk starts ringing; Lana bends forward in her chair, rummaging through, and lifts her holo onto the desktop. “Who- oh, Force, it’s Zhorrid. Darth Marr must have just told her. Should I-”

“Don’t.” She draws two fingers sharply across her throat. “Keep her hanging. By the time we get back to Kaas City she’ll be furious that you’re ignoring her and she’s absolutely stupid when she’s angry- if you’re looking to take her out, that’ll be your best chance.”

“If she doesn’t come after me first, you mean.” Lana’s barely raised her hand from the ‘decline’ button when the holo starts to ring again and she switches it off completely; a moment later her own holo chimes and she does the same. “I didn’t think you the type to get involved in Sith politicking.”

“I’m not. You’re appalling, frankly, the whole lot of you, but I’ve been chained to Zhorrid for the last half a decade. I’ve plenty of experience dodging her tantrums, and if I’ve got to keep working for a Sith I’d rather it be you than her-” trousers fastened, she catches up her glass again and raises it, inclining her head in Lana’s direction- “so I’ve got a vested interest in keeping her from killing you. You’ll need security. I’ll make a few calls tomorrow after your first briefing.”

She nods. “I appreciate it.”

“For the moment, however, I’m going to go join the party. Are you coming?”

“I-” Lana turns her chair, looking up at her. “Actually, I could use a drink.”

***

How many times did Zhorrid try to kill you in that first month?

Lana laughs. Actual attempts, or including all the plots that your people sniffed out- hm. Seven, including that fiasco with the poisoned wine, and another half-dozen foiled tries. Didn’t they keep you updated?  

That was part of the point. They weren’t my people, they were yours- I gave you their dossiers, and I knew they were doing their jobs properly given you were still alive, but their allegiance needed to be to you. Otherwise, one ends up- she frowns- well. You remember what happened with Agent Kovach.

How could I forget?

***

 It was quite a celebration, particularly with the Mandalorians still hanging ‘round, though muted by their mourning. They all lost people here, too many people, and to know it was all part of Vitiate’s plan-

That’s a thought for tomorrow.

For their troops, spared the knowledge of the Emperor, it’s simply a victory feast. Despite their better judgment she and Lana and Jakarro and Vector end up, glasses of narcolethe in hand courtesy of the Beroyas (she is going to feel properly awful in the morning but it does answer her question- Jakarro’s roars are growing steadily more incoherent as his glass empties and is filled up again and again), watching the dancers in the common area.

They start betting on fistfights as they break out and a few rounds later she’s won most of a case of tihaar and four vials of ryll; for a moment she’s actually tempted before she sends Jakarro back to her tent with the lot of it.

“I won’t begrudge them their fun, legality aside,” she grins as Lana raises an eyebrow. “It’s always useful collateral for negotiations. But the last time I did that much ryll at a go I joined a sabacc tournament on Nar Shaddaa and woke up having apparently won a penthouse apartment and three Zeltron strippers, so-”

“Wait,” Theron says behind her, “you woke up with the strippers, or you won them? Because-”

She turns around, laughing. “Both, if I remember correctly- it was a really weird night. Where’ve you been?”

“Conference call.” And a shower, presumably- he’s jacketless, his hair still damp. He makes a face. “Done now. What’re we drinking?”

Lana shoves her own glass into his hand as he blinks, startled, then sniffs at it cautiously. “No idea, but you can have mine. If I have much more of it I think I might die.”

“Sounds like I’m a lap or two behind, then.” After a test sip, Theron shrugs. “Bottoms up.”

“What’s your poison, then? Can’t have the leadership unhappy-” she slurs to Lana; that gets her a warning look- “when we’re supposed to be celebrating. We’ve got this, regular beer, that tihaar, ne’tra gal probably, knowing the Mandalorians-” all of those meet a series of increasingly vehement headshakes. “All right, then. Give me a suggestion.”

“You don’t happen to have any bourbon? Or wine, I suppose, but this doesn’t seem like that kind of party.”

(never did ask- why bourbon, of all things? There aren’t even any Imperial distilleries that make it, so far as I’m aware.

Habit, Lana murmurs. When I first began my apprenticeship, my first master was Mantellian- there was a local variety she was particularly fond of. She used to say it reminded her of home.)

They all duck as a ceremonial blade goes whipping past a few inches above their heads. “You would be correct, and for future reference, in Intelligence we drink whiskey. But I suppose I can try to find you some bourbon.”

“Hm- I might have a lead on that.” Theron takes her arm, helps her up off the bench. “I know a guy. C’mon.”

“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.” Mostly steady on her feet, she knocks back the rest of the ‘lethe and looks down to Vector. “You’re on guard duty. Anyone tries something funny, let the babies eat them.”

“Do you know-” Vector’s smile is wide, his eyes glittering in the evening light- ”we were just thinking they needed feeding?”

She laughs. “Not in public. I’ll be back shortly.”

He nods agreement as Theron leads her off into the Republic side of the encampment, toward the supply shed just beyond the armories. A single guard’s stationed between the tents, leaning against one support strut with arms folded across his chest; as they pass he snaps to attention, then relaxes again as Theron glances in his direction, one hand signaling a message she doesn’t quite catch.

The reply’s clear, though- see what? signed in smugglers’ cant- and the guard nods as they keep going.  

Once they’re around the corner she shoots him a look. “Something I missed?”

“I walked in on him and your quartermaster’s assistant in one of the showers earlier. I figured it’d be a little hypocritical to report ‘em, so he just owes me a favor.” He reaches out toward the door of the supply shed but the handle only rattles as the lock holds fast. “Owed me a favor, now. Though he probably thinks I'm sneaking off with you, which-”

“Aren't you? You’re getting awfully close to defaulting.”

(Lana tilts her head, a silent question.

Inside joke. Never mind.)

He smirks. “I’m working on it. And what was that about feeding?”

“Oh, nothing. The fingerlings mostly eat our leftovers, actually.”

“You have Killik- never mind. Don’t tell me. I’m better off not knowing.” Theron peers around the edge of the tent. “You’re not opposed to a little recreational breaking and entering, I assume?”

She grins, brows arching. “Certainly not, but I thought you knew a guy.”

“You’re the lookout, then. And I do,” he says, bending over the security panel with one hand pressed to his implant. “A girl, technically. Busted her for contraband smuggling our second day here but she’s got the only decent bar stock on this moon, so-”

“Is no secret safe with you around?” No one’s coming- they’re all at the party save a token few guards; when she hears the panel click open she turns back to Theron in amusement. “I’d better lock up my diary.”

“I was on camp restriction, remember. I get bored-” he pulls the door open- “I go looking for ways to entertain myself. At any rate, I’ve got dibs on her stash. If anywhere’s got bourbon, it’ll be here.”

They slip through the doorway into the building. The inside’s dark, storage crates piled high one atop another with only narrow spaces between barely wide enough for two people standing side by side; she reaches for the light switch and he shakes his head.

“Better not. We’re not exactly supposed to be here, after all.”

Nodding, she presses a button on her commpad, illuminating it until she can barely see in the faint glow it gives off. Theron does the same and, standing together in the clear area near the door, they look from stack to stack.

“It’s- um. It’s in here somewhere. Should be a single crate on its own, not one of the piles, but-”

“Theron, there must be fifty of those.”

He’s sheepish in the sliver of light across his face. “Yeah. Sorry. It’s labeled as clothing, she said, if that helps.”

Each taking half the building- her west, him east; divide and conquer, an old work precept like any other- they scan the laminated shipping manifestos carefully. Medical supplies, foodstuffs, clothing (that one’s actually clothing when she gets the latches open, extra infantry uniforms, and she resists the urge to steal one but stars, it’d come in handy). Nothing like his description, though. She keeps looking.   

“Your meeting with Marr went okay? To go by his tone it sounded serious.”

She just shrugs at first before she remembers he probably can’t see her. “I’m alive. I’ve had worse meetings. I take it you’re off the Republic’s most wanted list?”

“Yup. Reinstated in full, though I had to suffer through an hour-long three-pronged lecture first. I expected to catch hell from Trant, but I can’t believe she called my- never mind.” Even in the dark she can imagine the face he’s making.

“Do you think you’ll be back in the field?” It’s a valid question, though one she doesn’t expect an answer to. Somehow they’d managed to avoid each other during fieldwork before this- either they’re both that good or they were just lucky and she suspects it was the latter; she’s had to go against old contacts before, but-

He hums in response, tone rising and falling, noncommittal. “Eventually. I’m terrible at administrative work. Never learned to delegate properly.”

“Well, you know what they say.” One row done. On to the next. “If you want something done properly-”

“Exactly. See, you get it.”

“Far too well.” How are these crates so dusty? They haven’t been here long at all, but this one’s covered with cobwebs- stars, she hopes that spider’s not still lurking. “That’s why we get along so nicely, isn’t it?”

He laughs, moving toward her, and she can see his outline in the light from his wrist. “Maybe.”

They pass another few minutes in silence, focused on their search, until they’re both back near the center of the building and Theron clears his throat in a way that she knows by now means he’s about to ask her something she probably oughtn’t answer.

(Does he really? I’m not sure I ever noticed that.

She thinks for a moment. He does, but-

Come to think of it, she can only remember him doing that with her.)

“So I heard an interesting rumor,” he begins, turned away from her, face pressed up against a crate to get a better look at the tag. “I heard your people are getting the band back together, as it were.”

“Is that so? You know how people talk.” Her tone’s flippant but her mind kicks into overdrive- a leak already? That bodes poorly given that they haven’t even started back officially yet. “I wouldn’t put too much credence into that one.”

“That’s about the answer I expected.” They both keep moving, row by row. “That rumor crops up about once a month, but the source on this version was better than most and mentioned you specifically.”

More food, backup generators, blankets- “I don’t expect you’ll tell me the context?”

“If I believe the story, I should be congratulating you on your promotion. Or running. Probably I should be running.”

“The truce holds until tomorrow, remember.” She glances back over her shoulder but can’t see him. “And if that’s what you heard, don’t pay your source. He’s wrong.”

Light above the rim of a crate: his hand gripping the top edge as he stands up, looking across at her. “Isn’t that what you’d say if it were true?”

“Normally, yes. But that’s a target I’d rather not have on my back if it’s been painted on in error.”

“Fair.” He’s frowning, she thinks, given what little she can see of his expression; she can hear it in his tone. “I’m pulling that source, by the way, so don’t bother looking when you’re back, but if it’s really not true then you should probably know that Darth Zhorrid’s out for blood. Yours and Lana’s both.”

“Someone in the Citadel, hm? I’ll have to look in any case. You know that.” A container full of lanterns, now, and one of electrical supplies and still no Force-damned bourbon. “And yes, I’m aware. I can take care of myself, and Vector’s guarding-”

(She’d blame the narcolethe for that one if she could, but they were just too used to each other by then.)

She cuts herself off but she’s already said far too much.

“The leadership.” Theron barely mutters it, an echo of her comment to Lana, but sound reverberates off the durasteel crates and she hears it like he’s next to her. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“That’s what I said, if we’re being honest. Plus a little profanity.” She sighs. “Oh, hell. There’s no point denying it. You’ll find out soon enough, in any case.”

“So Imperial Intelligence is back in business.”

The last crate on her side’s smaller than some of the others, chest-high on her and tucked into a corner- clothing, assorted. Promising. This one opens on the top; she starts on its seals. “Sith Intelligence. New name, new management, and I won’t say more.”

“And here I am fetching her drinks.” He crosses back toward her now, light swinging to and fro with the movement of his arms with each step. “Wish I’d known that before.”

(Lana frowns. I wish-

I know.)

“But you were fine when you thought it was me.”

Fine is a word. But you and I know the game, and you never-” she’s almost got the lid free by the time he’s there beside her and they lift it off together. “Do you know, I almost wish we were still fighting Revan? Not the actual fighting part, but the rest of this- imagining what it might be like with the war over for good.”

“You know what it’d be like with the war over- it’d be the same as it was when we both started out years ago. Even with a treaty, it’s just a different kind of war.”

Theron looks at her, then shrugs as they set the lid aside, propped up at an angle against the corrugated wall. “I guess. But we can still pretend, can’t we?”

“I suppose we can. At least until tomorrow.” Peering down over the rim with her arm extended into the crate, she can see the glint of glass as her commpad illuminates the contents. “I think this is it.”

“Looks like it. Let’s see what we’ve got.”

Three neat rows of bottles packed in insulating foam and a small metal lockbox sit at the bottom of the container; even leaning over as far as she can, the necks of the bottles are too far out of reach. She boosts herself up, gripping the rim until her arms straighten and the edge bites into her belly and she can balance. Mostly. “Hold my legs.”

“What?”

“Hold my legs. It’s too far down for either of us to reach, and I’d rather not fall in head first.”

“Oh. Right.” As she starts to lean forward he grabs onto her upper thighs, holding them firmly against the crate. “Good?”

She lifts one hand in a thumbs-up as she starts to check the bottles. The bulk of it’s cheap, the sort of stuff infantry would buy with the little discretionary money they were given, but there's a halfway decent bottle of bourbon in the second row and something shimmering in the far corner-

“Hel-lo, ” she murmurs, reaching for it, rotating the bottle to check the vintage. “Come here, you little darling.”

“Something interesting?” His grip slackens a moment as he shifts, probably trying to lean down to take a look for himself; she slips a little, the rim of the crate digging in, before he catches hold again. “Sorry. Got you.”

Flicking one foot backward by way of demonstrating her displeasure- he’s standing right behind her to judge by the placement of his hands and the space between them broadens for a moment as he dodges- she pulls the sealed bottle free, along with the bourbon. “As a clarification, do you have dibs on anything in the crate?”

“I don’t recall her specifying, so I’m going to go with yes. Why?”

She hands Lana’s bourbon up first. “Here. This is for Lana-” he only lets go with one hand, this time, to take it from her- “and this one-” the other bottle, now- “is yours, minus my finder’s fee of a very reasonable fifty percent.”

“That’s extort-” He must have finally looked at it. “Never mind. Halfsies it is. I didn’t know they let this stuff off-planet- I thought it was a legend, to be honest. I’d never even seen it before now.”

“I’m pretty sure they don’t, usually,” she says. “Alderaanian cognac, coronation vintage. I’ve had it once, when I was visiting House Thul- a hundred credits for barely a thimbleful. Thankfully I wasn’t footing the bill, so I took full advantage. Pull me up.”

Theron shifts again- glass clinking on the floor grate, the sound muffled by the walls of the box she’s still hanging halfway inside- before he wraps both arms around her waist and hauls her back up over the edge. “I’m jealous. Best I ever get out of my contacts-” her feet touch down- “is whatever’s on special at the local cantina. I doubt we’ve got the right little fancy cups, though.”

“What’re they going to do, put us in etiquette prison? We’ve already broken into a military storage unit in search of smuggled alcohol of extremely dubious provenance, not to mention that little war earlier today where we killed your ancestor and somehow still managed to let an incorporeal maniac loose on the galaxy.” As he murmurs agreement behind her she steadies herself, continuing. “Tomorrow, while I train my new boss, I need to figure out how to keep my old boss from murdering her- to make a long story short, I have had a very trying day and right now I am going to be awful and drink thirty-year-old cognac straight out of the bottle and there isn’t a damn thing you can do to convince me otherwise.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he drawls. “I’ll even lend you a corkscrew.”

“Oh, good.” She turns around as he stoops to retrieve the bottle, pulling a folding multi-tool from one pocket and holding it up in the light from his commpad.

“Okay, it’s one of these- there we are. Seal off first, then the cork-” he grumbles under his breath- “gotcha. Ladies first.”

She snorts, takes the bottle from his hand, and drinks.

Force, that’s good. She must have made a noise accordingly, head tipped back as she takes a second sip; when she opens her eyes Theron’s watching her, grinning.

“It’s the real thing, I take it?”

“Even better than I remember. Here-” she passes it back- “your turn. Cheers to bad behavior.”

“I’ll drink to that.” He does, and licks his lips. “Okay, yeah, wow. That’s amazing.”

She winks, reaching out for his free hand. “You’re welcome. Now, speaking of bad behavior-” they were already close together in the narrow aisle and when he steps nearer they’re toe to toe- “come here.”

(Lana scowls. Wait. I had to wait nearly an hour for that bourbon, and you’re telling me it was because you two were drinking and necking in a supply shed?

That makes it sound so adolescent.

Because it was.

She grins. Oh, no. Decidedly adult.

I thought you- you swore it only happened once . Her eyes narrow. Once, you said, and never again.

I lied.)

***

(Another omission; another memory that is only theirs.)

She can still taste the liquor on his tongue, honey-sweet and burning, when they kiss.

Theron pauses a moment, recorking the bottle and setting it down beside them, before he leans in to kiss her again. Winding her arms around his neck, she could probably stay here for an age and be content- an odd feeling if she focuses too much on it, no hurry and no agenda and no artifice between them; she cannot remember the last time all those things were true except with him- but this time he’s the first to move, reaching down toward her belt and the buttons of her trousers.

“Not the surroundings I’d hoped for,” he murmurs against her mouth, “but if we’re leaving tomorrow-”

“If this isn’t what you want, you know-” even as she speaks he’s pushing her trousers and underwear down over her hips and she has to stop to find her words as his fingers slide between her thighs- “you know we don’t have to.”

Theron settles in front of her, kneeling, looking up, and in the faint light she can see by the gleam in his eyes that she misunderstood. “I only meant a bed would probably have been easier. Of course I want to. Besides-” his mouth replaces his fingers, tongue tracing slow flickering patterns, voice muffled- “I've still got a debt to work off.”

She would have said something clever but- well, words are overrated, really, and why is it so dark in here? She wants to see him, it isn't fair-

She ought to be quiet, especially here in the middle of camp, but he’s not making it easy- she bites her lower lip and even so she’s whimpering aloud before too long. She covers her mouth with one hand to mute herself and damn him, he takes that as a challenge, sliding his hands up along her thighs to nudge them further apart, mouth pressing harder until she’s arcing her hips against him and then his fingers, ever so slowly, slipping in- one, two, together, yes- and out again, together in time with the curl of his tongue.

She tries to breathe, reaching down with her other hand to trace the lines of his face as Theron says something she can't hear over her heartbeat pounding in her ears; this close she can’t keep her eyes open any longer and it’s easier just to feel him move instead, steady first and then faster, more and oh-

When she comes it breaks on her like a wave and nearly takes her legs out from beneath her, leaving her staggered against the container at her back. Her hands drop down, bracing against his shoulders, keeping herself upright; when he finally pulls away he nips at her inner thigh and she twitches and gasps.

Theron looks, she thinks when his eyes meet hers again, entirely smug.

She’ll allow it.

“You’re very unfair, you know.” She helps him to his feet, draws him down for a kiss- he did the same for her, that day at the cave, and turnabout’s fair play; she can taste herself on him, now, and she bites at his lower lip. “Holding that back until our last night here.”

He stretches out against her, pushes her back until she’s pinned flat between him and the container wall. “Not on purpose. We needed more time.”

“I know.” Her fingers roam along the gap between shirt and waistband. “But we have now.”

“I-” He breathes. “How do you want to-”

He has to curve away a little with their hands between their bodies, a space between them as he unfastens his own belt and she the fastenings beneath, and when that’s done she turns away, back to him, and guides his arm around her waist. Hand splayed flat on her belly, Theron pulls her in close again; her back arches and she steadies herself, reaches out, grabs the rim of the crate and when he pushes into her for the first time he whispers her name like a benediction and stars, it shouldn’t be this good, fumbling awkward in the dark together, but-

(But it was, even this first time, so much more than it had any right to be. When she thinks of him later she will blame it on so many things, on adrenaline and alcohol and the thrill of the forbidden. It was all of that, a little.

Mostly it was him.)

Any further noise Theron makes is caught on her skin as he buries his mouth in the curve of her neck.

They go hard at each other, then, fast and frantic, her grip catching at his hair to keep herself upright against him and his fingers sliding down her stomach again to settle back at the apex of her thighs until she grits her teeth to keep from crying out and there, ah, she can feel him tense behind her and don’t stop, not yet, not- almost-

There.

In the silence afterward she counts his heartbeats against her back, his breaths against her throat, both in time with her own.

“Force-” Breathless, she relaxes until her forehead’s resting against the wall of the crate; Theron leans forward, lips brushing the back of her neck, and she exhales with a contented little purr. “I needed that.”

He laughs, hands shifting on her skin, settling on her waist. “Such a romantic.”

(It was a luxury they weren’t permitted, then, and the easiest way to deal with its absence was to pretend it had never been missed.

They were both so good at pretending.)

“Romance is overrated.” When she starts to straighten up he moves along with her, another kiss brushing feather-light. “Satin sheets and sentiment- give me this any day of the week.”

”I’ll keep that in mind.” Theron takes half a step back, enough room between them for her to stand but his arms still around her. “Was it-”

“Consider your debt,” she says, turning in his arms, “paid in full.”

***

It was a good night.

Appeased by the bourbon when she and Theron finally return, Lana slides over on the bench and they all sit together one last time, drunk and trading jokes, singing along with the music, almost joyful at the end of it all. It’s nearly the end of the night when the scout from that first combat session dances by, camera in hand; when the flash goes off they groan, hands over eyes.

“You could have warned us.” Lana grumbles, rubbing her face.

“Give me that.” She half-stands, snatching the camera to inspect the picture. “I- actually, it’s not bad. Would you make me a copy?”

The scout pulls a little packet of datacards from his pocket, loads one into the camera and taps a few buttons. “Of course, Cipher. Here you are.”

(I think I still have that picture. Reaching down for her datapad on the table, she opens a passcode-locked folder, then another and another until there it is on the screen- their little group in a mirth-filled moment, squeezed together on the bench with heads thrown back in laughter. Look. It could have been a night out anywhere, except that the next day we all went back to war.

Lana reaches out to touch the screen. We do look happy, don’t we? It’s hard to imagine that Ziost was barely a month later.

We were happy. She smiles.)

By one o’clock they’re all yawning. Jakarro’s the first to turn in, surprisingly, as the party starts to break up little by little with everyone staggering off, alone and in pairs, then Lana a little while later, until it’s just her and Theron sitting together on the bench as the brighter lights shut off and the torches start to flicker and die.

“We should probably sleep,” he says quietly, his arm half-draped around her hip. She almost moves away out of reflex but there’s no one left to see and it’s nice, really, the way he feels beside her; she relaxes into his side. “I’m guessing we’ve both got work to do tomorrow. But thank you again for tonight.”

“You’re welcome, and don’t remind me.“ She rolls her eyes at the thought. “Between that and packing, it’ll be a busy day.”

“I know. But do me a favor?”

“Hm?”

“Send me a message when you’re free?” The little bottle’s nearly empty when he passes it to her, just enough for one last sip.

She nods, the drink sweet on her tongue; she remembers the taste of it on his. “I’m sure I’ll have an hour or two to spare. We’ll be on the last shuttle out- the usual protocol.”

“Same. Good.”

“Something wrong?”

Theron shakes his head. “No. I know there’ll be formal farewells, and it’d be easier not to, but I don’t want to leave without saying goodbye properly. After all this time we’ve spent, even just talking, I don’t-” He sighs. “It’ll be strange to be by myself again.”

“Don’t you work in operations teams in the Republic? You must have someone you’re close to.”

“Sometimes,” he says,” but never permanent ones like yours. I watch you with your people and I wonder why we don’t- they don’t want us to get too attached, I guess.”

“You need to stop taking teambuilding lessons from the Jedi. That’s- how do you even stay sane?”

He shrugs. “Assuming I ever was?”

“I’m being serious, Theron. After what happened-” Stars, she’s such a hypocrite but hearing him’s like looking in a mirror, cracks and all. “Just promise me you’ll talk to someone when you get back, okay?”

“I’ll think about it.”  

“Good. But to answer your original question, yes. I’ll let you know when I can get free.”

They stand, leaning on each other for one more moment until he straightens and pulls away. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then. I-” He stops, the word slipping into silence. “G’night, Cipher.”

“Good night, Theron.”

She watches him cross the courtyard until he disappears into the dark.

Chapter Text

Goodbye (Reprise)

 

16 ATC. Yavin IV.  

 

She would have preferred a later start to the morning’s meeting, all things considered.

When Nine wakes to the beeping alarm her mouth is dry and she can feel her heartbeat pounding behind her eyes; she rolls over, pulling her pillow over her head with a grumble of protest, and briefly entertains the idea of falling back to sleep.

“If you don’t shut that thing off-” across the tent, Lana’s voice is muffled; when Nine peers out from beneath the pillow she can only see a blanket-covered form laying prone on the far cot and then one hand poking out, a faint blue-tinged light gathering around the fingertips.

“Don’t you dare.” Dragging herself upright, she reaches out toward the desk and pokes at her datapad until it quiets. “There. Awake. Under protest.”

Lana pushes the blanket off her face, rubbing her eyes. “Believe me, I know. I didn’t set today’s agenda.”

“And I doubt Marr’s battling this hangover, either. I’ve never even seen him eat, let alone being able to drink through that mask.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” As she sits up, picking her tunic off the floor and slipping it over her head, her tone turns sly. “He could use a straw, I suppose.”

“With a little umbrella?“ Now that’s a mental image- she’ll be thinking of it through the entire damned meeting now. She makes a note to tuck a pin into her jacket pocket. That’ll keep her from laughing if it comes down to it. “I ought to shower. After all the torches last night I smell like a cantina fire.”

(More like sex in a burning cognac distillery, frankly, but she can’t tell her that.)

Lana sniffs the hem of her tunic and wrinkles her nose. “I likely should as well. We’ve got half an hour yet- shall we?”

***

She downs three tablets of painkiller with her caf and steps into the Command tent, trailing two paces behind Lana, at eight o’clock sharp. It could have been worse. Marr was always spare with words and today’s no exception: no pleasantries and no small talk, just a sound-cancelling shield up to discourage eavesdroppers and a secure connection to the Intelligence mainframe as they set to work.

She would have thought it would be a shorter meeting. No matter how urgent the work this wasn’t the right place for operational discussions, especially with their temporary peace with the Republic still nominally in place- too many ears, shield notwithstanding, and poor form besides. Clearly, though, she’d underestimated the power of Sith bureaucracy. Three hours in they’ve got both Darth Vowrawn and Darth Acina patched in via holotransmitter and little settled but titles, ranks and whether Lana’s office ought to be in the Citadel or the Intelligence tower-

(Oh, don’t remind me. Lana groans. It took two weeks to even move in once we’d returned to Dromund Kaas. Do you know why it took so long to set the offices up?

I wasn’t there, remember- I was only home two days before you sent me off to Balmorra. But I assumed it was a protocol issue, she shrugs. A Sith Lord in the east tower. Goodness knows we mustn’t go against tradition.

That’s what I thought initially, too, but as it turns out it was rather more straightforward. When Intelligence personnel were all reassigned after the disbanding it left most of the building vacant, and the Citadel tower’s always been crowded- by her expression, she knew it from experience- particularly for the lower-ranking Sith. When word got around there was space for the taking, they claimed it.

That oughtn’t to have been a surprise. She’d just avoided the old headquarters building back then, after all- the Minister’s last act in office had been to build a remote access protocol for the archive, and there were far too many memories in those halls. Just like Sith. Always taking our toys away.

I took them back, Lana says with a grin. But a few of them didn’t take kindly to being evicted. It really made quite a mess.

That’s Intelligence for you. Two parts breaking and entering, a dash of poison, three parts embassy parties and one part wondering how people fit that much blood into their bodies.

Her smile broadens, teeth flashing white in her pale face. Yes, well. I was never very fond of parties.)

-and she simply starts pulling up dossiers on her datapad and ranking them in priority order as she keeps one ear to the conversation.

“I would advise returning the Watchers to service, but that decision will ultimately be yours.” Darth Marr gestures toward the hierarchical map projected above the table. “They were originally reallocated to the military and to Production and Logistics, however-”

She makes a noise despite herself: what a Force-damned waste. She remembers Watcher Sixteen working on a particularly tricky substitution cipher once, years ago; he’d had it decrypted and translated from Bothan before she finished her breakfast. Imagining all that brilliance gone to calculating troop numbers and patterning out fluctuations in grain prices- “Get as many of them back as possible, if they haven’t been ruined already.” Looking up from her notes as both Marr and Lana’s heads snap in her direction, she sets the pad down and folds her arms across her chest. “You know they were never meant for that sort of careless handling. You’ve taken-” oh, what’s a comparison they’d understand? “You’ve taken lightsabers and used them to toast your bread.”

Lana blinks and Vowrawn's hologram scowls at her, but Marr only nods, impassive as ever behind his mask.

“An appropriate analogy,” he rumbles. “If we are to hope to regain an advantage over the Republic, we must use our resources to their full potential. Should you require any other former assets returned to your employ-” his gaze is turned toward Lana, now, but she can’t help feel as though he’s still partially talking to her- “that may be negotiable.”

“Yes, my lord.” They must have said that a hundred times in those few hours, the two of them; Lana inclines her head in a deferential half-bow. “I’ll prepare a list, with Cipher Nine’s assistance.”

“Then we’ll adjourn until tomorrow. While this truce served us against Revan, it will soon be over, and we have spent far too long having blinded ourselves to our enemies’ plans.” With a wave of his hand, Marr deactivates the projectors. “No longer.”

Well, she thinks as they step out of the tent, past the guards and into the midday heat, it’s about time.

***

And as we sat staring at the Republic, the Emperor destroyed a planet. Lana sighs. To say nothing of the Eternal Empire sneaking in through the back door.

Zakuul surprised the Republic too, to be fair, she shrugs. And I don’t know that handling Ziost differently would have done much good. Even without Kovach’s treachery, without Theron’s Jedi and Saresh’s absurd invasion attempt, he would have set our people to killing each other until he got what he wanted. How do we kill someone that doesn’t need a body, someone we couldn’t even see?

Interesting questions. In that moment Valkorion’s sitting beside her again, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder, far too close for comfort. She tries not to flinch away when she catches sight of him out of the corner of her eye. How do you?

By the time she can turn to look at him fully he is gone.

That was then, old man, she says aloud, and hears Lana startle on her other side as the world snaps back into motion. I can see you now.

Lana’s hand is cool on the back of her neck.

***

At noon they gather in the center of camp, Republic delegates on one side and Imperials opposite, to say their goodbyes.

She doesn’t have to make a speech, thankfully. She isn’t nearly high-ranking enough for that. Instead she listens quietly, hands clasped behind her back, as Grand Master Shan and Darth Marr address the gathered crowd for the last time. (It reminds her a little of the speeches on Victory Day, when Coruscant fell- she was only a child then, still in primary school, but she remembers the parade, the figure of Darth Baras projected ten stories tall in the central square. All grand speeches were the same in that way, she thinks: the same platitudes, the same shallow promises.

The Sith Code has it right in one respect, at least. Peace is a lie.)

At the end of it the troops disperse to finish the work of disassembly, of loading the shuttles and troop transports, pulling down the tents and lowering the banners. They are left standing on the makeshift dais, turning to face each other, three and three, just as they did in their safehouse on Rishi.

It seems like so long ago. Has it really been less than a month?

“Are the terms we discussed still agreeable?” Satele’s tone is even, her hands folded neatly in front of her. “I’ve no particular desire for war today.”

“Our fleet departs for Dromund Kaas,” Marr replies, “the Mandalorian clans to Rishi and yours for Coruscant, and this is neutral space. We will not pursue unless given reason to do so.”

“And you shall find none.”

There’s an odd sort of formality to their cadence and when the two of them nod to one another the silence hangs in the air, almost palpable; beside her, Lana’s holding her breath. She catches Theron’s eye and he barely moves, one shoulder rising and falling in the slightest little shrug- if there’s something she missed he doesn’t feel it either, clearly.

More Force nonsense, then. It always came down to the Force in the end, no matter how hard the rest of them work, how many times they- Force-blind, defective, inferior- go to the wall in their masters’ names. It always will, probably. She’s used to it by now.

Doesn’t make it any less bantha shit, though.

“Then we will meet again on the battlefield, Grand Master.” As Marr speaks the breeze picks up, the air moving again. “But not today.”

Satele nods. “It will be as the Force wills it. I-” Then she stops, still looking upward at Marr as her head tilts subtly, and for a moment she’s almost staring through him, mouth still half-open around a word, her hands dropping to her sides. Behind her, Theron’s face scrunches in concern; he takes a step forward, but before he draws even with her Satele blinks and her gaze shifts rightward, straight at her.

It isn’t the first time she’s been stared down by a Jedi, but her expression’s something entirely different- in the past they always looked determined (the good ones, she supposes) or angry (the not-so-good ones, who often as not she didn’t need to fight at all, who only needed a little persuading). Satele looks-

-she looks worried, just for a second, before her face settles back into its usual calm solemnity and she keeps speaking as though nothing at all had happened, waving Theron back with a slight turn of one hand. “I don’t pretend to know the future, but yes, we will meet again. Until then, may the Force be with you.”

“May it serve you well,” Marr replies, and then they say no more.

(I don’t remember that, Lana says slowly. But perhaps it was a vision.

Of the future, or-?

She shrugs. It’s possible. With power like Satele has, the Force sometimes works in unpredictable ways.

You say ‘has’ as though you think she’s still alive.

I’ve no reason to assume she isn’t. I sensed Marr’s passing from halfway across the galaxy, and we had enough eyes on her to know that she survived the sack of Tython. She hasn’t been in contact with anyone- even Theron’s tried, without success- but if she’d died after that I would think I would have felt it.

She frowns, considering. I suppose. But they didn’t see each other again, did they- Marr and Satele? Before he died? It seems so long ago. It’s hard to remember.

Not in person, so far as I’m aware, though I suspect Grand Master Shan may have been meant to be part of the conclave on the Terminus but ended up delayed, just as I was. There were other Jedi there, yes?

There were, and Republic soldiers too. Still, it means she was wrong.

I can only imaging that interpreting the future might be rather subjective. It’s not a gift I share. Her nose wrinkling, Lana looks to her. Nor would I want to, I think. Imagine knowing what will happen and not being able to do anything about it.

An uncomfortable idea, indeed- a chill runs up her spine, prickling the hairs on the back of her neck. I wonder what she saw when she looked at me.)

Marr’s the first to turn away, dismissing her and Lana with a gesture as his guards fall in at either side. Opposite them, Satele starts to walk toward the far edge of the platform; Theron, turning, says something too quiet to hear at this distance and his mother shakes her head. I’m fine- her lips form around the words, then press together in a narrow line as he replies- leave it be, Theron. We’ll speak later.

He sighs as Satele descends the stairs, and then it’s just the four of them left- her and Lana and Theron and Jakarro, one final time.

She raises an eyebrow at Theron, a silent question, and he runs one hand through his hair and makes a face. Fair enough.

“So. I guess this is goodbye.” Theron’s looking at Lana, not at her, when he says it.

“I suppose it is. It’s certainly been…” Lana stops, clearly thinking better of whatever she was about to say. “It’s been an experience, hasn’t it?”

She can’t help it- she laughs a little at that, and Jakarro growls amusement and Theron grins as Lana flushes. “That’s one word for it.”

“I get what you meant,” Theron says. “And yeah, it definitely was. Maybe not one I’d care to repeat, but- well. We got through it, and now it’s back to real life. Like a really weird vacation.”

“Are you heading back with Theron, Jakarro? Much as I hate to admit it, the Empire isn’t the wisest destination for you.” Looking up at the Wookiee as he roars out a reply, she shifts her focus down to Dee-Four for the translation.

“We’re headed back to Rishi!” The droid sounds suspiciously cheerful, which never bodes well, and more to the point-

Lana says it before she can. “Jakarro, you hated Rishi.”

He gestures for emphasis, and Theron has to duck to keep from getting bowled over. “Exactly! That is why I must return!” Dee-Four keeps translating over a series of ever-louder roars. He clearly feels strongly about this. “Those pirates are the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen, but they have potential. I’m going to whip them into shape.”

“Hear, hear.” Shae Vizla, walking past with a few of her clanmates trailing behind, raises a fist in agreement. “Not worth my time, but someone ought to do it. Plenty of credits there if you’ve got the stones to tame that mess. You catching a ride with our ships, then?”

“We have a few stops to make first, but we’ll be there shortly.” She wishes, not for the first time, she understood more Shyriiwook. She’s pretty sure that’s not what Jakarro actually said.

“Fair enough. And Cipher?” Shae pauses in front of the dais and nods her head in her direction. “You find any more fights that good, you know where to find me.”

She grins. Short a punch in the teeth that’s as much respect as she’s ever likely to get from a Mandalorian. “I’ll keep that in mind. Ret’urcye mhi.”

Her pronunciation’s shitty and her mouth catches on the glottal stop, but Shae just grins. “Not bad, Imp. Not bad. Ret’urcye mhi.

“Well, then”- turning back to Jakarro as the Mandalorians continue across the courtyard, she holds out her hand- “good luck, big guy. Dee-Four, try not to let him rip too many arms off.”

Unexpectedly, he pulls her in for a hug- oh, stars, that might have just been a rib cracking- as he sweeps Theron and, surprisingly, Lana, in with his other arm, nearly pulling them off their feet. “Be safe, little friends.”

“I- oof- I will.” Extracting herself from his grip, Lana takes a deep breath. “And you too, Theron. Be well. I suspect you’ll have an easier time of it without me around.”

“Now you admit it?” Theron blinks, then chuckles. “You’re probably right, yeah- but you too, Lana. Try not to get in too much trouble, all right?”

“I’ll do my best. Cipher-” she looks toward her- “I’ll see you back at the tent. I’m going to go start  packing things up and we can continue our earlier discussion.”

When she nods agreement, Lana steps down onto the cobblestones and sets off toward their side of camp; Jakarro, with one last wave, heads toward the Republic shuttle pads. After a moment, they’re both out of sight behind the rows.  

Theron turns to her, then. “So-” too loud, meant to be overheard even if they can’t be sure anyone’s listening- “you’re finally getting rid of me, huh?”

“I will admit, I’m a little sad to see this end.” She gestures around them, at the little camp that was their home. “I’m going to miss you.”

“Me, too. C’mere.”

It’s a brief embrace, chaste and appropriate in sight of the soldiers still hard at work clearing the courtyard. If she had any sense that would have been the end of it.

He whispers in her ear, though, as his fingertips brush along her back. “Do you still think you can get away, or-?”

“I’ve just got a few things to take care of,” she murmurs in reply. “Give me an hour or two, but I’ll send you a message.”

“Good.” Theron takes a step back, his voice picking up volume again. “Take care, Cipher. See you in the ops reports.”

