*OOC Note: I am retconning my above story timelines – instead of starting with a gap of 2 years to account for my time away – I’m starting them with a gap of 3 years, including 1 year into the time skip after the invasion by Zakuul forces. This story here I meant to release many months ago, and is in that same timeline, with the 3 year gap – my last “prequel” story before catching Culurien up to current time. Zato and I wrote it together in play-by-post fashion
At a stop, she watched a particularly energetic group of youngsters race down the sidewalk near a cantina playing tag, darting in between two Zakuul knights patrolling down the street, and had a gut wrenching spasm of homesickness, remembering her father’s cantina job. Her vision blurred with tears that she blinked away, idly twisting her thumbs together in uncharacteristic restlessness.
She also couldn’t help but feel nervous, anticipating her meeting with Master Zato’tsu. She had no idea if he was at his academy. Had he been scattered away like so many others of her former contacts? At least, she could drop by and leave a note, perhaps, if he was away. Since leaving Nar Shaddaa, she had showered and changed into some simple street clothes that Elen had on hand, then supplemented them with leather guards and armor that she’d left with her so long ago. Elen hadn’t thrown them out. Too sentimental. Culurien smiled to herself.
Over that, she wore her old brown robe, now washed and clean but threadbare and falling apart. It wouldn’t mark her as a Jedi, necessarily, here on Coruscant, unless someone knew what to look for. At least, she hoped not. She wanted to blend in somewhat. Her outfit offered general protection on the streets with an ordinary, non-descript look. Her hair, she’d done up as she used to do … but it felt completely weird and unnatural, having been worn down and disheveled for nearly three years.
What would Zato’tsu say? She wasn’t even exactly sure what she was doing or would say - acting more out of instinct and the wisps of a plan forming in her mind than anything concrete. She had refused Elen’s loud insistence on seeing a doctor and lots of other suggestions she couldn’t even remember. She would do that when she had time. If she had time. The Force was her sustainer.
However, she did feel a twinge of guilt. Her father had always warned her of relying upon the Force too much. He felt some Jedi used the Force like a crutch, and thus became weak and vulnerable by the standards of regular smugglers, soldiers, con men and bounty hunters, who could use that against them. A Jedi - though tied to the Force - should remain acquainted with the ways of men, becoming skilled combatants and survivalists in their own right to prepare for a day when the Force could not aid them. She knew he was right. And she had tried to remain true to that ideal. But she couldn’t fix everything at once.
The droid halted the taxi at a balcony edged with plants of all shapes and colors, filling the air with a myriad aromas to diffuse the smell of the metropolis around her. Simplicity. Peace. She smiled, warmth suffusing her at the sight. It was the very essence of Zato. He was to her one of the best examples of the Order.
She stepped out, handing the droid a credit chip and he was off, leaving her looking up at the entrance, feeling dwarfed and unworthy - a blemish - on such beauty and simple peace. She brushed at her robes and walked uncertainly to the doorway, hands clasped tightly behind her back, anxiety rising even as she allowed the Force to fill her, soothing some of it.
At the doorway, she stopped, and raised a hand toward the buzzer, paused for a long moment, then swallowed and pressed it, quickly replacing her hands behind her back again. It was a few moments before anything happened, as she waited in tense silence.
Perhaps, he was not here. But then … the door opened revealing Zato’tsu’s familiar face, though startled, as well he might be. The surprise drained from his face slowly, his features regaining that stoic calm she was so familiar with. The strands of grey at his temples were new though.
She smiled unconsciously with a nervous twitch.
“Hi Zato,” she said, very quietly. “It’s been a long time. Elen told me you were here. Do I disturb you?”
"Not busy at all. I was just about to sit down to a cup of tea. Please, come in.” Zato stepped aside to allow Culurien to pass through the doorway. The hallway beyond was lined with vases and small statues. Old by the looks of them, most of them with large chunks missing or scorch marks. “I will have sea-two bring a second cup.”
