The ceremony was over. The speeches had been made and the soldiers had gotten their more or less fancy awards to show off. Elpsis still had to use crutches to walk and was already getting antsy about being stuck on the Arx. Despite her protests, she was still under medical observation. It was annoying. Shortly after the ceremony had come to an end, Livia and Adril had cornered 'Big Sis Elpsis' and dragged her away. They were children who constantly bickered, but stubborn and good at getting what they wanted when they put their minds to it. She could see their mother in them. In any event, it had been a welcome excuse to get away from the formalities, the press and Royal's nagging. The trio had sought refuge in one of the Arx' gardens.

The space station was an enormous place of metal and machines, but green areas had been created. It made life in space less disconcerting. She had taken off her shoes and socks, letting the soft grass touch her bare feet. Her crutches lay nearby. Naturally, her adoptive sisters were most eager to hear 'Elpsis stories'. The two had been raised on stories of Siobhan's adventures. These had been somewhat sanitised, though not as much as one would expect.

"How did you kill the Sith, sis?" Adril asked with an eager light in her eyes. "Did you burn him? Chop his head off?" Holding up a toy lightsabre, she made whooshing sounds while she swung it theatralically. "Like this?"
In contrast to her twin, Livia was more reserved. "Don't be silly, sister. We all know that Elpsis never uses her lightsabre."
"Not true!" Adril insisted. "She spars a lot with Auntie Nyssa."
"Yes, 'spars'."
"We do actually spar," Elpsis interjected.
"But you don't use your sabre a lot."
"No, I don't, sis. There's folks in the Order who are great at it, and I'm not one of 'em. That's why I've got big guns and the Force."
"So how did you kill him?"

"What powers did this villain use?" Livia asked. "Was he a Sith Warrior, an Inquisitor, an Assassin?"
"Classes only exist in games, silly," Adril said teasingly.
"Slow down, girls. Classes, as you call it, don't exist in the real world exactly like in games. You don't have a skill tree that only this or that 'class' can access. But Force-Users do have different specialisations. With me it's fire, with Mother telekinesis."
"And with that Sith Lord?"

"He could mess with the environment. Like me, but different. See, I draw power from within me. He seemed to draw it from the area around him. Summon extreme heat or cold, that kinda thing. And he could do alchemy, but it was a weird kind. Basically, he screwed with my armour. Couldn't move and it frakked up my limbs." She did not mention how afraid she'd been. Her final move had been born out of desperation rather than any calculated plan.

"Strange. I thought alchemy was all about creating monsters and enchanting items. That's why you need crutches?" Livia asked.
Elpsis nodded. "He was a tough bastard who knew his stuff, I'll give him that."
"He was mean. I'm glad he's dead," Adril spoke.
"Me, too," Livia chimed in.
"Galaxy's got a ton of those. Cut down one Sithy, there's more. Hell, many Jedi are terrible, too. As for how he died, I burnt his mask."
Adril frowned. "How would that do anything? Did you blow it up and roast his brain?"
"I know it. The mask was his power centre!" Livia declared triumphantly.
"Livy's right. Someone who understands alchemy better than me could explain it better, but I think he'd basically poured all his power into it."

"You're cool. And so brave," Adril applauded, clapping her little hands. "Mother will be so proud of you." There was a flicker of something on Elpsis' face. It was gone almost as soon as it appeared. "She'll be happy to have her little angels back," she said quietly, looking at her sisters.

"I'm sorry," Adril said softly, looking contrite.
"It's ok," Elpsis reached out to pat her little hand.
"She will wake up one day, won't she?" Livia asked, her voice hopeful and childlike. "Right?"
"She will. Firemane's got the best doctors, and the best security. She'll wake. We just gotta be patient, and continue where she left off. All we can do."

"When she wakes up, I'll tell her about all the cool stuff you've been doing. And if she still isn't nice to you, I'll tell her to stop being an arse," Adril declared.
"Addy, don't talk like that about Mother."
Adril glared at her twin. "Mother is mean to her."
"Mother just wants us all to be safe and live up to our potential."
Elpsis sighed. "Girls, sisters, this...this is nothing to argue about. Things are difficult between Mother and me, but that's just between us, ok? I want her to wake up just like you do. We're family, we gotta stick together."
"Ok," Adril conceded reluctantly.
"Ok." Livia had coloured slightly. "I didn't mean to say that, you know..."
"It's ok, I'm not angry, Livy. You don't have to...pick sides."

