Apocalypsa lay on her side, propping her head up on the palm of her hand. Her raven hair, mussed from sleep, and the dark, inky tattoos around her green eyes contrasted with her pale skin. Her dark lips curled upward in a smile as she gazed at the man lying next to her.
Torian’s blond hair was ruffled and spiky against the pillow, his arm flung up over his head and bent at the elbow. The white sheet rose and fell where it half-covered his chest, just the hint of an outline of well-defined muscle visible underneath the clinging fabric. Reaching out, Apoc gently laid her left hand on his skin, just over his heart.
Her thoughts wandered as she felt it beating, strong and steady beneath her palm. A memory surfaced, of his strong arms wrapped around her as her ear was pressed to his chest, the rhythm of his pulse keeping her grounded. They had been on Taris, nearly a year ago, and Apoc’s estranged brother had threatened her, wanted to kill her.
Taking shelter in an abandoned building within the Tarisian swamp, Apoc had finally told Torian the tale of her childhood – how her spice-addicted mother had threatened to sell her into prostitution to pay for her habit – and how she had escaped at the age of thirteen, climbing down the side of her building, taking her chances on the perilous streets of Nar Shaddaa.
Her brother hadn’t been the only danger they faced on Taris. Her gaze shifted, focusing on her fingers, splayed out over the warm skin of Torian’s chest. The hand that rested on his body was badly scarred. A network of jagged lines twisted over the skin of her forearm, snaking all the way to her elbow.
As if Cavus hadn’t been enough, Apoc’s arm had been nearly destroyed by a monstrous reptile that had torn apart her skin and muscle with its razor sharp teeth. She could have had the scars removed surgically, but had chosen to keep them – a reminder, she said, that no pain is too great to bear.
She lifted her body slightly, leaning over Torian to look down at his face. She smiled and shook her head a little – even in sleep, his expression was intense. Her eyes moved over his chiseled features – his strong jaw, his sharp nose. Lifting her hand, she traced a finger softly over the crescent of one of the twin scars he bore on his cheeks.
His sapphire eyes opened, staring into hers intently as she caressed his face. His hand came up to grasp hers, their fingers twining together. There was no need for words between them as their gazes locked, and her emerald eyes darkened to a mossy green. Reaching up to slide his free hand through her short, dark hair, Torian tugged her head down toward his.
Her eyes slid shut as their lips met, sending little shockwaves through her body. Her heart pounded in her chest and her mind whirled, her senses filling up with Torian’s electrifying presence. His kiss deepened, lazy and slow, yet with a hint of teeth behind it, a fierceness lurking behind the surface of the gentle touch, much like the man himself.
Torian’s fingers were tangled in her hair. Sliding his hand down, he pulled at the strands, a little harder than was necessary. Shivers ran through her as his fingertips traced down her naked spine. Her mind whirled with the depth of her feelings for him, the love and desire that filled her heart sending waves of heat over her body.
There had never and would never be another man who could evoke this sort of reaction from her, this sense of wonder and passion that swept away all other cares, until she ached for him, to be here, in his arms. As he rolled her onto her back, she felt his weight come down on her, and all thoughts fled her mind as his lips sought hers once more.
Layne Malan sat at the helm of the Flameshrike
, pale blue eyes focused on the swirling colors of hyperspace outside of the transparisteel viewport. Sighing, he raked a hand through his short, white-blond hair. The Shrike was silent, save for the thrumming of its powerful engines.
It was quiet times like this that Layne found himself thinking, wondering. It still surprised him, still sent a little shock of disbelief through his brain when he realized he had somehow ended up traveling with one of the most famous bounty hunters in the galaxy.
And not only traveling – but working with her, living with her. The past eight months had flown by as if in a dream. The young, confused Republic commando Layne had been was slowly falling away, transforming into a thoughtful, intelligent warrior.
Under the mercenary’s tutelage, he learned to fight with his head and heart as much as his fists or a blaster. As his skills improved, so did his confidence in them, and he was now a far cry from the frightened kid that he had been when he had first met the Mandalorians who had become like his family.
He had been part of Requiem Squadron, an elite Republic Special Forces unit headed by the Jedi Master, Aran Ortain. On a mission to demoralize the Mandalorians who fought for the Sith Empire, Requiem Squadron had been tasked with systematically striking at members of Mandalore the Vindicated’s own clan.
This had drawn the ire of the Mandalorian leader, and he had sent his enforcer – Apocalypsa Cadera – to remove the threat to his people. On an unnamed, uninhabited world covered in dense, dark forests, Requiem Squadron had attempted to take out Apocalypsa and the man who was both her partner and husband, Torian.
