pyrodragon82: Thank you! Is Daemon Iron Hand or is that just a game I'm playing? Well it would be like me to pull a plot twist like that, but I've already got so many plot twists planned it's quite difficult to remember them all...

We'll just have to see. :)

Random Reviewer: He he he. When I read your review and realized what I was including in the next chapter I just couldn't resist. :)

Darth Fang: Thank you! :)

Anon: Not sure yet. Not too fond of The Matrix so I doubt I'll include it. But yeah. Mind implosion.

Kamai6: Thank you! Glad you like my art and my writing. What modeling substance do you mean? The hair, the clothes, or something else? Sorry, just want to make sure I properly answer your question.

psychadelicious: Thank you! Romance novel writing..oh, the hate...the hate...

EVA-Saiyajin: Thank you! For your first question, Harlene always hated Maul's attempts to control her, and what he wanted to control most of all was her interactions with the Jedi. While her opinion of the Jedi changed, she was still very bitter about Maul's attitude. She kept her new opinions from him to emphasize that if he wants access to certain parts of her life he's going to have to earn it. In the end she gave in because she felt she owed him for what she nearly let the Jedi do to him. In turn, he showed he earned his answers by treating her with respect instead of gloating.

So far it seems like Ahsoka won't make an appearance for a while. But her only purpose in this story is to emphasize my loathing of her and the Clone Wars series in general.

Harlene will eventually change her name to Savannah, but don't worry. I didn't pull the name Harlene out of my ass. It has a vital purpose in the story that will be shown later.

supanovart123: Thank you so much. That means a lot to me. :)

xXx

"Elevated heart rate, deep endorphin rush…either your apprentice has become an exercise addict or she just got laid."

"I figured she would go to him. She put on a brave face, but I know her too well. She was dreading what her nightmares would show her next, but was afraid of burdening her friends."

"Her adrenaline and cortisol levels are normal. I'd guess she's sleeping quite peacefully right now."

"She can have all the peace she wants. For now."

"I know you're not just referring to her inevitable future."

"There's a vast difference between knowing and experiencing. And she needs to broaden her relationship experiences. Maul is the perfect guinea pig."

"That he is. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to attend to a guinea pig of my own."

"Are you wearing a shit-eating grin right now?"

"Yep."

"Then I take it you're not too disappointed that they haven't launched a personal attack against you?"

"No. I have the guinea pig to thank for that."

xXx

Finding the last lead on laborious bounties that took days, sometimes weeks of searching, interrogating, and slaughtering was like a shot of glitterstim to hunters, sans the hallucinatory aftereffects. But the feeling of glitterstim was not in Aurra Sing's veins as she glared daggers at the dustball hovering beyond her cockpit window. For this particular feeling, the only description that could come close to doing it justice was that of a large syringe of Hutt bile being plunged into her bloodstream.

Ryloth.

Captain Orn, secretly and infamously reputed sadist of the most resilient races of the galaxy, was going to Ryloth. Weeks of tracking hadn't led her to storm a heavily guarded Iridonian Mid Rim colony, but to the bone-dry world of the wormheads so Captain Orn could transport himself a few shuttas. Of course, the knowledge that a few shuttas would get what was coming to them wasn't unsatisfying, granted—

"One Twi'lek sold you out, Aurra. One. Why exactly do they all deserve your hatred?"

"Guess I'm the only one who doesn't find your naiveté cute, Harlene. But I'll use small words since they seem to be the only ones you can understand: you see one, you see them all."

"Really?"

"Really."

"Okay. Well, it's been fun, Aurra, have no doubt of that. I hope you have a nice life."

"Where do you think you're going!?"

"Away. Forever."

"…you ever play with me like that again—"

"I'm not playing. Goodbye, Aurra."

"NO!"

"…forgive me…but I'm so confused. I thought if you see one, you see them all. If that's what you really believe then my very presence in your life is the ultimate hypocrisy. After all, the Dark Woman is a purebred human. Right?"

Ship bulkheads were hardly satisfying targets, and shooting them wasn't exactly beneficial for the ship's owner. Aurra repeated that over and over again in her head a good one-hundred times before her breathing became somewhat normal. Disappointing last lead or shot-of-glitterstim last lead, her hunter instincts would settle for nothing less than single-minded focus while she retrieved her prey.

As she packed up, she tried to distract herself by looking on the bright side. Captain Orn and his crew were rumored to be excellent hand-to-hand fighters.

(Harlene wanted so much to take down real scum right by my side me so proud so wanted)

The Iridonians would pay her a Hutt's ransom for Orn dead or alive.

(money so unfulfilling just a means to an end don't need a single credit)

The galaxy would be forever cleansed of a filthy, murglak slaver.

(Harlene won't smile won't be there gone forever alone alone alone)

Aurra cocked her blaster and aimed it at the bulkhead in front of her. The wall. The wall that needed to stay up and strong or she would be doomed forever.

Five minutes later, Aurra let out a breath, smiled, and calmly headed back to the pilot's seat.

xXx

Cody wanted desperately to block the sounds that his locked bathroom door couldn't shield him from. He stared at his comm, dropped haphazardly on the floor, but couldn't find the strength to retrieve it. His iJacks were on his night table mere inches away. He couldn't find the strength to pick those up either.

The sound of his toilet flushing preceded the sound of the faucet being turned on full force. Cody heard three raspy gargles, each one followed by spitting and coughing. Finally silence.

The door burst open and Kayla staggered out. She was pasty-faced and red-eyed. After coming to an abrupt stop by Cody's bed, she clutched her forehead with the air of a woman suffering a terrible migraine. Concern for his sister instantly overriding his paralysis, Cody quickly got up from the bed and tentatively put a hand on her arm.

"Kayla…?"

For over a minute it was as if he had touched a piece of furniture. When she lowered her hand, she still didn't speak. But thanks to the devastated rage on her face, the words grating in her mind

(I almost went out with him.)

did not need to be spoken.

"What do we do?" Cody whispered.

Relieved as he was that his question seemed to provide Kayla with some focus, he was more than a little unnerved at the dark fire blazing in her eyes.

"Should I pretend that you just opened your mouth and all that escaped was a meaningless gurgle?"

"I know what we have to do!" he snapped, suddenly angry. "But how do we do it? Should we give it to the cops or—"

"Don't be stupid," Kayla said harshly. She snatched up Cody's comm and clutched it in her hand as if it were the Great Hope diamond. "They're everywhere and everyone, including the police. What we need to do is distribute it on the Internet somehow."

Cody nodded. Even if they could make sure it got into the right hands, both the cops and the media would give the populace a censored version. Sick as he felt at the prospect of showing the entire world what Wendy O'Brien had to endure, everyone needed to know just how depraved the CAA was. Madge Oberholtzer hadn't censored her ordeal, and that had been the spark that started the fire of the Ku Klux Klan's destruction.