Livia nodded. "So when are you going to go back to the Forge?"
"Gonna be a while. Gotta heal up and all that."
"Can't you stay?" Adril asked hopefully. "You should. We miss you."
"I miss you too, sweetie."
"Then stay. I don't want you to go. Don't leave us alone."
"You're not alone. You've got...Harmony, Chesna, even Royal..."
"And they're not you."
"Sis, Elpsis has important work to do."
"And it can wait for a bit, can't it?" Adril stamped her foot. "Everyone always leaves. You went away, then Mother did..."
"Mother's not gone."
"She may die."

Realising what was truly bothering her sister, Elpsis leaned forward and hugged Adril. The girl did not respond at first, then threw her arms around her. She held on so tightly that Elpsis winced, but she did not push her away. "I love you both. And I swear I'll always come back. But there's people counting on me. My comrades need me. So do all the people who don't have any mothers or big sisters to protect them. You understand that, right?" Adril nodded. "I'll stay as long as I can, and when I've got shore leave, I'll come straight to you." Slowly, she withdrew.
"I love you too, sis," Adril spoke.
"Me, too."
"You still gonna send us away?"
Elpsis glanced at Adril, frowning. It took her a moment to connect the dots. "You talking about Mother's plan to show you more of the world, huh?"
"Yeah, she wanted to send me to the Vash.
"And me to the Xio," Livia added.
"How do you two feel about that?"
"Vash don't seem bad. Alisa is nice..." Adril looked hesitant, glancing at Livia.
"The Xioquo are intriguing. I talked a bit with Auntie Xalda," the girl bit her lip. "It's a bit scary though."

"You don't like the idea of being separated." Elpsis looked thoughtful. "Mother's idea isn't bad. You two gotta see more of the world." And get out of the ivory tower, she thought. Both girls had grown up in the lap of luxury and that would give them a skewed view of the world. "Tell you what, why don't you visit one of them together? Let's say the Vash. You spend a couple months there and we see how it works out and what you learned. And if it works out, you can stay with the Xio. It'll be an adventure! Sound good?"

Adril nodded. "Sounds okay. I like the Vash. I wanna see the forests and their big spiders."
"Vastyro would be nice to visit, and their druids sound interesting. But aren't they kind of primitive?" Livia queried. "They live in forests and there's animals everywhere."
"They're not primitive, sis. And that's not a good word to use. They don't have the toys we take for granted, but that doesn't make them lesser than us. They've adapted to nature and respect it, instead of pillaging it like many humans do. 'sides, it's not like they don't understand our tech. They just don't' want to lose their culture. They've partnered with the Wookiees to take the bits and pieces they need. I know some of their clans, so you'll be among reliable folks."

Livia looked a bit dubious, but nodded. "Okay, we can try. But Addy better not put a spider in my bed."
"I'd never ever do such a thing." Adril's innocent look did not look plausible at all.
"Adril Kerrigan-Alcori," Elpsis said very sharply.
"Fine, fine," her sister threw up her hands. "You sound like Mother!"
"Long as I don't get her grey hairs because of you." The eldest Kerrigan-Alcori daughter grumbled.

She turned, hearing soft footsteps, and saw Natalie approaching. "Hiding away from your fan club, Red?" the Essionian asked dryly. "Hello girls," she glanced at the children.
"Auntie Nat? Can you spin your revolvers for me again?" Adril asked exuberantly.
"Would you like to see what I've done with It's real neat." That was Livia.
"Maybe later, girls."
"Sisters, can you give Natalie and me a moment? Kar'zakush can take you to go set some ice cream." Elpsis glanced briefly to the stoic Kar'zun bodyguard.
The twins shared a look. It was clearly a dismissal so that the grown-ups could do boring grown-up things. "You just want us out of the way so you can snog," Adril pointed at her accusingly.
"No, we've stuff to talk about."
"Riiight..." Adril was cut off when Natalie decided to bend down and kiss Elpsis hard. It took a brief moment for Elpsis to reciprocate.
Adril made a face. “Eww, gross!” she opined.
Livia looked more thoughtful. “I dare say that there is something about it which keeps our sister doing it."
Adril got to her feet, rightly disgusted by these gross adults. "Ok, let's go."
Finally, Elpsis pulled back. "I'll remember this when you have a nice girl."
"And what if I want a boy?" Adril asked, as if this would be something that shocked her sister.
“Whatever makes you happy, dear. Now, come on."
A little deflated, Adril headed away. "Bye, Auntie Nat."
Livia had already gotten a move on and approached the Kar'zun Sergeant, who towered over everyone of them. "May I ride on your back? Please?"
"Fine. Don't touch the hair."

