Arranged Marriage Rating: R
Diana DeRiggs

This story is inspired by the "Arixi" story arc developed in previously written stories. An Arixi Family Tree is available that goes a long way toward explaining who the Arixi are and why we feel they are important in the GFFA.

Alasa didn't know if she should feel gratitude for not technically being a virgin at this moment. In the past few days, she'd been repeatedly grateful for not having to worry about sacrificing what many men regarded as a desirable commodity. But right now, as she was being auctioned, she wondered if they'd treat her better or more gently if she'd retained that shred of skin that marked her level of inexperience?

The bidding was going higher. She and another girl were tied to each other, to make any attempt at escape awkward if not impossible, as well as to a cold, metallic post. Alasa had never met the other girl before, but the two were now prisoners together on what seemed to be a pirate ship.

The men of the ship's crew were the audience, and it seemed the girls brought on board that morning would find themselves with new masters. The women were hauled out of the cargo cages and lashed to a support column in a large room closer to the front of the ship. The room seemed to be used for the crew's meals and entertainment. As the yelling and gesticulating got wilder, Alasa cast her dazed eyes over the room and wondered what the things she saw might be used for.

There was finally silence and the man who was running the auction called out and the men cheered. The girls were cut apart and the other girl was shoved into the waiting embrace of a large, swarthy man. She screamed as he clapped a metal collar and limb cuffs on her, the five pieces of metal connected by heavy chains. Alasa cringed; the girl was a slave. No one seeing her nakedness accentuated by metal fastenings would mistake her for anything else. The man who had apparently won her pushed her through the crowd of hooting men. He pulled down some bracing from the wall and clipped them directly to her metal cuffs, which then retracted to pull the girl hard up against the wall. She strained against the pressure on her neck, and she was forced to let her arms and legs splay open to keep from strangling. Alasa had never seen anything so obscene.

The men shouted encouragement as the girl's new master undid his trousers. Without hesitation or any time for the poor girl to understand her situation, he pushed into her hard. She'd been sobbing all this time, having lost her voice to all the screaming. All the air in her left her and she made no noise at all as she was raped in front of the ship's crew.

Alasa's eyes bugged out of her head; she couldn't take her eyes off what was happening. The pirate administering the auction didn't even need to hold her, it never occurred to her to try to escape. In any case, where could she go? Back to the cargo hold? Two girls had been removed from there every hour or so, and even if she managed to hide among the other naked girls there, her time to be presented for sale would undoubtedly come again.

Alasa barely registered that the men were now bidding on her. All she heard was the pathetic snuffling of the girl as she was pulled down off the restraints that held her to the wall and dragged by her neck tether to her new life.

* * * * *

Alasa did not have a surname, since she did not know her father or mother. She was born as the Force-untalented child of Force-strong parents and had lived all her life in a convent. The mission of the sisters there was to propagate Force-strong progeny who would be distributed throughout the universe through adoption. She wasn't sure if she stayed at the convent because she had no Force talent or they had some other reason. Sisters without Force ability could still be chosen to breed with Jedi males for their genetic offerings, or to care for the children born from such unions.

She did have talents in history and aesthetic arts. Alasa also displayed a remarkable ability to organize and administer, skills not often apparent till later in life. Perhaps the convent sisters felt her genes and abilities would be assets to themselves as well as to the Jedi, should she choose to become a breeder.

But Alasa didn't want to be a breeder. It was considered a large honor, especially if a girl had no apparent Force strengths. Once they reached an age of majority, their hymens were removed. The sisters refused to pander to the desire of some men to want to deflower virgins, since their mission was to provide Jedi children, not to provide sexual services.

After she had gone through the ritual surgery, Alasa knew that it wouldn't be long before she was required to make the decision whether she'd join the breeders. She had never known any woman not to become one when called, so she wasn't sure what would happen to her if she said no. It's not that she didn't understand or believe in the mission of the convent. It was that she had fantasies that a woman should have children they intended to keep, with men they loved.

Maybe it was because she was naive, but she didn't think the sisters would take her ideas very well. What would happen to her then? Would she be cast out? Or would they do further surgery on her to prevent her from breeding at all?

Or worse, they might even sell her into an arranged marriage! She'd heard rumors of such a thing happening before; the convent's mission, in addition to keeping the universe supplied with Force-strong children, was a healing mission. Those women who could not do either were said to be adopted out if the problem was detected in infancy. Otherwise, a beneficial match would be made, and the girl would be given to an appropriate husband or benefactor. It was unclear if it had anything to do with money. But the horrifying part was the rumor that the woman's memory would be completely wiped so that she had no recollection of the convent or its missions. Alasa had heard many men relished the thought of receiving a young woman who's mind was totally pliable and theirs to fill as they pleased.

The more she thought about it, the more she realized that she needed to leave. If they were going to cast her out, it might be better to run away while she still had a modicum of control. If she escaped the convent on her own, they couldn't force her to undergo sterilization surgery or a forced mindwipe toward a life as an automaton.

Activity in the convent had stepped up since many of the sisters received visions that a great evil would fill the universe. They did not know the nature of this evil, but it was critical that they produce as many Force-strong children as possible, then disband. In this environment, women were pressed into the breeding program. Alas, it meant she would need to make her decision within days -- or perhaps within hours!

But also in this turmoil, if they discovered she was gone, they'd not likely have the resources to come after her. So her chances of escape were much better.

Alasa knew that several Jedi would be coming to the convent. They entered alone and through an entrance separate from the main one. She hoped that one would come in a freighter of some sort, so that she might stow away. In the meantime, she volunteered for the breeding program, and crossed her fingers that her fertility peak would not come for a few weeks more, to buy her some time.

Her chance came a few days later; a tall Jedi Knight with tattoos covering his mouth and chin had come to impregnate the human sisters who were ready to receive him. She had discovered that there were several strangers in the convent; due to the urgency of the mission, the rule concerning having only one visitor at the convent at a time had been altered. That was good for Alasa; she had a better chance to not be noticed when she slipped out. There would be fewer doors rigged with alarms.

By the time the tall Jedi had returned to his ship, Alasa was already hidden in a box in the cargo hold. She'd spent some time moving some exquisite objects out of their packing to make room for her body, and almost spent too long admiring them. She was not completely Force-blind; her midichlorian count was simply quite low. Alasa still could feel the Force enough to know when the Jedi was coming, and knew some ways to block being detected. She hoped that her efforts, combined with the Jedi not expecting her to be there, would be good enough not to be detected through the Force.

Of course, by the time the dark-browed Jedi was running through the launch checklist, he knew something was amiss. Before he lifted off, he went back to the cargohold and located the box that caused his disquiet, and nailed it securely shut. Whatever was in there would keep until he was somewhere he could deal with it.

Alasa heard the man using old-fashioned tools to pound spikes into the box where she hid, imprisoning her. She panicked and tried to push against the lid, but she knew even before she tried that it was no use. She'd been found out, and all she could do was wait for him to let her out.

* * * * *

Jerec was unsure what to do with the stowaway trapped in his cargohold. He was on a very important mission; he'd just been elevated to Jedi Knight, and had been ordered by the council to investigate the disappearance of artifacts important to his masters at the Temple. He'd been told the mission might take a long time, and that he'd been chosen for his tendency to prefer to work alone, as well as his special talents. It was true he was a bit of a loner, but he wasn't antisocial about it. Still, now that the Clone Wars were over, he welcomed a chance to be away from other beings for a while.

He'd been away for a standard year when he received a transmission telling him of this most recent mission to visit a temple of fertile women, ordering him to impregnate as many as possible. He was not to talk to anyone about his orders, or his location ... nothing. This was to be done in total secrecy.

Initially, Jerec was aghast at receiving such a command. At first, he thought this was a piece of junkmail from a whorehouse. He couldn't figure out if the women were prostitutes or if he was the one to be used as a gigolo? He would have refused the order but when he tried to trace and reply to the transmission, he discovered that it showed no pathway. It had come through the Holonet without leaving a trace. It gave him pause.

Eventually, he decided to follow the instructions. He was feeling a bit lonely anyway ...

But now he had another sentient being in his ship. It had been a long time since he'd had to deal with anyone except those associated with the investigations central to his commission. He was unsure what to do. The being seemed to be a young woman, with very little ability in the Force. He didn't want to probe too deeply, but he got the feeling that she was running away; she didn't know where she was going, just that she had to get away.

Jerec came to the conclusion that this woman was not his responsibility. She stowed away to get away from the planet where he'd been. He was flying her away from there. This was what she wanted.

He washed his hands of her. He'd sell the box and its contents at his next port of call; no need for him to even open it.

* * * * *

Alasa held her hand up against the bright glare that met her when the box was pried open. She squinted up and heard sounds of disgust. Embarrassed, she remembered she'd spent a long time in the box and had been unable to restrain her urges, and so had soiled the packing material in the box. She was ordered to stand, but she had difficulty doing so, having been stuck in her prison for ... how long was it? Hours? Days?

She felt arms lifting her up and out. She was dehydrated and hungry and felt very woozy. She felt her clothes being taken off her and her body being pinched and patted. She was dimly aware that this was a dangerous and unusual situation and that she needed to be careful, but she couldn't really respond to the signs.

The next thing she remembered, she woke up in the cage, crowded in with other naked women. One was trying to force her to drink water; this woman, not much older than herself, explained she had fainted during her inspection. Alasa had been sold to slaver pirates.

Alasa was still hungry, but had come to her senses and found it easier to think now. She remembered leaving the convent and hiding in that Jedi's ship. He was transporting something -- artifacts or something -- and she found an empty crate to hide in. He locked her in somehow ... and he must have sold or dumped the crate? She didn't recall seeing him, other than the brief glimpses she managed to get of him at the convent.

Alasa hadn't known Jedi to be slavers, but perhaps she didn't know all that much. All she wanted to do was escape her fate as a breeder at the convent, or as the automaton of some man who might want a mind-wiped doll to live with. She moaned, wondering if being a slave was better?

The woman who had been trying to feed her water apologized, but she'd been unconscious during the last feeding period. "The men give us so little, there is almost nothing left to feed you." Alasa felt a slippery, soft solid being pressed to her lips, "Don't ask, just eat it. You don't know when you'll get food again."

As Alasa forced her dry throat to swallow, she started to understand the gravity of her situation. What have I done??

