Prologue: The Long Road Back 2
As I recovered and began the tedious business of getting back my life I discovered that the base on Nirauan was not a particularly friendly place. The mix of Chiss and humans made for a tense work atmosphere, added to this tension was the language barrier which almost everyone seemed to find difficult to overcome. There were a couple of Chiss who were fairly fluent in basic and perhaps a few of the Imperials who knew enough Cheunh to get by but on the whole communications were limited. The Chiss kept to themselves shunning the humans and the humans did the same, it was very odd.
I kept quiet about my ability to speak Cheunh; it was a skill I didn’t feel the need to reveal because I suspected I would have ended up as a glorified translator and I didn’t have the energy to do that, so I kept myself to myself which wasn’t hard. It didn’t take long for it to become clear that I was like a ghost on the base. If people knew who I was they didn’t say and I wondered if they had been given orders to, at best leave me alone and at worst, utterly ignore me. In the end it was just as well. The process of getting well was hard work, much harder than anything else I had ever done and much of the time, when I wasn’t involved some gruelling sort of physical therapy I was asleep or at least, trying to rest. Although the medical droids had made sure that my muscles had not atrophied while I had been in my coma, my body still required a lot of work to get back to its former shape. Time in the bacta tank had repaired the damage to my skull but no medical wonder could heal the pain of loss.
My grief for Lord Vader’s death was a lonely thing. It was hard to justify in many ways. How could one mourn for a monster? How could a person even begin to love or admire such a man? I spent many hours thinking on all he had done while I had known him, his swift anger and sudden brutality. He had not suffered fools lightly and they had always paid the ultimate price. To the outside galaxy he had been, quite simply, evil but I knew that had not always been the case. I would never have called him truly evil but he had been twisted and angry. He had been a child torn away from the only person who had really loved him into the arms of a group of people who had, for the most part, viewed him with mistrust and fear. He had been named the Chosen One, lauded as the One who would bring Balance to the Force but he had been treated as though he were a deadly time bomb waiting to go off. I knew, I had seen just how the leaders of the Jedi Council had acted towards him, particularly the one Called Mace Windu. Not for the first time did I wonder if this treatment was borne out of jealousy rather than fear. After all Anakin’s power was the stuff of legends, as was his courage and brilliance in battle and with all things mechanical. The Jedi Order had made him what he was, not the other way around. In treating him the way they had they had fostered the very nature they all feared. Palpatine had seen this and had used it to his own advantage. It had been Palpatine who was truly evil.
Palpatine, who had manipulated everyone and everything around him, amassed his dark side power as though he was hording sand in his arms, but sand, like power, is slippery and elusive. Hold on to it tightly enough and it slips away, grain by grain. I did not mourn the Emperor’s passing at all. I was greatly relieved that the evil old bastard was dead but this was something I told no one because in contrast to Lord Vader, a great many members of the Empire did mourn for Palpatine and to speak against him was considered at best an offence at worst heresy.
Lord Vader’s death had left a gaping void in my life which was as devastating to me as it was bewildering. There was no one I could speak to about it because there was no one who would ever understand it. Bound, Navaari’s word for what lay between Thrawn and I would come back to haunt me again and again, had I not also been bound to Lord Vader? When he had severed the tie between us he had severed something inside of me so deeply, so utterly I thought I would never know what it was like to be whole again. I wondered how it was possible to bear such grief and still breathe in and out every single day, still get up out of bed and move on, move forward. It was as if I had become a droid, mechanically moving through time and space while my soul watched from some other place.
It was made all the more difficult by the growing whispers amongst the men that it was rumoured it had been Lord Vader himself who had killed the Emperor and not Luke Skywalker. Many in the Empire now viewed Lord Vader as a traitor not a hero but they were few. For the most parts, especially amongst the grunts and the pilots, there were many who genuinely mourned his death. He had been one of the few Imperial military leaders the majority of the ground troops and pilots had truly respected and he had been one of the few who got into the fight right alongside his men. It had been the officers who had despised his leadership skills or lack of them. I often wanted to point out when I heard these debates that it was stupidity and greed Lord Vader could not stand and his loyalty to his men was something well established long before he was forced to wear the mask, but I wisely kept my mouth shut. There was no point in arguing since in the end, no one really knew for certain the real truth of what had taken place that fateful day, not even I knew what had actually happened and it ate at me from the inside out, yet as sad as I was I found I could not cry.
