Summary: Who is he, really? A cowardly scoundrel or a ruthless assassin? The Exile will realize that when it comes to Atton "Jaq" Rand, nothing is as it seems. KOTOR II spoilers, LSF Exile/Atton (rated M for graphic violence/torture, oblique sexual content, implied non-con).

Author Note: Yes, it's kind of a song fic, and I apologize in advance for that. I couldn't help it - the song gave me the idea, and I, uh, thought it would be rude to leave it out.

Many thanks to the lovely faelyn leaf for her excellent editorial skills!

Chariot of Fire

"He had a plan to kill you all along.
The evidence was hidden in this song.
I was a ghost,
I was there at the scene ..."

He was an old hand at this. With the right combination of drugs, a neural disrupter was merely added insurance. The Jedi Exile lay chained to a low stone table, silky hair spilling every which way. Her eyes were fathomless, unreadable, and the watchful stillness of her face betrayed her Jedi training.

Slowly, delighting in her awareness of his every move, he unloosed the fastenings of his gloves. "I should thank you, you know," he mused, tossing the gloves casually into the corner. "The last time I did this, I couldn't shoot lightning from my fingertips. I think things will be much more interesting now."

She closed her eyes and turned her face away in a supreme show of indifference, but he wasn't fooled. He could almost smell the sweet metallic tang of her fear, adrenaline coursing uselessly through her immobilized body. Fear was good, but it wasn't ... quite ... enough. He wanted her vulnerable, open, broken.

He leaned over her, one hand tracing the line of her jaw, lips brushing against the sensitive skin of her ear. "You'll beg me when I'm through with you."

She stared stoically at the ceiling as he slid the vibrodagger along the seams of her Jedi robes, slicing expert lines through the thin, worn fabric. So she was going to try to ignore him. That was ... irritating, but at least he knew she wouldn't be able to keep it up for long. His ice princess -- her resolve would melt soon enough. He'd strip away every last layer of protection she tried to hold against him.

Throwing the last scrap of cloth aside, he took a single step back to admire the overall effect. Very fetching. The long lines of her body stretched taut by her bonds, her skin glowing warm against the cold gray stone. Irresistible. He brushed his hand across the velvet skin of her stomach, watching her face for any hint of reaction.

There. Just the barest hitch in her breath, a minute flexing of smooth muscles under his fingertips.

Just as anticipation -- whether of pleasure or pain -- could be far more intense than the emotions themselves, so he had found that keeping his victims in a constant state of simmering fear was more effective than outright brutalization. It wasn't necessarily what he did, as much as keeping them aware of what he could do. Of their pathetic helplessness, of his absolute control, of the threat that current pain was merely a hint of future agony.

He took his time with her, savoring every moment. She lasted quite a while -- not the longest he'd ever had, but definitely in the top ten. Yet in the end she fell. They always did. He was very, very good at his job.

"You want me to keep going? Or have you had enough?"

Helpless sobs racked her slight frame. Bruised, bloodied, scarred with Force burns, and covered in the marks of his touch (and his teeth), she drew in a shuddering breath and whispered, "Atton ... please ...."

The grin that spread across his face then was more diabolical than any weapon unleashed in any war the galaxy had ever seen.

"I told you that you'd beg," he murmured, and set his lips to her swollen, bitten mouth. He watched her face as he kissed her; watched her terrified, wounded eyes seeking some sign of mercy. Gently, oh, so delicately, he ran his palms up the lines of her body to encircle the fragile column of her throat. His grin widened ... he tightened his grip, and then ...

He woke up.

"I curse this taste that's on my tongue,
This taste will last until I rip it out.
No - I won't need these gloves.
Her bones are withered away, but her ghost will remain."

Atton had dreamed of killing her so many times -- nightmares that had left his heart beating fast with a twisted mix of loathing and repressed desire. Even when he was awake, dark images had circled endlessly in the depths of his mind, concealed by pazaak or hyperspace coordinates, or the ticking of power couplings. Sometimes he'd even been able to taste those imagined kisses, her mouth sweet as spice, tinged with blood and desperation.

He'd known it was an unhealthy obsession, but he'd never given a damn.

Since the moment she'd waltzed into the holding cells on Peragus, he'd been drawn to her. He didn't even know why. It wasn't her looks -- she was definitely attractive, but Atton had seen (and destroyed) far more beauty than one burnt-out Jedi outcast. It wasn't her clever conversation, either. Sure, she could probably persuade a Mandalorian to take up table-dancing, but she still had a tendency to blush and stutter whenever his banter got too risqué. And it certainly wasn't her brains.

She was kind of an idiot. Naive as the rawest padawan, wise to every nuance of the soul yet blind to every facet of reality. He'd told her, flat-out told her every reason she should stay the hell away from him. His murderous past, his depraved habits, his less-than-pure inclinations. He'd given her fair warning about the darkness lurking inside him, and still she'd laughed at his jokes, taught him the Force, asked him to watch her back on every damn jaunt off-ship. The woman was just ... suicidally stupid.