"I have contacts," Kayla continued. She was pacing, eyes locked on the comm. "Skilled hackers. They can distribute it while covering any tracks that would lead back to them or us."

Cody frowned when she turned on his comm and brought it to eye level.

"What are you doing?"

"Sending the video to me. If worse comes to worse, they'll think I was the one who took it."

"NO!"

Cody lunged, making a grab for the comm. Kayla jumped back and made to raise it over her head, but while Cody was short he was also very fast. They wrestled for a few moments and only Cody's terror for his sister enabled him to win in the end. He yanked the comm from her hand and backed away several steps.

"I know hackers, too," he said loudly. He held up his free hand in a placating gesture as Kayla looked more than ready to continue their brawl. "They're good ones. Very good. They can cover their tracks and ours!"

"I know good hackers too, hackers that hate the CAA!" Kayla shouted. "Cody, just give it to me!"

"My hackers are better than yours!" Cody danced out of her reach. "C'mon, Kayla, I'm way more popular than you now. I know more hackers. I know better ones." He stopped and gave her his most pleading look. "Please, just let me give it to them. You know what those bastards'll do to you if they find out. That Lawrence motherfucker already knows you. Please."

Kayla stopped too. Breathing hard, she stared into her brother's eyes. Then she lowered her outstretched hand.

"Okay."

xXx

Peace is a lie, there is only passion.

The first line of the Sith Code. And the most important. For how could one break their own chains through the power of passion if they clung to the lie that was peace?

But Darth Maul's chains were far more complex than that of limited power. More importantly, he was no Sith.

And peace was not a lie.

It was soft breathing against his neck. It was warm, naked flesh pressed against his front. It was strong arms wrapped around his torso. Peace was here. It

(she)

wasn't speaking, but its

(her)

presence seemed to whisper words that wrapped him in a cocoon of comfort and security.

(Stay here. Stay here forever. This is home.)

He trusted those words. Moreover, he trusted peace. He could surrender to this soothing, gradual return to consciousness because peace was with him. With peace he would always be safe, strong.

Wanted.

Opening his eyes, he saw peace staring right back at him. Smiling.

"Good morning."

His thumb started to feather over her shoulder blade. "You always awaken before me."

"You're right. I do. But don't worry, you look the exact opposite of sweet and innocent when you sleep."

Unlike her. But that kind of dominance no longer caused him satisfaction.

Dominance.

Maul, you're hurting me.

Icy talons sank into his hearts. He ignored Harlene's gasp of surprise when he abruptly pulled himself out of her embrace and forced her on her stomach. His hand swept her hair aside, exposing her back.

"Can you dispel the red lights?" he demanded.

"Yes, but—"

"Do it!"

She obeyed. The lights in the room were now a soft white. He could now see her skin without any interference. It was pale, flawless, unmarred. Hope rushed through him, but it disappeared as cruelly and painfully as a water mirage in the desert.

"I'm fine, Maul." When he didn't respond, she quickly twisted onto her back. "We are not going through the horn incident again!"

"This is nothing like the horn incident!" he hissed, grabbing her shoulders. "Do you have any idea what could have happened had the bubble taken your powers!?"

He half-expected the Voice to chime in and claim it would never do such a thing, but he wasn't at all disappointed when it didn't. Maul didn't trust the Voice as far as he could throw it.

"You're right," Harlene said quietly. "I know very well what could have happened if not for my powers. But if you're trying to make me forget that you beat it, you're going to be sorely disappointed."

It. He beat it. Though he was not completely ignorant of his species' passionate mating drives, he could not pretend that was not an inappropriate title.

"Maul? Talk to me."

He stared into her eyes, utterly devoid of condemnation, and settled himself beside her.

"I recall what you said the night before. You were, are, aware of the strength of Iridonian sexuality."

"Yes."

"I believed I did too, but I never thought that…"

The knowledge of what could have happened had her strength not forced him down viciously clawed his hearts once again. Harlene frowned.

"Maul, did you know that sexual control is the reason your species has that extraordinary will power?"

His gaze snapped up at her. "What?"

Her eyes widened. "You didn't know." Her breathless whisper suddenly became angry and hard. "Of course you didn't know."

"What do you speak of?"

"Who," she corrected. "I'm speaking of Sidious."

Ah. "My former master did inform me of my species' passion, but he also emphasized the vitality of channeling such passions into the dark side and the dark side alone."

"What about sex?"

"He never outright forbade me, but I was always under the impression that giving into bodily urges was weakness. A waste of passion." He threaded his fingers through her hair. "However, that was years before my desire for you."

Though he was well aware Harlene strongly disapproved of his former master's teaching methods, he wondered at the deep anger in her eyes. Lord Sidious would want him to discover the strength of his passion on his own, but he also would have rectified Maul's ignorance had Harlene been older in his previous life and their desire for one another mutual. The Sith may stop at nothing to obtain their goals, but Maul's belief in their honor had not abated. Lord Sidious would never have allowed him to mate if even the possibility that he would commit such a despicable act existed. Unfortunately, Harlene had not been older. He had been left to discover his ignorance in the most horrible of ways.

"What's wrong?"

Maul shifted away from her so their bodies were no longer touching. "You are my mate, Harlene. I will desire no other female be it in this life or the next. However, the possibility remains that the bubble may take your powers, leaving you defenseless. I will do everything in my power to control this newfound passion, but until I can certain…precautions must be taken whenever we have intercourse." He paused then said, "However, if you wish to wait until I can control myself, I will more than understand."

"What precautions do you have in mind?"

"I have powerful sedatives on my ship. Even one drop would be enough to severely weaken me. I will prepare several hypodermic needles and put them within your reach when we have intercourse. If you so much as suspect that I am…losing control, you must swear to me that you will use them. I will also procure manacles for you to hold me down with after you administer the antidote. Swear it, Harlene."

She bit her lip and looked away. "In the case of an emergency, sure. But that's not solving the problem, Maul. Hell, that's not even putting a band aid on it."

"I know. But this is how it must be should you desire to have intercourse before I gain control."

"And how exactly do you plan on gaining control, Maul?"

The question caused him to freeze. How could he gain control? His entire life he always embraced his passion, always pushed it to the limits. Sidious always preached patience, which was a form of control…no. Patience would not aid him here. Discipline would…but how?

"You look very lost," Harlene pointed out.

His jaw clenched. "I will find a way. It will just take some time."

"Maul, I know your determination knows no bounds, but please be realistic. You don't know a damn thing about controlling passion. This isn't something you can accomplish on your own."

"So, what do you suggest then?" His voice was harsh, but it mostly stemmed from the fact that he knew she was right.

Harlene looked away again and didn't speak for a long time.

"I do have a solution," she said very quietly. "You're not going to like it. In fact, you're going to hate it with every fiber of your being."

"I do not care," he said sharply, but inwardly he was deeply relieved. "There is nothing I would not do to ensure your safety. Nothing."