I was thankful that the doctor had taken on the majority of the work as physiotherapist. I suspected this was in part because his job at the base was a fairly quiet one but also because he felt in some way responsible for me especially in the wake of Thrawn’s absence. In contrast to the medical droids he was someone I could speak with while I worked to regain my form. He was a constant in my life when Thrawn was not. The doctor, trying I suppose to explain Thrawn’s noticeable absence, had told me he thought it was difficult for Thrawn to watch me struggle to recover but that was not really the entire truth. Thrawn was angry with me, angry that I had come looking for him and placed myself in danger, angry for many reasons not all of which were clear to me. I knew this and part of me even understood it but because I could not speak of it, the issue stayed unresolved and my own resentment and anger at him festered.
The weeks came and went. The pain and struggle of the physical rehabilitation eased as I got stronger and I was happy when I could finally resume the Bunduki style training and find some sort of peace through the movements and meditations I had been taught by Master Kjestyll. I missed my Bunduki teacher greatly and longed for his gentle guidance. I had tried to find out news of what had happened to my friends on Coruscant but here on the base I had no rights, no clearance and no friends to pester. Despite asking repeatedly if I could contact my home or even leave I was adamantly refused permission to do either but when I pressed for reasons no one could give me any.
“The Grand Admiral’s orders Miss.” Was the only answer I was given when I asked why.
Even Doctor Thracer could not explain to me the reasons for the security and my resentment at Thrawn grew. Slowly it dawned on me that I was more a captive here than a guest. I had no idea what to think about it and the one person who could do something about my status or explain to me why I was cut off from the outside was not around to ask or change the standing orders. Perhaps I should have pressed further or found a way to bypass the excellent security but Thrawn was angry enough with me I didn’t want to give him more fuel for that particular fire event though if fanned my own at him. If I was denied access to the rest of the galaxy then I supposed he had a good reason for this but this didn’t make it easier to accept. It was the first time in my life that felt truly alone.
Inbetween my physio sessions, once I was well enough, I spent a great deal of time on my own wandering around the huge facility. No one seemed to notice or care where I went. At times it felt as though I was truly invisible but I began to look at this as an advantage rather than a slight. It allowed me to learn the lay of the base, discover the secrets and find all manner of hiding places, finding the quiet spaces to work out, meditate or just read. I knew all the ways in and out and some of the hidden passages as well, but by far my favourite was a small room that had an even smaller balcony attached to it, a look out of sorts I guessed. It was there I would go with a book in hand, taken from the library I had been given access to, to hide away from everything else. Eventually one day, after I had been gone too long and missed an appointment, Doctor Thracer had become worried. I wasn’t sure how had actually found me but I suspected the security monitors in the base were far better hidden than I had originally thought. He had found me sitting huddled against the balustrade reading a book, it was cold and windy but I needed to be outside, to see the sky. He had watched me for a few moments and then quietly retreated leaving me alone. I had discovered he was a man who understood silence and the need for it.
It was the doctor who eventually became my source of information. I suppose he took pity on me or perhaps I finally wore him down with my questions. Whatever the reason he was the one who told me about the fallout after the second battle station had blown up taking Lord Vader and the Emperor with it. Telling me how the remainder of the Imperials had retreated. The death of the Emperor had shattered the cohesion which had held the fleet together. It was his rare and powerful force gift which had allowed the Emperor to control the massive fleet and with its sudden disappearance the fleet spiralled into a sort of chaos which the Rebels took full advantage of.
