The small, lesser used hanger bay where the Ahnkeli’Su’udelma was docked was deserted and very quiet. I glanced at the chrono on the far wall and sighed. It was late and I hadn’t even noticed the time slip away. Despite Thrawn’s assurances that my ship had been well looked after on Nirauan I wasn’t taking any chances and had spent much of the day into the early evening making certain she was in top condition. I was in the engine room when I felt a presence and heard a soft knock against the bulkhead by the hatchway.
“Permission to come aboard?” Ged asked stepping into the small space as I nodded. “I cannot believe you’re willing to fly anywhere in that bucket of bolts.”
“Don’t be insulting my ship. This bucket of bolts has teeth.” I replied wiping the grease off my hands with a rag.
“Really? I didn’t think these things still flew, to be honest.”
“When I was given her she was outfitted with all the best equipment. She may look like a wreck on the outside but she’s got it where it counts.” I smiled, “I’m not sure how many are still running but this one is in good shape, if it wasn’t Thrawn would never let me fly it.”
Ged raised an eyebrow. “Oh really? I was under the impression that telling you to do something was a lot like trying to herd wild kimas.” He stepped over the open tool box to look down at the engine.
“Ha very ha.” I replied. “Is there a reason for this visit or did you just come all the way down here to harass me about my ship?”
“Actually I came to invite you to have dinner with me, the Grand Admiral and the captains of both our flag ships but if you’d rather play with your toy here….” He let his sentence trail off, glancing around my ship.
“I thought Thrawn had returned to the Chimera.” I said not masking my surprise or delight.
“Our debriefing session went on far longer than planned and we’ve decided to stage more drills rather than rush into anything. He, along with his fleet, will remain here for another two days, standard time.”
I couldn’t help my smile and it did not go unnoticed. For a second our eyes met and something sparked between us making my heart skip a little beat. As though someone had sent a small jolt of electricity through me.
It puzzled me, this sensation because I was not in love with Ged Larsen and I certainly had no plans to change my current love life situation, but never the less….there was something there and I did my best to ignore it. I looked away, breaking the contact as well as the moment and made sure there was a little more distance between us. This also did not go unnoticed. The silence seemed suddenly heavy and oppressive.
“Merlyn,” Ged said after a too long a pause, “may I ask you something personal?”
I nodded cautiously, not liking the sudden seriousness of his mood. “Sure, I guess.”
“You’re close to Thrawn. It’s more than just a working relationship, I mean.”
I nodded but didn’t elaborate.
“Just so we’re clear, you and he are lovers.”
“Yes.” I said quickly.
“Why did you never mention the exact nature of your relationship with him to me?”
I drew a deep breath and frowned. “You’ve never asked about it until now.” I said honestly.
“Well, I’m asking about it now. Why have you never said anything before?”
I shrugged, “We got so used to keeping it very private that I never think about it any other way. Under the rule of Palpatine it was forbidden for an Imperial officer to fraternise with members of the Palace staff. Shouting about it from the palace rooftops would not have been a smart thing to do.”
“That did not seem to stop you from having an affair with him though.”
I frowned. “Well it was something Palpatine encouraged, actually, unofficially of course. I think he saw it as some sort of grand experiment, what would happen to his brilliant alien tactician if he fell for a lowly office girl from Tatooine.”
“And what did happen?”
“Palpatine used the relationship as part of an excuse to have Thrawn exiled to the Unknown Regions. It was an ugly thing.”
He nodded, letting me know that he had heard about that particular incident. “So, when I first met you at the reception for Thrawn’s induction into the canted Circle, were you and he together then?”
I smiled at the memory of that day. “Yes.”
“He was the reason you wouldn’t go out to dinner with me?” He said slowly, also remembering that day.
Once again we stared at each other and the air between us shimmered. “Ye..e..es.” I said slowly.