* * * * *

The tall man who'd bought her had paid his credits then raped her, just as the other girl had been raped. He dumped her on the floor of his cabin and she cringed in a small ball, wondering what she would suffer next. Though the girl who had first fed Alasa had warned her about what would happen, and she'd watched another girl go first, she was still stunned when it happened to her. She had been hoping it might be like an out-of-body experience, that she wouldn't feel anything. But what had happened instead was the most intense experience of her young life. She was very confused and very scared.

Alasa held her breath as he squatted down on the floor next to her and put his hand on her shoulder. She would have tried to turn away, but then there was really nowhere to turn, so she looked up at him.

She was surprised at his voice. It sounded soft and kind. It wasn't the growling rumble she'd heard during the auction -- she accepted it was a slave auction -- but the soothing tones of a healer. Alasa stopped breathing to hear him; she was still frightened of him, but he intrigued her now.

"I'm sorry, pretty girl. I had to do it, for appearances." Was he apologizing to her? "I'll put you on the bed, but you'll need to let me clean you up first. You're a mess!"

Alasa wanted to cry but managed to hold it back. The man laughed softly at her.

"You have spunk, I see. That's good! You'll need it to survive. Now, turn this way and let me wash you."

Still numb, Alasa let him pull her body toward him and she felt a cold, rough cloth being applied to her skin. She'd never though of her skin as delicate or soft, but she felt every stroke and winced. Obviously, she was not as hard or as callused as she could have been.

"Sorry, pretty girl ... some of these are bruises, can't wash those off." He dipped the cloth into a basin of fluid and wrung it out, "I'm wiping you down with a dilute bacta and water solution, should take care of the near-surface bruises and wounds. You'll be okay, nothing seems to be broken." She was embarrassed as he lifted her thigh up to wipe brusquely between her legs. Why should I be ashamed? He and his friends have already seen that part of me! She felt the tears prickling the back of her eyeballs again.

He turned her onto her belly and washed her down, even daring to part her buttocks and cleaning her up there. She went bright red knowing she had not been cleaned since before she stowed away on that Jedi's cargo transport. When she squirmed the man smacked her rounded cheek with the palm of his hand. Understanding this was a warning, she stopped resisting at once.

Alasa didn't look at the basin of grimy water, not wanting to know how filthy she'd become. He ordered her to sit up and placed a bowl in her hands and told her to drink. It tasted and smelled awful, but she recognized it as the same food the other girl apologized for not having enough to offer her in the cages. She had wondered at that smell then. How long ago had that been?

He watched as she gulped down the brew, then he gently pulled the big bowl away from her mouth, "I know it's bad and you just want to get it in you fast. And I know you haven't been fed in a long while, but don't go too fast or your stomach will reject it." Panting from having tried to swallow the whole bowl of fetid gruel at once, she tried to settle down. Sure enough, she felt nauseous and lightheaded, but kept it down. She knew that her body needed the nutrition, but she also didn't want to dirty herself again. It felt surprisingly good to be clean.

The man tipped her head back and put a sort of fiery liquid into her mouth. She wanted to spit it out, but he held her jaw shut till she swallowed it all. He repeated this several times until she felt woozy and warm. Alasa felt her blood pounding through her veins, especially in her tender vagina and in her head. When he lifted her up onto the bed, she didn't resist in the least. When he pressed himself onto her, she didn't resist then, either. This time it felt rather good. And when he slapped her rump as he drilled hard into her, she experienced her second intercourse-triggered orgasm. The first had been when she was suspended against the wall in the auction room ...

* * * * *

He left her in the bed with a cord tied securely around her neck, with her wrists tied closely to the impromptu collar. Her legs were unbound, but tied like this, where could she go? He advised her not to try to escape, but in truth, she was more frightened of what was on the other side of the door than what was in this man's room. He explained that he'd have left her untied, but if someone came into the room, they'd need to see her secured. She was perplexed by this last comment.

While the man was away, she thought about how he'd been treating her. First he participated in a bidding frenzy to acquire her, then he tethered her to what she now understood was the "rape wall" and abused her, then he brought her to his cabin, washed and fed her. His behavior within these walls was quite different from his behavior outside. They had had sex together, and though he never asked if she wanted it, he was tender and passionate with her. It still puzzled her -- sex with this man was very much like the fantasies she'd harbored in her naive dreams while still at the convent. Was it because he was the man she'd been dreaming of? Or was sex with men always like this?

He was obviously a healer of some sort. Having lived with healers all her young life, Alasa could recognize one easily. He didn't appear to have formal training, but he had the talent. After slumbering for many hours, she noticed her body was not so sore and the cuts and bruises she'd acquired were gone, leaving her skin smooth and relatively unmarked.

She was hungry, but not in pain. She did wish she could move her arms away from their cramped position. Alasa wondered if now that she was well and healed, would he abuse her again? Or was he abusive to her in front of the others for show?

She was interrupted from her reverie by a loud banging at the door, accompanied by a woman sobbing. The door whooshed open and he saw the man push a disheveled, dirty, naked female body before him. The other girl stumbled and fell down. Alasa, frightened, scooted to the edge of the bed, hard up against the wall. Her arms couldn't defend her, and she folded her legs up to kick out at anything that came her way.

The man pulled out a basin and a bottle of liquid. He poured a few glugs in, then filled it with water. Alasa watched closely as he wrung out a cloth and started cleaning the dirt and grime off the girl. She heard him repeat many of the words he'd said to her when she was on the floor being cleaned the day before. She wondered if she had looked as filthy as this girl did.

When he was done, he fed the two slaves, then tied them back to back and placed gags in both their mouths. He ordered them both to sleep; they would be leaving the ship at the end of the next hyperspace jump, and he expected them to look "presentable."

Alasa had felt a naked woman's flesh against hers before, but never in this context. The other girl kept sniffing and weeping. Had she been raped, too? For some unfathomable reason, Alasa was more upset thinking about this than she was at that thought of her own rape. Then again, he didn't have sex with her after he cleaned her, like he did with me. For some reason, this thought brought her a measure of comfort and a feeling of superiority over the other girl.

The man had pulled a chair up against the door and jammed it hard against the metal, so that it couldn't draw upward without getting caught against the seatback. He wrapped rope around Alasa's right wrist and wrapped the other end on his. Then finally, he pulled a blaster out of its holster on his thigh and fell asleep on the chair with the blaster in his hand. Alasa was nervous -- but strangely proud -- that it was aimed at a spot just to the right of her nose.

* * * * *

Neither woman could sleep; when one nodded off, she would pull at the other one, waking them both up. Alasa hoped she didn't look too haggard; the man had said they had to be presentable. She did wonder why they needed to be presentable, and would they get something to cover their nakedness?

When the man awoke, he untied the women from each other, but kept the rope collar and wrist cuffs on them. He did tie their collars together with about a meter of slack rope between them. He put a lead on Alasa and pulled her along like a nerf; the other girl was forced to follow Alasa. Again, Alasa took a strange pride in being ahead of the other girl.

The man led them to the cargo door. There were other men and aliens with similarly tethered girls; some of the men had three or more girls with them. Alasa counted at least a dozen girls of various species in various states of undress on a rope chain led by one small, evil looking man. It made sense only in the context of a slave trade. She had read and heard about this, but wondered how the slavers could buy and sell beings without being arrested; obviously, one method entailed holding the auction onboard a moving ship. It made sense -- a ship in hyperspace did not fall under normal legal jurisdictions. It may not have been legal, but it was not strictly illegal, either. How the girls were imported into civilized systems was now the challenge.

The large doors did not open; instead a smaller portal opened, but she couldn't see the spaceport beyond. As the slavers and the girls moved through the doorway, she realized that they were going through a tunnel that twisted and moved up and down, left and right. She couldn't see the end of the passage and wondered what would happen to her, as she felt the other girl bump into her whenever she slowed down. It occurred to Alasa that it might have been simpler to simply blindfold them? That way, she wouldn't have to be so conscious of her nakedness ...

The tunnel muffled the sounds in the spaceport -- Alasa heard the whine of engines and tools hitting things -- but she could still make out the sounds of men's voices. They must be yelling really loudly or be close to the walls of the tunnel for her to hear then. She bumped into someone ahead of her, the girl behind her walked into her, and so on. She heard men yelling ahead of her and the sounds of naked flesh being slapped. Alasa cringed at the sharp sound and the sobbing that followed. She supposed someone had been clumsy and fallen in the dark?

But then she felt the girl behind her pushing her hard. She tried to keep her footing, but she fell to her knees. The person in front of her had fallen and Alasa tumbled forward on her. With her hands tied up around her throat, she couldn't brace her fall and she tumbled over other bodies. Everyone near her seemed to be kicking with their legs to try and get up, but her feet couldn't find the floor and she became very disoriented. It got very hot in the enclosed space, and the cries of the men and women within rapidly reached din levels. The rope used to lead her seemed to have lost tension; her owner must have dropped it?

The air quality kept dropping and Alasa felt woozy. The girl behind her was crying hysterically and she heard her get slapped. She tried not to panic or cry, even when she felt herself get trampled.

There was a huge cracking sound and she felt the ferrocrete floor below her shake and rumble, and suddenly she felt a blast of cold air. She gulped at the air in relief, but then she felt grit in her mouth and coughed hard!

She saw a bright light and realized the tunnel had been breached. Were they under attack?

Escape! This is my chance! Alasa knew she should have been trying to undo her bindings and make a run for it, but she worried -- what if her master never found her again? Would she never make love to him again ..?

* * * * *

Alasa huddled on the floor clutching the blanket the new men had distributed to the slaves. Like the other girls, she'd draped it over her shoulders to cover her nakedness. They would have huddled together as they had in the cages on the ship, but they all seemed to feel if they had the room to spread out a bit, they should. Some whispered to one another, but every time the door opened and a burly man came in, they all shut up promptly. They averted their eyes and pulled their arms and legs up close to their torsos, hoping not to catch his attention.

He'd pick who would go next by pointing or gesturing to two or three of the girls. If they didn't get up right away, he'd pull them up by their arms and force them to walk out of the room with him. Many of the girls cried when this happened, several pleaded with him. A few were even bodily dragged out, losing their covering blankets in the process; other girls would wait till they had left the room, then grab at it, even tugging between themselves for the prize. Alasa had grown quite fond of her blanket and decided she didn't want to lose it; when her time came, she'd walk out with the man.

They all noticed that none of the girls came back.

When the man pointed at her, she shivered and got up on wobbly legs. The man grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the door. Remembering that she could lose her blanket, she scurried to keep up with his pace.

She and another two girls were led to a room and told to sit down on chairs lined up against a far wall. Some official looking people -- a man and two women -- filed in and stood facing them. She immediately noticed the man, but not simply because he was a man. He was short and stocky, and there was something about him. He had a presence and she immediately determined that he was in charge. She tried not to stare at him, but his bright green eyes bore into hers.