She gave him a very measured look.

"Would you embrace the light of the Force?"

Maul's throat locked. It was a very long time before he could speak again, but the patience on Harlene's face never wavered.

"Yes," he managed finally and half expected blood to trickle from his mouth. "If it is what you wish, I will embrace the light side."

"The light of the Force, Maul, not side," she corrected. "I'll admit my knowledge of the Force isn't the best, but I do know it doesn't take sides. How can it? It's not a sentient entity, it's an energy shield."

Maul barely heard her. "You are certain this is the best solution to my dilemma?"

He was glad to see she was seriously considering the question. "I could research advanced meditation…but the Force is an intrinsic part of you. You've been using it to channel your passion all your life. If you really want control, you won't just need serenity. You'll need Force-amplified serenity. Also…Maul…" Her tone was very delicate. "Before you give your answer—"

"I already said yes," he snapped. "I do not retract oaths."

"Listen to me, you stubborn ass! I'm completely Force blind. I won't be able to teach you how to focus the light. There's only one kind of person who can do that."

Realization dawned, and so did rage.

"No…" A low growl.

"I'm afraid so, Maul," Harlene said grimly. "But it won't be as bad as you think. I do know a handful who aren't sanctimonious, self-righteous bastards."

"Anakin Skywalker—"

"—oh, please, Maul, I'm not that stupid. You'd kill each other within five minutes."

He resisted the urge to proclaim only one would die and it would not be him. "Who then?" he grated out.

She bit her lip. "That I'll have to consider."

Neither of them spoke for a while. Inwardly, Maul seethed with indignation. There had to be another way. Embracing the light side he could tolerate. It would be for Harlene alone. Harlene who he had already embraced compassion for. But to be taught by a Jedi, to take direction from a Jedi...there were no words for such humiliation.

"The decision is still yours, Maul," Harlene said quietly, breaking the silence. "That hasn't changed. If you honestly feel this is something you can't do, then we'll find another way."

Weeks ago, he would have been able to convince himself with ease that there was another way. That he would be able to find control on his own. He still tried with all his might, but when his eyes roamed over Harlene's shoulder blades, he realized he was only wasting both of their time.

"So long as it is not Anakin Skywalker," he muttered at last.

Harlene's eyes went wide. She appeared almost awed.

"You're…you're serious?"

He glared at her. "I do not retract my oaths. But you should know that I would do this only for you."

"I know," she said softly. "And I'm honored."

The thrill of seeing her respect for him again made him momentarily forget his anxiety, and direct his focus solely on her. He noticed for the first time that the blanket that usually covered them while they slept had been haphazardly thrown onto the floor. A testament to the passion of their previous nightly activities.

"Maul?"

Ah, how he loved to hear her say his name in that soft, breathless, questioning way. Gently, he eased her onto her back. Many of the missions Sidious gave him in his previous life involved breaking into the lairs of wealthy politicians and crime lords. Most of them were male, so Maul had seen his fair share of scantily clad female humans and humanoids. Still, he had never seen one fully nude before. With equal measures of lust and curiosity, he allowed his gaze to slowly roam over every inch of his mate's body.

It was a blend of softness and strength. Her bones were large and strong, but her otherwise athletic musculature was partially hidden by a small amount of fat. He hoped it wasn't just due to her youth. The thought of her being whipcord lean wasn't quite fitting to him. His primary focus directed itself to the parts that were dissimilar to his own. The graceful, round shoulders; breasts capped with nipples of the palest pink; wide, curved hips; slender legs; small, delicately arched feet. He could touch her in so many ways. Her breasts would fit perfectly in the palm of his hands, as would the swell of her hips. Lightheaded awe threatened to consume him when he discovered that she possessed hair in a most interesting place…

"See something you like?"

She was flushed from her face almost to her chest. Her lips were curved into a small, almost nervous smile. Pleased. Anticipating.

Her face had his undivided attention, but he was fully aware of the building pressure around his horns and groin. Despite her attempts to hide it, he was well aware that her experience last night had not been that pleasant, and even painful. He knew that was normal for an untouched female, along with delicacy and soreness that lasted a day at the very minimum.

"Are you in pain?" he asked hoarsely.

"I healed myself," she whispered. "You won't hurt me."

"I could. In an entirely different manner." He started to pull away. "I will go and retrieve the sedatives and-"

"I'll be quicker," Harlene cut him off. "You said they're on the Schmitar, right?"

"Yes, but-"

She disappeared. Maul stared at the now empty spot on their bed dumbly. Ten seconds later several syringes manifested on the table beside the bed along with a full set of manacles. Before Maul could blink, he found himself pinned on his back by Harlene who was still wearing nothing but a mischievous, lustful expression.

"Now, then. Where were we?"

She leaned down to kiss him. Maul gripped her waist and decided he didn't loathe her teleportation powers nearly as much as he thought he did.

xXx

Just when Aurra thought the end of the hunt could not get any more anti-climactic, she was proven dead wrong. Landing her ship discreetly was nothing, trekking through the desert for half a day less so. When she located Captain Orn in the capital city of Kala'uun where the slave arrangement was being taken place out in the open and in broad day light, she was ready to kill something. Anything.

And she could. She could shoot Orn from her perch on one of the shuttas mud huts. It would have been child's play. But there were plenty of civilians and guards around, including Orn's own men. Making a clean getaway would be a bit of a challenge.

But it was not the kind of challenge she wanted. She wanted to chase her prey, make him run, trick him into believing he would get away before she made him realize the stupidity of even thinking he could. From the very start, fear would seep from his pores, and at the end it would be so potent she would all but taste it on her tongue.

She let the arrangement continue without interruption. Orn's men hauled twenty young Twi'lek girls onto their ship, while Orn himself dealt with official business. Aurra squinted to get a good look at his face. Already pitted and scarred it looked especially hideous thanks to a highly displeased scowl. Apparently, the good captain believed that the honest purchase/transport of slaves was beneath his talents. He desired a challenge, and a major one at that.

Aurra grinned.

Be careful what you wish for.

Making her way back to her ship, she decided it had been too long since she had been in a dogfight. Being on his ship with his crew following his every order, Orn would run and he would fall into the trap of false security.

Before you die, Captain Orn, your fear will be mine.

xXx

MercedesSalander: 'Sup.

CaptainAwesomeO: Hey, Lizzie. Need a really big favor.

MercedesSalander: Then I need a really big payoff.

CaptainAwesomeO: You'll get it. But not in cash. Watch this video.

Ten minutes later.

MercedesSalander: Give me two hours.

CaptainAwesomeO: This can't be traced to me or you. They already want my sister.

MercedesSalander: Not a problem.

CaptainAwesomeO: 1 thing more. Gregory Borger. My History teacher. May be CAA.

MercedesSalander: Anything else?

CaptainAwesomeO: Good 4 now.

MercedesSalander: Future reference, this stuff I'll do 4 free.

