A knowing smile, slow and pleased, twisted Admiral Ar’alani’s lips upward, ever so slightly as they entered the hangar. She had gotten to see Thrawn first, to reorient him and put to rest any of his misconceptions. So much of his return was embittered by civil war and the selfishness of their people: a people Thrawn had strove to protect with his actions, the consequences to himself be damned. At the very least, she was happy that this would not be ruined for him. For either of them, really.
Thrawn had enjoyed mentoring Eli’van’to, she knew. She had read those reports outlining the seemingly unwilling translator Thrawn felt might very well be a spy, had watched as they changed to detail a young man who did not understand the depths of his potential, and finally became a request: to bring him to the Ascendancy. He could help her, Thrawn had said. She did not miss the unspoken part about her helping him.
Ivant was occupied, dispatching their warriors following a final briefing. It was always something to see, she thought. He was good with their troops. He had a solid voice, steady and kind, knew how to encourage or rile them if needed.
She knew the exact moment Ivant noticed their arrival in the hangar bay. She felt the way the mood shifted between them, their collective intuitiveness like a palpable entity. Thrawn took one slow step forward, stopped, as if at odds on how to proceed. The Jedi beside him made to match that move, but Ar’alani had caught him by the arm, shaking her head, fingers clasped around one of his wrists.
It was Ivant who did not hesitate, Ivant who handed off his questis to a subordinate for safekeeping and strode purposefully toward Thrawn. Anyone in his way stepped back, low-ranking warriors who gave quick inclinations of attention to their human superior. Hewas not paying attention to them, though. His eyes never once left Thrawn’s.
When he had finally gotten close enough, Ar’alani leaned forward with open interest, wondering what it was the younger man might say. Would he lead with a mildly vindictive ‘Good day, Mitth’raw’nuruodo,’ or would he be kind and respectful towards his former mentor? Ar'alani was not sure. Maybe he would-
He did none of what she imagined. Instead, he stepped forward with intent, opened his arms and wrapped them around Thrawn. Ivant was nearly a head shorter than the Chiss, and had thus gone up onto his toes to somewhat negate the difference. She stared. He had wrapped his arms around Thrawn in a hug. She knew humans were sentimental, touchy creatures. She knew that some Chiss could be, too. With other Chiss, perhaps, this wouldn’t be so far-fetched, but even the human Sky-walker was muttering something in disbelief, going slack in his grip.
“Wow, he really went for it,” He’d said in barely passable Cheunh. Apparently so, Ar'alani thought, though she did not speak.
She had not seen Thrawn properly in a very long time, and yet she would not ever dream of taking such a liberty. Thrawn had boundaries. Needs. He did not have friendships like that, she thought. He was so tense from their current situation already, she had noticed. This couldn’t possibly be helping.
Except, after six seconds that felt awkwardly long to her as a spectator, Thrawn’s posture - the stiff back and painful tension etched into the way he had been carrying himself - broke. His shoulders and back curled forward, relaxing - melting - into the embrace. Ivant’s hand cupped the back of his neck to pull him closer as Thrawn’s arms came up, wrapped around Ivant in turn. They stood there, for the briefest of moments, just holding each other.
It hit her with a sense of profound certainty: Eli’van’to and Mitth’raw’nuruodo were friends. Closer ones than she had thought. She had suspected he cared for the younger man he’d not-so-carefully maneuvered under his wing, even before he’d pushed her to let him in on the plan, to get to know him. She had seen his concern when they’d last met, Thrawn acting in his own way to secure his former protege’s standing. She should have seen this coming, she thought. Ivant did not just respect and admire Thrawn. He treated Thrawn like a person. He was cognizant of the fact that Thrawn was simply different. Even when he hadn't been entirely capable of understanding Thrawn's logic, he had always respected (and more importantly, listened to) the man himself.
Ivant believed in Thrawn, just as Thrawn believed in Ivant. He wouldn’t have been sent to the Ascendancy if Thrawn had not. Not for what they had tasked him with.
Still, she couldn't help but stare at the unlikely scene. They had pulled back a little now, no longer so tightly embracing. Their foreheads were nearly touching, their arms still wound around one another but more loosely than before, as if reluctant to let go. She could see Ivant’s lips moving as he talked quietly in Cheunh, distorted by the curtain of Thrawn’s overgrown hair. “You’re here now,” He was saying, barely audible to the rest of them. “That’s all that matters.” Then, “I’m so happy you’re alright.”
Thrawn must have replied too quietly to be heard, or maybe he had not made any verbal response at all, but Ar’alani saw how he nodded, again and again, soaking in the younger man's words. She could not begrudge him the solace of a friend. She was simply happy that he had someone. She had always thought she understood him as best as anyone could, but... Ivant smiled, letting his hands slip to Thrawn’s shoulders, squeezing them before he stepped back in an infinitely human gesture.
When they parted, Thrawn fell into his orbit, turning so they stood shoulder to shoulder. He didn’t smile and Ivant had also schooled his features into something politely reserved. How very Chiss of him, Ar’alani thought.
But then she saw the heat that scorched the tips of Thrawn's ears. Not noticeable except in the infrared, of course, and only if it was a reaction one was looking for.
Oh, She realized, instantly blindsided. On one hand, her heart ached. On the other… She set her gaze on Ivant, instantly serious. To her surprise, he met her head on, nodding once in perfect understanding.
So long as he understood, Ar'alani told herself mentally. She would be watching. She trusted Ivant, yes, but until this point it had been with data, battle plans or supply routes or military maneuvers. This was Thrawn, who she had known since they were cadets. Thrawn, who felt so much more than he ever showed, who was honest and wise and loyal beyond any others she had known. Thrawn, who did not always understand everything he got himself into. Thrawn, who was hers to protect if she could.
She was aware of what Ivant had given up to be here and now, of how perhaps that translated into a love language all its own. She was grateful that he had stayed to fight in their civil war when he had every reason to go. But she would not allow Thrawn, who never could entirely grasp the political ramifications, to be hurt if she could help it.
Ar'alani had sworn off her family name to serve the Ascendancy. Her family now was the Ascendancy itself. That family was all those, family-bound or not, who served that lofty goal to defend the Chiss people against the Grysks and any others who threatened them.
Eli’van’to had yet to give her a reason not to trust him. Still, he needed to be aware: She would be watching.