And now? She'd finally gotten smart and set off on her own -- but now it was too late. He was hooked, and like a spice addict, he couldn't give her up. Maybe it was because she was so damned righteous, so pure and devout. She was so in touch with the Light that he could almost see its glow around her, casting all his shadows into sharp relief. He'd never had a woman who wasn't motivated by greed or fear; just prostitutes ... and victims. Both had their perks. Still, he had sometimes wondered just what it would be like to break through that Jedi detachment, get inside her head and see which would triumph -- her light, or his darkness.

Those few times he'd tried to talk seriously about his feelings, she had stopped him before he could more than stumble over the unfamiliar words. The mission, that was all she had time for ... the fate of the galaxy, the pull of destiny. She couldn't spare any attention for him. And he'd been able to tell, in the shadows of her eyes, that she didn't expect to survive through to the end.

Well. He would take care of that.

She had given him a reason to step back, to look at all he'd been and all he could be, but had he ever really wanted to? His whole life had been a string of lies and broken promises, snarling rage, and vicious agony. He'd taken most of his solace in delivering pain. And then, when he'd been threatened with the same treatment he'd delighted in administering, he'd run like a coward rather than embrace what he already was. Who would want to take a closer look at that?

At the beginning it had seemed like the wisest course of action to play the fool. To be so obviously incompetent, sleazy, and shallow that no one would ever look twice. And that had kept him free from Revan's Jedi-hunters; worked so well that even he didn't always know who he really was. He'd hidden in plain sight. But now Revan was gone Force-knew-where, and that damn Exile had put him on the watch-list for every Sith left in the galaxy. So what was the point in pretending anymore?

'Jedi' and 'Sith' had always been just words to him. He'd never really known the difference -- or cared. All he cared about was her. He'd have set worlds aflame for her if she'd only let him get close to her, yet she always she kept that distance; friendly but remote, caring but aloof. Somewhere along the line she'd become the center of his damn universe, and to her he was just another padawan. It drove him absolutely kathshit insane. He knew the problem, though ... she thought that he was useless, bumbling, weak.

He'd show her how very, very wrong she was.

He did sometimes feel like nothing more than the ghost of his own past. He'd spent so long running from conflict, hiding from himself and everyone else ... but that didn't mean he'd forgotten what it was like to be Jaq. Back then he never walked away from a fight, and when he saw something he wanted, he took it. He'd been strong once. Ruthless and decisive, and willing to wade through seas of blood to reach his goals. And now he'd finally, finally realized that who he'd been and who he was didn't have to be so terribly different after all - and he knew just what he had to do.

Some things a man can't ever escape, can't ever forget. How to hunt Jedi; well, that was one of them.

He'd already stolen one of her stimulant syringes and refilled it with a Jedi-specific concoction of potent sedatives, one of the tricks of his old trade. Hadn't he always known, somewhere deep in his tattered soul, that it would come to this? When the stakes get high, you never stand on a seventeen. A feral grin stretched his lips, and he set out on a path that would end in blood.

He wouldn't let her leave him behind.

There was still time.

"All the choices you've made,
And the paths that I take.
You're the only one that died
(It was never enough, it was never enough, it was never enough -- now was it?)"

There was no time. The infinite flow of seconds had shuddered to an abrupt halt the moment she walked into the room. Scents of ozone and copper seared her nasal passages, and the leftover Force energy in the air set the tiny hairs on her arms tingling. It was unmistakably the aftereffect of a Jedi battle. But who -- ?

And then she saw him, crumpled against one of the pillars on the far side of the room, surrounded by pools of shadow. His lightsaber lay a good six feet away, still clenched in the fist of his severed arm. That sight sent bile rising to the back of her throat, but broke her mercifully free from her initial frozen shock.

Fleet as only a Jedi could be, she flew across the room and sank to her knees beside his ravaged body. Not shadows. Blood. He was drenched in it, his snowy undershirt gone crimson. Deep lacerations marred his once-handsome face, and his legs were crooked in all the wrong places. What little of his skin she could see was cold and so pale, white as a --

don't think it, don't even think it

She gripped the tip of her Jal Shey glove in her teeth and ripped it off, then set her shaking hand to his chest. Summoning up her energy, she sent a reckless wave of healing Force through his shattered form. It was no use against such devastation. The Force could heal injury ... but it couldn't create blood and restore it to a person's veins. Her head drooped in defeat, tears glimmering along her eyelashes -- and then, his eyelids fluttered open.

"Did I ... save you yet?"

She gaped at him. How could he even talk, looking like he did? But his eyes were expectant and only mildly delirious, and she floundered for something calm and reassuring to say. "Sure. Of course you did. Now just -- just stay still a minute. You're going to be fine."