“Not if I’m doing my job properly,” she says, and he winks before he turns away.

(I should have known. Lana sighs. But-

We were careful, as I said. Not careful enough, of course. She raises one hand to her throat at the memory, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Although I’ve been meaning to ask you- what happened to Jakarro? Do you know?

Lana shakes her head. He and Dee-Four did go to Rishi. When the war hit, though, Zakuul blockaded the hyperspace lanes. The pirates and smugglers didn’t stand a chance. I looked for him when I started to pull the Alliance together, but- she frowns. Nothing. And they weren’t exactly inconspicuous.

No, they weren’t. She sighs.)

Back in the tent, she throws her things into her duffel- everything needs washing in any case, so there’s no point in folding- and strips the linens off her cot. Lana’s still packing, setting everything neatly into her own bag, and looks up as she dumps the sheets onto the floor.

“I’ve got people coming to haul everything away. Don’t worry about taking those to the laundry crates.”

“Perks of rank, hm? All right.” The console needs to go, too; she starts an erasure program, setting the storage chips to purge their data. A hammer would be quicker, but the unit could be reused. Waste not, want not. “I’ll start making holocalls, unless you’ve got another task for me.”

“Hm? No, I think anything more than that can wait,” Lana says, rummaging under her cot for a stray tabard.

She nods. “Fine. You don’t have any particular objection to non-humans, do you? Some of my contacts are a bit on the unconventional side. I’ll need to reorder my list-” she holds up her datapad- “if you do, though it’ll be your staff. It’s up to you.”

“Define unconventional.”

“Nothing scandalous. Chiss, mostly. Twi’leks. One Nautolan, if she’ll hire on. Sweetest-looking face you ever saw and she could kill you in a dozen ways with a credit chit and a roll of spacer’s tape. Also a trained receptionist. I was thinking of her for a bodyguard for you, at least until Zhorrid's been managed.”

Her bag fastened, Lana lofts it across the tent with a wave of one hand until it settles just next to the entrance. “I’ve no objections. If you think they’re suitable, I trust your judgment.”

“Famous last words.” Setting her transmitter on the desktop, she dials in the first address. “It’s been a few years. Let’s see if anyone remembers me.”

***

She oughtn’t have worried.

For better or for worse, people in her line of work have long memories. She learned long ago not to burn bridges unless she didn’t have a choice and it makes the calls that much easier; a dozen conversations later, she’s got their first agents heading back to Dromund Kaas- three Minders, two Fixers, five security specialists including the Nautolan and, in a stroke of excellent luck, Cipher Seventeen. Her only failures are Minder Eight (hugely pregnant, when she answers the holo; she only laughs and points to her belly before Nine can even ask. “I’m sorry, Cipher, but I’m afraid I’ve retired from that particular line of work,” she grins, and Fixer Twelve peeks over her shoulder and waves hello) and one old Nar Shaddaa contact who simply hangs up on her (in retrospect, she did promise she’d call him the next day, didn’t she?).

All in all, a good start.

Two soldiers peek through the tent opening as she disconnects the final call. “Sorry to interrupt, Lord Beniko- and Cipher. Thought you’d told us to come and pull the tent down, but if we should come back later-”

“I was just finishing up.” Tucking the holo into her belt pouch, she rises, stretching. It’s later than she thought. She should find Theron. “I’m sure I can find somewhere else to be.”

Lana nods, too. “I’ll find a sunny corner to meditate in. Once we’re home again, Force knows when we’ll next see actual daylight.”

“D’you want us to take your bags to loadout?” The second soldier chimes in, even as she’s already starting to take one of the desks apart. “We’ve got to head back that way either way, and it’s no trouble.

One less thing to do. Why not? “Fine. Let me just grab my rifle-” she picks it up from its resting place atop the duffel bag, sliding it into her back holster until it clicks; no one touches her guns but her and her team, a lesson she learned the hard way early on. That misfire nearly cost her a finger- “and it’s all yours. I’ll see you in a few hours, Lana.”

She barely sees her wave as she steps out of the tent- she’s already looking down at her commpad, typing out a message.

Did you still want to talk? Free now until shuttle launch.

His reply’s immediate.

meet me by the war table?

She smiles. On my way.

***

When she reaches the stone table it’s bare, now, all the monitors and equipment already hauled away and only faint outlines on the ground left as signs they were ever there. In another few weeks the vines and weeds they’d cut away will have grown back and there’ll be no trace of them at all save only the wrecked shuttle across the clearing and the perimeter sensors left in the field; in a year even those will be gone, rusted relics mixed in with the crumbling stones. It'll be as though they were never here.

It's a sobering thought.

She doesn’t see Theron at first. When she turns, though, there he is, leaning against the wall of one of the ruins, and he smiles at her when she comes near.

“For a little while there I thought you might be standing me up.” Taking her by one wrist, he draws her around until they’re out of view of the archway.

“Oh, you know,” she says, “no rest for the wicked. Plus, I had to pack.”

“More work already?” Theron wrinkles his nose at her. “It’s bad enough that we're back to the same damn war, but they could have given you a day off, at least.”

“We’re not big on vacations in the Empire.” After a moment, looking at him still frowning, she reaches out with her other hand to touch his arm. “That came out less funny than I meant it. I wasn’t going to leave without saying goodbye, Theron, regardless of the circumstances.”

“Us being on opposite sides again, you mean.”

She sighs. She should have known he’d think of things that way- he never was going to be the no-strings type, no matter what he said. “Yes. But we knew that was going to happen from the beginning.”

“I- yeah. Sorry. I’m just not-” he shakes his head, leans down to brush his lips across her forehead and despite herself she tilts her chin up into the kiss. “I keep thinking that now I’ve got to go back to real life and make myself forget, that all of this was a mistake, but-”

“You do. I do, too,” she says against his throat. “And you’re allowed to make mistakes, Theron, whether you admit it to yourself or not. You’re allowed to want things even if you know they’re bad for you.”

“You aren’t- you weren’t bad for me. You saved me.”

She closes her eyes as he cups her head in his hands. “The two aren’t mutually exclusive.”  

“I know that. But you weren’t.” Another kiss, punctuating the words. “Somehow I didn’t picture this, that first day on Manaan.”

“Quite a ways from Mysterious Ally, hm?” She grins as he mutters something against her skin. “And to think I thought you’d be dull.”

“Really?” It’s only mock offense in his voice, and when she glances upward he’s grinning too. “Not roguishly charming?”

“You're more the brooding type, but I had you figured for Standard Republic Issue- too serious. Hot, though.”

Theron laughs out loud at that, hands drifting downward, settling around her waist. “I take a while to warm up, ‘s all. Though I’ll admit I was wrong about you, too.”

“Oh, do tell,” she purrs, leaning against him. They’ve got a little time, still. She doesn’t need to leave quite yet.

(She doesn’t want to leave yet. She tries not to think about that too much.)

“Only if you promise not to get mad.”

She rolls her eyes at him. “Don’t be absurd.”

“You popped up on holo down in that base, covered in Selkath blood and half on fire, and I thought-” he stops-  oh, stars, is he blushing again?- “I remember thinking, y’know, crazy doesn't normally do it for me but damn-

“Ah, romance,” she says dryly, and winks. “You hid it well. I rather got the impression you loathed me.”

“Thought you said it was overrated. And no, I just- it's hard training to break, you know? All we ever learn from day one on is you versus us, but once we knew each other better-”

“Oh, it is.” He’s still got a scratch along one cheekbone from yesterday and she traces it with an idle fingertip, curling in closer as his arms tighten around her. “And yes, I know. Though I meant what I said before. I am going to miss you.”

Theron’s quiet for a moment, his head tilting into her touch. “I’m going to miss you, too. I wish you-”

“Don’t.” She lets her hand dip lower, presses her finger to his mouth. “Don’t.”

“Do we just say goodbye, then?”

(She should have known better. Leaving is one thing; leaving is easy. Forgetting is easy. But she doesn't want to hurt him and someday she's probably going to have to and that-

That complicates things.)

She nods. “It’s easiest that way.”

“What time is it?”

Turning her wrist, she looks at her chrono. “Nearly four. Why?”

“We still have an hour, then, don’t we? Before we need to be on the shuttles?”

“Yes, but-”

“Then we can say goodbye-” Theron nudges her hand aside, catches her mouth with his and she shouldn’t but oh, to the Void with that; she is allowed to want things that she knows are bad for her- “in an hour.”

She lets him push her back against the wall.

***

And- well. Not exactly love at first sight, but you know what happened after that, she finishes, grinning, with a little shrug of her shoulders. He went back to the SIS, and I went back to work, and that was the end of it. No one else ever knew but Vector.

(His nose twitched as she slid into the seat beside him on the shuttle back to the Terminus, and after a moment he leans over to murmur into her ear. "We wondered where you'd gone. Agent Shan, hm?" 

Killiks and their damned pheromones. She never could get anything past Vector, not that she'd ever really tried; he could read her like a book.

She sighed. "Spare me the lecture, Vector, please. I know."

"Lecture? Never." As he adjusted the harness straps across her body, he raised the edge of her collar to hide her neck. "We were only going to compliment your taste.")

I do know, Lana mutters, rather too well. But you’re honestly telling me that nothing happened between then and Ziost?

Nothing happened. We never even spoke, and I was telling you the truth on Ziost. I didn’t know he was there until Kovach mentioned his name.

And after that?

She shakes her head. We spoke once, briefly, a few weeks later. Not in person- she clarifies as Lana’s brows start to creep ceilingward- I was shipboard off Alderaan and he was on Coruscant. I- I gave him the implant he wears now. He probably told you that.

He did. I’m not sure he meant to. Lana rubs her forehead. It was on Asylum, and we were both very drunk at the time.

And the next time I saw Theron, she says quietly, outside of five years of carbonite dreams, was here.

The day I called him, when I was sure you were alive, was the anniversary of the day we thought you’d died. I didn’t even think of it at the time, but- Lana sighs. He was a wreck, Nine. The war was hard on all of us, and I knew you’d been lovers, of course, but I didn’t realize how much he- she trails off.

(She remembers the night of the party. ‘I mourned you,’ he’d said, curled beside her, and she never really understood the depth of what he meant until now.)

Theron kissed me on Ziost. Did he tell you that, too?

Lana blinks, surprised. No. He didn’t.

Before it happened- on the orbital station, while we were in the medical bay; I’d told him that you knew. He was trying to prove your point about objectivity. I stopped him then, but-

Was I right?

She chuckles. What do you think?

I think that right now you deserve to be happy despite everything that’s going on around us, despite everything going on inside your head, and I think Theron looks better than I’ve seen him in years. And I think- Lana smiles- it would be awful of me to be anything but happy for you.

Thank you, she says; Lana stands, then, with a barely stifled yawn. But do me a favor, won’t you?

Hm?

She stretches out until she’s laying flat on the couch, sprawling across the space left vacant by Lana. Go talk to Koth. Don’t keep dancing around things- it's better to have it all out in the open.

You ought to take your own advice. I saw Theron sneaking out of here yesterday morning.

She makes a face- guilty as charged. Do as I say, not as I do. Still.

But I don't think I want-

I know that, she says. I don’t mean sex, or romance, if that’s not what you want. Just... talk. I don’t want something else ruined because of me.

You didn’t- Lana stops herself. All right. But tomorrow, I think- for now, I should sleep. As should you.

I will. I might see if Theron’s still awake, first. I…

(She isn’t used to any of this.)

I miss him.

I know. Lana smiles. Good night, Nine.

 


 

Up next- Interlude III: Liminal Space. A holocall, two leads, and a cure for insomnia as we return to present time.


(Don’t worry, we’re not skipping over the shuttle entirely, but that’s a memory better shared with someone other than Lana, I think. I leave it to you, readers- how much do you want to hear about that final hour?

And for those of you who are familiar with this week's spoilers (5.4): yes, I plan to continue this story regardless of how things play out. How I'll approach that particular turn remains to be seen, of course, but I do have an idea- one of the seeds of which appears somewhere in this chapter.)

Chapter Text

Interlude III: Liminal Space

 

Odessen
21 ATC

As the door to the corridor slides closed Lana’s footsteps fade into silence, and then she is alone.

Nine yawns, stretching out again to full length with arms above her head, fingertips brushing the armrest of the couch. The more she thinks about it, she really ought to call Theron; much as he’d dissembled, he’d clearly had something he’d wanted to tell her. Her portable holo’s across the room, though, sitting on the bedside table, and the main projector can’t see her here. Moving sounds distinctly unappealing, but-

Ugh.

All right, then. 

She rolls off the cushions and stands, locking the main door, then circles around to her workstation; dragging the chair along with her to the projector table, she activates the holo with a tap of one finger.

“Transmitter, open channel to Theron Shan.”

It’s half past three in the morning, Galactic Standard Time, and he answers on the second ring.

“Hey, you. I wondered if you were going to call.” Theron’s not on his shuttle’s bridge now, at least. To judge by what she can see behind him he’s sitting on the bed in the tiny cabin, jacket off, a mug of caf cupped in both hands and a datapad on the blanket in front of him; when the connection solidifies he looks up toward the camera with a smile. “Thought you might have fallen asleep. Is Lana still there?”

“No. She’s off to bed, though she promised to speak to Koth in the morning.”

He nods. “Whatever happened, it must have been bad to take that long to talk through. Or you two are plotting all our demises. Should I be worried?”

She grins as he sips at the caf. “You know I was only teasing about the whole ‘men are inferior’ thing.”

“I’ve learned the hard way never to assume. Seriously, though-” Theron sets the mug aside, shifting out of frame for a moment as he leans toward the bedside table- “everything’s okay over there?” 

“It will be, I think.” Kicking her shoes off, she props her feet up on the table and settles back into the chair.  

“Did she tell you what happened? Like I said, I got some weird looks from Koth back when I first got to Asylum but I didn’t get the sense they were together back then.” 

She shakes her head. “They weren’t. Or rather, they had been, sort of, but Lana had second thoughts. Then when she took him to Ziost-”

“She did what?” Theron sits up straighter on the bed. “Why?”  

“You’ve heard Koth talk about Valkorion.”

“Yeah, but Koth’s Zakuulan. Kind of like listening to your average Imperial talk about the Emperor, amplified by a hundred- he was pretty literally a god to them, you know? That mindset’s pretty common on Zakuul even now.” He shrugs, wrinkling his nose. “I heard it enough while we were looking for you that I learned to tune it out, I guess, but I know it drives Lana crazy.”

(One can sustain oneself for a very long time, Valkorion murmurs, on worship.

He’s a shadow in the corner of her vision and she tries to push him out into the light.

“You killed a planet, you liar.” Her lip curls. “You drained them dry while another part of you sat on your damned throne. So much for sustenance.”

On Zakuul I was diminished. He folds his arms across his chest. Though I had forgotten how much so until I was free of my prison, and then- well. Sacrifice went out of style centuries ago, I’m afraid.)

When she comes back to herself Theron’s staring at her, his head tilted to one side. “You’re sure you’re okay? You look-”

“I’m fine. Only tired.” It’s a little terser than she meant it and she forces a smile, interlacing her fingers behind her head. “And yes, you’re right. Lana thought Ziost would snap him out of it, but it backfired. Pretty spectacularly.”

He winces. “And that was-”

“More or less.”

“Shit.”

“Yes.” She wrinkles her nose. “We’ll see how it goes tomorrow. If I comm you and you hear screaming, though, consider that your warning to keep clear.”

Theron laughs and reaches down to shut off the datapad; at this angle she can’t read its screen. “Noted.”

“What was it you were going to tell me earlier? I know you said it wasn’t important, but-”

“Two updates- nothing actionable yet, but I thought you’d want to know. First off, you remember the turrets on top of the Ternion building?”

With a groan, she rocks forward in her chair again, feet settling on the floor. “Of course I remember. We can’t get the Fortress shield down until we take them out, and we’ve tried an airdrop and a building scale and we still-”

“We can cut the power.” Grinning, Theron gestures excitedly as he speaks. “On all the other shield generators, the turrets run off power from the shield facilities themselves. Turns out they got sloppy on Nar. They’re running the turrets off the Ternion power supply.”

Her eyes widen. “Find us a way inside that building. The Hutts’ll fuss about the outage, but I’ll chew through that conduit myself if I have to. If we can get the blockade down in Hutt Space Oggurobb can call in some favors. We’ll have enough resources to keep things going for months and months.”

“Already working on it- I should have a list of all the tenants by the end of the week. It’s mostly corporate, but there must be some connection we can use.”

“Clever boy.” When she says it he sits up a little straighter, a spark of pride flashing in his eyes for a moment. (She wonders how often he heard praise like that as a child. Not very often, she thinks, for it to please him so.) “What was the other thing?”

“I’ve finally got a solid lead on Doctor Lokin.”

She blinks. “What? Where?”

“Alderaan,” he says. “There’ve been reports of rakghouls there for nearly a year, but I thought they were pranks or drunks at first until I got a few good cam shots this week. Those are definitely rakghouls. Tame as nerfs, just wandering around this ranch- which just happened to have been recently acquired by a man with a Kaas City accent.”

“That’s got to be him. He always kept at least one around for research purposes. Have we made contact?”

“Not yet.” Theron shakes his head. “I thought you should do the honors, all things considered. I’ll send the coordinates. I could detour there on my way back from Coruscant, though, if you need me.”

She nods, considering. The rakghouls weren’t likely to pose too much of a problem- she knows her way around them well enough after Taris- but Lokin might have decided to leave the game for good and if he had- “I’ll let you know, but I may take you up on that. You’re really still not going to tell me what’s on Coruscant that’s so important?”

“If it works out, I’ll tell you. I promise.” He makes a face at her as she tries to look stern. “If it doesn’t, it might be better if you don’t know. Call it plausible deniability.”

She sighs. “Damn it, Theron-”

“I know, okay? Look, I-” he stops himself short, reaching out for his caf cup again, taking a sip to buy himself a moment to think. (Someone else might have thought him just thirsty. She knows him better than that; more to the point, it’s a trick she’s used a thousand times herself.) “It’ll be fine. Trust me.”

Rubbing her eyes, she leans forward until her elbows rest on the holotable. “I’m holding you to that.”

“I’d expect nothing less.” Theron quirks a smile at her, conciliatory. “No more gossip about Lana, then? That was a pretty short recap for a story that took-” he glances up, at the chrono she knows is on the far wall of the cabin- “six-odd hours.”

“No, you vulture,” she snorts. “I promised her I wouldn’t. Besides, we barely spent two talking about Koth. Most of that time we were talking about you.”

He chokes on a sip of caf.

“About us, technically.”

Still sputtering around the caf, his eyebrows raised, he raises one hand in a gesture- Explain.

“We were remembering that first year, when we all worked together. Lana didn’t quite understand how you and I went from sniping at each other on Manaan- not literally, of course- to what she got a glimpse of on Yavin. Apparently-” she stifles a yawn; oh, that caf looks good but she’d have to get up to go to the mess and she doesn’t want it that badly- “we managed to sneak around fairly effectively.”

“Hard to believe, isn’t it? I mean, we’re both pretty good at sneaking,” he says, grinning as she winks exaggeratedly at him, “but I was pretty sure we were going to get completely busted at some point. Between that cave, my tent, the storage shed-”

“The time we made out on top of the watchtower like affection-starved teenagers?”

Theron laughs. “It’s not like there was anything in eyeshot to watch out for. But yeah, that too. And the shuttle- wait.” He tilts his head, shifting his legs beneath him on the bed. “How much did you tell her, exactly?”

“Only the vaguest outlines, don’t worry- I don’t kiss and tell, unless certain unnamed Sith are accidentally reading my mind. Though I’ll admit it’s a good thing she wasn’t doing that today-” another yawn, her hand over her mouth- “stars, sorry- while I was remembering. She’s had enough trauma for this week.”

“Probably true.” He gestures toward the back of her quarters, toward the bed. “But you should sleep. Anything else can wait until tomorrow.”

“So should you.”

Lifting his mug toward the projector, Theron shrugs. “‘m good. Got reports to catch up on, and like I said before, I don’t sleep well shipboard.”

“Liar. You’ve fallen asleep just fine when we’ve traveled together.” (Only a few times, even now- with a larger crew they keep to separate cabins- but when her nightmares woke her he was always there.)

“You wear me out when we’re traveling together.”

“No better cure for insomnia. So now you know- if you want to sleep,” she smirks, pushing back from the table, “you ought to bring me with you.”

Although- hm. Keeping details back from Lana hadn’t kept the memories at bay and despite her tiredness she’s still restless, wanting; if he were here she’d-

Now there’s an idea.

Theron’s already starting to protest again as she turns her back to the projector, pulling her shirt over her head in one swift movement before looking backward over her shoulder. “But as you said-” he quiets at the motion- “I should go to bed.”

“I did say that.”

Her trousers go next, wriggled down over her hips with far more effort than technically required, and she bends at the waist to slide them down her calves onto the floor. Straightening up, stepping out of them, she starts toward the stairs up toward the bed. “I suppose I will, then. Seeing as how you’re already there, you could join me if you like.”

“I’m not sleep-” he starts to say, eyes tracking her as she moves, then sets both cup and datapad away out of frame with a broad grin. “You really are trying to make me sorry for being gone, aren’t you?”

“Am I?”  

“Mm-hm.”

When she reaches the top of the stairs the holocam chimes, no longer able to keep focus on her face given distance and angle; catching up her portable holo, she transfers the call and lets the device hover in the air next to her. By the time Theron flickers back into focus she’s turned, hands behind her back, working the hooks open and slipping her arms out of the straps, letting her bra dangle from one fingertip as she stands in profile. “I’m only changing. It’s not my fault if you’ve got a guilty conscience.”

“Not sure I’d call that changing.” His voice’s gone rougher, though, teasing, matching hers.

She lets it fall. “I’ve never been fond of nightclothes, as you’re well aware. Too constricting.”

“That wasn’t true on Rishi. I’d have remembered.”

“I hadn’t realized you were paying such close attention.” (A lie: she had. They were both guilty of a great number of sidelong glances back then, but they’d all taken turns changing in the safe house’s single tiny ‘fresher.) “But we were all sleeping in the same room. Wouldn't have been proper.” Her undergarments join the rest of her clothing on the floor; she takes another few steps toward the bed, guiding the holo along with a wave of her hand.

“Couldn’t have that.” He grins. “Unlike now.”

As she sinks back into the pillows she lets her hair down, settles the holo at the foot of the bed, looking up at his image. “Unlike now. Though you could at least give me something to look at.”

Theron tilts his head until she gestures impatiently, then pulls his shirt over his head with a soft chuckle. “If it’ll help you sleep.”

“Oh, I’ll sleep,” she murmurs, and bends her knees just a little, letting her right hand drift down between her thighs. “Eventually.”

His breath catches in his throat and ah, stars, the way he looks at her reminds her so much of Yavin-

***

(He doesn’t resist when she pulls him down, curling in on himself gracefully to settle next to her, propped up on one side and reaching out for her already. They’ve both still got their weapons, though; her rifle’s pressed into her back and she arches to slide it free of its clips, setting it aside against the wall along with her holdout and her blade and after a moment he does the same, unfastens his belt and peels off his jacket and, beneath that, a buckled holster she doesn’t remember him wearing before, a little blaster nestled between his shoulder blades until she helps him out of it.

It’s hard not to laugh, looking at it all- enough weapons for a full team between the two of them, probably, like they’re ready for war. In an hour they will be.  

She doesn’t care. For one more hour she can be selfish, can do what she wants and not what she’s told. For one more hour all she wants is him.

Theron reaches for her again, pulls her in close with one hand behind her head and the other at the small of her back, and she catches his lower lip between her teeth.)

***

She keeps focus on the holo, on him, watching him, tracing slow deliberate circles with the pads of her fingers. She knows her body, knows its responses; on edge as she is already after the evening’s remembrances, it would be a matter of a minute to bring herself off- probably less. But that won’t do at all tonight. Not for this, half desire and half performance-

“Tell me-” he says after a moment, gaze roaming hungry down her body, from her face to her pointed toes, from her breasts to the neat row of faint red scratches left by the drag of her left hand along her inner thigh- “tell me what you’re thinking about.”

“You,” she whispers, and means it. It’s not the first time she’s laid herself bare before a camera’s lens for another person’s pleasure, not by a long shot, but the only time that she’s said that when it’s actually been true. “Theron, do you remember-”

***

(Fifty-two minutes.

More like forty, really, if they leave themselves time enough at the end to dress and make it back to the shuttles, but it’s- Force, it’s an eternity compared to what they’ve had.    

Even so, she’s shrugging off her jacket as he works blindly at her waistband, breaking apart just long enough for her to lift his shirt over his head.

How do you want- he starts to say as she closes the space between them with another kiss, nudging him onto his back; she works her way, inch by inch, down the side of his throat, the angle of one collarbone (a small irregularity, artifact of some childhood injury, beneath her mouth at its center; she presses an extra kiss against it) and the center line of his chest and belly, along old scars and new ones as he shifts restlessly beneath her.

Given your previous response to the idea- her teeth rasp against his hipbone as she pushes his trousers out of the way- I thought I’d start here.

The sound he makes when her lips part around him-)

***

She curls her fingers through her hair, pulling tight, eyes closing, a mimicry of Theron’s touch. Her heartbeart’s pounding in her ears but still, over the noise of it, she can hear him.

“Like I could forget- stars, Nine-”

Quieter than his voice, the sound of metal on metal, the rustle of fabric and then a soft little moan; when she forces her eyes open again she smiles, wicked, and runs the tip of her tongue along her upper lip.

“And then I-”

***

(Even arching against her mouth despite himself he’s still trying to sit up, urging her back gently until she pulls away and settles upright, straddling one of his legs.

Not yet. Not- he pauses for a moment, catching his breath, as she tilts her head in a silent question.

Theron twists, then, loops an arm around her waist and rolls her along with him until she’s pinned between the floor and his body. The metal grate’s cool against her shoulders, against her back as her shirt rides up; it’s cool other places, too, when he starts to draw her pants down over her thighs.

I know we called it even, but I think I still owe you, he says, pausing at her boots, a little bit. I may need your help, though.

She grins. I don’t take my trousers off for just anyone, you know. What if we have to make a run for it?

You can use my jacket. As she squirms, laughing, one foot against the other to wriggle out of her boots, he mouths at her breast through the fabric and works his way lower, tracing a lazy, winding path with his tongue down the newly exposed skin.

You and your chival-

She only gets half the word out before he’s on his knees, teeth nipping at her inner thighs, one and then the other and if last night he was eager, today he’s-

Hm? Theron looks up at her, the sound vibrating against her cunt until it’s all she can do not to scream and instead she clutches blindly at him, catching a handful of his hair as he parts her with hands and tongue. You’ll have to say that again, he murmurs as she writhes, hips pressed hard against his mouth, gasping and swearing and Void damn him- I didn’t quite hear you.)

***

“I couldn't see you that first time, in the dark,” he says, an unnecessary explanation, settling back against the headboard as the camera angle shifts and he adjusts himself- self-conscious for a moment, she suspects. “I didn't think we’d ever have another chance, and I wanted-”

“I know.” Letting her legs fall open wider- what must she look like to him, sprawled wanton across the blanket with her fingers darting swift-slick in and out and around, patterns from a memory she’s relived a hundred times? By the way he watches her, the tension easing from his shoulders as she looks him up and down in frank appreciation (he’s beautiful, truly, even in the harsh cabin light) she thinks she knows; oh, she wishes he was here- she sinks her teeth into her lip. “I don’t recall complaining. I only- I-”

***

(Come here.

When she beckons he makes his way back up her body, heat and weight against her and a fierce kiss when he draws level. Her legs are trembling, still, from holding herself so tense; Theron kisses her again and again and again.

I’ve decided- one word in each of the spaces between kisses, all the breath she can spare- I may have to take you hostage. We’ll use my quarters shipboard as a cell. A billion credits ransom, I think.

You’ll be stuck with me forever, then. I doubt I’m worth anywhere near that much to the Republic.

Suddenly he rolls, pulling her along with him, settling on his back with her astride and his hands on her hips. She rocks forward, rising up; he cants himself up to meet her, still hard beneath her touch when she reaches back to guide him inside her (a trait she appreciates in him even now, that her own pleasure rouses him so).

Good, she gasps, sinking down, his nails biting in as she starts to move. Good.)

***

-and that is enough.

Her toes curl, her touch roaming over her belly, her throat, her breasts, catching one nipple between her fingers and teasing at it (it was his mouth, then, not his hands, but it will have to serve). Theron knows the language of her body well enough by now, not even two months on; their voices blend together, her panting little moans, muted by necessity, and his encouragements.

“There,” he says, “there, Nine- come on, sweetheart, show me-”

He’s never called her that before- oh, Force-

(No one’s ever called her that before and meant it.)

***

(She rides him, then, slow and deliberate, grinding down on him with one hand splayed against his chest, and when he tries to rush the pace she grins and shakes her head and goes even slower until he practically growls and she -

-skin against skin, barely moving now, and his teeth on her throat-

-her hands on his, holding him down, as his fingers lace through hers-

- there, he says in her ear, there- ah, please.)

***

When she can breathe again she opens her eyes.

“Sorry. I-” Theron’s blushing, a incongruous shyness playing around his mouth until he sees her smile. “I wasn’t sure if-”

“Don’t. I liked it.” She glances down, at his hand still wrapped around his cock. “As if you couldn’t tell.”

His blush deepens.

“You can call me anything that you like, darling,” she murmurs. (They haven’t talked their way through this, any of this, though she’s used the endearment for him before- like him, in an unguarded moment. They aren’t any good at this, but they are trying.) “Though I’m reserving veto rights. For now, though, will you do something for me?”

He nods, and a new knot of want tightens low in her belly.

“If you miss me,” she says, letting the movement of her hands clarify her meaning, “show me.”

***

(Will you tell me your name, at least? They’re still tangled in each other on the shuttle floor, half-dressed and out of breath, with twenty minutes to spare before the end of the truce. He props himself up on one elbow.

I’ve already told you, she stretches, languid, kicking his jacket free of where it landed on her right boot and shrugging her trousers back up over bare skin, my name is Cipher Nine.

Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. No nicknames? Anything? Theron looks, she thinks, genuinely curious.

You can call me Nine, I suppose. Her hair’s come loose too, messy around her shoulders, and she tilts her chin to her chest to gather it back into its usual bun. Why does it matter? We won’t exactly be on a nickname basis soon.

It still seems rude not to know what you like to be called, all things considered, so I thought I should ask. For next time.

She arches a brow and shifts onto her side, facing him. Next time? While I wouldn’t object, whatever happened to ‘we’ll probably never see each other again’- unless I've managed to change your mind? Her kiss is a question, too, although a different one.

Still no, he says against her mouth, and we probably won’t. But- in reply he slides his free hand around and along the curve of her waist, undoing half her progress in reclothing herself with one swift movement- we do still have nineteen minutes.

Mm. Her arms slide around his neck as she settles back, hips tilting with the pressure of his fingertips. Plenty of time.)

***

“Nine,” he says again, eyes wide, “oh-"

***

(Fourteen minutes until the end of the truce, now. Fourteen minutes to get him out of her system.

Not long enough.

She thought he might be too gentle this last time out of sentiment, but she was wrong- Theron fucks her hard and fast as her legs wrap around his waist and she’s going to have the imprint of the floor embedded in her ass for days, she bets. Then again, he will, too; she can feel the narrow indentations from the metal grate, neat even lines precisely spaced, as she rakes her fingernails down his back.

She hadn’t meant to mark him, but even so he hisses against her mouth and his next thrust makes her flinch a little, drives her down against the floor. It isn’t pain, not really- not in a way that bothers her, at least; when he sees it in her face, though, he slows, falling out of rhythm. By way of apology one of his hands tangles in her hair, pulling her head to one side, baring her throat to a row of kisses pressed one after another in time with the beating of her heart.

It isn’t what she wants.

Harder. It comes out more a whine than a word, buried somewhere in the noises she can’t help but make. Damn it, Theron-

He stops completely, then, looking down at her with a slight shake of his head. I don’t want to hurt you.

You won’t. She scrabbles with one hand for something to tuck beneath her back, hooking his shirt with her index finger and pulling it beneath her. No pillow, but it will do. You won’t. (A lie; he might. But if he does it will be because she wants him to.)  

Theron nods.

And then he lifts her ankles over his shoulders, pins her arms above her head with one of his hands wrapped around her wrists and she wouldn’t have thought he had it in him but-

She grits her teeth.

Oh, that’s better.)

***

She’s close again but he’s closer- he can’t keep focus on her though she can tell he’s trying, his teeth sunk into his lip and his breathing heavy- and she keeps talking, a steady rhythm with her words to match the strokes of his hand, whispering things she remembers, things she wants, things she’d do if he were here.

For once Theron is louder than her, her name on his lips as he comes, spilling over his hand. The sight of him’s enough to push her over the edge; her head falls back onto the pillows, free hand fisted in the blankets beside her, back arching against the bed. For a moment it’s agony. Still coming down from her first orgasm, her body’s overstimulated, hovering just on the verge with her nerve endings humming electric-

-and then it breaks, and the world goes white.

***

(She can barely move.

Theron’s heavy against her chest but that’s got nothing to do with it. Her muscles just won’t cooperate. She blinks, once and then again; focusing her eyes is difficult with him so close, still caught up in kisses, his touch careful on her face.

They lie there together for another minute, catching their breath, until he shifts and they both sigh.

Nine? You okay? He props himself up on his elbows.

Mm.

Is that a yes?

She nods, and manages to get one leg to unlock itself despite the cramp in her foot. Mm-hm.

I’ve rendered you speechless, he says after a second, grinning against her mouth, helping her unwind herself from around his body. Didn’t think that was possible.

I’ll think of a comeback. Just give me a- Her other leg’s cramping, too, and- oh, Void take everything. Wait. How long do we have?

He check his chrono. Nine minutes.

She swears and reaches beneath her for his shirt.

They help each other dress, sorting through the pile of their mingled clothing- she pulls a cleaning-cloth out of a pouch, when she finds her belt, and hands it to him; it takes her three tries to fasten her jacket properly and he forgets his harness at first, fumbling with the buckle when he finally remembers.

Seven minutes.

You can make it if you run, she says, slotting her rifle into its holster, before she reaches back down beneath the floor panels to disengage the shuttle’s emergency protocols. I’ll reset the system and go once you’ve cleared the archway.

Yeah. That’s-

He helps her up to her feet and then they’re toe to toe, standing together. On impulse she reaches up, cupping his face in her hands. Be well, Theron, and be careful. Please.

You, too. And I’m always careful. She’d almost believe it, but his smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes. See you in the ops reports, right?

Not if we’re lucky.

One last kiss. No-

One more, just for luck, and she opens the door.

Six minutes.

Now, she says, run.)

***

She opens her eyes to see him yawning.

“Not bored, I hope,” she murmurs archly- then yawns herself and makes a face at him, covering her mouth with her hand.

Theron laughs, shaking his head. “No,” he says, and his smile is sweet and sleepy. “Tired.”

Chapter Text

Kinship

 

Even with Nightshrike running at full engine and their plotted route hewing close to the precarious edge of the Deep Core, the trip from Odessen to Alderaan takes six days.

A little more than halfway there, Nine’s barely drafted a working operational plan. It took a full day to get things settled at the base (they’re even shorter-staffed, now, with Theron landed on Coruscant and her off on what might turn out to be a wild rakghoul chase, but Lana took over without complaint) and en route, despite combing over every image Theron sent from the Alderaan cameras, the only thing she’s thought of so far is ‘drive out to the complex and knock.’

That leaves two more days to come up with a better idea. She’ll manage something.

Probably.

It’s not exactly an emergency, of course. Doctor Lokin’s been there for the better part of a year with not so much as a word on the Holonet since she came out of carbonite- maybe he really does just want out of the game. She wouldn’t blame him. Well into his sixties at their first meeting on Taris though she would never have questioned his ability or his capacity to work, he’d have been forced out of active service by now were they still allegiant to the Empire. If-

Kaliyo calls back from the bridge, breaking her out of her reverie. “Hey. Time for shift change.”

“Is it?” It seems like she just sat down to read through files, but if her datapad’s settings are right then so is Kaliyo. “Hold on. I’ll be right there.”

“Wish we’d brought the Lady of Pain with us.” Kaliyo unfolds herself from the pilot’s chair as she steps through the door to the bridge. “She knows the old man too, and three in the rota’s always better. More sleep for me.”

“Lady of Sorrows. And that was just her Zakuulan cover, but you know that.” With a chuckle, she slips past her into the seat. “Firebrand.”

Middle fingers raised, reaching over Nine’s head to grab the half-full glass perched on the console, Kaliyo grumbles. “Whatever. Still can’t believe I spent six months trying to slice into their files and SCORPIO kept breaking my programs just to fuck with me.”

“Maybe she didn’t know it was you.”

“Oh, she knew. She told me so when I got to Odessen.” Her face scrunches, the tattooed lines down her forehead drawing together. “‘You should be thankful,’ she said. ‘My counterprogramming improved your skillset by a factor of seven.’ Threatened to scrap her shiny ass.”

Nine snorts. “How’d that go over?”

“Apparently I’m welcome to try. Throw in a few Killiks, Doctor Rakghoul, and Temple rolling her eyes and muttering and it’s just like the good old days, huh?”

“We had our moments.” It’s quiet on the bridge, stars whipping past the window so quickly they blur into long bright lines and curling spirals, the rest of the ship empty and silent and still. “SCORPIO’s helping with some codebreaking. We finally have enough samples of Zakuulan encryptions that she thinks she can replicate their key. She offered to come with us, actually, but I asked her to stay behind and keep working.”

“Oh. Well, good for her.” Kaliyo turns toward the doorway. “I’m going to sleep. Catch you in six.”

She nods; Kaliyo slips out quietly. The bridge now empty, she kicks her feet up on the console, settling back and reactivating her datapad. If she can get through all of Hylo’s requisition forms in the next two hours- hm. Maybe she should grab a mug of caf before she-

Her commpad chimes.

are you alone?

Theron’s ID, but an odd question: they just spoke at breakfast, and he knows perfectly well she’s shipboard where privacy’s relative. When they talked he used Nightshrike’ s address, its signal more reliable than her pocket holo, and she’d transfer the call to her cabin if Kaliyo seemed likely to eavesdrop (which was basically always. The woman had ears like a hawkbat.).

More or less. She taps out her reply. Something up?

need to call you. encrypt your holo.

That’s… not good. Datapad shoved back into her pocket, she slams her fist down on the door lock controls; it slides shut behind her with a soft pneumatic hiss, latches clicking into place.   What’s wrong?

