Chapter 1: Open Wounds
When he finds her, she is mere moments from sweet oblivion.
For the two weeks they have spent on his ship after fleeing Mandalore, he has mostly ignored her, treating her with distant respect, but leaving her mostly to her own devices. Now, as he slams the door of the 'fresher open and runs in, metal feet slipping on the tiles wet with water and blood, his patterned visage is alive with emotion, his fire-gold eyes filled with anguish and worry and anger.
Maul, formerly Darth, kneels on the floor next to her. His trousers are soaking with blood-tainted water, but he doesn't seem to care.
His fingers find the pulse on her neck and his lips move, mouthing a curse.
She doesn't hear it. Her pulse is weakening, but the sound of her own shallow, fast breaths and of the shower cascading over them both sounds as loud as plasma cannons to her ears.
A surge of Dark Side tickles against her skin. She forces her eyes open once more. Her vision is blurring more and more with every second, but she can tell he is pleading with her as he tears strips out of his shirt to wrap around her slashed forearms.
Theirs was a temporary alliance, forged in a moment of despair and for the sole sake of survival. She did not expect him to care at all if she died. She is wrong, again.
Not that it matters anymore, but she can't help the sliver of guilt that courses through her all of a sudden.
"It is not your fault." she wantes to tell him, but she doesn't have any strength left to talk.
She is not ungrateful for his help, that he has given her the chance to escape the death-trap on Mandalore, that he was there, but it just isn't enough. She has been bleeding long before that moment, bleeding inside from wounds that cannot be sealed.
Once again, her world is over, and this time she doesn't have the strength to fight anymore. She doesn't have a reason. The Sith have won. All that she has ever loved had died and nothing she can ever do would make it better. It is too much to take. She just can't face it. She can't...
"You can't save me... Why do you even want to?" she thinks, using one last dredge of Force to push the message towards him, hoping that somehow he will hear her and just stop, just let her go, but if he does hear her, he doesn't heed her request.
His arms slip under her shoulders and knees and he lifts her from the floor, holding her tight against his chest as he stands and skids out of the 'fresher.
His skin is burning hot, his four-part heartbeat pounds in his chest as he runs, ever more determined to not give up on her. It this he is so similar to Anakin that if it hadn't shattered already, her heart would break anew.
Regret washes through her, flooding her with the temptation to hold on to him just as fiercely and let him drag her back to life, but it ebbs away in a moment.
Everything goes dark.
There is peace.
When she comes to again, everything is white and full of light.
For a moment she believes that she had managed to pass on to the Force. For a moment there is no pain, only relief...
Then a noise intrudes on her senses: a thin, beeping noise, coming from somewhere close and to the side of her head. Sensations start to trickle back in: the whirr and hum of motors, the press of bedclothes against her skin, the softness of a pillow under her head, the dull pain of a needle taped to the back of her hand, the sound of someone else's breath.
With a supreme effort, she forces her eyes to open fully and focus.
She is lying on a hospital bed, in the infirmary of the Gauntlet. Someone has dried her up, wrapped her in an old, soft, faded black tunic, and tucked her in underneath clean white sheets. Her forearms have been carefully bandaged and a bag of military-grade blood substitute is trickling into her through a drip. A heartrate and oxymetry monitor beep steadily at her bedside. If she had not known the place beforehand, she could have tricked herself into thinking that she was back at the Temple, after a tough mission.
One thing would have immediately weaned her off the illusion. One person, actually.
Maul is sitting on the other side of the bed, on the doctor's chair, bent forward, head down, elbows propped on his knees.
His shirt is nowhere to be seen and his usual gloves are missing. His patterned fingers are stained with old blood, like his trousers.
Ahsoka lets a small sigh escape her lips and he jolts up from the chair, immediately alert and focused. His eyes dart from her face to the monitors and back again, full of relief.
"Welcome back, Lady Tano..." he whispers. His steps falter as he closes onto the bed, and his eyes are even more bloodshot than normal, circled by deep, dark shadows. He looks exhausted and even his incongrously cultured voice sounds rougher than usual.
"How... how long?" Ahsoka manages to rasp. Her throat feels swollen and painfully dry, her tongue unwieldy and awkward in her mouth.
Maul doesn't reply, but somehow produces a glass full of water and holds it against her lips with surprising gentleness, allowing her to take a few tentative sips before moving it away. Water has never tasted better.
"Two standard days and two standard nights." he says finally.
"You remained here." Ahsoka doesn't have to ask. The answer is written all over him.
He nods all the same.
"You had lost too much blood. You nearly died." He looks away, fists clenching at his sides.
"I wanted to." she whispers, looking away from him and the infuriating edge of pain half-emerging from his voice. She tries to sound defiant, but her voice just sounds frail, defeated.
"I know." is the only reply. Ahsoka lifts her eyes back towards him. Something in his voice, in his eyes, makes her think that he doesn't just sympathise with her, but he really understands what she is feeling, what she is going through, that he feels the same. It is just a moment, though, before the idea becomes too much for her and she looks away again.
"Why this?" she asks.
There is a sharp intake of breath, then a long pause. She can hear him move away from the bed and across the room with a faint whirr of servos and some muffled clanking, but she resolutely doesn't look up and keeps on staring at the bandages wrapped around her wrists. The contrast between white linen and orange skin seems strangely fascinating.
"Because the likes of you don't deserve to die like that." he says finally, but Ahsoka can sense that it isn't the whole truth so she waits, and waits, and finally he speaks again.
"Because I had done all that I could, and if I it had not been enough, at least I wouldn't have let you die alone." there is an edge to his voice now, as if he was angry with her for pushing him to say it.
Ahsoka doesn't know how to feel. She can't bring herself to feel anything, actually, nor pain for her loss, nor anger at him for having taken her well-deserved peace away from her, only a very mild disappointment at still having to trudge on through life. She doesn't even want to kill herself anymore. She doesn't have the energy.
"Did you give me something? To make me stop wanting to..." she asks.
"No. I didn't. You're just exhausted. That's all." He sounds sincere, even though, being a former Sith and all, it is hard to tell. Ultimately she finds that she doesn't care.
"Do you feel like some food?" he asks.
Ahsoka doesn't reply. What she really, really wants is for him to stop talking, stop caring, and just let her go back to sleep, bonus points if she didn't ever wake up again.
"You need to regain your strength." he continues instead, strangely patient. She would have never imagined he had it in him.
"Starving is not a pleasant or quick way to go, you have to trust me on this." he admonishes eventually, when she makes no effort to reply.
Ahsoka looks at him again, sensing another moment of unguarded truth.
"Talking from experience?" she prods.
"Unfortunately." he acquiesces with a nod. There is a hollow look in his eyes and his gaze is lost in the distance, fixed on something only he can see, but only for a moment before he snaps out of it with a visible jolt.
Ahsoka feels a twinge of guilt pierce through the apathy. She didn't mean to trigger him.
"What's on the menu?" she forces herself to ask.
"Protein shake. You're too weak for anything else." he gives her a stern look when she makes a face.
"These are not too horrible, compared to some. At least they taste like something." he adds almost immediately.
A bottle of thick, brownish liquid appears in his hands. It looks very unappetizing, but her guilt is still there, nagging at her so she reaches for it.
"Wait. Let me unscrew the cap." he chides, pulling it back.
Another emotion filters through the fog: irritation.
"I think I can do it myself." Ahsoka challenges.
"I think you can't. You lost nearly half of your blood volume. You'll be weak as a kitten for a few days." he retorts.
"But you're welcome to try, if you wish." he adds after the barest pause, handing the bottle over to her.
Much to her chagrin, he is right. Her hands shake badly and it's an effort just to hold on to the bottle. She tries anyway, though. Tries and tries, until her hands nearly hurt and the wounds on her forearms throb.
"Your strength will return." he says, slipping the bottle out of her weakened grasp and twisting the cap off.
The sweet, earthy smell of ratha fruit hits her nostrils and Ahsoka realises that she is hungry, no, starving. Her stomach rumbles, claiming for sustenance.
Maul hands the bottle to her without a word and she falls upon it like a ravenous beast, squeezing every drop of the sweetish liquid out of the container. The metallic aftertaste of the iron supplements is not unwelcome. It reminds her of a fresh kill.
"More?" he asks. Another bottle has appeared on the bedside table.
Ahsoka can't help but nod. Death is the last thing on her mind now.
She makes short work of the next bottle. Her stomach feels almost too full. She can't remember the last time it happened. After leaving the Temple, her life has been hand-to-mouth at best.
"Better?" Maul asks. He has been standing there the entire time, watching her drink as if it was fascinating.
Ahsoka nods. She is starting to feel drowsy, like the bloody kitten he has likened her to.
It is incredibly galling.
"It will get better." He means her wounds, or her health, surely, but she can't help the words that come out of her mouth next.
"No, it won't and you know it." She doesn't quite know how he should, but his reaction, the flinch, the sharp intake of breath, the flash of darkness in his eyes, tells her that he does, without any doubt.
"Even if it doesn't, what other option do we have?" he barks, seething with anger.
"You know that too." she retorts, facing him without flinching. If he does lose it and kills her, all the better for her.
He does not rise to the provocation though. No, he backs away, physically. He takes a step back, eyes widening.
"No. That is not an option." he shakes his head as if he wants to dislodge the idea out of his head. His voice sounds too desperate, as if he is trying to convince himself more than her.
"You are afraid." she can almost smell it, like the scent of prey and she knows this is a low blow, and that it is not the Jedi way, but at this stage she doesn't care. She quit, and now the Jedi Order doesn't even exist anymore. All she has ever believed in doesn't matter anymore. To her less than to anyone.
"Fear has nothing to do with this. We're what's left. If we die, he will have succeeded in erasing our cultures, our people." There is no need to say who was that "he". Sidious' shadow hangs large over them both, Ahsoka thinks with a shiver.
"Who says I care?" she spits. Those words have hit too close to home. She needs to push him away, but he is far too good at whatever game this might be. He reads her as clearly as if she was an open book.
"You did. With your grief." he waves a hand towards her bandaged forearms. Her cheeks burn with shame.
"Your pain... It will take time for it to lessen. Maybe it will never really go away. You can either let it control you, or own it and learn to use it, to make something out of it." his voice is even softer than usual, almost gentle.
"Is that what you did? Back when...?" Back when you should have died but didn't, she thinks, but not quite dares to say.
"It is." he drops his gaze to the floor and his left hand moves to press at the edge of his prosthetics in a self-soothing gesture. A shiver runs through him, hard enough that she can see it. He is moving way out of his comfort zone in an attempt to help her, and somehow that makes her furious, because this is all wrong that this... assassin, this Sith reject is doing more for her than the Order has ever done.
It is wrong that she is grateful and would like nothing better than to listen to him tell her how it might not ever be OK again, but she will manage, how this does not have to be the end.
She needs to hurt him, to humiliate him, to push him away, to punish both him for his daring and herself for her own weakness and gullibility. She can't afford to feel any hope anymore.
"I will not become like you." she lashes out, trying to put all the contempt she has learned to feel for him in those words. She just wants to see him bleed.
He tries to laugh it off, but his laughter sounds bitter and hollow. She has struck her target, but all her satisfaction evaporates when she sees how deep the wound runs.
"Wise words, my Lady. But you shouldn't worry: I won't ever let you, I promise." he hisses. His voice drips with self-loathing. He turns away from her, busying himself with some piece of medical equipment on the far side of the room. He is fuming: it is evident in every tense line if his body, in every gesture made sharper and more forceful by the intensity of his anger, compressed inwards and eating him up like acid.
