To Hold, But Not to Have
Diana DeRiggs

Elassar Targon had woken up that morning feeling lucky. He knew that his charms and routines were set in their proper places, and none had been knocked over during the night. That was a good sign, but not an unusual one. But he'd also dreamed of Shalla Nelprin, and she had smiled at him, accepting his hand in marriage. She held in her hand two gold rings, wrapped in a white cloth. On her head were roses of the deepest red color. Her dark hair was let down, and it flowed and curled becomingly. He woke up when she placed her lips on his, and she faded away slowly. That made this morning especially lucky, and Elassar decided he needed to shop for a gift for this perfect angel of a woman.

Elassar was much taken with portents of doom or happiness. He was also much taken with Shalla, who was his superior and squadmate. His unit was formerly a starfighter squadron with commando expertise, but after their last mission to destroy the Warlord Zsinj, New Republic Intelligence tapped them to become an elite infiltration and follow-through squad.

They were back now on Coruscant, undergoing orientation and retraining, and so that they would know what was expected and available for them. For the most part, it was unnecessary, but they all recognized the need to think of themselves as a highly specialized infiltration and facilitation group, and not as a starfighter group. It was a surprisingly jolting transition.

Today was their rest day, a break from the learning and exercises. So Elassar bound out of his bunk and didn't bother making his bed. No need, since there seemed to be plenty of rooms available on base. Even the second lieutenants (formerly flight officers) had their own small rooms, though they continued to share refreshers and other facilities.

Wearing a small part of his good luck charm collection around his neck as amulet-type objects, he was an interesting sight. There were Devaronians on just about every occupied planet in the galaxy, but most kept to themselves, sometimes disguising their horns. Most societies had taboos and fears surrounding creatures with prominent horns, and Devaronians frequently found themselves persecuted for their physical appearance.

But Elassar was young and generally unmarked by such tragedies, and he went out wearing his lucky suit, his collection of charms, and his lucky boots. He'd succeeded at accomplishing a mission - whether getting a promotion, acing an exam, wooing a female, getting a care package from his mother - with each of these objects, and hated going out without them.

He headed for a store that he'd never heard of before. They apparently had many archeological and estate objects, lots of trinkets that the major traders and salvagers normally overlooked as not sellable enough. Shalla had liked the store and told him about it a month before. He'd remembered and thought it was a good place to start looking for a gift for his intended.

To his surprise, it wasn't one of those shops with stuff stacked every which where, and trays of small items stashed in every nook and cranny. It was more like a neat, tidy gift shop. It turned out that they offered items on consignment, and would bring out items from the warehouse, based on your description of what you wanted. "Look at what we have on display," offered the Shistavanen woman who greeted him when he walked in, "it will give you an idea of the types of things we carry. Though we have many more things, too, many handmade things for order! A man like you appears to know what he wants, though!"

Elassar liked the woman, whose name, he found out, was Shiilo - he considered the similarity between her name and Shalla's a positive omen. She let him look at the many beautiful things she kept in the cupboards and drawers in the store. He was absorbed in all of it, thinking of Shalla and what she might like. He'd thought about a brooch, a case for her comlink, a shawl for her shoulders when she wore skimpy dresses, a skimpy dress, a necklace. Elassar knew it had to be something she could take off and put away, since wearing a charm continuously would mark you if the enemy was seeking you. Still, there must be something he could get for her?

Then, he saw it. It was tucked away on a counter behind Shiilo, sitting on a piece of brown paper, ready to be wrapped. It was a small, white stuffed pillow, beribboned and sewn with care. There were roses sewn into the corners, and some alien words outlining the center of the pillow. He couldn't read the words, but he was sure they were words of proposal or undying love. The gold rings in the middle must have been the universal symbol for a marriage - just like the gold rings in his dream last night! The white pillow and the red roses fit into his dream - another excellent omen!

Elassar snatched up the pillow and declared, "I must have this!!" and ran to the front of the store to show Shiilo. He thrust a fistful of credits into her hand and kissed her enthusiastically on the cheek, and ran out the door.

It took a moment for Shiilo to recover from the shock, as she realized what just had happened. She panicked, "Wait! Come back! Give that back!" She ran out into the street, "That's just a sample, you can't take that! I need it back! Wait!"