CaptainAwesomeO: Thanks.

MercedesSalander: Well. Free enough.

She logged off. Cody frowned. Five minutes later his inbox was flooded with a hundred new messages all from a user by the name of jasminebieber.

CaptainAwesomeO: Fuck u Lizzie.

xXx

After mating for the second time in the same morning, Maul decided that his opinion of intercourse was exactly the same as the one he had for compassion. Only a certain amount, and only with one person could it provide him with strength. Granted, intercourse was considerably more addictive than compassion, but such a fact pleased him. Here he could show restraint and control because he possessed it, not because some pretentious Jedi spent the last ten hours babbling on about serenity and the light.

That would come later.

He did not retract oaths, but he could not bring himself to feel shame during the several instances he contemplated doing exactly that when he and Harlene started to train. After all she herself said that she would not hold it against him if he refused, and he doubted she would even after he promised. Deep down, he knew he wouldn't, but contemplating refusal actually helped to give his rage better focus.

"I think I know who would be the best to teach you," she said once they were finished. "He's incredibly knowledgeable. But most of all, I think you two won't kill each other if you make just a smidgen of effort to find common ground."

"Who is it?" Maul fancied he didn't sound too murderous.

Harlene bit her lip and looked away. "Maybe it would be best if I asked him first. If he says no, at least you wouldn't have wasted time in trying to control your Jedi bloodlust around one you're never gonna meet."

"All Jedi are the same," Maul stated. "You may as well tell me now."

She smiled ruefully. "Maul, it really would be best until I asked him. Really. Really."

He inhaled through his mouth and exhaled slowly through his nostrils.

"Very well."

She too sighed, though far more wearily. "Maul, I really want you to know how much I appreciate you doing this. More for yourself than for me."

"You already know I would do this only, only for you."

"I know you feel that way right now. But me, I'm hoping for far more than that."

"What exactly are you hoping for?" he asked feeling something akin to dread.

"That you'll grow to be open-minded about certain things despite hating them."

He frowned. "But you hate the Jedi now."

"Yes, but my hatred isn't all-encompassing. I do respect a few Jedi and more than a few Jedi philosophies. Speaking of which…Maul I owe you an apology."

"For what?"

"You've been very adamant about expanding my education, but I haven't been as adamant in expanding yours. In our room, you'll find a shelf filled with books on subjects like politics, philosophy, and ethics. Some all my all-time favorites, some I despise so much it takes a lot of effort to simply look at them, and some I haven't gotten around to reading yet. If you decide to read any, I think we could have some very interesting discussions in the future."

Maul just stared at her. Then he felt himself smile.

"Is that a challenge, Observer?"

She grinned. "What do you think?"

His smile widened and he took her in his arms, kissing her passionately. What a fool he had been to imagine these sensations and believe they would hold a candle to reality. Being inside her, her bare flesh against his, her lips against his, even simply holding her as her mate.

But she is not your mate, Lord Sidious whispered. She has sworn no oath to you. And there are plenty others who desire her.

Anakin Skywalker's face flashed in his mind and he growled.

"What's wrong?"

He stared into her eyes, determined to show her his control.

"You do not wish to be my true mate. But do you swear that you shall feel no other's touch while you feel mine?"

"I already said yes. Last night."

"You did not swear it."

"Then I swear it," she said.

Her sincerity could not have been more pure, but he found it only mollified him somewhat.

"Maul, this is never going to work if you don't trust me," Harlene said, an edge to her voice.

That he knew all too well. The cynical part of him warned that mistrust would certainly drive her into the arms of another. The more honorable part wanted desperately to trust her because of their bond and shared experiences. Both had great merit, but still…

"Listen," she said taking his face in her hands. "I know you're trying, and very hard at that. I'm not asking for everything right now. Only that you make the best effort you possibly can."

"That is all you have ever asked me for," he said and couldn't bring his voice a pitch above a whisper.

"And it's all I ever will."

"Do I not disappoint you when I fail?"

"Sometimes. I've messed up badly before, but I promise you that even when you fail, torture and abandonment are two things you will never have to fear." Her gaze dropped from his eyes to his jaw, and she ran a tender hand over it. "Sidious did this to you, didn't he?"

Knowing what she meant, he drew back slightly. "It is of no—"

She put two fingers to his lips. "Yes," she said firmly. "It most certainly is."

A look of concentration entered her face. Maul's gums and jaw tingled for several seconds before the chronic pain in them completely vanished.

Harlene kissed him, long and hard before backing away.

"See you soon."

Maul stared at the now vacated area in front of him. He then found himself rushing to their quarters and into the refresher. There was a flat piece of metal over the sink that served well enough as a mirror. Maul bared his teeth at his reflection. They were white and healthy. He clenched them hard. Not an ounce of pain.

Maul slumped against the sink, head bowed. Only his hands on the counter kept him steady.

xXx

Harlene didn't leave the bubble right away. She teleported to the top of one of the factories, her back to the one she and Maul

(called home)

stayed in.

Her hand rested itself on the rail, finger slowly wrapping around it. It wasn't due to fatigue, but she needed to hold onto something, anything. Her free hand inched itself up to her face where her fingers made the barest hint of contact with her lips. They then curled into a half-fist as her mouth birthed a euphoric grin that was enhanced even further by soundless laughter.

Because she found ripping her own heart out a better alternative to completely hiding or draining this particular emotion (then again, she highly doubted she would be able to even with her abilities), she opted for good ol' natural self-discipline. And it worked very well until said control was thwarted by a dreamy look at a sparkling water glass and the sharp, ruthless eyes of Noelle Wong.

"So, how was it?"

"Hmmm?"

"How. Was. It?" Noelle reiterated.

"How was what?"

"Don't waste your time with that bullshit, Harlene. You know you're gonna spill the beans eventually. Might as well make it now."

"Hey, are we missing something here?" Roan sounded politely curious. Jacob was silent, but a small shadow was beginning to descend over his features.

"Yeah, and you have nothing to blame except for those blindfolds of retarded wrapped over your eyes." She pointed at Harlene. "Look at her. Really look at her."

Harlene just stared back calmly when she found herself under the intense scrutiny of her two adopted brothers. She didn't raise any barriers, still finding that somewhat of an impossibility. As she told Maul, she had to be willing to hide her feelings as much as able.

Maul…

"Yeah." A slow grin began to form on Roan's face. "Yeah, I see it. I get it."

Jacob said nothing, but the shadow on his was growing considerably darker.

Roan leaned in closer and whispered, "It's Maul, isn't it?"

Harlene looked away, met his eyes again, smiled, and gave a small nod.

"So, how was it?" Noelle inquired once again before anyone could say anything.

"Oh, come one, Noelle, you can't ask something like that now. This is for you girls to—"

"Come on, tell us," Noelle cut him off. "Just ignore the chauvinist. Pretend he's not there."

"I'm not a chauvinist—!"

"Painful."