They failed. Layne sighed as he remembered the deaths of his squad-mates. First Trace Malan had been killed, devoured by a strange cat-like creature made of shimmering, twisting shadow. Layne himself, as well as the squad’s commanding officer, Captain Nicke Corel, had almost met the same fate.
Apocalypsa and Torian had saved them, had pushed them out of harm’s way, and then, when they finally escaped, Captain Corel showed his gratitude by attacking Apoc at her most vulnerable, sending her off a cliff to plummet to her death.
Torian had flown into a rage, killed Nicke, and would have killed Layne had the young man not surrendered, speaking the Mandalorian language to the furious warrior. Feeling he owed the Caderas a debt of honor, Layne had gone with Torian to find Apocalypsa, or her body.
Miraculously, she had survived her fall with only a dislocated shoulder and some cuts and bruises. Layne had been enchanted by her strength, amazed that she bore no ill will toward Nicke Corel for attempting to take her life after she had saved his.
When Aran Ortain contacted them, Apocalypsa had challenged him. Layne could close his eyes and remember the exact tone of her voice, the way her emerald eyes had hardened and narrowed. She had been covered in bruises; her shoulder was newly back in its socket. Still, she had smiled as she spoke.
“You and me, Jedi. Me and my blaster, you and the Force. No help, no interference. We don’t stop until one of us is dead.”
They had fought in a clearing surrounded by ancient trees. Layne had watched as Apocalypsa pitted her battle skills against the Jedi Master’s Force powers. Eventually, the Mandalorian woman managed to crack through Ortain’s outward sense of calm, throwing the Jedi off-balance. She had stood above him, a blaster pointed at his face.
Layne squeezed his eyes shut, the image in his mind vibrant, alive with color, sound, and emotion. He heard the voice of his sister again, next to him, calling to her husband to shoot Apocalypsa. To strike her down from behind, in her moment of triumph.
He heard his own voice, crying out a warning. The whine of blaster bolts and the sickening, wet thump that had been the noise of his brother-in-law’s body falling to the ground behind him. He remembered the way his sister’s husband had lay in a heap on the mossy ground, a neat hole burned into his forehead.
His sister, Raia – she had screamed. And screamed, and screamed, her grief at the deaths of both her husband and Jedi Master Ortain erupting from her throat. She had gone for her blaster, had wanted to kill Apocalypsa. Layne had held her back.
Raia had taken Layne’s actions as a betrayal, not only of her, but of the squadron and the Republic. Choking back the sorrow at the deaths of those she loved, Raia had told Layne he was no longer her brother.
His pale blue eyes opened, focused once more on the swirling colors of hyperspace outside of the Flameshrike
’s viewport. He sighed softly. Apocalypsa and Torian had taken him in, had given him a home. Apoc had even started bringing Layne with her when she had a contract to fulfill, teaching him the little tricks she had picked up in her years as a bounty hunter.
Footsteps sounded softly behind him, and Layne turned his head to see Mako, Apoc’s friend and code-slicer, enter the bridge. She smiled at him, the expression reflected in her dark, shining eyes. “Hey Layne,” she said as she slipped into her usual chair at the ship’s main computer. “You look like you were deep in thought there, sorry if I bothered you.”
“It’s alright. Wasn’t really anything important, just persistent. One of those things you don’t like to think about but every so often it kind of just pops up.”
“Oh.” She leaned her elbow on the panel in front of her, resting her chin on her hand. Her fingers tapped lightly against the silvery cybernetic implant near her eye. “I know all about those kind of thoughts. When Apoc and I first met, a lot of bad things happened. So even though I’m so glad I met her, thinking about when we met isn’t all that great sometimes.”
He nodded. “Yeah, it’s exactly like that.” Shaking his head, he forced a smile to his face. “Speaking of, where are Apoc and Torian?”
“Sleeping, I think.” Mako shrugged her thin shoulders. “We haven’t had any work to do in a couple of weeks, and I think she’s getting bored. Torian told me she started a fight in a Tatooine cantina.”
“How’d that go?” Layne raised an eyebrow.
“Well, you know how male Devaronians are…” Mako’s voice trailed off, then she giggled softly. “I guess one tried to buy her a drink, and ended up going through the bar.” She shook her head slightly. “She paid for the medics to patch him up, and for the repairs to the bar. If we don’t get a contract soon, we’ll go broke paying for Apoc’s version of stress relief.”
Layne chuckled quietly, then leaned back in his chair. “Hey Mako, I wanted to say thanks. You know, for helping me get those messages to my sister.”
Turning toward the computer she sat in front of, Mako placed her hands on the keypad. “No problem. It really wasn’t that hard. All I had to do was code them correctly and then re-route them through the Republic holonet. Have you heard back yet?”
