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1.

Tarkin is the first person to comment on the ring, which he does in early February.

He pauses on his way past Arihnda’s desk on his first day back from vacation and looks down at her hand, which is poised above the phone.

“A gift from your military beau?” He asks.

Arihnda almost covers the little decoration with her left hand, out of a sudden flash of — it's either embarrassment or an offended sense of privacy. Maybe both.

But Tarkin seems both genuinely inquiring and gently teasing, which he usually is when he refers to Thrawn as her military beau , as if he hadn't known Thrawn longer than he'd known Arihnda. He'd picked up the habit just before Christmas, when Arihnda had asked for time off. It had been a risky move, that one. She could remember the conversation perfectly: coming in to his office, asking if he had a minute, the casual way he'd said yes, with the full expectation that if she were asking for a minute of his time it was worth giving to her. That had been a good start. Then she'd asked: I already have the time banked, she'd said, and I wouldn't ask, of course, except for the fact that Thrawn invited me — Tarkin’s brows had lifted, lofty and surprised, and for a moment she hadn't been sure if that was good. Then he'd composed his face into something almost… casually friendly. Or at least his version of it. He'd waved a hand. Of course, he'd said. Of course, he understood. She should take the time. And he was glad she'd asked: it was good to know things were going so well with her military beau.

All in all, it was a better victory than she'd dared hope for.

And overall she thinks she doesn't mind him being interested in how things are going with Thrawn. It indicates an interest in Arihnda that is personal rather than just professional — which bodes, she thinks, incredibly well for her future prospects.

So Arihnda stops herself from clasping her left hand over her right and hiding the little bow-shaped gold ring Thrawn had given to her on Christmas Eve. The not-really-a-promise-ring. The tentative-commitment-to-sticking-around-for-at-least-a-year ring.

“Yes,” she says. “It was a Christmas present.” She makes no effort to hide the ring — but no effort to display it, either. Casual is usually a good approach to Tarkin. Casual, like you're not afraid of being suddenly shredded alive.

Tarkin’s eyes linger on it, but all he says is: “Things are going well, then.”

“Yes,” says Arihnda.

“Good. I'm pleased to hear it.” Opening gambit completed, his attention shifts. “I presume you have heard about Secretary Amedda’s impending resignation?” He asks.

“Of course,” she says smoothly. She really shouldn’t have heard about it, but Tarkin values her for her ability to know the things she shouldn’t, and to make herself useful based on that knowledge.

Tarkin smiles, just a little, very thinly. “Of course you have,” he says.

And then he tells her something that sends her entire day spinning off the rails.



2.

Thrawn is waiting for her when she finally gets home, after 10 PM.

Several things about that make her particularly uncomfortable today, not least of which is that the difference between home and apartment seems to be the difference between Thrawn waiting for her in his 1995 Jeep Wrangler, parked practically in front of her building, or not. It’s become an almost daily routine since New Year’s: coming home to him, sharing her space with him. He’s just about moved in, except for not having a key. And for the most part, Arihnda’s been adjusting to it fine.

She’s been adjusting both to having him in her space, and to him bringing her into his space — meeting his colleagues at a bar on New Year’s Eve; going out at least once a week since with the subset of his coworkers that she has started to think of as Thrawn’s crew ; learning how to get along with the superficially passive and retiring Eli Vanto, who is actually as sarcastic and short-tempered as he is observant and generous and who is probably, at least in Thrawn’s mind, Thrawn’s best friend; learning to get along with the superficially relaxed and even-keeled Karyn Faro, a relentless and self-flagellating perfectionist and avid student of grand strategy who has appointed herself the role of Thrawn’s chief protégé with bloody-minded certainty; and learning to make good impressions on retired officers whose opinions Thrawn values and still, sometimes, cultivates. She’s not really friends with any of these people, but being around them has made her life less… lonely, she thinks, since losing Juahir.

But she and Thrawn haven’t talked about anything important — not what they want from each other, or expect of themselves, or what form any of those things should take — since Christmas. There’s been the addition of the ring, of course — the amorphous and largely unspoken agreement to… to just continue on for a little while. And continuing to do whatever undefined thing they are doing, where their closeness seems as much inertia as intention, had seemed fine five weeks ago. Had seemed, in fact, a large step forward. Forward towards — something.

Now it seems inadequate, unstable: a problem she’s going to have to deal with one way or the other, since things with Tarkin are moving as they are.

She walks directly up to the Jeep, ready to rap on the window, but Thrawn is getting out of the cab before she’s stretched her hand out.

“How do you always do that? See me coming before —”

“I look for you,” he says, closing the door behind him, stretching, and then locking the door. He’s got a battered paperback in one hand, not so unusual. He smiles at her; it's as distracting as it was the very first time he ever did it.

“Shall we go up?” He asks.

“Sure. Yes.”

And at her tone, his smile fades.

They don’t talk again until they’re standing side-by-side in the elevator. It’s a strange kind of silence, a tension like the awkwardness that had plagued them through late November and most of December: all of the distance is generated by Arihnda.

“Is that all you do?” She asks a little sharply, almost to break the silence. She feels like she’s going to jump out of her skin. “Just watch the rearview mirror and wait for me?”

“No,” he says with a very slight lift to his voice, his tone gracefully balanced on the edge of mockery and criticism. “I also read.”

He held up the paperback, a dog-eared Penguin classic with a grecian vase on the cover. Antigone. A play about doing one’s duty for one’s family, she vaguely remembers from high school. He has been reading about duty a lot lately. She thinks he may be working on a new monograph, but he hasn’t said, and she doesn’t like to pry.

Then he says: “Something quite exciting must have happened to keep you so late.” He raises his brows as he says it. His expression conveys the quiet accusation you seem on edge well enough that he doesn't need to state it aloud.

“Yes,” she says, voice tight. “Let’s get inside first.”

Thrawn’s brows inch higher, and his expression changes to a more genuine kind of interest. He follows her softly into the apartment, and he is still watching her with that expectant inquisitiveness when she shuts the door behind them.

Arihnda feels like she’s going to jump out of her skin — but not from anxiety. There’s a powerful blend of feeling inside her: the seething bastard child of formless, pent-up aggression roaring to be free, and wild, unhinged happiness.

The only problem is the man in her apartment. Her apartment, which for the moment, focused on the news that’s boiling inside her like whitewater rapids, she does not think of as her home — or as their home, a dangerous thought that has slipped in a couple times since New Year’s.