NOW

She pulls her holo out, flips two switches- encryption first, then location masking to boot. It’ll mean perhaps a second’s delay in transmission time, as fast as the ship’s moving, but something’s got Theron spooked and she knows better than to second-guess his instincts. He’s barely been on Coruscant a day. How had his plans gone awry this fast?

She knew this was a bad idea.

When the holo starts ringing she lets it connect. The picture lags behind the sound but when the signal locks in Theron’s mid-sentence, words sharp as gunshots and his tone brimming with barely suppressed fury. It barely sounds like him- she doesn’t think she’s ever heard him this angry, not even on Rishi.

“-telling you she had nothing to do with this. Why would I lie?”

“A few years ago I would have believed you.” She can’t place the other voice- older, male, the accent a hodgepodge of standard Coruscanti, middle-class Alderaanian and the distinctive cadence of the Republic military- and the image still hasn’t come into focus. This must be Theron’s contact. But who is it? “But then you went AWOL in the middle of a war to play at this alliance of yours and break a regicide- a Void-damned Cipher, no less- out of prison. I think I have plenty of reason to question your motives.”

“I resigned,” Theron snaps, “as you’re well aware. I’m not AWOL. And I thought you’d want to help, given all the time you spent on Alderaan. Clearly I was wrong, but-”

Finally, the holoprojector activates. Theron must be holding his own device; she can’t see him at all, the camera pointed away from him at the other speaker, a tall, broad-shouldered man in middle age, his face a web of old scars over brown skin-

She didn’t know his voice, but she certainly knows him by sight: he was at the top of their high-value target list at headquarters, right beside Saresh.   

Jace Malcom, Supreme Commander of the Republic Military, stares flatly at her with his arms folded across his chest. “And here she is: the Ghost of the Empire. What do you have to say for yourself?”

Theron, what did you do?

***

Theron thought he’d run through every possible way that this could go.

Best case, obviously, he gets what he came for. He’s been watching Nine pace back and forth for weeks staring at photos of a dead-end canyon on Alderaan and in a spate of caf-flavored delirium he thinks he figured out a way around the problem. True, Jace  hasn’t been stationed on Alderaan for years, but the garrison’s still under his command- stars, the whole damn Republic army’s under his command- and he’s got a soft spot for the place. He even ordered the gorak again at dinner. To get the shield generator’s turrets down would be a matter of a few relocated artillery emplacements; the Alliance could manage the rest with help from the local resistance.

Worst case, he’d thought, Jace would refuse. He’d be out the cost of the fuel but he’d have a day to resupply (his shopping list was short but meant four or five different stops, including the one place on the planet that sold the fancy face cream Nine likes so much; he almost choked on a ration bar when he saw the price of the tiny little jar but he loves the smell of it, sweet almonds and roses, and he saw she was running low the other night while trying to find the toothpaste in her ‘fresher cabinet) before their meeting and his return trip. Besides that, it would be good to see his father again. Maybe they could still salvage something of what they’d been trying to build before this newest war. 

But this? This was way worse than the worst case scenario.

All during dinner he couldn’t shake the feeling someone was watching him. Just his security detail, he kept telling himself. Too long on the run, Shan. You’re getting paranoid. It was an uneventful hour- all small talk in public, of course, but no laser dot on his forehead, and the food really was good.

But then, back at Jace’s apartment, Theron didn’t even get three sentences into his spiel (he’d rehearsed it half a dozen times for Tee-Seven, which pronounced itself duly convinced) before the old man was on his feet.

He’d thought Theron wanted to defect back to the Republic, for fuck’s sake.

It devolved quickly after that, hard words on both sides that they’d have thought better of in the sober hours of morning, until finally he turned and pointed out the window at the column of cold blue light slicing upward into the sky.

“You look at that every single day. How can you stand here and tell me with a straight face that fighting the Empire is still more important than fighting back against Zakuul?”    

“You dare- ” Jace takes a deep breath. “I see. Is that what your Alliance wants? For us to stop fighting the Empire?”

He sighs. “That’s not what I said. Two mobile cannons, Dad, and Alderaan’s free. We know our technique for the Fortresses is sound- it’s worked already on Belsavis, Hoth, Tatooine. You’ve seen it. It could work here, for that matter. But you won’t-”

“I saw what happened on Bothawui, too. The moment the Eternal Throne so much as suspects we acted against them, they will strike without mercy. It’s a risk we can’t afford.”

“But throwing your troops into a dead-end war against the Empire’s fine?” Theron turns away from the window in frustration. Nine was right. He should never have come here. “That’s what Arcann wants, and you all just keep playing his game.”

He turns quiet, then. Dangerously quiet. “That is it, isn’t it? Stop us fighting the Imps, or draw us into an attack that breaks our treaty with Zakuul- either way, the Empire benefits.” Jace looks at him, unblinking, head tilted to one side in a way that might just have been the scars on his neck pulled tight by tension. “Your Commander put you up to this.”

“Leave her out of it. The only thing she knows is that I’m on Coruscant. This was all my idea.”

“And I’m supposed to believe that.” He doesn’t, clearly, to judge by his tone.

Oh, Force, this was a huge mistake. That’s not a question; there’s no right answer to it, and no matter what he says he’s digging himself deeper into the morass of Jace’s paranoia.

(He never knew exactly why Satele left his father-  he’d never had a conversation with his mother more than ten minutes long that wasn’t about work- but he’d asked Master Zho that question once, and the answer he got made no sense.

She saw what your father would become, Zho had said, and in leaving, she sought to change that fate.

Was she right? he’d asked, sitting cross-legged on the cave floor.

What do you think, boy? Are our destinies malleable? Or by seeking to alter them, are we merely creating a new path to a fixed destination?  

He hadn’t understood it then. He thinks, now, maybe he understands.)

“Call your Commander,” Jace says abruptly. “Now.”

Theron blinks. “What? Why? Your answer’s no, I get it. I’ll just go.” Even as he says it, though, he clasps his hands behind his back, opening a channel via his implant and typing carefully onto his commpad in a way he hopes Jace can’t see. (are you alone?)

Her reply comes back at the same time Jace starts to speak again. “I’d like to hear what she has to say. War or not, you’re still my son- but if you’re here on behalf of Cipher Nine-” (More or less, she replies. Something up?) - “we’re going to have an issue.”

“How do you figure?” (need to call you. encrypt your holo.)

“You don’t work for the Republic any more, Theron. That can change. Just say the word and you’re back in the SIS, back fighting the good fight. But you know what the consequences are for an enemy agent-” he curls one massive hand into a fist and opens it again- “caught in our territory. Call her. I won’t ask again.” (What’s wrong?)

No. He wouldn’t dare-

He might. He really, actually might. Shit. He types one last message behind his back (NOW) before he pulls his portable holo from his jacket pocket, switches on the encryption before dialing in Nine’s frequency.

“I can’t promise she’ll even answer. But I’m telling you-”

The call connects.

***

She blinks twice before she manages to settle herself.

 “I’m afraid I don’t use that particular name now.” Resisting the urge to cross her own arms, she settles for feet apart and hands interlaced at waist height. A neutral posture. “My current title is Commander of the Alliance Against the Eternal Throne, but I’ll settle for ‘Commander’ as well. Appropriate to equals, don’t you think?”

Malcom scowls. “Was that supposed to be a joke?”

“I’m not laughing,” she says, “and I appear to have missed your original question. What, precisely, am I meant to be explaining?”

“Theron Shan works for you. True or false?”

“Technically speaking his involvement in the Alliance predates mine. But you already know that, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” The camera angle shifts- he must have set the holo down. “Do continue.”

Slipping into frame behind the other man, Theron shakes his head slightly; before he can speak, though, Malcom’s talking again. “And you sent him to Coruscant to try to manipulate me into acting against Zakuul.”

The ridiculousness of it would make her laugh if he didn’t look lethally serious. “Don’t be absurd. Commander. Your well-publicized opinions on working with Imperials- even former Imperials- notwithstanding, if I was desperate enough to come begging the Republic military for favors I have more appropriate liaisons than Theron. To be perfectly frank, I wasn’t aware he’d ever met you.”

Theron winces.

She’s missed something, clearly. In the split second that marks Jace Malcom’s inhaled breath she looks back and forth between him and Theron, trying to get a better sense of the dynamic of the room.

“Like I keep saying-” his tone is a warning but she doesn’t know why; damn it all, Theron- “she has nothing to do with why I’m here. She doesn’t know-”

“You weren’t aware he’d met me. I expected a better caliber of lie out of you, Cipher.” Malcom’s face contorts in anger, his right eye nearly closed under layers of heavy scarring. “Like you wouldn’t maintain dossiers on every one of your subordinates. You sent my own son to-”  

Oh.

Oh, fuck.

So that’s why he wouldn’t tell her anything about Coruscant.

***

Theron watches her eyes dart back and forth between him and Jace and can pinpoint the exact moment when she sees it- in his skin tone and the bow of his upper lip, the shape of his chin and of his eyes. (He looked for himself in his father’s face for the better part of a month, only half-believing him after that first awkward conversation. He looks more like his mother, he thinks, his height and his build and the way he moves, but still, it’s there.)

Nine’s mouth falls open, just for a second; she’s so much better at keeping a straight face than him but a bombshell like that-

“Your son,” she says, rolling the word around her tongue in the way that she does when she’s trying to buy herself a few seconds to think, “as I suspect you know, is very good at keeping secrets. Whatever it was that he asked you, which I gather had something to do with Alderaan, he did not do it with my knowledge or at my behest. Now, is he free to leave, or do we have a problem?”

I’m sorry, he signs at waist height as Jace stays fixed on her image.

She doesn’t reply. Her eyes soften a little, maybe, but that might be wishful thinking.

“That depends on him.” Jace turns toward him as Nine’s brows arch. “It was a serious offer, son.” (A low blow, that one. He can count on one hand the number of times he’s called him that, and he’d bet it won’t get any higher after tonight.) “Come back to the Republic. The SIS needs you.”

“I know where I’m needed.” He sidesteps away, moving closer to the holo. “It isn’t here.”

“Theron-”

He picks it up off the table. “This was obviously a mistake. Thank you again for dinner, but I think I’d better go.” Turning the device in his hand until the camera refocuses- mostly on him, but keeping Jace in the picture- he looks at her expressionless face, a picture of calm worthy of a Jedi except for the slightest, subtlest flare of her nostrils. “Ni- Commander. I’ll call you when I’m shipboard, okay?”

She shakes her head. “Maintain this connection until you’re at safe distance. That’s an order.”

“Understood.”

He’s already started toward the entryway when Jace calls out to him. “Theron, please. You can’t seriously tell me you’re choosing this… this-” he pauses. “Yes, you worked together once, but you know what she is. The head of your Alliance is a liar and a murderer and she will use you and spit you out. How much damage did she do to the Republic? How many of your friends died at her hand?”

“I know what she was-” her figure shifts from side to side in the palm of his hand as he speaks; she’s heard far worse than that before, he’s sure, and some of it was true, once- “better than most. But what she is now is the best hope this entire galaxy has at defeating Arcann, and I trust her with my life.”

Jace sighs, shoulders slouching forward, a break in his perfect posture. “Then Force help you, because I won’t. I just wish you’d come to me years ago. I know you were frustrated by the war, but leaving the way you did- I don’t understand it.”

“Do you remember, Dad,” he says, hand on the door panel as it slides open, “the last time we had dinner together?”

“You’d just come home from Yavin. I do remember.”

“You asked me whether there was anyone special waiting.” (He’d choked on a sip of whiskey. It wasn’t exactly a question he could answer, then.) He takes a step into the hallway, looking back over his shoulder. “There was. Waiting just wasn’t the right word.”

Long before he knew who his father was, Theron had heard recordings of his speeches. Jace’s had a long career, a successful career as measured by the calculus of war; there have been many battles won and lost, many speeches, victorious and otherwise. He expects to hear one now.

When he leaves the apartment, though, the only sounds that follow are his own footsteps, the hiss of a closing door, and the muffled angry thump of a bare fist striking hard against a wall.

Nine stays silent all the way through the long ride down the turbolift.

When he finally moves from the foyer into the street (past a woman he’d bet good credits is undercover SpecOps- she raises one hand discreetly to her ear as Theron approaches but doesn’t stir from her perch on a well-padded chair) he goes about a block down before ducking into a narrow gap between two buildings.

“So,” he says by way of opening, “um. Let me exp-" 

She unclenches her hands, raising one finger in front of her in the universal gesture of shut up and let me speak , and he quiets as she starts to pace back and forth across the length of the bridge. Uh-oh. “Get back to your ship, then explain. This isn’t the right place for that kind of conversation. He still might send someone after you-” she can probably see a little ways behind him in the holo, judging by the way she’s craning her neck to look- “and- stars, just get to the spaceport. Get airborne, get clear, and call me back.”

“He’s not going to send someone after me. He-”

“You don’t know that. One hour, starting now. Go.”

The connection terminates.

He can’t exactly run all the way back to his ship; while this isn’t the fanciest neighborhood on Coruscant by any means, it’d still look pretty damn odd to be sprinting down the walkway at eleven o’clock at night. Instead, he snakes through the alleyways for another few blocks (just in case), snags a taxi in front of a still-bustling restaurant, and lets it carry him to the spaceport.

***

She keeps pacing.

 Back and forth, back and forth, her anger builds with every passing minute. She’s not sure, really, what she thought his plan was, but- oh, Theron. You idiot.

It had probably sounded like a good idea. With a connection like that to leverage- his father, for stars’ sake, can’t imagine why he wouldn’t have mentioned that before; oh, yes, my mother, the Grand Master of the Jedi Order and my father, the Supreme Commander: he could have been the fucking Chancellor in another life instead of abandoned in a cave- it could easily have succeeded, whatever it was he’d meant to do, and he’d have come back to Odessen ever so pleased-

Void take the Republic. She’d hoped they’d only pretended to roll over and play dead when Arcann put his teeth to their throat, that maybe Saresh (definitely still in charge despite their current Chancellor’s claims otherwise) and Malcom had some sort of plan to lull Zakuul into complacency before they finally struck to kill. But no. They were still on their backs, flashing their soft bellies to the sky.

Cowards.

She keeps pacing.

***


He’s up above the atmospheric threshold and about to jump to hyperspace with six minutes to spare- Tython first, he thinks, to set a false trail; he’d been sure no one was following him at first but the passenger in the taxi behind his had looked awfully familiar when they both disembarked at the spaceport- when he looks down at his commpad and he’s got half a dozen messages waiting.

Not from her. They’re on his public Alliance account, to start with, not the private channel they set up between themselves, and the address isn’t familiar. He sits down to read them as the engine kicks on. 

what the kriffing fuck did you do

seriously spyboy what did you DO

i am trying to SLEEP and I can hear her swearing all the way across the ship

(Only one person that could be. He marks the address as Kaliyo’s; for a moment he thought it might have been Teff’ith, but the spelling’s too good.)

ok now she’s swearing in Huttese and none of that is anatomically possible

<file attached: toldyoushesmad.wav>

After a quick scan and despite his better judgment, he opens the file and realizes three things in rapid succession: one, that Nine’s way better at languages than him; two, that she is well and truly furious; and three, that Kaliyo was right. None of that is anatomically possible.

***

With two minutes to go and her rage mostly vented, she’s tired of pacing and starting to get genuinely nervous when Theron finally calls back.

“Are you safe?” She slides back down into the pilot’s chair, suddenly exhausted.

She’s not sure what he was expecting her to say but that must not have been it; he rubs his eyes and looks at her as Tee-Seven chirps, unseen, in the background. “I’m fine. I promise. Also, before you say anything, I bought an entire sack of caf beans yesterday and I’m fully prepared to use it to bribe you with. I know you’re angry-”

“I’m not that angry.” (She got most of that out of her system over the last hour. Most of it.)

“So you didn’t threaten to-” he glances down at something- “okay, I don’t know that word, but something about my implants something something Huttese poetry?”

Wait. How did he- she blinks.

“You were keeping Kaliyo awake, apparently. She sent audio.”

She sighs. She ought to glue ‘liyo’s ears shut one of these days; it’d serve her right. “I’m not that angry. You’re sure you’re safe?”

“I’m sure. I’m diverting a little bit, and I might have had a tail to the spaceport, but I’m okay. Should I meet you on Alderaan? I know we won’t be ready to run on the shield generator, but I can come help with Lokin if you want.” He smiles, sheepish, and sinks lower into his own chair. “And I can explain properly.”

“I told you he might send someone after you. Did you really think he was going to let you just walk out of there? I half-expected to have to break you out of one of the black cells down underneath the Senate complex.”

“There aren’t any cells underneath the-” Theron starts to say, then wrinkles his forehead. “There totally are, aren’t there?”

“Yes. Military, not SIS. Plausible deniability, et cetera.”

“And you’ve probably broken people out of them before?”

She nods. “Twice, actually, and the escape route goes through the sewers so it’s particularly unpleasant.  I still would have come to get you, but I-” her neck’s gone sore from so much tension and she digs her knuckles into the muscles cording along either side of her spine. “Why didn’t you tell me, Theron?”

“I knew you’d think it was too much of a risk, but I was sure he’d-” ah, stars, he looks so sad, a flicker of raw grief passing over his face before it disappears into his usual wry half-smile. “I mean, you’d think you could ask your own father for a favor, right?”

One would think. One would think a great many things that turn out not to be true.

(She tries to picture them together, Satele Shan and Jace Malcom, for a moment; she’d always thought Theron’s father must have been another Jedi. Why else would Satele have been certain enough to commit him to a Jedi’s life from birth?

So self-righteous, Grand Master Shan. So calm, so controlled, always playing by the rules.

Such a hypocrite.

It makes her like her rather more, to be honest.)

“Come to Alderaan,” she says quietly. “You know the coordinates. But I want to hear the whole story.”

“You will.”

***

Two days later she settles Nightshrike into a clearing on the far edge of the ranch, just outside an electrified fence that she suspects was built more to keep things in than out. Theron’s a day away still, slingshotted around Tython to head back in their direction; she and Kaliyo spend a few hours prowling around the perimeter but the whole place is quiet, not a single rakghoul in sight.

She doesn’t like it.

The main gate’s latched but unsecured, swinging open once unfastened with a gentle push. She likes that even less.

“Come on.” She starts down the gravel path toward the low building in the far distance, beckoning to Kaliyo before she tosses her backup stealth device in her direction. “Something’s wrong. Watch my six.”

They flicker into invisibility together as Kaliyo draws her pistol and falls back into position. Further down the road there are more signs of life, feeding troughs (empty) and water troughs (full) and a smaller structure, full of-

Oh, stars.

A dozen cages line either side of the building, each holding a single rakghoul- still alive, all of them, but starved-looking and avidly sniffing at the air in their direction when they peer through the doorway.

Kaliyo wrinkles her nose. “They haven’t been fed in a week, I bet. That’s not like the old man at all.”

“Let’s keep going. If Lokin’s skipped out, we’ll have to figure out what to do with them-” please let him still be here; the creatures are pathetic, practically tame despite their hunger, and she really, really doesn’t want to have to shoot them but there are too many to transport safely- “but we still need to check the main complex.”

There are cameras in the trees, at least, when they close within a few hundred meters of the house, and three trip wires running at angles across the entryway; she disables them all and scans the intercom carefully before she presses the button.

No answer.

A minute later she’s got the locks cracked and the door swinging open and something’s charging at them in the dim light of the front room, panting, and she raises her blade and-

“Hey, Scritchy!” Kaliyo’s flat on her back, tackled by a remarkably happy-appearing rakghoul- she’d swear it’s smiling, assuming rakghouls actually smile. That is Scritchy, when she looks closer. Doctor Lokin must still be here. Sentiment aside, Scritchy was his gene stock, a necessity for most of his research. “I’m all out of womp rat bits, you stinky little shit. Get off.”

Scritchy does as he’s told, scampering off toward the back rooms of the building; she looks after the creature for a moment, then follows.

The back rooms are windowless, even darker than the front of the house with the lights out- a lab room, still and silent but for a few indicator lights flashing in the dark, a storage area and last, a bedroom, the air heavy and antiseptic-smelling.

She almost misses the shape on the floor beside the bed until she hears the shotgun cocking, both barrels pointed squarely at her belly.

“Don’t come any closer. I assure you,” Lokin says, voice barely a whisper, “I will shoot.”

“Five years, and that’s the sort of hello I get? And here I thought-” she squints down at him in the darkness until her eyes adjust, sheathing her knife, holding her hands up in a placating gesture; he looks-

Oh. 

Oh. Kaliyo, drawn to the room by their voices and the sound of the gun, stops short in the doorway, one hand over her mouth. At her heels, the rakghoul whines.  

“Cipher.” He can barely hold the gun steady, and she reaches out to take it before it slips from his shaking hands. “Cipher. They told me you’d- they told me-”

“You know me better than that.” Crouching, she loops her arms beneath his even as he tries to push her away and he’s skin and bones beneath her hands. “I’m not so easy to kill. Come on. Let’s get you off the ground.”

Lokin shakes his head. “Use your eyes, my girl. If I could walk, do you think I’d be sitting down here?”

“I thought we’d start with moving you up to bed,” she says, lifting him, “and negotiate onward from there. Unless you’d rather stay on the floor.”

His laugh’s half-wheeze and half-howl. “Stubborn. Always stubborn.”

“Always.”

***

Chapter Text

In the Blood

Alderaan. 21 ATC. 

 

“He’s dying.” 

Nine turns around, leaning back against the lab bench more to keep herself upright than anything, as Theron comes in from the hallway. “Yes, he is. Cancers. Plural.”

(It was a long night, just her and Kaliyo tending to him; he’d argued even as they lifted him onto the bed, as she stripped him out of his soiled clothing and Kaliyo fetched a washbasin- a cooking pot, really, full of hot water from the lab, but it would serve- and a few clean rags.

“Eckard,” she’d finally said, turning him carefully, avoiding the spines that protrude like needles through his fragile skin, “you cleaned blood and worse off me more times than I care to remember. Let me return the favor this one time.”)

“What if we bring him back to Odessen?” He peers over her shoulder at the diagrams on the screen. “With the tech we’ve got there, I’m sure we could-”

“It’s a little more complicated than that. With his-” rubbing her eyes, she sighs. “Well, you’ve seen him now. The rakghoul genome thrives on radiation exposure, and I’ve honestly no idea what chemotherapy would do with his genetics this unstable. If he couldn’t work out a fix with all the specimens here, I’ll never manage it. It’s not as though there’s precedent for any of this.”

“The specimens? You mean the rakghouls?” Theron hooks a stool with one foot, pulling it over toward her, and gestures for her to sit. “I saw Kaliyo feeding them when I got here.”

She nods, settling onto the seat. “We talked about it a little overnight. He used Scritchy-” she nudges the little rakghoul, asleep under the bench, with the toe of her boot; he rumbles and flops over onto his other side as Theron jumps back in alarm. “Oh, relax, won’t you? He’s perfectly tame. He used to keep vermin off the ship.”

“You say that now. He tried to eat me when I got here.”

“He did not. He was just saying hello.”

He makes a face. “You get my hesitation, though. I’ve had enough near-misses recently without going full feral-”

Cutting his words off abruptly, Theron covers his mouth with one hand as she shakes her head and tries to hide her smile. “It’s fine. I know what you meant.”

“Sticking my foot in my mouth has been the trend this week. But it was kind of a jerk thing to say, all things considered.”

She shrugs. “It wouldn’t offend him. We always knew it was a risk, but- well, as I was saying, he kept himself stable for years with serums developed from rakghoul cells. By the time he realized he needed a broader sample he was too sick to travel, though, and his smuggler contact didn’t follow instructions. The lazy shit probably just dropped a shock net on a nest and hauled in everything he caught.”

“So much for genetic diversity, I’m guessing.”

“Exactly.” She points over her shoulder to the schematics scrolling behind her. “Lokin had it all mapped out: where to go, what to look for. Force, what a mess.”

Theron takes a step back toward her, pauses the screen with the press of one finger. “Well, where to go’s easy. Taris. Full of rakghouls.”

“In theory. But I don’t think I could manage it by myself, and he’s still too unstable to move. Cancer notwithstanding, if he turns while we’re shipboard-”

“Tee-Seven and Kaliyo could stay here and watch him.” Wrapping one arm around her shoulders, he pulls her head against his chest. “I know you’re going to go anyway. You’ve got that look on your face. Take me with you.”

Eyes closed, she leans against him. She really could use some sleep. Or a drink or ten. “I don’t have a look. But yes, you’re right. I have to try. I owe him that much.”

“You have a look,” he mutters. “And he was your doctor- of course you feel like you owe him. Though I do have to say this makes what happened on Ziost Station make a lot more sense.”

“It’s more than that. He-” she frowns, shifting on the stool, a restless creeping discomfort growing in her chest, the same way it always does when she thinks about Taris, about Hoth, about Quesh. “When I broke my conditioning, Doctor Lokin recreated the original serum they’d used. I literally couldn’t explain what the formula was, where I got it, why I needed it- I tried, and the words wouldn’t come. But he never questioned. He just did it. If he hadn’t, if I didn’t have him to help me, I’d-”

She’d still be on Hunter’s leash, even now.

(That, or dead- she might have figured out a way around all the behavior controls eventually. She was never allowed to hurt herself- that was one of the first ground rules, after Hunter caught her looking too long at the shards of a broken mirror. A misjudgment, of course; she didn’t want to hurt herself then, not yet. She wanted to hurt the rest of them.

Those months were bad enough. A lifetime of those games, of how they hurt her, of coming back to herself after hours spent unaware. Always wondering what they’d made her do, what Hunter had done to her, when she was locked away inside her own head-

She would have found a way to die, eventually. There are things worse than dying. That would have been one.

Valkorion might be one too.)

“You don’t have to explain.” Theron kisses the top of her head. “I’ll go with you. It’s only a few days to Taris from here.”

“All right.” She nods. “All right. There’s enough vaccine doses here to protect both of us. I’ll update Lana and talk to Kaliyo about-” 

“Speaking of Her Sithness, the holo’s fixed like you asked. And talk to me about wha-” Kaliyo sticks her head through the doorway into the laboratory, a few torn strips of electrical tape dangling from her collar; she’d gone to start repair, with the droid’s help, when Theron took over watching Lokin. As she catches sight of them, her eyes roll halfway back into her head. “Ugh. You really did go domestic on me.”

***

(Lana, by the look of it, was in the middle of a working dinner with Koth- that’d make the third this week, by her reckoning, though she stopped teasing her after the second; Lana deserved a spot of relaxation, whatever form it might take. 

She only made a little bit of a face at the change of plans, though it’d leave her in charge at least another week longer than they’d originally planned. I’ll manage, Lana said, as long as you need. Do try not to get bitten too badly.)

*** 

Once she’s locked Nightshrike- her ship’s engine’s faster than his and the lab needed to preserve any samples they might manage to retrieve, and they can break atmo in stealth and hopefully dodge the surveillance satellites- into the hyperspace lane that will carry them to Taris, she turns the pilot’s chair to face Theron.

 “So,” she says, folding her arms across her chest, “about Coruscant.”

He sighs. Clearly, he was hoping she’d let it go. He ought to know better than that by now. “Here comes the lecture.” 

“It’s not-” She probably does look like she’s about to preach at him- all she’d need is a raised eyebrow and her consonants clipped to needle points and she’d be any of her old Academy instructors. Sitting up, she uncrosses her arms, reaches across the console for his hand. “No lecture. That’d require a level of hypocrisy I don’t think I’m capable of any more, and Force knows I see now why you didn’t want to tell me beforehand. What did you ask to make him so angry?”

“I didn’t even get the chance.” Fists shoved deep in his pockets, he sinks down into his seat. “Though you’d think they would want that Star Fortress gone as much as we do-”

“But you had a plan.”

Theron nods. “Artillery. Two guns at the the canyon mouth meant a less than one percent casualty rate when I had SCORPIO run the projections. Can’t get much better than that-” he does have a point, she has to admit, but stars, how could he have been so reckless?- “but obviously, we don’t have that kind of firepower. But the Republic does.”

She makes a face- she can’t help it- and he sighs again, letting his head fall back against the headrest.

“I know. I know. But I thought-”

“I thought we were looking at the clifftop plan.”

“I hit a dead end there. The estate up there and all the land around it’s owned by House Rist- but I couldn’t find out who specifically, and they’re not biting.” Still slouched deep into the chair, he turns his head to look at her. “So I had to try to get creative.”

Ah, stars, she doesn’t know whether to hug him or shake him. “You ought to have told me. I’ve got Rist connections I can leverage. I’ll make inquiries.” It might mean significant favors owed- the noble houses were never prone to give information away for free and the Rists less so than most, but the old Intelligence poisonsmaster was born to the house and, better, had a keen ear for gossip. It was worth a call to her, at least.

“I thought I could leverage one of my own for once- I burned so many bridges when I quit the SIS I haven’t got much to offer any more. I’m sorry you got dragged into it, but-”

“He didn’t believe I hadn’t sent you.”

He shakes his head. “I wouldn’t have walked out of there if I hadn’t called you, I don’t think. Jace was- my father was-” Theron doesn’t know how to word it, she thinks, and his eyes close for a second. “We never had time to really get to know each other, but I thought we-”

He trails off again, words lost to the noise of the accelerating engine; she waits, silent.

“Never mind,” he says after a moment, rubbing the back of his hand against his mouth. “I was wrong, obviously. Though that wasn’t how I meant for you to find out.”

“And if he wasn’t keen to work with us before, he certainly won’t be now. I’m sure he’s convinced I turned you deliberately.” Her hand’s still resting on the console between them and he’s not even looking at her, now, eyes open again but staring out the window as the stars blur and they pick up speed. Standing, she steps around behind him, wraps her arms cautiously around the back of the chair, draping her hands over his shoulders.

(Ah, families.

When she looks up, Valkorion’s sitting in her just-vacated seat, smirking.

I had such hope for my own family, you know. But as it turns out- he gestures, fingers extended elegantly in their direction- the only thing one can breed reliably is disappointment.)

“Let him think that. Like he doesn’t know a thing or two about battlefield affairs.”

With Valkorion’s words echoing in her head she blinks, needing to reorient herself; thankfully Theron’s still not looking at her, though he tilts his head so his cheek presses against her forearm. “Was that how they met? Your fath-” She can feel the face he makes, and backtracks. “Your parents?”

“Yes and no. They met at the beginning of the war, when Korriban-” he clears his throat, rephrasing. Old habits die hard- “when the Sith retook Korriban. But years later, Satele saved him from Darth Malgus on Alderaan, and… well. I don’t know the details, only a little bit of what Jace told me the first few times we met.”

She chuckles softly. Like father, like son. “I see why he’d have a soft spot for Alderaan. Though I do have to ask- your parents being who they are, how in the Void did you end up in the SIS of all places? I would have thought Military Intelligence, at least, if an officership didn’t suit.”

“Funny story, actually.” With a glance up at her out of the corner of his eye, Theron wrinkles his nose- they’ve probably got the same definition of funny. “I’ll tell you later, if you want. But I was seventeen when the SIS picked me up, and Jace only found out I existed during the mission to take down the Ascendant Spear almost ten years later. He was putting the team together and read my dossier, found out my birthday. Then when he found out who my mother is- he did the math.”

“That’s-”

“Yeah.” His hands wrap around her wrists. “Shitty way to find out you’ve got a son. But he did make an effort in those first few years. We got drinks together a few times, had dinner. But the Republic was always his first priority.”

She frowns, leaning over further until her cheek rests in the stretched curve of his neck.

She never thought to miss her own family, not really; even starting off in Intelligence it was made perfectly clear that family was a liability that ran both ways, a cord to be severed, and she remembers so little of them now there’s nothing left to miss. She doubts Theron would ever have been close to his mother- if Satele even cared to try, which was a different question- but he might have had a chance with Jace.

Not now, though, thanks to her. Not now.

“And then you left.”

“And then I left. And no, I don’t regret it, so whatever you’re thinking,” Theron says, “stop it.”

Her objection comes out an indignant huff and he shifts as her breath glances across his skin, a smug little noise his only response. After a moment he lets go of her and raises one hand to her cheek, nudging her with gentle pressure to come around the chair; in two steps she’s beside him and he draws her down onto his lap.

For a moment she stiffens. He can talk circles around it all he likes but he should never have gone to Coruscant; it was stupid and reckless and he might have ended up in a cell, facing two days’ imprisonment at least before she would have been able to get anywhere near him- a day and half, maybe, if she went in guns blazing which would probably have gotten them all killed-

-but Theron winds his arms around her waist and she can’t help it and lets the last of her irritation go, softening into the curl of his body. Oh, she’s missed him.

“That’s better.” His words come out muffled, his mouth against her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Nine. I meant for all of it to make less work for you, not fuck things up and piss you off.”

“I’m not angry.”

“You were.”

“I was-”

(She was. She was furious with him for dropping her in the middle of that mess with no warning and leaving her to talk their way out, for leaving her to pace and fret and curse for the entire hour of his flight from Coruscant, a thousand worst-case scenarios playing like holovids in her head and- oh. There it is.

She wasn’t supposed to be afraid of things. In her third year at school they spent hours and hours on emotional regulation- for all the good it does now when her nightmares come- learning to channel fear and anxiety and all their other maladaptive emotions into something more productive; there were fewer students by the end of that year, more cries in the night echoing along the dormitory rows and empty beds when morning came.

She wasn’t supposed to be afraid of things.

But she’d been afraid for Theron. She’d just forgotten how to let herself feel it.)

“I was worried about you,” she says, quiet, as his arms tighten around her. “A little angry, yes. But mostly worried.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.” Turning a little, she presses one finger to the tip of his nose, teasing. “You idiot.”

He grins. “Not used to that, I guess- somebody worrying about me. If it’ll help your mood at all, I’m not too proud to resort to bribery. I picked you up something before I got chased off-planet.”

“You already mentioned the caf, and bribery’s not necessary. Though I do like presents.”

“I brought some of the caf along, yeah, but I got you something else too.” Theron shifts beneath her. “You’re going to have to let me up, though. It’s in my bag in quarters.”

“Spoilsport. I’m rather comfortable here, you know.”

When she slides forward off his lap he pushes himself up off the chair and stands up behind her, then catches her around the waist again, turning her and pulling her in close. “I guess I’ll just have-” he always surprises her, still, with how strong he is; he lifts her up over his shoulder in a messy sort of rescuer’s carry and she laughs in surprise, holding on around his waist as she dangles over his shoulder- “to make it up to you.”

***

Two hours later,  Theron finally remembers the present- to be fair, she’d nearly forgotten about it, too; he’d done a very thorough job making it up to her- and crawls out of bed to fetch a ribbon-bound little box from his duffel. She hadn’t even thought he’d known what cosmetics she used; he only winks up at her and kisses her stomach, his head resting in her lap as, her gift unwrapped, she winds the ribbon teasingly around one of his wrists.

“I am a spy, you know. It’s sort of my job.”

“Oh, yes,” she says, tying a loose knot. “Ever so skilled, you. Shall we see how you are at escaping?”

***

Taris. 21 ATC.

 

Taris hasn’t changed much in the years since she’s last been there, still the same rakghoul-infested shithole.

They set the ship down in the wreckage field of the Endar Spire. It won’t be noticed there, probably, one more bit of ship in all of that scattered debris; Theron looks across at the ruin and shakes his head.

“Even here,” he mutters, “still can’t get away from my family, can I?”

She remembers, too late, a little of its history- a Republic ship, brought down by Imperial fire just before the final bombardment of Taris, an escaped Jedi prisoner named- oh, what was the name? It’s been ages since she last read the planetary file. Something with a B, she thinks, and her last name was-

Her last name was Shan.

Oh.

She makes a face. “Sorry. I didn’t think we’d be welcome at either base, given the circumstances.”

“No, no, you’re right. Just thinking out loud.” They walk down the ramp together, guiding the heavy speeder down from the storage compartment beneath the ship, gear loaded and her old sniper rifle in the weapon rack. “You know this place better than I do. Where should we start?”

***   

She never realized how much rakghouls look the same.

There are several subspecies, according to Lokin’s notes, but all the creatures here seem to be the same as the ones back on Alderaan, greyish-skinned and without spines on their faces. The ones they need are larger, spikier, red in color- and scarely to be found, apparently, here or in any of the other four locations they’ve checked so far. She draws back from the scope, lowers the rifle with a sigh.

Theron looks toward her, one eyebrow raised, as she shakes her head in reply. With a nod, he pulls up their planning map on his datapad; he needn’t have. They’ve only got one nest left to try and only seven vials in the specimen container- they’ll have to hit the last one, too. She’d saved the largest nest for last deliberately, hoping they’d have enough samples by then, that they wouldn’t need to go there at all. But they need a dozen unique specimens, at least, to craft a cure. She doesn’t have a choice.

She circles it with one fingertip- Dynamet General Hospital.

Ready? Theron signs at her.

She doesn’t have a choice. Let’s go.

The ride to the hospital grounds is quiet, mostly. She remembers that the access tunnel was full of rakghouls, years ago, and bypasses it in favor of an old service route that runs through a collapsed outbuilding; the larger speeder barely fits with both of them riding astride, but they squeak through a narrow gap and Theron picks off the few creatures that chase after them (none suitable for sampling, more’s the pity) with a series of precise blaster shots.

There’s no other way into the hospital building itself, not anymore. The rest of the doors were demolished years ago, more to keep everything trapped inside than to keep anyone out- there wasn’t much in the way of scrounge left and anyone stupid enough to brave the nests without the protection of Lokin’s homebrewed vaccine was more likely to end up a new resident than rich on salvage- so it’ll have to be the main entrance; she pulls the speeder behind a pillar. Theron takes the sample kit, she the rifle. One last chance.

Ten years and the damn corridor hasn’t changed at all. The nest’s deep inside the main building, down in the sublevels, and the turbolift probably broke three hundred years ago when the bombs fell. We’ll take the stairs, she signs to Theron. This way.

He’s just started to reply when they round the corner and time stops.

(“After you forced me to come here, I should let you die.” She stares down at Chance as he curls onto his side against a makeshift duracrete barricade, gasping, blood frothing on his lips. Her people- the Imperial patrol that’d driven him here- had shot well. A collapsed lung, she thinks, his hand clamped tight over his ribs. If she doesn’t act now, he’ll never make it.