"My name is Neeja Halcyon of CorSec, I am an investigator and detective," the short man introduced himself, and she wondered what CorSec was. "You have nothing to fear. We need to ask you questions about your captivity so that we can charge the men who held you. But first, Security Officers Enig Shyri, Sendara Verona and Ciare Nrg will take you for a shower, give you some clean clothing, and bring you some food. Remember, you are not prisoners, but witnesses, and we are charged to ensure your safety and comfort."

The slavegirls -- former slavegirls -- were all clutching their blankets, mute and in shock. This was certainly unexpected!

Each female officer approached one of the girls and led them to a refresher off the main interrogation chamber and allowed them to bathe. The girls could ask for help, but they were given 20 minutes only; they were reminded that the other girls were waiting to be questioned, too. Alasa found a pile of clothing in a bag in the corner of the refresher and she put the contents on her body. She was surprised to find the clothing uncomfortable, though it fit loosely. Am I used to being naked?

She folded up the blanket and put it in the bag. She assumed she could take that, too. Alasa rushed as she heard the CorSec officer tap on the door. Though that Halcyon fellow had said they'd protect her, she had to admit that she still wasn't sure if she should trust him or the others. Maybe they were building trust in them, just to sell them to some other slaving wholesalers?

As the three girls came out of their respective refreshers, they looked at each other nervously, clutching their bags and blankets. Their clothing was similar and too-new looking, but at least it wasn't prison or institutional garb. They were told by Detective Halcyon to sit down again, which they did immediately. All of them looked surprised when the female officers went to the door to get trays of food. A three-pronged post swung out from the sides of the chairs, and the trays were nestled onto them to form a small tabletop. The girls stared at the soup, afraid to start. But it smells really good ...!

"Ladies, you may eat. If you want more, please ask for it. I caution you not to eat too much too fast; you have been through a lot and in your state of hunger, you may hurt yourselves if you overindulge. However, it's a warm broth and shouldn't be too heavy for you." The short, trim, bearded CorSec officer sounded assuring. Tempted by the smell of the soup, Alasa picked up the bowl and put it to her lips, followed closely by the other girls.

Alasa wasn't even embarrassed when she caught herself noisily slurping down the slippery, fragrant noodles at the bottom of the bowl, then holding it up to show it was empty. "May I have another bowl, please?"

* * * * *

After the women had eaten and given testimony of their experiences, CorSec took them to a sort of half-way house, where they were locked into a dormitory for their protection. Detective Halcyon had explained that he wanted them to rest tonight, so that additional interviews could be conducted the next day. They would also be given a chance to return to their home systems, pending background and ID checks and contacting next-of-kin.

Alasa was exhausted and though she lay on a comfortable cot with the blanket she'd taken from the holding area, she couldn't really rest. She had learned she was on Corellia, a core world. She did not know the name of the system where she had come from, but she knew she didn't want to go back. She'd made the effort to leave the Arixi convent, even timing it knowing that they would not have the will or resources to come after her. And, considering the ominous visions the Arixi sisters had received, even if she did return, it was likely the convent inmates would have moved away by now.

The next morning, she was taken into a small interrogation room and two officers went with her. Upon questioning she told them, no, she had no next-of-kin, and she had no home to return to. One of the female officers questioned her about her family; Alasa answered so that the officers concluded she was an orphan or a runaway. They'd drawn blood and checked her age via her skin condition, and concluded she was old enough to be out on her own. Officer Verona, who had cared for her the day before, had assured her that when this ordeal was over, she could choose to do as she pleased, but that some education would be recommended so she didn't get herself abducted again.

No need to fear that, she muttered to herself, I've learned the hard way. She recognized that in her desperation, she made some bad choices, but she knew right from wrong, and she wouldn't make those mistakes again.

Officer Verona introduced her to a counselor, who assessed her abilities and found her a position as a needleworker in a textile factory. She'd learn to embroider expensive textiles for sale to rich customers. The pay was not very good since she was a bottom-level apprentice, but Alasa welcomed the chance to try something new. She had deliberately hidden her experience as a healer; she didn't want to deal with the sick and the dying right now.

It was hard work, but to her disappointment, it was not really satisfying. She learned very quickly and could produce 10 meters of fabric a day. Alasa was allowed to live in a half-way house sponsored by CorSec until she could afford to move out, emotionally and financially. She was more than ready to move out, for Alasa grew tired of the girls she roomed with; the only thing she had in common with them was their refugee status. But where could she go?

On a break after work, she sat in a shore-side park, trying to justify that running away from her old life was worth what she had now. She'd read about women who found great contentment in an honest day's work. Alasa was ashamed that she had no idea what this might mean. Maybe I feel it, but I just don't know it. But if I don't know it, then shouldn't I be doing something else? She didn't want to appear ungrateful and insensitive, but surely life must be better than this?

Men were forbidden in the halfway rooming house; it was a girls-only environment. Alasa had always lived with other women among the Arixi, but she found she missed being with a man. Actually, she missed being with a specific man ... More than once, she found herself thinking of the man who had bought her at auction, then raped her. She thought about her feelings when she watched him bring another girl into his room, and how he had not raped the other girl in the privacy of his room. Alasa often felt sad that he must have been arrested and might have been sent to Kessel by now, thanks to her testimony. As much as she should have hated him, she thought he was different from the others and honestly missed him. She remembered that he had released her tether when she fell in the tunnel, and hoped he'd gotten away. Did he ever think of her?

She had tried to ask Officer Verona about the man, but other than a general description, she could not identify him. Alasa had participating in viewing suspects in a lineup, but she didn't see him. She didn't know his name, couldn't recall how much he paid for her, didn't know anything about him.

But if he put his hands on me again ... if he put his dick in me again ... I'd know him. I know I would! Alasa hoped she was simply in lust with her captor ... but it was probably love ...

* * * * *

She was walking home from the factory one morning -- Alasa had offered to work the night shift, so she could be at the rooming house while her roommates were at work during the day -- when she saw a familiar girl climb out of an expensive looking speeder. Alasa stopped to stare because she'd never seen anyone on the street whom she recognized before. After all, she was not from this system, could the woman be an Arixi?

She continued to stare because the woman was dressed beautifully. Alasa saw her lean back into the speeder and press her lips onto the mouth of a man riding in the back seat. He pressed something into her hand and murmured to her. The girl nodded yes, and then the speeder was gone.

As the girl turned to put the item into her bag, Alasa saw it was credits. She gasped, realizing the coloring indicated high denominations, and there were so many that the girl could hardly stuff it into her purse. The girl must have felt Alasa's stare because she suddenly looked up, then blanched in shock.

Alasa turned away quickly -- she didn't want the woman to think she was a thief -- but the girl came after her. "Stop! Please stop! Wait!" Alasa started to run. She could still hear the girl calling to her, "Stop! No, don't run away, please! Stop! You know me, please!"

So early in the morning, there were very few people staring as Alasa slowed down and turned to the girl. The other woman was still running toward her, though the expensive high heels she wore didn't let her trot very fast. "Thank goodness! I don't know your name, but you know me, don't you?"

They were now standing close together, "You don't remember me? We met on that ship. I was the one who fed you when you woke up the first time after they brought you on board ..."

Alasa's heart beat faster. Yes ... that's where I know her! It was strange to see her in clothing. She'd only ever saw her naked before.

"Hello ... I'm Alasa ..."

"I'm Ga-nyche. I almost didn't recognize you, my dear! I'm so glad that you are all right!"

They stared at one another in silence.

Finally, Ga-nyche took Alasa by the hand and lead her down the street and into a nondescript building with a small doorway. Inside, however, the interior was richly decorated and the guard at the door nodded at Ga-nyche, who flashed a smile at him. "Guest, Erog." They went down the corridor and up a flight of stairs before Ga-nyche let go of the other girl's hand. "Welcome to my home, Alasa."

Alasa couldn't help but gasp when Ga-nyche opened the door to the small, beautifully furnished room. She gasped again when she recognized textiles her factory produced on cushions and covering the walls. "How ...?"

"No, not yet," Ga-nyche had shed her outerwear, "let's have some tisane or perhaps you'd prefer something cold?" Alasa just stared dumfounded as Ga-nyche punched some buttons on a datapad. Within seconds a door hidden behind a wall panel opened and Ga-nyche pulled out a tray with delicate porcelain cups and sweets on a shiny metallic platter. "Sit down, Alasa. Oh, I have so much to tell you! But first you, how have you been since ... since, I last saw you?" She started pouring out the tisane and handed the cup to the silent girl.

Alasa tried to keep her hands from shaking, "Well ... not as well as you are doing ... I assume you were rescued by CorSec when the ship landed? I have been working in the factory that produces those fabrics you have all over your place ... but I'm still at the halfway house." She sipped the brew, noting it smelled rich and expensive.

"You're wondering how I can afford to live here?" Ga-nyche saw Alasa blink and took it as acknowledgement. "We didn't get to talk much when we were on the ship together. I was raised in slavery; my people lost a battle to another tribe and I was taken as a baby as a spoil of war." She stopped to nibble a sweetmeat, but didn't finish it. "After another battle, the ruling tribe was in need of credits, so I was sold to the slavers, but gained my freedom the same way you did. I know it's a bit shocking, but after all, I am still young, and I wasn't taught housework or a vocation ... other than to serve my masters."

Alasa's eyes widened as she heard her friend relate her personal history. "Are you a ... servant ...?" She couldn't fathom how a former slave could afford such an apartment or furnishings.

Ga-nyche laughed, "In a sense ... yes, in a sense." She took a dainty sip from her cup and said softly, "I am a prostitute, a highly-paid girl-for-hire." She laughed again when Alasa spit out her tisane in surprise.

As Alasa fumbled and apologized, Ga-nyche mopped her up with a dainty cloth and continued to talk, "It's what I do, simple as that. I'm a free woman now, but I know my looks will not last forever, so I have to make hay while the sun shines, as it were. I choose to be with wealthy men; I do have a nice apartment, but most of my credits are being saved for when men will not want me anymore. I don't want to end up like other slaves, who have to scrub floors when their looks fail them with age. Freedom affords me the right to charge for what I used to let men have for free, and to keep and invest the money."

"But aren't you frightened of being robbed, or abused?" Alasa blurted the question out without thinking.

The other girl looked thoughtful, "Yes, yes ... of course. But that's why I live here. I pay Erog and others for security and protection. Just like many of the women who live here."