That warm brown gaze never wavered from her face. "You're a ... a real bad liar. You know that?" He tried to laugh, but ended up coughing and wheezing for breath instead.

She swallowed heavily, her throat tight. "Yeah," she whispered. Teardrops she couldn't restrain splashed on his face, washing streaks clean of blood ... but there was so much blood, and tears were fragile and useless against the pain of reality.

"Don't cry. I don't ... don't deserve it. Never was ... good. Not for you. Tried to tell you." Another ragged cough. Scarlet droplets flecked his lips, but he gathered his strength and shifted his remaining arm. An empty syringe dangled between his fingers. The shadow of his old cocky grin passed across his mutilated face. "Got it in him in the end. He'll be slow. Weak. Best I could do."

That smile had always lit a warm glow in her chest ... but not this time. This time it was a fire, an agonizing blaze that ripped through her body and robbed her of strength, charring her bones to ash and clouding her throat with stinging smoke. She fought to get words out without breaking down completely. "Atton -- you were always good for me. I wish ... I would have died to keep you from getting hurt."

"Now you tell me." He sighed, but his wry smile absolved her of any blame. He hesitated just a moment. His voice went quieter, resolute but weak. "I loved you from the moment I first saw you. You taught me ... so much. How to choose. Who to be. Wish I'd learned ... sooner."

She couldn't speak. Her whole life, all her feelings had been dealt with according to the Code -- accept, and dismiss. There were no Jedi tenets to help with expressing emotion, and she'd never gotten close enough to anyone during her exile to learn any differently. In her heart she cursed that incomplete training, because now she was watching her Atton die right in front of her eyes and she couldn't even come up with words enough to ease his passing.

He was going to die without knowing that she loved him.

The thought gave her just enough courage to act. She was terrified of hurting him, but she'd seen enough of war and death to know that a little less pain wasn't going to keep him alive any longer. Her trembling fingers grazed the line of his jaw, cautiously tilting his face. She leaned close and kissed him, as gently as she could -- but gentle just wasn't enough for either of them, and time was too short to mess around.

Coppery salt and an iron will. That was what he tasted of. She couldn't imagine how he found the strength to move, but suddenly his arm was around her shoulders, his calloused palm gripping the base of her skull and pulling her still closer. He kissed her like he'd live forever, and in that timeless moment the Force bond between them sang of sacrifice and loss and purest devotion, and they both opened themselves completely to it.

Then his arm went limp, nerveless fingers slipping through the strands of her hair. His head fell back against the pillar with a dull thud, and his face paled to a ghastly shade of gray.

"Atton? Atton!" Panic roared through her. Ignoring his injuries, heedless of his pain, she seized his shoulders and shook him. "Atton, please. Please stay with me."

"You saved me," he breathed, as if he hadn't heard her. The corners of his mouth twitched in what would have been a smile if he'd any strength left. "Guess the -- joke's on me." Choking laughter dissolved into gasps. "Hurts to laugh. It ... hurts ..." His gaze unfocused. The painful furrows in his brow and around his mouth relaxed as his eyes rolled back in his head, becoming half-shuttered, blank crescents.

She collapsed against him and sobbed in horrible, ripping waves. She dropped her head to rest against his tattered jacket, and heard the slow, deep beat of his heart shudder through his chest once ... and then there was silence. Nothing left but the echo, reverberating in the aching, burnt-out hollow of her chest, never to be stilled.

She knew the sound would haunt her forever, trapped inside with all the words she'd never said to him, all the chances she'd failed to take. That knowledge was as bitter as his blood on her tongue. The yawning chasm between what could have been and what had come to pass was an irreparable gash torn through her soul, bleeding her dry.

Those wounds that cut too deep to heal are most often self-inflicted.

"So keep my casket closed.
Your heart beats under the floor.
It haunts me in my dreams --
But nothing's as it seems."

Post Script: Consider this an experiment in misdirection. Please review - I'd really like to know if it worked for you, or if you saw right through me.

Additional Notes:

Song lyrics from Escape the Fate's excellent song, "When I Go Out, I Want to Go Out on a Chariot of Fire."

Portions of Atton's dialogue at the end are lifted from the KOTOR II cut content.

For further interest - there's a Biblical story about a man named Elijah. He was a prophet of old, a man so righteous he didn't have to endure the indignity of death ... when his time on earth was done, he was swept up to Heaven in a chariot of fire.

Disclaimer: Knights of the Old Republic II and all characters and events described therein are the property of Obsidian Entertainment. The Star Wars universe upon which said game is based belongs to George Lucas and Lucasarts. I'm not quite sure where Bioware comes in, but I'm mentioning them just in case. Escape the Fate belong to themselves, or possibly to Epitaph Records, but certainly not to me. No profit is being made by this piece and no offense is intended by its electronic publication.