He shook his head, frowning slightly. “No. I’m starting to think that I never will. Raia is stubborn, and she was really mad at me.” He looked down at his hand, started picking at the skin next to his thumbnail. “I think she might actually hate me.”
“She’s your sister, she doesn’t hate you.” Mako’s voice was kind. “It’s not like me and my sisters – heck, you could hardly call us sisters. You said she was your best friend.”
“That was before I got her husband killed and then left the Republic military to travel around the galaxy with a Mandalorian bounty hunter.” He grimaced, dropping his hands into his lap.
“I’m sure you’ll hear from her.” Fingers tapping on the keypad in front of her, Mako shrugged her slender shoulders. “Maybe she’s just out in the field and can’t respond.” She turned her head and grinned at Layne. “Let’s take a look at the holonet, shall we? Maybe there’s some juicy gossip we can laugh about.”
Layne watched as Mako’s dark eyes scanned the screen before her. She frowned suddenly, and he leaned forward a bit in his chair. “What did you find?”
“Well, it’s not anything to laugh about, that’s for sure.” She sighed. “It’s a Republic wanted notice.” She shook her head, and he felt a cold pit form in his stomach as she continued. “It’s for you. Sergeant Layne Malan, wanted for treason and desertion. A million credits for your capture or proof of your death.”
“Proof of my death.” His hands clenched, forming into fists on the armrests of the chair. “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t hurt anyone, and they’re paying money to see me dead.”
A husky, low voice came from the shadows just beyond the archway leading out of the bridge. “Most militaries don’t like it when their members run off and join up with people they consider the enemy, even if nobody dies in the process.”
Layne turned to face Apocalypsa. She leaned in the doorway, arms crossed over her chest. Her brilliant green eyes seemed to bore into him for a moment, then she shrugged her shoulders, running a hand through her short, dark hair.
“Don’t worry, kid.” She shot him a brilliant smile. “I won’t let anything happen to you. They’ve wanted me for a really long time, and haven’t got me yet. They’re not going to get you either.”
“Thanks, Apoc. It’s just that it feels almost surreal, you know?” He frowned as he turned once more to gaze out the viewport. “The Republic was all I knew, my whole life. And now, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t go back.”
“This is your home now, Layne.” Apocalypsa’s voice was firm. “You belong here, with us.” She waved her hand to indicate the Flameshrike
and its inhabitants. “Forget the Republic. There’s nothing left for you there.”
As silence fell following her statement, Apoc turned to leave the bridge. She hadn’t taken more than a couple steps before a soft chiming sound filled the air. Moving to the holoterminal, she pressed the flashing answer button on the console.
A shaft of light shot up through the projector lens in the center of the holoterminal, coalescing into the form of a handsome, dark-haired man wearing the uniform of the Imperial military. His face was hard, and there was a coldness about him that somehow projected through the hologram. Apoc furrowed her brow slightly as the image opened its mouth and began to speak.
“Apocalypsa Cadera, I presume?” She nodded. His voice was smooth and cultured, possessing the precise accent and inflection of Dromund Kaas born Imperials. “I am Captain Malavai Quinn, in service to the Sith Lord, Darth Umbral. My lord requests a meeting with you, to discuss a possible undertaking of mutual profit.”
Apoc crossed her arms over her chest, raising an eyebrow at Quinn’s image. “A possible undertaking? You’re going to need to be more specific, Captain.” She turned her head slightly as Torian entered the room, coming to stand behind her.
The Imperial soldier raised a hand, palm outward. “I am not at liberty to provide details over holo. This mission is of a… sensitive nature. Darth Umbral has heard of your talents and, most importantly, of your discretion. I will provide you with the coordinates to make a hyperspace jump to our location in the Outer Rim, where my lord will provide you with the specifics of this venture.”
She glanced at Torian, who shrugged slightly, his expression one of slight curiosity. Her gaze moved back to the hologram. “Fine, Captain. Transmit your coordinates and inform your Darth Umbral we will arrive shortly.”
Quinn nodded. “Very well then. Transmitting coordinates now. We will await your arrival.” With that, the image winked out.
Apoc and Torian walked together back to the bridge of the ship. As they entered the room, Mako turned to smile at them. “Hey, I heard the holo. I fed the coordinates into the computer so we’re all set to go. Looks like we’re heading to the far Outer Rim. Not much out there, civilization-wise.”
Grinning, Apoc moved to stand behind Layne, seated in the pilot’s chair. “Right now, I wouldn’t care if we were flying into the Maw, if it meant we had a job to do.” She clapped a hand on Layne’s shoulder. “Let’s go, kid. Take us to the Outer Rim.”
“Sure thing, Apoc.” Layne reached out, pushing on the hyperspace lever on the console in front of him. Outside the viewport, the swirling colors slowed, twisting and coiling about the Flameshrike
as the starship altered course.