Ahsoka feels tears burn in her eyes. Words of apology throng in her throat but she doesn't even dare say them. She didn't mean to do that, not really. She doesn't know what is happening to her.
The only thing she knows, as exhaustion overcomes her again, is that everything would be so much easier if she never opened her eyes again.
Chapter 2: Hospital Food
Hi all, new chapter incoming. It's still pretty angsty, but slightly less dark, at least.
In the lore both Zabrak and Togruta are decribed as carnivorous. I decided to write Maul and Ahsoka as obligate carnivores, as in, they eat like cats: mostly meat, some fruit and veg and like to eat raw stuff. However, I also decided that both their tribes are pastoral, a bit like some Eastern African tribes such as the Masai, so they drink milk.
Chapter Warnings: descriptions of food, depression, grief, guilt. Mentions of starvation.
She does wake up though, and when she does, he is still there, by her side. His anger is gone, but it has left a strange melancholy behind, and he doesn't look any less exhausted than before. If anything, he looks even more defeated.
The pall of indifference and exhaustion has not quite lifted from her spirit yet, but her guilt is sharp enough to pierce it. She shouldn't have said what she said. For some strange reason only known to him, he is invested in caring for her and she has hurt him deliberately and unprovoked. She doesn't know how to make amends. She doesn't know if she can.
To make things worse, he hasn't turned indifferent again. Much to the contrary.
There is fresh, cool water waiting for her, and food, solid food this time: fresh meat, marbled with just the right amount of fat, still warm and seeping with blood. It has been cut in bite-sized portions and laid out on a metal plate with a slice of raw liver and a dark purple fruit that smells like the most expensive Coruscanti cocoa.
"Force, it all smells delicious..." she thinks in spite of herself.
The meat looks too fresh to be anything but a recent kill and the fruit has no signs of freeze-burns or dehydration, and looks like nothing she has ever seen in her travels. They must be planetside, somewhere tropical probably. He must have gone foraging while she was sleeping.
"Eat. It will give you strength." he says, pushing the plate towards her. Ahsoka accepts it with a nod, mouth already watering. There doesn't seem to be any cutlery handy, but she is hungry enough that she doesn't really care. Maybe his people don't use cutlery. On Shili her own people definitely don't. "Nevermind." she thinks.
She scoops a chunk of meat out of the plate with her fingers and pops it in her mouth. She can't quite prevent a blissful moan from escaping her. It does taste as good as it smelled and it has been ages since she last had any real, fresh, raw meat. Since her Huntress initiation on Shili, in fact.
The Order used to acknowlede her species' nutritional needs, but, due to whatever human ethical hangup initially informed the organisation, only used to provide satisfaction in the shape of processed synthetic protein additioned with all the extra required nutrients. That stuff didn't taste bad, but it was not the same thing.
This meat tastes so rich and complex... a bit like the grass the animal had eaten, like the heat of the sun, like struggle, like life. It is so good that she nearly wants to cry. This is what she needed and she didn't even know.
Even though she is feeling ravenous, she forces herself to eat slowly and mindfully, to savour and enjoy every shred of that unexpected, undeserved bounty.
"You don't have to make it last. There is plenty more where this came from."
Maul's voice is quiet, barely above a whisper, but it still startles her out of her food reverie. He is still a few paces away, leaning against a counter with his arms crossed over his chest. She had all but forgotten he was even in the room.
"You can have as much food as you want." he continues, as if it was an important reassurance to give her.
"Did anyone try to starve him before?" she wonders.
"Is that what he was alluding to previously?" There is no safe way to approach the topic, so she decides to let it drop for the moment, but the idea is stuck in her head in all its horror. It couldn't have been anyone but Sidious, his former Master. That title suddenly takes an even more sinister meaning.
"Thanks." she says instead, forcing herself to smile.
He nods in acknowledgement but does not budge and this time as she resumes her meal she is acutely aware if his presence, of his gaze, of the almost rapt attention with which he is watching over her, as if he wanted to make sure that she is going to clear all food from her plate, like an anxious parent.
The comparison is all wrong, though. He might be as old as Master Kenobi, but she can't sense any parental vibes in the way that he treats her. No, mostly he treats her like a comrade.
"Are you not going to eat?" she asks when the silent watch becomes too much for her.
"I already have." is all the response he gives her, but at least he must sense her discomfort because he finally looks away, busying himself with a small mechanical device, which he examines and takes apart with precise, swift movements and a foldable multitool.
Every now and again, she can sense the weigth of his gaze upon her, but those brief flashes of attention are much more bearable than an undivided, constant dose.
In the end, she just barely manages to finish her food before she starts nodding off again.
"Damn!" she growls and whines like a cub, hating herself for being so weak, but she can't stop it any more than she can invert gravity.
Maul takes the empty plate out of her nearly nerveless grasp and diligently puts it away.
"Rest now, I will be here when you wake." he whispers. In other circumstances that statement could have sounded creepy or even threatening, especially coming from him, but for some reason some part of her brain has decided that having a declared enemy of the Order, who is also one of the most dangerous nutters in the Galaxy, as her personal bodyguard is a wonderful idea. A sense of safety pervades her as her eyes close of their own accord and try as she might she can't stay awake.
For the next few cycles, they seem to settle into a pattern. When she awakes, Maul is always there waiting for her. His eyes are still hollow and circled by shadows.
If he sleeps, it is only when she is sleeping, but it can't be a lot, because he hunts for her every day. He must slip out of the ship when she sleeps and every time she awakens, he is back with a fresh load of treasure.
It seems wasteful, but when she remarks upon it, he tells her that he is salting and drying the rest for later. He seems to imagine some kind of future looming in the long-term, when she will be better.
Ahsoka never tries to contest.
His earlier words have sunk deep into her. Maybe the responsibility for continuing the Order and fighting the Empire really rests upon her shoulders now, but how is she supposed to do it alone? Anakin was supposed to be the saviour, but he is gone, vanquished by an evil, corrupted power, she has felt it clear as day. She is what left but she is half-trained, an outcast in truth, and weak, much too weak, riven by grief and pain and she knows that the only thing that would come from them, should she try to use them, would be anger.
The thought shames and terrifies her in equal measure, so she tries not to think about it and lets herself just drift in the former Sith's care. It's easier and a lot more comfortable.
He feeds her the choicest meat, liver and heart, sweetmeats and tender cuts, chopped in bite-size pieces, the juiciest fruit, of a different type every day and watches her eat without ever partaking.
With every outing he seem to pick up more scrapes and bruises too, which he hastily treats by himself in the infirmary.
It is obvious that he is taking better care of her than he is of himself.
Ahsoka can't figure out for the life of her why.
Until suddenly she can.
One day a thought flashes through her mind: on Shili that is what a Togruta hunter would do to court their partner.
"Oh Force!" she thinks. Could it be that his birth-tribe has the same sort of rituals?
"Mmh... This food is amazing! I can tell this is doing me a world of good!" she ventures, trying to hide her embarrassment with a large smile. It is true: she feels well enough that he has disconnected her from drips and sensors and that she can spend long hours reading all the books and magazines she had downloaded on her datapad before leaving the Order. If she still oversleeps, it is more out of boredom than anything else. Soon she will be able to stand and walk on her own. She can't wait.
Maul looks at her with a hopeful expression. He even attempts to smile back but she can tell he is not used to the expression.
"Is this the official "hospital food" of your tribe?" she asks.
"Please let it be..." she prays. She doesn't think he would try anything untoward against her even though she is weakened, somehow she knows he doesn't have it in him, but she wouldn't know how to deal with the idea that he might like her that way. She doesn't even want to think about it.
"It might have been, but I have no way to know, and in the end it doesn't matter anymore." His reply, delivered with an affectedly careless shrug, somehow manages to be even worse in its implications.
"All I know is that this is what my brother made me eat when I was... not well, and that it helped." he adds, looking away from her and back into the far, far distance of memory. Sorrow envelopes him. It goes without saying that his caring brother is no more.
Now she knows why he seemed to understand her so well. He too has lost too much of what he held dear.
Suddenly the delicious, juicy meat tastes like ashes in her mouth, but she forces herself to eat it all.
She is not going to ruin that happy memory any further by refusing his help. She doesn't want to hurt him any further than she already has.
"He must have been a good man." she says, even though she knows his brother was also a Sith and was the one who killed Master Helsey and his Padawan on Devaron, Master Gallia on Florrum, and who knows how many more. He was definitely good to Maul, and at the moment this is all that matters.
The answer is barely more than a whisper.
Chapter 3: Patching Up
Thanks a lot to all who reviewed the previous two chapters! I am really glad you are enjoying this.
Now, buckle up for a new chapter full of dysfunctional coping mechanisms and other assorted issues.
Warnings: blood, gore, PTSD, dysfunctional coping mechanisms, self-esteem issues, self-harm.
Next time she wakes up, it's again to the scent of blood, but this time it's the wrong kind of blood.
Her eyes snap open and she shoots upright in bed, instinctively calling for her lightsaber.
It zooms out of a cabinet, smashing the glass pane as it goes and as soon as the metal touches her hands, she switches it on, ready to take on any danger.
"I thought we had a truce."
Maul is sprawling on the doctor's chair, looking like death warmed over. Torn wrappers for bacta wipes and synthskin patches and bloodied instruments are scattered over the counter next to him. There are half-stitched, bleeding lacerations on his torso and arms, and even his prosthetics are all scratched up, as if they had been raked by huge claws, but his voice is only just slightly rougher than usual, tinged with dark amusement.
Ahsoka nearly drops her saber in surprise.
"Did the Imperials find us? Are we under attack?" she knows she sounds a little bit hysterical, but he's all banged up and she's in no condition to fight. Things could go wrong pretty easily.
"What?! No." he sounds puzzled and one of his hairless eyebrows quirks upwards in an eloquent expression of bafflement.
"Then what the hell happpened?!"
Maul hesitates and looks away, seemingly embarrassed.
"I might have unwittingly intruded upon a bull rancor's territory while I was hunting." he finally admits.
"You what?!" Ahsoka exclaims, feeling like her eyes are going to pop out of their sockets.
"Yes, a rookie mistake, I know." he comments, rolling his eyes.
"Is it still after you?" she asks. An enraged adult male rancor could probably cause some serious damage even to their ship. It was a minor miracle that he had escaped relatively unscathed.
"No, definitely not." Maul reassures her.
"My mother used to be able to tame them with her power, but I guess this one wasn't feeling particularly inclined towards gender equality: he paid me no heed and tried to shred me to pieces. - he continues when she doesn't reply - So I ran to a nearby quarry and dropped a boulder on its head. At least we will have its skin for blasterproof armours." He nods to one of the ultrafreeze cabinets, where some large flaps of hide are piled up in a heap.
There is so much to unpack in those two sentences that Ahsoka doesn't even know where to start, so she focuses on the most immediate and obvious.
"Let me get this straight: you hung around to skin the blasted thing before coming here to patch yourself up?!" She tries but fails to keep her cool and he looks at her like she has just kicked a puppy.
"Well, yes. If I had just left it there, the scavengers would have quickly gotten to it and ruined the leather." he replies as if it is the most obvious thing in the world.
"What is the problem?" he asks when he realises that she is no less fuming than before.
"That thing tore chunks out of you." she points out, gesturing towards his torso.
"Thanks for the sentiment, but I've had worse." he tries to shrug it off, but the bravado proves to be too much even for him. A strangled exclamation escapes from his lips and he presses a hand to the torn flesh of his chest.
"It would have been worse if I'd had nothing to show for my troubles. I lost my kill." he grits out, hunching over to relieve the pain, or maybe to offer a smaller target for punishments.