Coruscant as well as many other planets had gone mad at the news of the Emperor’s death. There had been mass celebrations in the streets, Statues of the Emperor and Lord Vader had been pulled to the ground and fireworks had lit up the sky. The news of the Emperor’s demise seemed to be license to riot and let loose the pent up anger and frustrating of nearly thirty years of Imperial rule. It had taken twenty four hours for martial law to be declared and a total military clamp down on Coruscant to stop the massive celebrations. The people believed responsible for starting the whole mass party and fireworks were executed. Resentment festered and grew. There was no longer a beloved Emperor in place but an underling for which the majority of the Galaxy’s denizens had no respect. Underground movements to aid the Rebellion and its fledgling government were growing.
As the Emperor’s chosen, Sate Pestage had taken control of the Empire with Ysanne Isard officially as his second in command although I suspected it was actually she who was really running the show. She had not been nicknamed ‘Ice heart’ for nothing and under her thumb people knew a terror which had only been guessed at before. Still, life on the core worlds returned to some semblance or normalcy but nothing was really normal, the once vast and mighty empire was slowly but surely beginning to slip from Pestage’s fingers. Without the Emperor’s mighty will and dark side powers there was no one who could maintain the tight control which he had held over everything and bit by bit the rebels were nibbling away at strategic points and heading towards Coruscant.
I overheard rumours from the men working on the base about the prowess of the rebel fleet, the daring of its pilots and above all the courage and audacity of one man, Luke Skywalker, whose name was whispered in the same manner people whispered about ghosts and demons. I suppose to people who had never seen or known a force user he was something mighty, someone with super natural powers but I knew better. He was the son of the man I had worked for. He was a Jedi’s son with Jedi powers. That he was capable of amazing things was to be expected.
I wondered sometimes what I would ever say to him if we were to meet. I also wondered how he felt about his father, knowing all the terrible things that Anakin Skywalker had done. I often lay awake at night imagining what might have happened that last meeting between the two in the Emperor’s throne room on board the Death Star but I was fairly certain that whatever my mind could create, it was nothing compared to the reality of it all and I found it odd that despite the terrible grief I felt I could not hate Luke Skywalker for what had happened. He had chosen a side and done what he thought was best. He and his friends had won the biggest victory they could have ever hoped to get. He was directly responsible for Lord Vader’s and the Emperor’s death but instead of hating him I only felt a vague sort of pity.
The anniversary of the Battle of Endor came and went. There was a small memorial service held on the base and everyone wore black armbands for the day except me. I didn’t want to sit through the hour long ceremony knowing what I knew and I did not mourn for Palpatine so I hid, spending the day tucked up in the small private library Thrawn had permitted me access to and tried desperately not to think about what had happened ten months prior. For the entire Galaxy it had been a year but for me it was still less than two months fresh in my mind. That wound was still too raw and attending a memorial would have been like rubbing salt and sand into it.
Four months after leaving the base, the Grey Wolf returned to orbit. I knew this news even before the doctor because I had overheard the comm officer talking about it in the mess. I must admit my stomach dropped at the mention of Thrawn’s return. I had neither seen nor heard from him since his brief spell at my bedside so I had no idea what to think, no idea how he felt about me any more and for all his murmured words of being bound to me by Dantassi law his more recent actions said something else. I had never thought of myself as insecure but I worried now about my place in his life.
I listened covertly for news of his actual return to the base and was eventually rewarded for my patience. Thrawn’s shuttle landed in the middle of the night. The ship’s graceful wings folded up as she slipped into the landing bay, touching down gently, quietly. From my place high up on the upper gantry I watched, my heart racing and my palms sweating, as he along with several of his senior officers disembarked. As I laid eyes on him for the first time in months I ached with a sorrow I could not explain yet at the same time I was furious with him for leaving me alone in this dreadful place. Even from my high up vantage point I could see they all looked tired. They had been out in the Unknown Regions for longer than usual and rumours had whispered of difficult skirmishes with alien races and pirates unhappy with Imperial presence in the area.
I closed my eyes for a second, stretching out with the force to touch Thrawn’s presence in it. I found him easily, such was the connection between us, but he sensed me too and looked up sharply to where I sat, half hidden in the darkness. I knew he could see me, he had extraordinarily good vision and for a split second our eyes met and then he turned away sharply to speak with the deck officer on duty. My heart pounded in my chest as I sat on the gantry way, my arms resting on the lower barrier rail, my chin resting on my arms and my legs dangling over the side. I did not move for a very long time afterwards until one of Thrawn’s men finally found me.