His mouth moves silently. Please. Please. Onom-

He doesn’t have the breath to say it, nor the strength. She could turn and walk away right now; he’d be food for the rakghouls and there’d be one fewer pair of hands holding her leash. But-

But she remembers the way he looked at her, the first time he saw her code word used to hurt her. It was just the three of them on Taris, her and Chance and Hunter: she’d mouthed off in response to some offhand comment and Hunter’d locked her in place with a word, slapped her square across the face and all she could do was stand there, blinking placidly as she seethed. Chance shook his head, and when Hunter stepped out he broke the command and handed her a cold pack for her swollen lip.

“But I won’t.” She crouches down beside him, pulling an empty syringe and two vials of kolto out of her belt pouch. The lung first, then. She opens his jacket, feeling for the space between his ribs. “Though you’d better brace yourself, Chance. This is going to hurt.”

She drives it home, and-)

What an intriguing memory. Valkorion’s voice hisses in her ear, building pressure inside her head until she staggers forward, clutching at the crumbling barricade with her gloved hands. You know how they used you, little Cipher, and yet you saved him. Why?

She grits her teeth. Her nose is bleeding; she can feel it running down her face. He only used me because he thought he had to. He didn’t deserve to die there.

And what of me? When she looks up she can’t see him. It would not have been my choice, taking up residence inside this crowded mind of yours, but for my serpent of a son and your bullet through my heart. Do I not merit mercy?  

You? Blood on her lips, sour on her tongue when she licks them. No. I’m going to kill you.

When she comes back to herself Theron’s pulling a wad of gauze out of the medkit at his waist, pressing it hard against her face, still not speaking but his expression tense and questioning as he pinches the bridge of her nose. She taps two fingers to her temple and he scowls.

“When did that start?” He whispers hoarsely as she steps back from the stone. “Bad enough he’s in your head but he’s hurting you now, too?”

“It’s nothing.” She spits into the gauze. “I’m fine. We should keep going.”

“You’re not-

Something’s coming, a chorus of howls at the far end of the corridor, moving fast up the stairs. Rakghouls. They must have smelled the blood- it’s probably been ages since they’ve had prey that wasn’t rats or tachs. Shit, shit, shit.

She pushes his hand down and braces the sniper rifle against the slab. Six shots before they get too close. Maybe eight. Then she’s got her main gun and Theron’s got his pistols.

It should be enough.

“You’re not fine,” he finishes, still trying to tend to her until she pushes him away again, harder this time, pointing down the barrel of the rifle at the first of the rakghouls cresting the top of the stairs; he swears and draws, letting the gauze fall to the ground. “We need to talk about this.”

“Not-” the first shot’s loud enough to make her ears ring in the confines of the hallway and it catches a huge red rakghoul clean through the forehead. One more sample for the box, at least- “right-” another, smaller, but the same color, another clean shot as it collapses over the first- “now.”

***

All in all they kill fifteen in the corridor.

 It wasn’t as bad as she’d thought it would be. After the first few, the rest coming up the stairs were penned in by their fallen nestmates and it was more like a shooting gallery than an attack, the two of them firing in synchrony until the howling stops and an eerie quiet settles back over the building.

Six of the red rakghouls lie among the dead. As Theron keeps his blasters raised she picks up the sample kit from where he’d set it down beside her, drawing out a handful of syringes as she starts down the corridor toward the stairwell and the pile of bodies.

“Come on,” she says. Her nose’s still dripping; she wipes it on the back of her gloved hand. “The faster we get this done, the faster we can get out of here.”

When she looks back at him he’s frowning. “Let me at least clean you up a little. We’ve still got to drive all the way back to the ship and you look like a plague victim.”

“Still better-looking than them.” She gestures toward the creatures and crouches, uncapping the first syringe and plunging it deep, drawing back until the thick dark sludge that passes for rakghoul blood flows into the tube. “And it’s only a nosebleed. It’ll keep for a moment.”

Tucking the now-full syringe into the kit, she moves on to the next and then the next and then the one after that, siphoning a vial from each until the container’s full and she latches it closed. Fuck, she hates rakghouls; she’ll never get the smell out of her nostrils, even over the scent of her own blood. But if it’s the only way-

Well, she owes it to Lokin to try, the canny old bastard.

(She didn’t think he was even awake when Theron arrived on Alderaan, but when she came in to tell him about the plan Lokin shot a glance toward the hall.

“Your SIS friend from Ziost- so you managed to bring him over after all, did you?” When he smiled he almost looked like himself, if she ignored the hollows under his eyes. “Good girl.” )

The container strap slung over her shoulder, she stands, wipes her nose again and walks back toward Theron, who finally takes his eyes off the far doorway and holsters his blasters. “All right. Shall I sit?”

He pats the barrier in front of him. “C’mere, and keep pinching. It’ll never stop otherwise.”

She sighs, perching on the duracrete, fingers on the bridge of her nose, and tilts her chin up so he can scrub at her face with a proper cleaning-cloth.

“Okay. What happened?” Theron holds along the angle of her jaw, wiping beneath her nose and across the margin of her lower lip. “You stood there staring for the better part of a minute, then I thought you were going to fall over. You’re starting to scare me.”

“It’s nothing to worry about. Really.”

“It’s not nothing-” he gets her upper lip next- “and if you’re allowed to worry about me I’m allowed to worry about you. How long has this been happening?”

She shrugs. “A few months? I told you, Valkorion likes to go exploring, and here- I’ve been here before. Coming back triggered an old memory that he felt obliged to drag to light.”

His expression’s a question as he folds the cloth to expose a clean corner.

“Chance.”

The cloth raised back to her face, he stops, still for a long moment, just looking at her. She knows he knows; he told her so, the night of that first party. “You should have told me,” he finally says. “We didn’t need to come here. We could have looked harder at the other sites.”

“If I avoided every place that might trigger a bad memory, half the galaxy would be off limits.” She glances down. Her head’s aching, probably from the rifle fire, but she doesn’t particularly want to tell him that- he’ll only fuss more, and she’s tired of being treated as though she’s made of glass. “To say nothing of Zakuul. But seeing as we have a war to win, I don’t have the luxury of-”

“It’s not about the war!” Theron snaps, words echoing down the corridor as he cleans the last of the blood from her skin. “You’re not a martyr. What good’s killing Arcann going to do if your brain’s a scrambled mess before we ever get there?”

“Do you think I know?” It’s past time they headed back to the ship; the moment he steps back she pushes up to her feet, shouldering the sample container, and grabs the rifle. “I’ll figure it out. I’ve got plenty of experience on that front.”

He reaches out for her other hand, brushing at her sleeve as she starts to move past. “Nine-”

She takes another step forward. She needs air and light to clear her mind, not this awful place, and the longer she stands here the more her head throbs. She needs to get out.

“Nine, please.” Theron’s fingers close around her wrist; she turns her head to look at him, and-

It’s dark. Why is it so dark? She can’t see, she can’t-

She can't-

***

Chapter Text

Black Hole Sun

 

Everything hurts.

Her body’s heavy, muscles aching like she’s been running for hours and scintillating patterns dancing on the reverses of her eyelids until she forces them open. Whatever she’s laying on, it’s cold beneath her back; the ceiling’s a dark void stretching far above her head and the walls of this place, wherever it is, the same solid black, so dense she could reach her hand out and press it flat against the surface. 

And then there is a light shining bright into her eyes and the light hurts, too, but it’s hard to move so instead she just turns her head to the side, away from it. That helps a little. Nine blinks, once and then again, as a figure wreathed in shadow coalesces out of the dark.

At first she thinks it’s Theron, implant on his forehead glimmering as the figure moves toward her, but no- the location of the hardware’s all wrong and so is the shape of the face, the contour of his bald head-

“Hello, Cipher.” Watcher X smiles wryly as he draws alongside her prone body. “I thought it was time we had a little chat.”

She twitches, forcing herself onto her side, away from his outstretched hand. “You’re dead. Leave me alone.”

Does anyone stay dead any more? The thought drifts vaguely in and out of her mind, bothering her less than it probably ought to. First Revan, then Valkorion and now this- it’s absurd, really. Or- wait. Am I dead?

(If there is such a place as hell, it would figure she’d be destined to share it with the rest of the monsters.)

“Quite,” he agrees. “You made very sure of that. Quick and professional. Though I must say-” with a shrug, he sits down beside the bed- no, not a bed: too sterile, too metal-smelling- in a chair that she’s completely certain wasn’t there until he gestured- “watching oneself die really is disconcerting.”

She swallows.

“And no, you aren’t dead.” She didn’t say that out loud. How did he- “Your body is sleeping. Recovering.”

It’s easier to move now, her muscles unlocking; she sits up on a too-familiar operating table, runs her fingers over an irregular stain on the rim nearest him. (Eleven years ago she focused on that stain for nearly an hour, trying not to scream or gnaw through her own lip, while wire by wire he laid the implant along her spine.) “I’ve gone insane, then. I killed you. I hallucinated you as a side effect of the Castellan restraints and I’m hallucinating you now.”

“Did you really?” Watcher X crosses one leg over the other with a knowing smile. “And you went to the Archive all on your own, and somehow you knew exactly the right search parameters to solve a problem you didn’t even have a name for.”

Rubbing her temples- dead or mad or neither, she’s got a ferocious headache- she narrows her eyes at him as she considers. It was so long ago. She barely remembered what query she’d entered to pull up that first recording of the Minister, but she must have figured out-

She must have-

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

“You put yourself inside my head,” she scowls. “How?”

His smile widens. “You’re cleverer than that, Cipher. What do you think?” 

“The implant, I assume. Straight shot to my nervous system.” At his approving nod she continues, tucking her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around her shins. “But you’re not really Watcher X, are you? Not a ghost- a program? An AI?”

“Not precisely, but near enough that the difference isn’t important. The programming was somewhat rushed.” Hands pressed against the bridge of his nose, he looks at her over his steepled fingers. “It retains my personality, my knowledge base, but was meant to be an observation platform. You provided an ideal opportunity, but accelerated the timeline.”

“I really ought to have known better.”

He chuckles. “Yes, you ought to have. But you were very young, then.”

(She had been, hadn’t she? Scarcely twenty-two when Keeper sent her to Nar Shaddaa, she was so certain of things, so convinced of her own cleverness. She hadn’t trusted Watcher X, of course- he’d been imprisoned in Shadow Town for a lengthy list of very good reasons- but she’d thought he-)

“As I said,” he murmurs as she cuts the thought off abruptly and she crinkles her forehead in irritation- he needs to stop doing that, inside her head or not- “you were very young. But I’ve seen so very many interesting things though your eyes. You really do lead a fascinating life.”

She makes a face at him as he continues. Stars, if he’s seen everything she has- but then, Valkorion’s doing the same, isn’t he?

What an unpleasant thought.

“But my death threw rather a wrench into the works, to put in mildly, and this fragment is now all that remains of me.”

“If you think I’m sorry, think again.” If she’s asleep, why can’t she wake up? She shifts over, dangling her legs off the edge of the operating table. “Whatever assistance you claim to have provided, you’ve been silent for ten years and frankly I preferred it that way. Now tell me what it is that you want.”

“Right to the point. Efficient. A credit to your training.” He nods, lowering his hands into his lap. “I’ll be brief, then. Your new guest claims to want to help you, Cipher. Do not listen to him.”

She thinks she’s strong enough to stand. “I haven’t been.” Pushing herself up with both hands, she eases herself down until her feet touch something solid in the darkness. “Which hasn’t stopped him from trying to bore holes in my brain. But what do you care?”

“I know what it’s like to live with a bomb inside your head. There may come a day when you find yourself wishing it would go off.”

She shakes her head. “You, maybe. Not me.”

“As you say. Regardless, fragment or not, my continued existence is dependent on yours: if you die, I die. And if your consciousness is driven from your body, well-” a shrug, nonchalant- “I do not think its new occupant will permit me to remain.”

“I don’t plan on dying.”

“Neither did I.”

“Force, you’re a broken fucking holo. I’ll say it one more time-” half a turn and she’s facing him, arms folded across her chest- “what do you want from me?”

His smile is almost gentle, then, an uncanny thing. “I want you to survive. I can help you fight him.”

He doesn’t need to clarify who him means- she knows that perfectly well, and she suspects there is a reason he’s avoiding the name.

(It’s like the old game they used to play in school, crammed into a pitch-dark bathroom and chanting the rhyme toward the mirror in unison, where if the words were said in just the right way three times in a row- nothing ever came through, of course.

But rumor had it that in the Sith Academy, sometimes something did.)

“I can only fight so many wars at once,” she snaps. “I’m busy enough trying to keep his children from killing me, and he could have let Arcann do so at least once already. I’ve no choice but to tolerate him- for now, at least.”

“Like the Minister wanted to help? Like Hunter?”

Her lip curls. “Shut up.”

“As you wish. Your control block will help for the time being.” Snapping his fingers, he gestures away from her as a glowing outline forms on a far wall. “But he will keep trying until he finds a weakness he can exploit. I can- how did we used to say it?-” he considers for a moment- “run interference, but I thought it better that I make you aware of it first.”

Now you decide to ask permission?”

Another shrug. “I’m strictly digital. His magics cannot hurt me, and his pursuit of me might give you some respite.”

“No.” She shakes her head immediately, not even allowing herself time to consider. “If you’re in here forever, so be it, but I won’t give you free rein of the place. I learned that lesson well enough the first time.”

Damn him. The implant has to stay- she and Lokin discussed it years ago and agreed there was too much risk of damaging her spinal cord to remove it, and even knowing what he’s done she’d rather risk a continued mental stowaway than permanent paralysis. But she trusted him once, more fool her, and now her head’s even more crowded than she’d thought.

“The offer remains. If you wish to reconsider-” another gesture, the outline broadening into a door- “I will be here. I will always be here.”

She takes a few steps toward it, her footprints leaving bright marks behind her on the ground. “Noted.”

“Then farewell for now, Cipher Nine.” His outline’s starting to fade as the door opens, a shadow against the growing light. “And don’t be too angry when you awaken. Your lover means well. But he doesn’t know what this place is to you.”

The brightness catches her, an irresistible pull forward even as she startles and tries to turn back toward him. “What do you-”

For a moment she is falling- or flying, she’s not sure which, weightless and graceful and haloed in the glow until she has to shut her eyes against it before it burns them out entirely. Someone’s calling her, somewhere far away.

Come on, Nine. Wake up. Please wake up.

She opens her eyes.

*** 

She opens her eyes.

For the first few seconds they won’t focus and all she can make out is a shape moving in front of her.

“It’s been two hours, and she’s still out.” Theron’s facing away from her, jacket off, shirtsleeves pushed up to his elbows, pacing back and forth between her and a hovering holoprojector; his incessant motion makes if difficult to see past him to whomever he’s speaking to. She blinks, once and then again, as the room takes shape- industrial and sparse, ferrocrete walls and a corrugated metal roof. Too clean to be Dynamet. Where are they? “I don’t have a scanner here, but it’s not infection. None of the raks got that close to us, and I checked her skin once we got here. She was fine and then her nose started bleeding and then she just dropped-”

“Theron.” Lana glances past Theron as he moves out of the way, eyes meeting hers, and cuts in with one hand raised.

If he heard Lana he doesn’t show it, still pacing. “-and I can get her back to the ship, but if she doesn’t wake up I-”

“Theron.”

“-don’t know what else I can do besides-”

“Theron, would you stop?” Clapping her hands sharply together, Lana sighs at him as he finally stops pacing. “She’s awake.”

He startles and spins around abruptly, crouching down beside her cot (familiar, somehow, tucked back against a wall, the angles of the ceiling above pinging off a memory she can’t pin down) as she glances around the room and starts to try to sit up. She’s barely dressed, just her shirt and underclothes. What-

“Wait,” he says, “go slow. Are you dizzy at all?”

“No. I’m-”

I’m losing it, she doesn’t say. I’ve just spent the last Force knows how long talking to the AI living in my spine about the ghost living in my head. Never better.

“I’m fine.” As she says it Lana looks at her skeptically and Theron steadies her with one hand, helping her into a seated position; there’s a streak of dry blood across his forearm and a dark blotch on the front of his shirt. “I just fainted, I think. Give me a moment and I’ll be ready to go.”

“If you’re sure, Comman- Nine.” Lana sounds as doubtful as she looks, but does manage to catch herself on the title. “Another run-in with Valkorion?”

She nods and Theron looks at her sidelong, a flicker of surprise and something else she can’t quite read in his eyes. She should have told him sooner- no one else knew but Lana, even now, but he didn’t know that; she can feel the hurt radiating off him that she’d kept it hidden, just for a second, before he tamps it down and turns back toward Lana’s image.

But there wasn’t anything to be done for it. He’ll only worry that much more, and he worries enough already.

“Crisis averted.” He shrugs an apology at the holo. “Sorry for pulling you out of the meeting. I just wasn’t sure if-”

“It’s fine, Theron. You were right to call.” Rolling her shoulders backward until one cracks audibly, Lana stands up straighter. “Will you be heading back to Alderaan now, then?”

She nods. “As soon as we’re back to the ship from wherever this place is. We’ve got what we came for. If I hadn’t-” she gestures vaguely toward herself in lieu of words, wrinkles her nose in irritation at herself- “we’d have been gone already.”

“Let me know if I can assist. Oggurobb’s asking for more supplies again, so I’m sure I can twist his arm a bit if you need to co-opt some of the research equipment- metaphorically speaking, I mean.” Lana’s smile rather suggests a more literal approach. “ But until I hear differently, I’ll plan for our usual update tomorrow.”

As she and Theron nod again, Lana waves and disconnects the call. She tries to push herself back up off the cot; her legs seem mostly steady, and with Theron’s hand still on her shoulder she manages to stand with minimal wobbling. “Was I really out for hours? I must’ve hit my head pretty hard on the way down, or-”

“You didn’t,” he says. “You were still right beside me. I caught you- well, you and the sample box, but then you seized, Nine, and I couldn’t get it to stop.”

She blinks. No wonder she’s still so fucking out of it, and- she wrinkles her nose. That would explain the acrid odor, as well. Lovely.  

“Finally I remembered I had a dose of sedative in my medkit. That helped, but… ” Theron frowns. “Seriously? You tell me it’s nothing and next thing you’re-”

She takes a step forward, out of his reach. “It was nothing. Just the nosebleeds, that’s all it’s ever been. I’ve never had a seizure in my life.”

“Well, you have now.”

“Apparently.”

Behind her, he sighs. “Sorry. I’m not angry, I just-”

“I’d certainly hope you’re not,” she snaps, “given that it’s completely out of my control.”

“You know that wasn’t what I- oh, damn it-” She’s nearly to the doorway- out to the main area of the building by the look of the room beyond-  when he finally catches her hand in his and tries to hold her still. “I was afraid you weren’t going to wake up, okay? Or you weren’t going to wake up… well, you.

“But I did. And I’m fine now. Still me.”

Theron shakes his head at that, but if he had a clever reply he doesn’t say it. After a moment, he takes a deep breath. “Will you at least sit for a little while longer? We ended up with a big pack chasing us on the way here, and you might need to gun while I drive.”

“You can ride gunner, if you’re worried about my aim,” she says, pausing as he laces his fingers through hers; she’d have pulled away again if it was anyone else, but there’s a sweet affection in the gesture that stops her and makes her turn back toward him. “I’ll drive.”

“Nice try. You drive like a maniac at the best of times, let alone postictal. I’m driving.” He reaches up. At first she thinks it’s to trace along her cheekbone, one of his usual gestures when he’s trying to soothe her temper, but he stops at the neckline of her undershirt, at a scattering of droplets beneath one strap. “Once we get you cleaned up. I washed your armor, and I thought I’d gotten most of the blood off you while you were out, but it looks like I missed some.”

“It does have a tendency to get everywhere.” Though she doesn’t remember it being quite so bad- it must have started up again during the seizure.

Seizure. Shit. If it happens again, if she’s alone in the field-

It won’t. It can’t.

Shoving the thought aside, she turns back toward the main room. “Is there a refresher here, whatever we are?”

Theron nods. “No hot water, though. This place was decommissioned years ago. Honestly, I was a little surprised it still had power, but it was the closest quasi-secure building to the hospital that I had on my map. Before they shut it down, it was an-”

She steps through the doorway and the memory breaks on her like a sunrise and she knows this place, she knows it: a round table in the room’s center with her armor and their gear and the sample box laid out atop it, four chairs, a few empty shelves. Three more doors just like this one- two across the way, one to her left on the wall she’s passing through. An entrance corridor, further left. To the far right, the ‘fresher with its door standing open, once-white tile grimy with years of neglect but water beaded on the floor where he must have rinsed her things, drain in the back corner like every other ‘fresher in a prefab building like this one-

If she looks hard enough, she almost imagines her own bloody footprints, a lurid line across the threshold from tile to cold duracrete.

So that was what Watcher X meant.

-”old SIS safehouse,” he finishes.

(She knows.

It’s just that her room was opposite this one; she hadn’t placed it at first because she was used to seeing its reverse when she opened her eyes. The room Theron put her in, the cot she’d slept off the sedative on, had been Chance’s.

The one next to hers was Hunter’s.)

She inhales- one, two, three, four- and holds the breath in, filling her lungs, keeps counting and lets it out slowly, slowly, slowly. “I know. I’ve been here before.”

“You-” The catch in his voice is audible, and when she looks back over her shoulder at him he’s gone still and tense, jaw set and teeth clenched. “Oh, fuck me running. This place would still have been an active site back then.”

“Yes,” she says, and takes another few steps toward the open refresher door because the alternative is to keep moving away forever and she’s so, so tired of living that way. “Do you remember the night before we hit the Hoth fortress? You woke me up from a bad dream, and we spent the rest of the night talking about it?”

He nods.

Her bare feet leave marks in the dust as she crosses the threshold, turning fully around- as she does she could swear there’s a glint of glass from beneath the drain grate and stars, that’d figure after ten whole years; Republic cleaners always were shitty at their jobs- and raises her right arm out straight in front of her to chest height, palm upturned.

Theron blanches, presses one hand to his mouth. Clearly, he remembers.

“I didn’t know.” His voice is muffled behind his hand. “I promise you, I didn’t know. Let’s just go. The speeder’s right outside the entrance. If we run, the raks might not get scent of us until we’re already moving.”

“You couldn’t have known.” She lowers her arm. “There must be a dozen safehouses on Taris.”

“Fifteen,” he mutters. “Counting the decommissioned ones. But I should have-”

Forcing her pulse into regular time, her breathing to ease, she closes her eyes as a whisper starts to build in the back of her head. Oh, Cipher. Such a-

She pushes it away. No. They’re dead. Hunter’s dead, and Watcher X is dead, and Valkorion is dead, and her body is hers. She locked that door a long time ago and threw the key into the Void. She will not be a puppet. Not again.

No, she snarls, silent, and the voice goes quiet.

“You couldn’t have known, Theron,” she says again. “But you’re right. I ought to get cleaned up.”

Before he can stop her she presses two fingers against the panel to activate the water.

It’s as cold as she remembers, the stream fast and heavy, shocking her into alertness as it hits her skin.

“What are you-” Startled into motion by her audible gasp, Theron crosses the rest of the room in three steps and stands in the doorway, reaching his hand in to try to move hers off the panel as she keeps hers stubbornly in place. “Are you crazy? I told you, there isn’t hot water. You’ll freeze.”

Pulling her undershirt over her head, she looks down at the smear of blood running angled along her chest. She ought to clean her clothes, too, soiled with blood and worse; they’ll be back to the ship soon enough. What’s an hour’s discomfort, bare beneath her armor? She drops the shirt at her feet and unclasps her bra and slides her underpants down over her hips and lets them all sit in a heap beside her feet, water soaking into them. “I’m not crazy. You know I’m not.”

“Of course you aren’t. That wasn’t-” Alarm flashing across his face, he reaches toward the panel again- that wasn’t what he meant to say and she knows it as well as he does, but it still stings when the voices in her head are actually real.

(This time around, at least.

Or maybe she is crazy. Maybe all of them are. Given those options, she hopes the voices are real.)

“Please,” Theron says, trying to nudge her hand down with his. “That’s good enough, Nine. You can finish up shipboard.”

She doesn’t move. “It isn’t so bad once you’re used to it,” she says, teeth chattering, and watches the blood trickle down her body to disappear down the drain, “and I can always turn it off when I want to. Can’t I?”

He looks down, watching the water swirl around her feet, and then turns silently and walks out of her line of sight; she can hear his footsteps echo across the room. After a long moment, as the water starts to run clear as she rubs at her skin with one fisted hand, she can see him again, standing just outside the door with the cot’s fitted bedsheet held out toward her.

He just stands there, holding the impromptu towel, until she’s finished.

When she finally shuts the water off and the last drops fall from the nozzle overhead, Theron waits for her to move, waits for her to take the first steps out of the ‘fresher into the room, and when she does he wraps her up in the sheet, arms around her body, until she’s warm again.

“Come on.” He looks down at her, chin resting atop her sodden hair, her face nestled into his neck. “Let’s get out of here.”

This time, she nods.

“Okay.”

Chapter Text

 

Scientific Methods

 

He’s being absurd.

It only takes one person to fly Nightshrike, true, and she won’t deny that Theron is perfectly capable (of the two of them he really is the better pilot, though he’d gloat for days to hear her say it), but she’s never liked letting her out of her hands.

“Also-” the speeder glides up the ramp into the docking bag, the hatch raising up behind them- “I’m Alliance Commander. I outrank you. More to the point, she’s my damned ship.”

Fastening the last of the tie-downs, Theron slings the strap of the sample container over his shoulder and starts herding her toward the medical bay like a bantha into a pen. “Yes, but-”

“I don’t need medbay.”

“Yes, you do.” He steers her around the couch. “Protocol’s protocol.”

She scowls. “When have you ever cared about protocol? It took you two days of headaches to even agree to go to the infirmary the last time you hit your head.”

“True. But I-” When they reach the medical bay Theron stands just behind her, blocking off her exit route when she tries to duck around him, and she braces herself against the door. She’s still a little dizzy- just the sedative wearing off, she’s sure- “had a concussion. You had a seizure. If something’s really wrong-”

“There is nothing wrong with me!” She sighs, looking back over her shoulder at him. “I’m fine.”

He rests his hands on her shoulders. “I’ll get us up and jumped. But the sooner we get you checked out, the better.”

“Later.” Nine digs in her heels, resisting his push. “I’ll use Lokin’s scanner once we’re back on Alderaan. Let’s just get out of here.”

His hands wrap around her waist instead, then, and he lifts her through the doorway, twisting to avoid her as she swats at him in protest. “Nope. Scan first.”

“Let go of me, Theron.” If he’s going to fuss this much she’s going to make him work for it; she goes obstinately limp, the toes of her boots brushing across the floor as he keeps moving across the room with her suspended in his arms. “Doctor Oggurobb’s run every test in his arsenal on me a dozen times over since I got out of carbonite. Physically, I’m perfectly healthy.”

“Then just humor me. Please?”

“Are you going to lock me in here until I do?”

“Probably, yeah. It’s that or hit you with a tranq dart and you’ve already had a pretty heavy dose today.”

She kicks backward at him for that but her foot passes through empty air, and when he stops in front of the medscanner she sighs. “If it’ll make you stop worrying so damned much, fine. But if you crash my ship-”

“I’m not going to crash your ship,” Theron says, kissing the back of her neck, finally letting her go and setting the sample box down on the lab bench to his left. “I’ll come check on you as soon we’re locked into the route.”

She fights the urge to throw the nearest thing to hand at him- that’d be the genetic samples, and they’d spent far too much time wrangling rakghouls for her to waste them in a fit of pique. Instead she settles for activating the scanner with an irritated swipe of her finger along the screen and, as it hums to life, starts to strip out of her clothing again.

(It doesn’t take long, not with all her underclothes still wadded into a sodden ball in their gear bag. The bedsheet had only helped to dry her halfway but the friction of it, the rough-woven fabric between Theron’s hands and her bare skin, could almost have passed for warmth, and the breeze through her hair as she picked off rakghouls from the gunner’s seat of the speeder did the rest. Still, she’d prefer to spend the journey back to Alderaan with a hot shower, hotter caf and perhaps a nap- no, definitely a nap, why’s she so tired when she was out for hours?- instead of yet another afternoon spent in infirmary.

But when she turns back to set her jacket on the examination table he takes it from her, instead, laying it down carefully, and the way he looks at her takes the fight out of her.

The war’s only beginning and already she’s so tired of it; the last person she wants to fight is him.)

“I’ll be right back, okay?” Theron knows the layout of her ship now, not like the first few trips where when one of them got hurt he had to search through every cabinet for supplies (granted, she wasn’t much better- they’d moved everything from where it lived in her memory and she had to relearn it all, too) and he opens one of the doors to pull out a blanket, draping it over her body as she settles down onto the scanner’s bed. “And I’ll get some caf going.”

“Finally, the man says something reasonable.”

He grins.

***

She drifts in and out of sleep, she thinks, the steady rhythmic hum of the rotating machine lulling her eyelids closed, but even so she can feel it when they make the jump to hyperspace.

She loves the feel of it, of flying, of the void of space- the first time she’d been allowed off Dromund Kaas as a student- barely even a journey in the grand scheme of things since they’d only gone to see the shipyards at Dromund Kalakar- when the ship’s engines roared to life and they broke atmo half her classmates were sick and she just laughed, joyful, at the way her heart pulled taut inside her chest.

Today is no different.

They jump. Her pulse stutters; she smiles, and keeps drifting.

***

She wakes again to the slow outward slide of the scanner bed, its programmed cycle finished, and turns her head to check the room.

No Theron. No clothing, either: her armor’s gone from the table where she left it and the sample kit’s plugged into the main cryo unit. He must have come in while she slept.

(Normally she’d worry that she hadn’t noticed it. But he could move quietly when he wanted to- he wouldn’t have survived in the SIS if he couldn’t and that he’d managed to sneak out of her bed was proof enough; with anyone else that would have been her job- and she knew he would have tried so hard to let her rest-

Ah, stars, she doesn’t deserve him-)

She sits up, letting the blanket fall. By the sound of the hyperdrive they’re well on their way so she won’t be needed on the bridge for hours, not until they get close enough to require full stealth. Time for a shower, then.

Out of habit she checks the readout- normal. Ghosts and AIs and torture and five fucking years in carbonite and still her scans are fucking normal. Next verse, same as the first, and when she thinks it there’s an echo in her head like the memory of laughter.

As she pads, barefoot and undressed, from medical bay to their quarters she glances further down the corridor toward the bridge. The door’s open but Theron’s not in the pilot’s chair. Where’s he wandered off to? Shrugging, she keeps walking- past the bed, still neatly made from this morning, their bags tucked together at its foot; past the desk, less tidy, datapads and caf cups scattered across its top- until she reaches the ‘fresher.

When the first drops of water hit her skin the water’s already hot and she lets her hair down, lets the water soak in until it hangs heavy down her back. Even with her earlier drenching she still feels dirty, sweat and blood and urine in her nostrils and over all of it the half-dead smell of Taris (sometimes she thinks the Sith that bombed the planet all those years ago had the right idea- if only they’d finished the job properly). Turning toward the shelf and the little bottles, she fills her palm with bright-scented soap and takes a deep breath in.

That’s better.

Minutes pass; she cleans the day from her skin, inch by inch, until she’s pink from heat and scrubbing but finally, finally clean.

She ought to shut the water off. She ought to get dressed. Her muscles ache, though, and she bends forward, palms pressed flat to the tiles as the backs of her legs howl protest.

I am not accustomed to being ignored, Cipher. She can’t tell if his voice is echoing off the tiles or the inside of her skull, and she turns, snapping upright so quickly her head spins. Do you really think you can shut me out?

“If you’ve got something useful to say, then please, go ahead. But I’ve finally got the blood out of my hair so if all you mean to do is hurt me-”

She could never picture Valkorion as a father, even having seen him beside Arcann. But when he sighs, deep and long-suffering, water droplets hanging in the still air around him like bits of shimmering glass, she almost feels sorry for his children.

Almost.

What is my son doing at this moment, I wonder? My daughter? Not chasing after beasts to help a dying old man. How many more of your allies have died while you distract yourself with foolish errands?

His words cut deep. She frowns, looks down at herself, at her toes, at the flat unmarred skin of her stomach, pristine and scarless, and-

Wait.

Wait.

(and there is a noise just beyond her hearing, more a feeling than a sound, that reminds her more than anything of someone rather smugly clearing his throat, and the world twists around her and-)

***

Nine wakes again to the slow outward slide of the scanner bed, its programmed cycle finished, and sits up in a panic.

Shoving the blanket aside, she drags her fingers across her belly until they catch on the puckered edge of the scar. When she looks down this time she can see it, too, soft pink beneath her hand, and the five crimson lines etched along her ribs- everything where it ought to be.

Her heart’s racing, body prickling in a cold sweat; she pulls the blanket back up over her chest, wiping the damp from her skin as she glances around the room.

Still empty.

Her armor’s gone again and Theron’s nowhere to be found, just as before, but now she thinks she can hear him, humming deliberately off-key somewhere near the kitchen, and when she reads the scanner’s screen once again (she’s almost afraid to- what if-) the results are exactly the same. Normal. Always normal.

Now she really does need a shower.

She practically runs toward the cabin and the ‘fresher, slips inside and into the shower cubicle before the door gets halfway open and slaps the panel so hard her hand stings. The water’s hot, as it should be; the tiles are cool beneath her feet, against her forehead as she slumps against the back wall. The bottles on the shelf sit in a neat line, soap second from left. As it should be.

Her hand shakes as she reaches for the bottle.

I’m losing it. The soap alone isn’t enough to strip the discomfort away. Taking up the cleaning-cloth, she scrubs and scrubs and scrubs until her skin’s raw and her hands are shaking. I’m fucking losing it. Can’t even tell what’s real any more, or what’s in my head-

Footsteps, a shadow in the doorway: she turns, steadying herself against the tiles. If it’s Valkorion again-

“If you keep going at that rate,” Theron says quietly, “you’re not going to have much skin left. What’s wrong?”

She shakes her head. “It’s nothing. I fell asleep in the scanner. Just a-”

“Nightmare?” He sighs; he’s got a mug of caf in each hand and sets them both on the counter as he steps in toward her. “Must have been bad. You look like you just saw a ghost.”

She shrugs, raising an eyebrow, and he nods understanding.

“That kind of nightmare.”

“Yes.” She hangs the cleaning-cloth back on its hook.

Theron leans against the rim of the sink. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No.” (She should. She really, really should, and Theron always asks, even when the answer’s almost always no . It helps sometimes, but so often what Valkorion’s dredged up isn’t something she wants to remember. She supposes that’s why he chooses them. And if he can still manipulate her into seeing things that aren’t there at all, well-)

“Okay,” he says, and it isn’t- she can hear it in his voice- but he just shrugs.

“I think I’ll stay in here for a little while, if we’ve got time. I still need to wash my hair.”

“We won’t make scanner range of Alderaan for a few hours yet. Take all the time you need.” He  picks up the right-hand caf cup and takes a sip before he sets it back beside the other. “Though I remember you as the short shower type, given I’m pretty sure you don’t even need to shave.”

He’s teasing her now, and she forces herself to smile in return- he’s only trying to cheer her, she knows. “Mostly correct. We didn’t have unlimited hot water on Rishi- and yes, when I started as a new agent I blew my entire aesthetics budget on electrolysis. Made undercover work quite a bit easier without having to worry about the carpets matching the draperies.”

She can tell he gets it when he starts to laugh. “So that is your natural hair color. But seriously, you got an aesthetics budget? That’s not even a little bit fair. I had to buy my own blasters.”

“The official suggestion was rhinoplasty. But I rather like my nose.”

“So do I.” Pushing his shirtsleeves up to elbow height, he reaches forward into the spray of water and taps his finger lightly to the tip of her nose; she scrunches her face up at his touch. “I’ll leave you to it, then. I’ll use the shower in crew quarters.”

Theron starts to go before she answers and she nearly lets him, but no- if he stays, if she can see him, talk to him, maybe his presence will be proof enough to settle her restless free-floating brain. He only gets halfway out of the ‘fresher before she calls out.

“Don’t go. I mean-” she says when he turns around, pausing mid-step-  “there’s more than enough room for two here, if you don’t mind sharing.”

“Do you promise not to hog the water?”

“I promise.”

A minute later his clothes are in a heap on the floor and they’re both wedged into the little shower cubicle- there wasn’t really room enough for two at all, of course, and they both knew it; her quarters were well-appointed as ships go, but no refresher on any ship was ever built for more than one person- and her back’s to him as he works shampoo into her hair, fingernails scraping lightly over her scalp.

Oh, that’s lovely.

Hair properly lathered, Theron presses the pads of his thumbs into the knots at the base of her skull until the tension releases and she sighs. She tilts her head back, letting the water run over it; his fingers follow the trail of suds down, down, until he gets to the middle of her back where by rights she ought to still have a scar except that in those days she wasn’t allowed scars-  

She shivers.

(She ought to have learned a long time ago that just because the evidence was gone didn’t mean the wounds didn’t linger.)

“Theron?” She turns, grounding herself in the way his hands circle around her waist. “Can I ask you something?”

“Hm?”

“This is all really happening, right? I’m not still stuck in carbonite, watching Valkorion’s third-rate melodramas play out on the backs of my eyelids?”

He blinks down at her. “I’d argue that personally I’m at worst second-rate melodrama, but clearly I’m missing the point. Why would you think that?”

“I don’t-” she sighs, purging her first thought from her mind as soon as it takes shape. He should know- someone should know about Watcher X, probably, if something happens, but- “Even when I knew I was dreaming, I could never completely tell the difference between the truths he showed me and the lies he fed into my head. I spent five years second-guessing myself, and now- what if all of this, the war, everything, isn’t even real?”

“Nine.” He catches her face between his palms. “You’re not dreaming. You’re not. I promise. And we are going to find a way to get him-” she knows who Theron means, of course, but if she wondered she’d have known by the way he says the word, full of spite even as his lips press gentle on her forehead- “out of your head.”

She closes her eyes. “I want to believe that.”

“People said we’d never get you out of Arcann’s vault, either, and look at us now.”

“True,” she says. “But still. How can I be sure?”

He bites back a huff of amusement, not quite well enough; she can still hear it. She doesn’t blame him- she must sound ridiculous. “Somebody told me once that there are things you just have to take on faith.”

“Imperial, remember?” Eyes still closed, she leans forward into him, lets him bear her up with hands still on her face. “I’m not any good at faith.”

Theron sighs. “Well, then, I’m pretty sure I’m real. Does that convince you at all?”

“Maybe.”