The only problem is the question of how the man in her apartment fits into the new and incredible direction her life seems to be going.

She takes too long speak, because Thrawn finally says, tilting his head a little: “What is it?”

She takes a breath. “Mas Amedda is retiring. Barring a major disaster in the confirmation process, Tarkin is going to be the next Secretary of State.”

Thrawn processes her statement for a brief moment, and looks undecided as to what it might mean. He says: “He intends to take you with him to the State Department?”

Arihnda takes another deep breath. “Yes.”

“He has a role for you already?”

“Yes.”

“Which is?”

“Special Assistant for Intergovernmental Affairs — I’ll be one of a few of them, but...”

“But it is quite the step up,” he says, almost polite in his mildness, eyes slightly narrowed.

Arihnda knows that Thrawn’s no fool; it’s obvious he knows that she’s behaving as she is because she feels something other than pure elation about this change, at least where he’s concerned. She can see him tick through a couple of possible paths forward, quickly, and then make a conscious decision to set difficult matters aside, just as he sets aside the little paperback book, laying it on the side table Arihnda uses to store unsorted mail, and her purse.

“I imagine there are some complications that come with it,” he says sensibly as he sets the book down. Then he looks up. “So tell me, would you prefer to talk them over now? Or…” And then he flashes her a smile. That winning smile, impossibly attractive, that makes her heart flutter. “Would you rather celebrate?”



3.

It’s good enough for Arihnda, at least for the moment, that Thrawn knows some further conversation is needed. And in all honesty, Arihnda really would prefer to celebrate, which is how they get back in Thrawn’s car and drive about half an hour back in the general direction of the White House, and go to a late-night dinner at the bar of the Old Ebbit Grill. Thrawn restrains himself from making any gently mocking comments about Arihnda’s taste in restaurants. He only says it is a pity the first table they’d ever sat at here isn’t available, and that it’s convenient her favorite place is open so late. They get drinks first, and then Arihnda, who has been going nonstop since Tarkin stopped by her desk, excuses herself for the bathroom. When she comes back, the menus are gone — it’s the kind of slightly smothering touch she’ll want less of from Thrawn going forward, she thinks.

Or maybe it’s just the kind of thing she feels she’s supposed to want less of, in her new role.

But it’s fine to set the problem aside for a couple of hours, to let herself be swept along by Thrawn’s smile and his prying questions and occasional teases. She is perfectly happy to talk about all the things she expects from her new job, and how excited she is for it. How excited she is that Tarkin wants to keep her as part of his staff. How vindicated she feels by the specific role he’s envisioned for her. How deeply embedded he expects her to be in the confirmation process itself. The conversation carries them through oysters and champagne, which they share, through the trout and properly dry Riesling Thrawn chose for her (for himself, Thrawn has chosen some kind of monstrously ugly pastrami nightmare that makes Arihnda wrinkle her nose), and through a mutual decision to skip dessert and head home.

They end up doing more talking than anything else until the small hours of the morning.

More talking, but not exclusively that. At Thrawn's wicked, grinning suggestion they get out the polaroid to memorialize the occasion , and do a couple of things with each other that are breathy and childish and full of teasing and laughter.



4.

In spite of not getting to sleep until quite late, Arihnda wakes very early, as if an alarm inside her had hit its endpoint. Thrawn is wrapped around her, still sleeping. It's rare for her to wake first, so for a few moments, she closes her eyes and enjoys the feeling.

But only for a few moments.

Arihnda rarely minds if she wakes before her alarm except if she's on vacation. She is never without work to do and she generally appreciates, and takes advantage, of her body granting her extra time to do it. Time and the ability to use it are, she thinks, the two most precious resources any person can have — an opinion that had solidified during her college years, when her mother had been ill.

So after a few moments, she starts trying to wriggle out of Thrawn’s grasp. The air mattress, which she still has not replaced with an appropriate bed, moves too much, and Thrawn half-wakes, sighing and pulling her closer: the casual, unthinking, proprietary attitude that he brings to everything. When she tries to get free again, he tightens his arms once more, and makes a low noise. She knows where that's going, and it's not where she needs.

“Thrawn. I have to pee.” She says it with simple and direct clarity.

That seems to get through, because a second later he grunts and lets go of her.

Thrawn has more of a tendency to linger than Arihnda, so it isn't strange that he doesn't see fit to get out of the bed until she's finished making coffee and gone back to the bathroom, another bare room she’s barely furnished.

It is, however, a little unusual that he follows her into the shower, which is just a tub with a curtain rather than a stall, and still doesn’t even have a rubber mat in the bottom.

“What are you doing?” She’s already covered in soap, and his hands slip where he touches her.

“I thought that was rather obvious,” he says wickedly, speaking into her ear.

“I meant what are you think— oh — fuck—

She’s covered in soap, and so is the floor of the shower.

It all happens at once: She tries to turn around, she slips on the slick porcelain. Thrawn hisses shit and tries to grab her, and only succeeds in losing his own balance. For a split second, both flail like they’re trying to ice-skate for the first time. Then there’s chaos: they tumble, a tangle of confused limbs. One of them gasps sharply, probably Arihnda. There’s a thud, and a crack. Arihnda’s head hits the wall of the shower, a glancing blow, and she lands on top of Thrawn. The shower curtain has been ripped down. There’s water going everywhere.

“Fuck,” says Arihnda again, pressing a hand to the side of her now-aching head and trying to sit up. “Fuck, shit —” She knees Thrawn in his middle as she’s trying to squirm around to a place where she can reach the faucet and turn the water off. Thrawn grunts; Arihnda doesn’t apologize. When the water’s off, she presses her hand back to her head again. It hurts terribly.

“Huh — fuck —” says Thrawn.

She looks at him, and drops her hand from her head. “Oh my God — shit — Thrawn — ”

He grunts again. He looks irritated and confused, his eyes are half-closed and he’s shaking his head slowly, gripping the side of the tub and trying to leverage himself up.

She moves towards him, an awkward half-crawl along the length of the tub. “You’re bleeding,” she says, reaching for his head.

“What?” he squints at her, stops trying to get up, and touches the side of his head. “So I am.” Then he snorts: disgust and derision. “And here I thought the broken ribs were my only problem.”

“The — what?