Ged shook his head. “I pride myself on being able to read people really well but I have to admit I never saw that you and the Grand Admiral were an item. I thought you were hung up on that blond haired palace fop you spent the rest of the event talking to.”
“Shiv? You mean Siavaan?” I asked in disbelief relieved to talk about somebody other than Thrawn. “Good grief no! Shiv’s just one of my best friends.” I laughed at the very thought.
“He seemed very close to you.” Ged pressed.
“Well, he is close to me. He was being protective.” I said, nodding. “He thinks he’s my big brother. I love him dearly but we’re just friends, really.”
“So, if I may ask, how long have you and the Grand Admiral been together?”
I stopped to think about this. “I’ve known him for about as long as I’ve worked for the Empire,” I paused to do some mental math, “But actually together-together…probably around eight or so years I guess.”
Ged did not bother to hide his surprise. “Really?”
“Mmm, really.” I said, “To be honest it surprises me that you’re so shocked; I mean the tabloids were full of stories about us, people knew or at least I think they did. I assumed you knew.”
“I don’t read that nonsense and I don’t pay much attention to the gossip mongers either.” He shrugged. “I assumed the rumours were false, especially since it seemed the entire Core was trying to find some sort of story to tell about the Emperor’s pet alien.” He paused, “And how would I know? I’ve seen you two together, what, twice and both times, while you appeared to have a decent working relationship I would never have said you were anything more than simply colleagues who got along. You both hide it very well.”
There was an edge to his voice I wasn’t sure how to decipher. “Why are you asking this Ged?”
“I like to know how things stand before I put my foot in it and say, ask you out on a real date… again.”
I looked at him steadily for a moment. “Is that the sort of thing you are likely to do… again?”
He smiled in a decidedly feral manner. “You are a lovely young woman, smart, well read and incredibly talented. You are force sensitive which is something quiet rare, you seem to understand me and you are a civilian, so therefore not within the realm of business mixing with pleasure. Yes, asking you out had occurred to me many times, especially in the last few weeks.”
“So what stopped you?” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.
He gave me another smile, “I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly, even though it was quite obvious you find me attractive and you enjoy my company, there was always a bit of a distance. I thought it was because you were shy or perhaps intimidated but …..”
“Well now you have a more concrete answer.” I shrugged ignoring his last statement.
“Ah well you did not exactly hide your feelings very well this morning when you burst into my ready room half dressed.” He replied. “You saw the Grand Admiral and your entire face lit up like a star going Nova.”
I narrowed my eyes at him, “And the reason for me being half dressed in my night clothes was the command to come to your office right away.” I hissed, ignoring his description of my expression.
“I enjoy watching you flit through my ship looking like some Nubian fey.” He smirked, teasing me. Something he did more frequently than when I had first come on board. “And your delight at seeing the Grand Admiral did not go unnoticed but it was the first time I’ve really paid attention to it. I just assumed you and he were friends.”
I shrugged. “I try to keep my feelings private; usually I do a better job.”
“Well I know you better now than I did before so I can read your expression and body language better as well.” He replied softly. “As I said I just wanted to know the lay of the land so to speak and not embarrass myself in front of my superior officer during dinner this evening.”
I laughed. “I hardly think you’d do that.”
He shrugged with a boyish grin which I found charming, “There is always a first time.” He said then added, “Does Pellaeon know about you two?”
“I doubt it. Thrawn has made sure to keep me well away from the Chimera and her crew. He’d never discuss his private life with junior officers unless he considered them very close personal friends and I don’t think he’s anywhere near that stage with Captain Pellaeon or his crew.”
“Then I shall refrain from making obnoxious innuendos at dinner. Do you think you can be cleaned and ready to join us in say, an hour?” He asked, “While I find the pit monkey look endearing it’s not exactly the appropriate dining at the Admiral’s table wear.”
“Well I am sure I can find something suitable as long as it’s not too formal.”
Ged shrugged, “Well, it will be as formal as it gets for spur of the moment.”