Alasa gasped into her serviette, "This ... is a ... brothel?"

Ga-nyche folded her hands in her lap and looked down at her toes. "Are you offended?" She asked this question quietly.

Alasa sat silently, wondering what she should say. She wasn't offended, but very surprised. She blushed as she told this to her friend, "And I'm ashamed to say this ... but I was wondering ... how does a girl ... um ..."

Leaning forward, Ga-nyche put her hand over Alasa's and smiled, "Anyone can, but honestly, I think you'd be very desirable to certain types of men. You have a sweet innocence about you, did you know that?"

It was Alasa's turn to look down in embarrassment. "I ... I grew up with only women ... in a convent ..."

"Oh! That's perfect!" Ga-nyche giggled, "Men will want you even more for that! But really, are you honestly interested? It's not an easy life; as you noted, there are risks."

Alasa blushed, "I was wondering why I'd run away from the convent, to come to a life here. It's been unsatisfying, I am ashamed to say. It's not that I'm ungrateful to CorSec for rescuing me and giving me a chance to emigrate here ... but it's not really fulfilling ... and ..." She took another sip of the tisane, Could I afford this brew someday? She sighed, "This potion is delicious, by the way. Thank you so much."

Ga-nyche smiled, "Just so you know, if I introduce you to the 'club' and you do well, I get 25% of your first year's earnings. It's a way they have of encouraging us to bring in new girls. Alasa, don't look shocked! I thought you were beautiful and desirable when they brought you into the slave ship ... and I've been looking for you ever since we were rescued!"

The younger girl blushed redder now, not sure what to say. "I don't think that's what I want to do ... um, I'm not ready. I've only been with ... It's not that I think it's wrong ... I just ... well ... I wouldn't know what to do ..."

She was looking down at the toes of her worn shoes and felt the other girl's fingertips on her cheek. "You're really very sweet, Alasa. I don't want to pressure you, but please let me help you?"

Her heart quickened, excited by the possibilities. "What could I do?" She sounded plaintive, but it was because she didn't want to disappoint her friend. And looking into Ga-nyche's eyes, she didn't mind the kiss they shared at all.

* * * * *

Ga-nyche helped Alasa move out of the halfway house, and insisted that the new girl move into her small apartment. The prostitute did attract a wealthy clientele -- men who had much to lose if anyone found out about their liaisons. They were more than willing to pay for a fresh and seemingly innocent young girl, and they trusted her not to keep any record of their misbehavior. Alasa became Ga-nyche's "secretary-companion," and she dealt with appointments, payments, and all the services required to keep Ga-nyche's life and environment in top form. She even made sure her clothing was cleaned and pressed to her mistress's liking, and even did some sewing.

The apartment was small and there was actually no room for another bed. Alasa assumed she would sleep on the floor or a pouf, but was surprised when Ga-nyche moved to the side of the large bed, and had turned the covers down to indicate the new girl should sleep there. "It's a large bed, Alasa," the professional courtesan said breezily. "It needs to be made at least daily, of course ... perhaps more often." She said this last bit with a wink. "Depends on if they come here, or elsewhere."

A bit shy, Alasa spent the first night rolled up in a tight ball at the very edge of the mattress. She didn't want to tip over the repulsorlift compensators, but of course she needn't have worried. She woke up in the morning with a blanket over her and her mistress coming out of the refresher. "Wake up, Alasa. I need you to help me today."

Rubbing her eyes, she wondered what her first task would be when Ga-nyche lay back down on the bed, on top of the covers. She undid the tie around her robe and dropped it open, "Touch me, Alasa. You know how. Like you did with the other girls in the convent you told me about."

Her head still blurred by sleep, Alasa blinked in confusion. The other woman smiled at her, "In my work, I need to be prepared. It would be much easier for me if you helped get me ready. First," pointing to her left nipple, "put your mouth here, and suckle on it like a baby. I'll let you know my preferences."

Alasa realized that Ga-nyche was asking to be put "in the mood" for sex later in the morning. Perhaps she would be with a man she didn't find attractive. But to go to him unlubricated might damage her, and though there were synthetic liquids to rub into the sensitive tissues, it seems Ga-nyche intended to use Alasa to help generate that moisture naturally.

* * * * *

Not long after, the two became lovers, rather than employer and employee. Alasa enjoyed massaging her mistress after bathing her at night, either to relax her or to prepare her for a late evening. The touching, licking, sucking and fondling were a relaxing way to get to know each other.

Having licked her to a satisfying orgasm, Alasa wanted to know, "How did you know I would take to this?"

Ga-nyche's eyes were closed and she cuddled up to her favorite lover. "I don't know; I knew it when they first brought you in back on the slaving ship. It sounds shallow, since you were unconscious and naked, I know," she pulled Alasa closer, "but there was a presence about you. People talk about the Force, maybe that was it?"

Alasa enjoyed the feeling of Ga-nyche's smooth skin. It had been bruised by an overzealous client earlier that day, but massaging with a bacta-wrung cloth and ointment had cleared it up. She realized this was what the man who had bought her on the slave ship had done. It made sense -- a bruised slave wouldn't garner a good price.

"I don't think I have any Force abilities, but it was very kind of you to take pity on me back then, and I appreciate it." Alasa had not revealed much about her origins, even to the woman who was her employer and soulmate. She was still careful to not leak clues about herself, even in the throes of orgasm.

"I had heard of the Jedi, but being born a slave, information is not to be trusted. But I would daydream what I could do if I had the Force ..." Ga-nyche pulled Alasa's hand up and placed it on her own breast to be rubbed, "That's how I knew that I was born to be a sex and pleasure slave. I fantasized about how to enjoy sex more, rather than helping others!"

Both women giggled at the confession, and Alasa wondered if she was supposed to make a similar admission. Apparently so, as it was very quiet for an uncomfortably long time afterward.

* * * * *

What Alasa feared had finally happened. Ga-nyche had been beaten and killed by a customer.

Members of CorSec were all over the building and crowded into the small apartment. Alasa wanted to stay outside, but the officers made her stay with them. They wouldn't let her from their sights, and Alasa miserably realized they suspected she had killed her friend. After all, she was the only other person living there, wasn't she? And they'd had that fight and the Erog had seen her running out of the building in tears, hadn't he? That meant Ga-nyche was left alone in the apartment when the evil man came to first murder, then rape her.

CorSec knew who Alasa was, after all -- she was a fugitive, rescued by a CorSec sting. In the end, that turned out to be a good thing, for the men and women who might have accused her were able to come to her defense. She spent several days locked up at CorSec while investigations proceeded. Eventually, the wife of the guilty man realized what her husband had done, and turned him in. After extensive questioning, the man's confession was accepted and Alasa was released.

She returned to Ga-nyche's apartment, wondering where to go next. The door alarm sounded and she recognized the CorSec man on the other side. She let him in; she'd spent so much time with him over the past few days that she was numbed to his presence and simply accepted it. "Hello, Detective Halcyon."

"Hello, Alasa." He walked into the center of the apartment and then turned to look at her. "I was in the neighborhood, hoping you are all right?" His bright green eyes stared openly into her blue ones, in what he hoped was a friendly manner.

"No." She left the door open behind her, suddenly afraid to be in a closed room with the man.

He nodded in a gesture that was supposed to be sympathetic, "Understandable ... Ga-nyche and you were close, weren't you?"

"We are! ... I mean ... yes, we were." She found it hard to restrain a sob.

The CorSec man drew close to the young woman and put his hand on her shoulder, "I'm sorry, Alasa. It's hard to accept, isn't it? But pleasure slaves like her rarely live to enjoy their hard-earned old age ..." He noticed Alasa stiffened at his touch.

"Yes, I gathered ... she had told me that it's dangerous work." Tears flowed down her face, but she didn't sob.

Deciding Alasa didn't like his hand on her, he slowly removed it. "The only protection a girl who's been trained has is from her sponsor," Neeja chose his words carefully, knowing his shouldn't use "master" or any other term to remind Alasa of her own brief slavery.

There was a long, uncomfortable pause before Alasa spoke, "Detective, I'm not in the 'game' if that's what you want to know. I was Ga-nyche's caretaker and nurse."

"You're a healer! Oh, I knew there was something special about you! You hadn't mentioned that, how interesting!"

"I ... I lived with some, picked up some skills," she hoped she hadn't given too much away about her background. She scolded herself for possibly betraying herself and the Arixi order.

She felt uncomfortable under his unblinking gaze. Why does it feel like he's probing me? she wondered, referring to the practice Force-sensitive Arixi sisters had to scan their patients inner beings, to assess their illnesses. But they understood this procedure was invasive thus rarely resorted to it, and always with the full consent and knowledge of the conscious patient. Even if the sick being came to them unconscious, they did not use a Force-probe on them until they had awakened. To do otherwise might actually cause injury, and anyway, it was rude.

With a start, she realized the detective was a Force user. So that's why I thought there was something about him ... Having lived with the Arixi all her life, she knew how to close herself to his clumsy effort.

As soon as she'd done so, Neeja blinked and murmured, "Interesting ..." Did she catch a glimmer of interest from him? Just before she shut her mind from him, she thought she felt the tendril of romantic emotion ...

Angered, Alasa put her hands on her hips, "Detective, where I'm from, that is considered rude!" Oops ... did I just give myself away?

Neeja Halcyon was finding this girl more and more intriguing and started to become excited, "I'm sorry, Alasa!" He was very earnest. "It's a habit ... I'm not used to being with many other experienced Force users! I'm a detective, it's just that ... uh ..."

She waited and let him squirm with discomfort at the awkwardness of the situation. He was clearly at a loss; he was obviously interested in her as more than a simple curiosity. Alasa let it amuse her and kept a serious mien while she tortured him with her stony silence.

She mulled over how different she was now from the girl who was brought to Corellia not so long ago. Back then, she would not have had the wherewithal to survive the security force investigation. She didn't think she would have killed herself, but she had come perilously close to wondering why she was alive if such a thing could happen to her and her lover. But Ga-nyche had taught her confidence, so she'd survived with her sanity intact, and Alasa was enjoying using the superior sense of control to unsettle Detective Halcyon.

Because she was concentrating so hard on closing herself from the CorSec detective's mental probe, she didn't realize another man was behind her. The soft but firm voice startled her, "Detective, are you done interrogating this witness?"