He gives a rueful, ironic smile. “So much for my morning plans.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake — yes, your morning is the only one that’s ruined here. We’re going to the hospital. Don’t move, I think I can drive —”



5.

Arihnda is examined by a nurse who says she’ll be fine, and then re-examined in a cursory fashion by a doctor who says the same. She might have a very mild concussion, but no worse than that. Since she doesn't have any serious symptoms, not even a bruise, other than a dull ache where she hit her head, there’s probably no reason to make her go through any scans. If she develops any concussion symptoms in the next couple of days, the Doctor tells her, she should come back right away, but other than that, she should take some ibuprofen and not worry.

Thrawn, on the other hand, is sent for a head CT scan and chest x-rays.

Arihnda spends most of her time in the hospital waiting room furiously texting Tarkin, trying to explain what’s become of her morning in the least embarrassing way possible. She’s edgy both because it’s a humiliating story to have to dance around when you’re talking to anyone, especially your boss — and because she’s angry at being stuck in a hospital. Foul-smelling places full of death and bad memories.

And then a nurse comes to get her, and ushers her into a small room where Thrawn, who has changed back into his own clothing, is waiting, scrolling through his phone and lounging in a way that suggests the ratty little chair he’s in is actually a throne. Apparently, he’s been given something for the pain. That, or it really doesn’t bother him. He hadn’t complained at all on the drive to the emergency room, either.

“You are not seriously hurt?” he asks casually as she comes in.

“No, apparently not,” she says. “You?”

“I do not think so, but we shall see. Apparently my head is fine — though some might argue the point.” He grins at her; she does not grin back, and his expression sobers again. “They are reviewing the x-rays now,” he says. “I have had broken ribs before, I do not think it will come to much.” He tilts his his head at her. She is still standing stiffly against the door. “Come sit with me,” he says.

She does, although she settles into the chair beside him a little stiffly, too.

He pays it no mind, and turns his phone screen so she can see it. “Julian has started working with charcoals,” he says.

Arihnda peers at the phone. Julian: oldest of Thrawn’s nephews, the second-oldest of Thrass and Lorana’s children, a child who had a tendency to state observations in lieu of asking questions and who had spent most of the family vacation either reading fantasy books or drawing landscapes. The drawings had been done in pencil, and they had been shockingly good for a ten-year-old. The charcoal sketches Thrawn is showing Arihnda now are similarly impressive.

But Arihnda is thinking more about the way Thrawn is showing them to her. He’s been doing this constantly since New Year’s: mentioning his nieces and nephews on an almost daily basis, casually delivering reports about them as if he’d been asked to keep her updated on their activities. It’s unsubtle, even for him — and she knows there’s going to be a conversation about this long before the year she’s sort of-kind of promised him is over.

Thrawn is delivering some sort of mild-toned commentary on the pictures. Arihnda isn’t listening. Instead, her head is swirling with a mixture of annoyance at his choosing to carry on like this right now of all times, and speculation about what that inevitable conversation might be like. Two days ago she would have said, if asked, that she was perhaps, tentatively, at least amenable to talking about the possibility of children. Or at least the possibility of one child. Maybe. Maybe, possibly, two of them.

Certainly not five.

She wasn’t enthusiastic, exactly, but… But she’d been thinking about it a lot, since Christmas. She’d seen what family meant to him, and what the possibility of building his own family meant to him — even if it was more about an idea he wanted to have about himself than anything else. She thought, based on what she’d seen with his nieces and nephews, that he’d… he’d probably be fine as a father. A little idiosyncratic, but fine. And she’d… it was entirely possible that she could craft some tolerable version of motherhood for herself. Maybe. Possibly. She didn’t think the ooey-gooey pastel nonsense that so grated on her was required. Her children  — child, she corrects herself, probably child, probably just one — wouldn’t die from having a mother who was a little more pragmatic than sentimental.

And two days ago, her image of her life had included more than enough space for the idea.

Now her mind is buzzing with a hundred other complications. What about when she’s traveling? If she’s traveling and he’s deployed? Day care is one thing, but this would require nannies. Full-time, live-in nannies. How would they find them? Would they have the same priorities in the hiring process? Who would coordinate them? What if they couldn’t be trusted? What about money? She knew some people lived like that, with hired help in their homes raising their children, but she didn’t see how. Even if she didn’t particularly care for children, she didn’t like the thought of her own hypothetical offspring being raised by someone else. Didn’t like the idea of some stranger being closer to her children than she was. Her children would be hers, and she’d never liked letting any outsider have a stake in her family. She didn’t want to give her children to a stranger anymore than she’d wanted to let strangers care for her mother when —

The doctor, a young woman with violet eyes and short brown hair that sweeps on an angle across her forehead, opens the door without knocking, and looks a little surprised.

“Oh, you’re both here.” There’s an uncomfortable pause. “Maybe you could wait outside?” She says to Arihnda.

Before Arihnda can speak, Thrawn puts his hand over hers, which are both folded in her lap. “I am sure it will be fine for her to stay,” he says, polite but clearly now on alert. “I assume my injuries are slightly worse than I suspected?”

The doctor, who looks very young indeed, like someone who maybe got to and through med school early on the combined virtues of academic brilliance and sheer willful stubbornness but still hasn’t quite developed the emotional maturity needed for her job, looks uncomfortable for a minute. Then she seems to harden herself a little, and she pulls up a third chair.

Arihnda gives the woman a closer inspection as she’s gathering herself to speak, and sees that her nameplate reads Wren. Arihnda is feeling more annoyed about Doctor Wren’s theatrics than anything else.

Then Doctor Wren speaks.

“Less bad, actually. Your ribs are probably only bruised, and your head injury is completely superficial,” she says. “But we saw some shadows on the chest x-ray, on the left side.”

It’s like being shoved backwards. Through a hole in the floor. Or through time.

Thrawn’s hand, still resting over Arihnda’s, remains perfectly relaxed.

“Ah,” says Thrawn. “Could it be scar tissue? I had a few bouts of tuberculosis when I was younger —”

Arihnda swivels her head to look at him. “You what?”

“My mother does not believe in medicine,” Thrawn says mildly, turning to look at her. “And our lifestyle was, I am sure you can imagine, a little eccentric. I did not see a doctor for anything until I was a teenager.”

“Christ, of course you didn’t.” Arihnda says. She turns back to Doctor Wren. “Well? Could that be it?”

“It could be a lot of things, obviously we need to look a little closer and figure out. But no, I don’t really think that’s it. You would have seen it before now.”

