The whisky stung as it came in contact with the split in his lip. It had only recently scabbed over on the long flight, but had opened up again right as he had ordered the drink from the bartender. The metallic tang of blood mixed with the smokey, almost sweet alcohol. He tried not to wrinkle his nose at the taste, still acutely feeling every still healing bruise. His sorry state only earned the briefest of looks, as most of those who either took up residence or conducted business on Asylum had found themselves on the wrong side of trouble at least once. No one really came to the freeport for the sightseeing.
Someone dropped onto the stool next to him. Theron saw the bartender look up and nod an acknowledgement to the newcomer. "I'll have what he's having."
The barkeep grabbed a bottle and glass. "Anything else? Roast gorak is our specialty."
"After seeing his face, I think I've lost my appetite."
"Ha ha," Theron sneered, and then dropped his voice. "Where's Lana?"
"She couldn't make it."
"And why didn't she tell me that?"
"Something about planet scouting, Force alignment mumbo jumbo. You got me. I just do what I'm told at this point."
Theron arched an eyebrow at the Zakuulan deserter, but decided to not comment on the irony of that statement, and instead took another sip of his whisky. He could feel the other man's eyes taking in the colorful mosaic that was Theron's face, which was a far sight prettier than his mottled blue and purple chest thankfully hidden by his standard attire.
"So… exactly what happened?" Koth asked, trying very desperately to not sound as curious he obviously was.
"I ran into a door," Theron stated flatly before taking another sip.
That was a lie. It wasn't so much a door, as another guy's fists. Well, that and an entire side of a building that he had slammed into during a controlled dive after the Centurybloom extract had been knocked off the edge of the platform. Things had gotten a little out of hand during that final scuffle with the Twi'lek mercenary, Skyvthe, that had started that whole mess on Nar Shaddaa. But no matter what Hylo said, Theron most definitely did not fall off a building.
"Well, I hope you got the door as good as it got you."
Theron couldn't help the satisfied smirk that spread across his face, which pulled at his split lip. "You could say that."
He'd gotten in more than just a few good punches during their fight, which had been immensely satisfying. If the Twi'lek hadn't stolen the final cure ingredient, sliced into all of Theron's communications, nearly killed him several times over, threaten half the population of the Smuggler Moon with Baradium bombs, and in general be the worst asshole this side of Hutta, Theron might have felt sorrier for him. Even if the guy survived that fall, Skyvthe would undoubtedly face some very grisly fallout for crossing both the Shroud and the Hutt Cartel.
"Right." Koth managed to draw the single syllable out into three, hiding a grimace as he took a sip from his own glass. "You have it?"
Theron withdrew a small case from his jacket pocket and gently set it on the bar next to a datapad with a cracked display, trying not to wince as the motion pulled at his injuries. Although to be fair, every motion seemed to jar them. The bartender had moved to the other end at this point, still trying to hawk his roast gorak to unsuspecting customers. No one seemed to take notice of the appearance of the innocuous looking box that was just big enough to contain one single hypospray.
"If you don't mind me saying, you don't really look like you should be here. More like floating in a kolto tank."
"I do mind," Theron said tersely. "I can rest later, this is more important. There's only enough for one shot, so tell Lana to make it count."
"Yeah, okay," Koth said hesitantly, and then reached for the case.
Theron didn't remove his hand from the case, and speared the Zakuulan with a look. "You will bring her back."
It was not a question, but an order. Both men sized each other up, eyes narrowing as if trying to interpret each others' intent. Their acquaintance had only been brief — Lana liked to keep things in separate spheres. Less interaction meant less chance of personality conflicts and clashes to derail their long term goals. Among other things.
"You don't need to worry about that," Koth finally said, "I'm not letting Lana go through this crazy scheme on her own."
"You bring Lana back too," Theron clarified, jaw tight as he stared down the other man.
It took Koth a few moments before he finally parsed the statement, and then frowned. "Right. Your Outlander. What is it with you guys? Never seen two people so ready to throw their life away for some assas—"
Whatever he was going to say next died on his lips as Theron made an angry noise in the back of his throat, eyes blazing with a suppressed fury. The Zakuulan had the grace to look a little sheepish and muttered a quiet sorry.
"What I meant to say," he said after a moment, "is that I'm having a hard time believing any one person is really worth all this risk. No way anyone can do what you say she can."
