Author's note: And we're back after many months of inactivity and characters hanging in space and time, waiting for people to take interest in this story!

I want to thank everyone for checking this out. I know it's far from the SWTOR universe now and it's going to get darker and filthier than originally planned. Sorry! At least, it's still Star Wars.

Remember that this is M-rated. So if you're under 18 and are averse to interspecies relations, dirty sex stuff, and mentally damaging events, please walk away.

Chapter 7

"You aren't completely evil. I can tell."

Neriss stared at her, motionless on her side of the backseat next to Daen who was keeping an earnest eye on the Jedi, too. Her speeder flew over the cityscape in the night, far away from where, moments ago, Seryna Merek had been shot in the head. The young woman was dead, Daen needed to factor that in, which meant that other aspiring Sith and agents might come looking for her. She continued, directing her voice to the driver.

"Why else aren't you taking me directly to your master?"

Drake slightly moved his head but kept his attention on his piloting, his spiked gloves wrapped around the steering handle.

"Darth Feris wouldn't see your value," he explained. "You are technically my enemy, but you haven't done anything wrong."

Daen waited for him to finish, herself mustering a reply of her own. The air-car slowed at the top level of a tall building, it's sleek, dark permacrete edges cutting through the misty Coruscant sky. Drake set the brakes on the speeder and unlocked the doors.

"I want to help you," he added. "Thanks to you I was able to eliminate a threat on my life."

Neriss fell silent. Leading her into the private apartment, Daen shot a confused glare at her former partner. Drake, his unlit lightsaber ready, opened the main balcony entrance with a discrete twitch of his finger and they found relative safety in his home. The Mirialan turned around to take it all in; the dark furnish, the spartan decor and her unusual hosts.

"Perhaps you speak the truth, Sith. But Seryna was a dear friend of mine and you killed her without a chance to redeem herself." Lips trembling, Neriss sighed. "You saved my life and I owe you for it. Though I fear you did so for the wrong reasons."

Drake studied her for a few seconds, then with the hilt of his weapon directed her towards the couch.

"Sit down."

Standing straight with calm on her face, Neriss moved solemnly across the carpeted floor and brought her robes to her sides before taking a seat.

"You could have let Seryna kill me," she cautiously added, "and the children would still be safe. As, I assume, it's them you really want to help."

Drake began pacing side-to-side, watching Neriss through the sharp, dark slits of his visors. To Daen, he looked like he was going to strike his prey.

"Whose idea was it to infiltrate the Sith Academy?" he asked.

"It was all Seryna's initiative." Neriss let her eyes shut, her lips curving into a frown. "She wasn't ready to do such a thing."

"Maybe it's for the best that she died," interjected Daen, folding her arms against her breast.

The woman pierced her through and through with her stare. Drake witnessed the silent defiance and clipped his lightsaber to his belt.

"How do you explain the way Merek handled the situation down there?"

"Something went wrong, obviously." She closed her eyes and tears brimmed underneath her lids. "My feelings have clouded my judgement."

Daen turned her gaze from her to Drake, then relaxed her posture.

"The bounty hunter that she hired for protection was working with us."

"So you knew all along about everything?" Neriss nervously clutched the edge of the seating. "I need a moment, please."

He motioned towards the back of the apartment.

"We have a guest room."

With Neriss retreated to her temporary holding, they were left together in silence and Daen itched to walk away.

"Take a holo," she shot out to him. "It'll last longer."

"Not having you to help tonight would have been safer," he thought out loud. "The Jedi believed you. So, whatever you said, it was done well."

Hands propped on her hips, she rolled her shoulders back as if to stretch her neck. She wanted to forget that he was once able to relax all the muscles in her body with a simple touch.

"You're welcome. But I did it for Lodius, and because I actually care about innocent kids."

"You worry that I would do something to them if you weren't here," he assumed.

She sat down where the Jedi used to sit, and covered her hands on her face while breathing deeply.

"Have I done the right choice, staying here?"

Drake took a hesitant step around the couch, then turned back to take a seat at a respectful distance, across from her in the living room. After a pause, he pushed back his hood and removed his mask. He waited a few seconds before making eye contact.