Everyone went dead quiet.

"It was…painful and uncomfortable the first time," Harlene admitted slowly. "But…I wouldn't have traded it for anything."

CRASH!

Jacob slammed his fork onto his plate. He then grabbed his tray and stormed out of the mess hall.

"Huh." Noelle's eyes followed him until he disappeared. "Methinks you might want to safeguard that bubble just a wee bit."

"Methinks he's just jumping to stupid conclusions." Roan said.

"Or he's just stupid," Harlene said with venom. Though she was only half-finished, she began to clear everything up. Before she could stand, Roan put a hand on her arm.

"Hey, we're planning on finishing that little surprise for Cody Harrington tonight. You wanna meet up later and see if there's anything you'd like to add?"

Harlene replied affirmative before putting her dishes away. In the hallway, she took several deep breaths before spending an hour with Richard and two hours of practice. Only after singing for yet another hour did she seek Jacob out. The four of them had long since installed locators for all of their comms into their own personal ones, but Harlene didn't need to activate hers. She knew where he would be.

He bade her enter when she knocked without asking who it was. She stepped inside to find him slouching in an unnaturally lazy, awkward manner on a sofa reading the Old Testament. On the table beside him was a bottle of vodka.

Harlene sat on the sofa and crossed her legs. Jacob continued to read. He didn't even look up.

"Do you even know what your problem is, or should I just write this off as yet another one of your idle, jackass moments?"

She was pleased when his mouth tightened.

"Or maybe self-righteously hypocritical would be a more adequate description. 'You can have fun with whoever you want. I sure as hell won't try and stop you.'"

Slowly, he looked up.

"Do you see me trying to stop you?"

The room was brightly lit, but that only made the shadows on his face all the more dark.

"Noelle thinks I may have to safeguard the bubble," Harlene whispered. "Is she right?"

"Probably." He shrugged carelessly. "Asshole like me's capable of anything."

"Well then you'd better hope to God the Virus Creed never goes after your reality," Harlene said, deadly calm. "The canon plot won't matter after that. Even less so a few character disembowelments—"

"Oh, ease up, Lisbeth Lecter," Jacob flatly cut her off. "I'm not gonna hurt your precious boyfriend."

But he didn't return his attention back to his book. He was staring at her almost expectantly.

Harlene's brow rose. "Oh, I'm sorry, is this the part where I'm supposed to blush to the roots of my hair and vehemently protest that he's not my boyfriend?"

Instead of answering, he went back to reading.

Harlene had had enough.

"What. The fuck. Is. Your. Problem?"

Apparently aware that he was pushing it, Jacob looked up. "Why should I say it? We both already know."

"We most certainly do not."

"Oh, we most certainly do."

"Jacob, I swear to God, if you don't tell me what kind of bug is up your ass, I'm gonna kick you in the gut until you shit it out!"

Normally, Harlene found empty threats despicable, but right now she was too angry to care. Fortunately, Jacob took her somewhat seriously.

"All right, Harlene." He calmly put the Old Testament on the table. "If you really want me to spell it out, I will." He took a swing of vodka, glared at her, and shouted at the top of his lungs, "HE. AIN'T. GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU! You know it, I know it, everyone close to you knows it, and underneath all that arrogant, asswipe attitude, he knows it too!"

Harlene blinked, pursed her lips, and let her eyes downcast.

"Well, at least now I know yet another warning sign for an idle, jackass moment. It's bound to save me a ton of time in the future."

Before she could rise, Jacob grabbed her shoulders and shoved her back down. But the look of fury on his face simmered to one of deep annoyance.

"You know maybe I should just let you go. It's no good talking to you when you bring up all those righteous walls. Save myself a ton of time in the future."

"Talking to me." Harlene's voice was low, but outraged. "I was telling you about my first all-out sexual relationship, and you storm away—"

"All right, fine, Fine! I'm an inconsiderate jackass, but that's not the point. You can, you should have fun with whoever you want, but you really need to think this one through. He doesn't even love you. Hell, he's barely admitted he cares for you!"

"Really?" Harlene said with a mocking, dramatic gasp. "He doesn't love me? Wow. That's something I never would have figured out for myself."

"He doesn't love you," Jacob repeated, low and trembling. "But you love him. Don't deny it. I can see it in your eyes. I can see it in the way you move. I can even hear it in your breathing. You're in love, Harlene. Admit it."

Harlene was silent for a while.

"Yes," she said at last.

"And there was a 'but' that followed me saying you could have fun with whoever you wanted. Do you recall what followed said 'but?'"

"I do." Her voice grew hard and defiant. "And I can't even begin to tell you how fucking stupid you were for saying something like that to me."

Jacob laughed bitterly, incredulously. "Oh, Christ, you think I don't know that was a fucking stupid thing to say? I knew it then. I just said it in the vainest of hopes that it might make you actually think about what you were getting into."

"And I have yet to see why I should take you seriously when you're acting like I'm going to marry him." She paused, then added. "Well, he practically proposed afterward, but I said no."

Jacob wasn't the slightest bit mollified. "But you're in love with him."

"I already said that."

"We both agree he doesn't love you."

"Yes."

"Then we also have to agree that his opinion of love is on par to that of three day old shit."

"He's gained some respect for compassion," Harlene said quietly. "He even said he has compassion for me."

"And like pity it's not the same as being in love." Jacob put his face close to hers. "He detests love, but he has your heart. Meaning he can crush it without thought or remorse." His voice grew desperate. "Do you understand that?"

She did, but…

"If he can learn to embrace compassion, then over time he can learn and embrace love. I believe that." She looked Jacob right in the eye. "Do you believe he could grow to love me someday?"

She didn't need to tell him she wanted his unbiased opinion. Jacob ran a heavy hand through his hair and sighed deeply.

"Over time…yes. But it's going to be a very long and very, very painful road. For you. And he. Is not. Worth it."

Harlene glared. "I don't care if you don't think he's worth it." She turned to go.

"Harlene."

She stopped.

"Don't tell him. If nothing else, just…don't tell him."

What am I, retarded? She wanted to say. Instead, she left to go train with Claire. Her mentor didn't give her a long speech when she was informed of the big change. Like so many times before she expressed her true feelings succinctly.

"He'd better treat you right. For his sake more than for yours."

Due to her above-average progress with advanced Capoeira and swordplay, those sessions were cut short in favor of Interface meditation. Only now was Harlene beginning to realize just how much power the Interface could give her virtual body. Already she could focus small amounts of raw energy into her hands and feet. She didn't need Claire to tell her said small amount would be enough for her to reduce an entire building to rubble with just one blow.

"Amazing," her mentor breathed.

Harlene stood up. "What is?"

"The power you can focus already. Harlene, none of your peers have come close to holding this much power for longer than five minutes. You've held it for over twenty so far!"

Stunned, Harlene looked at her hands. "How…?"