He seems real enough, at least, solid beneath her fingertips as she slides them up his back, inch by inch, until she’s stretched out tiptoe-tall against him and she can feel him smile and his mouth, hotter than the water, brushes across her eyelids, along one cheekbone, and finally settles on hers-

When he nudges her backward she hits the wall and the tiles are cold against her back, as they should be; the water is warm, as it should be, and when he lifts her up her legs wrap around his waist as he presses into her, slowly, slowly and then not (and then not, again and again, her teeth in his shoulder)- and oh, Force, she is anchored by him, if only for that moment.

***

Back on Alderaan, she throws herself into the research.

Three days pass in the lab with too little sleep and too much caf until she sees pipettes and vials and spinning centrifuges in the rare moments when she dozes. Between the four of them- Tee-Seven’s surprisingly handy at chemical mixing for an astromech- they brew ten batches of serum in those three days.

All of them fail, and with every trial Doctor Lokin looks greyer and thinner and the spines protrude further through his skin. He’s confined to the kolto tank, now, between attempts, and as they lift him back into the tank he shakes his head.

“You’ve done enough, Ciph- Commander. A valiant effort, to be sure-” he gasps and she can hear the howl hiding inside his breath- “but enough.”

“Two more vials.” The door slides closed between them. “Two more. It can still work.”

“Then if I might make a suggestion?”

She nods.

“Double the adjuvant.”

***

Double adjuvant doesn’t work, either. Close, close enough that they all hold their breath as his muscles dance beneath his skin, spines receding-

-but no.

“One last try,” he says as the kolto reaches chest height. “Quadruple it. But if we are unsuccessful-”

“I know,” she says, and looks out of the the corner of her eye at Kaliyo, who’s standing with her arms folded and her lips pressed together in a thin line. “We’ll be ready.”

Before he can respond the tank is full; he lifts one hand to his forehead, taps the center with one sharp talon, and mouths his reply. Good girl.

***

The needle sinks home one last time, and they hold their breath, all four of them, as Tee-Seven chimes anxiously and Scritchy whines and curls around one leg of the lab table.

The last of the serum flows out of the syringe; Lokin shifts, pulling restlessly at the restraints that tether his wrists and ankles. Behind him, Kaliyo lowers one hand to her hip, unhooking the retention strap on one blaster (she’s got her own on the counter behind her, just within reach- her rifle won’t be any good at this range, not if it comes to that).

Nothing to do now but wait: a minute passes, then another. She counts the seconds by his ragged breaths as Theron, beside Kaliyo across the table, shakes his head silently.

That’s it, then. After everything, to fail so close to the end- if they hadn’t waited so long, if they’d only found him sooner. If, if, if. Another verse in the lengthening song of things the war destroyed.

And then he gasps, back arching, as one hand grips the edge of the table and Scritchy yelps, high-pitched and piercing. She reaches back behind her for the gun.

“That won’t be necessary.” He sounds like himself again, the growl that’s been a constant presence beneath his voice this last week finally gone; his claws retract, his body shifting, straightening, softening, and when he tries to sit up a fit of harsh coughing racks his body, a froth of blood on his lips.

She forces herself to stand her ground. The last batch lasted a full minute before it failed. If he reverts back again-

Her hand closes around the pistol’s grip, and she waits.

A minute.

Two minutes.

Long enough.

“Get him shipboard, ‘liyo, and then get Doctor Oggurobb on holo. Tell him I’ve found him a new project.”

“I suppose,” Lokin says as she releases the restraints, “this means my retirement is over.”

***

Chapter Text

 What Happens on Nar Shaddaa

 

Odessen. 21 ATC. 

“Sending proof of completion now.” The figure’s distorted voice crackles over the speaker as the projection stutters and flickers above her desk. “As you requested. However, you should be aware there was a complication.”

She sighs.

“Define complication.” Nine pulls up the images, flipping through them idly: the buildings of the ranch now smoldering ruins, the equipment they’d had to leave behind rendered unusable, the rakghoul test subjects-

She wrinkles her nose. They’d had to leave so quickly and there was nothing else to be done with them, of course, no room to bring them to Odessen and the experimental process leaving them unsuitable for return to Taris. Stars know they couldn’t just leave them wandering- they’d have had an epidemic on their hands in no time at all. But seeing them laid out one by one in the pens…

The poison had worked, clearly, a blaster shot to each meant to finish the job but probably unnecessary by the look of the wounds. Clean. Merciful.

Still, it seems a shame.

“Someone sniffing around the complex. Republic military, to judge by kit. He fired on us.” Arms folded, the figure shifts from one foot to the other. “It’s been handled, and he wasn’t looking for you- some rogue SIS agent, according to his datapad- but I’m going to have to insist on a surcharge. Combat and sentient disposal weren’t part of the initial agreement.”

She flips to the last image.

Shit. She should have known they weren’t going to leave Coruscant behind so easily as that. “Fine,” she says. “An additional fifty. Sixty if you send me the contents of that datapad.”

“Two hundred.”

“Oh, fuck off. One dead ‘pub? Seventy-five. Final offer.”

A pause; another voice in the background. And then- “All right. I’ll take the rest of the credits to the same account. Data incoming.”

“Very good,” she says, setting her own datapad down after a few more taps to its screen. “Credits sent. And you can drop the cloak-and-dagger shit, Renzi. I know that’s you.”

“Dunno what you’re talking about.”

She grins. “You said I. Xessa always says we.

“She’s got you there, Ren. He thinks voice masking makes him sound exotic-” a second figure pops sideways into frame as the masking drops away, Xessa’s green-scaled face a contrast against her partner’s pale pink torso- “but mostly he couldn’t be bothered to put a shirt on. So, where in the Void have you been? We’d heard you were dead.”

“Rumors greatly exaggerated, et cetera.” Shrugging, she lets the unspoken question die. “Excellent job as always. Cleaner work’s not your usual, I know, but-”

“Work’s work nowadays, and with Zakuul’s eyes everywhere business is slow. A payday’s always welcome.” Renzi grins as Xessa straightens up beside him, one arm draped over his bare shoulders. “Though we-” a smirk for emphasis, there- “had hoped you might want to render payment in person. It’s been far too long.”

(A dangerous offer, with far too many pheromones in that room for anyone’s good. She’d fallen into that trap once or twice (or, okay, maybe it was closer to half a dozen times) with those two, back in the old days when one of her many jobs was keeping the Cartel from throwing in with the Republic; the happier she kept the Hutts and their lieutenants, the happier her Intelligence masters had been, and-

Well. It had been a particularly enjoyable trap. Besides, anyone who could sit with a Falleen on one side and a Zeltron on the other and manage to keep one’s knickers on may as well go join the Jedi- that much self-denial couldn’t possibly be healthy.)

“Not this time, I’m afraid. My cargo required urgent transport.” The keypad outside her quarters chimes. Someone’s looking for her; she ought to wrap this up. “Rain check, hm?”

“We’re working in the Core for the foreseeable future. You need us again, come find us and we’ll knock ten percent off the going rate.”

“Only ten?” The door’s chiming again. She pushes back from the desk. “If you’ll excuse me, I ought to get that.”

Xessa winks. “We’d consider fifteen. A pleasure as always, my dear.”

As the holocall disconnects, Nine stands, calling out toward the door. “Just a min-”

It slides open. Theron slips through, wiggling his fingers at her in response to her arched eyebrow. “Don’t get up. I can let myself in.”

“So it would appear. You could have rung in, you know.”

“I did. Twice. When you didn’t answer I assumed you were still in science wing.”

She shrugs. “I was on a call. Lokin’s in the middle of a treatment, so there’s no point in sitting around watching gamma rays- though you’ve just reminded me I should probably change my entry code.”

That he’d memorized her passcode oughtn’t to have been a surprise. She was careful with it, always, but over the last months they’d walked back to her room together for one too many late-night ‘meetings’- of course he’d learned the sequence. She’d expect no less from him; she’d have done the same herself, if they’d ever spent any time in his quarters.

“It took me a while- it’s a good code. Not your birthdate, not a predictable sequence.”

Old habits were hard to break. “It was my identification number at the Academy. I used it a dozen times a day, so it’s easy to remember. But I’d still appreciate a knock.”  

“I thought I’d surprise you.” Theron, wearing a suitably contrite expression (she doesn’t believe it for a minute, but at least he’s halfway pretending to be sorry), holds up an insulated bag. “Figured I owe you dinner after the whole Coruscant clusterfuck. Possibly like a hundred dinners. And some other stuff. But if I’m interrupting-“

He looks down at her datapad, face-up on the table with the last transmitted image still open on the screen, and then back up, frowning.

“I didn’t know,” he says carefully, “that we were going against the Republic now.”

“We aren’t. The team I contracted to mop up on Alderaan ran into-” she gestures delicately with one finger- “this guy poking around. Anyone you know?”

Theron shakes his head. “No, but his gear looks military. Do we know what he was looking for?”

“Files are there. I haven’t had a chance to read them yet, but best guess? You.”

“No way.” Setting the bag on the table and hooking one foot around the chair in front of her, he pulls it toward him, sits down abruptly and reaches out for the datapad. “Coincidence. Must be.”

The transmission’s there, unopened, in one of her dozen Holonet accounts; Theron glances up at her again and, at her nod- he may as well see it, whatever it says- taps the screen. For the next minute he sits in silence, eyes flickering from line to line as he reads, and then he pushes the little screen away and rests his elbows on the projector table, head cupped in his hands.

“Well, fuck,” he says, voice muffled.

She waits.

“You were right. I should have gone to Rhu Caenus for supplies.”

Of course she was. Pallista was far too risky, far too many people who might have known him or might have been told to watch out for him- but there’s no point in gloating. Instead, she rolls her desk chair across the floor and sits down beside him, leans against his side until he turns his head toward her with a sigh.

“In any case,” she murmurs, reaching up to rub at the back of his neck, “it’s handled. The team that killed him doesn’t know who you are or that you were there. Loop closed. We’ll just have to be even more careful moving forward.”

“I should have known he’d do this. But I thought-” Theron closes his eyes. “I thought- I mean, my own father-”

He trails off.

“Sometimes I think you’ve got it easier, not knowing,” he mutters. “Not having to worry about your parents or-”

Her fingers dig in to his skin, harder than she means them to. “Don’t be stupid. Do you really think it’s easier?”

“I only meant that-”

“I don’t even know who they are. They could be anyone at all, or dead, and I’d never know it. I might have walked through the Kaas City market and passed a sister, a brother-” at that, a spike like lightning lances straight through her head and her hands fall to her sides; she grits her teeth to keep from crying out. Oh, she should know better than to think of such things by now, oh, oh-

When she catches her breath and her eyes refocus Theron’s shifted position, sitting up straight, holding her head close against his shoulder.

“And then there’s that, of course. A small side effect,” she says dryly, unembedding her fingernails from her palms with a shudder. “But ignorance is bliss, right?”

“I’m sorry.“ He presses his mouth to her temple, his hand in her hair. “I’m sorry. That looked like it hurt.”

“It does. But one learns to live with it. Or not. After all, it was my choice.” Forcing a smile, she nudges his hand away gently with a tilt of her head, straightening up and reaching across the table for the bag. “Enough philosophy. We should eat before the food gets cold.”

“I-” He stops. “Yeah. Yeah. I remember you mentioned these before, and since I’m probably not going to be able to go Coruscant again for… well, possibly ever- um. Ghedi was due to rotate out of embedment last week anyway, so I had him make a stop on his way to the spaceport. He flash-froze them and I just heated them up in the canteen, so I’m pretty sure they’re still-”

As Theron rambles, she raises the flap and pulls out a few takeaway containers and a chilled bottle of wine; the containers are warm, lids opaque with steam, and when she opens the first of the containers and inhales the smell’s familiar.

This time her smile is genuine. “You seriously had someone bring dumplings all the way back from Coruscant?”

“You said you liked them.”

Did she? She does like them, so he’s right, but when- oh! “When I sent your implant- Theron, that was five years ago. I can’t believe you remembered that.”

“It was the last time we talked before the Zakuul war started.” As she sets the second container in front of him, he gets up to fetch glasses from the cabinet. “I remembered.”

She takes a bite. They’ve suffered a little from the freezing, but Force knows she wouldn’t tell Theron that- he’s watching her intently when he sits back down, fills her wineglass but doesn’t eat, waiting for her reaction and he looks so ridiculously hopeful that they could have been stone-cold and stuffed with rocks and she’d still have eaten every last one. “Best thing I’ve eaten in years-” still actually true, frostburn and all- “and yours are getting cold. Here.”

Holding one up to his mouth as he starts to reply, she pops it between his parted lips.

“You know,” he says around a mouthful of dumpling, “we’ve never actually been out to dinner at an actual restaurant? The mess hall doesn’t count.”

“We’ve been more than a little busy. And Taris isn’t exactly known for haute cuisine.”

“True. But next time we’re back in civilization, I’m buying you dinner.”

She grins, leaning into him to steal a forkful of noodles. “If you’re attempting to bribe your way back into my good graces with food-”

“Is it working?”

“Maybe.” A pause. “Is there cake in there?”

“Is there cake? You wound me.” With a snort, Theron digs down to the bottom of the bag. “Of course there’s cake. Their cake is legendary.”

“Then I forgive you. For now.”

***

She lets him stay that night, too.

She missed him, even in the days it took to get from Alderaan back to Odessen in their separate ships, even with the distraction of Doctor Lokin’s fragile health keeping her in the medical bay almost constantly and having to arrange the cleaner team to cover up behind them (it had been sheer luck that Xessa’d answered her holo and that she and Ren’d been near enough to handle the job- no one from the Alliance was within range, and her first two options had been too far away or too busy to pick up the work.)

She tries to tell herself it’s habit, this thing they have- he’s a craving to be satisfied like any other but somehow still novel even after months together, her want and her affection for him enough to forgive him his recklessness, enough that she hasn’t so much as looked at anyone else in that time which is practically a record-

But when he stirs in his sleep in response to her nightmares, arm tightening around her to pull her nearer, murmuring her name against the nape of her neck, she curls into the warmth of his body and whispers back.

Some habits are worth keeping.

***

 

The next morning his ringing comm wakes them both a full hour before sunrise and she groans and covers her head with a pillow while he checks who’s calling.

Hang on, he signs, lifting the pillow for a moment. Need to take this.

She nods and pulls the blanket up, just in case- one wrong angle and his caller’s likely to get an eyeful- as he slides quickly into trousers and undershirt and ducks down the stairs to her desk.

“Do you know,” Theron says by way of opening, “what time it is?”

You said call with the plans.” The answering voice is unfamiliar: female, heavily accented- native language almost certainly Huttese. Hm. She peeks out from beneath the pillow as the voice continues. “Got plans. So I’m calling.”

“And I appreciate it, I do-” he yawns- “but it could have waited an hour. Or five.”

She can’t see a thing from this angle. Ducking beneath the covers until she’s poking her head out at the foot of the bed (the sheets are a mess anyway, half-stripped, kicked off during the worst of her dreams), she tries again. Now she can see Theron, half-perched on her desk chair, and on the holo in front of him a yellow-skinned Twi’lek, a faded Black Sun tattoo on one bare shoulder, stands with her arms folded across her chest and a very smug expression on her face.

Oops.”

Theron sighs. “I told you I was sorry those SIS guys came after you.”

Not came after, found. Broke teeth,” the woman scowls. “Again. And stole my gun.”

“I’m paying you for the plans. You should be able to buy, like, ten guns.”

Liked that one.”  

He settles down into the chair with a thump. “Seriously, Teff’ith. I really am sorry.”

“Happens. They said I’m… um. ‘Known associate?’” She- Teff’ith, not a name Nine recognizes- sounds uncertain, mouth moving to make the shapes of an unfamiliar word. Her Basic’s awful. Not a former work colleague of Theron’s, she’d bet, though she’s got more than her fair share of old contacts with likely similar histories. “Should have given stupid medal back.”

Theron looks sidelong in her direction with a shrug and an I’ll tell you later signed behind his back. “But you got the plans, you said?”

Yup. Not easy.” The Twi’lek holds up a data chip. “Lots of slicing. But got ‘em.”

“Your account’s still the same?” Theron glances down to his wrist for a moment, but his commpad’s still on the table beside the bed. “Hang on, I need to get my-”

Wrapped up in the blanket, Nine sits up and stretches across until she can reach it; catching his eye again, she mimes tossing it down to him and he nods, reaches up to pluck it out of the air as she lobs it underhanded in his direction. As it crosses the field of the holo’s lens Teff’ith blinks and takes a step backward, eyes darting from side to side suspiciously.

"Who’s there? ” Her tone’s even brusquer than before. “Someone else spying, too?”

Letting his breath out with a huff, Theron shakes his head. “No one’s spying on you. You just happened to catch me in the middle of a meeting-” (the age-old excuse, of course, though he keeps a straight face when he says it)- “and the Commander’s here.”

Let me talk to her.”

Clothing would probably be useful right about now. Last night’s clothes are all somewhere down in the sitting area, though, and the closet’s on the far side of the camera field; she looks around the room for ideas beyond the bedsheet but none spring immediately to mind.

“If it’s about the credits, Teff, I’m sending them right now.” Commpad slipped onto his wrist and his attention on its screen, he taps out a few dozen keystrokes before he returns his eyes to the holo. “You don’t need to-”

If looks could kill, Theron’d be a smoking heap on the floor by now. “You made me get arrested. By your mom."

“You never actually got-”

“It’s fine, Theron.” Both their heads snap in her direction but not the camera yet, thankfully, as she pulls the sheet tight around her chest and runs her other hand through her bed-mussed hair. Draping the blanket over her shoulders- it could pass as a shawl at this angle, right?- she gestures toward the holo. “I assume she’s a friend of yours?”

“That’s one way of putting it. I arrested her, she saved my life- the usual. I’ve been trying to keep her out of trouble ever since.”

Teff’ith snorts. “Saved you twice. You’re welcome.”

“It’s true,” he says, and turns the camera toward her at her nod. “Teff’ith, this is the Alliance Commander. Commander, Teff’ith. Formerly of Coruscant, currently residing on Nar Shaddaa. She managed to get us a copy of the unredacted Ternion building tenant list and schematics.”

She opens her mouth to respond, but before she can get a word out the Twi’lek looks her up and down, at her hair and her bare face and her blanket-wrapped body, and angles her head back toward Theron.

Never thought you’d leave. Didn’t understand why you did,” Teff’ith grins. “Now I get it. She’s prettier than the wanted holos.”

“I’ll take that,” she says as Theron’s ears go scarlet, “as a compliment.” 

***

“I’m sorry.” Half an hour later, even in the lift on the way up to the War Room, he’s still apologizing. “She can be… abrupt. But she’s a good kid.”

“She’s entertaining, I’ll give her that, and I’ll comp you back the credits from the discretionary fund. But she’s hardly a kid.” She scans over the schematics as they hit the top floor- they’re good. More than enough detail. They’ll just need to find their in, now. “She’s how old- late twenties?”

(Somehow they’ve all gotten old while they weren’t paying attention.)

“Something like that, yeah. I’m not sure she even knows. But we’ve known each other a long time. She was there when Ngani- when Master Zho-”

The hallway’s crowded when they step into it, bustling with soldiers and crew heading to their morning duties, and everyone’s looking at them. “Tell me later?”

Theron nods, voice lowered. “It’s a long story. Tonight?”

“Tonight.”

They’ve still got half a slice of cake to finish, after all, and she’s still got the extra toothbrush.

***

 With the tenant list projected on one screen and a blueprint on the other, she and Lana and Theron sit staring at the list, crossing out names one by one.

“It seems to be mostly corporate,” Lana says, “as expected. Approaching any of the Republic-owned organizations is out of the question, I assume, so that rules out these five.”

“And these.” Theron crosses out two more. “Off the record, an SIS front and a weapon dev lab for SpecOps.”

She wrinkles her nose. They’re rapidly running out of options. “Wish I’d known that ten years ago. And these four are Cartel, and much as the Hutts want the blockade gone, I doubt they’ll approve of our methods.”

“The twenty-ninth floor looks to be vacant.”

“Right underneath the shield generator? Ten credits says it’s stuffed full of skytroopers.” Stretching, Theron reaches across the table for his caf cup. “What about Omnicorp? Twentieth floor?”

She puts a line through that one, too. “Two words: killer robots.”

“Never mind.” Theron squints, looking harder at the list. “And everything else is Imperial- wait. What about this one?” He traces a circle with one finger around the listing on the mezzanine level. “Umbrella Corporation. That’s got to be a joke.”

“Reminds me of an old friend, actually. Sia’hla. She used to talk about wanting to own a dance club.” Taking a sip of her own caf, she leans her elbows on the table as Lana, beside her, keeps scanning through company dossiers. “I told her she’d be better off running it like an umbrella company- hire girls on as independent contractors, keep the Hutts’ slimy mitts out of the whole business. She was still learning Basic at the time, though, and the phrase doesn’t quite translate into Huttese. She thought I meant she should call it-”

She stops. That’d be too much of a coincidence, surely.

“It is a cantina.” Lana raises one hand, sliding a dossier page on top of the projected list. “An odd choice in an industrial district, don’t you think?”

Theron settles into a chair, focused on the page. “Pretty genius, actually. Bunch of white-collar types working long hours and with money to burn- now they don’t even have to leave the building to drink and chase tail. Whoever owns it must rake in credits hand over fist.”

“Speaking from experience?” She grins as Theron slides down until he can reach her, extending one leg to kick at her ankle.

“Nah. That was Balkar’s thing. I was more the ‘you’ve been here for thirty hours, Shan, now go the fuck home before I have you evicted from your office’ type.”

Lana smirks. “I’d never have guessed.”

“Shut it, Beniko.” Theron flicks his tip of his stylus at her as she leans neatly out of the way, redirecting it back around with a wave of her hand; it hovers over his caf cup for a moment, then drops into the liquid with a splash. “I was drinking that.”

Ignoring him completely except for a soft, amused-sounding hum (Theron, meanwhile, fishes the little rubber piece out when he thinks neither of them is looking), Lana magnifies the line until they don’t have to squint to read it. No individual names or contact numbers, of course; it wasn’t going to be that easy. “It looks to be a clean tenancy as well- no proxy listed. No connection to the cartels at all, so far as I can see. It may be our best chance of getting into the building.”

“I’d prefer not to gatecrash.” She shifts her attention back to the blueprints, to the mezzanine level. “Assuming Ternion’s constructed like most Nar Shaddaa towers, our access to the power conduit will be somewhere back here-” one circle on the map, marking the location- “ well out of the public areas. Not impossible by any means, but we’ll be dodging repair ‘bots all the way up the conduit already. I’d rather not have to worry about security wandering in while I’m dangling a dozen floors up.”

“So, what? We ask nicely and hope whoever runs the place doesn’t mind us blowing the roof off the building?” Theron rubs his forehead.

“One never knows. We might get lucky. But no,” she says. “We just need to get access to the staff areas.” Pulling her datapad out of her jacket, she opens a new search window- the place must have a Holonet site, though whether it’ll give her the info the needs is another-

A-ha. Jackpot.

She flips the screen around, grinning.

"Hiring performers for immediate start.” Lana reads aloud as she points to the words. “Experience preferred. For interview, contact- Nine. No. Absolutely not. You’re the Commander of the entire Alliance. It’d be completely inappropriate for-”

“Shhhh.” She leans forward, lifting her finger off the screen and holding it against Lana’s mouth. “It’s a plan, which is more than we had five minutes ago. Unless you have a better idea.”

“I’m sure I could think of- there must be some other-” Lana closes her eyes, lips moving, silently counting to five. “Theron, tell me you don’t agree with this.”

He considers. “That depends. Do I get to watch?”

“I’ll need a handler.”

“I’m in. Although I probably should mention that I don’t, technically speaking, have clearance to land on Nar Shaddaa right now."

Lana sighs.

***

The last layer of concealer applied to her cheek, she sets it with powder and brushes her hair until it’s sleek and shining. A swipe of lipstick, a touch of rouge, a quick adjustment of her shirt- good enough. She hasn’t got the right supplies here to manage anything with the scar on her stomach, a problem she hadn’t considered initially; if this club wants the usual costume, it’ll be hard to hide even with makeup and airbrush.

(Most clubs don’t like girls with scars. Or tattoos. Spoils the aesthetic.)

Oh, well. One step at a time.

Emerging from the refresher back into her quarters, she grins at Lana and slips into the voice she’ll use for the call. “War wounds patched. How do I look?”

Cross-legged on the couch, Lana winces. “Force, that accent. You’ll shatter glass if you’re not careful.”

“When’s the last time you- hold on.” She clears her throat. “I know, it’s appalling. Everyone on Nar Shaddaa talks like they’ve gargled razor blades and snorted helium. But I’ve always used this cover identity for this sort of thing there, and in any case when’s the last time you saw a cantina dancer who sounded Imperial?”

“Korriban, actually. Once again, for the record, this is a terrible idea.”

“Objection noted. Theron, is the holo ready?”

He nods, done tinkering with it, gesturing toward the table as he crosses the room to settle down on the couch next to Lana. “Masked and relayed. Ready when you are.”

“All right.” Clearing her throat once again, she inhales, adjusting her posture and her voice. “Here we go.”

She stands before the camera, hands clasped, shoulders back, as the call goes through and a pretty Mirialan, throat bare in a low-cut dress, smiles politely from the other end of the connection and greets her in accented Basic. No cartel ties, no collared employees- by Hutt Space standards this place is getting weirder by the minute. “Thank you for calling Umbrella Corporation, voted Best in Sector two years in a row by the Nar Shaddaa Star. My name is Cira. How may I direct your call?”

(She’s had this conversation half a hundred times.

Breathe, girl. Just like driving a speeder.)

“Your ‘net site says you’re hiring dancers. I’m interested in auditioning, if the position’s still open.”

Cira nods, giving her an appraising look, then relaxes slightly. So far, so good. “We’re currently hiring for performers-” the correction’s subtle but emphatic; no dive bar, this. Interesting. “Any previous experience?”

“Of course.” She ticks them off, one by one, on her fingers. “Here at home I’ve been at Haven’s Blaze, Club Vertica and the Slippery Slope. I did a stint at the Dealer’s Den on Coruscant a few years ago, too.”

Across the room, Lana raises an eyebrow and Theron grins.

An impressive résumé. If you’ll excuse me a moment, I just need to confirm with the owner but I expect she’ll want to have you in for a stage trial. What’s your name?

“Xari.”

All at once the polished smile drops from the girl’s face. “Yeah, right. Try again.”

If someone picked up that cover identity while she was in carbonite- no. Not possible. So what’s-

“I’m sorry,” she says, keeping her tone even, her body relaxed even as she starts planning for half a dozen contingencies. “That’s the only name I’ve got. Is there a problem?”

“She’s been gone a long time, so I never met Xari, but I’ve seen the holos. Everyone here has."

Okay, now this really is getting weird. She used the name for years, sure, in more than a few undercover ops- she never got caught out as Xari and after a little while she had enough reputation to open doors, which made the work easier. But it’s been six or seven years since she’s played the part and the only performance holos she knows of (a mistake, letting those get loose on the ‘net, but between wig and cosmetics and costume she’d barely know herself in them, let alone be recognized now) must be ten years old.

Why would she still be so well known there?

(There are holos? Theron mouths.

Lana, squinting, pulls out her datapad- then elbows Theron sharply, pointing down at the screen.)

"That bold a lie might pass down in the sublevels,” Cira continues, eyes darkening, “but you should do your research properly next time. You must know who owns this place. Did you really think you’d fool Sia’hla, of all people?”

She blinks.

Maybe Koth’s right after all. Maybe this whole thing really is destiny.

“Go and get her, then. Ask her-” she sighs, dropping the accent. This isn’t going to work, not the way she meant it to. But this might be even better. “Ask her if she remembers what happened with Belan.”

The girl scowls, pushing back from the desk. “Is that supposed to mean something?”

“It will to her.”

As she disappears from view, Nine rolls her shoulders and cracks her knuckles and Theron and Lana both stare at her, their faces twin masks of worry. Disconnect? Theron signs.

She shakes her head. Not yet.

After a minute she can hear footsteps, two sets, approaching on the other end of the call. “I should have just hung up on her-” Cira’s voice, out of frame, terse and snappish in Huttese- “but she swears she’s-”

I’ll deal with it, Cee. Leave us.” The figure that stands behind the desk now isn’t the Mirialan girl; a slender Twi’lek woman in a high-necked black dress stares flatly into the holocam, eyes narrowed as she switches to Basic. “Look, schutta, I don’t know who you think you are or where you heard that man’s name, but-

She stops, blinks, looks at her face again.

It’s you. It’s… Kaliyo told me you died. Five years ago.”

(She oughtn’t have covered up her scar. It had been there the last time they’d seen each other, after Hunter and that last damned lucky shot- they’d joked about it, even. So much for my stage career.)

“I keep hearing that this week. But it’s me. I swear.”

"Prove it.” Lekku winding anxiously around each other at their tips- the markings are new, elaborate tattooed bands in a pattern Nine doesn’t know the meaning of- she presses her lips together tightly. “Tell me something only you would know.”

Theron and Lana both look entirely confused now, straight-backed in their seats, hair-trigger tense in a way that echoes in her own nerves: an op poised on a razor’s edge, ready to turn good or bad in the span of a single moment. She nods, as much to them as to the holocam.

“You shot him. You shot him because I made him stop. Do you remember?”

One hand flies up to her throat, just for a second, and the projection shimmers as Sia’hla leans forward hard against the desk. "I- I remember. Where the fuck have you been?”

“That’s a story better told in person. But I need to ask you a favor.”

Chapter Text

Power

 

“Well, she didn’t say no.” Nine spins around in her chair as the call disconnects, turning back to Lana and Theron still sitting on the couch. “Not that I fault her lack of enthusiasm. We are going to blow the roof off the place, after all.”

Theron shrugs. “It’s Nar Shaddaa, and we’ll be thirty floors up from the access point. Hook up some backup generators and I doubt anyone’ll notice beyond the power flicker.”

“We’ll work out the details once we’re there. Lana, you’re still all right with leading the drop team? I’ve got a feeling you’ll work better with Veeroa and her people than Theron.”

“You’re not wrong,” Lana says, attention still on the datapad on her lap. “Korriban taught her all its worst lessons, but I’m quite familiar with the type. Properly aimed, she’ll be useful. You’re sure we can trust this Sia’hla, though?”

She stands up, licking her lips. Her throat’s dry from so much talking; she could use a drink. “I’m sure. We go back a long way, she and I.”

“Is this her- with you?” When Lana holds up the datapad she can’t really see it at this distance, takes a few steps toward the couch as Theron turns his head to look and-

Oh, Void, that got on to the Holonet?

“Years and years ago, but yes. She’s a dancer, though I assume she’s largely retired now if she’s running her own place,” she says, watching herself on the little screen, the two of them draped artfully over each other, spinning circles around the pole in the center of the stage. Was she really ever that young? That was- oh, stars, that was right before Hunter. “She knew what I was- it was unavoidable, given how we met. I’d use her as a reference for undercover work, like here.” She points at the audience, sitting in shadow. “That Devaronian in the front row was about two hours away from the business end of my knife.”

“You had way more fun on the job than I used to,” Theron murmurs. “Ex of yours, I’m guessing?”

“What? No. That would have been- she would have felt obligated. The last thing she needed back then was someone else taking advantage of her.”

Both of them raise eyebrows at that, but Theron’s the only one who responds. “You know I don’t care, right? It was just a question.”

“I know.”

(They’ve been honest with each other on that front. Not in detail- neither of them were much for jealousy and that sort of comparison was vulgar, frankly; she may be many things but vulgar isn’t one- but what’s the point in lying? It’s all in the past, in any case.)

“What kind of leverage do you have on her?” Lana sets the pad down on the table. “She kept your identity secret this long, apparently, but if she goes running to the Hutts- or worse, the Zakuulans-”

“It’s not as though she’s sitting there with my dossier in hand. She never even knew my real name- stars, Kaliyo never even knew my real name. We always used aliases, even back then. But she’s not going to nark on us.”  

Rubbing her temples, Lana leans back into the cushions. “I know she’s a friend, Nine-”

“Force, I thought I was paranoid.” She perches on the back of the couch, just in between them, as Theron nods agreement and she nudges her elbow lightly into his neck; he makes a face at her. “She won’t. Trust me.”

“You’re that certain?”

She sighs. “Did your family have slaves, Lana? When you were a child, before you went to Korriban?”

“Droids, mostly. But yes, a few- though I don’t really remember them. I had a nanny. She was the one who told my parents when she found me floating my schoolbooks across the room to my desk.” Lana lowers her hands. “Why?” 

“What about later?”

“I was a research strategist, Nine, before I was Arkous’ advisor- hardly wealthy. And even if I could have afforded slaves, do you honestly think I would have wanted them?”

With a tilt of her head, she tucks her feet up beneath her, carefully balanced, while Theron shifts his silent attention back and forth between them. “No, I suppose not. But your masters all had them, and their masters.”

“Yes, they did. All of them. It was just-” Lana pauses, glances down and then back up, chewing on her lower lip. “The system was what it was. You know that better than most.”

“Oh, I know. Believe me, I know- and all bought from Hutt space, of course. One can’t simply force the conquered into servitude any longer, so we have the syndicates to do our dirty work for us. Have you ever visited the slave market on Nar Shaddaa?”

Theron makes a noise, low and angry in his throat- he’s been there, then- but Lana only shakes her head. “No. Never. What’s your point?”

“I spent a lot of time there-” she turns a little more toward her- “in the early years of my career. No monitoring permitted, so it was one of the best places to work a first meeting with an informant assuming you don’t mind watching crying children being sold for the cost of a decent meal.”

Lana shifts, uneasy, as her hands curl into tight fists.

“Sia’hla was a slave when I met her. Belan, her owner, ran a cantina-slash-whorehouse as a front for the Hutt cartel, but he’d been feeding us intel on the side for years. I took over as his handler on my first tour there- back before I was made Cipher.” She remembers that posting far too well; those were memories she would have gladly let the Empire take if they had wanted them. “He was scum. I’d have put a round through his head if it were up to me, but my orders were to keep him talking.”

“I had a few contacts like that,” Theron says quietly, “down in the undercity. Lots of things that are illegal in Republic space get a little less so when you stop seeing daylight.”

She looks toward him for a moment, a tiny little nod. “And Sia was his favorite, which just meant that he used her by turns as a dancer, a bedslave and a punching bag depending on his mood. The bruises were fairly hard to miss.”

“She shot him, she said? Sounds like he more than deserved it.” Theron again. Lana’s still silent, still listening.

“He got greedy- started skimming credits off our take, and unlike my predecessor I actually audited his books. When I showed up at his place to call him out on it I think he knew what was coming. He was beating the shit out of her, and I couldn’t-” she frowns. She had, though. All of them had, over and over again, all pretending one good deed could somehow make up for thousands of old sins- “I couldn’t just stand there and watch her die. I pulled him off, but he hit me with a stunner and I woke up an hour later in a cell, collared, bound, and bleeding.”

Theron’s hand rests against her back, a small comfort; she leans into his touch.

Lip curling into a scowl, Lana finally speaks. “Did he really think he’d get away with it? Greed’s one thing, but trying to sell an Imperial agent into slavery? He wouldn’t have survived the week.”

“I don’t know whether he planned to sell me or just have a bit of sport and then kill me, but thankfully I didn’t have to find out. When I missed my check-in with Kaliyo she came searching. She found him with a hole through his back and Sia, shaking like a leaf, holding my rifle.”

“Good for her.”

“I paid out her contract on the spot with the money we were going to recoup from him. I bought all of their contracts, all ten of his girls. ‘liyo and I pulled the collars off their necks and got them the fuck out of that place. The oldest one was twenty, I think. Sia’hla was seventeen.” She pushes up off the couch, back onto her feet, restless, needing to pace, to drown out the memory of their fear with the sounds of her footsteps. She’d given them the rest of the money, too- her handler’d been pissed and it wasn’t enough, not by a long shot, but what more could she have done? Taking them back to the Empire would have gotten them all sold again at best and shot at worst. “She’d worn that collar since she was eleven years old. She still has the scars from it under that expensive dress you just saw. And you know why she finally worked up the nerve to turn on him?”

Lana closes her eyes, presses her fingertips to the bridge of her nose. “Because you made him stop.”

“Because I made him stop. Because I was the only one, out of every single person who set foot in that place, who ever did. So my point, since you asked, is that we can trust her. It’s got nothing to do with leverage. It’s-”

She stops, then, in the middle of the room. Theron’s watching her with something like pride in his eyes when Lana lets her hands fall and rises, stepping around the edge of the sitting area to meet her where she stands.

“Yes,” Lana says, “I understand. I’ll let Veeroa know we’re ready to move. When do you want to leave?”

“Tomorrow morning. I’ve still got an apartment there we can use as a staging area and we’ll take Nightshrike. It’ll only be five of us traveling: Theron climbing with me, you with the topside team, Kaliyo on demolitions and for slicing- Tee-Seven, I suppose? SCORPIO’s still on that Gravestone project. That’ll leave Senya and Koth-” typing a quick message on her comm while she talks, she sends it on its way to both of them- “to take over command duties while we’re gone, and they’ll need a briefing. And I ought to eat something at some point, but-”

“I’ll grab food and meet you in the War Room.” Theron hops over the back of the couch. He never did like to go the long way ‘round. “And caf, yeah?”

“And caf. See you there.”

He taps at the door panel, barely waiting for it to open before he’s gone into the hallway.

“Can I ask you a strange question, Nine?” Lana’s datapad’s still sitting on the table and she leans far across to retrieve it, looking down at the screen again. When she cranes her neck to look, too, the video’s paused; in that frozen moment the two of them are turned in profile to the camera, backs arched until her hair and Sia’hla’s lekku brush the stage floor, held upright only by the counterweight of their bodies wound around each other. “All that horror- and she stayed on Nar Shaddaa, dancing. Why didn’t she leave?”

“I asked her that, too… it was what she knew how to do, she said. At first it was- therapeutic. Familiar. I didn’t quite understand it at the time but it seemed to keep her calm, so-” she shrugs. She understands it now, of course. Oh, Void, does she understand it now. “And she was good at it. We made ten thousand credits in tips on that dance alone, but that wasn’t even the point. Every eye in that room was on her. In that world, that’s power, and you hold on to power when you find it.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“You’re Sith. Of course you don’t.”

Lana frowns. “That’s unfair, Nine. You honestly think that being Sith means I don’t know what it means to be afraid? To feel powerless?”

“Not afraid. We all know afraid. But powerless... you could bounce me off the ceiling with a wave of your hand, Lana. You could have called me into your office five years ago and lopped my head off and not a single person there would dare meet your eye- the only question you’d have been asked was who was going to get my job. Call it relative, if you like, but compared to the rest of us you started out a hundred paces ahead.” She reaches out toward the screen. “A thousand ahead of someone like her.”