"Knowing you, it didn't look like you had a choice."

"And Merek?" She scratched a side of her scalp, pausing. "Aren't you breaking a few rules by killing another Sith?"

"She wasn't Sith. Not yet anyway."

"You're not entirely sure about it, though," she perceived.

The guest room was closed but Drake kept watch towards it in case the door would come to open on their conversation.

"I killed my old master's apprentice," he reflected. "If anything, for a spy she must have pulled some strings to get close to me. Lord Feris should have seen through her."

Feris wanted him to die at the hands of a Jedi spy. Clumsy, considered who was picked for the job.

"Go check with your master then," Daen told. "I'll stay here to keep an eye on our guest."

"In case she tries to escape, then what?"

Daen shrugged, repressing a smirk with a pinch of her lips.

"We'll play some sabacc and talk about the good old days."

Considered her age and experience in combat she wasn't suited to be left alone with Neriss, and Daen remembered what Lodius said about her needing practice. She had to get by on her own. If things went sour she could always call on her foster brother for extra muscle, he was surely done disposing of Merek's body as well as investigating the clandestine Padawan network.

"I'll arrange for Lodius to come pick you up," Drake said and paused. "If you want to. The Mirialan doesn't have to leave here until we decide what to do with her."

"You need her," she persuasively replied. "So perhaps setting her free is exactly the show of good faith she needs to see coming from you. Then she will cooperate."

"Knowing this location and who you are, what we're doing, she will be tempted to use it against us." Drake shook his head.

"So? You haven't done anything wrong... Except, maybe, killing her friend. But the girl was a freak anyway." Impatient, she got up and paced around the living room. Her footsteps landed softly on the carpet. "Work on your options. If your master is giving you shit for taking initiative, go grass roots and do whatever you need to get him off your back."

Slowly getting up from his seat, Drake appeared to be carrying an invisible weight on his shoulders. His face was more pale than she'd expected, and his deep-set eyes betrayed lack of sleep and anxiety. Alarmed, Daen restrained herself when her first instinct was to go to him and be the comforting friend. They were in a mess because of his life decisions, she had to let him realize that.

"Feris is on to us," he muttered depressingly. "He will find out who you are. Being here is no longer safe for you."

Standing stoic and unaffected, she laid understanding eyes upon him.

"I'll be fine. We've seen it coming, didn't we?"

"He might have known for a while," he added. "So many Sith have secret affairs."

Daen tightened her jaw at the word and decided not to get offended.

"You'll always be my friend, and I'll always love you. You can send me holos and texts any time."

His reddened eyes pleaded to her. She would be fine away from him. There were so many systems and places she wanted to visit without being tied down or having to wonder what it was like to be free. She shook her head at him.

"I'm not guilty of what you made of your life. I'm going to help Lodius find the Padawans and you will deal with Sharta. I believe Nial is still taking care of her..."

"Yeah," he sighed taking a step closer. "You're right, I should face my responsibilities. But I'm not pushing you away..."

Daen touched his face, the unscarred side, and tried to feel it without resenting what he thought of her. His gloved hand directed hers over his mouth and he kissed it, tickling her palm with his stubble.

Don't, she mentally implored as he pulled her close. But she couldn't keep on hoping that things weren't dire.

"No," she whispered when his face was right over hers.

His brown eyes were drowned in tears.

"One last time," he replied, hopeful.

And hope was the last thing she wanted to hang on to. Letting go meant to forget the intimacy and how his kiss made her head spin. She would miss his warmth, and he would become enraged at the thought of never making love to her again.

Cringing with anger, revolted, she pulled herself out of his grasp and backed up against the door to the terrasse. Unable to speak, she escaped as fast as she could without looking back. Jumping in her speeder she fired up the engine and quickly put some distance between her and the man she had loved for all of her life.

The ride towards Tessan's workshop was swift and calming, she centered herself and tried to find serenity in her situation. She got out of her speeder and untied her hair to let it flow freely, releasing the tension on her scalp.