"You haven't met her," Theron threw back. And she's worth everything, the words rose in the back of his mind, but he didn't dare say them aloud. He didn't know Koth that well, and was already fighting an internal war with himself to just lift his hand off the box that contained her only salvation. Just because Lana trusted this guy didn't mean Theron had to.
"You're going to have to let me take that box if I'm ever going to meet this woman and be wowed by her."
"Just to be clear," Theron said, "if for any reason, this does not make it to its intended recipient, that Zakuulan enforcer hunting you down will be the least of your concerns."
"Are you threatening me?"
"Just clarifying." Theron didn't raise his voice, and in fact it dropped an octave as he stared at the other man unblinkingly. "There is no seedy corner of this galaxy that I can't find when properly motivated. And if you come back without her, I guarantee you I won't have motivation for anything else."
"You must be great at parties." The chuckle that left Koth was threaded with nervousness and he tried to cover it by tossing back the entire contents of his glass.
Theron didn't say anything, didn't move his hand from where it was still resting protectively on top of the box. He just continued to stare a hole into the Zakuulan. Eventually Koth let out a heavy sigh and nodded his understanding. Satisfied, Theron lifted his hand, and the box was quickly slipped into one of the deep pockets of the pilot's long coat.
"What I don't get is — your fight with a 'door' aside — if you feel this strongly, why aren't you coming?"
"Someone has to manage the recruitment drive while you and Lana are off playing prison break," Theron muttered, as if that was the only thing that mattered.
It wasn't. It was just that Lana was a paragon of practicality, never letting personal feelings get in the way of the larger goal. She would do whatever was necessary to see that the job was done. Theron now knew that he might not be able to do that, and yet he simultaneously feared that he might even do something that was unnecessary. The one job that he wanted to do more than anything else in his entire life, he was uniquely unsuited for — and it had nothing to do with his skillset or any injuries he might currently have.
"You really think this is going to work?"
Theron just shrugged, immediately regretting the action when a ribbon of pain flared up his side. He pressed his lips together tightly until it passed, pretending that he was thinking about what to say next. "The alternative is to do nothing. Let Arcann keep twisting the Galaxy to his will. Which do you prefer?"
"Doing something," Koth said without hesitation, and then shot Theron a grin. "Hey, you might be better at this recruitment stuff than you let on with talk like that."
"I learned from the best." When he smiled, this time it reached his eyes, without so much of a hint of the darkness from before.
Koth narrowed an eyebrow, not quite understanding, but apparently not curious enough to ask who "the best" was. He'd find out soon enough. "Uh huh. Well, would love to stay and chat, but I've got a flight to catch."
"Aren't you the pilot?"
"Yep." He tossed a credit chip on the bar and rose from his seat. "And I know it's not any of my business, but maybe you ought to see a medic or something before you start handing out recruitment pamphlets."
"Maybe I will," Theron muttered, staring into his glass. Out of his periphery he watched as the Zakuulan began to retreat. "Oh, and Koth?"
He paused midstep, but didn't turn back to face the bar or its occupant. "Yeah?"
"I wasn't joking. They don't come back, I'm holding you accountable."
"You're a scarily intense guy — but I'll bring them back. Don't worry."
With nothing left to do, Theron continued to stare at the half-empty glass in his hand, watching idly as the amber liquid sloshed back and forth as he swirled its contents over and over. He was deliberately not looking at the worn datapad that still sat on the bar, waiting for its owner to pick it back up. The stool that had been vacated was suddenly filled, and a yellow hand grabbed the glass from him, gently setting it down on the bar.
"You sure you don't want to go, kid?" Hylo's voice was soft, as if she was talking to a spooked equus. "Still time to catch a ride to Zakuul."
"I'll just slow them down."
"That all it is?" He didn't need to look up to feel the Mirialan's scrutiny, and she didn't bother hiding the doubt in her voice.
"What else would there be?" he muttered.
When he reached for the glass, it was moved just out of his reach, and he finally looked up to see a knowing smirk on Hylo's face. He wrinkled his nose at her in annoyance, just as he had every time she had attempted to broach this subject since they had struck up their quasi-partnership on Nar Shaddaa. All this earned him was her ruffling his hair, morphing the wrinkled nose into a full glare as he tamped down on the immediate urge to smack her hand away.
"You already know I've got other promises to keep," he muttered, carefully trying to smooth his hair back into place. "That cure didn't come free."