“A fair point,” says Thrawn, smiling a little. “I admit it was something of a stretch. So, should I make an appointment to come back, or would you like to finish up whatever testing you have in mind today?”

Arihnda’s not sure if his aplomb is bravado or just stupidity.

Arihnda would like to go back to thinking about the children she probably doesn't want.

Arihnda would like to get up and leave.

“I’d like you stick around for a while today,” says Doctor Wren, who looks much, much too young to have any business delivering news like this. “I’d like to get some more refined imagery, see if we can tell anything from that.”

Arihnda’s turned her hand over under Thrawn’s without noticing it — is holding his hand in hers. “Could it be a problem with the film?” She asks. “The film, or the imaging itself —”

“We don’t use actual film anymore,” says Doctor Wren, a little slowly. “But we don’t know that this is a problem yet, just that we have to take a look.”

Arihnda knows that’s meant to be soothing. All it does is make Arihnda want to rake her nails savagely across Doctor Wren’s face and ruin her young-Elizabeth-Taylor good looks. They’re always like this, doctors and nurses, always saying it’s nothing, it’s fine, everything will be fine, and then eight months later your parent’s kitchen table is covered in bills and you’re screaming at some mid-level hospital administrator because the nurses on night shift left your mother’s call bell unanswered for four hours while she lay in a pool of her own piss —

“Arihnda?”

Arihnda shakes her head, and looks over at Thrawn. He is frowning a little.

“What?”

“I was asking —” his frown deepens, and then clears. “You should go to the office. You do not need to stay for the rest of this. I will tell you what happens later.”

“I —”

He squeezes her hand. “Go to the office.”




6.

Arihnda stops on the way to the office at some sandwich shop whose name she doesn’t know, and orders something in a state of complete apathy, and sits at the window counter and stares at the sandwich.

And then she calls her mother, who is a little surprised to hear from her daughter in the middle of a workday, but who only asks if something is wrong twice: once when she answers the phone, and then again at the end of the call, after she’s indulged Arihnda by narrating all the little mundanities of her life the past few weeks.

“You’re sure there’s nothing wrong that I can help with, Arihnda?”

“No,” says Arihnda. “I just — I just wanted to hear your voice.”

“Alright,” says her mother. “Alright. You can call for that any time.”

“I know,” says Arihnda. Then she hesitates, and then she says: “You’re feeling alright, aren’t you? Nothing —” Arihnda stops.

Then it’s Elainye’s turn to be silent for a minute, doubtless trying to pick that question apart. Finally she says: “I just saw Doctor Azadi last week. He says I’m as healthy as a forty-year-old, in the best shape of my life. Are you sure you’re alright?”

Arihnda’s staring at the uneaten sandwich. She presses her lips together. Her breath whistles through her nose. “I’m fine,” she says.

It comes out as a bit of a squeak.

“Arihnda —”

“I have to go,” she says quickly. She hangs up before her mother can say anything else.

She leaves the sandwich behind, untouched on the counter.




7.

“Exciting morning,” says Tarkin very dryly, smiling a thin, ironic smile at Arihnda’s expense when she comes into his office.

“Yes — I’m very sorry —”

“No, no, never apologize,” he says, shaking his head and waving a hand dismissively. “Just move on to business — which we shall do now, I believe. I am going to begin accompanying Secretary Amedda on his overseas trips, starting with his tour of INDOPACOM. You can be prepared to leave in five days, I hope?”

Five days. February 11th. For a trip that will last until February 26th

“Of course,” says Arihnda. There’s no other answer she can give, really.

“And I assume you know what the trip is about?”

“Laying the groundwork for your transition with key figures personally, I imagine,” says Arihnda, embracing the ease of having an answer and being able to state it.

“Naturally, that is the most important part. I’ll need you to make sure you have a sense of what the reactions from the Hill will be to my presence — my hawkish reputation shall precede me, I am sure.”

“Of course,” says Arihnda, ticking through names in her head.

“And since this is somewhat late-notice, I’ll need you to get familiar with the protocol office immediately, and with the travel requirements. Oh, and make a doctor’s appointment. INDOPACOM has some of the more extensive vaccination recommendations.”




8.

Thrawn sends her a text: My car keys are with you, I believe.

She stares at her phone for too long before finally texting back: Where are you?

He replies: Still at the hospital.

She spends a long time looking at that message, too. Then someone behind in the hall says her name and is halfway through a complicated sentence full of information she needs and she stops thinking about how, exactly, to deal with this issue with Thrawn and the keys, and without thinking, fingers moving almost reflexively, she replies: I’ll have Yogar bring them to you. I’m sending the house keys, too. Just buzz me in when I get home.

When she’s doing figuring out who wanted her attention (Tua, a very fussy legislative liaison) and what specifically it is that she wants Arihnda to do (it hardly matters), she stops cold. She plucks her phone out of her pocket, and re-reads her message, as if to be sure of what she'd really said.

Thrawn has replied: Of course; just let me know when you expect to get away from the office. Do you know what you’d like for dinner, or should I surprise you?

She doesn’t answer his text, and her hand is shaking when she slips her phone back into her pocket.

She’s icy, short, and foul with Yogar  — an unpaid and over eager intern — when she tells him what to do.




9.

She takes a cab back to her apartment building, and on the ride she keeps rereading the last two texts.

Her skin runs hot and cold by turns. Giving him her keys, talking about her little shoebox apartment like it’s a real home, like it’s their home —

She can’t afford that. She has to stop — stop all of this.

It hardly matters that she's been with Thrawn more three times as long as she's ever been with anyone else, and it's beside the point that just this morning she was thinking about… There’s no room for any of it, not if she wants to get ahead on the path Tarkin’s opened for her. Children, stability. A fat load of crap. There’s no room for it.

And there’s definitely no room for the rest of this shit.

If she’s going to escape from this nightmare with her skin intact, she tells herself, she needs to do it now. Even if it looks bad, she needs to do it now.

No more plunging ahead.




10.

It’s easy enough to think it.

But the moment she hears his voice her intentions vanish like smoke.

“Hello,” Thrawn says when she buzzes her apartment number, his voice crackling over the intercom with amused relish. “I don’t recall ordering company.”

“Thrawn —”

“Perhaps I should ask for a passphrase —”

Thrawn.”