"Does it matter how?" Claire's golden eyes were glittering like coins as they always did when she was extremely excited. "Apprentice, you've always exceeded my expectations. But this…"

"We should tell Dr. Lexton or Anderson. Maybe—"

"No!" At Harlene's sharp look, she lowered her voice. "Harlene, listen to me. There is absolutely no cause for alarm. I've been keeping close watch on your vitals. You aren't in any danger." She smiled a smile that sent a chill down Harlene's spine. "But our enemies are. Far more so than they will ever imagine."

"But why not tell—?"

"I would trust the Founders with my life and yours," Claire said. "But I will never delude myself into believing they're infallible. Harlene, no one can know how much power you can channel. You have to promise me you won't tell anyone."

Harlene gaped. "Claire, we can't keep something like this a secret. There are countless technicians that check on the realities constantly."

"True. I can't keep everything from them. But I can keep this."

Harlene's brow rose. "Should I even ask?"

"It would be best if you didn't. Harlene…" Claire put her hands on her shoulders. "I'm asking you to trust me on this one. Can you?"

That could be called a low blow. Claire seldom called on Harlene's trust, but when she did Harlene was incapable of not giving it.

"All right."

Claire smiled.

Roan and even Noelle had the grace to not comment on the cold wall between Harlene and Jacob when they all met up that night. When Roan showed them all what he had in mind for Cody Harrington's gift, they were all equally stunned.

"God, how did you do this?" Noelle demanded.

"Using the two ingredients that make all things," Roan said, smiling. "Time and effort."

"And a whole lot of guts," Harlene added. "If anyone finds out, you could get in real trouble for this."

"Well, he's not going to be able to keep it," Roan said. "It'll serve as a rental for an hour or so. Speaking of which, is there anything you all would like to add?"

Harlene, Noelle, and Jacob all exchanged sly, knowing glances before booting up their comms.

xXx

MercedesSalander: Done. Should spread worldwide thru the next 10 hrs.

CaptainAwesomeO: We're safe?

MercedesSalander: You're safe. Scout's honor.

CaptainAwesomeO: Thx.

Cody logged off the chat room and leaned back in his chair. He released a deep breath and let his comm rest against his heart. Maybe this was it. Maybe the release of this video would spell the end for the CAA. Countless Klan members quit after Stephenson butchered Madge Oberholtzer after all, even if it was just for the media shit-storm that followed. He closed his eyes and savored the weight off his chest. It was better than dwelling on the horror that was currently spreading like wildfire over the Internet.

He may have dozed off for he nearly jumped a foot in the air when his comm beeped. He fumbled with it, flicked it on, and saw that someone was inviting him to a virtual chat room. That wasn't abnormal. What was abnormal was the connection. This wasn't just some random invite from some random person, or even a friend. Whoever they were, they had access to the best virtual reality had to offer…

His heart pounded. No. No, that couldn't be it. He laughed disbelievingly. There was no way.

But if there was...

Well. There was no way in hell he was missing this.

But just to make sure this wasn't some psycho stalker, he contacted MercedesSalander again to do a background check.

xXx

After triple-checking the settings on her starfighter, Aurra powered up the Predator and maneuvered it on the far side of the planet, just above the atmosphere. She would remain here in still orbit until the tracking device she attached to Orn's ship warned her that the captain was departing. Then she would make her move. Her plan was to chase Orn into the asteroid field a mere quarter of a parsec from Ryloth. She would have her fun playing cat and mouse for a while, loop around a bit, tease him into a rage. If she were lucky she could drive him to smash into a few floating rocks, but she never relied on luck. The Predator would do some of the necessary damage before she pretended to take a devastating hit. She would then leave the Predator adrift and helpless. Before Orn could deliver the final blow, she would sneak up from behind in her starfighter and blast the engines into oblivion. All there would be left after that was boarding and capturing. Dead or alive. Either one was acceptable for the reward, but she really wanted to get him alive.

A red light flashed on the console. It was time to go.

She rounded around the planet only after Orn was clear and then fired two shots off the starboard side. An aft cannon nearly clipped the cockpit before proceeding to fire at one of her engines. His gunmen were very good. A normal pilot, however skilled, would have taken at least some damage before returning fire. But not only was Aurra Sing the best, she had the Force. This was fun already, but the real fun would begin when they reached the asteroid field.

xXx

Harlene was glad that they sent Cody's present when they did for not an hour later, they were all informed that their vacation time would be drastically cut short thanks to CAA attacks across New York, Texas, and California. Those rioters weren't exactly innocent either.

Ces't la vi, Harlene thought with a sigh as she jacked in. After making her usual rounds, she made contact with the Jedi who would help Maul embrace the light side. She wasn't surprised that it took very little persuasion. She had always known it would be him, had to be him. He was the only one who could teach Maul in a way that would serve to strengthen him rather than diminish his spirit.

The easy part was over. Now it was time to actually tell Maul who would be teaching him.

As expected, he threw the biggest tantrum she had ever seen him throw. It severely tested her resolve, but she made good on her vow not to raise her voice (for the most part) and to wait him out if he ranted.

In the end he agreed, something which didn't shock her as much as it would have prior to their post-sex conversation. He had changed quite a bit, but she wasn't ignorant, and she had grown to understand his tone and body language very well. He agreed for her, but also for himself. He believed she chose this particular Jedi in order to test him, and he was determined to pass it, to prove himself to her. Harlene nearly told him it wasn't a test, but in the end she didn't. While no other Jedi she had access to could teach Maul properly, she couldn't deny that a part of her did want to test him. What's more, she didn't feel guilty about it at all. She was downright anticipating the upcoming results. Initiation would begin shortly, but first it was time to pay Anakin a visit.

She didn't need her comm to locate him. Because it was evening on Coruscant she knew he would be where he had been practically living for the past month: in an isolated meditation room in the Jedi Temple.

On the way she spotted Mace Windu talking with Kit Fisto, Agen Kolar, and Saesee Tiin in a deserted hallway, their tones hushed and grim. While the rage that roared through her whenever she was subjected to the sight, voice, or smell of nearly any Jedi had become as familiar as the pattern of her thumbprints it had never been potent enough to compel her subconscious mind to channel currents of electricity in her hands and behind her eyes. Now it was, and she sure as fuck knew why. Bubble or no bubble, they were the kind of people who would rape someone's mind and then rationalize it with self-righteous bullshit. It would be so easy to just shed her invisibility, channel seventy-thousand volts into her hands and then lay them on the brows of four creatures so detestable that it wouldn't be enough for them to bear the label of monster.

Harlene let out a long breath and dispelled the energy. Rage was fine, but not when it could cheat her out of a truly satisfying revenge. She took the hot flaming ball and stored it in the coldest freezer her mind possessed. In a short time she would withdraw it. Her mental fist would shatter it into a thousand icy daggers that would embed in her tongue and be fired at her whim and her whim alone.

In time.