“Miss Gabriel? The Grand Admiral sent me to fetch you. He wishes to speak with you.” His voice was young. I looked up into dark brown eyes and an expression of nervous earnestness. Backwaters of Corellia, his accent told me, still new enough and young enough to smile and be polite. I just stared at him.
“Please miss, the Grand Admiral was most insistent that you come immediately.”
I sighed as I got and wordlessly followed him to Thrawn’s private office. The door opened and the young man gestured for me to enter. He did not follow me in and when the door closed behind me I felt the wuff of air it displaced on the back of my neck. I smiled a little as a second ripple of air caressed my cheek.
“Hullo Rukh.” I said as I felt him stand slightly behind me.
“Lady Gabriel. It is good to see you well.” The noghri mewled. I turned to look at him; at least someone was pleased to see me.
The office, situated high up in one of the towers of the base, was dimly lit. Thrawn had no real need of bright lights at night and neither did Rukh. The soft glow from the desk lamp was for my benefit. I had never been here before and looked around at the tasteful furnishings and the artworks displayed about the room and walls. Some of them I knew from his home on Coruscant others were new to me, a pleasant mix of holograms and real. I didn’t need to ask to know that this room was his sanctuary. Not many people, I wagered, had actually ever been in here. It was not his work office but the place, much like the study in the flat on Coruscant, where he came to think, to meditate and maybe even to relax.
“Rukh, leave us.” Thrawn commanded quietly, his back was to the door as he stood facing the window standing much the way Lord Vader used to. The sight of him and the memory his stance evoked made me ache with sorrow.
The noghri nodded once and then vanished as eerily as he had appeared. The silence that filled his wake was heavy and stifling. I could not break it and stayed rooted the spot waiting. An age seemed to pass until Thrawn broke the impasse, not moving as he spoke.
“Doctor Thracer tells me you have made a full recovery.”
I waited because it was not a question I needed to answer and I didn’t know what he wanted to hear from me. For another long moment there was silence in the room and then he turned around to look at me. The white Grand Admiral’s uniform made him seem cold and austere. It contrasted vividly with the blue of his skin. I didn’t need to touch it to know it would be stiff and unyielding. I wondered briefly if its wearer was now the same.
He looked me up and down and, for a moment, an expression I couldn’t decipher flashed in his eyes then passed. Some of the stiffness seemed to edge its way out of his body and to my surprise he undid the buttons and shrugged the jacket off, as though he had read my thoughts about it. Suddenly he seemed weary. I glanced at the chrono on the wall; it was nearly two in the morning planetary standard time.
“You sent for me?” I asked not really knowing what else to say, not wanting to ask the single most important question which would surely lead to argument or discussion. I was in no mood and too tired for either.
He nodded as he placed the jacket over the back of the desk chair. “I saw you were still awake or else I would have waited until morning.” He said. On the desk was a small box, he picked it up, considered it for a moment then offered it to me. “I thought it best to keep it safe until you were well enough to wear it.” He explained.
I came close enough to accept what he offered, taking the small plain box from his outstretched hand. A sudden rush of sorrow washed through me when I opened it and saw what it held. I blinked away the tears which had filled my eyes unwanted, unbidden. I looked at Thrawn but his face was unreadable.
“I thought I had lost it.” I said. My voice sounded small to my ears. I stared at my necklace, the small round ma’arilite stone with the star of colour in it. My hand trembled as I took it from the box to let it dangle from my fingers. I had asked the Doctor about it when I had gathered enough of my wits to do so but his answer had been a shrug. He could not recall me wearing a necklace and could not say what had happened to it. I thought it was lost for good.