"And yet you didn't mention any of that. Or your own little 'prison break'."
"More like making sure you don't keel over and die, you idiot." She leaned back on the stool, and tossed her head to indicate the bustling freeport. "And maybe I was listening in because this place is boring. I like to be entertained."
"That was entertaining?"
"I wanted to see if you were going to make him cry with that tough guy act. Guess he's made of sterner stuff."
Theron thought about correcting her, telling her it wasn't an act, but decided against it. It would get a little too close to admitting the truth, and he liked Hylo — but not that much. There really was only one person he liked that much. And she was frozen in carbonite.
"He and Lana have enough to worry about." Redirecting the subject was probably the safest tactic at this point. "Besides, my 'prison break' is just a Republic lab, not an impenetrable fortress. It's nothing I can't handle."
"'I'? Don't you mean 'we', kid?"
"Thought you said you were done after we pissed off the Hutt Cartel. The ride out here was a final courtesy."
"You pissed off the Hutt Cartel," she corrected, "I was just an innocent bystander. My name isn't on the no clearance list."
He let out a silent chuckle, remembering the look on those slimy worms faces over the holo. "You had fun, admit it."
"Most I've had in years. Figure I might stick around for a while, seems like trouble's always following you around."
"I'm oddly touched."
"Don't be. Where there's trouble, there's usually credits to be found." She gave him a light shove on his shoulder, somehow in the one place he wasn't bruised. "Come on, finish up your drink. I've got the ship refueled. Let's see if your Bothan buddy really can help bust that gabby Hutt out of that joint."
The glass was deposited back in front of him, and she arched a dark brow at him. He ducked his head, but couldn't completely suppress the corners of his lips threatening to quirk up into something resembling a smile. He quickly took a shallow sip of his drink, mostly as an excuse to cover his reaction.
"Yeah, uh, I'll be with you in a minute." One hand briefly strayed to the datapad, before he forced it back to the bar surface. "There's just one last thing I have to do."
Hylo's cocksure grin faded to something a bit softer, more knowing. "Take your time."
"I won't be long."
"Don't worry about it." She pushed herself to her feet. "It looks like I'm going to need to pick up some extra kolto packs anyway. I'm not listening to you groaning and carrying on the entire trip back to Coruscant."
"I did not groan. Or carry on."
"Whatever you need to keep telling yourself, Spyboy."
He waited until he'd heard her footsteps fade away before even looking at the datapad that had seen better days. A thin crack ran across the screen, and one of the corners was nearly broken off. It had been in his pocket when he had smashed into the wall during his mad dive to save the cure. The sturdy little device had been with him since he'd resigned from the SIS, and while it technically still functioned, he probably needed to let it retire in peace. And he would — just as soon as he finished what he had started on it over two years ago.
He flicked it on, carefully navigating the menus, until he pulled up his inbox. There was no new mail for him, of course. He'd had to scrub his entire digital footprint after their escape from Nar Shaddaa, and had carefully investigated every nook and cranny of the device while waiting for Oggurobb to make up his miracle cure. When it came to the Shroud, one could never be too careful. He let out a long breath, before he finally pulled up the composition screen.
He sipped from his glass, letting the smoky whisky linger on his tongue as the blank message stared up at him. After all this time, after everything he had gone through, he had no idea what to say. Once he stepped foot off of Asylum he was going to need his entire focus to be on his next mission. If Lana was successful — when Lana was successful — they were going to need all the help they could get. Not just to get the Galaxy back to some semblance of sanity, but also to make sure that Arcann didn't get a chance to retake his favorite frozen wall hanging — or worse. Now that this was actually happening, the new beginning finally here, Theron no longer had the luxury of being distracted. He needed to say something so he could move on.
It took him a good five minutes before he finally filled out the subject line. Something simple, but to the point. "For when you wake up". Because she would. He'd made good on the promise he had never sent.
The cursor continued to blink at him impatiently as he stared at the cracked screen. After five years apart, what could he say? What would she want to hear? She would want to hear from him… right? He swallowed another sip of whisky, and then another. He was nearing the bottom of the glass, ice cubes nearly melted when his fingers slowly started typing. The words weren't easy, they never were, but as he forced them out, one-by-one, it became a little less difficult. Soon his fingers seemed to be moving on their accord, and what he really wanted to say appeared on the screen:
I've written this message twice now. Okay, more than twice.