"Back so soon?" shot out Tessan from the kitchen.

Daen walked across the hangar and joined her foster mother in a tight hug. There was too much she wanted to say and get over with. The comfort she felt in being held by family made her release all the stress in her tears and she sobbed like a child. Tessan looked back at her with concern and understanding, all the while patting her gently on the back.

"It's over between Drake and I," she said, her voice weak with the surge of emotions.

"I'm sorry, cyar'ika. But you'll live. It will hurt like hell, and you'll feel like shab for a week. Only time will ease your pain."

She sat down at the small dining table, wiping her swollen eyes with the back of her hands. Tessan combed her hair away from her face.

"Did he try to hurt you?"

Shaking her head, Daen let out a sigh and fought not to sob again.

"I'm just tired," she explained.

"I'll make you some tea, then you can lay down for a bit."

She'd spent most of her night life in the workshop's spare room that was barely large enough for two people. It wasn't ideal, but the alternative would have been regrettable.

While Tessan was gone to make tea, Daen was burying her face on her crossed arms, almost sleeping on the table and she didn't hear anyone sitting there, watching.

"Are you okay?"

The male voice belonged to no other than Lodius who'd changed out of his armor. Strangely, he appeared sad himself when she looked up with a puffy face.

"I'll be alright," she replied, wiping her face. "What happened to your suit?"

Fingers meshed together on the table, he was sitting in his cargo pants and black tank top. Her gaze randomly focused on a scar marking his left forearm.

"Being washed of Seryna Merek's blood," he answered.

Right, she remembered that he had killed the poor damned woman. Lodius still wore his dark eye lenses, he'd probably forgotten to remove them since that morning.

"Something's bothering you," Daen observed.

She knew her brother never wanted to share his concerns with anyone, and kept to himself, so she noticed it when he tried to reach out, however subtly he behaved. His lower lip bent down and looked right at her.

"I saw Norin today. I didn't have the courage to talk to her."

Ah, young love. Daen smiled and happily laughed at the news.

"I told you she would come back into your life."

"It's not an easy decision for me to accept," he harshly replied. "I don't like seeing you hurt. Why would I let her put herself through similar trouble?"

Pouting with displeasure she could only applaud the consideration with which he handled the Norin situation. But if the girl wanted to be with him, he owed her an answer, at least.

"Don't be an asshole, go talk to her. You can't leave her hanging."

Tessan came back with a plastic tray of tea and biscuits. The warm, sweet smells instantly uplifted Daen's mood and Lodius rose from his chair.

"I've got to go, then. Don't wait up on me."


\ \ \

Grabbing his black jacket he strode out of the workshop, scrolling down the past messages from his datapad to search for Norin's tracker. Tracking a slicer was no mere feat, he had to try harder than that. His signal triangulator launched and progressed slowly as he got to the speeder parking lot. Footsteps other than his own followed him, and more people converged on his position, synchronized and deliberate.

Here we go.

Lodius lifted his head up, surrounded by the same swoop gang that he'd managed to scare off before. The one biker he'd hung over the ledge of a skywalk wasn't visible. Only when he spoke did Lodius figure out that he was behind him.

"Well, well. You don't look so tough now, huh?" The man taunted, circling him with a metal crowbar. His beard did nothing to conceal the bruised jaw. "How about a rematch, dead man? Only, with more fair-play this time. Drop your weapons."

He was aware of the guns and rifles pointed at him, a tall male Twi'lek, an Devaronian and another Human male were hatefully glaring in his direction.

Lodius slowly pulled the gun from the small of his back and tossed it to the ground. He took his time and waited for the head gangster to point at his feet with his blunt weapon to reach down and remove the knife from his right boot. Imperceptibly shifting his stance, he prepared his left boot to trigger his hold-out crowd control device.

"Look, I don't want any trouble," Lodius said, not thinking a word he was saying. "If it's money you want, I have plenty."

They all cackled hysterically.

"I don't care about your money! I want this."