And so Elpsis and Natalie were left alone. "Light reading?" Natalie pointed at a stack of documents near Elpsis.
"I wish. Platoon stuff. Family matters," Elpsis shrugged.
"Welcome to bane of an officer's existence - paperwork."
"So how you been? That hurly-burly in the Empire keeping you busy?"
"Sort of," Natalie said enigmatically. "Did some clean-up for Firemane. You don't want the details."

Elpsis could imagine what sort of clean-up, but did not push. She knew the Essionian was far from squeaky clean, but she was a friend. She had risked life and limb for her on Tephrike. "Anything you can tell me about then?"
"I went back to Tephrike." She held up a hand before Elpsis could launch into a tirade. "I'm a big girl. I can take of myself. Been doing this a lot longer than you."
"You should've told me."
"Red, you have your job, I've got mine. It wasn't anything big. Trained a bunch of insurgents, carried out a hit in Vortanstad."
"What's that?"
"Dominion city. Well, one half's run by the Burlap Brigade - they call it the City of Harmonious Industry. Take it from me, it's harmony enforced at gunpoint. The other half's run by the Guard. I've been told the place used to be an industrial powerhouse, but now it's mostly rubble."
"Didn't think the Guard would attack a Dominion city head-on. They're mostly partisans, aren't they? Deadly in the jungle, but not equipped for pitched combat."

"They are. Seems they hoped the Dominion wouldn't get its act together that soon. Right now they can't seize the whole city, so they've settled for taking their half and tying the Dominion down."
"And the Dominion wants to bleed them out," Elpsis surmised.
"Yes. Firemane drops some bombs sometimes. I saw some...," Natalie paused, choosing her words. "Nasty chit - on both sides."
Elpsis' expression darkened. "I figured. No good guys there, just black and grey."
"For what it's worth, the Guard's been looking after the graves for all those Jedi kids at Purity. Sure, they're using it for propaganda, but still."

"That's something." Elpsis had not been at Purity, but she'd heard about it from people who had. Like Laira and Xalda. When it was clear the battle had been lost, General Kennobi had sent a horde of Younglings on a suicidal death charge. For what? The Firemane troops had been exhausted after a day of harsh fighting and had not had any stun weapons. If you hadn't been weak, if you hadn't let the Jedi capture you, those kids might still be alive, the inner voice said. The feeling of guilt was like the stab of an icy knife. I frakked up many things, but the Dominion sent those kids to their deaths, not me.

She shifted the topic. "Mahtara's running the Dominion now?" Natalie nodded at that. "Talked to Diona about her. Cliff notes: she's a ruthless tyrant, but smart. Respected."
"Your Jedi friend's hardly unbiased, but I'd say she's not altogether incorrect. Looks like the Dominion's built a large defensive wall to secure it's heartland. The Guard's fighting tooth and nail. And they're united behind the cause. But whoever wins will have to go through a meat grinder."
"Yeah," Elpsis said quietly, sighing. "Next time, we go together, okay?"
"I'm not going to be death charging anywhere. Just do some recon, lay the groundwork for when you and the Unchained can make your return. Not sure if you heard, but your rebel friends wanted to set up an observation post in the system. Could double as a place to bring fugitives to."