"Don't worry about this. I'd bet there is still a lot of nice, fresh meat in the refrigerator." Ahsoka hastens to reassure him, but somehow this doesn't seem to be enough.
"It's still a poor excuse for my failure." he rasps.
This is not about a lost kill. This about he expects, maybe even wants to be punished, even though nothing he did really warrants it.
She slips out of the bed and wobbles to the chair before he can do much more than twitch and hiss in pain. Thankfully the knee-length, Jedi-like black tunic he has given her to wear is a pretty serviceable minidress so she doesn't have to worry about flashing him with anything.
"Stop! What are you doing?!" he barks, trying to slip out of the chair, but now that he has stopped and the adrenalin is no longer sustaining him, he must be feeling the full extent of his wounds and is effectively almost stuck there.
"I am just trying to help." she says, as quietly and calmly as she can, raising her hands above her head but taking one step forward and then another.
"I don't need your help!" he snarls, even as he grimaces in pain, but there something about the look in his eyes, about the feel of his Force, that spells the truth in clearer letters: "I don't deserve it."
"Yes, you do." she is fighting to keep her voice steady, because this is not all her doing, but she helped with those angry, ungrateful words. She has already let this go on for too long. She can't take it anymore.
"Let me help you, please." she adds and it's only thanks to her Jedi training that her voice doesn't break.
She moves another step and he tenses in the chair, eyes wide and almost afraid.
"Why?" he whispers, as if he really didn't, couldn't understand.
"Because you helped me. Because you took care of me." she replies. She has to bite her lip to prevent it from trembling.
"I would do it regardless." he counters haughtily, frowning at her. She almost laughs at the absurdity of the situation.
"I know, but it is important for me to be able to give back what I received." she argues.
Somehow these seem to be the magic words because the tension leaves him and doesn't come back when she takes the last step to reach him.
"Do you even know how to do this?" he asks, looking away from her, refusing to meet her gaze.
"All Jedi are trained in basic medical procedures." she reassures him.
He refuses any anaesthetic and just sits there, still as a statue, eyes closed, deep in meditation as she cleans and dresses the wounds he couldn't reach with all the care and precision she is capable of.
He deserves nothing less: over the previous few days he has changed her bandages with infinite care, bathing her wounds in bacta and re-wrapping them with fresh bandages. The stitches on her forearms are precise, clinical, practiced. One has only to look at the wounds he has managed to treat on his own to know where he got the practice.
He has even made sure that her markings were correctly aligned when he did, which is one of the nicest, most thoughtful things that he could do, given the circumstances. Her markings are important: they are one of the most attractive features for a Togruta and though she will never have a mate, she still cares. She has no way of knowing if they're as important for his people, and there is no way in hell she is going to ask, but she is just going to act as if they were.
If his tribe went to the trouble of marking themselves with such intricate designs, they must be significant and at any rate she is not indifferent to their aesthetic appeal. They make him look like a walking, talking, dangerous work of art.
A few scrapes are shallow enough for butterfly plasters, the others need stitches, but he doesn't even flinch as she works her needle around the wounds. She doesn't know how much of this is due to the naturally high pain threshold of his species, how much to whatever kind of Sith meditation he is using, and how much to the fact that this, in fact, must barely compare to what he's been through before. Pity and admiration play a brief tug-of-war inside her heart before pity decamps, knowing it would not be welcome.
He surely is remarkable, she tells herself, even if for all the wrong reasons.
"How big was that boulder?" she asks when she's done.
"Which boulder?" Maul blinks his eyes like a cat in the sun, slowly shaking off the effects of the meditation.
"The one you threw at the rancor." She can hear him shift on the chair as she rummages through the cabinets to look for the supplies she needs.
"Speeder-sized. More or less." he says. Ahsoka turns back towards him fast enough to give herself a whiplash.
"You're joking! That's insane!"
He makes a noise halfway between a laugh and a scoff. "It's nothing, really. Once I threw a shuttle off a cliff." he declares.
"No, come on. This is too much even for you. I might be young and naive, but not that much." she retorts, caught in the fact that they're having a normal conversation that does not involve death or despair. As soon as the words leave her mouth she immediately regrets them: she didn't want to imply that he is lying.
If he takes any offence, he does not show it, though.
"It is the absolute truth. It happened on Florrum, last year. - he narrates - My brother and I were retreating under heavy enemy fire and he was gravely wounded, barely able to run. I had to stop the pursuit. I had to." Even after so long, the memory is enough to paint a frown on his face and make him clench his fists hard enough that his knuckles show pale orange under the skin.
"So you just... did it? Out of desperation?" Ahsoka manages to articulate.
Maul makes another of those laugh-scoff sounds.
"More or less. Using anger and desperation as a weapon is my knack, sort of. It's a hammer that works for many types of nails." he admits, relaxing just a fraction.
"My brother and Kenobi are dead, but I am pretty sure Ohnaka has managed to weasel his way out of this mess. He would be most pleased to tell you the story of how he saved his crew from two Siths and blew one of my legs clean off..." he continues, his voice bitter with sarcasm.
"Master... Master Kenobi was there?!" she dares to ask.
Oh, Force, she misses him. She misses him even of he just stood there cold and silent when they sent her to prison for Tarkin to play with.
"He was..." Maul replies with a nod. What he does next though, is totally unexpected.
"I had never seen anyone fight like he did that day. I will likely never see it again." he whispers, and his eyes grow foggy and distant, his voice thick with pain.
"You... you miss him." she breathes, unable to believe her own words.
"For years hating him was all I had left. He was mine... and Sidious took him, just like he took everyone else." he admits, just as quietly.
"I am here." the words jump of her throat before she has even time to mull the sentiment over. They only thing she can think of is that he is hurting as much as she is and that if she can help, she should. They have been hurt enough already.
"You don't have to do this." he says. His voice is harsh, trying to push her away, but his eyes are full of sadness and resignation. He doesn't believe she would stand by him anyway. And why should he? She has always pushed him away too.
"I know." she replies, then takes a breath, gathering her courage to continue
"Look, what I said the other day... I was angry that you had dragged me back to this life. I didn't mean it, not really."
Maul turns his gaze towards her. A small glimmer of hope is kindling in it.
"You were an enemy, but now things have changed so much that it hardly matters anymore. In this new world you have been a good ally, you have taken care of me, even at the price of your own welfare. That matters to me." she declares and maybe it is wrong that she can so easily put aside all the crimes he has perpetrated, but at this stage she doesn't care. She is just glad that he is there, that she doesn't have to face this new, dangerous and desolate world alone.
"You are all that I have left, the only thing that makes this marginally bearable." he admits.
"And you are the same to me. And you were right: we have a duty to those we lost, but I can't do it alone. I can't do it without you." she confesses, and even though she wants to appear calm and reassuring for him, she cannot help the way her voice breaks or her arms wrap around her torso in a self-soothing gesture.
Maul's hand brushes against her shoulder, then rests there, briefly, warm and solid and oh so reassuring.
"I am right here. I am not going anywhere." he promises. His expression is open and raw with need. It makes him look young, far younger than his years, and vulnerable. No matter how much he may try to push her away he wants, no, needs her to take care of him.
And she will, but on her terms. It is time to take charge and try to fix this mess before their unhealthy coping mechanisms become a habit and they forget that it could have been different.
"And yet you are trying to punish and hurt yourself with everything you do." she argues, bracing for his reaction.
He retracts his hand as if burned and backs off as if she just slapped him. Ahsoka cringes inwardly, but it had to be done.
"This is not..." he tries to deny it but she won't have any of it.
"Tell me you haven't. Look me in the eye and tell me you haven't." she challenges.
He holds her gaze for a moment and then looks away.
"You walked into that rancor because you were too exhausted to notice, didn't you? Because you pushed yourself too close to the limit." she probes.
He hesitates for a moment, then nods, rounding his shoulders and almost bracing for a blow.
A sigh escapes her lips.
"I am not mad about it. I am worried about you." she tries to reassure him, but he barely reacts.
Ahsoka sighs again.
"Maul. Maul look at me, please." she whispers in her softest, calmest voice. She takes a deep breath to steady herself and slowly extends her hand until her fingertips brush against his jaw. She doesn't even have to apply any pressure before he looks up again.
"I can't let you do this. No more than you could have let me die. It's not that different, you see?"
In the silence that follows, she looks for an answer in his eyes, but eventually he nods and lets out a long-held breath.
"You are right. It's not different at all. It would just take longer." he capitulates, leaning back against the backrest, exhausted.
"And you promised." she points out, softening her words with a smile.
"And you trust me?" It's kind of sad that he sounds surprised.
"What do I have left to lose?" she shrugs.
"About the same as I do." he concedes.
"We're going to do things differently from now on." she declares.
"Differently how?" he doesn't seem overly worried, just curious.
"First of all, we're going to have lunch. And you're going to eat, no excuses." she replies promptly.
"Seems sensible." he agrees.
Chapter 4: A Shared Meal
Bonus chpter because I disappeared for a few days.
Warnings: food, mentions of past abuse and sexual abuse, dysfunctional coping mechanisms, PTSD, grief.
Also a tiny bit of fluff, if you squint.
Somehow, with a mixture of arguing and cajoling, she manages to get some antibiotics and some mild painkillers in him without too many protestations and eventually they hobble together towards the galley.
After ten days of lying in a bed, the short distance tires her more than she ever thought possible, and Maul is faring no better: his customary grace is all but gone with exhaustion and his faltering steps are accompanied by faint but noticeable clanking. She can tell that he hates it: his lips curl further and further into a snarl with every step and the Force flares around him with frustration and disgust.
"You sit down now. I'll get us some food." she commands when they get there, gently pushing him towards a chair, where he sinks gratefully, head thrown back, eyes closed and shaded by a hand.
"Everything should be in the refrigerator." he advises.
Ahsoka nods and starts rummaging through the contents: there is a drawer full of fruit of different shapes and colours, several containers' worth of meat and livers, still fresh and glistening and enough for a few days, plus a few sundries. Gluten-plus sweets, which neither of them can eat and which must have belonged to the human Mandos with whom he was sharing the ship before the fall of Mandalore. Pickled vegetables, and not too old either. There is a label on the vase: "Property of Gar and Rook - Keep off!". A nearly full carton of milk, also left behind by the Mandos, in all likelihood, but still drinkable. It's from the cattle that human colonizers spread everywhere during the early days of hyperspace travel, but as far as she remembers it should be similar enough in composition to the milk of nerfs, the traditional cattle of Shili, that she should be able to drink it without ill effects.
She fills a platter with cuts of meat and fruit, then grabs the carton of milk and lays everything on the table.
"Help yourself!" she encourages, sitting down across from him.
He certainly does. Between them, they make short work of the platter, and when she prepares a second one that too disappears in a matter of a few minutes, mostly thanks to him. He must have skipped quite a few meals on the previous days.
He even drinks some milk, much to her surprise.
"Don't worry Lady Tano, I am not that much into self-harm. I am used to drinking milk. My tribe kept sheep and goats on the mountains. They used to put milk and yogurt everywhere. They said it was good for strength." he explains over the rim of the glass, when he catches her horrified and worried expression.
"They were warriors." she ventures.
"Alright. My room or yours?" she asks when they are done.
His eyes go very wide. "I beg your pardon?"
She likes how he goes all formal when he's flustered.
"We're done sleeping in the infirmary, but I guess you'd still like to keep watch over me, right?" she argues.
He nods, like she knew he would.
"And I want to keep an eye on you. - she continues - It would make sense to share quarters, wouldn't it?"
It takes him a few tries to actually manage to talk.
"Are you... are you sure this is a good idea?"