“Is that what you want, too? Power?”

(For a moment the world goes still and silent and she can feel Valkorion in the back of head, a dull throb that reminds her of nothing so much as the impatient tap tap tap of a finger on a tabletop, waiting, waiting-

Is it?)

When she blinks he’s gone.

“Back then I would have said yes.”

“What about now?”

“Power’s only useful when you’re playing the game,” she says, “and I’m so tired of games. But I don’t have much choice, do I?”

Lana tucks the datapad away and, wordless, rests her other hand carefully on her shoulder. At first she thinks she’s trying to read her, but no- there’s nothing, not even a whisper of pressure, only silence. They’ve never been very good at apologizing, her or Lana; sometimes the quiet’s as close as they get.

She understands, though. None of them had a choice this time around, not when the other options were yield or die.

“Did you ever think about what you’d do when you retired?” Changing the subject, letting her go, Lana starts to move toward the door. They’ve got meetings, still, and packing and planning, before the morning comes. “Before all this happened, I mean."

“Not really, no. I always assumed I wouldn’t live that long.”

***

She’ll need to do some shopping once they get to Nar Shaddaa, but by half past one in the morning her bag is packed and ready and she sets it by the door. Time to sleep, then. With any luck she’ll manage four or five hours before their planned departure.

Twenty minutes later she sits up in bed, sweating and shaky, gasping for breath.

Only a dream, she tells herself. It was only a dream.

When she tries to settle herself, though, closing her eyes again, she’s right back in the moment: her fingernails scrabbling desperately on gloved hands as they tighten, digging into her exposed throat- this was supposed to be a training exercise i haven’t even got a weapon oh i can’t breathe it hurts i can’t - and she does the only thing she can, whips her head back hard until she feels something behind her give way with a sharp crunch and-

She throws off the blankets and springs out of bed.

“Fuck off, old man.” Her voice comes out a rasp in the darkness. “I’ve lived through worse than you. If you really want me to let you help, you need to work on your people skills.”

Valkorion doesn’t respond.

Rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand, she stoops to pick up her shirt and trousers from the floor, dresses quickly, steps into her shoes. No sleep? Fine. She’ll get some more caf and read through the operational plan again. May as well do something useful.

The lower living quarters are quiet when she steps off the lift, doors shut and lights dimmed; she pads softly down the hallway toward the mess, finding that similarly empty save a few guards eating before morning watch begins. Nodding to them, she searches the shelf for an empty carafe- forget cups, she’s going to need more than that- and fills it to the brim.

She makes it halfway back down the corridor before a door slides open behind her. She turns out of reflex, looking back over her shoulder as a shadow-outlined figure leans against the doorframe-

“I thought you were going to sleep,” Theron says, barefoot in sleeping clothes, frowning down at her hands still clutching the carafe. “That doesn’t look like sleeping to me.”

“Yes, well-” still hoarse. So much for just a dream. She clears her throat, once and then again- “someone had other ideas. I’ll nap tomorrow.”

He sighs. “Another nightmare?”

“Another memory. A very old one. And I thought you were going to sleep.”

“I’ve been packing.” He gestures back toward his room. “But I might need to shop when we get there. I forgot my only other jacket’s got a hole through it, and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to let me wear my red one.”

She smiles a little, trying not to laugh. He never did like armor, but stars, the man’s attached to that damned thing. “You would be correct. We’ll go together- I need to pick up a couple of things, too.”

“Okay. But back to my original point: you need to sleep. You look-” a pause. Whatever he was going to say, he thought better of it. Instead, he takes her by the wrist and pulls her gently through the doorway; she doesn’t resist. “It didn’t seem this bad the last few nights.”

“It wasn’t. A few nightmares, but-”

Compared to the corridor his room’s so bright, the lights still on and his bag sitting half-full on his still-made bed, and she has to squint against the glare. When she can see properly again, Theron’s staring at her, mouth half-open.

“What the hell?” He lets go of her arm, raises his fingertips to her throat as she pulls away reflexively. “Your neck-

“What are you talking about?”

These rooms really are small- she’s spent so little time in his quarters, or Lana’s, that she’s never realized it before, but it only takes them three steps to make it across to the ‘fresher cubicle and he slides the door open, turns her to face the mirror above the sink and-

She blanches and that only makes the bruises stand out more, two handprints fanned out in livid purple on her skin, and when she lifts her own hand to the marks they match, precise, down to the shallow scratches left by her nails.

(For a moment she isn’t sure if that’s better or worse.

Worse, she thinks.)

“It was a dream,” she whispers. “It was-”

He takes the caf pot from her grip, sets it down on the sink and then wraps both arms around her, just holding on tight.

“We should talk to Lana. Or Senya, or somebody- but this is crazy, Nine. I didn’t think he could do this.”

“Let them rest, for now. A few hours won’t matter.” Eyes closed, she sags back against him, fatigue finally crashing over her like so many waves. “I doubt there’s anything we can do, in any case.”

“There has to be something.” He turns her around and she rises onto tiptoes as he lifts her, her head resting on his shoulder, his arms around her waist. “You can’t not sleep.”

No, she supposes she can’t.

A few steps take them back out into the little room; Theron sets her down on the bed. Shoving a few pieces of kit into his bag before he digs into a side pocket, he moves it onto the floor and then sits, too, flipping the cap off a tube of bacta gel with a loud click. “Let’s at least get something on those bruises.”

“I’m fine.” It’s a lie, of course, and he knows it as well as she does- he doesn’t even say anything, just coats both palms in the gel and starts to work it slowly into her skin, careful not to use both hands at once, careful not to curl too tightly around her neck. Even so she has to fight her instincts, forcing herself to stay still, to not push him away.

He’s helping. He’s helping.

She breathes.

“That should help a little.” The last of the bacta absorbed into the bruises, Theron wipes his hands on the blanket as the tightness in her throat eases. “You want me to walk you back up to your room?”

Instead of answering she flops over backward, staring up at the ceiling. “After Corellia,” she says, counting the tiles above their heads- one, two, three, four. She used to do the same thing in her cabin. It had twenty-five and one-third tiles in four rows, wall to wall, an imprecision that always irritated her- “I had nightmares for months. Lokin made me take medication so I’d sleep. I hated it… have you ever used ryll?”

He nods, hand on her hair, smoothing it down with gentle strokes. “Once, when I was a lot younger. Didn’t agree with me.”

“Me either. The meds made me feel the same way- slow, stupid, half-floating. Like me, with all the edges filed off. But I didn’t dream.”

“That doesn’t sound like an answer,” Theron says.

More tiles- five, six, seven. She keeps counting; there’s a false sort of peace in mindless tasks, but a false peace is better than nothing. “It’s a bad answer. But if he can get to me that easily when I’m dreaming-”

“We’ll find another way.”  

“Maybe.”

“We will. C’mere.” He slips one arm beneath her shoulders, lifting her slightly until he can slide into the space between her head and the wall. “He wants at you, he’s going to have to get through me first.”

She thinks of Ziost, then, and flinches. “Don’t say that. He’ll get ideas. And I should get up- people will talk come morning, if-”

“Let ‘em.”

“You say that now.”

Despite his caution his knee nudges into her upper back and she shifts position as he mumbles an apology. “Pretty sure we’re not breaking any rules, are we?”

“No. But-”

Theron takes one of her hands in his, presses his mouth against the back of it, a kiss and a guidance both, pulling her up and along the bed. “Don’t worry about them, okay? Just try to sleep. If you start thrashing around too much, I’ll wake up and shake you out of it.”

“So neither of us sleep? That’s not much of an answer, either.”

“You didn’t dream as much the last few nights, right? It’s better than nothing.”

“True.” Theron’s settled back onto the bed, wedging pillows behind him; she curls her knees into her body, turning, until she’s stretched out beside him with her head against his chest. “Although I think I like my bed better.”

“More room, definitely. If you want, we can still go-”

She closes her eyes. “No. This is good.”

***

(The rest of the night passes, lulled into sleep by the rhythm of their breathing and the sound of his heart, and she does not dream.

It’s something.)

***

They’re a day out from landing- not that it matters, with an entire file full of false identities he can use; it’s not like any of them will be clearing customs with their real names- when she finally remembers to ask.

“So.” She spins around in the copilot’s chair, turning toward him, hands folded in her lap. “Theron, what exactly did you do to get yourself barred from Nar Shaddaa?”

He looks up from plotting their last few jumps with a shrug and a teasing grin. “Guess.”

“Public nudity- no, done that one, doesn’t merit a ban. Tried to carve a chunk out of Karagga’s statue?”

“Gold’s not my color,” he says. “Try again.”

“Sliced the slot machines at Club Vertica?”

Theron yawns. “There are way easier ways to make money that don’t involve getting your kneecaps broken by a very large Gamorrean. Nope.”

“Frankly, I’ve got no idea.” She stretches out one leg, taps the toe of her shoe against his thigh until he grabs at her foot, pinning it against the arm of the chair. “I’ve broken about every law on that trash heap of a moon, which is to say all three of them, and the most I ever had to do was send a gift basket full of credits. Tell me.”

“It’s way more fun making you guess.”

“I hate guessing-games.”

He tugs at one end of her shoelace. “Public nudity? Really?”

“It made for a very memorable alibi. I’m not ticklish, by the way, so don’t get any ideas.” That makes him stop, knot halfway undone, and she winks.

“You really want to know?” Abandoning the shoelace, he wraps his hand around her ankle, runs his thumb along the curve of her calf instead.

“I’m also-” she stretches out her other leg, batting at his hand- “not that easily distracted. Tell me.”

“Back in the SIS we used to swap ident cards sometime- it was easier to remember a name you knew, so we’d just transpose pictures. If someone got caught, you could prove you were off-planet pretty easily- the card must be a forgery, right? Give another false card as backup and everyone gets out easy.”

She tilts her head. Makes sense, but- “Your excuse is that someone else got busted using your ident as a cover?”

“I’ve been running on fakes since I left the SIS, so I didn’t even realize it’d happened until the other week. I was checking how much damage my fath-” he catches himself- “Jace had done to my clearances when it came up on the report.”

“Do you know who it was?”

Theron rolls his eyes. “Three guesses.”

“That little shit.” The minute he said it she knew exactly who it had to be- she doesn’t know that many other SIS agents by name and most of the ones she did are ones she’s killed- and when he grins she knows she’s right.

“It was a couple years ago, to be fair. Everyone was running scared back then, even after the surrender, and I’d already split for Wild Space. I can’t blame him that much.”

He does have a point. “Okay, then, what did Balkar do to get you kicked out of Hutt Space?”

“Vandalism.”

“No, seriously. What did he-” she flicks her feet again, perched on the edge of her chair, spanning the gap between them, and then yelps as he reaches forward off his seat and grabs her behind both knees. She pushes off, launching herself across, laughing, and when she lands on him he’s laughing, too.

“When you crash a pleasure barge into a moon,” Theron says, muffled against her chest, “apparently they consider that vandalism.”

***

Their first day on Nar Shaddaa is a surprise in three ways.

Her apartment’s untouched, first of all, her clothes still in the closets and even the maintenance droid still waiting patiently at the front entrance when they all pile out of the hovercab. She hadn’t expected that. She wasn’t paying rent on it, granted (the benefits of winning one’s housing), and the paperwork was under an alias- one couldn’t exactly sign contracts as Cipher Nine and not expect to attract attention- but she thought someone would have noticed she hadn’t set foot in the place in years.

It’s wartime, though. There must be a great many apartments sitting empty nowadays.

Second, Theron’s far less fussy than she’d thought he’d be when they go shopping. He draws the line at a printed shirt, but she talks him into new trousers, shirts and, miracle of miracles, a sleek black jacket.

(“I don’t even look like myself,” he says, turning in front of the mirror. “Are you sure about this one?”

“That’s rather the point.” She considers a moment, then turns to the salesgirl. “Though I’d go a size down on the jacket, don’t you think? Oversized seems to be the style, but-”

She could roll the girl’s tongue back up into her mouth, probably. Quite right- he looks delicious in proper clothing. “Oh, yes. That one’s definitely too big. Let me check in back.”)

It doesn’t take her long to dress for the evening. Half her old outfits will have to go, of course;  the saber scar makes that much clear. But most of them still fit, and after a few minutes she’s doing up the back of a high-necked minidress and slipping her feet into her second-favorite pair of heels.

“If you’re not wearing that blue one,” Kaliyo says from across the room, “can I have it?"

She throws it backward over her shoulder. “All yours, if you think it’ll still fit you. It’s been a while since you’ve borrowed my clothes.”

“It got over that ass of yours. It’ll work just fine on me.” Kaliyo snaps back, teasing, and it’s just like the old days for a second; she smiles to herself as she pulls a pair of earrings out of their box. “Come zip me, yeah?”

Lana speaks up from somewhere deep inside the larger closet. “I still don’t see why I have to change at all. My robes are fine.”

“For a nightclub? We’re walking in the front door: we’ve got to blend in. What would you normally wear?”

“You say that as though you’re assuming I normally go out. It’s a planning meeting tonight, not a party.” Accompanied by the sound of hangers clattering, she can barely see yellow eyes behind a row of dresses. “Don’t you own any trousers, Nine?”

“Of course I own trousers. Look to your left.” She points for emphasis.

More clattering, rather a lot of hopping, and a disgusted sigh- “How do you even- ugh. Never mind. Hold on.”

Kaliyo’s standing in front of the mirror on the far side of the room, the dress hanging loose around her chest until Nine goes across to her, drawing the zipper up along her spine. “If you want us to pick something out for you-”

“Oh, honestly. I can dress myself.” Lana steps out from between the shelves, and-

“Well, damn.” Kaliyo whistles. “Look at the legs on you, Beniko.”

Now that’s a surprise.

Rolling her eyes, a pair of shoes dangling from her fingertips, Lana gestures toward the door. “We’re going to be late. Let’s go.”

***

Chapter Text

Dress Rehearsals

Nar Shaddaa

 

They file one by one into the main room, and as Lana leans against the couch to fasten the ankle strap of one shoe she looks back over her shoulder with a scowl. 

“I do hope you’re right about tonight being calm. If I’ve got to fight in these-” she points, then switches feet with a slight hop- “I make no promises.”

Nine grins. “They’re reinforced. You’re more likely to break the other person than a heel.”

“Reminds me of that gala we crashed on Onderon. Remember, Lana?” Theron’s sprawled out on the couch, ready for the better part of an hour- without much choice of outfit beyond what they’d purchased earlier, he’d only had to shower and do his hair and it still took him twenty minutes; he’d kept looking wistfully at the huge bathing-tub until she’d had to promise him that they’d try it out later to get him out of the way of the mirror without having to burn him with the curling iron- and he sits up, peering over the back of it at them. “You kicked that guard right in the- wow, am I ever underdressed.”

“You’re fine.” Lana straightens, tugging down at the center of the long skirt to settle the slits on each side at a somewhat more reasonable level. “I’d argue I’m overdressed, but my options were limited. You do like your dresses short, Nine.”

She shrugs, crossing the room to the large mirror on the far wall. With a flick of one wrist she pushes it to one side and presses her palm to the surface beneath; the safe chimes and slides open, half-empty shelves fanning out for ease of viewing. There isn’t much left here any more, but the little holdouts in their holsters are still there on the middle rack. “My proper clothing’s still on Dromund Kaas, minus what I lost when my ship was ransacked. Anything I left here was something I thought I’d only need here... so, yes. Short, tight, or a combination of the two. One dresses to fit in, after all.”

She picks up the first of the holsters and straps it tight around her upper leg, high up under her skirt where it won’t show (even on a good night Nar Shaddaa’s never entirely dull) and then slips its twin around her other thigh before she lets her skirt float back down to cover them. A few trial hops, then, to test their position, up and down as her heels click on the floor- the blasters don’t budge.

Perfect.

“I’m not sure where you’ll keep your lightsaber, though.” Turning back to Lana, she shrugs. “Not that you need a weapon to be dangerous.”

“I can do without for a night, I think. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

Kaliyo cranes her neck to look over her own shoulder, forehead scrunching in thought, then points to the top shelf. “Give me the two-shot, yeah? I don’t think anything else’ll fit.”

She picks up the tiny blaster and slides it across the floor to Kaliyo, who wedges it down the front of her dress, leaning forward to adjust herself accordingly; Theron looks back and forth between the three of them and just shakes his head.

“If I ever complain about suiting up for an undercover again,” he says, “you have my permission to kick me.”

“Noted.” She grins. “Would you like a tiny gun, or are you good with your holdout?”

He lifts one hand to tap his own back, just between his shoulder bladers. “I’m good. Should I call us a ride, or-?”

“There’s a taxi beacon on the landing pad outside. I think the car I’ve got here only seats two, and we probably ought to keep it out of sight until we’re ready for final load-in.” With a pass of her fingertips over its frame, the safe slides closed. “Tee-Seven, you’re on watch duty. Try not to burn the place down, hm?”

The droid’s been plugged straight into the mainframe since they arrived; the chirp she gets in reply makes her stop halfway out the door onto the balcony.

“What, the maintenance droid? Kay-Six’s never been particularly chatty, but I’m sure she wouldn’t object. Why?”

Another series of chirps, this time ending in a trill that sets them all giggling.

“Yes,” she laughs, “she’s definitely less annoying than Cee-Two.”

***

The industrial sector’s mostly quiet at this hour, more hovercars leaving than entering (Nar Shaddaa never kept normal hours, not even in the business districts, but its white-collar denizens were more likely than most to be the home-for-dinner type). Even so, the taxi pad at the base of the Ternion building has a landing queue four cars deep, and when they pile out into the street there’s a neat roped-off line of people standing in front of double doors lit from above by an umbrella-shaped neon light.

This must be the place. 

Theron starts toward the back of the line; she catches him by one sleeve, shaking her head. “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t do lines.”

“Are we on the list?” Theron says out of the corner of his mouth as he falls into step at her shoulder, she and Kaliyo matched stride for stride in their approach- stars know they’ve done this often enough, hips swaying and heels clicking sharply and smirks fixed on pouting mouths; it’s tedious, really, but it works every damn time-  and Lana trailing a step behind. “I always wanted to say that.”

“We’re expected, though I’d like to keep things off the record for now,” she murmurs, fixing her gaze on the bouncers as the men’s eyes track her up and down and their folded arms relax. Every damn time. “But no. I just don’t do lines.”

By the time they’ve reached the entrance the shorter bouncer, a barrel-chested Twi’lek in a suit pulling just slightly at its topmost button, already has one hand on the door. The other, a taller and even broader-shouldered Zabrak ( his suit actually fits, but his tie’s knotted appallingly), holds up one finger to halt their advance.

“Three of you this evening?”

“Four.” She fucks up the accent a little on the first word- oh, she hates that nasal Hutt Space accent, but her own would raise too many questions tonight. Cocking one hip, she leans against Kaliyo a little for good measure as she tilts her head back toward Theron. “He’s with us.”

(That came out better.)

Hand still lifted, he shifts his eyes over to the rope and the restless line behind it. “You ladies are good to come in, but he needs to-”

“Oh, no. That won’t do at all,” she says, and reaches out, folding the man’s raised finger down as his partner tries to hide a grin. “What am I supposed to do, pay for my own drinks?”

The Twi’lek looks past her to Theron, shaking his head in sympathy. “Man, you know you’re in for an expensive night, right?" 

Behind her she can feel Theron start forward- searching for a response, she thinks, the way his boot scrapes a little on the pavement, a half-stuttered catch of his heel before he steps up behind her and drapes one arm lazily around her waist. “Writeoff. What corporate doesn’t know won’t hurt ‘em, and you know how it is. Gotta keep the ladies happy.”

“Such a good boy. Wasted on business, really.” She winks, her focus still on the Zabrak. The bouncer rolls his eyes even as she reaches for his hand again, keeps pressure on it, guiding it over toward the door handle. “Now, shall we?”

He sighs. “Look. You see the line-”

“They’ll understand, I’m sure. Party of-” she straightens his tie with her other hand, just for good measure- “four.”

The bouncer sighs again; she draws her arm back, smooths a stray lock of hair back behind her ear, and smiles.

And waits.

“Party of four.” At his grudging nod the other bouncer moves, too, and the doors part to reveal a sleek burnished-metal turbolift. “Enjoy.”

The grumbling from the line intensifies, just reaching a dull roar as the doors close again behind them and she taps the single button on its control pad; she does manage to keep a straight face until they’re alone, at least, even as Kaliyo’s already starting to laugh.

“And the record remains unbroken.” Kaliyo grins. “Never found a bouncer we couldn’t talk our way past.”

“Not entirely true. What about that time with the droid?”

“That place was weird, and droids don’t count- can’t rely on the droid wanting to fuck you. Different tactical plan.”

Theron rubs his forehead. “And we used to wonder how Imp Intelligence always ran circles around us. We never stood a chance, did we?”

“You caught your cue nicely.” She turns in place to face the doors. The lift’s not so small, build for eight or ten, and he’s closer than he needs to be, strictly speaking; her shoulder brushes against his arm as she moves. “But I’ve got a feeling you did more than your share of undercovers.”

(That was one of the things they chose not to talk about. There were things neither of them wanted to know.

Theron wouldn’t have lived long as a Cipher. Not because he didn’t have the skill for it, not at all- he could match her step for step, shot for shot. But there is a softness, a depth of conviction at the center of him that the Empire would have broken. They would have had to; he’d never have managed the worst of the work, otherwise-

-but oh, what a shame that would have been.)

“That’d be telling.” He nudges her with his elbow as the lift starts to slow.

“You all make it seem so easy.” Lana shakes her head in bemusement. “The benefit of training, I suppose.”

The doors slide open, then, and even in the entryway the bass hits her like a stun grenade. She’s going to like this place, she thinks. “Anyone can learn to lie. It’s keeping the story straight that’s hard. Shall we?”

They step out into organized chaos.

As the light shifts blue-pink-violet in time with the pulse of the music she counts at least eight groups of dancers, some alone on high platforms and others in pairs and trios around ceiling-high poles; at the back of the room the largest stage sits dark and vacant. Too early yet for headliners, probably. Servers, trays heavy with drinks and plates (smart to have a kitchen in a place like this, with no restaurants nearby- they’d lose patrons to hungry stomachs otherwise), make their way between bar stations and the tables ringing the crowded dance floor- and, unheard of on Nar Shaddaa where the Hutts run everything, not a single gambling table. No sabacc, no dice: nothing to pull attention away from the dancers.

She couldn’t have designed it better herself.

Still glancing around the room, she doesn’t see Sia’hla. They’re a few minutes early, though.

“The offices are that way, I think.” Lana’s at her right shoulder, voice low, and tilts her head toward a guard-flanked door in one corner. “Or do we wait?”

“We’re on her turf, and we’re asking a pretty big favor. We wait.” They keep moving through the room toward a vacant table and when they reach it she slides gracefully into the padded chair, patting the seat beside her. “But we ought to make sure we’re seen.”

Sure enough, they’re barely settled when a harried-looking Mirialan server turns away from a rowdy table to make her way toward them- and almost drops her tray when one of the men slides his hand up the back of her dress to grab a generous handful of ass. The girl sighs, looking up at the stage between the tables; one of the dancers meets her eye and grins, leans over and snatches the half-full bottle right out off the cooler on the table.

“What did I fucking tell you-” the Cathar, one ear flicking amusedly, takes a long drink off the bottle as the rest of the table protests and starts to stand- “about touching?”

 "Hey! We paid good credits for that!” The handsy one’s so drunk he’s practically falling over. When he reaches up toward the stage he stumbles, hand brushing at one bare leg before he grabs the edge of the platform to keep himself from toppling over completely; with a swift step she pins his hand flat with one stiletto heel.

“Then you can afford to tip better,” the Cathar says over his yelps, raising the bottle high overhead. At her whistle, two bouncers close ranks around the table and drag the whole group off by the collars of their loudly printed shirts. “Bye-bye.”

The far table now vacant, the server flicks a two-fingered salute toward the stage; the dancer, teeth bared, knocks the bottle back one more time with a wink before she sets it down and spins herself back up onto the pole in time with her partner. Scooping the bottle up onto her tray, the Mirialan girl smooths her skirt back down and finally draws alongside their table.

“Sorry about that,” she chirps cheerfully over the diminishing noise of the still-shouting men, cut off by the sharp slam of a door. “What can I get you? Drink specials this evening are- oh!” She raises one hand to her ear. “Yes- yes, ma’am. Your office?”

Nine smiles.

“She’s ready for you.”

***

“You should have called me,” Sia’hla says, arms wrapped tight around her neck; she defaults to Huttese, as she always did, though her Basic was leaps and bounds where it’d been even five years ago. “I thought you were dead, numa.

Theron and Lana, silent and a little awkward, hang back at the open office door; she’d been the first into the room with Kaliyo just behind, familiar faces first, just in case. It hadn’t mattered, though. Sia’d been up and out of her seat before she got more than half a dozen paces into the office, half-anger and half-affection and mostly just an embrace fierce enough to break ribs.

(She should have called her.

She should have called a lot of people who probably still think she’s dead. But none of the rest of them ever called her sister.

Did anyone else ever call her that? She can’t remember-)

And you-” head turning toward Kaliyo, tone sharper- “you were going to-”

“She didn’t know.” Nine pulls away, just a little. “For all anyone knew, I was dead. All courtesy of your top-floor neighbors."

“I was going to say she promised to help me get this place going and then ran off to Void-knows-where instead, but yes, I know. You said that before.”

Kaliyo makes a face. “I left you all the credits. And you did just fine without me.”

Guessing by their expressions Theron’s catching about three-quarters of their conversation and Lana somewhat less; she gestures toward the doorway, switching to Basic. “You can come in, you know. I should introduce you both properly.”

Sia’hla nods, still a little uneasy; she can tell by the way her lekku twitch, the silver ribbons wound around them flickering against the matching material of her dress. “And then you can explain why ‘get rid of the thing on the roof’ sounds a lot like ‘please let me explode your nightclub.’ I’m a little bit confused on the details.”

“We might want drinks for that. And a sound dampener. Theron, would you-?”

He pulls a flat disc from his jacket pocket. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Oh, I think we can do better than that.” Sia’hla steps back across to the heavy desk at the room’s center, fingers brushing along one edge until there’s a soft click and the unmistakable static purr of a high-powered scrambling field.

“Smart girl.” She smiles as Theron tucks the disc back away with a shrug.

“Not so smart. But I had a good teacher.”

***

An hour and the better part of a bottle of whiskey later, Sia’hla sets her glass down on the table with a clunk and sits back, arms crossed.

“I want to help,” she says. “I do. But you know this will shut us down for days. Longer, maybe. The cost-”

“They won’t retaliate, I promise- when the orbital fortress goes down, the Zakuulans will withdraw. They always do. And the direct damage from the explosion this far down would be minimal.” Setting her own glass down, she leans forward. “We can compensate you. But we’ve tried hitting the turrets from the air and it’s impossible. This is the only way.”

“It’s not that.” Sia’hla rubs at her neck, fingers creeping beneath the edge of her collar, a faint ridge of scar just visible as the fabric stretches. “I’ve kept the Hutts and the Black Sun out of here- no spice dealers, no slavers, no pimps. Better for my girls, but it’s hard when half the vendors won’t sell to me and the other half are stuck in the blockade. And someone’s always asking for help- a sister, a cousin-” she sighs. “I bought out ten contracts last year alone. How could I say no? I remember. I help, if I can.”

She nods. She remembers, too.

“But if we lose more than a few days’ profit,” Sia’hla finishes, “I can’t- I’m sorry. I know I owe you, but-”

“And I don’t think we’ve got that kind of money to spare.” Lana scans down the screen of her datapad. “We’ve got to feed our own people too, Nine. But surely we can come to some sort of compromise.”

She picks up her glass again, swirls the last remnant of her drink around and around. There must be some way past this- they’re fighting an empire, they’ve got no chance at all if they can’t even manage something so simple-

(Pity Marr was such a fool, Valkorion murmurs. He’s standing at the far edge of the office, looking out the mirrored window to the club floor below. With my aid, my children would be kneeling at his feet even now. Instead, here we are.

She rolls her eyes. If you don’t like it, you’re more than welcome to leave. Try your luck with the Republic, perhaps- Saresh’d give both eyes for a chance at more power.

He clicks his tongue disapprovingly, glancing back over his shoulder. Such gratitude.

Go away. I’m trying to think.

Then I might suggest quieter music, he says, and turns back to the window.)

Music-

She looks up. “What if we could offset your losses? If we could get a headliner in here for a night- a good band, or… oh, I don’t know, poach a solo dancer off from Vertica or one of the high-roller clubs. Between all of us we ought to have enough strings to pull to make that happen.” 

“The bandleader of the Black Aureks owes me a favor.” Kaliyo crunches an ice cube between her teeth. “Like, six favors, technically, but I’m willing to consolidate. Call it one for each band member."

Sia’hla nods. “It would help. As for dancers-” her lekku twitch at the tips as she gnaws on her lower lip. “What about you? You used to pull a good crowd, and you did call me looking for work.”

“Only when I thought I needed a foot in the door. And used to is the operative phrase- five or six years ago, maybe, but I’ve been out of the game for far too long on any of my old covers,” she says. “I sincerely doubt anyone is hanging around waiting for my comeback.”

“I’m not so sure. I used to get a dozen messages a day trying to book Xari and me together, even since I’ve stopped performing-“ Sia’hla grins, then, and claps her hands together. “What if we both un-retired? One night only. It’d be just like old times, except for the explosion at the end.”

It’s an idea. It’s a terrible idea and she’s getting way too old for this shit, but-

“We’ll need unrestricted access- and rehearsal space,” she says after a moment. “And I’d need to borrow costumes.”

Lana sighs. “Nine. No.”

“You’ll be on the roof, Lana. You won’t even have to watch.” A very reasonable argument, all things considered.

“That’s not the point. What if you’re recognized? If it’s anything like that holovid, we’ll never-“

“With a wig and makeup no one would know, and I promise to keep all my clothes on. This isn’t even that kind of club.” She tries not to laugh as Lana makes a series of very aggravated faces. “Theron, you’re awfully quiet. Opinion?”

He’s barely keeping a neutral expression, but only just. “I don’t think any of the costumes I saw out there will fit me, but you’re the boss.”

Lana buries her head in her hands.

***

Three days. Time enough to advertise.

No point in having a show if one doesn’t advertise it, after all.

Time enough to plan, to organize, to load things in. Veeroa’s put a ferocious little team together, a rabble of Nar Shaddaa gutter trash unified only in their hatred of the Eternal Empire, but these days that’s enough. Their impromptu dropship, a modded shuttle, sits parked on the rooftop of an adjacent industrial complex, waiting; Lana deems it acceptable. Herself, she spends the better part of two hours crawling through the ceiling space above the changing-rooms mapping out the best route to the utility conduits, hauling climbing rigs and gear and cutting torches into a niche just outside the access panel.

(Not the explosives yet, of course. Not yet.)

Time enough to practice. Her bruise-studded thighs and shins and upper arms howl protest whenever she moves but she’s slowly wrangling her body back into some semblance of a dancer’s grace, a few pieces of choreography halfway memorized.

It’ll be fine, Sia’hla says as they dangle their legs over the edge of the stage, sipping at bottles of water between practice sessions. We’ll make it up as we go along.

If only that worked so well with other things.

***

The lead dresser, a stern-looking middle aged Twi’lek, looks her over critically as she steps up onto the platform.

“About the same size as Jai’ahna, I think. We should be able to make something work. Kit off, love-” with a smack to her backside that makes her jump- “let me see what I’m dealing with.”

Nine lifts her dress over her head as the woman turns, grabbing a laser tape and a pincushion off a nearby table. She does not miss this part of undercover work.

(They used to joke about it, sitting around tables in the relaxation area at headquarters.

On its surface, who got what assignments undercover was determined by skillset and experience but in practice it was always the same- she got most of the body work, Seb the gangster roles, Daivi the business types.

This is ridiculous, Seb would say over his caf cup. I’m way prettier than you. I’ll be the entertainment and then you can break his kneecaps.

Different verses, same song.)

“Neck looks fine,” the woman mutters to herself around a mouthful of pins. “Any tattoos, brands, scars that need covering?”

“Just a few.” She points.

When the dresser looks at her again she chokes and the pins go flying; one lodges half a centimeter deep in the muscle of her upper thigh. “Kriffing f- all right. No midriffs, then. We’ll just have to compensate with legs and tits.”

“That,” she says, extracting the pin, a bead of blood welling up in its place, “will be fine.”

***

Two days.

Kaliyo, true to her word- even a broken chrono comes up correct sometimes- comes back from the Red Light sector with contract in hand. (She doesn’t ask what exactly the bandleader’s favor involved. With Kaliyo it’s usually better not to know.)

They’ve all got a thousand other things to do, reports to read and missions to plan and supplies, always supplies; Lana reads the day’s memos aloud to her as she stands in front of her bathroom mirror, adjusting the straps of a climbing-harness around her thighs. It’ll be a long climb. It’d be a longer fall.

“We’ve had a message from Voss.” Lana’s cross-legged on the wide counter, datapads scattered around her on all sides. “They’re asking for our help.”

“We’ve been offering them aid since we started, and they’ve always said no.” She pulls a buckle tight- oh, too tight, ouch- “What’s changed their mind?”

“The Voss themselves continue to maintain neutrality-”

She sighs. “Still? They’re under occupation. Hardly neutral.”

“-if you’d let me finish, Nine, I was about to say that the Gormak have a different opinion. One of their shamans apparently had a vision. Something big is coming, and he’s convinced that our involvement will mean the difference between victory and failure.”

“What’s our timeline?” Wrong buckle again. She adjusts. “We’re not ready to try Alderaan again yet, though that reminds me I’ve got a message I need to send when I’m done with this. We could hit Voss next.”

Lana frowns and pushes her hair back out of her eyes. “That’s the problem with shamans. All I’ve been able to get out of them is that it’s a very vague something. The sooner the better, I suppose.”

“Put Sana-Rae on it. She should be able to give us some insight on how to proceed- I killed rather a lot of Gormak my last trip through Voss. We’ll need to tread lightly.”

“I’ll call her. Anything else?”

She points. “Pull this clip, will you? I need a strap check.”

***

It’s a delicate message, this one. She considers her words carefully.

She’s going to owe the Rists a favor, probably, and that’s always dangerous- the last time she owed House Rist a favor it meant two break-ins, ten thousand credits in bribes and a hour spent desperately hoping that the glass vial beneath her tongue didn’t break because if it did she was going to be well and properly fucked-

-but Ioana Rist’s still her best bet, even if she hasn’t seen her in ages (not since Intelligence dissolved the first time round and they all scattered to the winds; when the rest of them went to the military, her family recalled her home. Lucky her.)

Blasted Alderaan. A braver commander might have tried a face-on assault despite the danger, but she isn’t that kind of brave. If only Theron hadn’t-

No. It wasn’t Theron’s fault. If only Jace Malcom weren’t so Void-damned stubborn.

She writes.

Ioana-

I know what you’re going to say before you say it, so consider this my apology in advance. Not dead. Surprise.

I’ve got to ask you a favor- nothing scandalous, I promise. You’re familiar with the recent construction development over at the cliffs (not to mention the change in skyline), I assume. I can’t imagine the family’s too happy, particularly whomever owns that lovely estate just above it… you wouldn’t happen to know who, would you?

I’m planning a trip to Alderaan soon, and I’d love to borrow the property. I promise to leave it with a much improved view-

Drinks on me?

xx 

-IX

Five minutes later, she’s brushing her teeth when her datapad chimes. She spits, and walks back into the bedroom to check it; Theron looks up at her from the bed with a raised eyebrow.

“That was quick.”

“Quite. Let’s just hope it’s not a no.”

She reads.

DARLING

I knew you weren’t dead. You’re much harder to kill than that, I think. Remember that time with the Tears? You barely even flinched.

No, our new neighbors haven’t endeared themselves. If I wanted a cluttered skyline I’d have moved to Coruscant, I haven’t been off-planet in years and it’s miserable. I know exactly which house you mean- we used to go to summer parties there when I was a child- although I’m afraid I’ve no idea who owns it now.

I’ll make inquiries to Mother and let you know. She’s got all the forks of our sordid little family tree memorized, of course. (All the better to marry one off with, ancestors help me.)

Bring brandy- Kaasi if you can. The stuff here’s awful.

-Io

She smiles. “It’s not a no.”

“Good,” Theron reaches out for her. “Now put that thing down and come to bed.”

***

One day.

They can’t do any more than this.

Everything’s planned down to the minute; it’ll either work or it won’t. Everything’s loaded in save the explosives. Everyone’s ready, roles rehearsed, trajectories mapped and remapped.

It’ll work. It has to.

Still, she looks around the dressing room one final time as she squeezes herself into the last of the costumes, a masquerade of a minidress that’s more or less a mess of straps with matching briefs beneath; they’ve all fit well enough, but she’ll have to wear this one beneath her climbing jumpsuit and- hm.

She jumps up and down experimentally, bends down to touch her toes. The cutouts on her side move a little, hipbones peeking up above each strap. Might be fine.

Might not. Best to check properly.

Slipping her feet into the matching shoes from the shelf beneath the costume rack, she sets her commpad on the edge of the little practice stage and turns its speakers on, cueing up the agreed-upon setlist for tomorrow’s performance. As the first song begins she steps up, points her foot, starts to run through the movements of the dance-

“I’ve got your makeup bag. Should I put it on the counter, or-” Theron says as the door swings inward and she pauses, upside down, kept aloft by one foot hooked around the pole and one hand holding on, opposite foot arching down to meet her upturned head- “I don’t know how you do that but I’m pretty sure that people aren’t supposed to bend that way.”

“The counter’s fine.” She unfolds into a split, then eases herself down. “Sorry, I’m nearly ready to go. Just needed a fit check.”

“Oh, it fits,” he grins, “but I could have told you that. I can see your ink, though.”

One last test- she tips backward into a bridge, kicking her feet over. “I know. I’ll put makeup over it tomorrow. I’m more making sure I don’t prove Lana right- the performance is one thing, but-”

“Perfectly decent. Relatively speaking.”

She rubs her eyes. “Stars, this thing’s absurd. I know I said it before, but I really am getting too old for this.”

“I should probably say you look great, but I don’t know if that’s managerially appropriate or just me talking.” Theron settles into the massive padded chair in front of the stage as she sits down to remove her shoes. “Besides sitting out there until we’re ready to move, I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

“Neither do most managers. In my experience they pretty much just skim off your tips and try to get into your pants- the role’s just an easy excuse for you to have access back here without anyone asking too many questions.”