“I took it off you while they prepped you for the bacta tank.” He said simply as he moved then, closing the space between us and took it from my hand. He gestured for me to turn around and without word I did as he bid, lifting my hair as his deft fingers fastened it around my neck and I felt as if something locked had broken loose inside of me. I bit back the sudden rush of emotion and my shoulders shook from the effort. This was the third time he had returned my necklace to me. I drew a deep breath and bit my sorrow back. I did not fight him as he pulled me around to face him. Two fingers tucked under my chin, raising my face upwards to look at him. There were a thousand things I wanted to ask but I could not find the words. I saw from his face that neither could he. I pulled away from him and he let me go.
“You are still far too thin and pale.” He said quietly.
“The food here is awful and getting outside to enjoy the sun is insanely difficult.” I replied with a shrug. “At least your security is good.”
“Still you found a way to get by it.”
I looked at him for an explanation.
“The doctor has kept me informed about your activities here while I have been gone. He mentioned you had found the North Tower sentry gate.”
“What did you expect? That I would stay cooped up here like a caged rill?” I asked sharply. “Did you imagine I would enjoy imprisonment in this place?”
“No, but I imagine it is better than dying in space.” He said more coldly than I think he had meant to.
I nodded, backing down. “Dying in space was not high on my list of things to do.” I said. I did not want to go down this path now,I was exhausted and wrung out. I didn’t have to dig too hard to know he was also tired and on edge but it was too late, that line had been stepped on. His manner changed and I felt his anger creep into his voice.
“Then why did you fly out into the worst possible part of space alone? What were you thinking?”
I sighed. For a split second the memory of what happened at Endor flashed through my mind. “I don’t know.” I answered. “I wasn’t thinking.” I added then I sat down on the couch covering my face with my hands. “The Emperor made me … he betrayed Lord Vader, he wanted to use me …he … I was trying to warn Lord Vader when the Death Star blew up, Lord Vader ….” I could not put a single sentence together and the memory of Lord Vader’s last words to me and his severing the bond between us was as sharp and as painful as the moment it had happened. I shook my head to wipe away those thoughts. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know that I was thinking anything. ” I said and that, at least, was the truth.
Thrawn sighed. “What happened to you? What did he do to you to make you act in such a reckless manner?”
“I left a recording for you, I told you what happened.” I said. I didn’t want to live through it all over again. I had done my very best to shut it all out.
Thrawn gave me a filthy look. “Yes, I suppose you thought you did but the message that I received was garbled and nigh incomprehensible. You were delirious and incoherent. I had an idea of what had happened but trust me what I heard was most unhelpful as to unravelling the story that brought you out here. So you tell me now, what did he do that made you completely witless enough to fly out into a known hotspot without an escort?”
I knew who he meant and as much as I wanted to never think about what had occurred in the Emperor’s throne room just before all nine Corellian hell’s had broken loose I knew that Thrawn would not back off until I answered his question. So as best I could I told him what had happened, what the Emperor had done to me, what he had planned on doing to Lord Vader and everything that had occurred afterwards. He listened in silence, arms folded across his chest. I could sense his anger but I wasn’t sure at whom it was directed. The silence that hung, once again, between us was sickening but I held my tongue. I had told my story now he needed to deal with it.
He released the breath he had been holding very slowly. “I will never truly understand the Power that man had but I am grateful, for your sake, that he is gone. I have never known a person more skilled in the art of manipulation than Palpatine but your rashness and stupidity rival this every time.”
“You’re angry with me?” I looked at him.
“Of course I am.” He replied with a frightening calm. “I found you cold and lifeless in the cockpit of a dead shuttle. You left goodbye messages for everyone which I had to listen to in order to figure out what the devil you were doing there in the first place. You took the most terrible of risks, nearly paid the ultimate price for no good reason at all. You never think! You just act. For as long as I have known you it has been this way. I had hoped that you would learn some measure of self control but your emotions best you every time. You are reckless.” He waited a moment to let his words sink in then he continued. “It is simply sheer dumb luck that keeps you alive. I hope you thank whatever gods you usually pray to on your home world for their constant protection because I don’t know how else you survive these ridiculous situations you manage to get yourself into.”
I swallowed hard and gritted my teeth. His words rang true but they stung and made me angry. “I thought you needed to know what had happened. Of all the people I know you were the only one who could have done anything about it.”