"It's no different from what we were doing before. If you haven't tried anything funny while I was knocked out, why should you start now that I can fight back?" she retorts flippantly, even though she is really grateful that he has not. That is one of the few indignities she has been spared and she intends to keep it that way.
"And I will, rest assured. You might be the last thing I have left, but I think I will manage on my own if I have to kill you."
For all her affected coldness and self-assurance, she cannot help her flinch and yelp when he slams his hands on the table and surges to his feet.
"Listen to me Tano, and listen carefully. - he hisses, transfixing her in place with his fury - I might be a terrorist, a murderer, a madman, but I am not... I am not like him. I am not a rapist." from the way he says it, from the snarl on his face, he seems to find the very word absolutely filthy and disgusting.
"Oh, no..." she thinks. The logical leap is not hard to make. She is mortified of having brought the subject up, especially that way and try as she might she cannot prevent some tears from prickling in her eyes.
His anger seems to vanish at that sight. He collapses back onto the chair, tugging at his horns with a lost expression on his face, just like Anakin used to tug at his hair when he was freaking out.
"I am sorry..." she whispers.
Maul shakes his head. "There is nothing to be sorry about. It was within your rights to doubt: you hardly know me, and I am my master's apprentice after all... I am what he made of me." he physically shudders at that thought and his voice breaks. No matter how much he blinks to clear them, tears start filling his eyes.
Ahsoka rushes around the table, forgetting her residual weakness and unsteadiness to reach him sooner.
"You're not." she says, kneeling in front of his chair. She places a hand on his knee, abstractly wondering if he can even feel it. What she really wants is to hug him, to hold him and be held until things get better, but she doesn't dare.
"Listen to me, Maul. You are more than that. You are the Manda'lore of Death Watch, beloved by your people. You're Savage's brother, your mother's son. You are my ally. You saved me. You are better than that, you are better than him." she whispers between tears and somehow it works. He takes a deep shuddering breath, then another, calming down little by little. He lets go of his horns and places a hand over hers.
"I would not do that to you. Never. I promise." he whispers, searching her gaze with his.
"I know." she holds his gaze without hesitation.
"I will take care of you. I will not let anyone harm you." he continues feverishly. He is shaking once again, with emotion or with the beginnings of wound-fever.
"And I will do the same for you. I promise. You'll be safe with me." she responds. She dares to put her other hand over his, sandwiching it between hers. She braces for some kind of rejection, but he only relaxes a little bit more, leaning back against the backrest. He looks completely done for.
"Would you be alright if we bunked in my room?" he asks after a long pause.
Somehow they manage to hobble to his cabin. Ahsoka isn't quite sure how. Her legs feel stiff and heavy like logs with fatigue, and Maul is staggering as if seriously drunk.
He slams the heel of his hand on the door button with evident impatience and the panel slides away with a faint hiss of pistons.
His cabin must have started its life as a largish two-bunk one, but it has been stripped down almost to the bare basics: the recessed bunks have been removed to make space for a workbench and the bedding is a couple of thin roll-up mattresses thrown on the tatami-covered floor. Metal parts, tools and technical drawings are arranged rather neatly around the workbench. He seems to be working on several projects at once.
A wave of nostalgia hits her like a hammerhead corvette. Skyguy's room at the Temple was a bit like this, only messier. He loved to invent stuff, to fix things. He always had a few interesting, half-finished pieces of junk lying around.
Tears rise unbidden to her eyes and a low keening noise escapes her lips.
"Tano? What is going on?" Maul asks, appearing at her side.
"My... my Master was also a maker." she sobs. She hasn't had time to let the loss sink in, to process it. It's still raw and it burns.
"The pilot boy from Tattooine." he couldn't sound more dismissive if he tried.
"Anakin Skywalker. - she retorts, as angrily as she can muster but as she continues her voice breaks into sobs - He was a great teacher. He was my friend."
Maul sighs and shakes his head.
"You miss him." it's not a question but she nods nonetheless, biting her lip to stop more sobs from bubbling up her throat.
"I couldn't imagine that my junk would remind you of him." he says and she knows that this is as close to an apology as she'd get.
"We can move to your cabin, if you want." he adds and for a moment Ahsoka is sorely tempted. When she looks back at him to reply, however, she is acutely reminded of how tired and hurt he is. She suspects that the only thing keeping him upright is his white-knuckled grip on the back of the only chair in the room.
"There is no need. I'll be fine." she says and it's less a lie than a promise.
She turns back to the room, forcing herself to look and notice all the differences, all the ways this room is uniquely Maul's: austere, spartan, trimmed down to the essentials, a place that serves a purpose, not a place to enjoy.
Skyguy would have hated it, she tells herself. Somehow this thought comforts her. After the initial impact, she won't get confused again.
"Make yourself at home, then. I'll be right back." Maul says, staggering to the 'fresher.
His cabin is en-suite. The perks of command.
Ahsoka nods, and tries. She's seen gunships that look homier, though.
The only personal items in the entire room seem to be his lightsaber and a battered backpack thrown in a corner, in all likelihood his evac bag. He was lucky he managed to escape with that.
She rolls out the mattresses and finds a pair of pillows and some blankets in an otherwise empty cupboard.
When he staggers out of the fresher she is sitting cross-legged on the floor matting, trying to meditate. Inner peace is as unattainable as it was ten days previous. She just tries to focus on the rythm of her breath, on the feel of her body, of all the places that ache with old wounds and inactivity. Now that she is out of the infirmary, a part of her clamours for some training, some movement.
"All yours." Maul announces. His voice is quiet as usual, but it still jolts her out of her thoughts.
"There is a spare toothbrush in the counter." he adds and she feels ridiculously close to tearing up again because of his unexpected thoughtfulness.
"Thanks." she murmurs. Her legs have stiffened up even further, but somehow she manages to stand and hobble to the 'fresher.
The spare toothbrush is there as promised. She has one in the other 'fresher, but it seems worlds away now.
When she is done, she puts it in the cup next to Maul's. Back then, when the world held friends and lovers and laughter, people used to attribute a special significance to that act.
Now it just means that this is where she's going to brush in the near future.
When she gets out, he has already claimed one of the mattresses, the one closest to the door and looks to be meditating in turn.
"I'm going to have to step over you to go to the toilet." she points out, settling down on the remaining mattress, hemmed between him and the wall.
She crawls under the covers. Even though he has seen her naked, she still doesn't want to flash him with her too-short, improvised minidress. She needs to get her clothes back.
"I trust that your Jedi training would prevent you from tripping." he retorts dourly.
"You don't trust me." It stings more than it should.
"I don't trust your grief. Not yet." He replies, softening his words with a gentle brush of fingers against her hand.
He lies down on his side, facing her, moving gingerly because of his wounds.
A flick of the Force takes care of the lights. Now the only illumination comes from a few LEDs scattered on the room's equipment and from the emergency lights in the corridor.
Maul's eyes glow faintly golden in the darkness with reflected light, like those of a nexu cat. He is looking at her intently, from less than a foot away, but she senses no bad intentions through the Force.
If anything he seems to radiate quiet contentment and relief. Once more Ahsoka has to repress the odd impulse to hug him.
"One day, when we're both better, we're going to go hunting together." she knows that he would like the idea and she honestly can't wait. She almost dreams of it, of being finally out of the Gauntlet, on whatever strange world he's landed them onto, of exhausting herself enough that she won't have the time to think about what she's lost.
"Missing the plains, huntress?" he is teasing her. It's odd, but she finds that she likes it.
"Kind of. My brethren were not big on hunting." she feels a bit disloyal about admitting this, but it's the truth.
"It's all rainforest around here, though." he warns.
A tropical planet. She had guessed right.
"I think I'll survive." she replies.
"Of course you will." Fondness tinges his words, making his voice feel warm and comforting.
Ahsoka wraps that feeling around her like an extra blanket and lets her exhaustion pull her under.
Chapter 5: A Twilight World
I am not dead, these past few months have just been hard IRL.
I would like to thank the planetplanet blog and to philosopher Heraclitus for the inspiration on exoplanets and the Living Force, respectively. I wouldn't have made it without you folks.
WARNINGS: grief, loss, implied genocide and loss of cultural identity. Also this story is not vegan-friendly.
They last about two days of recovery before the routine of eating leftovers, sleeping their injuries off and trying to talk about something that is not death and defeat starts to make them go stir crazy.
"I need to start the tanning of the rancor's skin, or it will go to waste." Maul declares on the third day.
He's still all over with stitches and plasters, but his Force feels like a bubbling pot of water, ready to boil over.
"I'll help." Ahsoka offers promptly, jumping to the occasion. She wants off the Gauntlet as soon as possible. Not that it isn't a good ship, but she wants to see the sky, to breathe air that is not recycled, to walk on something that is not steel plating.
She can see some hesitation in his expression, but eventually he nods and as soon as they have shoved the dishes in the washer and set it running, they kit up and get ready to disembark.
Standing in the hold as she waits for the ramp to be lowered, Ahsoka can barely contain her excitement. She is going to set foot on a new planet, somewhere tropical and with rancors...
Her lightsaber and shoto hang from the belt at her waist once more. She brushes her fingers against the smooth metal of the casings for reassurance.
He has let her have her weapons and her clothes without any hint of resistance.
Ahsoka has decided that it bodes well. He might be confident about his abilities, but had he wanted to keep her prisoner, he wouldn't have let her have the means to escape.
The ramp opens to a world bathed in twilight.
"Very late afternoon." her perception, calibrated on the G-type bright yellow sun of Coruscant, supplies.
"Are you sure it's not too late to go out there now?" she ventures, fighting disappointment. It is easy to lose track of time when staying inside the artificial environment of a spaceship for too long.
Maul casts her a doubtful glance.
"Too late? It's early morning. The Twins have just about risen." he points out to the slice of sky visible through the ramp as it opens and to two pinkish-red objects, looming large in the sky.
She had taken them for very close, large moons, but at a second glance the penny drops. Those are suns: a close binary pair of M-type red stars, whose light combined at the moment is barely half of that of Coruscant's yellow star.
The ramp lowers even further, revealing luxuriant tropical vegetation in the tones of dark purple and black.
Hyperphotosynthetic pigments. The word floats into her mind from the corner where she has shoved her geography and cosmography lessons. That means that it's never going to get much brighter than that.
This is one of the famed twilight worlds she has heard about in her classes at the Temple, a world where darkness reigns at all times.
Her lessons said that such worlds, like Korriban and Umbara, are often Dark Side Nexi, but here, wherever they might be, all she can feel is the thrum of the Living Force.
It vibrates against her montrals, shivers against her lekkus, resonates in her bones, ever-flowing, ever-changing, carrying with it the elation of the hunt, the terror of the flight, the joy of new life rising and grief of those deaths necessary to fuel more life. It does not makes favourites, it grows out of the struggle that every living being engages just to survive, out of the thousands of processes that ensure that nothings gets created or destroyed, but endlessly transformed.
"In the same river you cannot bathe twice, because even if the river had not changed, you would have." a saying from another half-forgotten lesson flashes through her mind. In that moment of silent, awed contemplation, she knows deep in her heart that it is true.
The air smells sweet like flowers and decay and is alive with a thousand sounds.
They are very different from those she experienced on Shili during those few, precious weeks in which she was allowed to just be without constantly having to second-guess herself and keep herself in check lest she feel too much, but they still awaken a strange sort of longing in a small part of her that she has buried deep ever since.
"It... it's beautiful." she whispers.
"It can eat you alive." he challenges.
His gaze burns into her, but she doesn't back down.
"That's part of the beauty." she retorts.
