The cleansing cell.
Savage, slashing blades of silver pain cut dazzling arcs through the misted air, disintegrating into shrapnel shards of glittering hurt that hiss and scatter on the deck like red-hot pebbles when they land.
Even away from the direct fury of the water-jets, the air in here is scalding hot, heavy as lead.
Behind the veils of biting steam, I can see dim, shadowy shapes the gnarled limbs of the fountain-plants, bent and rooted against the slate-black walls. Their knuckled angles echo the way my own body has been bound into this prison of pain and pleasure.
For a moment, the vision is as vivid as if I was living it myself. Then it passes, and I'm back in the long clammy tunnel with only the echo of my footsteps for company, fresh sweat damp and hot against my back.
But I can still feel her waiting for me up ahead, beyond the scar-white portal of the cell: the familiar architecture of my lover's mind, the smooth contours of a body that I know every inch as well as my own.
I've been charting her as my territory since back before I was even a Yuuzhan Vong since the days, in another lifetime, when I was young Jeedai human called Anakin Solo.
And now, I'm initiating her in another aspect of the Yuuzhan Vong lifestyle, courtesy of the capital's premier health spa. The management are discreet, especially with the sort of leverage we can bring to bear, so it's the perfect place for us to spend some time together doing the things we both enjoy.
I ponder that thought, wondering why we embrace the savage intensity of these shared experiences so willingly. Perhaps it's something to do with the illicit nature of our relationship. We've always had to keep it secret first from Uncle Luke, and more recently from the rest of Yuuzhan Vong society.
I dunno. Perhaps we just enjoy torturing each other.
I lick my lips, and grin in anticipatory pleasure.
She's been alone inside the cleansing cell for fifteen minutes now her first experience of the glories of a proper Yuuzhan Vong shower. I want her to be warmed up and settled in before I join her, and it seems as though I've got my wish this time.
And my decision to delay my own arrival has definately whetted my appetite for what's to come.
My grin stretches broader.
I can feel her reaching out to me now with her thoughts urging me to hurry the kriff up and get in here.
I laugh. I can understand that she's maybe getting just a little frantic bathed in cleansing pain, her body stretched taut between the binding straps, arched outwards from her niche beneath the savage attack of red-hot water that's pummeling the honed muscle of her back.
She gasps as the plump red scouring-slugs work their methodical way down her body massaging as they go, leaving trails of harsh, acidic jelly gleaming on her wet skin. There is a salve in their secretions that does more than just lift the dirt off, a chemical that burns and itches, but which heals and protects the epidermis human or Yuuzhan Vong against the long-term effects of the savage scalding and parboling that's our idea of a healthy shower.
The fountain-plant twitches behind her, and the water-jets shift their aim just fractionally. Soapy scum slides slickly down her body, foam smoothing into a film of water, mingling with the sweat and oil that still cling on her skin after our earlier exertions.
It's exquisitely painful, but she doesn't cry out. Her endurance is forged from ruthless self-discipline and the focusing pressure of the pain itself a will so fierce that, at times like this, you might think she was really a pure-blooded Yuuzhan Vong, disguised by a human skin.
I smile. I know her better than that. No matter how many weekends we spend like this, she'll always be my Jeedai to me, still the same person she was before the Galaxy had even heard of the Embrace of Pain.
A lot of things have changed since I was Anakin Solo, but that's not one of them.
Through slitted eyes, she glares through the steam, watching my silhouette on the far side of the cell's translucent portal. Waiting not entirely patiently for me.
I smile as I tickle the fronds of the control villip, and the jellyish skin across the entrance puckers open. A cloud of steam boils out to sear my body with its harsh embrace, bringing tears to my eyes and a thickness to my throat.
And as the harsh heat of the cleansing cell encounters the cool, clammy air outside, a colder breeze comes in like a living breath, gliding over her sweaty skin a gentle reminder of another life.
I step in with the cold air, and as the door folds shut behind me I stand in the centre of the cell, and let the slashing fury of the boiling water whip across my bare chest and arms. In moments, the long, cruel scar that's the proud badge of my transformation goes stark and livid with the pain, and even if my bio-engineered warrior body is stubbornly indifferent to the torture, my inner voice screams and writhes in an agony that's still pure human.
My lips snarl back in a rictus grin, and I wrestle myself into a state of rigid concentration, all my attention focused on her.
My lover. My partner. My mate. According to both our points of view, we're married as firmly any couple in the Galaxy.
Her modesty is guarded by artfully-angled curtains of spray and teasing veils of steam, but even so, my eyes take a lazy journey up and around her body, a smooth twist of muscle that torques from the curled toes of one bare foot to the clenched fist that thrusts at the end of her opposite arm.
Then I switch my attention back, and lock my gaze with hers.
Her face is red with sweat, framed by damp, dancing ringlets that to human eyes, might seem a precious shade of gold. To me, now, her hair is the colour of the fiercest sunlight.
She just looks back at me in silence, unimpressed. Her green eyes sparkle, irises like jewels: hard, sharp-faceted, complex and crystaline ageless, yet so much older than my own.
"You don't need that," she says eventually, with a curt nod at the sarong that's still wrapped like a towel around my waist.
I grin, in spite of the pain, and just pace past her to the adjacent niche, letting the sarong fall mischeviously from around me as I move behind the shoulder-high partition. As it drops to the deck behind me, I turn and before I'm really ready, whipcords snap around my wrists and shins, and I'm jerked up off the deck, my arms and legs snapped taut as the apparatus bends me to its demands.
Belatedly, I register the burning where the whipcord lashed across my skin, but that's already just a detail. Scouring-slugs drop from the darkness above me to fasten on my shoulders, and a boiling storm of molten water rages onto my back and scalp.
My body sings like a plucked string.
I twist my neck, and look across the partition at her in her niche next mine: arms raised and racked outwards, taut muscles trembling, tanned skin red-bronze with heat and sweat. Her lips are sightly parted, but the look on her face is serene.
Then my own shower reaches full intensity, and agony consumes my thoughts.
When I can breathe again, I see her looking at me head turned, eyes lingering quietly on my pursed lips and the profile of my bowed head. A slim smirk answers the sideways glance I give her.
"Having fun, Anakin?" she asks, with a smile to say stronger than I am. She'll take everything I will, and more and deal with it better than I could hope to.
Considering that I've already died once, that's no mean claim to make.
But I believe her utterly.
"Fun, yeah," I reply. "Not as much as you, though." My grin flashes, as sharp and skewed as my father's ever was. "Right, Tahiri?"
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