“And here I thought engine grease was the height of fashion.” I grinned and once again our eyes caught and another spear of something unwanted shot through my body. He stepped towards me and I edged back as nonchalantly as I could. “I need to finish here if you really want me to dine with you all.” I said.
Ged smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Merlyn, this mission he has you going on….”
I cut him off. “It isn’t dangerous if that’s what you’re asking me.” I drew a deep breath and looked at him.
He glanced around my ship and made a face, “If you need anything for this tub, the Quartermaster knows to give you what ever you ask for, within reason.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
“Dinner is at twenty hundred hours, so try not to be late.” He said turning to leave but then he paused. “I know you say you’ve been with the Grand Admiral for a while now but you might want to let him know he should not take you for granted, that he has competition for your affections.”
I just stared at him for a moment not sure how to take this unexpected statement then nodded. “Maybe you should tell him that yourself, Ged.” I said softly.
He seemed to consider this and then without warning he strode back to where I stood and before I could stop him he cupped my face with his hands and kissed me as though we were lovers starving for one another and without even thinking about it I kissed him back. Through the force I could feel his passion, his desire and something else I could not decipher, it left me breathless and shaken but before I could come to my senses and shove him away he stopped, pulling back to stare at me intently. There was a long heavy, silence broken only by the sound of my heart which pounded in my ears.
“No, sweetheart, I think that you should be the one to tell him. I am not the one with conflicted emotions. I know exactly what I want.” He said very softly.
“My emotions are not conflicted!” I snapped.
Ged’s only answer was a slight smile which tugged at the corner of his lips. For a moment I thought he was going to try and kiss me again so I put my hand up in a stop gesture then tucked it quickly behind my back when I noticed that it was shaking.
“Please do not ever do that again.” I said very quietly.
“Why not? Are you afraid you might enjoy it too much? Because I know you enjoyed that, I could feel it. You think you can hide everything you feel from me but that simply isn’t the case with many things. You’re like an open book most days and believe me when I say this, you’re interested. Why else would you want to spend so much of your spare time with me? So stop pretending otherwise.” He leaned into me and whispered in my ear, his breath warm against the skin of my neck. He smelled good and the thought made me feel guilty.
I shut my eyes tightly, willing the world to get back to normal. Part of me wanted to slap him but I held back because a very tiny part of me wondered if he was right, as kisses went it had not been unpleasant. However, I was never going to let him know that. “No because if you do that again I will hurt you. Ask Thrawn about what happened to Grand Admiral Zaarin when he tried the same thing with me. ” I stepped back from him wondering what had brought this on because up until now we had been just friends, at least that is what I thought. I had completely missed any signals indicating otherwise. “You joked to Thrawn that his spending time with me would make me less difficult…I don’t get why you suddenly….”
He held up his hand. “What I said was ‘Perhaps if you spend some more time with her while you are here and discuss this job you have for her it will make her less difficult to work with as she seems to miss working for you and I have very little to offer such a smart young woman.’” He said. “I meant that you don’t seem to be particularly challenged by any of the tasks I set you and that maybe he had found something for you to other than be here on my ship without a real reason to be other than to act as his spy.”
I scowled at him. “I am not his spy!” I snapped resenting this. “The reason I am here is because he wanted me out of harm’s way but at the same time thought I might be of use.”
“So that’s the truth. He sent you here because he wanted to keep you safe?” Ged asked in disbelief. “What does he think I am a glorified babysitter for his mistress?”
“I can actually look after myself!” I shot back, now fully angry, “How dare you….”
“What do you see in him Merlyn?” He asked suddenly, cutting me off mid-sentence. I held my breath waiting for him tell me Thrawn wasn’t human so that I could bite his head off about being xenophobic but that was not the case. “Really, he’s old enough to be your father, he’s never around and he’s about as emotional as a dead bantha.” Ged’s words came out angry, almost petulant.
