We didn't really pack much when we left for the Mandalorian Wars. Reminders of what we'd left behind were too painful to think about. We were taught that a Jedi's life is sacrifice. And Revan and I believed this. No sacrifice was too great for the cause.
I wonder if we knew on some level that we'd never be able to come back home. Perhaps we packed so lightly because we knew, even then, that we'd have to leave it all behind.
That is why I am so surprised to find the book at the bottom of the storage bin. The cover is a little faded and worse for wear, but the cheap hologram still sparkles with the shifting scene: Nomi and Ulic in each other's arms, baby Vima playing at their feet.
I gave it to her, almost as a joke, that summer she turned twenty. That was almost four years ago.
It feels like eighty.
It seems no conceit to admit that I thought of myself as Ulic Qel-Droma to her Nomi Sunrider. We were always talented, always special among the crop of Padawans at the Academy. And looking back, it seems like we were always in love. Destined to be together. Conveniently, we overlooked the unhappy ending to Ulic and Nomi's romance. Things that don't fit, you discard. Or ignore. We never saw their story as the cautionary tale our Masters taught us about the dangers of falling in love. To us, it was evidence that Jedi did fall in love. We used Ulic and Nomi's example as a justification for our own passions. We were young and arrogant and thought we knew everything.
We were going to save the galaxy.
Of course, the problem with comparing yourself to characters in children's stories is that life never turns out quite like you'd expect.
I sense her presence behind me, hard and cold as stone, hear the whisper of her breath behind the mask. It's a new mask she wears now, a metal one she had fashioned in an old Mandalorian design. A trophy, I suppose, of her great victory. In the beginning, we all shrouded our faces because we were all equal. Brave Jedi Knights among the Fleet. Rank and species meant nothing. We fought together, we all served the Republic.
Now she is the only one who still wears one. The only one who still hides what she's become. The rest of us are beyond caring. Really, in the grand scheme of things the ravages of the flesh are inconsequential. Even I, who have suffered from it more than most, understand this. And the path we've chosen has its advantages. I have never been more powerful, the Force has never felt so strong, so sweet, so pure. Hearing it sing makes the rest fade, trivial. Our Jedi Masters taught us once that the physical side of things is only an illusion, a corporeal shell. In my weaker moments, I still take comfort in that.
But I try not to have weak moments. In my position, I cannot afford them.
I cannot speak, not anymore, but I take the book out of the box and hand it to her. Her masked face is expressionless and her gloved hands stroke the cover. The medical droid behind her clucks. She's brought it to give me another treatment. There's a blind spot in her that refuses to understand that some wounds will never heal. The Republic is a festering malignancy upon the galaxy, and I, once its most favored son, am only a reflection of its deep corruption. As are we all. Even her.
I watch as she unbuckles her mask and pushes back her hood. Some of her hair comes off in her hand, but she barely notices. The red strands are brittle and dull. Her hair was beautiful once, like a sunset, a bonfire, like blood. She still holds the book in her other hand, tightly, as if even now, she refuses to abandon its ideal. Or perhaps that is my own wishful thinking. Her yellow eyes burn, surrounded by the ray of black lines, Sith markings, against her white skin.
She was supposed to be the one who would save us all. But in the end, she was no different from the rest of us. In the end, we all fell.
'I've made a prosthesis for you,' she says. She glances at the droid behind her. It has something metal and curved in one of its appendages.
It's not necessary, I tell her. I don't need a mouth to serve you, Master.
Once, that would have seemed funny. Now it just seems true.
'You need to be able to speak to issue commands,' she says, her voice flat. 'There's no one else I can trust. I'm giving you your own flagship. We'll split the fleet in two, and begin our assault outside Republic space. If we move quickly we can gather the supplies we need before they learn of our betrayal. And then we'll begin our advance on the Core.'
Just like the Mandalorians? A part of me is amused that we will use the same strategies that we once fought against. The Mandalore used independent worlds to gather strength to assault the Republic too. The Mandalorians would have won, if not for us. If not for her.
Now she plans to use the same tactics to make the Republic shatter from within. Burn the rot away and create something new from its ashes. An Empire without end. A galaxy united under our rule. With no more wars.
The droid comes over to me and injects a derm into the rotting place where my jaw once was. The constant throb dulls to numbness. But I've grown used to the pain. Without it, I feel empty. I can't help but resent her for taking away one of the few sensations I have left. And she knows this. Her eyes watch the procedure, unblinking. Her face is another mask. Even now, I find it beautiful. I suppose not everything in me is dead. It might be easier if it was.
She knows this too. She knows everything.
The droid drills into my bones and fastens what she has wrought there. I watch only her, her hands have opened the book and she's looking at the inscription, the words I wrote years ago when she was my Nomi and I was her Ulic.
I'll always love you, Red.
War made the rest of us insane, but it made her cold. She looks like a woman carved from ice. The book falls on the floor and her booted foot cracks the spine, shatters the brittle holograph pages. The shifting images freeze and grow dull as the light in them winks out.
'This is not a children's story, Malak,' she says. 'This is real.'
I'm not the one that packed that book when we left for the wars, I remind her. You did.
But she's not that woman anymore. Any more than I am the man who gave it to her. Our youthful plans, petty rebellions, dreams of heroism burned away in the crucible of the Mandalorian Wars. What is left are ashes and the truth. The real truth. Power. And there is a freedom in that. The darkness is as sweet as her kisses were, once.
Or so I tell myself when I have trouble sleeping.
The droid finishes its work with me and glides away clicking.
She nods in satisfaction. 'Say something, Malak.'
The metal prosthesis is cold against my skin. Underneath it, the muscles newly sealed to plasticore ligaments move and flex.
'Master,' I say. My new voice is deeper, a metallic version of my old one. My fingers trace the edge of the prosthesis the way hers used to caress my lips. She watches me as if she knows what I am thinking. Of course, she does know. Even now we are still that close.
The cheap hologram book was a children's story, a romantic re-creation of historical events. Sentimental trash. The fable the Jedi told us went somewhat differently, but it was still just another false didactic. Neither moral works in the present. Ulic and Nomi's love didn't cause Ulic's fall any more than their love saved him from it. And in the end it meant nothing, compared to the worlds that burned and the billions dead. The Jedi taught us to sacrifice ourselves, but the Jedi were too cowardly in the end to make the true sacrifice.
We are not cowards, we Sith. We will do things differently in the new golden age.
But she can still surprise me. She crosses the floor and comes to me. Her mouth presses against the metal plate. A mockery of a kiss. She looks carved from ice with black veins running underneath the surface of her translucent skin; but her breath is warm against the metal, and she smells like flowers. Her hands lock around my neck, and her body presses against mine. The ghost of what we were comes between us again. My Red, my Revan, my wife.
Decades from now, after we've won, what will the children's stories say about us?
She smirks, scornful at my thought. 'Even now, Mal, you're such a romantic.'
Her hands pull at my robes, and I discover that one thing hasn't changed much at all between us. But it's not love that we make now. It begins as a dance, but changes. It is a struggle, a battle, a fight for supremacy.
Who can say how it will all end?
I thought of myself as Ulic Qel-Droma to her Nomi; but the way things turned out, it's more like Ulic and Exar Kun. And sometimes . . . I'm not sure which of us is which.
A/N I wrote this in 2005, but it's one of my favorite things I've done. Although, the angst is high with this one. Inspired by Gibson's "Fragments of a Hologram Rose."