“Look smug and stare at you? Check.” He shrugs. “I was never much for this kind of club, honestly. My team dragged me out to one maybe four years ago, before the surrender… it was supposed to be a distraction. I think I spent the entire time listening to this one dancer talk about her kid. He was five. Liked that holoshow about the cartoon wampa."

She laughs. “You think she was telling the truth?”

“She showed me pictures. Cute kid.”

That does sound like something he’d do; she shakes her head, still laughing, and pries off her other shoe. “The best clients were always the chatty ones. I used to make up stories- putting myself through secretarial school, war orphan, boyfriend lost me in a sabacc game. The usual.”

“Does that ever actually happen?”

She winks. “Not everyone’s as skeptical as you, Mister Former SIS Agent. And I dare say I was pretty good for an amateur.”

“I suppose asking for a demonstration would be inappropriate, wouldn’t it?”

The song finishes, the next one beginning; eyebrow raised, she stands. “You’ve been watching me practice for days. Or is that a request?”

“Dunno,” he says, folding his arms across his chest, looking up at her with a sly little smile. “Are you taking requests?”

“I might be persuaded.” Darling boy, awkward as ever but he tries, oh, he tries- “Let me get the door.”

She sets her shoes back on the costume rack, sets the lock on the hallway door, and walks back to where Theron’s still seated. She’s always liked this song; as the first verse begins she slips behind him, wraps her arms around his shoulders and when he raises one hand up toward her face she hums playfully and pushes it down.

“You still have to follow the rules, Theron. No touching.”

That, she thinks, was a very disappointed noise.

She’s certainly not going to make it easy on him; as he tucks his hands beneath the backs of his thighs she runs her own down his chest, lips light on the side of his neck, singing under her breath.

“So-” he catches on the word, just for a second- “d’you come here often?”

She grins.

The chair’s low, armless and wide enough to lay across and this is almost certainly why- there’s enough room for her to balance against it without forcing him to one side or another, arching back over his body until her hair brushes his lap, arms stretched elegantly overhead and then curling in so her fingertips rake along his sides as she rights herself again. Another trick, next, leg extended and then brought down beside him to rest on his shoulder; as he turns his head in response his mouth grazes the bare expanse of her inner thigh and she laughs both at the feel of it and because he is such a cheater and she tells him so.

“I’m behaving.” His hands are still tucked beneath him, even as his teeth nip at her skin. “You said no touching. Not my fault-” he gets her hip, then, and the edge of her costume as she slides around in front of him- “not my fault you’re right there.”

“You try that with someone else, you’d be thrown out on your ass.” As emphasis she rolls her hips in time with the music, slow and steady and just out of reach no matter how far he leans forward toward her. Oh, he likes to watch her and she knows it, almost as much as she likes to tease; she glances back over her shoulder with a wink. “But I like you, so I’ll allow it.”

“I wouldn’t,” he says, “with anyone else. You know that.”

(Does she?  

She thinks she does, somehow, but-)

She turns around to face him, pushes him with one finger on the center of his forehead until he’s straight upright against the back of the chair. “Some people hate to be pinned down.”

“Maybe so, but-” Theron shifts but his hands don’t move. Instead he lifts one foot as she starts to move forward, hooks it behind her knee and she stumbles. Too close to him to do anything but fall, she adjusts her hands instead to let her weight rest on his shoulders, her knees sinking into the cushion to each side. A tactile metaphor, her meaning caught and thrown back at her: she doubts he could move much now even if he wanted to- “I think I like it.”

She stops.

“Though if I were the one doing the pinning?” Heat along her collarbone, a line traced by the tip of his tongue; she grinds down onto his lap, still in time with the music but mostly that’s accidental. Void and stars and the wild space between, she doesn’t know how he does it but it happens every time, the way he takes her apart with the slightest little touch-

“I think-” fingers in his hair, a kiss against his temple-  “I think I like it, too.”

(is this how this goes, she doesn’t know the words to this song, not at all)

“Try,” she says, “and I’ll tell you?”

He hums as she did, wordless against her skin, point-counterpoint with her stuttering heart. “No more rules, then?”

“Forget the rules. Just-”

Rising up enough to slide her backward along his thighs and bring his mouth in line with hers, Theron catches her wrists with his now-free hands and turns; she falls back further, back against the seat cushion and they aren’t playing at anything at all, now, skirt shoved up and underwear down and trousers unfastened and then his hands on hers again, holding tight, lacing through, pinning down-

(and oh, oh, oh, she likes it too, this they that the two of them are-

-but she’s certain he knew already, even without words to give it voice)

 

***

Author's Note: This chapter brought to you by Google Docs, which helpfully ate the original last thousand words of this chapter as I was trying to edit last weekend, and my day job, which kept me three hours late every day this week-

Up next: dancing at the end of the world.

Chapter Text

Showtime

 

Almost ready. 

He sits cross-legged on the flat top of the dressing table, watching Nine; she stands in the middle of the room, tossing her head back and forth as long silver-white hair floats cloudlike from side to side and finally settles around her shoulders. He knows it’s a wig- he watched her put it on five minutes ago- just like he knows her eyes are really green and not bright blue, but it doesn’t make the change any less striking. He could have passed her in the street and not recognized her.

Which, Theron supposes, is the point.

“It’s good,” she says to Kaliyo, who looks up from fiddling with the airbrush. “Ready when you are.”

“Of course it’s good. Like I don’t know how to fix it so it won’t fall off.” With a snort, Kaliyo smacks the compressor with one fist. “How many times have we done this?”

“Too many. Let me-”

Nine’s holo rings. It’s buried somewhere in the folded pile of her clothing, there on the table next to him, and when she gestures he reaches into her jacket pocket (a best guess, but that’s where it usually lives if she’s not wearing her tactical belt, which she wasn’t today) and rummages until he can feel it vibrating against his hand. Pulling it free, he glances at it. “It’s Lana. Right on time.”

She wrinkles her nose. “It’s that late already? Shit- hi, Lana.”

“Hello to you, too. Not a bad time, I hope?” The figure in the projection’s hooded, face cast in shadow, but he knows her voice almost as well as Nine’s.

(Now that’s a weird thought, but it might actually be true. They’ve spent a long time running together, literally and figuratively, all the way back to Rishi; in the years they spent looking for Nine he went weeks on end in deep cover where the only friendly voice he heard was Lana’s.

If he never has to do that again, it’ll be too soon, but he’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Nine was worth it.)

“I’m just a slow dresser, so I’ve got to get made up while we chat. You don’t mind, do you?” Nine gestures toward Kaliyo and the airbrush as Lana pushes her hood back to reveal her face. “It needs time to dry, or-”

“By all means.” With a shrug, Lana leans forward. “We’re on schedule on your end, I take it?”

She undoes the sash around her waist and lets the thin robe fall to the ground, nonchalant and still talking over the rising noise of the compressor despite being about ninety-eight percent naked- that probably isn’t legally qualified to be underwear, not that he’s complaining. “Curtain goes up in half an hour. Two and a half to time zero.”

Lana doesn’t even blink. “I’m just about to leave for the rendezvous point. Veeroa and her team are on their way.”

“Good.” Turning, Nine lifts her arms and folds them across her chest and he watches the pass of the brush, the red letters etched on her side vanishing beneath layers of makeup. She’s getting thinner, he thinks, even over the last few weeks; he can count every rib, her hipbones prominent where his hands remember curves, and he makes a mental note to make sure she eats later. “Theron will have his comm on all night if anything changes. Remember, if the turrets don’t go down, get your team out of there.”

Lana shakes her head. “This is our only chance. Even if things don’t go as planned, we still ought to-”

“That’s an order. You-” she snaps, her head turning back over her shoulder to look at the holo- “are not expendable, and we all know what happened to the first resistance team. Either this goes properly or it doesn’t go at all.”

“Yes. Understood.”

Kaliyo prods at her thigh with a fingertip; Nine makes a quarter-rotation, facing away from him. (There’s a little red spot, a perfect circle of irritated skin that isn’t one of her old scars, on her lower back. She hasn’t been hurt recently, he’s sure- but when he looks beyond her he can see the chair on the far side of the room with its button-studded cushions and he thinks of last night and-

yeah, that one’s probably his fault).

“It’s going to be fine,” he says. “We’ve got this.”

“I hope you’re right, for all our sakes.” When she says it Lana smiles, though, and straightens up. “And since when are you an optimist?”

Nine makes another quarter-turn, looks at him and winks. “Someone’s got to be.”

***

Go, she says. Try to relax.

Easier said than done with so many things that could still go wrong, but when Theron slips through the security door separating the dancers’ area from the club the place is already packed. Good. He weaves through the crowd, a little tension easing with every person he brushes against as he makes his way toward the main bar and his seat.

(He likes crowds. Crowds are easy to get lost in, to blend into, every extra body packed into the room another tacit addendum to his alibi- no, I didn’t see where he went, but you know- there were so many people, it was hard to keep track-

For tonight they can use all the help they can get.)

He slides onto the empty stool as the Zabrak bartender plucks the ‘reserved’ sign off the counter. “About time,” she drawls. “I’ve been kicking people out of that chair for an hour. What can I get you?”

After a moment’s consideration- he probably shouldn’t be drinking but they’re not going to be climbing for an hour and he’d watched Nine knock back a shot of gin as he was leaving her dressing room; you try doing this completely sober, she’d said to his raised eyebrow, and she does kind of have a point- he orders a whiskey, neat, and slides a credit chit across the bar when she comes back with the drink.  

“On the house.” She pushes it back. “Boss lady’s orders.”

“Keep it. It’ll make up for me camping at your bar all night."

“A manager who actually tips? Shit.” Her smile makes it all the way up to her eyes as she pockets the chit and he nods at her over the rim of the glass. “Now I really have seen everything.”

The band’s up on the high platform above the bar, the singer pacing back and forth on a narrow walkway. As the song fades he cranes his neck to get a better look but that must have been the last of the set- the dancers are already gone from their places, vanished backstage, and even before the applause ends the whole room goes dim, spotlights arcing down toward the central stage to reflect off the velvet curtain.

Showtime.

Out of the corner of his eye he catches sight of Kaliyo, leaning against the wall beside the security door. She flashes him a thumbs-up, then cups her hand over her mouth to mute the noise of the crowd but his earpiece crackles a little bit anyway.

Fuck, it’s loud in here.

“You ever seen her dance, spyboy?” Kaliyo switches over to a closed channel as he swivels in his chair to face the stage, drink in hand.

“During downtime. Not like this,” he murmurs, ignoring the nickname. It could be a lot worse- she’s got a particularly colorful one for Tora now- although her being out here does raise a question. “Hey, who’s guarding the room?”

“I figured I’d leave the room full of bombs unattended.” Her sigh almost pops his eardrum. “For fuck’s sake. Tee-Seven’s keeping watch- it says it’s too busy out here. Something about too many spilled drinks. Make sure you’ve got a clear sightline to the stage.”

“I can see fine.”

She sighs again. “Not what I meant. Something’s distracting her, and she needs someone to focus-”

Whatever Kaliyo meant to say, he loses it beneath the roar of the crowd as the curtains part and Sia’hla emerges, striding confidently to the edge of the stage. The contrast’s amazing, really; he’s watched her and Nine over the last few days and in private she seemed almost shy, soft-spoken and delicate and moving like a ghost through the hallways of her own club. (He knows why. They were practicing a duet one afternoon when he came in with another bagful of supplies, both of them in practice clothes, and he remembered what Nine had told him about the high-necked dresses but knowing what they hid was one thing and seeing it was something else entirely.

He’s met a lot of men who did things like that to people too scared to fight back. He killed some of them. But the ones you can’t kill?

You learn to walk very carefully around them. Hard habit to break.)

On stage, though, bronze dancing-costume shimmering under the spotlight, a beaded necklace around her throat, Sia’hla lifts her hand and she might as well have put the whole room on mute. The quiet’s immediate, a scant few whispers quickly silenced. She smiles.

“I know what you’re all thinking.” She leans a little heavily into her Ryl accent- her Basic’s way better than Teff’ith’s ever was so that’s almost definitely a ploy; he’d bet good credits she learned that trick from Nine- as the curtain starts to open behind her. “You’re thinking: Sia’hla, you said you were retired. Yet here you are on stage again. And I did say that, yes- but tonight we have a special guest.”

The quiet’s breaking, murmurs from the crowd and a few whistles and cheers as the rest of the dancers come into view, carefully posed in small groups scattered around the stage. Not Nine, though. Where-

Sia’hla points upward. “You all remember Xari, don’t you?”

“I just happened to be in the neighborhood, so I thought I’d drop in-” a voice far overhead, a glint of silver in the darkness and then another spotlight there- “and say hello.”

He’d thought the long streamers hanging from the ceiling were just for decoration, but Nine’s dangling upside-down beside a high catwalk, knotted up in one like a half-unwrapped present with stripes of pale skin peeking through widths of dark red fabric.

“And maybe do a little dancing, hm?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Nine stretches out and some of the fabric unwinds itself; she slips a meter or two down toward the stage and he holds his breath- if she falls- “It’s been an awfully long time. Why don’t we ask them?”

Turning to face the audience (the crowd’s at least ten deep against the stage now and the bar’s packed, everyone trying to grab one last drink before the dancers start), Sia’hla holds her arms out wide. “Well? Shall we have a show for you?”

The roar that follows, in the seconds before the music starts, might have been a bomb going off.

(But that’s not going to happen for a few hours yet.)

***

How is she not tired?

Half an hour and two costume changes in, he’s not even sure she’s stopped to breathe but there she is right back onstage, dancing, and looks right at him for a moment- maybe Kaliyo was right about that after all- and then she-

Oh, that’s not fair.

***

Only a few songs to go.

Nine’s making the rounds of the room, now, strutting along one of the walkways between the VIP tables but with so many people standing it’s hard to keep track of her. He cranes his neck- someone’s got one hand on her ankle with enough of a grip that she pauses, looking back over her shoulder with lips parted.

She probably doesn’t need his help. (She definitely doesn’t need his help.)

Still, he’s about to get up and see what’s going on when the woman next to him grabs her drink and heads for the dance floor; a dark-haired man slides into the vacant seat so fast it almost tips over, bracing with one hand on Theron’s shoulder until all four feet of the chair settle back onto the floor.

“Sorry about that. Saw the chair open, though, and I bet she’s coming over here next so-”

He knows that voice.

He keeps his glass half-raised in front of his face (it’s been a long time since they’ve seen each other so maybe he’s wrong- he really, really hopes he’s wrong- but if he isn’t, maybe he can still duck away before he’s recognized) as he glances out of the corner of his eye but no, his implant’s already scanning, its recognition algorithms beaming the information right into his brain because of all the things he needs right now, confirmation that he just totally fucked up their whole op is definitely high up on that list-

“Wait a second. Theron? That you?”

He doesn’t even need the software. He definitely knows his voice.

100% match. Subject identified: Jonas Balkar. Republic SIS.

He winces (please let her not be looking please let her not be looking shit shit shit) and lowers the glass.

Balkar grins, reaches out to grab his arm- just like old times. “It is you. Force, Shan, where the fuck have you been?”

Shit.

“You know,” he says, pinging Kaliyo’s comm but he doesn’t see her either; Nine’s disappeared around the far side of the bar, out of his line of sight. “Around.”

“Around. You up and quit and tell me by ‘net message when you’re already off-planet-” Jonas at least lowers his voice when he sees his facial expression but still, of all the places- “and then I don’t hear anything for-”

Another wince. “I- look, I know, okay, and I’m sorry, but-”

“What are you even doing here?”

Pointing to his drink and then the stage, where Sia’hla’s wound around one of the tall poles in a series of increasingly impossible poses, he shrugs his shoulders in what he really hopes passes for nonchalance. “Weekend? Same as you, right?”

“You hate clubs. You’ve always hated clubs.” He’s right. Of course he’s right. “Seriously, Theron. There are some crazy rumors flying around right now about you and I wouldn’t believe ‘em at all except I heard it from Trant directly and-”

(No way. The SIS couldn’t possibly have tracked him here. They’ve been so careful.

But this is Nar Shaddaa and there are cameras everywhere and this was always Balkar’s turf.)

He cuts him off before he can say it, whatever it is. The last song’s starting and he’s got to get out of here. “Are you here to drag me back?”

Jonas blinks, hair flopping into his eye, and then starts laughing. “What? No. I’m just here for the show. I used to watch those two dance all the time back in the day. You thought I-”

There’s a commotion at the far end of the bar and they both turn to look. It might have been his chance to get away, awful as he’d feel about ducking out on him- as much of a smug little shit as he could be sometimes, he’d really been the closest thing Theron had to a friend in the SIS even if you didn’t count that whole thing at the Dealer’s Den which they, by virtue of just never talking about it after it happened, had both pretended to forget- but he hesitates just a second too long and then Nine’s stepping up onto the bartop and everyone’s lifting their glasses out of her path as she dances along the length of the counter.

Well. So much for that plan.

Nine twirls, one high heel tapping staccato on the marble, shifting her focus onto him as she steps out of the movement and into a slow stretch; she does not, in point of fact, fall out of the pose when she sees who’s sitting beside him but her foot does come down a little heavily and she pauses, just for a second.

She blinks.

She smiles.

He is in so much trouble.

When she gets to his end of the bar she struts right past Jonas until she’s standing right in front of his chair, one foot on the backrest with a jeweled anklet he doesn’t remember her wearing earlier catching the light, and turns him around with a light push.

“Hi, baby,” she drawls. “Give a girl a hand down?”

Mutely, he reaches up to take her extended hand.

Nine doesn’t step down to the ground, though- she stands right on his thigh (on tiptoe, at least, so no permanent damage) and dips her other leg alongside, folding neatly to sit down on the counter. His drink’s still half-full next to her; she picks it up and takes a sip, her face unreadable in response to his raised eyebrow. “So-” she swallows. “How’d I do?”

Um. So they’re just going to… okay. He’s got this.  

“Fantastic,” he says. “Though I have a few suggestions, but we can talk in your dressing room before the next set.”

“Talk. Mm.” Nine leans forward, grabs him by both lapels and before he can say anything she’s kissing him, one hand sliding up to the side of his neck and teeth sharp on his lower lip and as the crowd around them goes absolutely nuts, clapping and whistling, he feels her fingers spelling out a message.

What the fuck is he doing here?

Just showed up. Accident. And then- Sorry?

Does he know?

No.

Her skin’s slick with sweat; her lips taste of salt. Do we tell him?

I don’t know.

She sighs against his mouth and lets him go, backing away just enough to put a little space between their faces before she turns her head to look at Balkar, who’s just full-on staring at them at this point with his jaw hanging open. “But you didn’t tell me you were bringing a friend.”

“Should I introduce you? Xari, this is-”

“Oh,” Nine says, interrupting, “we’ve met. It’s been ages, but Jonas here used to be one of my best tippers.

(He used to- oh, Void, he didn’t think of that. What were the odds that she’d worn the same face when-)

Jonas closes his mouth, at least. “Didn’t think you’d remember me. Like you said, it’s been a while.”

“Though I do wonder.” She bends forward, her face between the two of them, her voice a stage whisper. “Did you ever figure out what happened to your datapad, Agent?”

“You- how did you-” Sputtering in confusion, he’s halfway standing when Nine digs her heel into his thigh and he sits back down with a muffled yelp.

“On second thought, maybe we should start with introductions. Theron?”

He nods.

“Nine,” he murmurs, leaning closer to Balkar’s ear; it’s so loud in here he doubts anyone could hear them but still, no sense risking it- “you know Jonas. Jonas, meet Cipher Nine.”

“Call me Commander,” Nine says with a wink. “But we’ve got things to do, I’m afraid, so I think you’d better come with us.”

She hops down off the counter and saunters through the crowd toward the security door, glancing back at them as Jonas tries to say something about half a dozen times before finally managing something halfway coherent.

“She stole my- she’s a Cipher?”

“Was.”

“And you-”

“Yup.” A lot of possible questions there, but almost all the answers are the same. Theron stands, wraps one arm around his shoulders and nudges him up. “Come on. I’ll explain.”

Jonas looks at him out of the corner of his eye. “That an order?”

“An offer. Only an order if that’s how you want to do this.”

“That was never your style,” he says, rising. “All right. Lead the way.”

***

“Let me get this straight.” Jonas folds his arms across his chest, leaning forward. “You’re going to blow up the building.”

Nine sighs, stepping out from behind the screen with her climbing suit half-zipped; she’s still wearing the silver wig and fastens her hair into a loose knot, but when she opens her mouth she sounds like herself again. “No. We’re going to blow up the power conduit and the shield generator. The building will be fine.”

“And you’re sure it’ll work?”

“As sure as we can be.” He answers this time as Nine reaches for her harness and tosses his toward him. “The plan’s good.”

“And if it works then the orbital station goes too?”

He nods. “The Zakuulans call them Star Fortresses. But yeah, that’s the idea.”

“That’s crazy.”

“We’ve done it before,” Nine says, tightening her harness straps. “Hoth. Tatooine. Belsavis.”

“And Alderaan?” It comes off light but they can both hear the undertone in the question. Dad- Jace- must have told Trant everything; someone in the SIS has got a big fucking mouth.

Tee-Seven chirps irritably from the back of the room. Kaliyo’s crouched beside the droid, checking the readout on the security panel, and she snorts in agreement.

“What Tee-Seven said. Not yet.” Nine reaches for her gloves, shoves them into her pocket.

“But if the blockade goes… one less planet they control.” Jonas shakes his head, incredulous. “You people are crazy. You know that, right?”

She’s standing still in the middle of the room and you’d almost think she was calm. He can feel the energy rolling off her, though, waves of bottled-up tension, her eyes unfocused, just for a second, and-

(He knows what it looks like, now. He just wishes he could make it stop.)

She comes back to herself. “Someone has to be.”

“Fuck it,” Jonas sits up straight. “I’m in. What do you need me to do?”

***

Author's Note: This one fought me, for some reason- I ended up changing POVs halfway through writing it, and even then Theron didn't quite want to cooperate. But here we are, nonetheless. Up next, Fire Burning, in which we light up the dance floor properly...

Chapter Text

Fire Burning

 

Five minutes later she’s three levels up in the maintenance shaft, clinging to the ladder beside the power conduit with a screwdriver clenched in her teeth, when Jonas calls up through the open floor panel.

“Security system down in three. Two-”

Nine sighs around the screwdriver and gestures down at Theron, hanging off the ladder just below her. Too loud. No comm?

“Oops,” Theron mutters. “Hang on.” He raises one hand to his implant.

“- one.” A voice in her ear, this time, echoing with her earpiece pressed between her skin and the half-rolled-up balaclava covering her ears. (As far as they know there aren’t cameras in the conduit but that’d be exactly the sort of stupid assumption to get them made by the Hutts; she’ll pull it down when they start climbing properly. For now she’s still sweating from the first round of the show and she needs the ventilation.)

She spits the screwdriver into her hand and starts on one corner of the access hatch. “Good. Tee-Seven, start the timer.”

“T7 = counting down. Clock = 20:48.”

I was wondering if I’d get to play on the big kids’ channel- ow- Jonas yelps. She’d guess that was courtesy of Kaliyo, though she wouldn’t put a quick stun prodding past the droid. “Time seems a little arbitrary, though.”

“Droid math. We can only skip so many cycles before the alarm triggers automatically.” Theron reaches up and slaps a magnet against the conduit wall just in time to catch the first fastening at it slides free. Clever boy.

She keeps working. When the panel comes loose she hands it down to Theron; he hooks it onto the ladder as she starts to wedge herself into the conduit and-

-all right. It’s snug. She knew that, of course. They’d measured it down to the millimeter. Even with the cables running vertically taking up a full third of its interior she’ll fit with plenty of room to spare. But with a backpack full of bombs and no way up but a scant few handholds, grapple hooks and climbing ropes… it’s a good thing she isn’t claustrophobic.

More to the point, she’s got to get out of Theron’s way.

Stretching upward toward the next set of rungs, she pulls herself up enough to leave the access hatch clear just as he pokes his head through into the open space beyond. Looking up, she doesn’t see any cameras. Even so, she pulls her mask down, gestures for him to do the same and he makes a face at her.

“Hard enough to breathe in here,” he grumbles. “Besides, I’ve already got warrants out. No thanks to someone.

"That was not my fault. Mostly.”

“I took care of those a few days ago- you’ve got a clean slate.” She checks the connection between the grapple and her harness one last time. “Relatively speaking, at least. I think we’ve all done our share of damage here over the years.”

Theron grins as he tugs the black fabric down over his face. ”Speak for yourself. I haven’t crashed any barges into any moons recently.”

“I didn’t crash it, technically,” Jonas sighs. “Ix’oda smashed the steering mechanism falling off its hover platform. I just couldn’t pilot it, so-”

“Now that sounds familiar.” She could swear Theron sticks his tongue out at her at that, but with his mouth covered she can’t quite tell. “Right out of the SIS phrasebook, hm?”

He squirms through the hatch until he’s clinging to the conduit wall beside her. “We preferred to call it plausible deniability.”

“I suppose you’d have had to, given how often you all got caught.”

She twists away, laughing, from a well-aimed swat at her backside; it only glances off her thigh and Theron settles for a pinch as Kaliyo snickers and Jonas mutters indignantly over the comm.

“We ready?” Theron finally says as the channel quiets again.  

She nods.

“You first, then.”

She lines up a trajectory- they’ll go four floors at a time, enough to cover the height of the building quickly but not so far that the traction’ll hurt. “Deploying. Three, two, one-”

***

The first three latches were clean.

Just as she lets the grapple fly a fourth time, though, she sees something moving out of the corner of her eye and turns her head to look at it properly; it’s just a little repair droid, crawling spiderlike between the power cables, hardly a threat. But it shakes her aim off-target by a hair. The magnetic clamp skitters off the side of the conduit, and she’d (sloppy- stupid- this is going to hurt-) already let go of the side to let the tether carry her upward and in the next moment she’s falling, trying to find purchase on the slick metal with her climbing gloves.

Theron’s hanging in his own harness about a meter below her, pressed close against the side. In the dark of the conduit, lit only by their headlamps and the floor markers wound around the cables, she’s not sure he even knows what’s happening except that she ought to be above him and not descending and definitely not trying to bite back a howl of pain as she finally catches onto a handhold and her shoulder wrenches almost out of its socket.

His hand closes around her other wrist and then slides down to the back of her harness, hauling her up even with him. “I’ve got you,” he says. “I’ve got you. You okay?”

She nods, switching grip on the handhold- Void, her shoulder hurts; she rolls it around tentatively, though it seems to be in proper working order. “I’m all right. That’s what I get for not paying attention, I suppose.”

“We can wait a second before we keep going. We’ve got time.”

She frowns before she realizes he can’t see it. “Only a second. If we get stuck up here when the security grid goes back up-”

“We won’t.”

“But if we do-”

He’s still holding on to her. “We won’t. Tee-Seven, what’s our countdown?”

Time= 14:48. Commander= hurt?”

“Only slipped. Keep an eye on the channel, ‘liyo.” She gathers the grapple back in, smoothing out a tangle in the rope. “Lana should be patching in shortly with the drop team.”

“She’s got the access code. Made sure of that before she left tonight.” Kaliyo chimes in. “Corridor’s still clear, too. The girls just went off-break, though, so it might get a little loud up there if sound carries through the conduit.”

Finally reassured she’s got enough of a hold on the wall to let her go, Theron rubs her arm idly; she tilts her head, trapping his hand between her cheek and her shoulder, and he nudges her leg with his. “We’ll manage,” she says. “Let’s get this done.”                                                         

***

She can’t breathe with this damned mask on.

It’s stuffy up here, for one thing. The conduit’s studded with little holes to vent the heat but it’s not built for sentients; even just below the roof here there’s no air coming in, just a hum from the cannons above that she can feel in her bones. For another thing she needs both hands for this and it’s a tight angle and so she’s dangling upside-down, sweat pooling beneath her chin and running stinging into her eyes beneath the mask.

Fuck the cameras. It’s dark in here, anyway

She rolls her mask halfway up and inhales deeply, wiping her eyes with the back of one hand. Better.

“Hold this straight, will you?” Turning to look at Theron- he’s already got his own facemask off, tucked between his waist and the harness strap, and the lamp strung around his neck- she points down at the free ends of the ring of explosive charges now circling the power cables. “I need to finish the circuit.”

“I’ve got it,” he says. “Catch your breath.”

She watches his hands as he works, splicing the stripped ends of the wires together deftly until all the indicators are lit and the receiver glows soft green in the near-dark.

(He was always better at this sort of thing than her- she remembers Yavin and the relay, sitting quiet in the shadows as he worked in the sunlight, teeth sunk into his lower lip in concentration. She could have watched him for days, then and now; he does the same thing when he’s focused on a slicing project and she has to keep herself from trying to distract him on purpose when she knows the work’s important.

There’s just something about competence that always did it for her.)

He looks up after a minute. “Should be good to go. Kaliyo?”

Locked and loaded. I’m guessing you want me to wait on flipping the switch, though.”

“Unless you want to run this shitshow-” her boot’s hung up on a protruding bolt and she twists to free herself- “I’d suggest you do.”

Their comms click, a new connection hooking in. “Engines running on this end, Commander. Any trouble on yours?”

She opens her mouth to reply and then-

“Now that’s a voice I recognize.”  Was it something in the water at SIS HQ that made every single one of its agents constitutionally incapable of keeping quiet when they ought to? She winces as Jonas keeps talking. “So I hear the whole Minister thing didn’t work out, eh?”

Oh, Force.

“Everything’s fine, Lana,” she says quickly. “Theron just ran into an old colleague and this was the easiest option on short notice- he’s been briefed and wants to help.” She imagines Lana’s eyebrow twitching but it really was the easiest option- stunning him out of hand and shoving him in a cupboard would have been rude. If he’d tried to run or call out to the Republic on them, of course, she’d have had to knock him out and best or kill him at worst; she’d have done it without blinking and she’s killed people for lesser sins than getting in the way of a critical op. But Theron really was fond of him, and-

Ugh. She’s going soft.

(Little fool. It’s only his voice in her head this time, a steady throbbing pressure that might just be too long spent hanging upside down, but it’s enough to make her close her eyes for a moment. So trusting you can’t even see the knives at your throat.

She sighs. I see them perfectly clearly. I’m just not afraid of knives.

I would reconsider that position- all right, that’s really hurting now; she needs to move but she can’t- were I you.)

“It’s fine,” she says again, looking down at Theron. At this angle the light from his lamp casts a shadow along his face and it’s hard to see his eyes clearly but she wonders if he knows. Lana feels it, when she’s close, in a way that Theron can’t. But she thinks he can see it in her face. “I don’t believe you two have met, but you’re familiar with Jonas Balkar.”

Silence hangs over the channel as she rights herself with Theron’s help (his hand lingers a little too long on her back, on her shoulder- he can tell, she’s certain of it), long enough that she checks her comm to make sure she didn’t accidentally disconnect, until finally Lana clears her throat.

Jonas Balkar.” Lana’s trying not to laugh. Or scream, possibly. “Jonas ‘Worst Kisser in the Galaxy Award’ Balkar?”

She has to cover her mouth to stifle her laughter as they rappel back down toward the access hatch. Theron doesn’t even bother and the noise echoes off the conduit walls until she finally has to kick him as she descends past.

So you’ve heard of- hang on. What?”

 ***

They get the hatch fastened and slide down the ladder the rest of the way, hitting the floor of the dressing room with forty-five seconds to spare as the laser grid hums back to life far above their heads.

“Okay, no, I need an explanation.” Jonas turns away from the portable console they’d spliced into the security panel with a stricken expression on his face. “Because I’m helping so I’m pretty sure I ought to have a chance to defend myself.”

She pulls the headlamp off, followed by the balaclava, and shoves both of them in the kit bag hidden beneath the countertop before she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror- the wig’s holding, if messy, but her makeup’s a wreck. Sliding into the prep chair, she gestures to Kaliyo, who rolls her eyes but sets down the detonator carefully as she stands. “Don’t take it personally. Drinking game. You know how they get.”

“Not ones where I’m horribly slandered in absentia. And I don’t even know you people. How many votes could I possibly-”

Theron’s still standing on a chair, shifting the ceiling panel back into place; it settles in with a dull thud and Jonas turns his head toward the noise, eyes narrowing.

“Um,” Theron says to the ceiling.

“Really, Shan? Really? You wound me.”

I do hate to interrupt this fascinating conversation-” Lana’s definitely trying not to laugh now, with marginal success- “ but we’re about to take off. Clocking fifteen minutes until detonation.”

“Countdown = set. T7 = missing something?”

She keeps her face still; Kaliyo’s fixing her eyeliner and if she so much as blinks she’ll get a pencil to the eye. “Never mind. We’re on schedule as discussed, Lana. I’ll be heading back out to the floor shortly- Theron, grab the last costume off the rack-” she points, though he knows the one she means. “The switch is primed, cloaking screen’s ready, backup generator’s online and we’ve got the blueprints loaded in. I’ll talk you through as best I can.”

I know the way by now. These facilities are all the same,” Lana says, “though the rest of the team will appreciate the guidance. We’re still a no on camera access, then?”

“They’ve changed their encryption again.” Theron shakes his head, sets the costume down beside her and strips off his gloves to help her peel out of the top of her climbing suit. His hands slide along her shoulders, pushing the sleeves down, and in the pause as Kaliyo switches eyelids she wriggles most of the rest of the way out of it. (He’s good at helping get her clothes off, now- he’s certainly had plenty of practice.) “We’d need at least three people countering undistracted. With Nine on comms and Kaliyo keeping security off us, I don’t think we can swing it.”

“I assumed as much. We’ll manage.” Lana’s nervous. She’s hiding it well, but it’s there. “Going silent for now. Drop team out.”

Jonas clears his throat as the channel closes. “The droid can slice, obviously.”

Tee-Seven chirps agreement as Theron nods. “Like a champ. But-”

“Hook me in.” Pulling a datapad from his inside jacket pocket- does he really still keep it in the same place? one would think he’d have learned by now- Jonas gestures down at the console.

“You, me and Sparky here make three, and I’ve been itching to take a crack at a Zakuulan system for years. Strictly against Director’s orders, but I don’t see him here, do you?”

“Sure don’t.” Theron grins. “Their algorithms are… idiosyncratic, but I’ll give you the two-minute primer. I can’t believe Trant’s still talking about staying out of the war, though. The military I get, but the SIS?”

“He’s talking about a lot of things these days. You included.”

Something in his tone strips the smile from Theron’s face. “Such as?”

Jonas shrugs. “You overhear stuff when people forget you’re sitting in a corner. Trant still hasn’t forgiven you for quitting but he’s convinced- shit, I don’t know. He’s convinced she’s-” he tilts his head, almost apologetic, toward her- “got something on you to keep you doing this Alliance thing. I don’t know who his source is, but-”

“Something on him beyond the obvious, you mean.” Someone’s got to say it, though it’d probably have had more impact if not spoken around a blotting-paper pressed between freshly glossed lips.

“Yeah, well.” He shrugs again. “I didn’t believe that , either, but even a broken chrono’s right once a day.”

Theron straightens. “I’m here because I want to be. If Trant and the rest of you choose not to believe it, that’s on you.”

“Never said I thought the rest of it was true.”

Neither of them are looking at her, now, and she takes the opportunity to strip her climbing suit and the dress beneath it completely off and hook the top of the last costume around her chest and neck- she’s got five minutes before she needs to be on stage again and Void, at least her tattoo’s still covered, she managed not to sweat off the cover-up but she can’t get this damned skirt fastened and-

“Hey.” Kaliyo sets down the jar of powder and its matching brush, reaches down to hook the clasp together with a practiced movement and a murmur in her ear. “You good? You look about ready to crawl out of your skin.”

Snap out of it, girl. She takes a deep breath and smooths the fabric panels down over her belly and back.

Chin up. Shoulders back. Don’t let the world see you bleed.

(The world doesn’t give a shit. She learned that a long time ago.)

“I’m fine, ‘liyo. Just thinking.” The boys are still talking, quieter, over by the console; as she watches Jonas reaches out, rests one hand on Theron’s forearm. “Fucking up my own life’s one thing. I’m just still not used to fucking up so many other people’s.”

“We signed up for it. Him especially, I think.” Kaliyo tracks the line of her gaze and nudges her with her hip. “Now brush your hair and go make some credits while I blow stuff up.”

Now that sounds more like Kaliyo.

A minute later the wig’s gleaming silver around her face again, her skin powdered and lips glossed and the straps of her shoes fastened, and she checks herself in the mirror one last time.

“All right, gentlemen.” She gestures toward the dressing room door. “Let’s give ourselves an alibi."

***

She likes dancing best, like most things, when she’s free to improvise.

They play with the steps a little bit, adding an extra spin here and an extension there, a nudge in the small of the back or Sia’hla’s hand curled around an ankle serving to suggest a change of choreography. It seems to work well enough- she can’t see Theron well beyond the bright lights (a shame, that, given his reaction to last night’s- ahem- rehearsal) but the rest of the crowd’s pressed close against the stage, faces upturned in rapt attention, and a layer of credit chits litters its edge.

Oh, she hopes this goes properly. If the crowd panics-

Collateral damage. Not her problem.

(Except that it is, now, isn’t it?

She wasn’t made for this. Her priority list was always mission first, herself second and fuck everybody else: everything was permissible as long as the op got done. But now she’s supposed to save the world, which means she probably ought to care about it.)

The music starts to slow as they unwind from the last big trick, her arms behind her back as Sia’hla, hanging upside down above her on the pole, pulls her up from her dive into an arch, up and up until their faces are even with each other. Ten seconds to go.

Ready? She turns her head just a little more, enough that her face is hidden from the audience.

Five.

Four.

Sia’hla grins. Get those fuckers, she mouths, off my roof. See you at the rendezvous.

Two.

One.

The building shakes- it reminds her of Makeb more than anything, the groundquakes that almost tore that planet apart before they finally stabilized it- and the power flickers once, twice and then goes out completely.

To their credit, it takes another five seconds before anyone in the crowd starts to scream.

***

Nine runs back down the dark hallway to the dressing room, beating both Theron and Jonas; given she just ducked backstage and they’ve got to wade their way back through the tide of the people running for the doors. At first glance it’s empty but that’s just the cloaking screen and she darts through it as Kaliyo shimmers into view past the screen.