“Age has nothing to do with it nor for that matter does race, colour or creed. You don’t know him, you have no idea. All you see is the Imperial façade he’s been putting on for years. Just because he doesn’t show what he feels doesn’t mean he doesn’t have emotions or that he never shows them. You have no idea of what he is capable of! ” I shot back, now that the shock had dwindled and the adrenalin had receded only anger and uncertainty were left in their place. I seemed to have a thing for older men but I didn’t say this out loud.
Ged just stared at me. Then he leaned in to kiss me again and I seemed to watch it all unfold in slow motion. When his lips brushed against mine I felt as though my entire world had suddenly tilted sideways upending everything I knew to be good and true. This time instead of kissing him back, as my body wanted me to do, I moved my head aside and looked away from his face. “Why the hell did you do that? I told you to stop!”
“I wanted to see if I was right.”
“About you.” He said quietly, brushing a lock of hair away from my face with his forefinger.
I swallowed. “And your conclusion?” I asked pushing his hand away.
“I’ll leave that up to you to figure out.” He said stroking my face with his finger tips.
I pulled back from his touch, shaking. “Admiral, I think you should leave now.”
He just smiled. “Dinner, my private dining room in half an hour, do not be late. That is an order.” He said and then he left.
Shaking from the inside out, I slid down to sit on the floor wondering what the hell had prompted this turn of events. I wracked my brains trying to remember if I had done or said anything to allow Ged to believe I was free for the taking.
My first week on board his ship had been strange, tense especially after the dinner where he had all but interrogated me on my reasons for being there. He had been deeply suspicious of Thrawn’s reasoning and had called me on the whole Emperor’s hand thing.
“Miss Gabriel,” He had said after a very lengthy silence, “You and I both know you were never one of Palpatine’s agents so cut the crap will you and tell me what you are really doing here?”
I had given him the answer Thrawn had told me to, which was that I was there working as a liaison between the two fleets, nothing more and nothing less and that if he didn’t like it he could take it up with the Grand Admiral. Needless to say it had been a somewhat terse and awkward meal and I was more than happy to be shown to my quarters and leave Ged alone to his thoughts.
For the rest of the week he had completely ignored me and with nothing else to do, as well as no access to any place other than the public areas on his ship I had spent much of my time either in my quarters reading or in the small exercise room working out my demons. I didn’t dare contact Thrawn and complain and since I didn’t have my own ship I couldn’t just leave. Things had changed, though, when he had found me, very late one night, running through my bunduki forms.
“I was not aware that you were trained, formally trained in this martial art form.” He had said watching me from the doorway.
I had ignored his comment because I was angry with him and had kept on practicing as if he were not there at all.
“The Emperor once told me that you would have made a great candidate for his adept training programme had it not been for your stubborn, wilful nature which had you so bound up with Vader. I start to understand what he meant.”
I had stopped what I was doing to stare at him. “You talked with the Emperor about me?” I had asked surprised.
“No, he mentioned you because he saw us speaking together at the Canted Circle ceremony.” He had replied.
I had just nodded and begun a series of stretches to cool down.
“Merlyn, look, I’m sorry if I offended you but you must understand a man in my position cannot take chances on …well you could very well be a rebel spy.”
I had just glared at him then turned my back on him. “The last person who accused me of being a traitor died.” I had said flatly.
“I am not accusing you of anything but I wanted to make certain you are who you say you are. It’s been my experience that the rebels are very clever when it comes to infiltrating and information gathering.”
“Well, Admiral, let me put you at ease I am not now nor was I ever aligned with the Rebel Alliance. I am exactly what Thrawn says I am, a civilian pilot who once worked as Lord Vader’s personal assistant. I sometimes work as a mechanic when I am needed, I occasional do some translation work for him and fly on delivery runs for him when he wishes to go someplace in a non military capacity. Sometimes I act as a courier and occasionally, like now, I am asked to do some liaison work between fleets. You are quite right when you say I am not an Emperor’s Hand, that is a lie but a necessary one to keep people who would normally ask questions from doing so. So if you would do me the kindness of contacting the Grand Admiral and letting him know the current situation so that either he or you can arrange passage off this ship for me I would be most grateful.”