Culurien nodded uncertainly, stepping into the expansive hall, some of the tension leaving her. “I thank you,” she said. She followed him meekly into a sitting room nearby, glancing at the damaged vases lining the walls curiously. They seemed to be of various styles, from disparate cultures from one to the next, and she wondered vaguely what his interest in them was. Zato gestured to a chair and she seated herself at a small table bordered by tall backed couches, a small luxury amongst otherwise austere furnishings. She allowed the force to fill her, soothing away the new worries trying to gather in a furrow on her forehead, as Zato called sea-two for the tea. She had expected - well, she wasn’t sure what she had expected. Had Zato known she was still alive?
Culurien smiled tentatively as she took the tea from Zato’tsu. He peered at her interestedly, as if deep in thought. He took a seat across from her at the small table and she sipped tentatively. Ah. Her favorite. Apple blossom. Elen must have told him, she mused. She took another sip and set the cup aside carefully onto its accompanying dainty saucer.
“Zato, I need your help.”
“Anything,” he said, simply. She looked up.
It was a tone she couldn’t read, but there was no condemnation in it. Suddenly, her eyes nearly betrayed her in filling with tears and she looked away. I forgot how much I missed him, she thought. She cleared her throat.
“My time away has taught me much … and also left me without much information.” She looked back to him, and saw he was listening carefully. “There’s so much I don’t know. And people’s lives may depend on it.”
“What do you wish to know?” he asked.
She looked at him, feeling sick and paused. Then asked, “Zato … how did Connor die?” That was not the question she had intended. It seemed to slip in and insert itself.
He looked slightly taken aback, and she raised a hand. “No -- I mean … what I meant is …” she sputtered to a stop, while making lots of fruitless gestures and finally sat, looking at her hands again. “It’s not what I came here to ask,” she said quietly. “But, I suppose I must ask that anyway, if you’ll pardon me. I want to know.”
"We were on Correlia, dealing with a rather nasty cult. The Legion was spread thin, dealing with multiple fronts at once. Their leader revealed himself along with a bomb that would level most of the district... or was it infect the district? No, it was definitely a standard explosive." He shakes his head. "There do seem to have been a lot of cults over the last few years, intent on spreading instant death or a plague."
He frowned deeply, the teacup in his hands wobbling. "We just did not have enough time, anybody who went in to get him would have died as well. He ordered us to pull back, get out of the blast radius. He managed to move the bomb before it went off, someplace to limit how much damage it could do. Still brought the building down around him."
Zato leaned forward, setting the cup down before he managed to spill it everywhere. His normal stoicism shattered under the weight of remembrance, he leaned back once again, deflating into the cushions of the couch as he continued.
"We searched the rubble for hours, following the faint signal of his comm." Zato fingers through his hair, and forced a smile full of pain and regret. "There are just some things that even the legendary Connor Massey cannot walk away from."
Culurien nodded solemnly, feeling her eyes dim with tears, showing she understood. “Aye...” she sighed, looking down, hands clasped together and resisting an urge to bury her face in them. “I wish I had been there …”
Shortly after their exchange, the Zakuul knights had come looking for her, pounding on Zato’s chamber door. He had managed to distract them, keep them busy long enough for her to slip away. She had almost ensnared him in trouble he did not deserve.
The last four years had not been kind – going from planet to planet – piecing together clues about her past, dodging Zakuul forces, trying to determine who was attempting to assassinating her lineage and why. She did not even know why Zakuul hunted her.
Back then, she had thought it was just about her, that she should avoid the remaining members of her line, to keep trouble away from them. But now – sitting there sides heaving with gasps – she felt even more strongly that she had made a mistake, even as fear led her to dream of her abandoning Zato nearly every night. She could not protect her friends in this way. No. The pieces had taken shape at last, painting a picture far more startling than she’d ever imagined. They needed to band together, for in numbers there was strength. These assassinations were not just about them. It could involve the galaxy. And she thought Zakuul was at its heart.