A Working Relationship
Rating: PG
Thrawn McEwok

Well, they say you're dead.

Somehow, I have a hard time believing that. I've checked and triple-checked every information source I have access to — if nothing else, my resources are still impressive, and it's not as if I have anything else to do these days except sit and look at the screens, and wait for who-knows-what. I wonder if you knew. After all, information always was our shared passion. We simply differed in our approach.

But there's only one thing I can really be sure about right now. I'm not the only person greeting the reports of your death with a sense of stunned, sceptical disbelief.

I suspect, though, that you would have been disappointed with any other reaction. Somehow, you managed to ensure that even your death, like everything else you did, came to be defined instantly and automatically in your own terms. In equal measure — total shock, a profound sense of aesthetic truth, and a baffled inability to understand just how it happened.

Apart from that, I suppose, people have a hard time imagining that those who they care about are really gone — regardless of the truth, whatever that may be.

Perhaps it's easier that way. But then, I don't think either of us was ever really into easy options.

What was it that we used to call it? Kick-the-rancor, wasn't it?


* * * * *

She was, as was her usual custom, unfashionably late for the Levée. She had dined alone, in a quiet brasserie near the Palace — the sort of place that catered for young bureaucrats and Fleet attachés who had the taste and discretion to avoid the overpriced, overinflated eateries nearby, and the Secretaries and Generals who frequented them. After that, she had returned to her apartment, unhurriedly, to wash her hair and change.

Since the platinum-edged invite specified Ball Dress or Uniform, she decided, on a sort of whim, to wear her rarely-worn deck blacks. She had been looked at the uniform hanging in the wardrobe for several moments before she realised what she was going to do, liking the way the soft, subtle fabric of the tunic and breeches contrasted with the glossy leather of the belt slung casually over the wire and the polished boots sitting underneath.

When she looked at herself in the mirror, five minutes later, she saw how the darkness of it all was offset only by the brushed steel buckle on the belt, and the blood-red flash of the armband which identified her as an aide attached to the Ubiqtorate.

She liked that. Her lack of rank insignia was in itself a symbol of her importance.

Even she, she decided, was entitled to some simple pleasures, sometimes.

And so, daringly underdressed and three hours late, she arrived at the Levee.

As she had suspected, the only other person whose clothes were as unfashionably understated as her own was the young Senate Representative from Alderaan, a slim essay in artificial innocence, corseted in a white winding-sheet, following dutifully at her widowed father's side as he moved among the knots of guests from the Loyal Opposition. A girl of what, fourteen, already selected as her father's heir.

She watched the "Prince of Democracy" and his daughter discretely for several minutes, until Bail Organa glanced in her direction, frowning at her smile. Then, she turned away, smiling all the more. She doubted that young Princess Leia had even seen her — and even if she had, she was sure she wouldn't think anything of the visual contrast between them.

And then, she saw him.

Standing on the edge of the dance floor, with his back to her, her first reaction was a sense of electric shock at the confidence of his poise. Her second thought was that his uniform was almost as outré as her own.

The uniform — she had never seen anything like it, but she knew it could be nothing else — was really just a tight-fitting red jumpsuit, comfortable and practical. But there was something self-consciously tailored about it — no, exquisitely tailored — and it was finished with formal details that made it the effortless equal of any other costume in the whole ballroom — even the Grand Admirals' gleaming, bullion-decked whites, and the million-credit fashion-disaster from Vescari worn by the air-headed redhead hanging on the Emperor's arm.

The oddest thing was the use of so many different shades of red, and the effect that created. The best way she could think of describing it was as a formal patchwork, every section carefully balanced to harmonize with the prevalent hue, a deep burgundy that seemed to find an echo in the colour of the wine in his glass. It seemed as though he'd chosen even that to offset his uniform to best effect. Even the way he held his slim-stemmed glass in his black-gloved hand seemed perfect. She fetched herself a glass of sparkling white from the nearest droid, and moved closer.

Then he turned round.

Somehow, she knew what she was about to see a split-second before she did.

An alien.

"Good evening," he said, in flawless, fluent Basic, with the slightest bow. "My name is Thrawn. I do hope you're not here to arrest me as an undesirable, Agent."

Somehow, she had managed to stumble her way through her own introductions, her head swimming in something like panic. He had blue skin and glowing red eyes.

Somehow, she hadn't been able to break away.