"Strange words, coming from a Jedi." the softening of his gaze and the faint smile appearing on his lips are the only indications that she has managed to score a point.
"I am a Huntress of Shili. And I left the Order before I actually took my vows." she tries to use it as a weapon, but it is double-edged at best and the smirk on her lips is forced and looks more like a grimace.
"More than half-way to the Dark Side, then..." he scoffs and rolls his eyes.
"Unaligned, if you please." she butts back in the same tone.
"I guess I am too, now." he admits. It doesn't take a mind-reader to realise that the admission pains him.
Being a Sith must have been central to his identity.
"Well, if Asajj could pull it off, so can we." she tries to tease.
"You know Asajj?" Maul's eyebrows shoot up in an almost comically perplexed expression.
"Yeah, I knew her... the way they mean it in the Code..." she has to bite her lip to prevent herself from blurting it out.
That would definitely constitute too much information and, however much she enjoys the idea of shocking him, her bisexuality is none of his business.
"We were allies. Maybe even friends. And you?" she asks instead, opting for the easier way out.
"She was family." he replies, shaking his head.
"Wait! So you... so you are a Nightbrother?!" Ahsoka exclaims, recalling what Asajj had told her.
Her eyes go as wide as saucers.
"I am not." Maul replies.
His tone is flat and dry and final. She must have poked into another old, unhealed wound.
"But she was a Nightsister..." Ahsoka tries to argue, in spite of herself.
"Those are titles you have to earn. She was initiated. I was not. I have no claim to the Brotherhood or this place." he explains.
"So this is Dathomir, your home planet?" Twilight world, rancors, feisty Zabraks, it has to be.
"It is where I was born, but not home. I don't have one. Sidious took care of that."
Sadness shines though his every word, in spite of his stoic expression.
He turns and walks away, cutting the conversation.
Ahsoka hesitates for a moment before following him. She doesn't want to be left alone on a strange planet of which she knows next to nothing.
He leads her around the ship and then down a path that leads to the edge of the rainforest and to a brushy, grassy sort of black scrubland, that soon evolves into a reddish, flat-topped, rocky outcrop.
Ahsoka notices the smell well before they arrive to the tanning vats: brine, fermentation and tannins. It's quite an overpowering, unforgettable mixture.
The vats are circular carved into the rock and worn by countless years of use, like the ones on Shili where she learned the basics. Skins of various different types are already there, soaking in the vats, at different stages of the tanning procedure.
From what she knows about the process from her Huntress training, some of those must have been there before they actually arrived on the planet.
Maul checks the vats with practiced ease, using long, worn poles of dark wood to poke at the skins and mix the contents of the vats and large tongs to move them between one vat and the next.
"Chromium salts?" Ahsoka asks, just to break the silence.
"Bog-oak bark. A lot less toxic." he replies, sounding glad that they have managed to change topic.
"These are not all your doing." she points at the skins he's checking.
He shakes his head.
"They were already here. I just thought I might as well finish the job."
He nods towards a pile of skins at the edge of the tannery.
"Those are ruined. They were left in here too long. But I managed to salvage most of them." he adds proudly.
She catches a distinct whiff of melancholy in his words.
Her tongue itches with questions about where did the skins come from and who started to process them, but she bites it. Whoever did that is long gone. She has poked into old wounds enough for one day.
"So what are we going to do with them after we're done?" she asks instead.
Maul shrugs. "Armour from the rancor. The rest I don't know."
"Clothes?" Ahsoka eyes her torn leggings critically.
She wouldn't mind a spare pair and leather sounds both practical and fancy.
"Only if you know how to sew." he retorts.
"I know enough to patch you up, don't I? It's still skin. It can't be much harder." she butts back, a lot more confident than she really feels.
That gives him pause. "I never thought about it in those terms." he confesses. A vague, uncertain smile appears on his patterned lips.
"Well, you live and learn, don't you?" she teases.
His smile widens, becomes more solid. It suits him.
"I guess we will." he acquiesces.
As he implied, the light increases with time, but not a lot.
It wouldn't be much fun for a human, but Togrutas have better night vision, so she manages just fine.
Maul seems to have no trouble at all, but then again, he has glow-in-the-dark nexu eyes. If anything, he'd have problems with strong lights, she judges.
They work together as the Twins rise across the horizon, looming large as grapefruits and more or less the same colour, and then start their slow downclimb.
They only pause for a quick snack of fruit and dried, salty meat.
Their conversation is brief and efficient, dealing mostly with the tasks at hand, but Ahsoka doesn't feel like complaining.
The work is hard, but it is ultimately satisfying and, as strange as it might seem, his silent presence feels comforting at her side, crackling with energy like a banked fire.
Between him and the buzzing Living Force of the planet, she can almost forget about the gaping emptiness out there, about the still-bleeding wound left in the Force by the death of the Order.
Next to him she can concentrate on the grueling work of scraping rancor leather and soaking it in water, hide after hide, and feel nothing but the ache in her muscles and the tickle of the light of the Twins on her skin.
"I think we're done for today." Maul announces eventually, when the last hide sinks in the soaking vat.
The Twins are halfway down to the horizon but the temperature is still quite high. After the air-con of the Gauntlet the sticky tropical heat feels better than it normally would.
"Shall we look for dinner?" Ahsoka asks, wiping sweat from her eyes with the back of her hand.
"I've seen a stream nearby. Maybe we can get some fish, for a change." she proposes before he can reply.
"Fish?!" he looks sincerely disconcerted.
"You don't like it?" Ahsoka tries to hide her disappointment.
She likes meat, but, after so many days of nothing but it, she craves some variety.
"I... I don't know." Maul replies, an incongruous lost look in his eyes.
"How can he not know?" Ahsoka cannot help but think it, but thankfully she manages to keep that thought to herself.
"Don't worry, I'll take care of it." she declares, brushing her fingers against his arm.
The stream is exactly where she remembers it, shaded by large, dark trees, whose black foliage droops towards the water.
Ahsoka approaches cautiously, keeping low to prevent the fish from spotting her, and hazards a glance. There are a whole lot of large, pale fish darting between stones at the bottom.
She motions Maul to stay down and stay close and takes a deep breath, tuning into the Force until the stream runs through her, until she can feel the life-force of each of the fish like a prickle of copper and salt against her tongue.
Another deep breath.
The water ripples below her as her prey darts forth, cutting through it. Time slows down, becoming like a sequence of stills in a holovid.
Ahsoka plunges her hand in the water like a knife and scoops it out in an arc, towards the sky, putting the weight of her body and the will of her Force in it.
Her fingers connect. She can feel slimy scales and weight.
An explosion of water and movement.
A thread of life that tenses and struggles frantically.
When she opens her eyes, the fish is on the riverbank next to her, longer than her forearm and clad in scales of iridescent cream and pale pink.
It is beautiful.
"Thank you, fish. Your death will feed us and give us life." she murmurs, then grabs it by the tail and whacks it against the closest tree trunk as hard as she dares, ending its struggle.
"There we go. What do you think, do we need a second one?" she asks, turning slightly to check on her ally.
Something moves in the dappled shade of the tree.
If she didn't know he was there, she would hardly notice. With his markings, he's is nearly invisible in the streaks of reddish light among the black foliage, again just like a nexu cat.
He is looking at her with a confused and even slightly awed expression.
"Where... where did you learn to do that?" he asks.
"One of my yearmates was a Wookie. They didn't recruit him until he was six or seven. He knew lots of tricks and he liked to share." she explains.
Talking about it makes Karakh's death seem even more real, but at the same time it feels like honouring his memory in a way.
He'd be glad that his tricks are helping her survive.
Ahsoka can sense a question in the air, but eventually Maul just looks away.
"Maybe you should get another one. For breakfast." he says finally.
Ahsoka lets out a sigh, of relief or disappointment, she doesn't quite know, and acquiesces.
The second fish takes only marginally more time than the first.
She threads a sturdy vine through their gills and hauls them over her shoulder for transport. They make their way back to the ship at a leisurely pace, picking fruit along the way.
She doesn't quite know how he knows which ones are good to eat and which ones are poisonous, but so far there have been no accidents.
He's really good at this whole surviving thing. For this she is grateful.
"Do you know how these work?" she asks eventually, after she has finished gutting and cleaning the two fish.
The oven and the cooker are of an unfamiliar make and she doesn't really feel like spoiling all her work by carbonising it or worse.
Maul has been quietly watching over her shoulder, trying to absorb as much as he could about her activities with the fish.
The question nearly startles him out if his concentration.
He shakes his head.
"Gar or Rook usually took care of these things." he offers as an explanation.
That explains why they only ate rations and raw meat until now, she tells herself.
"It does not matter." she reassures him with a smile.
"We could eat it like this." he proposes with a shrug.
Ahsoka can tell he is not too enthusiastic about it, and to tell the truth, she is neither.
"I'd rather not. Raw fish is not amazing." she points out.
"So what do you propose?" he sighs, crossing his arms on his still-bandaged chest.
She puts the fish in a largish metal container, picks up a few pots of spices and other sundries and heads towards the door.
"Come. You're down for the whole camping food experience." she announces.
They build the fire a few meters away from the hatch, using blood-red, light and porous twigs as a starter. A few smooth rocks from the stream mark the limits of their improvised hearth.
While Maul tends to the fire, Ahsoka stakes the fish lengthwise on two slender sticks and sets them up on pairs of forked branches, high enough not to burn, but close enough to cook relatively fast.
They work in silence and then sit side by side, waiting, as the sky turns dark and full of stars.
The fish smells delicious and by the time it is ready, piping hot, skin cracking on the surface, Ahsoka feels definitely hungry.
They split it lengthwise on two battered metal plates from the galley and eat with their hands, sitting cross-legged on the grass.
It's tender and juicy and seasoned just right with the spices she pinched from the galley. Even after so much time, she still remembers how it's done, she thinks with pride.
"So... any opinion?" she asks eventually, reaching out for the water.
Thankfully the Gauntlet has a really good atmospheric water reclaimer. They won't have to worry about finding a source for a while.
"It's different." Maul replies, eyeing the his plate critically.
"But I think I like it." he admits almost immediately, scooping up another piece and popping it in his mouth.
She doesn't quite know why, but that answer makes her feel inordinately happy.
"So what about this camping thing you were talking about?" he asks a while later, when all that's left of their meal is a few bones and flaps of charred skin.
She can't quite believe he doesn't really know.
He must be pulling her leg, but there is no harm in humouring him; she is feeling too great to want to ruin her evening with a confrontation.
"It's a thing they do in holovids. We did it a few times too." Ahsoka replies.
She can still remember that group class on the park moon of Coruscant, when Karakh taught her to fish, and that time the 501st organised a picnic with her and Anakin only a few kilometers away from Asajj's division, just to piss her off.
"And what is supposed to happen?"
Maul is looking at her with an intent, concentrated air, as if he wanted to read her, or what she is telling her was of the utmost importance.
"Nothing much. You cook stuff on a fire, eat it sitting around the fire with people you trust, and have a good time." she reveals.
He tilts his head slightly to one side.
"People tell stories, or sing songs, they watch the stars and eat marshmallows." she adds.
"Marshmallows? Aren't they some kind of flower?" Maul seems even more puzzled.
"True, but also a type of sweet that you can roast on the fire. Not that we would be able to eat them... they contain gluten." she explains.
"Ah." Maul seems to mull the matter over in his mind and she lets him.
She kind of likes the quiet, the birdcalls in the distance, the crackling of the fire. It's peaceful.
"I have no stories to tell." Maul confesses at the end. His voice is barely above a whisper and yet it manages to be filled with wistfulness.