Elassar was already blocks away, but he wouldn't have heard her anyway. And he didn't hear representatives of the local constabulary demand he stop, for they mistook Shiilo's cries for ones requesting help against a thief.

* * * * *

Elassar was trying to figure out how he ended up in this jail cell. He'd been told that someone had come in and bailed him out, and he was wondering what to tell Face Loran, his commanding officer. He'd bought this pretty pillow for Shalla. The civilian security forces tried to take it from him, but he insisted he could not be separated from it, and they eventually let him hold it while in custody.

He was brought out to the lobby area of the detention center, expecting to see MPs or perhaps one of his fellow Wraiths. Instead, there stood Shiilo, looking worried. She rushed to him, hugging him and whispering in his ear, "I told them we were lovers, we just had a little spat. Play along, please."

Elassar blinked at the attractive woman. Well, not such an unlucky day, after all.

"Sirs, thank you for understanding. We regret our behavior. My friend and I will be leaving now," Shiilo nervously babbled as she signed the papers the security forces put in front of her, pertaining to Elassar's release. "Good bye! Thank you again! Much appreciated!"

She grabbed Elassar's hand and they walked together out of the building. As they walked, Shiilo's spoke, "I'm sorry about this, I hope you forgive me. I panicked because, well, that pillow is a sample. I need to buy it back from you. There's no other like it. If you want one, you'll have to order it, it takes about six standard weeks to receive."

Elassar finally understood, "Six weeks? No! I'll be gone in six weeks, and anything can happen between now and then! I must have it now!" Then he clutched the pillow more tightly and shook Shiilo off him. He tried to run off, but Shiilo pushed him into a doorway.

He stumbled in, and recognized the lobby of what must have been a brothel. He tried to leave, but a burly guard blocked him. Shiilo grabbed him by one horn and pulled him into the building. In this position, he couldn't see much, and felt like he was being herded. Well, go with the flow. Does less damage that way.

Elassar found himself face-up on a lounge chair of some sort. It was sort of comfortable, even though his legs were being bound to it.

Shiilo straddled Elassar's midriff. He clutched the pillow to his chest tightly. "I'm serious," Shiilo said to him, "I need the pillow. What do you want for it? I'm willing to do a lot to get it back. Do you understand me?"

"No, no, no, I have to have it," muttered Elassar, "it's for the love of my life. I had a dream. An omen. She won't come to me without this amulet!"

"Now, now," Shiilo purred, "you're a romantic boy. Don't you think she'd prefer to have one made just for her? Not a used thing meant just to be an ordering sample?"

"No," he insisted, "this is perfect. It must be this one or--"

Elassar stopped short and drew in his breath... ooh, that feels good. Shiilo had wrapped her tongue around his ear. Her hands lay on his chest, and he could feel her claws tickling him, penetrating through the fabric of his shirt.

"I'll give you back your money," whispered Shiilo, "and give you some fun as a thank you gift. For being so understanding. You'd like this now, wouldn't you?"

Come to think of it, that licking feels nice ...

"No!" he yelled, but its rather difficult to protest when your pants are around your knees and a woman of another species is rubbing herself on your thigh. His erection betrayed his desire. Standing taller and thinner than a human's, Elassar eyed it suspiciously.

The Shistavanen woman tried easing her swollen vagina around his member, but for some reason, his penis would not go in. She had never had a Devaronian, but didn't think it would be this difficult to make love to one. She grew frustrated, and pulled her legs open wider, and at last felt his penis slide into her.

It didn't help that Elassar was staring at her with wide eyes, clutching the pillow to his chest as hard as possible, frozen in position. He wasn't helping at all. She idly wondered if he was a virgin ... it would certainly explain his overly romantic attitude toward the pillow.

She needed that pillow back. It was the only one of its kind, and it had taken her hours to create. The site of it renewed her intent to get it from him through exhaustion, if necessary. Shiilo ground her hips down against his penis, licking at his face, terrifying him.

Shiilo was being quite rough on the young man, and her energetic thrusting scared him so he felt numb. Finally, she drew her body too high up and his penis accidently fell out and when she sat back down on it, his penis bent at an odd angle. This caused Elassar to jerk violently with pain and knock the Shistavanen woman off of him. He tried to jump off the chair, but the binders caught fast and he fell to the floor, his ankles still fastened to the chair.