“Actually, I already have and he indicated to me that while my caution was admirable it was also not necessary and that I was being foolish to throw away your talents.” He replied. “While he was polite about it the underlying command for me to deal with you and the situation was there. No matter what, he is my superior officer and his orders will be obeyed.”
I had glanced up. “What talents would they be?” I had asked snarkily.
“He did not elaborate and I did not argue the point.” He had replied. “Look, as I said before I wanted to make sure you were who you said you were and it seems that my worries were unfounded. I apologise for the treatment you have received and would like to try and make it up to you, if I may?”
I knew a peace offering when I saw it and I had also known in this case it would only ever be given once and if I wanted to actually enjoy my time on board the Virulent then I had damned well better take it so I had nodded. “Apology accepted Admiral.”
“Please, call me Ged, seeing as how you are not actually a member of the Imperial navy I see no reason why we cannot be informal at least in private.”
And that had been the start of what slowly blossomed into a very pleasant friendship, or so I thought. Over the weeks that had followed we had spent a lot of time talking in private, sharing stories about our various experiences during the Emperor’s rule and eventually talking about what it meant to be a force user, especially one that Palpatine had taken an interest in. It turned out that we actually had a lot in common, including a love of Jeb Holloway books.
I had been given a small office space and computer access. Ged had also allowed me to work in the mechanic’s pit because I had begged for something other than mindless paperwork to do. I got used to meeting him for a ‘caf in the mornings and then we began to share supper together more often than not when he had time. So when, I wondered, had this turned into more than just a decent working friendship without me noticing?
There had been an evening two weeks prior to Thrawn’s arrival when after dinner we had moved to the living area of his quarters, sat on the couch and shared a particularly good brandy. The conversation had been funny and warm and above all comfortable but I could not recall there being any more to it. I had not gotten drunk and there had been no physical tell tale signs that I had actually noticed to say he was remotely interested in me, but when I thought back I saw I had been wrong. I shook my head in disbelief at how I could have missed these signs, the mimicking of body language, the slightly too long held gazes, his utter attentiveness and the occasional contact when he would touch my hand or shoulder to emphasis a point he was making. What was worse was I hadn’t backed away from this, I had enjoyed his attention. It had been nice, almost normal.
I sighed and banged my head against the bulkhead of my ship in frustration. I had not thought about this because it had not occurred to me that any other man might find me attractive let alone act on the desire. In my head I was so utterly Thrawn’s that I automatically expected the entire galaxy to know this, but that was not the case. As Ged had pointed out, it was something that had been kept well hidden. How could he or anyone else be excepted to simply know? I had been an idiot.
All this time he had interpreted my actions as interest in him and there had been no reason for him to think otherwise. I drew a deep breath remembering the sheer thrill that had accompanied the anger and surprise of his sudden and not so subtle kiss. My experiences with men over the years had not been the best, when they were not trying to rape me they were trying to kill me. It wasn’t as if I had ever had a lot of experience with male attention that was positive, with the exception of Thrawn. So few had ever really made any sort of positive play for my affections that I didn’t actually recognize it for what it was and I had been with Thrawn for so long it had never occurred to me to even consider anyone else but I had to admit I liked Ged. What I didn’t want to admit was my body had also liked what he had done and I certainly didn’t like the guilt that flooded me when I thought about this.
I sighed and looked at the chrono. I had fifteen minutes to get dressed so that I could sit through a dinner which I knew would be uncomfortable and awkward for me. Suddenly frustrated beyond all belief I threw the spanner in my hand across the room and swore loudly. Then because I didn’t really have a choice I got up and headed to my quarters to get cleaned up so that I could sit between two men who both had the capacity, it seemed, to make my heart race.