She thought she saw Halcyon blush, but she was so flustered herself that she couldn't be sure of it. "Yes," the embarrassed man finally replied, then, "Alasa, it was good to see you again. If you need anything, need to know anything, please don't hesitate to contact me." He handed her his comlink code, "I'll look forward to hearing from you." She didn't recall if she took the flimsi from him, or he pressed it into her hand.

"Introduce me to the pretty girl, you oaf," said the soft-spoken man.

"Alasa, this is Detective Rostek Horn, we work together ..." But Alasa didn't turn around to look at the other man, for she knew exactly who he was.

The two men exchanged a look, then Halcyon left. She felt his presence leave the building, then get into his speeder and drive away. She felt the other man still behind her; he had stayed and he shut and locked the door. Alasa had turned to stone and couldn't make herself turn around to confront the man's presumptuousness in inviting himself in, then cutting off her escape.

She felt his fingers before they touched her shoulder; it was as if sparks shot out from him and embedded into her skin. His lips gave off a fiery heat she felt on her neck for long seconds before they landed on her skin and burned in a sensuous kiss.

Alasa sighed and closed her eyes. She inhaled deeply, remembering everything about him ... his smell, his taste, his feel ... his name is Rostek Horn ... I must not forget it ...

As he scooped her up into his arms and tossed her roughly onto her bed, she remembered thinking, Ga-nyche is dead ... I have to live ... I want to live! All that mattered is that she found the man she'd been looking for, and how this man felt (finally!) against all her various skins!

* * * * *

Detective Halcyon carefully watched his partner enter their shared office the day after his unsuccessful interaction with the former slavegirl. He immediately knew what had happened; there was no mistaking the buoyant step in Detective Horn's step, or the goofiness of his grin on that normally serious aristocratic face. "Rostek," he decided to be direct, "are you actually seeing Alasa?"

His partner was shuffling through some paperwork and humming happily to himself, "Mmmm ... mebbe! What's it to ya, Neeja?" He whistled, trying not to let his annoyance at Neeja's prying show too much.

He chose his words carefully, hoping not to piss off his partner too much, but knowing he was definitely crossing that line, "Rostek, I'm your friend, you'll remember that, right?"

Rostek responded by slamming his desk drawer shut, "Yeah, friend ... you're my friend, and you'll be there for me after she breaks my heart and does the disappearing act ... or demands marriage and I have to cut her loose ... or she seeks revenge ... or she decides she likes you instead of me! Then you'll be here as my friend with the 'I told you so' lecture!"


"Just joking, ha! And don't you deny you weren't there trying to pick her up, Neeja, but I forgive you. I'm a big boy, I know she's irresistible," Rostek's smile didn't extend to his eyes, "and I appreciate you stepping aside and keeping away from the girl."

Neeja sucked in his breath, "Rostek, this is different ... you need to know ... she's Force-sensitive."

"So? Did we ever agree to divide up the population so you get all the Force-chickies?"

Neeja tried not to upset his friend, but it was likely too late, "Have you considered that she might be ... manipulating you? Or maybe manipulating everyone?"

"You son of a--" Rostek was getting rather angry at these ridiculous insinuations and had to take several deep breaths before he trusted himself to speak, "Look, she's not. And even if she was, so what? I've been watching her, you know I have. I want her, I got her, she's mine! And I'm determined to get every bit out of this relationship!"

"Rostek," now it was Neeja's turn to get mad at his friend for being so damned obstinate, "try to keep that dickhead in your pants and think with the one on top? I am NOT a 'told you so' friend. I'm your partner -- I watch your back! You watch mine! This is not about the sex!"

"For your information, it's not just the sex, Neeja. I ... I ... dammit, I'm a big boy now!" Rostek suddenly found he couldn't explain his feelings for the woman he's spent the night with.

Neeja groaned, "Your father is going to kill you! You know--"

"-- that I have to marry the right sort, to help with my political aspirations, I have my future to consider, blah blah blah. Can it, Halcyon! I get enough from my own, thanks."

"Dammit Horn ... don't do this! She's a refugee, a rescued slave! She lives in a brothel, she's a--"

"Shut up, Neeja!"

"And you have Scerra waiting for you! Nice girl, Horn, nice way to treat a woman totally devoted to yo--"

"I said shut UP!" Neeja looked at his friend with wide eyes; was this madman brandishing a cutter at his face related to the Rostek Horn he thought he knew?

There was a awkward pause before the Jedi spoke again, this time in almost a whisper, "Rostek, don't ruin your life. She's not worth it."

The other man walked out, and Neeja didn't see him again for quite a number of days after.

* * * * *

Rostek lay on Alasa's bed, feeling her breathing in sleep against his chest. One of his arms was wrapped around her shoulders, the other over her buttocks, both pulling her warm body against his. While he was with her, he could indulge in his fantasy that Alasa was right for him, and he was right for her. The sad thing when he left her place was that he still felt that way. The elation never left him.

He'd seen her for sale during the slave auction and he remembered his breath had left him. Forgoing his initial strategy to obtain a brace of slaves, he nearly spent his whole budget on her -- but he had to have her! It was the only time he honestly relished his position as an undercover slave trader. He could buy her and have her, if only until the sting was over. He drove the bidding to unheard of levels -- triple the normal price for an untrained human girl of no particular skill!

He had enjoyed her -- countless times -- in his room until the final auction, when he realized he needed to buy at least another girl. No real slaver ever came away with just one girl; for one, it would be harder to control her than if you had at least a pair to tie together. He'd bid on Ga-nyche; it was expected for all traders present to at least offer a nominal incremental bid on such a girl, but as a trained slave, she was soon out of his budgeted range. He bid on the girl offered immediately after; any girl following the presentation of a pleasure slave tended to go for a bargain price.

Rostek did have to fuck the other girl at the conclusion of the sale as was traditional, but he went through the motions as the other men watched and cheered, and faked the release, as usual. In truth, he had never before orgasmed while having sex while on any undercover assignment. Orgasm meant a temporary loss of control -- during that moment of release, an enemy could take advantage of the situation, for instance. CorSec had trained their operatives to engage in sex without losing that control, and to even stay above the experience, to continuously observe reactions during the acts.

With Alasa, he hadn't faked it; he had desperately wanted to fill her with his seed, regardless of the consequences. Orgasming in her marked her as his ... that was the point of the ritual. Men tended not to want a girl who was marked in that manner right in front of them. He worried about this; he'd never wanted so to lose himself in a girl so badly ...

How dare Neeja try to interfere! The warning had stung him; it was ridiculous! So why was he still thinking about it? I hate him, what did I ever see in him? Rostek was immediately ashamed of his feelings, recognizing they were born of jealousy. If he hadn't scrambled to get to Alasa's apartment after discovering where Neeja was going, her body might be wrapped around the Jedi's instead ... they had the Force in common, after all.

Still, a warning was only ignored by a fool, and Rostek was no fool. He remembered advice his father had given to him about dating, "Women don't respect you if you're nice to them, boy! First rule! Never let on that you are smitten with her, or she'll have you by the balls!" But he couldn't quite get himself to play that game because of the nagging feeling he had every time he tried it toward Alasa: What if she leaves me?

He'd told her that the thing they had between them was just temporary, and a secret between them. He never said he loved her; he told her that their future was "not in the stars," and to enjoy each other while they could. Alasa seemed to understand, never pushing him for more than he was willing to give. They were never seen together in public; they never went out to eat or to see the Holos. Their contact was always within the small apartment that had once belonged to a pleasure slave.

So why was he surprised when he arrived one day and she was gone? Not just her, everything in the place was cleaned out and no one seemed to know where she was headed. She can't just disappear! He nearly screamed out loud at the thought that she might have grown tired of him!

I should have told her I loved her ... I should have implanted a tracking device in her ... I should have chained her to the bed ...!

Rostek's grief went through several phases: shock, followed by anger, then by despair. He never quite got to "acceptance." Everyone noticed something was wrong, but no one more so than his partner, Neeja Halcyon. Rostek took to using CorSec resources in his desperate search for Alasa; Neeja couldn't let it go on. So he asked how things were going with Alasa?

His emotions strained and his paranoia running around his head like a living thing, Rostek couldn't help it -- the jealousy monster reared and crashed down on him! "You keep your hands off her, Halcyon!"

Neeja glared at him, "Are you crazy?? After what she's done to you? Sit down!"

Rostek was breathing hard, trying not to clobber his partner. He didn't want to have to face a tribunal on why he might have assaulted and battered his officemate.

Neeja pushed a flimsi pad toward him, "Scerra called. She'll be here in a few minutes."

"What! When???" Rostek's mood changed from anger to panic. The door alarm sounded and Rostek pushed Neeja away and dove under his desk and implored, in a whisper, "I'm not here! I'm not here!"

"Oh, now I'm your friend, asshole?" Neeja was rather annoyed; this is not how this was supposed to be turning out.

"Excuse me?" Scerra stood at the doorway, "Am I interrupting you, Neeja?"

The Jedi turned, then rushed to the doorway to block her from entering the office, "Hello Scerra! Drat, you just missed Rostek!"

"I did? But the level guard said he was here ..." Scerra looked very disappointed, "I've been looking for him for ... well, a long time!" Neeja felt sorry for her, looking so upset, "Neeja, is he ... I mean, when will he be back?"

"I don't know, sorry," he mumbled, trying not to look as guilty as he felt. What is wrong with Rostek? Why is he doing this to a sweet girl like Scerra? They grew up together! "Do you want to leave a message?"

Rostek Horn's childhood friend sighed, "No ... that's okay. It's just that ... um, well ... could you tell him, there's a dance tomorrow night, I've been trying to get him to ask if he'd take me, but he seems to be avoiding m--"

"Oh, I'm sure he's not!" Neeja interjected, "We've just been really busy, and ... I'm not supposed to say this ... but he's on a special case at the moment ... I barely see him myself." So this is what this whole act is about! He doesn't want to take her to a dance?? He was leaning up against the desk they shared and he thought he felt Rostek squirming beneath it.

Scerra smiled weakly, "Thanks, Neeja ... it's just been such a long time since I've seen him ... do you think he ... he hates me, doesn't he?" Her lashes closed and Neeja's heart twisted at the site of the woman, so obviously devoted to the philanderer under the desk!

"No! How can you think that? He doesn't, he's just, um, self-absorbed, that's all!" He said it loudly enough so that Rostek would be certain to her him. He was rewarded with a sharp pinch on his heel from the man beneath the desk. "He doesn't deserve you, Scerra, and that's the truth. He loves you, you grew up together ... he's just takes you for granted. It's a guy thing, we suck!" He handed the weeping woman a tissue and put his arm around her, "Now, Scerra, you know that Rostek thinks of world of you! But it's a CorSec thing -- we need to be in control of our emotions, work comes first! Don't take it personally, don't make yourself crazy!"