Once the freezer was locked she was able to fully appreciate the irony of the sight. Originally, only Mace and Yoda had "known" that Darth Sidious may be someone in Palpatine's inner circle. The only reason Mace let Obi-Wan in on the little secret was so that he could keep a better eye on Anakin's relationship with the Chancellor.

Harlene didn't need to check the Founder's information archives to guess that Mace was the one who persuaded Yoda to keep the secret. In his righteousness, the son of a bitch had managed to fool himself into believing this was some 'the less people know the better' horseshit. With each passing day ever since the Clone Wars started, he had grown more and more possessive of his beloved Republic. After learning a Sith Lord may be ruling it from within the shadows, he had evolved from possessive lover to fanatical-stalker-possessive-no-one-else-helps-you-without-my-permission lover. Exactly like Anakin. It made Harlene want to sink to the floor and laugh.

Instead, she went to Anakin's meditation room. The time to enact her revenge on the Jedi would be very soon, she knew, but not quite yet. Still, she could have a bit more fun beforehand. But first things first.

After checking her comm to make sure Anakin wasn't immersed in the Force, she knocked.

"Enter."

She opening the door and smiled, taking the seat beside him. "Hey. How's everything going?"

"Well. Very well," he said. "I'm getting so close, Harlene, so close. At this rate, I doubt I'll even need Plagieus' secret. With this much power…there's nothing I won't be able to do."

The mechanical edge to his voice that she heard when he started speaking was now combined with a fanatical joy. It was incredibly creepy, especially with the way his bloodshot blue eyes shone at her through his sleep-starved face. He was enjoying this 'inward thinking' probably even more than Palpatine hoped he would. Nearly all aspects of the kind, selfless, nine-year-old she had met years ago had been dead for over a decade, but seeing him like this was what made her truly grieve for them. The boy was dead. And this twisted, selfish shell was all that was left.

It saddened her more than she could say.

But it also enraged her.

Time to deliver the second dosage.

"You love it very much," she said quietly.

"What?"

"The power. You love it very much."

"The power's just a tool, Harlene," he insisted. "Once I hone it to perfection, you, Padme, my child…nothing will ever be able to hurt you again. I promise you that."

"But you love it very much."

A frown creased his forehead. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying be careful," she said. "Anakin, you're an incredibly arrogant individual. Don't you dare look at me that way. I'm not saying this to be cruel. It's a fact. Your ego is very fragile, and very large. That's an already a deadly combination that can become fatal before you know it, especially with your current activities."

He lurched to his feet. Teeth bared and eyes blazing, he bore down on her. "I'm trying to keep the people I love safe! I'm trying to keep my wife from dying in childbirth! Are you telling me that's wrong!?"

"I'm not talking about your goals, Anakin, I'm talking about your methods. And your methods aren't wrong or evil by themselves. I myself wouldn't be above using them, or any methods for that matter, if I felt it was the right thing to do. But remember, you've been concentrating on yourself during your meditations these past weeks. And your goal is to save the life of someone you love."

His eyes narrowed. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"

"If you think I'm saying that you could lose sight of your goal in favor of what you're focusing on in order to get the power to save your wife, then you would be absolutely correct."

Anakin glared at her, furious and trembling, before turning away.

"I don't believe you," he spat.

"You should," Harlene replied darkly. "I'm your sister, Anakin, not your yes-man."

"I never wanted you to be!" he snarled, rounding on her. "But you thinking for even one second that I could value power, myself, more than I could my own wife—"

"—means I'm the most realistic person in this room!" Harlene allowed her voice to rise as she stood up. "That kind of thinking can corrupt anyone. Anyone. Including me. Anakin, I love you. I would die for you. I would bear torture for you. I would do anything in the fucking universe for you. But if I spent weeks focusing on myself in order to channel power, there is a very, very high possibility that it would permanently affect the way I think, react, and feel. Even if it's just for a moment…it could very well be your last moment."

He went very pale. "You don't mean that."

"I do," she said grimly. "But the fact that I'm willing to admit it gives me far more protection than a person who isn't willing to admit it. Anakin, did it ever occur to you that in trying to save Padme's life, you could end up killing her yourself?"

He bit his lip and looked away. "For a moment…but I remember what you said. About her begging me for forgiveness...for something she believed she did…"

"That's just one hypothesis, Anakin. Are you willing to bet Padme's life on it?"

Conflict brewed behind his eyes before he turned to her. "I know my goal, Harlene. I'll never lose sight of it. Never."

Harlene left with a deep sense of satisfaction. A fine job if she did say so herself. Time to inform Claire.

"I just told Anakin that his self-absorbed brooding could push him to kill his whore."

"That's dangerous, apprentice."

"No, it's not. I used just the right amount of truth and persuasion. He considered what I said, but in the end he still stuck to his guns. The second dosage has been delivered."

"Second dosage?"

"The first dosage was giving him the dream theory that his whore's sniveling, whining apologies meant that some kind of guilt's gonna kill her. Guilt that she did something to hurt him. Now I've planted the seed that the actions he's taking to save her are going to kill her in the end. That he's going to kill her in the end."

"That's very cruel, Harlene. After he awakens in the suit…ah."

Harlene grinned. "Sidious' little revelation is gonna be an iron-knuckled punch to the soul, but now I've added a couple of spikes to it."

"And why would you do such a thing?"

"The Jedi will pay for butchering his humanity, but he is going to pay for reveling in his Tusken Raider genocide along with everything else past, present, and future. This is all I can do for now without interfering directly."

"Is it enough?"

"Far from it. But you know what? I'm glad that I can't interfere right now. Nothing like a few limits to inspire your creativity." In the distance, she heard familiar voices and uncloaked herself. "Speaking of which…" She turned around and put Claire on hold the exact moment Mace Windu, Saesee Tiin, Kit Fisto, and Agen Kolar rounded around the corner.

Mace didn't waste a moment.

"What are you doing here, Observer?"

Harlene smiled.

"You know, Mace, I'm glad that the fact that what I do is none of your goddamn business will never pierce through that thick skull of yours. Because that uncompromising, demanding tone of yours gets funnier every time you use it."

"I can say the same thing for your expectations," Mace countered before the other three could protest their indignation. "Do you honestly think we don't know what you were trying to accomplish with your little sit-in?"

"Oh, don't keep me in the dark now." She grinned a feral grin. "What was I trying to accomplish?"

"You can find someone else to humor your antics. All you need to know is that they're failing miserably."

"As miserably as the Republic is failing? How it's been failing for thousands of years?"

"So you really are a Separatist." There was a definite note of grim triumph in the Korun Master's tone. "Can't say I'm surprised."

"No, Mace, I'm a realist," Harlene corrected patiently. "You're a self-righteous, dogmatic, fanatical ass. But I digress. My superiors will be telling me their decision of whether or not to give you aid very soon."

"And if they choose to aid us," Mace said, not in any way acknowledging her insult to him, "what would be their price?"