Elassar put the pillow in his mouth while he bent toward his ankles to undo the clasps. His teeth bit against something solid in the center. It wasn't the gold rings. He wondered what it might be, when his legs were finally free. He half-rose, pulling his trousers up.

Before he could get up, Shiilo was upon him, grabbing at the pillow in his mouth, "Give it to me! I'm telling you, I need it! You'll ruin it!"

He gritted down on the pillow harder and pushed at her. He was surprised at how strong she was. He thrust his hand up, connecting with her snout. Elassar heard a popping noise, then she went limp.

Worried sick, he pulled the pillow from his mouth, and checked Shiilo for vital signs. She was still breathing, and her vertebrae appeared fine. He had no idea what he'd done to make her unconscious, but he considered himself lucky. He made sure he was dressed, then ran out of the room and told the guard at the lobby, "She's hurt! Help her!" Then ran out the door as fast as he could go.

* * * * *

Commander Face Loran and his executive officer, Lieutenant Shalla Nelprin, let the MPs lead Second Lieutenant Elassar Targon to the office. The armed security men saluted, then closed the door, but remained in the corridor to escort Targon back to his cell, if necessary.

"At ease, Targon," said Face, returning the salute from his junior officer, "and please tell me what in Lieutenant Kettch's name are you doing?"

Elassar shifted nervously, devoid of the insane demeanor or odd confidence he normally displayed. "Commander, with your permission, confidentially, please?"

"As always. Nothing said here in confidence will leave this room unless it's a matter of New Republic security, Elassar."

The Devaronian man looked unhappy, "I meant, sir, ma'am, um... could Lieutenant Nelprin please... um..." He couldn't finish his request.

Shalla looked up at Elassar, then Face - who winked at her - then got up and left the room to stand with the MPs.

The younger man breathed more easily, "Thank you, sir. The incident I need to report involves the lieutenant; I couldn't report if she was here."

Face furrowed his brow in concern, to which Elassar responded, "Nothing like that, sir! I bought this pillow! And the woman who owned it before me, turns out she didn't want to sell it! She called the security troops, and then she raped me-"

"Wait!" Face looked shocked, "She raped you? Over a pillow?"

"She did, sir ... but I resisted! I did, but ... I ran away, but the MPs nabbed me when I got back on base, and they tell me she's hurt and in the MedCenter," Elassar's explanation became faster, till he was just about babbling. "She's okay, isn't she, sir? I didn't mean to, but she had my pants down and my legs tied, and I pushed her harder than I meant to. She's a woman, sir ..."

Face let Elassar talk until he ran out of breath, listening to the hysterical lilt of his voice as he thought to himself, What's up with the pillow? Elassar stopped talking and drew in a big breath, gasping and nearly choking with the effort. Face took the opportunity to respond, "Why did she want the pillow? You tell me she sold it to you, but then she wanted it back? May I see it?"

The Devaronian man hesitated, then handed the object to his commanding officer. Face held it gingerly, but it didn't feel like it was weighted with explosives. The pillow was in remarkably good shape, having gone through a tug-a-war in Targon's teeth, and even through the stains, Face saw it was an exquisite piece of work. Someone must have loved someone else very much to produce this.

"Sir?" Elassar lowered his voice, "I think I need to explain ... But I'm ... you see ... I have ... a ... I ... love... the lieutenant, sir. So I sought to buy her a gift. And it's this gift that is causing all the trouble."

"Lieutenant Nelprin? Shalla?"

Elassar hung his head, "Yes, sir."

"Oh. Oh! I understand," exclaimed Captain Loran, "well, now that's out of the way, can I call her back in? I have to ask her opinion of this-"

"Oh, no, sir!" Targon was instantly agitated, "I can't give it to her now!"

"Relax, Lieutenant. I don't think this is what it appears." He comlinked Shalla, still out in the corridor, and she appeared in the room immediately.

Shalla wondered what was up. As soon as she walked in, Elassar stood rigidly at attention, eyes up, looking at a point somewhere past the wall above Face's head. She looked over at Face, who looked serious.