Dammit, Neeja, Rostek's thoughts were ringing in the Jedi's head loudly, don't take pity on her, just get her out of here!

Scerra wiped her eyes and laughed, "Well, maybe. I guess since I can't find Rostek, I should look for another date to tomorrow night's dance. Know anyone available, Neeja?" Her smile was sad, but she was being valiant about it.

She really is a very pretty woman ... "Um ... well if you don't find CorSec detectives too repulsive, I'm not doing anything tomorrow night ..."

Argh! No! The voice from under the table howled in Neeja's head!

* * * * *

"Rostek, why are you lecturing me? Scerra's a nice girl, and you apparently have no interest in her! Why shouldn't I date her?" Neeja didn't even look up from the paperwork he was filling out from his ongoing case.

"Because I know this woman, dammit! I've been avoiding her advances since I was 8 years old! She's a succubus, she'll suck the life right out of you!"

Neeja looked up and arched his eyebrows at his old friend. "Do I know you? Did you just call one of your oldest friends in the world a she-demon?"

Rostek ran his hands through his hair in a hyper-nervous gesture, "She is my oldest friend, but it doesn't mean I have to deny the reality about her. She wants a ring. She has told me many, many times that she will not date for experience or frivolity. Scerra is a serious woman; the man she dates is the man she will marry. Why do you think I've been running from her all these years??"

"Rostek, you hypocrite ... you've told me yourself that your families want you two to get together and marry ... so why shouldn't she date you?"

"BECAUSE," Rostek couldn't help from yelling at his partner, "I DON'T WANT TO MARRY HER!"

Neeja stood up abruptly, shaking the desk, "WHAT IF I WANT TO???"

Rostek jolted back into his chair, stricken and shocked, "What??"

Neeja shrugged, "What's it to you, Horn? You don't want her, despite the fact that Scerra is a kind, loving, gentle, selfless woman. So give another man a chance." He smirked at the stunned look on his partner's face, "What, NOW you want her?"

Rostek Horn felt his life flashing before his eyes. Isn't this something that only happens if you're dying? But he wasn't dying. He was simply stunned.

"Thank you, Neeja."

"What?" This was not the expected response.

Rostek started to laugh, "Thank you for doing this! It never occurred to me ... You know, I once wondered why I didn't want Scerra ... I honestly can't tell you why, but maybe it's because she wanted me so badly, you know? I had thought then that maybe if she didn't want me so much, I might want her more, you know?"

Neeja sank slowly down back to his seat. This is what he had feared; now that he had found someone he wanted to spend his life with, he would have to give her back. He felt shaky.

Now it was Rostek's turn to stand up, "No, Neeja, don't worry! You took her from me ... and I still don't want her! So that wasn't it ... it's that she and me ... it's not in the stars." He laughed with relief.

If it wasn't in the stars, then why did Neeja know that Scerra would marry her childhood love someday? Mind you, the Halcyon Jedi aren't exactly good at visions or prophecy ... "Then you don't mind ..?"

"Not at all! In fact, congratulations, Neeja! I'm really happy for you and Scerra! Honestly!"

Neeja snorted, "More like happy for yourself to be off the hook, you bastard."

"Yeah, that, too! I wish I'd thought to arrange your marriage years ago!" Rostek felt giddy with delight. "So when's the big day?"

Neeja looked nervous again, "I ... haven't asked her yet, Rostek. I wanted to talk to you about it ..."

Rostek grinned, "Hey, talk done. But I think I should be best man, even if it's YOU who's the better one."

* * * * *

The joining of a Jedi knight and the daughter of an important government bureaucrat would sometimes be celebrated with a big affair that could be months in the planning. But Neeja and Scerra wanted to get married immediately; she did not believe in sex before marriage, but had told Neeja that she desperately wanted to become more intimate with him as soon as possible. As Rostek has warned him, Neeja found she was a serious woman, but he liked the feeling of being pulled into her dreams and beliefs. So they got married two weeks later. At the small wedding, Neeja wondered if Rostek would bring his secret illicit girlfriend. If he did, he hoped that the Horn family would not cause a scene. But to his relief, Rostek didn't bring anyone.

A month later, Rostek was in the office with him when Neeja got the com call with the good news: Scerra was pregnant! They were going to be parents!

Neeja did notice that Rostek smiled, but he didn't look ... overjoyed. Rostek had better not be jealous now!

* * * * *

Alasa had walked out on Rostek Horn when she realized he was in turmoil about being with her. It's not that she wanted to marry him -- after all, she feared marriage from her experience at the convent and with men in general -- but she was saddened that she was not the woman he was supposed to be with. He never took her home to meet his family; she had no family, and wondered what his was like. Yet it was so obvious that he wanted her!

The sex was excellent and the time together was the best either had ever known, and she knew that he couldn't live without her. They had discussed many things together, but it always came down to the same points. He kept assuring her that he was not in another relationship, but he couldn't afford to go public about her and him.

She supposed she understood. He was the son of a high-ranking CorSec officer, and she was nobody; in fact, she was worse than a nobody, she was a refugee from a slave ship. She wondered often if he had purchased her for himself that day, and that this was an extension of that initial relationship. He had raped her on the ship, after all; it was the best sex she'd ever had.

Alasa hadn't wanted to admit that in her euphoria in seeing Rostek again, she had forgotten to get the birth control injections, and so she was bound to get into trouble if she got involved sexually with a man. In her current situation, she had to think everything out properly. Point one: she could afford to keep this baby.

She had been exonerated of any wrongdoing in Ga-nyche's death, and had even been awarded all of Ga-nyche's property, but she also got her lover's debts. Still, there was the invisible nest egg the former pleasure slave had been saving for when she got "old and undesirable," so Alasa didn't need to worry about anything financially.

But even being suspected of a crime was enough to get society to look at you askance, Alasa had discovered. And she had been the caretaker to a woman successful on society's dark margins. And she had told Rostek that she didn't want a permanent relationship with him. But she hadn't meant it.

That lie had caught up with her, and though she had no right to be mad at Rostek for taking her at her word, she was still disappointed.

And now that she was pregnant with his child, she didn't think it was right to ask him for anything. So she wouldn't; but she'd do the right thing -- she was convinced that it was the right thing. Point two: she would tell him in person. So she contacted him again, and agreed to meet him in a secluded cottage outside of town.

Of course, she hadn't expected him to readily accept the terms she'd put before him in exchange for this courtesy information. He was shocked, but he was also delighted. He begged her to marry him, he promised he'd overcome the social and family problems. He'd make the arrangements! That night, Rostek Horn nearly convinced Alasa that the right thing to do was for him to marry her. He dragged her into bed and held her down, demanding she submit to him. She always did sexually, but she struggled and kept her wits about her this time, never making the promise to him in words.

In the end, he knew she was right. The reality was still the reality -- the expectations of his job and his family and society at a whole stood in the way. She told him she never wanted to see him again, that she would abort this pregnancy, and the two of them should get on with their lives. He was in shock and threatened to imprison her in his personal dungeon!

So she let him fuck her hard and often until he lay exhausted, then she quietly sneaked out of the rented bed -- this time, hopefully out of his life forever.

The weeks he spent afterward searching for her were more intense than his previous attempts to find her, now that he knew she was pregnant with his child. He couldn't accept that having found her again, that she didn't want him, and he went looking for her with the intensity of a man possessed. He again resorted to misusing his work capabilities to locate her. He couldn't eat, sleep, work ... he had to find her!

When he finally located her in a small house in a quiet part of town, he stalked her and harassed her. He made a general fool of himself for her, not caring if she slammed the door on his face or if he stood outside her house in the pouring rain, hour after hour, waiting for her to give in to him. Eventually, she opened the door and he attacked her violently and passionately, leaving them both exhausted and glowing. From that point, their intense affair carried on where it had left off.

During this time, Neeja had noticed the uncharacteristically erratic behavior and the general exhaustion of Rostek, and he worried. Scerra's pregnancy was going well, and he'd felt the baby through the Force. He was going to have a son, and the boy would follow in his father's footsteps! He babbled happily about it to Rostek; the other man responded with only tepid enthusiasm.

"Rostek, it's Alasa, isn't it?" Neeja hadn't wanted to poke his nose where Rostek hadn't welcomed it, but he felt this friend's emotions were going to explode; it was something he felt through the Force.

Rostek growled out immediately, "Mind your own business, Halcyon."

"No, it's not just your business, Horn, not this time." Neeja shook his head emphatically and put a hard edge to his voice, the one he used for forcing confessions out of stubborn suspects. "I hadn't wanted to bring this up, but it's affecting your performance. You have a choice: you can talk to me now, or I'll report the behavioral aberrations and misuse of resources. Yes, this is a threat." Neeja braced himself for the explosion.

He had expected Rostek to holler at him, or throw a punch, or even storm out of their shared office. He was completely taken aback when Rostek broke down in tears.

"She won't marry me!"

"Rostek, you can't marry her!" Neeja was shocked.

"I know ... I know ... It's killing me, Neeja. I can't marry her, she won't marry me ... She ... she walked out on me, about the time you and Scerra started dating. It killed me; I thought my guts had been eviscerated and I was left like a shell ..." Rostek was still weeping.

"She walked out on you? But I've seen you with her recently!" Neeja was somewhat confused. He'd always assumed that Alasa was the one one who was taking advantage of his partner, not the other way around? It was perplexing to discover that it was Rostek pressing for marriage.

"She came back ..."

"She doesn't want to marry you, but she came back?" Neeja was even more confused.

"She ..." Rostek slumped down into the seat, "... she wanted me to know ... but she won't marry me. But I offered!"

"Ah ..." a lightbulb suddenly went off in the Jedi's mind, "and you're sure you're the father?"

"If you're asking if I've asked for a DNA scan, no I haven't. But I believe her." Rostek looked defeated.

"You once told me that Scerra is an emotional vampire ... any chance Alasa is one?"

"What do you mean?"

Neeja shrugged, "She may get off on jerking you around. The baby is power, and she knows it. Don't look at me like that, you've seen plenty like that in our work!"

"No," Rostek shook his head vigorously, "you don't know her."

"Neither do you."

There was a long silence. "Yes ... yes I do, Neeja. I know her better than anyone I've ever known ... she's the best damned thing that's ever happened to me!"