He didn't feel the hit immediately, and only registered falling forward and pushing himself up from the concrete floor. Night time was completely dark apart from a few street lights, and Lodius realized with horror that he'd forgotten about his contact lenses. His sight couldn't adjust to the sudden darkness. Pain was gnawing at his abdomen and he wasn't ready to get hit in the back, and in the ribs.

Daen, he found himself thinking. He wished his sister was there to help him. But why? She was in pain, her life was in shambles and she couldn't know what was going on. He had to stop being so selfish...

He didn't feel the hits because he'd felt worse, at one given time in a very different place. The Rattataki didn't take kindly to Umbarans, especially not an Umbaran who could best them in hand-to-hand combat. And these were mere swoop thugs high on deathsticks. Lodius stopped a foot heading for his face and twisted an ankle, turning a laugh into a cry of agony. Next, he grabbed the crowbar and planted it in the bearded man's thigh.

Before the two others could grab their guns fast enough, he pressed on a specific point under his left toes and teargas filled the air around them, projected through his boot sole. Retrieving his knife, Lodius stabbed the two closest attackers before getting rid of the ones who were coughing and moaning in pain.

There would be no retribution now. Lodius picked up his blaster and walked to his speeder. He limped slightly and found that he was holding one of his sides. There was blood on his trousers and shirt.

His apartment was only a few blocks away and he was stopped at the entrance of the building.


The beautiful blue face of Liina beamed and in turn frowned with concern at his physical state. Lodius punched the security code open to enter the building, paying no mind to the Twi'lek exotic dancer that followed him, sliding beneath his arm to help him walk more comfortably.

"What happened?" she worriedly asked. "Who did this to you?"

"They're dead," he said. "You shouldn't have come here."

Once in the elevator, she touched his chest and her fingers raised over his abdomen muscles. No, this couldn't be happening.

"Let me take care of you," she said. "Like you took care of me when I was in need."

Once in his flat, she switched the lights on - having apparently found out how those worked - and went to the bathroom to open the medicine cabinet. Lodius threw his jacket on the bed and she was back with a tube of bacta gel.

"Liina," he said, grabbing her wrists. "I don't need your help, please get out."

Her sky-blue eyes peered into his, unapologetic, and with an intensity he couldn't escape from. She lifted his shirt up, revealing an already purple bruise patch on his side and stomach.

"You're badly hurt," she said, applying the red translucent gel. It was cold against his swollen flesh. "Don't move!"

He backed up against the wall and she knelt down.

No, he said to himself. You owe it yourself not to do this anymore.

Her hands worked magic on his skin and his body. Liina was a stranger, but she still knew how to please a man because of her profession and he couldn't force her away again. She wanted to be there and to unbuckle his belt before pulling his pants down to his knees. Lodius shivered and tightly shut his eyes. He was supposed to contact Norin. She was waiting for him to show a sign of life, she deserved at least an answer...

Soft, dainty hands were massaging his waist, running down his hairless groin and circling him, squeezing ever so slightly before he felt her lips and her tongue. It should have been someone else with him at that moment, and she would have never gone so fast. They would have taken their time and perhaps never even kissed that day. Only her smile would have been enough to make his worries disappear.

Instead, he was surrendering to a person he had taken advantage of, having mentally abused of her naivete and was paying the price for it. And no, he couldn't kill her.

Lodius stopped thinking as his ideas went from morbid to sickening, only rushing to expel into Liina's throat. She had to stop moaning. Lodius held her by the roots of her lekku, thrusting deep and only stopping when she tapped his thighs. He pulled out and she gasped and coughed, covering a hand over her blue mouth. Once flaccid again, he locked himself in the bathroom and showered thoroughly. His bloodied and semen-stained clothes needed a wash as well and he wasn't sure he wanted to spend another hour in that building to do laundry.

He found her lying on her back, a hand idly slipped in her underwear as she watched him pulling clean clothing out of his dresser.

"We could make this work," she said behind him. "You and I."

Looking over his bare shoulder, there were no words for him to express how wrong she was.

"You can stay. I'm leaving... There's someone waiting for me."

He startled as she caressed his leg and he felt her warm breasts against his back.