"And I have no songs to sing." she replies in the same tone.
"At least there are the stars." she adds a moment later.
She looks up and lets herself fall back on the grass, stretching like a cat. The only light comes from their fire. The night sky is studded with stars, like droplets of light on inky velvet.
The grass rustles. Maul lies down next to her, close enough that she would only have to reach out to touch him.
She had never imagined she would end up like this.
"Do you know their names?" she asks impulsively. She does want to hear him tell her a story after all.
She should have known better.
"I don't." It's strange how so few words can hold so much loss.
She takes his hand in hers. It's another impulse, but a kinder one.
He doesn't shy away.
He takes her hand and holds it, as if he needs something solid to rely on.
Tears fill her eyes. If she could give him back the stars of his people, she would.
"We'll give them new ones. Make new stories." she promises.
Chapter 6: The Sinkhole
Sorry for the long delay between chapters. I have most of this fic either written or outlined, the only issue is finding the time and the quiet to post
In this chapter: gratuitous pop culture references, social justice topics and gratuitous climbing slang and parkour
Also, Ahsoka is at least bi and Barris and her were a thing. Fight me.
It's a bit ofan emotional rollercoaster too.
Warnings: PTSD, discussions of disability, grief, dysfunctional coping mechanisms.
"This is looking more like Homestead with every passing day." Ahsoka comments, getting herself a drink of water from the canteen.
This is the ninth day of their outdoors life together (Force, it feels weird to talk about it like that!).
She and Maul have been busy since early morning applying minor fixes to the Gauntlet and setting up a smoke-house to cure some of their food supply: excess meat and strips of purplish flesh from an odiferous, knobbly fruit that Maul swears is packed with vitamins and will taste "almost good" once it is cured.
Since he seems to be willing to eat stuff that she would not even look at twice, Ahsoka has her doubts about it, but she plays along, humouring him.
"What is Homestead?" he asks.
He's cutting more of those fruits into thin strips and setting them up onto lattices woven out of twigs with such efficiency that she would think he's done it regularly for years.
Ahsoka doesn't think she will ever get used to how he seems to know everything about combat, survival and engineering, but nothing about anything else, about the normal stuff that people do when they have downtime.
Even the Clones, who had been specifically bred for war, had more pop culture to them than him: Rex could quote entire scenes from "Coruscant 9-1" to her, and sometimes when they were stuck on transports Fives and Heavy bitched on for hours about holovid series and bolo ball.
Even she and Anakin could butt in every now and again. For all that those forms of frivolous and vulgar entertainment were frowned upon by the Elders, the Padawans always managed to sneak in some data-crystals of holovids or to hack into some terminal to stream them straight from the HoloNet.
She, Barris, Caleb and the others would sneak through the corridors after curfew to meet up and watch their favourite series, to laugh and cry and feel vicariously all the things that they couldn't have for themselves.
Pain hits her like a sledgehammer, hard enough that she has to bite her lip to repress a whine bubbling in her throat. Her eyes film with tears and her throat prickles with more. She forces herself to empty her mind and take deep breaths, to think of nothing and no one and just ground herself with the Living Force all around her.
She has the feeling that if she started crying, she would not stop for a long time.
"Tano? Are you alright?" Maul has appeared next to her, quiet as a shadow, concern written all over him.
"I am. I will be."
Both feel like lies at the moment.
She wishes she had the courage to tell him about this, about them, about all she's lost, but she is too afraid.
"He won't understand!" a part of her screams. "Of course he would!" another shouts back. She doesn't know which one to trust and the idea of telling it all, reliving all that pain for nothing... she just can't bear it.
"You don't have to tell me anything you don't feel like." he adds.
His hand hovers close to her shoulder but he doesn't quite touch her, wishing to comfort her, but too afraid of rejection in turn.
Ahsoka takes another deep breath and shakes her head. She is not going to break down over Homestead, she vows.
"It's fine, really." she takes a step away from him. If he touched her, she might do something really silly like glomping him in her quest for comfort.
"It was just a silly holovid series." she says, trying to make light of all.
The intent look in his eyes remains though. She just decides to interpret it as a desire to know more.
"There was this wealthy, cosmopolitan Togruta socialite from Coruscant who inherited a homestead in the middle of nowhere on Shili and was forced to hide there for a while to escape a scandal. The stewart was a traditionalist Togruta Hunter and of course to begin with they didn't like each other much, but they had to work together to keep the homestead running..." she continues airily.
"Like us." Maul points out quietly.
"A bit. Except minus the gross parts with blood and fish guts." she admits.
She deliberately doesn't tell him that as the series proceeded, the two got closer and closer, until the challenges of running the farm became a secondary plotline to their impending marriage.
She doesn't want to give him the impression that she is aiming towards something like that.
"And you liked it?" he asks.
Ahsoka thinks about it for a moment, then nods.
"It was one of my favourites." she admits.
Yes, it was heteronormative and gender-normative, but at least it portrayed Togrutas like people, not like the usual noble savage sidekicks or uncivilised barbarians of mainstream holovid productions.
After every episode, she and Barris had long, convoluted discussions about it, well into the night.
It was almost a miracle that she always managed to escape out of her girlfriend's room every time at dawn without getting caught.
Another wave of pain hits her, pulling her under once more.
Ahsoka knows what is happening to her: this must be PTSD.
They talked about it in class at the Temple, gave them seminars about how to recognise it in oneself or others, about how to use meditation to prevent it or manage it.
They talked and talked but they never said that you would have to face all the good things that ended, all the loved ones you lost.
She was a bad Jedi: she filled her life with small pleasures, with friends, with stolen moments of love. Now she is paying for all of it.
And yet, if she could go back, she wouldn't be able to do any different.
"Tano?" this time he touches her, warm, warm fingers brushing against her arm.
"I used to watch it with my friends. I miss it." she admits.
"I never watched any HoloNet." he confesses.
"Sidious didn't allow it?" she quirks an eyebrow in unnecessary sarcasm, but he hardly notices.
"He said it was all propaganda to present the restrictive morals of the Light Side as the only possible system and to push people to focus on useless issues and artificial goals of social acceptability, instead of rising in revolt and overthrowing the system." he explains, perfectly earnest.
"The way you say it, it sounds like he raised you to be a revolutionary." she comments, trying to lighten the atmosphere, but of course she fails.
"He raised me to be a weapon. He fed me whatever lies he deemed necessary to make sure I'd stay sharp and on target."
She can almost taste the bitterness of his words.
"Most of the mainstream stuff was really consumeristic, xenophobic, sexist and heteronormative. It created false models of success and relationships. It was damaging." she admits.
He looks at her with a slightly confused expression. She can't really tell if it's because she admitted that something in the Republic was wrong, or because of the long words she used.
She talks to him as if he was a fellow Jedi, but given what he's just said, she doubts he's ever had sociology classes. Most likely, all he knows about society were the choice pieces of "wisdom" that Sidious imparted to indoctrinate him.
But what did she know either? Only what the Order saw fit to teach her, which in this case was really quite similar to what he had been taught: that mainstream Galactic society was greedy, selfish and corrupted, and that Holovids reflected its unenlightened mores and would only be a negative influence on their path towards wisdom and peace.
"Some stories were beautiful though." she continues, this is the only truth she has to offer and he deserves it.
"They made you think, and laugh, and cry. They allowed you to experience a different prespective on life and love and the Galaxy, to live a different life, at least for a bit." she concludes.
"And why would you want to?" he asks, but that is a truth she is not prepared to broach, not yet, at least.
"Didn't you ever?" she asks instead.
He does not reply, but she can tell her words have sunken in from the way his attention seems to have turned inwards.
"I guess sometimes I did too." he whispers at the end, as he retreats towards his heap of fruit to resume his task.
Ahsoka sighs and returns to her own chores.
They always worked in silence, but this time it feels so thick and cloying that she thinks she will choke on it if she doesn't break it. She tries to hold on, but soon she cannot stand it or her thoughts.
"So what did you do for fun?" she blurts out, almost desperate for him to take the bait and talk to her.
Her words startle him so hard that he knocks down some of the fruit from the neat pile he has built.
He cringes instinctively, then curses quietly, stacking the fruit back into a perfect pile.
From his attitude, she'd bet he was blushing, not that she can really tell, between his markings and his natural skin colour.
"Fighting, some hunting when Sidious let me travel off-planet. And then some art of movement, some climbing..." he replies eventually, shrugging his shoulders as if it didn't matter.
It all sounds like more training to her, but she does not comment on it. His forced indifference cannot quite mask the fondness in his voice. Those are good memories, for a change.
"Why don't we do it?"
She just throws the idea out there, as further bait.
She is completely recovered from her ordeal and, amazingly, the only remnant from his encounter with the rancor are some darker red scars interrupting the pattern of his markings.
The work they do is not quite light, but nevertheless there is a part of her that itches for some more action, for some excitement and danger.
"Hook, line and sinker!" Ahsoka thinks, doing a mental victory dance.
From the look in his eyes and the way he leans slightly forward, she can tell he is interested.
"I don't know. Some sparring, some climbing, some running around... - she retorts with a shrug - I have a feeling you haven't rescued me just because you wanted company. You will need an ally to continue the fight, so it would make sense for us to train together and see how well we match up." she argues, gesturing airily with her free hand.
"It would be wise, indeed." Maul agrees readily, as she knew he would.
"So... do you have any suggestions?" she prods.
Of course he does, and lots of it, and they are all the kind of slightly insane, slightly dangerous kind of fun that Skyguy would have loved and Master Kenobi would have disapproved of.
Ahsoka just loves it, like she knew she would. They bounce suggestions back and forth as they pack up their tools and stow them in the Gauntlet, and eventually they set off, loping down a trail which he allegedly scouted sometime earlier and which he promises is going to give them a hell of a workout.
She follows him down steep, muddy slopes, up millennia old trees that cover wide swathes of forest with their branches, across gullies and crevasses and over obstacles big and small, running as fast as her legs will allow, breathless with exertion and exhilaration.
This, this is what she needed: to run and climb, to vault and leap, to be, present in her body and in the moment, with no other thought than the best way to overcome the next obstacle.
Maul leads her past the treeline and down a little canyon strewn with boulders, vaulting confidently over them or using the side walls to spring beyond, a wide, feral grin on his face.
He scrambles up a rocky slope, then wedges himself into a gap in the cliff-face and pushes himself up with his hands and feet.
Ahsoka tops out a few moments after him, emerging onto a slightly jagged, irregular little plateau, patched with shrubs and grasses.
Beyond it, another cliff-face leads up to a higher plateau, covered in coarse, black vegetation.
Maul has stopped next to the edge of the climb and seems to be examining the next cliff-face in search of something.
"Why did we stop?" Ahsoka asks.
She is glad for the breather, but she doesn't quite want to stop for good yet.
"Two things. First, the view." he announces, sweeping his arms out in a wide gesture.
Ahsoka looks back the way they came.
Now they are high enough above the treeline that she can see the canopy of the forest, sprawling as far as the eye can see and broken here and there by clearings, not unlike the one where the Gauntlet is parked.
Clouds of birds flit between the trees, their bright plumage almost sparkling in the light of the Twins.
Ahsoka cannot help but gape.
"Wow... this us really something!" she exclaims.
Just the view in itself would have been worth the excursion, but as promised there is more.
"Second, this..." Maul continues, walking a few meters inwards from the edge.
Ahsoka follows and suddenly finds herself on the edge of another sheer drop.
Something like a huge natural well, oddly circular and some ten, fifteen meters in diameter, opens onto the flat top of the plateau. Its walls are carved by water erosion and at the bottom sits a pool of clear water, edged on one side by a small pinkish sandy beach. The water is so clear that she can see the bottom with complete clarity. It's hard to tell how deep it can be, but it is definitely inviting.