"Mmm." Harlene bit her lip. "That's hard to say."

"If it's any form of power or authority over the Republic, then tell them not to waste their time."

The flat dismissal in his answer was followed a brusque brush-past. But Harlene wasn't done.

"Oh, you don't have to worry about that, Mace. When I told my superiors that you and Yoda strongly suspected Sidious may be hiding among the Chancellor's inner circle, their opinion of the Republic became even lower than mine. And that's saying something."

It was as if Mace had become a statue of granite. Saesee, Agen, and Kit on the other hand all blanched.

"The Sith among…" Kit's already enormous eyes widened. "…What are you talking about?"

Harlene looked at him as if he were dense. "Darth Sidious could be hiding among Palpatine's inner circle. What, you didn't know that?" When he continued to look incredulous, Harlene demanded of Mace Windu, "You and Yoda have suspected this for months, and you haven't even told your fellow council members?"

Mace turned around very slowly. "What Master Yoda and I decide, Observer, is and never will be your concern. You seem to be incapable of getting that fact through your thick skull, and for your sake I hope that you do. Very, very soon."

Harlene cocked her head. "Are you trying to intimidate me? Because if you are, you're doing a very bad job at it." Without waiting for an answer, she shrugged carelessly. "Oh, well. I guess to expect more from you would be optimism to the point of sheer stupidity." She shrugged again and disappeared.

xXx

Orn fell for the decoy rather easily, but Aurra's grin only got wider as two proton torpedoes sliced right through the unshielded hull, which exploded in a burst of flak. Cranking up the sublight engines, she angled The Stinger through the newly created doorway. It had barely touched ground when she ignited her lightsaber and leaped from the cockpit. Her guard remained up when she landed in a crouch. The hanger bay was deserted.

To the eyes of a Force-blind idiot.

"I can feel you. All of you," she crooned. "Come out, come out, wherever you are…"

Her right hand shot out. A large cylinder lifted itself in the air and came crashing down. Blaster fire erupted on every side, drowning out the death squeal that followed. But it didn't drown out Aurra Sing's laughter. She picked off one, two, three, four, before she barely caught the shadow of numerous, writhing tentacles ducking into the supposed safety of a doorway. Aurra grinned, jumped to the bridge above and followed.

He didn't get far. Three minutes and five corpses later, she cornered him in some kind of cramped weapons room. He was standing sideways to her by a table arrayed with an assortment of knives, daggers, and various other…tools. In his hand was a long, sharp black object. He was gazing at it as if it contained every secret of the universe.

"Hello, Aurra Sing." His attention on the object never wavered. "Welcome to the Room of Trust."

Aurra leveled her blaster at his head. "Drop it."

A small smile curled his lipless mouth as he calmly lowered the object to the table.

"Now come towards me. And keep your hands where I can see them. We're taking a little trip to the Iridonian Mid Rim colonies. They're dying to see you."

"But why would you want to leave, Aurra Sing? You're right where you need to be."

Aurra bared her teeth. The murglak still wasn't looking at her. "You want me to stun you? That can be arranged very easily."

"Do you trust, Aurra Sing?"

Now he looked at her. That scarred, grotesque face held an expression of honest curiosity. The fingers of her free hand twitched, aching to claw his eyes out.

"Yes," he said softly before she could snarl another threat. "You do trust. But it's…tattered. Broken. That won't do at all."

The door hissed shut and locked behind them. Only the best assassin training the galaxy had to offer enabled Aurra to keep her blaster steady.

"Are you insane?!"

"I'm where I belong. Because I trust." His smiled widened. "And you don't."

Another sharp hissing sound was her only warning. Captain Orn's form was suddenly blurred and distorted by clouds of pale fumes. Before Aurra could pull the trigger or run, her entire body was hit by a searing paralysis. She fell sideways, her blaster clattering away from her. Despite everything, she wasn't surprised that Harlene's face was the last thing her mind's eye saw before it was ruthlessly plunged into oblivion.

xXx

Darth Maul knew full well he was being tested.

He spared a moment of gratitude that Harlene did not think so little of his intelligence that she would deny it, despite not having outright confirmed it. She didn't have to. Why should she have to when even the blindest most mentally challenged of fools would be howling with outrage should they be told that this was not a test. Because it most certainly, definitely, was.

He paced his training room, movements fluid as they were furious, eyes occasionally darting to the datapad that contained notice of Harlene's upcoming arrival with his new…

…teacher. Teacher. The word felt like a blade encrusted with millennia-year-old rust and soaked in the foulest toxin known to sentient creatures, but he forced the word into his mind. He would pass this test. It was imperative that he pass it. Failure of a test like this could and would obliterate all of the respect Maul had earned back from Harlene. He would pass it. There was no other alternative. Still, he wished he knew what he could do to properly prepare for it. Or perhaps he should be grateful he at least possessed preparation time, something Lord Sidious had never granted him in his previous life. But Harlene was not Lord Sidious. Harlene believed in him firmly even when he failed, Harlene continuously granted him mercy he would never deserve no matter what she said. Instead of leaving him to his own devices, she was doing her utmost to help him with this unbearably humiliating weakness. She had even offered to find another solution if he believed he could not handle this one…

The Force flared behind him. A presence powerful, and hideously familiar.

"Hello, Maul."

Gut roiling in a thousand different forms of loathing, Darth Maul turned around. Harlene stood a few feet away, neutral but on hair-breadth red alert. Behind her, wearing an expression of politeness and wariness on his rugged face, and far more than close enough to touch was Qui-Gon Jinn.

He. Would not.

Fail.

xXx

(A/N): A dairy allergy, the flu, a soy allergy/thyroid condition (kudos to my wonderful mother who found a way to stave off the symptoms or there's a very high possibility I would be dead now), gall bladder surgery...

Wow. I've spent an entire year sick.

BUT after many doctor visits I've FINALLY found one who's getting to the heart of the problem. My family and I had always wondered why I always felt so lousy and sick over the years and we're getting leads at long last. So far it looks like it was my own liver not my gall bladder that's been poisoning me for years (from what we've seen it could have started back when I was thirteen) and I'm currently undergoing a series of treatments that are meant to get rid of the problem once and for all. I've undergone two so far and it's like drinking water after roaming the desert for days. I don't know how many I'll need in the end but when they're done I hope, I pray with all my soul, that this nightmare will be over forever, and I can write this story in peace.

Thank you all so much for sticking with me and your well wishes. You have no idea what it means to me.

If anyone's interested in the details of my lovely experience with gall bladder surgery, check out my blog (link on my profile) and read the post titled "Stephanie Meyer's unforgivable insult to post-surgical patients."

2,000 words into the next chapter. Can't make any promises about quicker updates, but I always remain optimistic.

If it's any consolation, you have my illnesses to thank for Supernatural and Firefly being added to the series. Probably never would have explored them otherwise.

Cheers! :)