"Shalla," inquired Face, "Second Lieutenant Targon here tells me that he bought this pillow as a romantic trinket, on a whim. The proprietor of the shop sold it to him, then demanded it back. She attempted intercourse with him in an effort to get it back. She's been injured in the ensuing struggle, and is presently in the MedCenter." He looked at the paperwork which the MPs had handed to him, "Her name is Shiilo Damien."

"Shiilo?" Shalla looked surprised, "She owns Estate Settlements in the middle level, a store specializing in salvage and ornaments. I bought a present for my sister from her last cycle."

Face quickly looked at Elassar, understanding how the young man had ended up in the store, "I see. Do you know anything about her? Her behavior around Targon here is most curious."

Shalla sat down, Face having gestured for her and Elassar to take seats. Elassar sat rigidly, as he had stood, at the edge of the chair. She put her fingertips on her forehead, What exactly do I know about Shiilo? There was something odd about her, but I bought the ornament and left. What did I feel then?

Face let Shalla think, and observed Elassar perspiring. Poor boy. He doesn't stand a chance with Shalla. She'd kill him before he even knew what happened. Ah well, best to make his own mistakes.

"Sir," Shalla spoke at last, "she has a boyfriend. A human with military demeanor. It was weird, while in the shop. My gut feeling was that he is or was an Imp - his bearing gave it away. I feel that way around Colonel Celchu and Major Klivian sometimes, too. So he's probably Academy-trained. I guess by itself, it's not a strange thing, but it kind of shouted out at me, so maybe he was trained by the Empire more recently than Celchu and Klivian. Has Targon told you Shiilo's species?"

Face looked again at the forms, and whistled, "Shistavanen! Unusual for a current or former Imp, especially a recent convert." He trusted Shalla's instincts implicitly.

"Yes, sir. I thought so, too," answered Shalla, "I put my observation in my weekly report, but I guess nothing came of it."

"Don't be so sure," said Face, "time to make inquiries."

* * * * *

The Wraiths were gathered in a briefing room. Elassar was released pending Face's evaluation and report, so he was able to sit with his unit. He squirmed only a little when Face related his morning's events, but was grateful to him for not naming the object of his desire relative to the telling.

Runt was the first to speak, "We wish to understand, Elassar was attacked by this woman? She is a Shistavanen?"

Elassar nodded, miserably.

"We are sorry to have to ask this, but did she enjoy this?"

Elassar covered his eyes, "She seemed to, but I didn't."

"Are you sure?"

Loud laughter followed this question, and Elassar tried to hide beneath his seat.

"Shhh!" yelled Runt, "This is a serious question!"

Elassar answered from beneath his seat, "No. She tied me down and licked my ear and put-"

"She was ... above you? She was above you and licked your face at the same time?" asked Runt, his eyes wide.

Elassar folded his whole body under the chair now, "Yes."

Kell Tainer looked over at his former wingman, "What are you thinking Runt?"

"Excuse me for delving into such subjects, but Shistavanens are not built that way. They have to be surgically altered, usually at a young age, in order to ... mate - in certain positions - with humans and humanoids."

Tyria was shocked, "Altered? Down there??"

Runt, a multiply-minded being, shrugged and started speaking more clinically; he stood and took on a professorial air. His colleagues understood that a mind they might never have seen before was presenting itself to them, "It was a common thing among officers in the Imperial army; when based in alien worlds, they would often take mistresses from the local population. Many of the Imperial governors were rather deviant, and enjoyed interspecies mating. The species that were not suited for joining with humans were chosen at a young age and surgically altered to accomodate human anatomy."

As Runt spoke, he walked around the room and went up to the holoprojector and chose a plate, "You will observe, Shistavanen anatomy, female. Evolution has not allowed the birth canal in this species to pivot forward, as it did with other species. This restricts the range of motion here, and here. Normally, these haunches are shaped and the pelvis angled to accommodate Shistavanen male pe-"

"Thank you, Dr. Runt," interrupted Shalla, "we understand."

Runt raised his eyebrows, "Well, let me summarize with this: Shistavanen women cannot normally mate with humans in a human fashion. If Master Targon is right, Shiilo Damien was mating like a human. If so, she is an Imperial modification." He snapped off the holoprojector.