“Fair, we’ll decide on a passphrase later.” She expects him to buzz her in after that, but there’s only a long pause. Then he says, clearly quite entertained by himself: “Or a safeword.”

As if he can see her through the intercom, he buzzes her in exactly when she opens her mouth, before she can speak.

She’s tries to cling to something at least like annoyance as the elevator climbs towards her floor, tries to fool herself into thinking she can work her way back to cutting herself free tonight.

But all she feels is worry.

And when she sees his handsome, smugly grinning face as he opens the door for her, and when he says So nice of you to join me, she finds that all she really wants to do is touch him. Put her hand on his chest and feel him breathing. Put her head on his chest and listen.

She doesn’t do either. She shoves past him into — into her apartment.

“I have some more news,” she says, dropping her purse on the side-table and breezing into the kitchen. “I’ll be going with Tarkin on Secretary Amedda’s INDOPACOM tour.”

There is a little lag before Thrawn answers, and she almost turns around to check if he’s there. Almost, then doesn’t. It’s not exactly that she worries looking for him might reveal that he's already vanished like Eurydice, but —

“Oh?” he says behind her.

“Yes,” she says, getting a bottle of vodka out of the freezer and pouring herself a couple of ounces. “We leave on the eleventh, we’ll back on the twenty-sixth,” she says as she’s pouring. She doesn’t turn around until after she’s put the bottle back, and taken a long sip of her drink.

When she turns, she finds he is giving her an assessing kind of look, like he had last night, when she’d told him about her new job.

And then, like last night, he opts for lurid charm: “So much for Valentine’s day,” he says, with an ironic twist to his lips.

Arihnda shakes her head. She doesn’t want to get into banter right now. “Plan something for when I get back,” she says.

Thrawn raises his eyebrows. “Are you sure about that?”

Arihnda opens her mouth, closes it, and then says, snappishly: “Are you going to tell me what happened after I left?”

For a second, she thinks he might not. Then, giving a casual shrug, he says: “Doctor Wren ordered a CT scan of my chest, and would like me to schedule time for a biopsy. She says the last is purely precautionary, just to confirm that it’s only a calcified granuloma, which is her very strong suspicion. She seems quite certain. I am not worried.”

At the word biopsy Arihnda’s heart seems to stop. It finds a rhythm again unsteadily.

“You haven’t scheduled it yet?” The question comes out sharp and harsh.

“Doctor Wren’s recommendation — it really does not seem immediately urgent, and she recommended rest, and letting my ribs heal a little more.”

“You should schedule it soon,” says Arihnda, voice still sharp. What do his ribs matter? She’s gripping her glass with both hands, as if it might slip out of her sweating palm.

Thrawn raises an eyebrow, half-smiles. “I will,” he says, reassuring, and a little pleased about something, too. Pleased that she’s concerned, probably.

She could slap him.

She could cry.

She knocks back the rest of the vodka in one go and pushes past him, out of the postage-stamp kitchen, and hides in the bathroom. She doesn’t cry in there, but it helps to have a minute alone, a minute to herself. Maybe Doctor Wren is right. Just because the woman is young doesn’t necessarily mean she’s stupid. Maybe there’s nothing to worry about, after all.

While she’s hiding in the bathroom, there’s another buzz at the door: dinner.

When she comes back out of the bathroom, Thrawn moves around her as carefully as he had when she’d arrived at his brother’s cabin in December: like she’s a strange animal that might snap. She doesn’t try to fix it. They eat — mediterranean, something with grilled chicken — and have a discussion about her trip that is short, focused, and almost curt.

Or at least, she’s curt — and she hardly eats at all.

Clearing the dishes after is automatic action, a mindless chore that gives them both something to do. And it’s very comfortable, they way they move around each other in the kitchen. Something they’re used to doing. They’ve practiced it, after all, through repetition. It’s habit. Routine. Routine, like his company.

Leaning over the sink, Arihnda suddenly presses a hand to her mouth. Then, just as suddenly, she recovers.

“Throw the salad away,” she snaps at him when she turns around. “You never eat the leftovers.”

Thrawn raises his eyebrows at her, and with exaggerated movements, as if to say see, I’m doing it, he crumples up the tin plate around the last bits of lettuce and tosses it into the trash.

They lapse into total silence after that, and after an awkward minute of it, Thrawn, watching her with a tilt to his head, says: “Anxious about your trip?”

Arihnda flexes her hands against nothing. “Something like that.”

Thrawn steps closer, touches her face. “I am not worried,” he says softly. He makes no effort to clarify about what what. He doesn't need to.

Arihnda just looks at him. The only things she wants to say are I am and you should be.

He leans in — and she swerves her head out of his way.

And then, cautiously, finds his gaze.

“Can I see it?” She says softly. “The — I mean, it must be a bad bruise.”

He raises his eyebrows, then his lips curve a little. It looks like a smile, but it’s somehow sad.

“It is not very attractive, I warn you,” he says.

“Still,” says Arihnda.

The bruise isn’t very attractive, a brutal, raised swath of ugly black and uglier red that covers most of his ribs on his left side, but it’s not really the bruise she wants to see. When he’s shirtless, she spreads her right hand flat in the middle of her chest, and just stares for a minute. At her hand. At the ring. At his chest.

And Thrawn stands patiently for that, for a minute.

Then, as if the bruise at his side meant nothing, he makes another attempt to move them on to something more enjoyable for him, and this time she lets him — although what they accomplish is cautious and halting and awkward, mostly mouths and hands, and she ends up doing almost all of the work. She minds all that less than she usually would, though, as if sex were a magic talisman: as long as we can keep doing this, he’s fine.

Afterward, he holds her hand as if they were teenage sweethearts at a drive-in movie, and he starts to ask about her trip again.

She says: “I don’t want to talk about this now. I’m tired.”




11.

The next five days are more or less like that evening.

Thrawn somehow still does not make his appointment, and Arihnda stops herself very quickly from continuing to do anything that feels like nagging him about it. She somehow doesn’t quite believe him when he says he’ll make it: she wonders if maybe he agrees with his mother about medicine more than he’s letting on or if she’s just seeing garden-variety denial, and she’s furious with him whenever she lets herself think about it for more than half a second. But she also doesn't want to start having the kinds of fights with him that she'd had with her mother all through those horrible two and half years.

Arihnda answers his questions about her upcoming trip sharply, with the minimum information, and he is eventually dissuaded from asking any questions at all.