"If it makes you any more comfortable," he noted, about five minutes into the conversation. "I am, on a genetic level, entirely human. What separates us — on both sides — is a mere cultural coercion to regard those who look unfamiliar as aliens. As other. Undesirable."

"Thanks," she grimaced. He smiled back. He didn't seem to be in any hurry to leave.

Perhaps, she mused, he didn't have anyone else to talk to. She looked around, then looked back at him.

Neither, she conceded, did she.

So she scoffed politely when he expressed his hope of gaining a commission in the Imperial Fleet. From what she could gather, he seemed to be some sort of exiled aristocrat from some out-of-the-way star cluster, with nothing to his name except a uniform and a boundless confidence.

A confidence, she reminded herself, which had already managed to get him an invitation to the Imperial Levée, the grandest event of the Coruscant social calendar.

And she was, of course, only there because her father — a lifetime member of the most exclusive club on Coruscant, the Old Republic's ruling elite — was still hoping that she would make a suitable match with someone of her own class and capabilities.

Right now, she was talking to an ugly, overconfident alien exile.

About art.

"Sometimes my judgement may let me down," he said, his eyes flashing as his gaze flickered towards the Emperor's escort. "For instance, I think the scatter of freckles on that girl's shoulders more than makes up for her awful dress, but that may just be me." Then he looked back at her.

"I like how your uniform sets off your hair, though," he smiled. "I think that's just a general aesthetic principle. Tell me — the way the red of your armband brings out the colour of your eye. Is that deliberate, or just instinctive?"

She had blinked at him. She'd never liked her discoloured eye — an old injury, from the one time she'd made a serious mistake in one of her sparring sessions with her personal training droid. She wore it like a scar, she told herself.

She hadn't even noticed that the blood-brown had any red in it. Or she'd tried not to. She didn't like it.

But of course he liked it, she told herself. He was an alien.

Then, for some reason, she had made the mistake of explaining.

"Perhaps I could persuade you to go a few bouts with me one day, then?" he asked, his interest disconcertingly genuine. "I am slightly out of trim since my exile. And I would be very interested in learning something about your hand-to-hand combat techniques."

"Why should I waste my time with you?" she snapped.

"I've been asking myself the same question for fifteen minutes," he said, out of the blue, and suddenly, his irritation vanished, and his smile was real. "I fear we'll have to get to know each other a lot better before we answer that. But of course, you say you don't want to waste your time with me...."

"No, really," she heard herself say, surprised by her own voice. "It's all right."

She smiled at him.

They smiled at each other.

After that, the conversation veered easily away onto military strategy, and then the wine, and on through poetry, politics, and the mating habits of the Nevoota Bee. She hadn't really noticed what they were talking about half the time. It hadn't really mattered.

"You seem very well-informed," he noted when they reached the topic of Jedi philosophy, offering her an approving nod. Somehow, she found herself oddly grateful for the gesture. Not simply flattered — grateful.

"I'm a spy," she shrugged — awkward, non-committal. The admission came easily enough. "But you know that already. Maybe it's more than that. I like finding things out, knowing things. I like information, I suppose."

"Ah," he said, and she found herself smiling back when his eyes flashed red. "Then we have something in common after all ..."

* * * * *

I don't think we ever bothered to define it any better than that. I don't think we needed to. I mean, over the years, we talked — after sex, usually, or experimenting unsuccessfully with ways of being together that didn't involve sex. But I think both of us realised that all that was simply part of the fun of being in a relationship, rather than anything deeper.

Not that we didn't enjoy it, of course.

One day, perhaps, when all this is over, and our parts in it come to be written — I'm sure that, like me, you will have taken what care you can to ensure that your side of the story gets out eventually — people will wonder what lay behind our excellent working relationship.

After all, we weren't exactly natural comrades-in-arms. Almost the only thing I can remember us agreeing on with any consistency is that our mutual dependence compromised us both, utterly.

But then, how to explain that undeniable working relationship?

The truth, as you were fond of saying, is simpler than most people realise.

It was a relationship, and it worked.

Or perhaps, as that poet of yours said, lust makes blind fools of mortals, and most people kriff with the lights off anyway.

You never did send me that Basic translation of his sonnets like you promised. But then, I suppose, I never really expected you to. What mattered was, you made me laugh for the first time when you told me that.

Take care, Thrawn — wherever you are.

But then, you always did.

Ysanne



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