"What is this?" she asks, edging closer to the drop to have a closer look.
"A sinkhole. It is carved and fed by rainwater." Maul explains.
He leads her along the edge of the formation, casting his look about in search of something.
"Ah, there!" he says finally.
Half-hidden by semi-dry shrubs there is a length of thick braided rope, pegged onto a shortish pole.
The other end dangles off the edge of the sinkhole and is patterned with loops at regular intervals, to facilitate ascent and descent.
Maul checks the rope for wear, then heads down, planting his feet on the cliff-face and descending hand over hand along the rope.
Ahsoka shrugs and follows suit.
So far he has not disappointed, so down the rabbit-hole she goes.
The rope ends on the beach.
Nearby a circle of charred stones and darkened sand hints at a long-gone campsite. A small deposit of bones of small animals, birds and possibly squirrels, tells her that people had picnics on this beach, not that long ago.
Maul studiously ignores them and turns to look at the sheer side of the sinkhole, the part that directly abuts the deepest side of the pool.
"Have you ever done any deep-water bouldering?" he asks.
"What do you mean?" Ahsoka asks.
"I mean that you climb as far up as you can, and if you bail, you get a free bath." he replies.
"Ah, then yes.We used to have a pool with a fake cliff in the Temple." she replies, nodding to herself.
She really enjoyed spending some time there between classes.
"Perfect. Ladies first." he proclaims genially, gesturing towards the cliff.
"Wait! This is not..." Ahsoka splutters.
"Are you afraid, Lady Tano?" she can tell from his grin that he is teasing her, trying to get a rise out of her.
"What?! No! But what about you?" she blurts out.
"What do you mean?" Maul quirks an eyebrow and tilts his head ever so slightly to the side, looking like the picture of incomprehension.
His voice is quiet and suave as usual, maybe more.
Only the angry glint in his eyes betrays the fact that he knows what she's on about and doesn't like it at all. She has struck a nerve, again.
Ahsoka finds herself burning in shame.
She never, ever meant to imply that he wouldn't be able to climb, she is only worried for his safety, as always.
"I mean that you... and the water... wouldn't it be, you know? Bad? If you fell?" she manages to push out, gesturing widely towards his legs and the pool.
She is blushing so hard that she feels nearly dizzy.
His expression changes suddenly, turning into genuine puzzlement.
"I won't rust or short, if that's what you imply." he replies, sounding a bit self-consciuous.
Ahsoka takes a relieved breath. That's good to know, but not what she's most worried about.
"It looks deep, and you..." she argues.
"And I can't exactly swim, as you correctly surmised." she concludes for him in a bitter undertone.
Ahsoka nods, lowering her eyes. She didn't meant to ruin the fun but she doesn't want him to come to harm.
"Hey, don't worry. It's the dry season, it cannot be deeper than 3 or 4 meters. And it's not so wide. I can walk out the other side or Force-leap out before I drown." his hand is warm on her shoulder and his voice is warmer too.
"I'll be fine, Tano. Trust me. Have you already forgotten that I promised I won't try to harm myself?" he adds.
Ahsoka shakes her head.
She has not, and she knows she can't insist beyond that, not without sounding as if she thought less of him for his condition, so she keeps quiet and approaches the cliff-face, trying to figure out the best way up given the configuration of the rock.
She drops her saber, belt and comm on the last stretch of beach and starts up, but her worry is stronger than she thought and nags at her even as she tries to clear her mind and concentrate only on the position of the hand- and foot-holds, on the tension between her points of contact with the wall, on the precarious balance of her body.
She picked an easy, juggy route, but nevertheless she misses a hold as she stretches upwards, her foot slips and before she knows she is plummeting down, towards the clear water of the sinkhole.
"Bloody Hell! It's cold!" she yells at the top of her lungs when she resurfaces.
Maul chuckles under his breath from where he's sprawling on the sand, in the sunniest slice of the beach.
"A bit out of training, aren't you, my Lady?" he teases.
"Let's see if you do better. Being Manda'lore couldn't have left you much time to do anything else." she retorts in the same tone.
On a whim she takes a few deep breaths and dives, pushing herself to the bottom. She grabs a handful of fine pinkish sand, raising a puff of murkiness in the otherwise crystalline water and pushes back up, breaching easily. Her ears barely protested on the descent.
He was right, it cannot be more than 4 meters, at the very maximum.
"Satisfied now?" Maul calls from the beach.
"I worry about you, alright?" she calls back, quickly gaining firm ground.
He smirks and stands, stretching like a cat.
"My turn now." he declares, dropping his saber and tactical pouch.
He stretches like a cat, basking in the sun, then starts climbing the same route she tried, but with much more grace and confidence than what she had felt at the time.
She watches him climb, trying to figure out where she misstepped, but mostly just in admiration.
Looking at him now, it is very hard to imagine him as anything but perfect and whole.
The suns are warm on her back.
It feels good to be warm and unconcerned. Maybe she could take her top off to dry and climb in her bra, she considers, closing her eyes in bliss.
A crack shakes her from her reverie.
Ahsoka opens her eyes in time to see Maul drop from the cliff-face into the water, followed by a chunk of rock.
She jumps to her feet, running to the water. Part of her screams to jump in and helps, but she stamps on it and forces herself to wait, and wait...
"Damn! I wasn't expecting that."
This us the first thing Maul says as he walks out of the pool, a strangely endearing combination of exasperation and embarrassment painted on his face.
"The handhold gave up on you?" Ahsoka asks.
"Maybe I shouldn't have dynoed on it." he comments with a nod.
"So we're still 0-0." She shouldn't like so much to challenge him really, but she can't help herself.
"0-0 what?" he asks.
"Are you sure you are up to the challenge, Lady Tano?" the grin on his face is almost feral.
He looks happy.
"Yep. Bring it on, my Lord."
Her answering grin is just as wide.
Ahsoka doesn't know how long they go on. Her forearms are knackered, her fingers start to blister and tear.
His don't fare any better, but he produces some black finger-tape from his tactical pouch, so they just tape up and continue, route after route, each harder than the next, going head to head for points, until they come to their mutually agreed last route.
They only have an hour or so of sunlight, so to speak, left, a last route is already stretching it too much, but they are even and it just feels right to go one last time.
And so there they are, facing a route so sparse of holds that it borders on impossible to send without the Force, which they both agreed not to use.
Ahsoka has tried to send it through careful balance but has been defeated by the crux, and, by the looks of it, Maul is stuck in the same place in turn.
He would have to somehow swing all the way left and then go up and right again to finish, and the footholds are treacherous even for someone who can feel them with a normal amount of nerve endings.
"It looks like we're going to be even..." she teases.
"Not a chance!" Maul grits out.
He coils up and then explodes into movement, leaping to the first hold and using it as a springboard to propel himself upwards through sheer power.
"YES!" he yells as his fingers close around the final hold.
She has hardly ever heard him talk above a whisper, but this time it is as if he just couldn't contain it.
He raises a fist in the air, then leaps off the wall, somersaulting into the pool.
He is still grinning when he walks out and Ahsoka can't help but cheer.
"That was awesome!" she exclaims.
She feels like hugging him, but stops just in time, converting the motion into an awkward handshake.
He looks too happy to even notice the awkwardness.
"It looks like I still have it." he comments, quietly now, but still as fiercely.
"I never doubted it. - she reassures him - Go on, name your prize." she prods after a brief pause.
Giving him carte blanche could be risky, but she thinks she has the measure of him by now.
He won't ask anything that may hurt her.
"This was not about prizes."Maul protests.
"No, - Ahsoka thinks - this was about proving that you're not too broken, that you're still worth something, and you don't think that deserves recognition."
She does, though: resilience and success are things that should be celebrated, not taken for granted and trivialised.
"Still. You won fair and square. You deserve it." she tries to argue, but he doesn't seem to get it.
"Just homour me, alright?" she adds, repressing a sigh.
"Think about it. There must be something that you would like."
"I will consider it." Maul's answer comes after a long pause and in a solemn, serious tone.
Ahsoka knows this is the best she would get. She doesn't try to argue.
They collect their belongings and climb back up the rope and then down the small plateau using another set point of access, where another rope has been pegged on the ground.
By the time they reach the edge of the forest it's nearly dark.
They turn on their lightsabers and press on, keeping their guard up in case some predator has decided that their light is an indication that food is nearby.
Ahsoka feels completely, happily exhausted. She is grateful for the lack of incidents on the way back, and even more so when Maul announces that she can have first dibs on the shower.
She soaks in hot water for as long as she dares, letting the heat work its magic on her knotted muscles.
She stops way before she would have wanted to: the boiler only makes so much hot water every few hours and she doesn't want to force her ally to have a cold shower.
When she comes out of the bathroom, Maul is sitting against the wall of the main room, looking totaly done.
A pile of fresh clothes is laid out in front of him, a woman's clothes, tank top and leggings, done in burgundy/pink.
Ahsoka stalls. She can well imagine who those clothes belonged to.
"I thought you might want to change." he says in a monotone.
All happiness has leaked out of him, leaving a vast reserve of melancholy in its wake.
"You didn't have to." she whispers.
Her heart constricts painfully in sympathy. She is beyond grateful for his thoughtfulness, but she is not oblivious to its cost.
"Nonsense. - he retorts harshly - Kast is not going to need those anymore. You do. There is no space for foolish sentimentality in survival, Tano. You would do well to remember it."
He picks up his towel and a change of clothes, then stands, shouldering past her to the fresher. Every line of his body is tense with anger.
It is a convincing façade, but the Force allows her to see beyond it.
Guilt. Regret. Pain.
They are so thick that she can almost taste them in her mouth.
He probably believes that he doesn't deserve to mourn her, but he cannot stop hurting.
Ahsoka picks up the clothes from the floor. They are almost exactly her size and they smell clean and homey, like laundry detergent.
Tears rise to her eyes, but she pushes them back.
She doesn't know much about Rook Kast beyond the fact that she was brave and loyal to Maul to the bitter end.
Now, in hindsight she understands why.
She strips, piling her dirty clothes on one side, and dons the new ones as if they were sacred raiments.
If Rook Kast is still out there, in the Force, she wants her to know that she is going to honour this gift. She owes it both to her and to him.
When Maul comes out of the shower, he's wearing a pair of faded black trousers and a long-sleeved black shirt that is almost two size too big for him, like a kid wearing a piece of hand-me-downs from an older relative.
It should make him look vulnerable, but it does not.
His face is an expressionless mask, his eyes are like mirrors, his Force-signature tightly shielded.
He looks and feels impassive, detached, utterly unassailable.
All her thoughts of asking him about his prize evaporate from her mind.
Something has broken while she wasn't looking and she doesn't know if it can fixed.
Chapter 7: The Storm
Sorry for the long delay, folks! The last few weeks have been really busy between work and other projects.
Chapter Warnings: dysfunctional coping mechanisms, grief, mental illness, attempted self-harm, night terrors, ptsd, general traumatic experiences.
There is also a healthy helping of comfort, though, and more of Ahsoka's confused feelings.
A good night's sleep doesn't seem to solve anything. If possible, the following morning Maul seems even more impassive and detached.
"So, what's the plan for today?" she asks over breakfast.
She is trying to sound cheerful and enthusiastic, but the atmosphere in the galley is so tense that she feels like she is skating over thin ice.
"Combat training." he replies.
He barely looks at her over the rim of his cup of tea.
