Liracen flicks a switch on the projector. A hologram springs to life, showing a wild-haired, lean man dressed in white gesticulating angrily. With a twist of a dial sound crackles through speakers, causing her to blush deeply at the man’s tirade and hastily turn it down again as low as possible.
She glances across the work surface at the various utensils and ingredients arrayed neatly before her. Two datapads off to the side display nearly identical lists, the differences highlighted with a few remarks in the margins. With a nod, she brushes some stray hair from her face, tying it back tightly and tucking any persistently rebellious locks behind her ears before turning the volume back up.
The man in white has finished his rant and is now giving out curt commands that she scrambles to follow to the letter. She adds ingredients to a large bowl, stifling a sneeze as a cloud of flour mushrooms over the mixture, instantly covering her hands, face, upper body and a majority of the work surface in white. Groaning, she suppresses the urge to clean away the mess as the man in white shows no inclination of slowing for her sake, instead urging her on to begin stirring vigorously.
Wooden spoon in one hand, she grabs an egg, attempting to crack it open over the side of the bowl in the same, expertly fluid motion as the man in white with less than satisfactory results. By the time she has finished picking out bits of eggshell from the mixture and added another - more carefully this time so as to have it land inside the bowl - he has continued his instructions and she struggles to piece his words back together, adding various meticulously measured cups of ingredients while continuing to stir.
A small sigh of relief escapes her as she finally deposits the fruit of her labour in the oven. Wiping a hand over her brow and leaving a trail of flour, egg and chocolate she sinks into a chair, observing the chaos left behind in the kitchen with a scowl. Baking a cake was hard work, who knew?
The small droid flitted about, carrying bits of scrap and cable in its spidery arms. She allowed herself a moment’s respite, arching her back and exhaling wearily, eyeing the chaos around her. The cockpit was still a shambles, pieces of paneling and wire everywhere, traces of dried blood spattering the floor. A jumble of sharp wires surrounded the captain’s chair, some ending in vicious spikes driven right through the backrest. She limped over, picking her way through the rubble, bent down to pick up the larger pieces the droid wouldn’t be able to carry, while her joints creaked in protest.
“This’ll take a while to clean up”, she muttered softly, breaking the silence.
“Namehere’s assistance in rewiring required”, a crisp female voice assented, sounding out around her. Had Liracen not known better, she’d have said it sounded almost… plaintive.
“I suppose we both will have to wait for him to get better then”, she replied, “Two to three days, you said.”
Careful not to cut herself on the sharp ends, Liracen stood, carrying a load of debris towards where the droid had been piling up bits and pieces. Eyeing the pile critically she nodded.
“Think that’s about my limit for now, Serenity. Let me get it out of here.”
The droid stopped, hovering in place with its haul while she brought a hand to her forehead, focusing on the pile of scrapmetal. Calling on the Force she directed it, lifting the metal to shift it out of the ship slowly, passing through the doors sliding open with a hiss. She deposited the scraps in the waiting container, slumping against the hull for a moment to catch her breath before heading back, heavy doors clanking shut behind her.
Seemed like all she ever did these days. Hurt and cry. She wiped at red-rimmed eyes, her breath still coming in hoarse gasps. Shifting position, she pulled her knees in closer, let her head sink backwards till it hit the wall with a soft thud. The coarse sandstone sent a trickle of dust down her back. She stared up at the ceiling, unseeing.
Bee, pale-faced and furious, pointing her gun at Errant. Lord Kolph slamming the wounded man into the wall, his rage so overwhelming it threatened to strangle her. The look of pain, anger, hurt on one man’s face, cold metal covering the other’s. Uncertainty, indecision, rendering her helpless, paralysed. Rejection.
She shuddered as her chest constricted at the memory. She had to… do something. Wanted desperately to help. But she’d drawn a blank. Listening to him wouldn’t fix this problem, wouldn’t shake the hounds off his trail. Perhaps she could speak to somebody. Chaive, Lord Kolph… perhaps Andynnet, even? She shook her head. The elder Sith Lord was too cunning, the Darth not necessarily an ally and Lord Kolph… seeing Errant hurt Isbie had come close to sending him over the edge. None of them could help and in many cases might make matters worse. She wasn’t clever or sly like Errant or Herul. They’d know what to do.
She winced. He did know what to do. Get out. It was the best option, the only option. Cut his ties and run. Leave them. Leave her. Tears welled up in her eyes again. Why was she so selfish? Why could she see this, come to this conclusion and yet cling so dearly to the hope he’d change his mind?