There they have sex twice more. It’s still cautious and weird, with her carefully working around the bruise, but it’s the only thing between them that still feels at all like it works.

Sleeping next to him starts to feel smothering, starts to feel like a chore. She wants him to make his appointment, doesn’t want to know it’s results. Wants to leave so she doesn’t have to see horrible things happen to him. Wants to stay without feeling obligated. Can’t really contemplate leaving him except as an angry fantasy. Can’t imagine staying without wanting to scream. Feels trapped no matter which direction she thinks about going.

The morning of her trip, Arihnda is rushing through the apartment grabbing a couple of last minute things. Thrawn is watching her, leaning against the kitchen counter, sipping coffee. Harried, she stops, and rushes to him, and hold her keys out for him.

“If I asked you to check my mail while I was away —”

His expression changes from slight surprise to mild annoyance to perfect neutrality very quickly.

“Of course,” he says, taking her keys.

She hesitates, almost says — she doesn’t know what. She goes back to packing the last straggling items, the things she’d needed out until the last minute. Mostly things in the bathroom. “Thank you,” she calls at him absently as she’s doing it.

He doesn’t answer that, but just as she’s leaving, he calls out for her to wait.

“I have something for you to take on your trip,” he says, rummaging in his pile of clothes.

Then he holds out a battered paperback book.

Antigone.

It feels like an accusation.

She stares at it for a minute, in dead silence. Then she shoves it viciously into her purse.

“Make your appointment,” she snarls on the way out of the door.

She doesn't hear if he responds.




12.

Arihnda’s glad to be away from Thrawn for a little while. When she arrives in her hotel room, which is smaller than her apartment but also entirely hers, she flops down on the empty bed and feels something like ecstasy.

For the first two minutes lying in the big, empty bed by herself, she's not worried about anything at all.

And then she starts worrying, in spite of herself, about whether or not Thrawn is ever going to make his appointment. About what Doctor Wren is going to find if he does. About what could happen anyway, if he doesn’t.

And then the bed starts to feel empty.

And then the whole room starts to feel empty.

And the feeling only gets worse as the trip goes along.

Thrawn texts her, and she him, sporadically. He still does not make his appointment. She doesn't have anything else she wants to talk to him about, but she doesn't really want to talk about that either. And she can't very well respond to all of his texts with did you make an appointment yet?, so often she simply does not respond at all.

It’s infinitely worse than the way she’d worried about his deployment to Iraq, the prospect of which had almost made her want to leave him, too. It had seemed awful, even the faint possibility that he could be shot, stabbed, incinerated by heavy ordnance, hit with a car, blasted into ragged chunks of meat by a suicide bomber or an IED — but she would trade this worry for all of those. At least… In her mind, all those horrible prospects are at least discrete: they’re over when they’re done.

Not like this.

The last morning of the trip is the worst of all. Fixing instant coffee with the kit provided in the room becomes the most perversely lonely thing she's ever done in her life. At every turn she feels her solitude, and itches at how palpable it is.

Every moment brings an absence.

There's no hand settling casually on her hip from behind. No kiss at the side of her face. No arms slipping around her waist and tightening. No warm body to lean back against. No chin resting on top of her head. No soft breath tickling through her hair. No sophomoric comment to make her roll her eyes and snipe in response, no self-satisfied laugh in reply to her sniping, no one spinning her performative annoyance into something better —

There’s no one handing her a cup of coffee, or touching her shoulder, or asking what her day will be like. Or telling her what their day will be like. Or asking how she likes the book she’s reading, and what part she’s up to. No one handing her a pair of earrings, or asking when she expects to be back, or what she wants for dinner.

There's no one.

Arihnda feels almost more like a robot than a person, tapping the instant coffee crystals into the styrofoam cup, adding the hot water from the instant boiler, spinning water around and around and around, watching the crystals dissolve, until the liquid in the cup turns tan, then brown, then black.

Arihnda doesn’t want to be alone.

But she doesn't want to watch Thrawn waste away, either: watch his body wither, watch his skin turn waxy and pale and thin, watch his hair turn brittle and see it fall out in clumps, see his eyes turn dull, wake up in the morning next to someone who’s too tired to wake up with her, who won't be able to follow her to the kitchen in any case, who will stay curled up in the bed, wheezing, half-high on pain medication, smelling like a hospital room and the slow creeping rot of death…

Her phone buzzes. She picks it up, sees a text preview.

Appt. is this afternoon.

Suddenly Arihnda's head is throbbing; she's dizzy, can't breathe right. Her throat is tight. There's a feeling in her that’s screaming: this was a mistake.

She still doesn't know if the mistake was getting close to him to begin with, or being away from him now. Maybe both.

She takes in a deep breath: forceful, controlled. She blows it out the same way — blinks rapidly as she does. Does this twice more. Then types out a quick reply: Let me know —

And stops. Doesn't know how to the finish the sentence. Let her know what exactly? There are so many things to know. She remembers them all.

Every way of finishing the sentence cuts out something that seems important.

She selects the whole sentence and deletes it, and then stares at the blank space. She wishes she were in the same room with him. Wishes she could touch him. In a kind of fog, she types I love you .

Then she reads it back to herself, and jolts like she's getting an electric shock. She deletes the message immediately.

In the end, she writes Alright . Let me know how it goes.

By the time manages to choose those words and hit send, she doesn't have time to take a shower.




13.

“Late morning?” asks Tarkin. He hides his snideness and cruelty well beneath a thick layer of good manners, but even people he likes are not immune to it, especially when they disappoint him in some way. And finding one of his subordinates less than perfectly presentable is always disappointing to him. Arihnda did her best with dry shampoo and facial cleanser, but Tarkin always seems to know the difference between the best of a halfway job and the full kit.

Arihnda fiddles with the ring on her right hand without being aware of it, and says: “My apologies. I assume I won’t be front and center for anything important today.”

“Naturally not,” says Tarkin. A polite way of acknowledging that, yes, she’s getting away with it without worse reprimand only because they’re traveling and she can be hidden. Then his gaze falls to her hands, and Arihnda realizes what she’s doing.

She freezes.

Tarkin looks back up at her face, peering at her closely.

“Trouble in paradise?”

She shakes her head. “No — no, of course not —”

“What was the visit to the hospital for, exactly?” He asks in an eerily light tone. The inquisitive edge of it is like a blade that’s so sharp you can’t feel it cut you until after you’re bleeding.