"Will you say hi to her from me?"

Lodius pulled her hands away from his stomach so as to prevent another needless arousal. It was sad to understand that this kind of situation had already occurred in her life.

"Maybe," he replied, practicing good manners. He turned around and placed his hands on her arms, and bent down to softly kiss her lips. Right then and there he imagined Norin's dark lips and her flowery scent. "The apartment is yours. I've paid the rent three months ahead, it should be long enough for you to bounce back."

"I want you," she told him with a little smile. "Will I ever see you again?"

Hopefully not. Lodius smiled back.

"What does your heart tell you?"

He brought his lips together in an embarrassed smile before leaving.

For the third time in the same day, he stepped out in the open wearing civilian garb. By now, hundreds of security cameras had picked up on his signature and twice as more mobile devices had footage of him without his armor and helmet. It wouldn't be long before his registered ID file would be complete with biometrics and a full body picture of him. No, Lodius was ready to bet that it was already the case. Arriving at his speeder, he used his key card and briefly paused to look around. It was a quiet night and nobody was on the streets in this neighborhood. He got the door to open and sat at the wheel.


At first incredulous, Lodius jumped in his seat and his blaster pistol was in his hand, aimed at the backseat where a woman was giggling, hands raised up. He caught his breath without feeling any air coming in and she grinned. Lodius lowered his weapon.


The cyberpirate pulled herself from the back to slide in the front seat beside him. She'd changed out of her blue outfit for a set of black leggings and a black neck-high shirt thick enough for a cold night out.

"It's nice to see you, Lodius. Admit that you recognized me on the bus!"

Laying his hands on his lap, he shyly smiled and avoided looking at her face.

"I did."

She sat speechless for a moment, taking in his appearance and her smile diminished.

"Things aren't spiffy, huh?" Her voice shifted to a lower pitch. "I would never have guessed that it was you if I hadn't seen surveillance of you driving this speeder in full armor."

"You're Cyno," he guessed. "I never suspected."

"Why didn't you message me back? I went out to look for you, I was worried."

He turned his gaze towards out of the window and rubbed a bruised spot on his chest. Despite his eagerness to talk to her, she didn't deserve to be brought into the dump of his life.

"Complications," he winced, "and family business gone sour. Had to look out for my sister who just went through a break up."

It felt like vomiting. All those words he never said suddenly blurted out of him like a false excuse to sound normal. Norin never once laid her purple eyes away from him. Not one line marked her beautiful orange skin. It was a rare trait among her species.

"I'm sorry for coming up at such a bad time, then. If there's anything I can do to assist you guys, name it. I set up shack down in the business district, level one-oh-twenty-four."

"Since when?"

"Three weeks ago."

Kriffing hell, he thought. He'd started hearing about Cyno's activities around the same time. If Daen had gotten him to look for Norin directly, he probably wouldn't have had the same luck. Lodius wondered what the hacker found in him, why she pursued him at all.

"Listen, that time on Nal Hutta..." he started, and she pinched her face to express sad nostalgia.

"You don't have to apologize to me, Lodius. I'm aware of the kind of life you mercs have. Yours hasn't changed, you still don't know where the reply-button is." She used her pinky to scratch an itch on her face. "I wanted to give you some intel on the people you're tracking. You wouldn't join my secure line so, here I am."

"The Jedi fugitives?"

Leaning forward, Norin seemed to peer into the side-mirrors and reached behind her to strap herself to the seat.

"You should take me home, I'll elaborate on the way."

Checking the area surrounding the rented speeder, Lodius saw a couple of pedestrians but no one he knew. He got the vehicle to lift up and accelerate into the clouds of polluted smoke. Lights became brighter out of the viewports as they entered the business district.

"Those Jedi you're looking for, they're not originally from Coruscant," Norin said, eyes directed forward. "The Mirialan, Neriss Lavil was supposed to give them a tour of the Jedi Temple before the Sith attacked and they were caught in the middle of it. According to their transfer documents, they were planning on returning to Corellia a week later. No idea why they stayed. It seems you got yourself a sleeper cell situation."