The contours of his face had sharpened, evidencing the lack of food and rest in his daily fight for survival. Yet his eyes held the same warmth, and his embrace – despite the new leanness of his frame – felt as comforting as ever. She buried her face against his chest, selfishly stealing another moment to let herself be held. Finally, she sighed, seeking to lean back and disentangle herself – only to find she couldn’t. His arms remained wrapped around her, near suffocating now and strangely rigid. She twisted in his grasp, looked up to see watery blue eyes lacking all lustre, peering out from a skeletal face. She yelped, stemming her hands against his chest in an attempt to break free, watched in horror as his corpse crumpled to the ground. She sensed a presence behind, spun to face it.
Than’so stood looking at her wordlessly, the lower half of his face stained blue from the milkshakes he’d been drinking all night. He smiled. She took a step towards him, wanting to explain, ask for help, only to be stopped short. His smile hadn’t reached his eyes. His lips curled back to reveal large, oddly fang-like teeth, mouth widening into a grin that sent a shiver down her spine. She took a half-step back, belatedly remembering what was behind her as skeletal fingers brushed against her ankle. She shuddered, started forward instead, sidestepping the young Sith, whose grin sought to split his face in two, blue stained skin darkening to an almost metallic sheen. He made no move to stop her. She rushed past him and outside into perpetual autumn.
The soft glow of evening did nothing to calm her nerves as she hid her face in her hands, trying to catch her breath. After several heartbeats she looked up, barely seeing the serenely swaying, amber-wreathed trees or Voss-Ka’s majestic, towering buildings as her gaze was inexplicably drawn to a figure moving at the edge of her vision. White-robed, tall, lean... her eyes widened in recognition. She inhaled sharply and set into motion. His pace was slow, almost ambling, yet try as she might, she could not catch up to him. She hastened her steps, breath coming in laboured gasps as she pursued him through the city’s streets, opened her mouth to call his name.
Something wrapped itself around her throat from behind, choking off any sound. The last thing she saw was him stepping through a tall gate.
Liracen opened her eyes. Her heart was thumping in her chest, her body felt oddly light. She listened, could hear no sound, looked down at the tangle of sheets. She must have been tossing and turning all night. Odd, she never dreamed or moved much in her sleep.
She turned onto her side, straightened out the covers, curled into a ball and fell into a dreamless slumber.
She pulled the bed sheet tighter around herself, trying to combat the chill she felt reaching all the way into her bones, sending her limbs quivering. Her head felt ready to split in half, colour flaring behind her lids. Suddenly, she thrashed to free herself from the covers, the added warmth unbearable as her skin burned with feverish heat. The others had left her to rest, but with her brain sending mixed messages along frayed nerves, her body tensing and convulsing, sleep couldn’t be further from her mind.
Stupid. She chided herself. Too damn trusting, allowing a Darth to wander into her head and rearrange the furniture as he saw fit. He’d even told her not to trust anybody, including himself. She gritted her teeth. Surely he had not meant to subject her to this kind of torment, didn’t care for pointless cruelty. He’d gone at her request, sought to conceal what was lurking within - and succeeded. She no longer felt its presence at her core, the absence likely what was causing her system to go haywire. Temporary, he’d assured her, only while her body adjusted.
She groaned. She hadn’t felt this weak in a long time. Not just physically – her joints began to ache as if to underline her train of thought – but in the Force. She felt diminished, as if somebody had drawn a veil over a usually keen sense, leaving her addled and disoriented.
She shifted, tried unsuccessfully to find a more comfortable position and soothe her screaming muscles. The effect of Jace’s stim was waning; she hoped it was time for a new dose soon before she further embarrassed herself by crying into his pillows. Or being sick all over his bed, she couldn’t be too sure which. She glanced at the door and was relieved to find Mina there, her friend by her side in an instant to hold her, calm and comfort her. The young agent followed shortly after, administering liquid pain relief with cool professionalism. She exhaled a ragged sigh as the chemicals sped through her veins, giving brief respite, a momentary dulling of the ache wracking her nerves. She closed her eyes.
How was she ever going to keep this from Lord Kolph?
Fine silks swooshed in accompaniment of her frenzied pacing. Various bits of clothing were strewn about, flung every which way as if the room had been caught in a tornado. For once, she paid the mess no heed, struggling instead to secure the curls piled artfully around her head and neck with another silvery pin, hoping that sheer numbers would be enough to tame her wilful locks. Strands that refused to obey were wrapped around a finger then left to corkscrew gracefully around her face or trail down her back.