Arihnda feels heat prickling at her neck: nervous anxiety. “I — we — it was a silly accident —”

“Was that all?”

There is a tone Tarkin takes sometimes, against which even Arihnda still has no defense.

Arihnda swallows, breathes evenly. “He slipped and fell,” she says, making her words clear and direct. “He thought he’d broken a couple ribs. He hadn't, but the chest x-ray —”

“Ah,” says Tarkin, cloudy expression cleared by sudden understanding.

“We don’t know what it is yet —”

“No, I completely understand,” says Tarkin, holding up a hand. “Natasi…”

He trails off. There is a far away look in his eye. Arihnda’s heart is thudding. She hasn’t even thought about this part. About what Tarkin will think. About how much her life depends on his goodwill, and if he knows she’s thinking, still thinking, about how much she wishes she could cut and run before ending up hip deep in shit, about how much she hates feeling shackled to the awful trainwreck she’s afraid is coming, about how badly part of her just wants to turn tail and run —

Maybe she should tell him about her mother? Maybe —

Then Tarkin speaks again. “I imagine you are wondering what you have committed yourself to,” he says slowly, his voice as far away as the look on her face, “or if you are obligated to remain for the… If you are obligated to stick around, as it were.”

He is silent for another long minute, staring at his own reflection in the shiny elevator doors.

“Whatever it is you need to do for yourself,” Tarkin says carefully when he begins to speak again, “to ensure that you are able to perform at your peak in your career, you should do… even if others might find it difficult, or even impossible, to understand.”

Arihnda’s heart flips, and then starts thudding. She feels almost sick to her stomach, again — but this time it is with a perverse sort of relief.

It is the exact opposite of being trapped.




14.

Arihnda’s copy of Antigone, with all its weighty ideas about obligation, is buried at the bottom of her suitcase. It hardly matters; Arihnda isn’t thinking about obligations at all.

Arihnda starts texting Thrawn as soon as she gets a free moment. The return trip takes her in and out of places with signal, and Tarkin still has tasks for her, but all she does with her few free moments is text Thrawn, and wait for his responses.

Do you know what time your appointment is, exactly?

No response. That’s fine — he’s probably busy.

Let me know when it is, I want to know when you’re going under.

No response to that, either.

Let me know what’s going on when you get a chance.

Nor any response to that.

She is getting a little worried.

Thrawn. Let me know you’re alright.

Finally, she gets a text: Hey, this is Eli. Doctor doesn’t want him driving but says he’s fine. Says to tell you he’ll meet you at home.

Arihnda stares at that. She hadn't thought to ask who would take care of him while — but of course it would be Eli. Finally she texts back: Do they know what it is yet? Did they tell you?

There’s a very, very long pause. Then: Formal results should be done before you land. He says he’ll tell you himself.

All the relief inside her vanishes.

Over the course of their flight back to the States, Arihnda finds herself falling down a deep hole, and climbing back out of it again. Her head is spinning, buzzing, on the way from the airport to the apartment — on the way home — with everything she needs to say to him and how to say it. Everything they need to talk about, together. Everything they need to do. The incredible mountain of work ahead.

There are simple things to start with: Giving him his own pair of keys. Starting to read his insurance policies. Getting a real bed, somewhere he can be comfortable when he sleeps, on days when he needs to sleep for a long time.

Thrawn sends her another text, which she gets as her cab is turning the corner onto her street: Left a hide-a-key in the building vestibule. Won’t be able to buzz you in.

That makes her shiver. The next text is instructions for finding the key, and she has to read it more than once to sort it out in her mind.

She drums her fingers on her suitcase handle while she’s in the elevator, and practically bursts through the door of the apartment.

The first thing she sees is Thrawn.

“What the hell is this?” Arihnda says angrily, grinding to a halt.

Thrawn looks very relaxed, lounging on the air mattress, arms crossed behind his head in spite of his injury. His bruise is healing: it’s turned blotchy purple and blue, with green and yellow around the edges. But there’s also a white patch, a square of bandage held on with tape, right in the middle of it. She can see it clearly. Can see quite a lot, because he’s completely naked except for —

He looks down at the large heart-shaped chocolate sampler box strategically positioned on his pelvis, and then back up at Arihnda, smiling broadly.

“You said to plan something for Valentine’s day for when you returned.”

Arihnda would really like to throw her suitcase at him. How dare, of all the times to make light of anything, how dare —

“I understand you would like the biopsy results,” he says.

“Yes,” says Arihnda, still angry, shoving her suitcase against the wall, heaping her coat on it, and starting to kick off her shoes. “I would.”

“They’re in the box,” he says mildly.

She stops, and turns to look at him. Then, cautiously, she pads over to the air mattress.

“Are they?” she says, standing over him.

“Mm,” he says. “Why don’t you take a look?”

Glaring at him, Arihnda lowers herself down so she’s sitting on the mattress beside him. He is grinning at her in a way that makes her sure there’s a trick to this. And she has a guess what that trick probably is, what he’s probably done as a bad attempt to lighten the mood…

She reaches over, slowly, and lifts the top of the box off.

“Thrawn — God —” she swats at his face with the box-top while he laughs and moves one hand in mocking self-defense.

But she’s laughing too, in spite of herself, her face beet red and covered by her free hand.

Of course he’s cut a convenient hole in the back of the box, and turned it into a display for his penis.

“Thrawn,” she says looking at him, managing to keep a straight face only by virtue of being genuinely upset beneath her annoyed amusement, “this is very serious. Please be serious about it at least for a minute.”

For a very brief minute, Thrawn’s softens into somberness, and he shifts his weight like he’s going to reach for her face. Then he says: “I know it is serious.”

“Do you?” she says, her throat tightening just a little.

“Yes, very much so,” he says reassuringly. “And we have the results.”

“Are you going to tell them to me?” She’s pretty sure he wouldn’t be putting on this kind of display to deliver bad news, but she still has an almost superstitious need to know for sure, as if the truth won’t be real until she reads it written out in the ugly language of medical jargon.

He smiles again, slyly. “Check the back of the box.”

She almost swats him with the box again, and the expression on her face is not amused.

“Check the back of the box,” he says again, still smiling. “It’s where you find the nutrition information.”

She closes her mouth sharply and tosses the box-top in the general direction of his face, and he bats it away, laughing softly.