Dia nodded, ever so slightly, and her trembling whisper was barely audible, "It's true. The Imperials did that. Modified ..."

Face, sitting next to her, put his hand over hers, to let her know it was okay. He didn't love her any less for the deformations forced upon her in childhood by unfeeling, rat-bastard masters.

Tyria shivered, "So that gives us two options? That she's a former Imp mistress, or that she a current Imp mistress."

Piggy's electronically modulated voice broke into the short silence, "In any case, the pillow must represent something other than a lover's token. If she is living on Coruscant, now held by the New Republic, and she is or has been the mistress of an Imperial officer or high-level politician, that is enough evidence to suspect her of treason.

"My suggestion, if I may?"

"Please," confirmed Face.

"The pillow is a contact device. The piece appears to be intricately sewn, by hand, allowing more subtleties than machine or droid sewing would allow. I suspect a message is contained."

"Yes!" interjected Elassar, now up from under his chair, "When I bit into it, to keep Shiilo from taking it, I felt something hard in the middle."

"Interesting," commented Piggy, "but I suspect it will contain no more than, at worst, a real lover's trinket, or at best, a red-herring. I am commenting on the sewing, the selection of threads, perhaps even the fabric itself. That is both more subtle and more obvious than containing a message or item within. Captain, will you call in Ooryl Qryyg? I understand he is on-planet at the moment."

While this was done, everyone in the room tried to absorb what had happened. Elassar had tried to buy a new charm, and seemed to have stumbled on a spy technique heretofore unknown to them. This would be a rather different case than those they had been used to.

* * * * *

Ooryl held the pillow before him and nodded his head, "Indeed, in ultraviolet, the thread does emit much more interesting patterns that could support Aurebesh-style codings. Though somewhat damaged, it appears that what you see in visible light is a constant red coloring. It seems that if one side of the thread is exposed, I will see it. If the thread is twisted to expose another side, or perhaps it is simply another thread, I don't see it. Thus, letters or parts of a code become apparent."

Dia's face became intense, "Like a binary code? You know, on-off toggles?"

Piggy was nodding furiously, "Yes, this makes sense. Ultraviolet sensors are common throughout the galaxy, but no one would look at the pillow with that in mind. Even if they did, it would appear as a random pattern. We are looking for it, and thus seem to have found it!"

* * * * *

The pillow was analyzed by forensic and cryptograph specialists within Intelligence, then carefully cleaned, altered, and returned to the Wraiths. The code told, ironically, of Shalla Nelprin's presence on-planet, confirming both that she was alive, and giving the location of the Wraiths. This was an interesting twist: Shiilo Despiznta could be working for Zsinj, instead. The former Imperial warlord had, after all, been experimenting on emotionally and intellectually modifying species. Piggy was the result of such an experiment, so why not Shiilo? Too, the Wraiths had done much damage and caused many losses to Zsinj and his partners when they had been a starfighter squadron, and Zsinj was known to be vengeful.

The item within the pillow had also been analyzed. It was a small comlink, set to Shiilo's personal frequency. Perhaps the Imperial or Zsinj lover would use it to contact her, and could be construed as a lover's gift, or a red herring. If counter-spies tried to contact her, she could feign ignorance of any treasonous activity.

"Elassar, you are about to become a gentleman," ordered Face, "you will return the pillow to her, along with flowers, and apologize. Be genuine, so that she doesn't suspect something happened to the pillow between the time she last saw it, and now."

Elassar looked miserable. He didn't want to see Shiilo again. She'd tried to rape him and he'd been too shocked to resist. What could he say to her?

His commanding officer winked, "Don't look so sad, Elassar! I'll prepare the speech and rehearse with you, and Tyria will be on location undercover as a nurse. The rest of us will be located in the vicinity, should anything go awry. We will stay in position after you leave."

* * * * *

Shiilo had responded well to surgery, but this was a gift she knew she had received as a result of the alterations in her body chemistry the scientists had imposed on her as a young girl. She healed quickly, even in the absence of bacta. Her snout had been crushed by Elassar Targon's lucky hit, but it appeared to be almost normal in appearance now.