She cast a glance at her reflection, jaw set in frustration. It would have to do. She looked presentable, she knew, the brief touch of colour on her lids working admirably to bring out the deep green of her eyes while her dark hair framed her face prettily. She’d chosen a muted gown slashed with mauve at the last minute, to complement her subtle makeup and overall colouring, further contrasting with her fair skin. Presentable, yes, but elegant? Beautiful? Intimidating as Herul had suggested? She sighed, eyeing herself critically. While she’d finally grown out of the gawky awkwardness of adolescence, her figure had refused to fill out as she’d hoped, leaving her with a slim, girlish shape that was only accentuated by her ever too-wide eyes, large in her fine-boned face. Her features were delicate and even, but lacking in the maturity and sharpness that she felt marked true beauty.
Chewing her lower lip, she added another pin to the small arsenal she already had hidden in her curls. If only she’d left herself more time! Asked her friends’ advice again! She hadn’t had time for any of the pampering she’d planned and instead had had to cut it down to the essentials, stepping into her last minute dress-choice fresh from the shower and launching right into a wrestling match with her unruly mane, after taking far too long to tear herself from his company. She grimaced. More of Herul’s advice ignored there. She’d done anything but act strong and independent around him, stumbling over her words, cowering in a corner. She’d barely had two minutes alone with him before excusing herself, hadn’t even had the courage to tell him outright that she’d missed him.
She sighed again, picked up her comm device. At least she now had a means of getting in touch. Could speak to him when she needed to. She hoped she’d be able to work up the courage to call him. Longed to make up for the time lost, hear his voice...
The comm’s shrill beep tore her from her thoughts, she shook her head to clear it, scolding herself inwardly for pining like a love struck fool. Casting one last appraising glance in the mirror, she gave herself a firm nod of encouragement and answered Mina’s call.
She had a party to attend.
Liracen glanced around the modest room and gave the small side table next to her a cursory wipe with the cloth in her hand. It came away clean, of course, the place was spotless. She knit her brow, rolled her shoulders then let out a resigned sigh. No more stalling. She set aside the cloth then picked up and plumped a cushion before placing in on the ground, seating herself on it, legs folded beneath her. She closed her eyes, relaxed her shoulders, calmed her breathing.
“Empty your mind of all thoughts and emotions”, the healer had said, “Until you feel your perspective shift so you become an observer outside your own self.”
She grimaced. She hated this esoteric mumbo-jumbo. Not too long ago her world had consisted of scrubbing pots, sweeping floors and entertaining guests while trying her best to not displease the Master. Now she was expected to control mystical forces, wield her emotions as weapons, walk into other’s minds. She ran a hand over her face, smoothing out her features. This certainly wasn’t helping. She forced her frustrated thoughts aside, focused instead on breathing slowly, in through the nose, out through the mouth.
She recalled her own words to Reiko back in the musty, ruined tomb:
“Focus on something mundane, simple, like a verse of a song. Repeat it to yourself.”
It had helped the agent ward her mind from the Dark Side energies seeking to assault her sanity. Surely it could help her stop her own mind from wandering. She focused inward, searched the murky depths of her memories for a suitable focal point. A faint melody drifted up into her consciousness, the words resonating through her.
Over in Curovao, many years ago
My mother sang this song to me in tones so sweet and low
Just a simple little ditty in her good old fashioned way
And I'd give the world if she could sing that song to me this day
She repeated the words in her head, felt her muscles slowly untense, the thrum of the Force around her...
She woke a few hours later and groaned. Perhaps an old lullaby hadn’t been the most suitable choice.
There are six of them. She squints, then nudges the rightmost one to align it with the others perfectly, like miniature soldiers standing at attention. They match each other in size and shape, though vary vastly in colouring. From a cupboard Liracen picks out a set of small plasteel boxes, flicking the switch to unseal them, before taking up each of the small cakes in turn, placing it gently within a container before sealing it shut.
The first is a brightly coloured marvel: multicoloured swirls of icing and sprinkles adorn the thick layer of frosting. In the centre a tiny little icing-bantha rears on its hindlegs, kicking out merrily amidst vibrant chaos. She smiles and hopes Dabrin will appreciate the nod towards his ice-cream creations, wincing as she recalls the sickening feeling of watching him collapse, shot at point blank range. Had the healer not been there... She frowns, cutting the thought short. Adalquinn had helped and Dabrin was on the road to recovery. The maybes and what-ifs didn’t matter now.
The second is more muted in colouring, white and lemon patterned frosting, decorated with delicately spun sugar and honeycomb. She takes extra care depositing this one in its box and smiles crookedly. She is not above bribery. Granted, the cake is as much a thank you to the young doctor as a ploy to smooth the rocky path their friendship seems to enjoy taking. She hopes the next time his temper flares he’ll remember her gesture with some kindness and ease the road to reconciliation.