Lodius eyed her skeptically as he kept his mouth shut. Having her in his vehicle, sitting casually beside him and talking like not one day had passed since they last met on the Hutt planet, his heart was beating out of control. But he didn't want to sound like a psychopath. He couldn't appear like a complete mess now that they were both in relative safety.

"The Mirialan is in custody," he told her, "she might have an inkling on that. But let me be honest, I'm not getting more deeply involved in this case."

They flew higher into the suburban blocks and the towers grew taller. Setting the speeder in the building's private parking space, he felt his throat lock up at the thought of saying goodbye.

"Is that why you're not in armor now?" she inquired.

He didn't want to share with her the details of Seryna Merek's execution and the disposal of her remains.

"That might be it."

Unlocking the hatch door, Norin stepped out and walked away. She halted a few paces in front of the vehicle and turned halfway around. Uneven lekku hung in her back, the permanent reminder of her grim past. His colored lenses gave him an artistic view, and her dark silhouette looked mesmerizing on the backdrop of the clear, crystal-like apartment tower. Lodius bit his lower lip, never in his life had he ever been so afraid and sad and happy, all at once.

Norin propped a hand on her hip, waiting.

"Well? I'm not finished telling you about Cyno's search results."

He set aside his doubts and sentiments of self-loathing to go after her and walk up to her side.

Norin's flat was no mere apartment. It was a suite or loft, he couldn't tell the difference, and he imagined that someone of her stature could only have stolen someone's credentials in order to afford a place like this. Every wall was a window, and every room had its own decoration and climate control. Even for a home that wasn't hers, Norin had taste. It was too nice, and with the night-time cityscape below, Lodius felt a pressure in his gut.

"Would you like a drink?" she asked. "This bar has everything."

"I really shouldn't stay for too long," he worriedly said.

"Or what? The rats in your building will flood your inbox with passive-aggressive poop notes?"

He chuckled at the funny picture she depicted and turned a serious glare towards her. She was standing at a mini bar and pouring herself a glass of green wine.

"I meant that I should return to my family to make sure they're alright."

"Here," she handed him the glass of wine after arching a hairless brow at his attempt to leave. She was one of the few Twi'leks to not have fake tattooed eyebrows, a purely cosmetic detail to resemble Human females. She looked even more attractive without them. "Drink a lot of this, you'll stop acting like a little girl."

The drink was fruity and refreshing, with a minty undertone. Perhaps she was right and he was over-reacting.

"Why me?" he suddenly heard himself say. "What is your angle, or your plan with me?"

Resting one of her buttocks on an arm chair, she sipped her colored beverage and looked up at him, a hurt expression in her eyes.

"You just happened," she shrugged. "Of all the events that I'd taken control over, and the people I've chosen to include in my existence, you're the only one with whom I never had to change the way I felt. You're a challenge, too."

He smiled painfully. Of all the spontaneous sexual partners he'd thrown himself to, none of them said anything like that. Ending up together would be so easy, he barely needed to ask and she already welcomed him to her safe haven. Lodius didn't want to doubt her, but she was too smart to fall in love.

"I'll help you with anything you need," he offered, "for old time's sake. But if this is about... something personal, I have to step away."

"I can't lie to you, Lodius. You'd see it immediately from my heat levels, the vibrations in my voice or the thoughts in my head." Norin got up and put her glass on the bar counter, sticking her thumbs in her trouser pockets for a second as she seemed to regain composure. "If you decide to never see me again, at least listen to what I have to say. I've picked up on encrypted transmissions around your apartment and your family's safe-house, so I intercepted some of the messages. They were surveillance reports on you."

"What?" He reluctantly went towards her, defying her to speak up. "Who else is watching me, besides you?"

She gave him a rebellious glare and flared her nostrils in contained emotion.

"Imperial agents. Their reports got more precise and doubled in number since you showed your face in public."

"I'm aware of spies and snitches sticking their nose where they don't belong," he menacingly hissed, a pathetic attempt at scaring her.