"Rostek, you're my friend. I want to help you." Neeja spoke softly and resisted the urge to probe his partner's mind. He was a little hurt and jealous that this woman was Rostek's best friend, and he felt he needed to set some things straight. "You know I'd do anything for you. I'd even give up Scerra, even now, if you told me you wanted her. I love you more than I love anyone. So don't be afraid to ask me anything, okay? I swear, I'll help you, I'll support you. But don't do this alone."

"Thanks," Rostek mumbled, embarrassed by Neeja's revelation, "I'll be fine." What else do you say to a man who gives you such a confession?

* * * * *

Neeja and Scerra's son was born and named "Valin" for Scerra's father. Many weeks before, Rostek and Alasa's daughter was born. Alasa named her "Nyche" and Rostek never questioned who the girl was named for, though he did offer his surname. Alasa had refused it; she justified this by reminding Rostek of his need to keep the existence of an illegitimate child a secret. She asked him not to tell anyone; after all, he was now on track to be elevated within the CorSec ranks. He was already at the top of his level in the detective corps.

He understood the reasoning, but it still hurt him deeply to know that no one would know he was the father of Alasa's daughter.

Rostek established ways to care for his daughter, even though Alasa refused to let her know who her father was. He could not visit them at home. He managed to bestow gifts, or rigged situations that looked like apparently random events as ways to get money and things to his daughter. He would often gaze at her from a distance when mother and daughter were out together, but he had no holos of his lovechild or her mother.

When their child was being cared for elsewhere, the two parents could meet and let their bottled up passions blow them together. Sexual need and love fused their bodies together; all their energy and frustrations to maintain their separate but bonded lifestyle melted any resistance either might have had, leaving both exhausted and elated.

Sometimes Alasa would arrange to "bump" into him in shops or on the street when she was with their child, and he'd smile and admire the girl, who openly liked and trusted him. They might have a cup of tisane or cordial together and chit-chat; while her mother spoke to the nice man, the child might crawl onto Rostek's lap and stare up at him with her blue-gray eyes -- halfway in color between that of her mother and her father, though the child never knew it. He'd buy flowers from wandering vendors and give perfect buds to Nyche, who received them with delight, prattling about how her Mama was building a greenhouse and she'd make this flower grow and make baby flowers! Then they'd say goodbye and pretend that was that.

He did these things as often as he could, even though he never got used to it. It cracked his heart all over again, each and every time.

* * * * *

There was the tradition that Jedi trained in Corellia should not leave the system for their missions, for if they did, they did so at their own peril. Neeja took part in several dangerous, high pressure undercover missions to help the Corellian Jedi, and enjoyed Rostek's back-up during the whole project. Both men knew that Corellia could not afford to remain isolationist much longer. Taking part in such operations was their way of contributing to an opening up of the whole system.

There was a splintering of ideology among the Jedi in Neeja's home system. They did not feel they should participate in a galactic war. Neeja felt differently and with Rostek's promise to look after his wife and son, he eventually left to fight in the Clone Wars. His family and friends fretted for his survival, remembering that Corellian Jedi don't come home, but Neeja had promised his wife that he would not die in the Clone Wars. At last, he was on his way home. Then at the last moment, he accepted a commission to the Susevfi system, traveling with a Jedi code-named "Desertwind."

A Jedi from Camaas made the pilgrimage to Scerra's home with Neeja's equipment and travel case. Through mental telepathy, he showed Scerra and Rostek what had happened when Neeja died; Rostek had heard of the Camaasi talent for this type of memory transfer. Scerra was not prepared; she was devastated and went into shock and a deep depression.

In those dark days, Rostek put his promise at the top of his list of priorities and cared for his best friend's widow and Valin; over the years, Valin had become his de-facto nephew. Upon Neeja's death, Valin virtually became his son. Rostek took to calling the boy "Hal," short for "Halcyon," both as a nickname and as a tribute to the boy's father.

Rostek remembered the conversation he'd had with his partner over a decade ago about the love the two men shared, and felt he knew the right thing to do. He would continue to care for Scerra, despite his youthful reluctance to marry her -- it was easier now to accept, because now it was for Neeja's sake. He came to realize that his love for Neeja made any situation palatable, no matter how onerous the task might have once been.

He contacted Alasa and they met in a busy, crowded, noisy, tapcaf. It was simply the method they'd used to discuss various things, or even to work out details of a sexual rendezvous. Rostek had been promoted and now headed data security for all of CorSec with liaisons to Coruscant. More than ever, he was bound to live cleanly. More than ever, he despised his dual life.

Even though Alasa made him sit at an adjacent table every time so that people would not know they were together, he never got used to it. He endured it now for ten years, though he couldn't remember now why he did.

Why had she not married him? Because he couldn't marry her. And why was that? Because of his career, because of his family. What had it gotten him?

True, he got his promotions, the power, the social position and financial stability his family wanted for him and for them. But it got him no leverage with the mother of his child; it got him no rights or recognition with his daughter. And after all these years, he still wanted Alasa; he was still a primitive being around her.

But now there was the legacy of Neeja Halcyon to be protected at any personal cost to him. And he realized that things were changing faster and faster on Corellia. Located as they were so close to the capitol, they often subtly suffered many of the changes in galactic policy even before other core worlds. Though nothing major had happened so far, in Rostek's position, he was able to see and analyze revisions of policies and ideas before they trickled down to the masses. He had seen information that indicated that CorSec would be dissolved; and it seemed that Coruscant was geared toward blaming the Clone Wars on the Jedi. This would not be good for Neeja; and now that he was dead, his wife and his son would surely suffer the blame. He knew that Neeja had already started training Valin ...

But right now, his mind was filled with his lover's perfume. "I still want you." He whispered into his salad.

"No." It was like a standard greeting between them. What had he expected?

It was very disconcerting to talk to the plate of food before him, he couldn't even look at her sideways ...

She sighed, "Rostek, I thought you were past this ... you haven't asked in a long while!"

"Pretty girl, I have a reason ... It's Scerra." Rostek sounded older and more depressed than ever when he said the other woman's name. It took her by surprise.

Alasa remembered Rostek's thoughts about Scerra ... how Scerra had pursued him since they were in school, how she was the perfect woman for his family and his career, how relieved he was when Neeja took an interest in her ...

Finally, she spoke, for she understood what Rostek had to do. "I heard Neeja Halcyon isn't returning to Corellia. I'm sorry, Rostek."

"Yes," Rostek couldn't believe how much the bare fact of his friend's death still hurt, "He died, the Jedi brought his things home." He prayed that he could see this act through before Alasa might be taken from him, too.

"Did he ... he faded away?" Alasa had heard that some Jedi disappear on dying. She never understood how or why Jedi did this; she had heard the convent sisters talk of it.

"Yes, no remains came home. You can imagine Scerra's emotional state. Hal's taking it well so far, but it's because he's worried about his mother. Pretty girl ... how is Nyche?"

"She's doing well in school. She is showing a talent for antiquities evaluation, can you believe it? I have no clue where that ability came from. She will be taking a scholarship exam soon," Alasa always marveled at how easily they talked about Rostek's illegitimate and secret daughter as if they were actually a family unit. But it was a dangerous feeling to succumb to, and she pulled herself short. "Rostek," she said quietly, but she knew he could hear her, "why do you ask?"

Rostek pushed his plate aside. He couldn't eat anything and hated pretending that he was. He talked softly to the air before him. "I am going to marry Scerra ... Neeja was right -- he told me I would someday. He also told me he'd do anything for me. And I will do anything for him; even marry his widow and raise his child. Even if his widow is Scerra."

There was a long pause. Rostek was surprised to hear Alasa sobbing. Over the years, she'd gotten very tough and very wise -- quite natural, considering the life she had. Though this decision was non-negotiable, he found himself doubting as he listened to her, straining not to touch her ... I could never claim my own family ... and now I have to claim Neeja's. It seemed like the door he'd held open to Alasa for so many years was closing. He felt like weeping, too.

Finally she spoke, "What do you want from me, Rostek?"

"I ... I want your blessing ... I want to know it's okay for me to do this ..."

She laughed, "You're amazing Rostek. After all these years, you still consider yourself my property?"

It was an interesting way to put it; he supposed she was right. As Neeja pointed out to him all those years ago, between the two of them, she had the power in this relationship, for she held everything that Rostek desperately wanted. "No ... you know I'm yours, completely and totally. No, I'm not a pet, I'm someone who wants to make you happy, but not without me ... do you know how many nights I've laid awake, praying you wouldn't find someone else ... wondering if that was the reason you wanted to remain free ..." They'd had this conversation before, but he wanted to make sure she understood why he needed to marry Scerra, even though he hated the idea that she, too, could marry someone else. Please don't do to me what I must do to you ...

"You're amazing, Rostek. Of course it's not ... it's because I belong as much to you." No longer weeping, she allowed herself a light tone and a laugh, "I could never be with anyone else. You believe in me; in many ways, we have the perfect arrangement, a marriage without the day to day awfulness of that state of relationships. You have to admit, you'd want me less now if you could have had me so easily."

She laughed again, hoping the sob that was threatening to break her composure stayed down, "I love you, Rostek Horn. You have my permission to become Valin's father. Why don't you change his name to Hal Horn, so people will believe he was always yours? I know you always call him Hal. There's a nice alliteration to it."

"But to adopt him, I'd have to marry Scerra!"

She laughed again, "Yes. And no, I'm not coming to the wedding."

This time he smiled, "Always a step ahead of me."

"Not always." Back to business. "I will assume the funds you'd put away for Nyche will not accumulate further donations?"

"No! I'll still--" He supposed he shouldn't be surprised that she'd guessed who her daughter's invisible benefactor might have been.

"Rostek, be reasonable. You now have a wife and child to raise -- a legal and real wife and child. And I'm still living off the interest of Ga-nyche's nest egg. My child and I will be fine." She started to get up to leave.

"No!" He couldn't accept things the way they were ... how could he have let it go on for so long? And now she was getting ready to leave him again! He grabbed Alasa's arm and pulled her toward him. "I'm not finished!"

"Rostek, let me go or I'll scream and all the work you've done to be respectable will be undone!" She fought the feeling of hysteria rising within her.

"No! Alasa, please! Why must I struggle ... she's OUR daughter!"

"This is the life you explained to me years ago, Rostek! The one we agreed upon!" She hissed at him, trying not to yell out loud in the busy tapcaf, "I ruined my life for you! I didn't pursue you, I didn't emotionally blackmail you, I let you define the life I have now. I've given you what you want, now let me go!"