The third and fourth are nearly identical: Dark chocolate sponge topped with rich, deep crimson, little beads of chocolate creating intricate shapes on the icing. A small figurine sits on each one, seemingly clad in battle armour, one black and red, the other muted olive. She tilts her head, frowning slightly. She knows Mina may not be able to eat hers, the implant grafted into her mouth and neck impeding the intake of solid foods. But she couldn’t have made only one cake to celebrate their engagement. Unified as they were – when they weren’t fighting at least, she concedes with a wry smirk – they were still two very distinct individuals; their quirks, strengths and weaknesses both endearing and infuriating at times. Two people very much made for one another, she muses with the faintest pang of envy. As wildly as their temperaments could clash at times, they also filled the hollow places in each other’s souls, soothed each other’s hurts. She seals their cakes in separate boxes almost guiltily.
She lifts up the fifth, smoothes out an edge of the frosting with her thumbnail and grins. The cake itself is a gaudy pink, its stripey frosting alternating between a deep cherry and creamy white chocolate colour. She places it in its container and adds the finishing touch: a tiny little pink candle. She sighs slightly at the lateness of her gift and hopes Jibs will forgive her for not baking a larger birthday cake. Casting a glance at the remaining cakes she shakes her head. Not enough time. She really ought to look into finding a kitchen to use in Voss-Ka, or at least a functioning oven.
The sixth and final one looks plain next to the others. A simple, light sponge, thick white icing. She seals its container in the knowledge it’ll likely never be opened again. What is so easily done for friends seems impossibly out of reach when it comes to him. She holds up the box in front of her, as if offering it to someone.
“For you. Because I...”
She sighs. She can’t even say it to herself.
The faint breeze ruffling her hair did little to ease the overwhelming heat. Liracen squinted, lifting a hand to shield her eyes, relieved at the thick layer of sunscreen she’d applied before heading out into the merciless glare of the twin suns. Her throat felt parched, she took another sip of bottled water, grimacing as it failed to slake her thirst for more than a brief instant.
The hum of engines could be heard in the distance, the line-up of speeders shimmering, wavering as if under water, heat and reflected sunlight wafting from the vehicles. She could make out Than’so, revving his engine and exchanging insults with Ren’s apprentice, the young noble who’d made her so uncomfortable a little while back. Those two together... she winced, grateful they were preoccupied with the race instead of wreaking havoc among the spectators. As fond as she was of Than’so, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to deal with the combined forces of the two noble-blooded Sith hotheads for very long.
Further down the line, next to a rather scantily clad young woman she vaguely recognised, was Keylara, looking pale and excited on top of her speeder. Liracen chewed her lower lip, glancing over to see her concern mirrored by Ren and Telra as they watched their friend. So fresh out of the med centre, she really didn’t think it was a good idea for the young mercenary to be racing, especially under these circumstances. Lord Kolph had spoken of frequent crashes and even sand people attacks during sporting events on Tatooine. The heat alone was a serious threat to somebody in Keylara’s weakened state. Yet she hadn’t had the heart to dissuade her friend from participating, the young woman clearly itching to take part. She was likely sick of being treated as an invalid. Weak though she was, her spirits had finally lifted, her temper regaining its former fire almost instantly after waking.
With a soft sigh, Liracen continued her scrutiny of the racers. She only recognised one other face, a wide grin showing beneath the broad brim of his hat, seemingly perfectly at ease between Sith and Imperials. A nervous presence at her side told her the girl he’d introduced as Kae was looking in the same direction. She tilted her head, relieved at the absence of jealousy. She was genuinely happy for Xepher to have found somebody who cared for him as keenly as the young Zabrak appeared to. She just hoped the girl being a Jedi wouldn’t complicate matters too much for them. Perhaps the rumours about the Order forbidding emotional attachment weren’t true?
A sudden mechanical roar echoed over the windswept dunes as the racers prepared their vehicles for the starting signal. With a flash, they were off, sand whipping around the shrieking engines, the air filled with the smell of heated durasteel and grit. The crowd around her surged as people craned their necks to watch. Still shielding her eyes, she watched them disappear into the distance, hoping her friends would return safely.
She’d turned her back on the Lord and his Agent, grim faced in their hopelessness, walked stiffly down the gravelly path winding through the district. She’d entered the tea-shop in the hopes of finding a friendly face, instead found herself sipping warm tea not two metres from the High Inquisitor, somehow maintaining her composure and even a conversation with the serving girl. She’d not let the young Assai overly unnerve her, despite her shaking hands and frayed nerves, made all the right noises to Lord Zerrak before excusing herself. She’d apologised to Bee, accepted her apology in return before turning in for the night.
She’d barely made it a few steps into the room before she crumpled to the floor with a sob. The surreal numbness inside subsided, gave way to fear, pain and grief. She cried until her tears dried up; her voice hoarse and brittle, her throat raw. As the numbness returned, she began to think.