Norin planted her feet on the floor and crossed her arms under her breasts, staring hard and mean.

"Fine, then. Dismiss me, ignore my warnings and when the Sith come to indoctrinate you to become an assassin, you'll be on your own."

He had to be reminded that Umbarans didn't usually wander in broad daylight unless they were official emissaries, invited by the Sith or somehow tied to them. And his remarkable fitness did not help his case. Norin slowly blinked her exotic eyes lined with black, and uncrossed her arms while he looked away.

"You're looking out for me," Lodius admitted. "No one does that."

"It would literally blow if you worked for the Sith again. I did that one last job for you to know where you stand on the war... Let's say I had to make sure you were still on freelance."

He reassuringly replied. "Mandalorians don't sell their soul, but they do like credits. I guess I'm no different."

She leaned on the table, and looked around her classy, high-ranking apartment.

"And once you have all the things you could possibly want, all you need is to fill the empty space."

They stared each other off with unspoken guessing and feeling tension rise between them. Lodius could not brush away the lingering image of his sister crying her heart out in the workshop's kitchen. Her love life was reducing her to a helpless pile of emotional trauma when she would normally appear strong and joyful.

"If the Sith are on the prowl you shouldn't be anywhere near me."

Thoughtful, Norin laid her hands on the sleek, polished stone table-top with encrusted shiny minerals. Her nails weren't manicured, the way they should all look.

"This isn't me," she reflected, "this place, all these things and this planet. Every decision I made for the past two years have been for nothing."

"It could be worse. Fifteen years ago you started off with literally nothing."

She pouted with displeasure at the mention of her past. The first time he'd met Norin, he had asked about the severed lekku and it was the only time when she ever mentioned about her life as a slave, the abuse she suffered and the day she fought back, costing her disfigurement and nerve damage.

"You made a good life for yourself, that's what I meant," he corrected.

"Hiding in the dark is hardly what I call living," she retorted and pulled away, she approaching him. "I think I'm getting old, or tired. And you're standing there, saying nothing like I should be the one making the next stupid decision."

"Come on," he sighed, trying to sound comforting but how could he achieve that without accepting her near him? He opened his arm and she shyly embraced him. Her warmth brought a smile to his face. "We're all going through tough times, don't beat yourself up."

She was lonely, and he was lonely. Lodius closed his eyes and brushed his chin on her soft forehead. Norin wasn't fifteen anymore but a grown adult woman who could see right through him, and he found that terrifying.

He heard no words coming from her as she pressed tightly against him, and the fear crept up within his back, his stomach and chest. He had never hugged anyone before, not like that. And such a long proof of affection only ever lead to one thing before never seeing them again. He couldn't tell if he'd behave the same if he hadn't met Liina or all the other girls before her, but Lodius broke contact and took a respectful step back from Norin. He considered that she was special and he could not touch her the way he'd touched them.

Her wet purple eyes made him lose track of time and her fingers were in his hand. Where would he put it if he let go?

"You'll return to your place, now?" she asked. "Someone's waiting for you there."

Shab. She knew...

"No," he instinctively replied, shaking his head, refusing to acknowledge reality. He lowered his brow and found his hands around her face, thumbs caressing her cheekbones. "It's not my place anymore. It was a mistake."

"I know," she whispered softly. "That girl only wanted you to love her. And what did she get? An empty space she could never fill on her own."

Searching, studying her face in panic, Lodius let her slip out of his touch, confused and frightened. He had to take a deep breath to slow his heart beat.

Norin disappeared into a room with stained glass walls and she seemed to change clothes. He wanted to look and imagine what that show was like, instead he dropped his weight onto a sofa. The night sky was silent and peaceful. There were no buildings ahead, they were clear of watchers and spies. It all seemed too calm, and safe, things he never took for granted even aboard his own ship.

She never reappeared, and taking a stroll in her apartment he found her in bed, sleeping on her side under thick covers and his eyes fell on her lekku. Lodius went back in the living room, removed the gun attached to the back of his trousers and kept it at his side while he sat in the arm chair. If any intruders arrived, he'd be ready for them.