"I did, yes. Firemane's got its base, but they want to be autonomous. I approached Leonina about it, but I got told to..."
"Get lost?"
"Not quite like that. A junior officer is, well, junior. Lieutenant Kerrigan can't make policy. I mean, don't get me wrong, I don't want people to move heaven and earth for me just because what my last name is. I'm a soldier, I must follow the rules." She ran her left hand through her air.
"Yes, Lieutenant Kerrigan must follow orders," Natalie agreed. "However...Lady Kerrigan-Alcori has the money bags."
Realisation dawned upon Elpsis. "No one can tell the acting matriarch not to make a charitable donation to noble freedom fighters."
"It could, in fact, be argued that all those asteroids floating in the system are hers by right of conquest."
Elpsis chuckled a bit, then coughed. "Let's not go that far. Special fund for freedom fighters and refugees? I'm no good with money and I don't have the time to run any of that. But maybe Mara would do it. Perhaps with Purity."
"I don't know this Purity, but Mara's reliable. Eager to prove herself. It'll give her something useful to do that doesn't put her in the line of fire. Make it clear that this isn't a licence to to throw money at anyone with a sob story. Since you want to help the downtrodden, there was this Republican Guard refugee camp I visited. Sanctuary."
"Things are bad?"
"Poverty, disease, overcrowding - you name it. Now don't get your hopes up. Simply flooding it with money won't magically make things better. The people down there don't need a saviour."
"They need commitment. How's the Guard treating them?"

"The camp administrator's alright. His boss is whacked-out paranoid. Now you know my feelings on you Forcies. That power you have is like a drug. Negative feedback loop. Some can handle it, most don't."
"Not an analogy I like."
"Point is, I get why they're paranoid about Forcies, especially since all they're Jedi are crazy. Anyways, if you want to help there, expect suspicion, and make sure they don't screw you over. In fact, operate under the assumption that a good chunk of the donations you send won't reach the people you're trying to help."
"Could insist on a local rep. Maybe our own warehouse," Elpsis wondered aloud, frowning. "If...if a refugee found to be Force-Sensitive, they lock them away, don't they?"
"Yeah. They've banned lynchings, but, you know, it still happens. Sometimes the Guard actually saves them from the mob."

"What if we offered to take them in? Keeps them out of their hair, without putting them in the clutches of the Jedi and the Vaderites."
"Huge chance they'll think you're trying to steal their people and indoctrinate them, but worth a shot. Mara and Purity can't run this fund or foundation or whatever you want to call it on their own. Mara's smart, but kind of mousey. You want to keep this separate from Firemane and make it a family thing, so you need someone who can bludgeon their way through bureaucracy."
"I have the feeling I'm not gonna like what you're about to say."
"No, you're not. It's about a certain Chiss."
"Royal's a frakking snake."
"And eager to please you since her patron's a coma patient and she's not getting invites to board meetings anymore."
"I don't want her to please me. Or be anywhere near me."
"I mean, I'm sure she'd be great at it if you bedded her. Your Mother was clearly satisfied," Natalie said very dryly.
Elpsis huffed. "Enough of that. I don't trust her. She just fed Mother's ego for power and money. She's a parasite."
"And that recommends her for the job. Self-interest is a more reliable motivation than idealism. Keep her at arm's length, but use her and she won't have a reason to sabotage you out of pettiness. She knows how to grease the gears. It's what she's been doing for your Mother when she wasn't licking her boots. Besides, do you have a replacement handy?"
"No, I don't," Elpsis admitted after a moment.
"I mean, I'm sure
Danton will have a suggestion, but that'll be someone in her pocket. She'd make it about Firemane. I don't fault her for that. It's her job."
"Fine. Alright, I'll have a chat with Royal."

"And just to make sure she's in the right mind set, I can see what I can dig up on her. We all got skeletons, and I'm sure hers will be fun." Natalie got to her feet. "Well, gotta go. One last thing about Tephrike."
"The Guard thinks the Vaderites may be gearing up for something. They don't know what. But there's been a crackdown in their alien 'reservations'. Grain quotas have soared, while rations for aliens plummet. And a week ago one of their concentration camps received a massive influx construction material."
"What's the camp called?"
"Camp Progress. Massive slave camp where inmates are worked to death. They have many of those, but something big is going on there."
Elpsis' eyes narrowed. "Find out all you can."
"Will take a while. You'll be the first to know."