“One explosion, as promised.” Kaliyo half-bows, still crouching beside Tee-Seven and the console, and tosses her earpiece toward her. “Let’s get this done.”

She hooks it over her ear, tunes it to their operational channel. “Calling drop team. Drop team, report.”

Drop team reporting. Cannons are down.” She can hear the satisfaction in Lana’s voice. “Repeat. Cannons are down. We’re just landing.”

“Good. We’ll try for camera access as soon as-”

Theron barrels past her, hand brushing across her back as he moves toward the console with Jonas behind him. “Here, sorry. It’s a madhouse out there, but if there’s any security incoming the crowd should keep ‘em at bay for a little while longer.”

“It’s Nar Shaddaa. In this sector sabotage is a five-days-a-week industry.” Jonas slips in on the opposite side of Tee-Seven, picking up his now-connected datapad, as Kaliyo gets up to make room for Theron. “And the Zakuulans haven’t endeared themselves to the locals. Security’ll show up eventually. Probably. If everyone’s paid their protection fees this month.”

“So much the better.” Lana murmurs something else, barely audible over the hum of the backup generator- that was probably meant for her people. “Dropship away. We counted four skytroopers at the entrance. Can you confirm?”

Theron shakes his head, two fingers pressed to his temple as he starts to type one-handed. “I need another minute, and I’m not pinging any external- hang on. Tee-Seven’s countering, but Jonas, can you-”

“I see it.” His forehead wrinkles in a way that reminds her a great deal of Theron. The two of them were opposites, she thinks, as much as she and Theron ever were, but there was something- “You weren’t kidding about nonstandard, but I think I’ve got it.”

“Okay,” Theron says after a moment. “You’re right. Four on the outside and four more in the corridor. On your mark.”

Lana takes a deep breath in. (It’s been a while but she’s done this before- too many times during her own long stasis; like her, Lana was never quite meant to be the leader but one does what one must.) “Moving in.”

She can see the camera feeds on the screen now and she watches them carefully, paces back and forth across the length of the dressing room as the images flicker in and out on the console. The hallway outside’s gone quiet and she watches as Lana and the rest of the team creep into view, flanking around either side of the bunker, blades and blasters and vibroknives flashing to life as the first cluster of skytroopers fall in a flurry of sparks.

They can do this. They can do this.

Four in the corridor, as Theron said. Three more in the storage room beyond and then another three, a tight grouping of four of the robotic soldiers around a commander-the little group falls on them like fury, Lana at its head. The camera feeds fade in and out; despite their best efforts-  Theron’s gone practically cross-eyed and Tee-Seven’s giving off a soft rhythmic beep in time with the clicking console keys-  there’s something on the other end countering their slicing. She stares at the screen.

“You’re almost there,” she says, still pacing. “Just another two in the far hall and then-”

Shit.

How did she miss it? One of their Force-damned captains shimmers out of a cloaking field and steps around a pile of crates with his rifle raised and before she can shout out warning he rattles off three- no, four, she can’t hear them but she watches the recoil rock the rifle back against his chestplate- shots. She calls out then but it’s too late- the rearmost of the group, a scarred Zabrak woman, takes a bolt square in the middle of her back. The second and third shots hit her too and she falls, twisting, shoving her partner out of the way as the fourth bolt goes wide and ricochets off the polished-metal wall of the corridor. “Behind!”

Lana swears and turns quickly, raising her hand into a combat posture, but the Zakuulan’s already staggering back against the crates, his rifle yanked free of his grip by an invisible force- fuck these cameras, the view’s awful and she can’t follow everyone on this stupid little screen, they should have planned this better, damn it all-

Veeroa’s staring at the man, eyes wide with fury, arm outstretched. His toes raise off the ground, his hands at his throat; his helmet compresses, very, very slowly, as the Nautolan girl shakes with the effort of it.

Stop playing,” Lana snaps. With the rest of the team on receive-only comms she can’t hear the reply but whatever it was, Lana didn’t like it. Her lip curls as she glances down at the fallen Zabrak (unmoving, face-down, with the scrawny little Cathar boy crouching beside her) and back to Veeroa. “Absolutely not. Our objective is the control center. Kill him and let’s go.”  

"Hate to interrupt.” The dropship pilot chimes in. “I know you want this channel clear, ma’am, but we’re getting a lot of eyes on us up here. I can circle one more time but after that we’re gonna lose our exit path.”

Lana sighs, reaches out and gestures sharply; the captain’s head snaps back (for a moment she thinks of Rane Kovach and the smell of blood fills her nostrils) as his arms fall limply to his sides in the long moment before his body hits the ground. When Nine looks away from the screen she can see Jonas’ mouth hanging half-open as he tries to keep focus on his datapad.

She can read Veeroa’s lips, this time, when she speaks. My master always let me-

Lana turns away. “Then you ought to have had a wiser master. Commander, any more surprises?”

“No. Eyes on two in the next hall. A single knight and two turrets in the control room. Are the rest of you all right?”

No ,” Lana says over the sound of someone’s muffled crying. “No, we aren’t. But they knew what the risks were, and more to the point we’re running out of time.

She rubs her shoulder and keeps pacing. “You’re almost there. Only a little further now.”

I know.” The video- oh, she sees the problem now. The camera feed lags behind, just a little, compared to the comm channel; the purr of Lana’s saber reigniting hums in her ear a second before the blade lights up the screen. "We’ll manage.”

“You all say that a lot,” Jonas mutters as Lana leaps toward the next group of skytroopers.

Theron shakes his head. “I’ve been telling them that for years.”

***

The second explosion, when it comes, shakes two of the ceiling tiles loose.

She only wishes she could have been up there to watch the damned thing burn.  

Kaliyo slips back in from the corridor as Theron and Jonas and Tee-Seven disconnect themselves from the console- they look exhausted, all of them, and she doesn’t know if droids get tired but given the tone of those beeps she thinks so- she shuts off the generator and the silence in the room is deafening.

She crouches down, buries her head in her hands. “Fuck.”

“What? It’s down, isn’t it?” When she peers through her fingers Jonas is looking back over his shoulder at her as he tucks his datapad away. “Mission accomplished?”

“Yes. But-”

Theron comes across to her, kneels down beside her. “Like Lana said, we all know what the risks are. And we didn’t expect anyone cloaked up there.”

“I should have gone. If I’d been there-” She frowns. She’d have seen it, probably, known what to look for.

“You can’t do everything yourself.” He wraps one arm around her waist, standing her up straight. “That’s why we’ve got an alliance, you know. We can’t throw you at every problem we’ve got.”

“I know.” (She knows. But it’s hard-)

Jonas clears his throat. “So. What now?”

“Now,” she says, “we get out of here.”

***

Chapter Text

Afterparty

 

It’s quiet, mostly.

When it came to security on Nar Shaddaa that usually meant they hadn’t bothered to show up- the Hutts and the other cartels’ idea of law enforcement insofar as law existed here at all ran heavily to Gamorreans with shotguns and pacification droids, neither of which were any good at keeping quiet- but one could never be too careful. The dressing room door’s still closed and the cloaking screen active; Nine hauls the duffel bag into the center of the floor and digs into the storage pocket, pulling out her stealth generator and clipping it, after a moment’s consideration, to the neckline of her costume.

“Get everything packed up,” she says, and shoves the front panel of the skirt aside to strap her knife holster to her upper thigh with a slicing spike tucked in beside the blade. (Hopefully she won’t need either one; all the action was on the roof so the responders should be, too, and she’d bet half the tenants in this place pay prettily to keep their doors closed to outsiders. The last time she relied on hopefully, though, she ended up in carbonite. So weapons it is.) “I’ll clear the way.”

Theron nods as Kaliyo pushes past him, toolkit in one hand and her makeup box in the other, dropping both into the bag. “You don’t want to change clothes?”

“We’re wasting time as it is. Keep the cloaking screen up until I come back, but be ready to move in five.” Before any of them can respond she hits the button on her generator and flickers out of view.

She presses her ear to the dressing room door, hearing nothing but the echoes of alarms in the hallway beyond, takes a deep breath and opens it and-

Nothing. The corridor’s empty in both directions, the dancers already evacuated and the building’s lockdown making the presence of the club’s own guards a moot point. Turning left down the hall, she makes her way past dressing rooms and keypad-locked storage rooms and rounds the corner toward the emergency exit, the light above it strobing red in the dark. The exit door’s solid durasteel, intended as a safety measure but in practice meaning she hasn’t a Void-damned clue what’s on the other side.    

Oh, well. Here goes.

She pulls the door open quickly as her field stutters- if anyone’s on the other side she’d rather catch them off-guard than give them time to be ready for her- and then takes a step back, pressing herself flat against the wall. Nothing again, at first. She counts.

One.

Two.

“What the-”

Fuck.

Huttese. Not one of Arcann’s lackeys, then, clearly not a droid, and not nearly enough grunting for a Gamorrean. She’s still considering her options when the footsteps up the staircase fade and a figure casts a shadow across the doorway: human or close to it, broad-shouldered in heavy armor with a Hutt Cartel blazon on one shoulder. Double fuck. She draws her knife as the man peers down the hallway, lifting his chin to look further along and flashing a stripe of paler skin over the black collar of his armor- something to aim at if it comes down to it but oh, go away, go away-

Huh. Could have sworn I saw something.” The guard turns, seemingly incurious, to walk back to the landing, but as he crosses the threshold he reaches down toward one hip and she can see a little radio dangling there, glinting in the emergency light. He unclips it, finger drifting towards the transmit switch. Triple fuck.

She closes the gap between them in three steps. Reaching up with one hand to catch a handful of hair in her fist, she yanks his head back sharply and before he can cry out her blade bites into his neck; she draws it across in one motion until the smell of blood fills her nose and he chokes and starts to sag backward. Under normal circumstances she’d let him fall- this isn’t the time to care about how some kneecap-smashing thug lands when he’ll be dead before he hits the ground- but she’s got enough to apologize to Sia’hla for without leaving a mess on her hallway carpet. She drives her knee into the small of his back, sending his body through the open door to sprawl face-down on the concrete beyond.

And then she waits.

Nothing. No shouts, no footsteps coming up the stairs. Good.

His radio’s on the floor beside her. She crushes it under her heel for good measure and then activates her generator again before she steps over the guard’s body onto the landing, scanning the alley below. It’s silent, empty, unlike the airspace overhead with a half-dozen patrol cruisers and fire control drones hovering around the roof when she looks up- but she’s just a dot on the ground to them. Exhaling, she stoops, wiping her knife on the fabric of his trousers.

“Now what,” she mutters- she’s got blood on the back of her right hand, and wipes that off too- “do I do with you?”

When she looks more closely over the railing there’s a massive refuse bin pushed against the side of the building, near enough that she could jump down and land on it. Or possibly throw something into it, if he didn’t look so heavy.

She activates her comm. “The way out’s clear. But I need a bucket of water and someone to help me with some lifting.”

“You need a-” Theron pauses and then just sighs and she can picture his eyelids closing, the way his forehead wrinkles around his implants when he thinks better of a question he doesn’t want to know the answer to. “How many?”

“Only one. It’s handled.”

(Wait, she hears Jonas say in the background, did she just kill someone, or-)

Theron sighs again. “Be right there.”

Two minutes later they’re all peering around the corner at her as she leans against the doorframe and she waves them on. Theron’s got the duffle bag over one shoulder; when he sees the body he stops, scans it quickly and then sets the bag down.

“Really?” He steps out onto the landing beside her. “We couldn’t have snuck around him?”

“He saw the door open and he was about to radio out. Assuming all his friends are his size, we’d have been in trouble.” Gesturing back toward the smashed device, she shrugs. “Unless you’d rather have fought them all yourself.”

Theron wrinkles his nose. “Point. I’m assuming you have a plan.”

A rumbling noise makes them both look to the hall. “Couldn’t find a bucket,” Kaliyo says, rolling the top half of a water dispenser along the length of the carpet. “This’ll work, yeah?”

“Ought to.” She turns back to Theron; Balkar’s still lingering in the doorway with Tee-Seven just behind him. “If I hop down and open the lid, can the two of you toss him down?”

He peers down over the railing. “Probably. Hey, can you grab my gloves out of the-”

“We’re seriously dumping him in the trash?” Jonas folds his arms across his chest. “This guy’s not Zakuulan. He wouldn’t even be in this sector, let alone dead, if you hadn’t-”

She cuts him off. “We. You wanted in on this.”

“To get the shield generator down, yeah. I didn’t buy in for wetwork.” Eyes narrowed, Jonas frowns. “Did I actually have a choice? Or if I’d said no, would that be me getting thrown down there with the garbage?”

“What did you think they were doing up there- playing pazaak? This was never going to be a clean run.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

Theron’s crouched down, pulling his climbing gloves out of the bag; he looks up with a shake of his head and answers before she can. “Don’t be an idiot. If you’d said no I’d have stuck a sleep dart in your neck and shoved you in a closet.”

Jonas blinks.

She does, too.

(She wouldn’t have killed him. Not because she particularly cares about him- he’d been responsible for at least a half-dozen captured or dead agents by her reckoning and five years ago she’d have put a round through him without blinking- but she knows Theron does. That means more than it should, probably, these days.

So she wouldn’t have killed him. But she thought Theron would have simply let him walk.

Hm.)

“Well,” Jonas says after a moment, “that’s a relief. I think.”

She looks back and forth between them, then starts to climb over the railing. “We can discuss this later. For now, let’s get this tidied up.”

Theron opens his mouth to reply, then shuts it again. He pulls his gloves on, moving around the body to lift it by both wrists as she gets over the rail completely- it’s awkward, still in her dancing shoes and her skirt catching on the paint flaking off the metal bars. “Tell us when.”

She lets herself down, dangling from the lower bar, and falls. It’s only a story’s drop to the top of the bin and she bends her knees to absorb the shock of the impact but still she wobbles, one heel almost giving way before she steadies herself and jumps the rest of the way down to the ground. The lid’s fastened down with a simple electronic lock; she pulls the spike out of her holster and jams it into the key port until it sparks and gives way with a halfhearted beep.

“All right.” She pushes up on one corner and the lid raises up. “Heave-ho.”

Tomorrow must be garbage day- when the body lands it barely makes a noise.

“Get clear-” by her volume Kaliyo’s talking to the rest of them, not to her- “unless you want a bath.”

It could have been a waterfall except for all the blood in it; it pours off the side of the platform and runs red along the gutter until it disappears, drop by drop by drop, into the half-clogged drain in the center of the alley. Soon enough the stream clears and, the empty water container tossed down from above, she closes the bin again and unspikes the lock. Until the hauler comes around no one will be the wiser, and when she checks her hands one last time they’re clean.

(-and she blinks and looks at them again and the blood drips off her fingertips, streaks sticky up her wrists and beneath her fingernails because all the scrubbing in the world won’t ever get them clean and she can hear him laughing, laughing in her head at the very idea of it-)

“Hey.” Theron’s voice snaps her out of it and she looks up to see him leaning over the rail. “We’re coming down.”

***

They split up after that.

She calls the apartment’s little car for Tee-Seven, loaded into the driver’s seat with the duffel opposite- her housekeeping droid can help unload, and the little astromech would only be a target for theft where they’re going.

“Where are we going?” Jonas hangs on behind Theron on the back of one of the speeders. “There’s no way out of the sector on these.”

“The autotaxis are all on lockdown.” She has to shout to be heard over the engines (not the most upscale models, these, borrowed via a bit of clever slicing from one of the public rental stations) as she clings to Kaliyo’s waist. “And they had to bring the dropship down fast. We’re not leaving the sector yet.”

“Then what-”

She shushes him, easing her hold just long enough to raise a finger to her lips. Kaliyo’s an even worse driver than she remembers. “Relax. We’ll have you home in plenty of time for curfew.”

Theron doesn’t look at her, focused carefully on their route as they weave through one back alley after another, but his shoulders rinse and fall and she’s pretty sure he’s laughing.

***

Even in a dancer’s costume she’s massively overdressed for this place.

It’s been a long time since she had reason to venture down to the lower part of the industrial sector- if the upper levels were halfway civilized, Republic and Imperial companies mixed in with venture capitalists with more money than scruples, the underlevels housed weapons factories and spice labs and the occasional mad scientist. But the danger kept the Hutts away, which made it perfect for their purposes.

She’s never been to this particular bar. She’s been to a hundred others just like it, though, down to the passed-out Rodian at the far end of the counter and the surly Devaronian bouncer, the going rate for entry apparently a handfulworth of her ass pinched hard enough that she’ll probably have fingermarks tomorrow. Her knife’s still in place beneath her skirt; for a fleeting moment she ponders stabbing him out of principle.

But they’ve got a rendezvous to make. She rolls her eyes and lets it go as the bartender gestures toward a back room.

Three knocks on the closed door and Veeroa answers, a quarter-empty brandy bottle in her hand. “‘bout time you got here,” she mutters, voice already shading into tipsiness. “We started the party without you.”

They’ve started, at least.” When they slip inside, Lana rises from her seat at the table in the center of the room. “Not that I blame them. It didn’t-” she sighs. “I see you all made it out relatively unscathed.”

Beside her, Sia’hla draws her robe closer around her shoulders with a good-natured grumble. She ought to have grabbed a cover-up herself. She’d be warmer, at least. “Unlike my poor club, which is probably now on fire and also full of Hutts. I’m not sure which is worse.”

“You’ll be up and running again by midweek. This planet’s got a short memory.” Nine moves a little further into the room, scanning the rest of the group- somber to a one which isn’t a surprise, but straight-backed, chins held high. (Loss isn’t new to them, of course. Nar Shaddaa’s always been a warzone; the Eternal Empire was just the first thing that everyone could agree to hate.) “And it wasn’t even a little bit on fire when we left, though I’d advise against opening your garbage bin.”

“What did you- never mind. Better not to know.” Lekku curling over one shoulder, Sia’hla gestures to the empty chair beside hers. “At least we gave them quite a show, hm? It almost made me miss being on stage.”

“Only almost?”

She winks. “Not enough to make the costume worth it. Come sit, numa. I got your favorite.”

“And I see our guest is still with us.” They’re all staring at Jonas when he steps out from behind Theron but Lana’s the one who says it, expression neutral but her tone desert-dry.

Theron’s hand is still on the door as he sets the lock behind them. “He helped, Lana. Voluntarily. We couldn’t-”

“It was an observation, not a threat.” When she rubs her face Lana’s hair shifts to one side and there’s a spot of blood on her forehead beneath it, just above her left eye. “Hello, Agent Balkar. Would you care for a drink?”

Jonas looks at her first, which she didn’t expect- title notwithstanding she’s not his Commander, she’s only got as much influence over him as he’s willing to cede and she doesn’t expect any at all- and when she gestures toward another empty chair he turns toward Theron, head tilted to one side. ‘“That depends,” he says carefully. “If this is going to be my last one, I have a special request.”

Theron flinches. “You think I’d do that? Seriously?”

“You? No. Them?-” hands shoved deep into his trouser pockets, glance flickering between her and Lana- “maybe. I’ve heard a lot of stories lately. Even if most of them are bantha shit-” he sighs. “You’re really going to let me walk out of here?”

She gestures, again, toward the tables, toward the rest of Lana’s team with their heads bent over drinks and just enough chairs to seat them all (but they should have been one short, they should have been one seat short and stars, she can’t remember the woman’s name, it’s hanging just on the tip of her tongue but Nine can’t think of it and she deserves more than that. Her name was-)

It was-)

“We should probably get your story straight before you leave,” she says, “but yes, I’d planned on it. This isn’t the old war. We don’t need to be enemies, regardless of whatever lies your director’s told you.”

“Maybe.” By his tone of voice Jonas isn’t entirely convinced.

He sits, though. It’s something.

***

(The Zabrak’s name was Omi.

They’d left her up there. There was nothing else they could have done.

But she thinks, from the stories the rest of them tell as they move from one round of drinks to the next, that Omi would have wanted it that way.)

***

By Nar Shaddaa standards it’s an early night.

“Five years ago I’d have just have stayed up.” She yawns as the door closes behind the last of the resistance members. Whether she’ll see them again she isn’t sure- only Veeroa asked to come to Odessen; Lana’s barbs about needing more training must have sunk in properly after all. “But we’ve got an Exarch to kill, and before that I could use a nap.”

Lana nods. “You’ve been running on stims- don’t think I haven’t noticed. And now that we know that they can cloak-”

Kaliyo snorts and stands up, draining her glass. “Never met anybody who could outstealth the boss. Met a lot of people who’ve tried, though. All dead now.”

“That’s reassuring. I think.” Rubbing her eyes, Lana glances across the room to one of the smaller tables where Theron and Jonas are still talking, occasional snippets drifting across during lulls in their own conversation. “Should we interrupt them, or-?”

“Let me. Theron and I will find our own way back, and you two can use the apartment’s car. It should be able to bypass the security blockade by now. I’ll send you the code-” she looks down at herself. With no place in the costume to stash her commpad she’d left it behind so she’s only got her earpiece on- so much for transmitting data. “Never mind. ‘liyo, do you still have it programmed in?”

“I might have borrowed it once or twice over the years.”

She sighs.

“What? You weren’t using it.”

“I suppose I wasn’t.” Her shoulder twinges again. As she rolls it back and forth it catches a little, stiffer than it was a few hours ago. Perhaps a bath first, then, before her nap; there won’t be enough time for kolto to do much good. “Head out when you’re ready. We won’t be long.”

Kaliyo heads for the exit but Lana hangs back a moment, reaches out one hand to rest on her arm. “I saw that. Are you all right?”

“It’s nothing- I only slipped. I’ll manage.”

“As always.” Lana half-smiles but her eyes betray her exhaustion. She blinks, then shakes her head. “Can we- I need a little time to decompress, but later on I’d appreciate your insight on what I did wrong. I thought I had it all planned out and then-”

She nods. “First rule of field work: it’s never as planned as you think, and wrong ’s not the right word. But of course we can talk through it- on the way home, maybe?”

“Thank you.” Letting her hand drop, Lana turns to the door with one last look across the room toward the little table. “Do you think he’ll join us?”

“No.”

“So certain?”

She shrugs. “He hasn’t stopped casing the room all night. With time, maybe… but we haven’t got time. It isn’t so bad. We could use someone halfway friendly in the Republic.”

“True. Don’t stay too late.” And with that Lana steps out, the dull roar of the bar outside filtering in through the open door for a moment before it shuts again.

She stays in her seat for a little while longer. She ought to get up. They ought to go. But she’s so tired and sitting feels lovely, her weight off her aching feet- how did she used to wear these damned shoes all night? Somehow she keeps expecting the five years she missed to catch up with her at one go, that she’ll wake up some morning with new wrinkles and a handful of silver hairs and-

Balkar- Jonas, he isn’t her enemy any more and she needs to keep reminding herself of that- laughs out loud and she’s been trying to give Theron a little privacy, really she has, but she can’t help herself. Angling slightly, she turns to watch their mouths as they keep talking.

“Complicated?” He reaches across to thump one of Theron’s shoulder’s, still laughing. “Complicated. You are such a fucking liar, you know that?”

Theron rolls his eyes. “What? You asked.”

Jonas grins. “'I don’t feel the need to fraternize with my contacts, Jonas.’ Verbatim. How’s that working out for you so far?”

“That was six years ago, for one thing, and it wasn’t technically a lie. You said blonde, so-”

She can’t hold back a giggle and they both turn their heads, very slowly, to look at her.

“Oh, don’t mind me,” she says. “Just eavesdropping.”

Out of all of them Jonas had the most to drink over the course of the night by a fairly hefty margin- he’d been at Sia’hla’s place to party, not to work, and by his reaction time when they’d marched him toward the dressing room he’d been several rounds in already- and he, like Theron, drank too fast when he was thinking (she remembered that from Coruscant). He gulps down the rest of a mostly-full whiskey, then angles his chair toward her with a sharp thump as its legs lift off the floor and touch down again. “So. Cipher.”

She shakes her head slightly. “I don’t use that title any more.”

“Xari’s not really your name, I assume, and they’ve all been calling you Nine all night. I figured it was still a rank thing. Commander seems a little formal.”

“As I told Theron a very long time ago, that’s the only name I have. You’re welcome to use it if you like.” When she says it Theron smiles a little. “I’m not much for titles in general, honestly.”

Jonas leans forward toward her, elbows resting on his knees. “Nine, then. How’d you do it?”

“Do what?” She folds her arms across her chest. His tone’s light enough, but Theron doesn’t look happy. “I think I missed part of the question.”

“This man-” his chin tilts up in Theron’s direction - “has no concept of work-life balance. After hours drinks? No thanks, says Mister I-Don’t-Sleep-Where-I-Work. Administrative leave? He withered away from boredom. He was on the fast track to a directorship, and then you-” he snaps his fingers, the sound echoing in the otherwise quiet room. “I mean, it’s not like the SIS could ever compete with the Empire’s resources, but… come on. Playing someone like me’s one thing. You found a weakness, exploited it- I respect that. But you must have promised him something good to get him to defect. What was it?”

Theron sighs. “Jonas, shut up.”

“What? It’s a fair question.”

“He didn’t defect,” she says, leaning forward, matching his posture. If that was what they were saying in the SIS, no wonder Theron’d been run off-planet when he tried to go home. “Not in the way that you’re implying. And you know perfectly well-”

Theron cuts her off. “Let me answer that, Nine. Please.”

She sits back, frowning, as he continues, his hands clenched into tight fists in his lap.

“Can you really sit there and- no.” He pauses, looks down at the tabletop and then back up. “Let’s start with a different question. You know why we’re here. Why are you?”

“If your question is did someone put me up to finding you, no way.” Jonas pushes his hair back off his face. ”This was my first night off in a month and- shit, I was there to see her. Xari-her, I mean. Not Commander-Cipher-her, not that I know what the difference is. And then I sat down and there you were. Three years later-”

This is absurd.

He keeps talking; she raises her hands to her eyes, pushing one eyelid back with a finger and pinching the colored lens from that side and then the other and leaving them crumpled on the tabletop. With all the sweat from earlier and the heat of the mask her wig’s come unglued a little in front of her right ear and she can feel the gap there, the lace tickling at her skin. She slides one fingernail beneath it, slowly lifting it free with a wince as the rest of the still-stuck glue pulls at her hairline.

“-and ‘around’ is all the answer I get and- what are you doing?”

Jonas finally looks at her instead of Theron as she drops the wig unceremoniously onto the table with the lenses and starts unplaiting her hair. “You said you don’t know what the difference is,” she snaps, “between me and her. This is me.”

“I’ve seen your dossier. I know what you look like. I just-”

She shivers, the air gone cold all of a sudden, and Theron stands up. Pulling off his jacket as he steps away from the smaller table toward her, he drapes it over her shoulders before turning back toward Jonas. His hand brushes her side; she slips one arm through and then the other, reaches for his fingertips with hers half-hidden by the too-long sleeve.

“You were never quite the same,” Jonas says quietly, “after you came back from Yavin. After Ziost, especially. I thought it was trauma, but it was her, wasn’t it?”

“Only sort of. It was-” Theron sighs again, heavier. “Don’t you get tired of it? Us versus them, picking the same fight over and over again because we think if they won this round we’ll get the next one and maybe that’ll be the one that ends the war?”

“Of course I do. But if we give up, if the Imps win-”

She undoes the last of the braid with her free hand, combing her fingers through the tangled mess of still-damp hair. “Then Arcann sees the Empire as the larger threat, which only means he’ll level Dromund Kaas before he gets around to Coruscant.”

“So, what? We let you win and hope we survive?” Jonas moves to pour himself another drink and then thinks better of it, maybe, pushing his empty glass further away toward the center of the table. “You’ll forgive me for thinking that sounds a little disingenuous coming from you.”

Stars, she’s tired.

“That isn’t what I said.” She closes her eyes. “We’re all pawns in their games, Agent Balkar. Do you think the Republic really cares what happens to you? The Empire abandoned me. If Lana and Theron hadn’t found and freed me, I’d have died of carbonite poisoning and my frozen corpse would still be hanging on Arcann’s wall.”

(That’s hard to say out loud. It’s true, but-

When she was young she gave the Empire everything it ever asked of her, not expecting anything in return; patriotism was a lesson drilled into her as thoroughly as arithmetic or grammar. Even later, after Hunter, after Malgus, after Yavin and Ziost when she’d finally learned to separate Vitiate from his Empire, Dromund Kaas was still her home and she’d used her freedom in its service. She found the Emperor. She killed the Emperor.

And the Empire left her there to die.

That hurt.)

( -and still you lie. He flickers in and out of focus on the backs of her eyelids. Killed? An inconvenience, nothing more.

She grits her teeth. GO

AWAY-

-and it is dark again.)

“So keep fighting your useless war, if you like. I’m not a Cipher any more. I won’t stop you so long as you don’t interfere with what I need to do,” she finishes. When she opens her eyes they’re both staring at her. “But your house is burning down and you’re busy rearranging the furniture.”

“But Trant said- he said you-” Jonas stops short of whatever he meant to say. “Theron? Is that what-”

He nods. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t keep going. Knowing what we’d done in the past, working together- thinking about what we could do to fight back against Arcann and his armies-”

“We tried fighting back,” Jonas says. “Or have you forgotten Bothawui?”

“Look at what we just did!” Theron takes a step toward him, starts to pull away from where her hand’s still touching his. “Look at Hoth. Belsavis. Tatooine. With a few strike teams you could do it on the Core Worlds- you know how to slice their systems now.”

“It’s not that easy. The brass’ll never go for it and I can’t just turn rogue.”

“Why not?” She was thinking it, too, but Theron’s the one to say it.

“You know, I always thought this conversation’d go the other way around.” One hand lifted, conciliatory. “I just- I can’t. The SIS is stretched to breaking point as it is. If I leave too…” he shakes his head. “I can’t. But I think I finally get why you did.”

Pushing himself up out of his chair, Jonas smooths down his jacket, brushes a piece of invisible dust from the side of his trousers.

“And I owe you part of an apology, Ciph- Nine. I’ve heard a lot of things about you over the last few years. I’m starting to realize most of them were lies.”

She chuckles. “That’s terribly gracious of you. Any in particular?”

“None I’d care to repeat in present company.” His gaze flicks toward Theron, then back to her. “I should get going. I’m due to report in a few hours, and I’m sure I’ll have to explain how I have no idea whatsoever how the shield bunker on top of the nightclub I happened to be in managed to self-destruct.”

“Faulty wiring,” she says. “Obviously.”

“Heh. Yeah. Maybe.”

She gathers up the silver wig and her discarded contacts; she can’t simply leave them, but she won’t be needing them now. “We ought to go as well- we’ve got an early morning ahead of us. Let me get rid of these and we’ll walk out together.”

When they both nod she stands up, crosses the room and opens the door to the tiny ‘fresher in the corner. It looks to be an incinerator style, typical for this level of the district- too much money to simply let the waste pile up, not enough to pay for proper sewers. She drops the lenses into the toilet, balls the wig up and tosses it in too. Tucking her hand into the sleeve of Theron’s jacket, she pushes down on the handle.

A minute later she can smell burning hair. Good enough.

She presses the handle one more time, just to be safe, before she steps back out into the open.

They’re nearer to the entrance now, face to face, talking quietly. Whatever Theron was saying, she misses the end of it as he holds out his hand to Jonas, who starts to shake it and then just pulls him into a hug; Theron stiffens, just for a moment, before relaxing and returning the gesture.

“Call me,” Jonas murmurs- it isn’t meant for her to hear but she can read the words clearly in the movement of his mouth- “when you can. There’s something you need to hear.”

“You can say it now,” Theron replies, even quieter, barely audible. “I don’t keep secrets from her.”

Jonas frowns as he pulls back. “It’s not that. It’s-”

She looks away. Not fast enough.

“Just call me, okay?” he says again, louder. “Next time you’re on Coruscant we should get dinner. I know a great place if you like gorak.”

“I might take you up on that.” The response rolls off Theron’s tongue too quickly, too polished, an answer to a question she doesn’t understand but he obviously does. He hates gorak, more to the point, and he knows better than to go anywhere near Coruscant given his last venture, and- “Stay safe, Jonas. I mean it.”

“You, too.” Jonas turns toward her, one last time. She searches his face for any hint of his meaning but he’s only smiling, expression good-natured and as much a mask as her own. “Good night, Nine. Take care of him for me.”

She nods. “I will.”

“And thanks again-” he winks- “for the show.”

 

***

Author's Note: Not much excuse for our time gap this time, I'm afraid. Depression's a bitch like that sometimes. 

Up next: Interlude IV- Til Human Voices Wake Us. A bath, and a conversation. 

Chapter Text

Interlude IV: Til Human Voices Wake Us

 

She doesn’t ask about it on the way out of the bar. (Too soon.)

The bartender does a double-take when she steps back into the open, still in her dancing costume but with her own hair running red down her back instead of Xari’s silver, but then he simply shrugs and turns back to his patrons- enough money changing hands usually made sure no questions meant no questions this far down and they’d been more than generous. Even so, Nine wraps one arm around Theron’s waist and turns her face toward him as her hand slips into his back pocket.

To a casual observer the break in his stride might have been an adjustment to the drag of her weight against him; a dozen other couples in this place were doing the same thing, falling over each other after too many drinks in the age-old negotiation of ‘your place or mine.’ But he wasn’t used to wearing this particular mask, not like she was, and whatever Balkar’s message meant has him ill at ease. He glances down when she leans against his side.

“Sorry,” she murmurs. “Operational camouflage. I was trying to make a point earlier, but I ought to have thought it through a little better.”

“And here I thought it was because you liked me.”

She resists the urge to pinch him. “You know I do. I only-”

He pulls her in closer as they fall back into step until her head rests against his shoulder, his fingers curling in her hair to curtain it over her face.

(He wasn’t used to it before.

He’s learning.)

***

She doesn’t ask about it on the street outside. (Too many eyes watching, too many ears listening.)

She’d thought the lockdown would have been lifted by now. But as they walk together half the taxi stands are still shut down, their droid pilots too obedient to the security lockdown to fly, and the nearest one to the bar has a line stretching halfway around the block; she glances down the queue but doesn’t see Jonas- his safehouse must be local, then- and she turns away with a roll of her eyes and a soft sigh as they duck into the mouth of a narrow alleyway.

“That’ll take an hour to get through. Give me your holo.”

Theron reaches into his pocket out of reflex and pulls it free, starting to hand it over and then- “I’m almost afraid to ask who you’re calling.”

“A ride.” She pries his fingers back, one by one, and lifts the holo from his palm. “Unless you want to walk all the way back.”

“We can’t just call the car back from the apartment?”

She shrugs as a breeze drifts down the street in the wake of a security cruiser passing overhead between the buildings. It carries the scents of Nar Shaddaa with it, ozone and hot metal and a whisper of sickly-sweet decay filling her nose and the back of her throat, prickling her skin and ruffling her skirts until the splits of silk float high around her bare thighs and someone in the taxi line whistles. “We could-” she eyes the whistler, who winks and turns away, before checking the time on the holo; it’s later than she’d thought- “but Lana and ‘liyo might not even be back themselves yet given they had to summon it here too. We might as well wait in line in that case.”

Seeing her shiver, Theron adjusts his jacket tighter around her shoulders. She isn’t cold, not really, but before she can wave him away he’s already got her wrapped up. (How can she possibly protest, when he looks at her like that? It isn’t even a little bit fair.) “Good point. You think they’ll answer?”  

“They’re night people. It’s more a question of whether they’re busy.” Powering on the holo, she switches it over to full encryption. “Although Mama does owe me a very big favor.”

She dials in the address; the holo rings. Once, twice, three times- come on, pick up already-

“Wait,” Theron says, “who’s-”

The call connects.

Kintan Transportation Services.” The speaker, a red-skinned Nikto barely grown into his horns, yawns into the camera as he mumbles in Huttese. “Whatd’ya want?”

I need to talk to Mama. Tell her Ereth’s calling.”

 (As she responds Theron raises an eyebrow and signs a question- how many aliases do you have? that’s four this op alone.

Which is true- sourcing a few last parts for the explosives had required some grey-market creativity. Though doesn’t everyone give a false name when they order caf? That really oughtn’t count, she doesn’t think. She signs back, dropping her free hand down. officially? fifty-three. shh.)

The kid sighs. “Hang on.”

He vanishes out of frame; she waits. And waits. Until-

Well, well. Look what the Hutt dragged in.” Mama- if the matriarch of the Kintan Kings had a name no one ever dared to use it- peers at her as she strolls slowly into view. “Little ghost. Still not dead after all these years, hm?”

“Not for other people’s lack of trying.”

The old woman grins, sharp teeth bright in her green-scaled face. “Good. You’re on the wrong channel for business, little ghost. And no matter how much I like you, I already told your masters no.”  

She files that away for further reference and keeps her face very, very still. The Empire’s planning a hard move, then. Interesting. “Not calling about that, Mama, not tonight. Just need a favor. Legit business.” Void, her Huttese has gotten rusty, though it’s still better than Theron’s; she can tell by his face he’s only half-following.

No reply, just a gesture. Continue.

I’m stuck in Lower Industrial behind the security blockade- some explosion or some shit- and I need out now. Any of the boys actually driving tonight?” She pauses. Nikto were always hard to read. “I’ll pay double if-”

Another gesture, hands fanning out; she quiets. “For family? Not necessary. Qeti’s out on a delivery in Upper but they’re three cycles behind on their payments so they can keep twitching until tomorrow. I’ll send him your way. Coordinates?”

“In front of the Black Dot. Onith Street.”

“You expecting trouble, or what?”

She shakes her head. “Just in a hurry.”

Mama turns from the holocomm, probably typing out a message by the sound of claws on glass. “Five minutes. He’ll meet you out front,” she says after a minute. “You and your boy.”

“Who said anything about a boy?” Theron understood that much, at least, covering his mouth to keep from laughing, and he dodges out of the way before she can step on his toes.

“Jacket’s way too big for you. Show me.”

She blinks.

You get me involved in a booty call-” Theron does actually laugh at that (of all the phrases to recognize, how does he know that one? It doesn’t even translate properly) and this time he doesn’t move fast enough; she balances on one foot and swats at his nearer leg with the other- “I get to have an opinion. Show me.”

And they say Nikto don’t have a sense of humor. Shrugging apology toward him, she turns the holo toward his face. He blinks, then waves.

Mama clicks her tongue. “Not bad, little ghost. Not bad. Five minutes.”

The call disconnects and she slumps back against the alley wall, laughing so hard she has to bite down on her knuckles to keep the sound from echoing off the buildings. Theron doesn’t move at first, expression alternating between perplexed and amused, and then he takes the holo from her hand.

“Now I actually am afraid to ask,