The nurse, a tall, human, pretty blond, smiled at her, "Hello, Shiilo. I'll need to take some blood this morning, to confirm your healing. You healed incredibly fast - Shistavanens are not known for tolerance to surgical pain, even with bacta."

Shillo felt only a slight twinge in her snout when she smiled back, "When can I leave? I have a business that needs attending to."

The nurse withdrew the particle vacuum device from Shiilo's thigh, having collected the blood sample needed. "I think after this test, the doctors will come in and talk to you about the care you'll need to take, and then you should be able to leave. It's been a pleasure, Shiilo."

Waiting outside, Elassar heard Tyria say the wolf-woman's name, and stepped into the room on her signal. Tyria will have collected the blood sample to confirm chemical modifications, as well as implanting a small, crude, but effective homing device to track Shiilo after she left the hospital. "Excuse me, may I visit for a few minutes?"

Shiilo yelped when seeing Elassar, and he contemplated fleeing. Tyria's familiar smile comforted him, and he held his ground. "Please? Shiilo, I have come with a gift for you?"

Tyria giggled, "Well, I guess I should let you two visit, then. I won't be long, Shiilo. The doctors will be in later this morning, okay?" She winked at Elassar as she went past him, then left the room.

Shiilo was looking at the young officer, who was shaking with fear and nervousness. He brought up his right arm, holding a paper-wrapped package, and walked toward her reluctantly, as if being dragged by the small item.

He slowly and carefully placed the packet on the edge of her bed, then retreated a dozen steps back.

Shiilo shifted her gaze to the packet. Her heart beat faster, as she realized what it was. She looked up at him, quizzically.

"It was wrong of me," stuttered Elassar, "I should have returned it when you obviously wanted it back so badly. It's not damaged - and I had it cleaned! Look at it! Good as new!"

A look of fear - almost terror - flashed over Shiilo's eyes, and she quickly opened the wrapping. To her relief, it did look perfect. All the little marks and thread turns she'd made seemed to be intact. She pressed carefully into the stuffing - even the comlink she's embedded was still there.

"Oh! Here!" The huge bouquet Elassar carried in was thrust at her, "I got these for you! I do hope you're well and getting better. I heard the nurse say you might be released today? I hope so! And I'm terribly sorry about what I did. Keep the money, it's for you!"

"No, no," replied Shiilo, rather gently, "I'll sell you something else, at cost. It was good of you to give this back to me. You have no idea what it means." The smile on her face looked genuine.

But Elassar restrained a shudder as he saw her bare her teeth.

* * * * *

The remainder of the operation went according to plan. Shiilo did not suspect the New Republic knew the real use of the pillow. The boyfriend, whom Shalla had spotted the month before, was given the wrapped pillow as a farewell gift. He was identified as Ensign Zekel Naovaiiv, on the crew of the Investigator, a formerly-Imperial cruiser that had been captured successively by several different warlords upon the death of the Emperor.

The alteration to the message was slight, but enough so that New Republic Intelligence knew how high the message had gone. Spies within Imperial fleets reported a change in activity. Apparent exploration efforts in the Coruscant area turned back toward Dathomir, where a large portion of Zsinj's fleet had been reported to be gathered. It told NRI that at least some of the other warlords were supporting Zsinj in spying or exploration activities. This made Zsinj a more formidable enemy than originally estimated.

Elassar contemplated all these things and his place in them. He supposed he really was responsible for all this. He remembered waking up and wanting to buy a gift for Shalla. He considered a dream he had as an omen. But he never got to give it to her, and he never managed to tell her why he bought the pillow.

After all he'd done, all he'd suffered, he still couldn't tell Shalla, and the pillow was gone forever. Had the omen lied?

Perhaps he was supposed to find the pillow, that his task was to bring the New Republic to this result? Perhaps ... Perhaps the omen had placed Shalla before him as incentive, but she was never the goal.

Shiilo Damien had used her observation of Shalla Nelprin, transferring that information onto a pillow. So the connection the omen showed him was between Shalla and the pillow, not between Elassar and Shalla. Perhaps Elassar and Shalla were never meant to be together, then?

He did exactly as he should have, no less. He should have been proud of himself.

So why, then, did the tears still flow when he looked out the window, and saw Shalla in a speeder, heading away from the base, with another man?

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