"Please ... pretty girl, just hear me out, I swear I won't contact you again if that's what you want ... please ... sit down again, face away from me like you always do ..." He hoped that no one noticed them or recognized him. She was right; they'd worked hard to keep this liaison a complete secret. No need to throw it all away over mere emotions. Oh, if only we had the luxury of giving in to passion on a whim!

She honestly did love Rostek Horn, and she supposed she was happy that he'd decided to do the right thing for Neeja. All this time, she promised herself she'd be ready if he'd decided to marry someone else. She had to leave before she started crying in earnest at this lie! She hadn't been ready at all!

"Alasa ... I have a dream ... you know it's hurt me that I should have married you, should have forced you to marry me! You'd be the most perfect woman in the whole damned universe if you weren't so damned stubborn!" He spoke rapidly, so she wouldn't be able to interject, "Well, I've played by your rules and society's rules all these years. And I need some quarter now."

She sat down, touched by his despair. "Five minutes." Beyond that, she didn't think she could hold the dam of liquids back in her head that threatened to burst through her tear ducts.

"Send Nyche to this school," Rostek passed a scrap of flimsi to the mother of his child, "she and Hal are the same age, they should be hitting puberty soon. I want them to be around each other when that happens."

"Rostek, talk sense!"

"Here's my dream," he spoke quickly in case she tried to run off again, "I couldn't do right by you ... but through our children -- mine and yours, and Scerra and Neeja's -- I can legitimize you ... you'd be the mother of my daughter-in-law ..."

"Rostek, you are crazy! You can't control love, you can't make wedding arrangements like that -- look at us, for crying out loud! And this new son of YOURS ... he wouldn't be able to marry the daughter of a 'suspected hooker' with an almost criminal record!"

"You're not a hooker! You're not a criminal! You're well regarded, I know you are!" He dared to turn toward her, to stare at her profile, at the blue eyes brightened by tears. Rostek found her beautiful, still. "You've been donating your time and resources to noble charities, you're a social scion in your way, my pretty girl. Nyche's tastes in art and antiquities are all from your work. I know ... I watch ..."

Alasa suddenly grew agitated. "How long have you been cooking up this ridiculous plan, Rostek? Have you been trying to steer me into good groups, advising me to buy property in good neighborhoods, and now sending Nyche to this hot school, just so you can appease your sense of guilt about buying me on a slaveship, then knocking me up??" He could hear her anger in her voice, and thought her even more desirable in any state of passion. Keep calm, Horn, he admonished himself, don't lose control!

"Yes ... No ... I don't know! I didn't plan anything! I didn't buy you as a slave ... I ... you know I didn't! But this is just how I feel--" He couldn't keep his thoughts and words straight ... his mind and guts were in a turmoil of emotion and heat ...

It was beyond the five minutes she'd set for herself, and Alasa's tears were pouring out now. He dared to pass her his kerchief, which she ignored.

She couldn't keep the quaver out of her voice when she finally regained enough control to reply. What she said threatened to shatter his heart more deeply than ever, "Rostek ... that is the most romantic thing I've ever heard from you ... and you're a romantic man with many romantic notions. I know that no one knows this but me because you love me more than any woman has a right to be loved. No one would suspect you of being capable of coming up with a plan so ridiculou--"

"So you'll do it? Please, do it for me. I know I screwed up our lives -- not just yours. I destroyed mine, but now I understand. I can repay Neeja for his love, and accept our daughter and you into my family. Please ... for me ..." Rostek figured there was no point in saving his pride, and he begged openly. Now he was weeping, too.

He felt her lips and the touch of her tears on his cheek. His blood rushed to that spot on his face.

As he sat at the crowded tapcaf, he felt a warmth emanating from her kiss, spreading through his entire body. He knew his marriage to Scerra would be passionless and sexless. But he wasn't marrying her for that. He was marrying her for the love of Neeja, and for this opportunity to legitimatize his daughter and the love of his life.

For passion and excitement, there would always be Alasa.

He paid his bill and smiled as he imagined Neeja engineering this whole thing on his behalf.

* * * * *

Scerra didn't like Hal's fiancé's mother, but she was careful not to express this to her son, for she loved him and didn't want to alienate him. She did complain to Rostek that Alasa was eccentric and aloof. Rostek explained that just because there was no discussion regarding who Nyche's father was, it didn't mean Alasa should be held in contempt.

"Rostek, she's ... she must be a kept woman!" Scerra blushed at having to tell her suspicions to her upstanding husband. "Isn't that obvious? No apparent job, no husband, how she manages to send that girl to that school, who knows?? And the clothing she wears, that expensive hair-do, and the people she hobnobs with ... it's not to be believed!" Scerra had detected that Rostek was completely charmed by this woman. She didn't totally understand that she was responding from jealousy as well as from maternal instinct to protect her only child.

Rostek bit his tongue, knowing that even with his high position within CorSec, they struggled financially. A portion of his income was skimmed for his daughter's schooling, before Scerra ever saw his credit chits. It sometimes made him feel guilty. "Don't be harsh on her; I did a background check and she's clean." This was an enormous lie -- a proper check would have revealed many things about Alasa of which Scerra would have never approved. Then again, there was no need for a check, since Rostek knew everything there was to know about Alasa ...

"Well, she has airs, she considers herself better than us! Can you imagine! Just because she's one of those museum and art snobs!" Scerra didn't like to think of herself as an elitist, but something about this other woman really got her hackles up.

Rostek patted her hand in a comforting gesture. "Let's try to be happy for Hal's sake. Did you see his face at dinner tonight when he told us he wants to marry the girl? And he doesn't seem to mind Nyche's mother. And don't forget, you like Nyche, you told me so! Don't make it hard on him, we don't want him to make the mistakes we made as kids." This last reference to Scerra's -- unrequited -- pursuit of Rostek always derailed whatever unpleasant thoughts she had been having.

Scerra smiled gratefully at her husband, "Yes ... we should have married so long ago ..."

"Tsk! Then you wouldn't have married Neeja! No, this is the way it's supposed to work out. I never could have produced a child like yours and Neeja's." He gave her a peck on her cheek and got up, signifying this conversation was over. Rostek also didn't want Scerra to try to get intimate with him! Throughout their marriage, they had never had sex or even cuddled; Rostek had told her he has no wish to desecrate the memory of his friend. She accepted this easily. Of course, then there was the reality that he was repulsed by the thought of such an action with Scerra, when he emotionlally needed to be faithful to someone else.

At the mention of her beloved first husband, Scerra became pensive. "It was good of you to help us and protect us." She was referring to her Rostek's care to hide or destroy any reference to Hal's Jedi heritage. The boy had been made to understand that revealing anything about his training or his real father could get them all executed, and Rostek and Scerra were proud of his mature acceptance of the facts. They were careful not to speak openly about Neeja Halcyon.

"It's the least I can do for Neeja -- and for you, Scerra. And I have always loved Hal as if he were my own, you know that." Rostek meant most of what he said.

As if detecting the tiny underlying lie about her that her husband hid in his heart of hearts, Scerra dared to ask, "Rostek ... Neeja once told me that you were involved with some woman in secret, that's why you were so distant toward me? Is that true?"

This subject had come up time and again over the years, but Rostek had always managed to skirt it. He found a way to manage again, "Scerra, you know I don't talk about my work and my projects." He winked at her, "And I was never aloof toward you. That's just my personality and you know it. I'm with you now; you are my wife, no one else can make that claim! Though honestly Scerra ... I wish I wasn't ... I wish Neeja was still here ..." This deliberately maudlin manipulation always worked.

Scerra smiled as a tear rolled down her face, "I know ... I miss Neeja, too ..."

* * * * *

Rostek did think Alasa was laying it on a bit thick, but he supposed he understood why she showed up at the wedding dressed better than anyone but the bride. And the dress she had made for Nyche! It was demure yet seductive, made from expensive, rare materials and the dark red coloring suited the blonde woman so perfectly. It caused a buzz among the fashion pundits and was even featured in Corellian style holomags. The dress would be copied in modified form for many brides that year.

The wedding of the child of Rostek Horn was considered one of the big events on the Corellian social calendar, simply due to his social position. Alasa's society status as a sponsor and organizer of the arts resulted in many celebrities accepting their invitations. None of Nyche's associates understood why she would marry a CorSec officer, even though they admitted his father did come from good stock.

Many social gossip columnists enjoyed speculating about the handsome couple. The tall, lean groom in the CorSec uniform contrasted starkly with the short, aristocratic blonde in the couture gown -- many commented that it was a romantic and perfect image, straight out of the holos!

Despite all the whispers and nonsense, Rostek could barely contain himself and he glowed with excitement -- his plan had worked! He'd managed to arrange this important marriage! Neeja's son was married to his daughter; they were both now his children! And Alasa was legally part of his life. They'd have to maintain decorum, of course, but he no longer had to fear being seen with her. He felt giddy with delight. The great weight he bore for decades for himself and Alasa had lifted with Hal's and Nyche's wedding vows.

Scerra understood that she had to defer to Alasa, since the mother of the groom traditionally fell behind in terms of being a fashion spectacle at any wedding. Still, she let all the attention paid to her new in-law bother her. She hated that the social pundits were abuzz about Rostek's family and about Alasa's connections; it was if Scerra didn't exist! She demanded that Rostek stay with her, so that any holos taken of him would include her, and to underscore the fact that Alasa was alone. This, Rostek did with grace, understanding his wife's jealousy and insecurity.

Besides, it was the least he could do, considering that Scerra actually did have just cause to be upset, though she had no idea of the degree of hurt she would feel if she knew the real truth: Alasa and Rostek had had a rousing tryst just hours before the wedding. It was energetic and hardcore, just like when he first gained possession of the pretty girl on the slaveship. Though Alasa still maintained firm control of their relationship on a day-to-day basis, when there were together far from prying eyes, Rostek roared as her master. She would submit to him, his perfect sexual match and his soulmate. For them, this sexual master/slave arrangement wasn't a game.

It would kill Scerra to know the truth, Rostek thought briefly of his wife as he watched his mistress enter the ballroom, best to continue deceiving her. He gazed at the artful way Alasa's beautiful, sensual gown hid the love-bruises he'd inflicted and at the sparkling chain he'd recently forced her to wear to silently symbolize her bond to him. He was very happy. Seeing Alasa like this, it was almost as if he was marrying her today ...

Since Alasa had made a gorgeous spectacle of herself, Rostek could be excused for staring from time to time at the mother of the bride as she walked slowly and regally among the assembled guests. Of course, he was the only one who really knew why she wouldn't -- no couldn't! -- sit down, much less walk faster ...

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