“You owe me for this,” she mutters, reaching for his cock.

“I’m sure you’re keeping score.”

“Well, if I give you a papercut,” she says, sliding her hand around him gently, giving him a unnecessary, tender rub with her thumb, “I suppose we can call it even.”

She senses him tense a little at that comment, and she smiles thinly.

“I would prefer if you did not do that,” he says.

“I would prefer a lot of things,” she says lightly — but she is very, very careful slipping the box free of his cock.

At first, the back of the box looks completely normal. She frowns at it, and looks at Thrawn, opening her mouth to complain. And then stops.

He is looking at her with the same subtle, expectant tension he’d had on his face almost two months ago, when he’d given her the little gold ring. Someone who wants — who needs to know the gift they’ve chosen is going to be accepted.

She turns her attention back to the box.

It’s where you find the nutrition information… Jackass. Arihnda thinks to herself. So she looks where that’s supposed to be, and discovers the text there has been altered so carefully it would never register to the casual glance. She reads it carefully.

And then it’s real.

She presses her hand to her mouth in a very embarrassing way, and her breath hitches, and she has to blink very fast. She catches a glimpse of him between rapid blinks. He still looks tense, uncertain, which is just insulting — she swats him with the box again. “You couldn’t have just said? You had to make it —” her throat closes up and she swats at him with the box again — “You couldn’t have just said?”

He catches her wrist, and she lets him pull the box away. He squeezes her wrist. “Good news, isn’t it?” He says softly.

She puts her left hand on his hip, twists her right wrist out of his grasp, and puts her hand on his chest. She looks at the ring, glinting just above his heart. Just between his lungs. The place her hand at been playing when she’d woken up on Christmas morning, and the ring had been completely new.

“Why did it take you so long?” She asks. “It shouldn't have taken weeks to schedule a simple —”

“It really was not a priority,” Thrawn says, like he’s re-explaining something patiently, reassuring someone of the obvious. He folds one of his hands over hers, pressing her hand gently to the center of his chest. “Doctor Wren consulted with her attending — who is a lovely woman, actually, Hera Syndulla, French-Algerian immigrant, her father was an insurgent in the 70s, I should like to interview him some day —”

Thrawn.”

“Of course.” He rubs her hand a little. “Doctor Wren is only a resident, and as she and Doctor Syndulla were extremely confident of their diagnosis based on the CT imaging. As it was not a critical issue in regards to time, I suggested, and Doctor Syndulla agreed, that it would be good practice for Doctor Wren to perform the procedure herself. She wanted to practice some of the relevant skills first, and Doctor Syndulla wanted to make sure the scheduling did not interfere with anything else.”

Arihnda’s head aches from listening to that. She lifts her head to stare at him. “Thrawn. You —” She stops, tries again. “You couldn't have told me any of that?”

“I told you it was handled. I told you it was not serious, and that the procedure was not urgent and was being done purely out of an excess of caution. That should have been enough.”

“It wasn't.”

“I was not specifically trying to hide anything from you,” he says. “Besides, you had a great deal going on.”

For a minute she holds his gaze. He is still rubbing the back of her hand, and he is looking at her with the same sincerity he’d had when he’d given her the ring. Finally, she asks: “Are you going to tell me what a calcified granuloma is, and what caused it?”

He snorts. “It is a little… like a pocket of protective tissue around bacteria or something else infectious. It could be any number of things — probably I was exposed to something while on deployment that was not covered by the required vaccine schedule for CENTCOM — but as it is causing no symptoms, no one is concerned. Personally, I think it is related to the tuberculosis, no matter what Doctor Wren thinks.”

“Yes,” says Arihnda slowly. She tilts her head at him. She still sort of wonders — “I don’t… agree with your mother about that, by the way,” she says carefully.

He is quiet for a long minute, and she thinks with a horrible spike of anxiety that he’s going to start asking about children now, right now.

Then he says: “No, I do not agree with her about that, either.”

Arihnda closes her eyes in relief, and Thrawn’s hand closes around hers.

Her head sags, and she feels sore and tired all over.  

After a moment he says, mildly: “You have been a little short-tempered lately.”

“Yes,” she says, feeling almost guilty.

“Yes,” he repeats. He squeezes her hand. “I don't think it was entirely because of your work. May I tell you something?

“Thrawn —”

“It seems to me that you were worried.”

She looks up and finds him with some — something. An expression that is a little soft, a little curious, a little hungry.

“Were you worried?” he asks again, hand still tight around hers.

“Weren’t you?” she asks. She means it to come out sounding like a parry — but it sounds more like an accusation.

“Naturally,” he says. “However, I manage my anxieties differently.”

“Yes,” she mutters sourly, “that’s obvious.”

He gives a half-laugh. “That sounds awfully critical. You know, you were not the easiest —”

She cuts him off.  “You don’t get to decide if it’s convenient to have me give a damn, Thrawn,” she says.

He raises his eyebrows. “No, but I do get to ask you to be less abrasive about it when the matter affects myself.”

“Affects —” she cuts herself off from building to a shout. Her throat is very tight indeed. “This did affect me,” she says, pulling her hand away from his chest and pressing it to her own like a shield. “This — What happens to you affects me.” And then, her throat tighter still, her emotions roiling, eyes blurring, the core of it comes tumbling out of her mouth: “I love you. You should have told me what you knew. You should have —” She looks away from him and shakes her head in self-disgust. Then she turns her attention back to him and puts her hand back on his chest. “I love you,” she says plainly, with only a faint tremor left in her voice. “And I was worried.”

Thrawn looks at her with his eyebrows raised. He doesn’t smile. He looks quite serious. She thinks it’s not exactly the expression she wants in response to what she’s just said — then again, she’s never said to anyone and really meant it before.

Thrawn reaches up and puts a hand to her cheek.

“First, I already knew all of that,” he says gently.

She wipes at her eyes angrily. “Fuck you.”

“I already knew that,” he repeats over her, almost laughing, “but I am very pleased to hear you say it.”

“You know —”

“Second,” he goes, voice sobering, “I think we have several things we should discuss. Maybe we can start later tonight, over dinner.”

Arihnda clamps her mouth shut. She doesn’t disagree.

Then Thrawn smiles: assured, wicked, indulgent of her and self-indulgent both.

“Third,” he says, sounding smug in a very familiar way as he pulls her forward for a kiss, “I wish I’d gotten a photo of your face while you were talking.”