He regarded me for a moment. “Your faith in me is astonishing, my dear, but how could I have changed things? Palpatine and Vader were dead. I could not turn back time to undo these events.”
I shook my head. “I told you. I don’t know what I was thinking. It seemed logical at the time.” It was a half truth but I didn’t want to get further into my act of desperation.
An eyebrow arched at me. “And now?”
I looked up at him and shrugged helplessly. What was there to say except to apologise for my actions? I didn’t want to but I understood that he needed to hear it. “It was rash and stupid and I’m sorry.” And as I said it I realised just how sorry I was. I had lost nearly a year of my life for nothing. Acting on impulse had almost killed me and no good had come from it at all.
I wondered in that moment if he was right, if I would ever learn to think things through before I acted. I got up to leave. He was angry and I was at a loss for what to do or say next but before I could make it two steps he caught my arm and pulled me to him. His embrace was as fierce as it was unexpected and it broke my heart. I fought him a little, struggling to be free of his hold, afraid of his kindness, afraid it would undo me completely. He didn’t speak nor did he let go, he pressed me to his body tightly until I stopped fighting him. With my head held against his chest I could hear his heart, its strong steady beat grounding me. He kissed the top of my head and loosened his hold on me.
“I’m sorry.” I whispered again, this time without the defiance of before and had to swallow down the terrible anguish which threatened to rise up and shatter me completely.
“So am I.” he replied in a voice that scared me.
When I looked up into his face I could not read his expression but in that moment I understood that while he had accepted my apology he had not forgiven me. I pushed away from him, turning to sit back down on the couch, clasping my hands together so that he would not see them tremble. For a second he regarded me with that cool calculating gaze I had come to understand was his way of not only analyzing situations but also hiding his emotions. I watched in silence as he went over to the other side of the room. He pulled out a glass from the small cabinet which he filled with something from a bottle I couldn’t see.
“Crackerberry liqueur.” He said handing it to me. I took the glass gratefully, noting that he did not join me. Here, I thought ruefully, he was always on duty. The drink was as heady as I remembered it to be, warmth tingled down in to my belly as I sipped it slowly.
Thrawn sat next to me, elbows resting on his knees. He rubbed his face with his hands. He, too, was exhausted. “Doctor Thracer tells me you have trouble sleeping.”
I nodded. “I slept like the dead for a long time. Now it seems that I am afraid if I close my eyes I won’t wake up again.” There was truth in my words but what I did not tell him, though I suspect he knew, was that really I was terrified of my dreams. I had dreamed while I was in my coma but they were nothing in comparisons to the nightmares that haunted me now.
“This place is not good for you.” He replied. “I’m sorry but there were precious few other options, especially given your condition when we found you.”
Again I just nodded; a sudden drowsiness was making my eyelids heavy. I wondered for a moment if he had drugged the drink but knew better. Crackerberry liqueur always had this effect on me and he knew it. If we were going to argue over what had happened to me it would not be tonight. I finished the glass in one gulp and set it down on the table beside the couch, then tucked my feet up under me, jax like, and rested my head against his shoulder. “I want to go home.” I told him.
I felt him nod. “I know you do.” He said.
Something in his voice made me raise my head to look at his face but his expression was, as always, unreadable. I did not resist as he drew me to him, his fingers holding my chin. When he kissed me tenderly I thought then maybe everything would be alright between us again but he was exceptionally good at hiding his feelings. Not for the first time did it occur to me that he would make an excellent sabaac player. I curled into the warmth of his body, truly sleepy for the first time in a very long time. I knew a small amount of peace in his arms. If he felt the same I didn’t know but I could no longer sense the brilliant fury I once had from him, if he was still angry he no longer showed it. Still, a sliver of doubt rippled through me making me glance up at him again, trying to read beyond the mask of calculating cool he always hid behind. There was something he was not telling me, something important he was holding back but I was too tired to dig for it. He regarded me thoughtfully for a moment then, pulled my head back to his shoulder.
“I am here.” He said as if he could read my mind. “You will be safe, I have seen to it personally so go to sleep.”
It didn’t occur to me to ask what he meant, I just nodded and did as he had suggested.