"Do you really think it's a good idea after yesterday? I'm sore all over." she confesses. She has stretched thoroughly as a cooldown, but there is only so much that stretching can do if, after a few months of no climbing, you decide that it is a good idea to climb V5+ for an entire afternoon.
His fist thumps on the table, startling her. This time he looks at her, but his eyes are like mirrors again, revealing nothing of what he feels. All of a sudden, and just when she would need it most, she can no longer read him.
"Do you think that Sidious' stooges will hold back because you're tired, Tano?" his voice is low, quiet, intense.
Not quite angry but certainly not serene.
"We're not here on vacation. We have a mission. We have a duty. Have you forgotten?" his fist slams on the table again, harder.
He has a point, Ahsoka has to admit it, but why is it that urgent, all of a sudden?
What is going on?
"Alright, alright. There is no need to get so worked up." she capitulates, raising her hands in surrender.
She follows him out of the Gauntlet and out in the clearing where they landed.
Maul stops a few paces ahead of her and faces her, Darksaber in hand, still unlit.
"So, what training do you have in mind?" she asks, more to break the silence than anything.
"Forms. Let's start with Shii-Cho." Maul replies.
He raises his saber in the first guard of the standard form and waits for her to do the same.
"Shii-Cho? Seriously? Come on, I am not a youngling. You know I can fight." Ahsoka protests, but only half-heartedly.
Shii-Cho is basic and uninspiring, but has its merits.
"It was you who asked for lighter training." he replies with the barest shrug.
Ahsoka sighs and rolls her eyes, but sinks into her stance. He has a point, again.
"As you wish, Master." she declares eventually, her voice laced with sarcasm.
She only meant to tease him, but he flinches as if she just slapped him.
"You will never call me that again." he hisses, clenching the hilt of his weapon in a white-knuckled grip.
She tries to apologise, but he doesn't give her the time and starts the sequence with a powerful overhand chop.
Ahsoka parries just in time, and soon any thought of an apology escapes her mind as she concentrates on the flow of movement of Form I.
They go through all of them in sequence, one after the other, sometimes more than once, until his exacting standards are satisfied. The only one they don't try is Form VII, much to her chagrin. After seeing him fight on Mandalore, she is curious about it, but he doesn't offer to teach her, and she doesn't dare ask. Not today.
For all his nit-picking, it's not a grueling workout, but contrary to the previous day, it is not even remotely fun.
It's duty, obligation, responsibility. It is serious and solemn and soulless.
It is as if she had woken up expecting a tub of ice-cream and was given a popped rice cracker instead.
The pattern repeats itself for the following days.
They eat, they train, they meditate, they work on the ship or on their food supplies, rinse and repeat.
Gone are those moments of openness that, however painful, made her feel like she had someone who understood her. Now he barely responds to her conversational advances, and when he does it's only in the curtest and sketchiest terms.
They were getting somewhere only a few days before, they were almost on the verge becoming friends, and now it feels like they have gone back to square one.
He has closed off from almost completely and she can't help but worry that it was because of something she did, that somehow she has offended or hurt him without realising.
She has only known the side of him that smiled, whooped in joy and lusted for life for a few scant days, but she misses it with every fiber of her being.
The end of the dry season is nigh and towards the mountains the humidity coalesces in larger and larger clouds, giving the sky a pearlescent, even redder sheen. The sky is the colour of blood and the muggy heat is barely manageable.
Ahsoka longs for the crystal clear, icy pool at the botttom of the sinkhole, for the easy camaraderie of that afternoon, for smiles and laugher and joy.
That was how mending should have looked like, not this. Never this.
He must know it too.
And yet days go on between duty and a rising tension, palpable in the air.
Maul affects indifference and detachment, but she can tell that he is growing progressively more nervous and high-strung. She can hear him move restlessly on his pallet during the night, and deep shadows have returned under his eyes.
Even he cannot keep his guard up at all times, though, and sometimes she can just peek under his mask of detachment.
His eyes are hollow and haunted, as if something is consuming him.
Sleep starts to elude her too.
She should find a way of breaking through to him, of helping him, of fixing this. She promised she would be there for him, but he's not letting her.
She should have known better than to depend so much upon him, she berates herself privately.
Attachment leads to suffering, she repeats, over and over.
She shouldn't have let this happen.
She shouldn't care, but she does, no matter how much she tries not to, and her worry for him is consuming her.
Tendrils of anger and frustration tangle in her thoughts, slowly stirring them further and further until some days her deeply-ingrained Jedi training is the only thing preventing her from bursting in a torrent of recriminations, from taking her things and leaving.
A storm is brewing, and not only in the sky. She almost hopes that this oppressive, unnatural calm will break soon, no matter how explosively.
Anything would be better than this slow withering.
That night, she twists and turn on her mattress, not quite awake, but not really asleep either. She has long kicked away her blanket, but even so her skin is coated by a sheen of sweat.
The previous day they have switched off the air-con of the ship to save fuel and the Gauntlet has equilibrated with the outside temperature, transforming into a sauna.
They have briefly discussed sleeping outside, under the canopy they have built just outside of the airlock, but eventually decided it would hardly make a difference. There is not a lick of wind to be had, and at least there are no snakes or mosquitos inside.
She is peripherally aware of Maul, twitching and turning on his own mattress next to her, immersed in his own private brew of overheat and anxiety, of their shared room on the Gauntlet, of the noise of the air recycling at the edge of her hearing range, but somehow they don't seem real.
Not more real than the rest, at any rate.
Images flash in her mind: dreams, memories, maybe visions. In her current state the distinction is hard to make.
Everything is blurred together in a mire that sucks her in deeper and deeper, showing her ever more disturbing, haphazard images, stapled together with familiar faces and places made unrecognisable and alien by the juxtaposition.
She struggles to wake up completely, but she can't.
It's like quicksand: the more she struggles, the worse it gets.
A sudden scream shatters the infernal mirror maze.
Ahsoka bolts upright, completely awake and alert, eyes wide open in the darkness, heart pumping madly.
The light is barely enough for her to make out a darker shape in the darkness.
Maul is thrashing on his mattress, in the throes of a nightmare, or a night terror, most likely.
His eyes are wide open and glassy, focused in the distance on some horror that only he can see.
He's not just writhing, he's struggling against some remembered or imagined restraints.
"Mother!" he calls, hitting the back of his head against the floor as he tries to break free, to run to her, to save her.
"Maul! Maul, please wake up!" Ahsoka entreats, touching his shoulder and gently shaking him in the hope that it will somehow snap him out of whatever he's seeing before he hurts himself.
One moment she is kneeling over him, the next she's somehow flat on her back.
Her instincts and training take over and she's rolling with the movement, kicking her legs up and pulling to throw her assailant off and away.
There is a resounding clang of metal on metal, a sharp intake of breath, a soft whimper.
She pushes herself back to her knees, shaking her head to clear it.
Maul is a couple of steps away from her, back against the wall, curled up awkwardly with one arm around his knees and the other protecting the back of his neck.
Ahsoka has seen that pose too many times during the war not to know what it means.
Her eyes fill with tears, her heart twists and aches with too many feelings.
"Oh, Maul... I am so sorry..." she whispers.
He doesn't seem to even hear her.
He's shaking and his breath comes in shallow, harsh gasps, as if he couldn't breathe properly.
She scoots closer, still on her knees and he cringes away from her, bracing for a blow.
"It's me, Ahsoka." she says, as quietly and gently as she can manage, trying to keep her voice steady in spite of her tears.
"It's just me. I won't hurt you. No one will. You are safe. I will keep you safe. I promised, remember?" she continues, inching closer and closer.
He doesn't retreat any further. He doesn't really have anywhere else to go, but Ahsoka decides that it is because she is getting through to him.
"I am here for you." she whispers, reaching out until her fingers brush his arm.
He tenses again, but she holds her ground and eventually he uncoils fractionally, raising his head and daring to take a glance at her.
"Ahsoka..." he infuses her name with so much relief that it is almost painful to hear.
"What... what's happened?" he asks, uncoiling a bit further and looking around to get his bearings.
"It's OK. You had a nightmare." she reassures him.
"I... I thought... he was here." Maul confesses, so quietly that she struggles to her it, even though she is kneeling next to him.
A shudder runs through him. Instinctively he curls up once more, lowering his head.
"He's never going to touch you again." she vows.
Hatred is not the Jedi way, but she cannot help the wave of loathing that crests inside her. It feels wrong to see Maul so defeated, so helpless, so hurt.
"He killed them all, Ahsoka." his voice breaks into a sob, tears start pooling in his eyes, but he doesn't stop.
"My brother, my mother, my people... they are all dead because of me..."
"Maul, it is not your fault." Ahsoka tries to argue with him, but he barely notices.
"It is. I put them in the line of fire with my idiotic quest for revenge. I put them in the spotlight even though I should have known better than to attract attention. I knew him, I knew what he could do, what he had already done..." he sobs again and his hands tangle in his horns, gripping them almost ferociously.
"He knew where I was. He left me on Lotho Minor to die because he wanted me to disappear. I should have gotten the message. I should have died down there..." it's the first time he actually tells her anything about the years between Naboo and his reappearance as a pirate. It's even worse than she supposed.
"I wish I had. I wish they had never found me. I wish I could go back and hide better." his voice is quiet and strained and angry.
Ahsoka doesn't know what to say, doesn't know what to do.
"All their lives in exchange for a failure like me? It's a joke, a bloody joke." he is laughing and crying at the same time now.
The back of his head hits the wall of the Gauntlet with a resounding clang.
Ahsoka has already tackled him to the ground before he can do it again and she is holding him tight against her, half-restraint and half-embrace.
"You're not a failure. You're not." she sobs. She's crying even harder than him.
"I failed them, Ahsoka. I failed them all. I took and didn't give back. I used them, thinking I was so much better than them for not getting attached, thinking I was special... I was not. They were and I was never worth their loyalty, their love, their sacrifice... I didn't even understand how much they mattered until it was too late..."
He doesn't try to struggle though, he doesn't push her away. No, he lets her hold him, curling into her warmth for comfort.
Ahsoka feels as if her heart is tearing in two, because she understands that feeling, she understands his guilt.
She is guilty of it too, for taking her friends and family for granted, for walking away, thinking herself so morally superior.
She abandoned them.
She had missed the last year of their lives and had never ended up telling them how much she loved them.
If she had spoken, if she had told her how much she mattered perhaps Barris wouldn't have broken and turned, perhaps Fives wouldn't have gone mad, perhaps Anakin wouldn't have become so bitter and lonely. But she has kept quiet, and they are gone. Part of her, perhaps the best part, has died with them.
Words gush out of her mouth almost without her control.
All the things she has never told anyone, all her lost, forbidden joys, all her hidden pain, she tells it all and even though he is was an enemy, it doesn't feel wrong.
He knows, he understands.
Somehow he shares her grief and he is embracing her just as fiercely, holding her tight but somehow still gently. Ahsoka feels as if it is the only thing keeping her together, as if she would shatter if he ever let her go.
"I am so sorry, Ahsoka. So sorry..." he whispers stroking a hand down her back.
"It's not your fault." she manages to whisper back between tears.
"I am sorry for the last few days too..." he adds.
Ahsoka perks up a little bit and pays attention. It might have been harsh on her part, but she had never imagined he had the emotional awareness to actually admit he was wrong.
"I thought this time it would be different, I thought I could do better, I thought I could protect you, keep you safe... Being out there with you made me feel like I could do anything..." he continues softly, a hint of wistfulness riding on his words.
"But I came back in here and I remembered how it is in truth. I am not strong enough. I am not brave enough. When he comes for you, it will be the same as it was before... and I can't face it..." he confesses.
His voice breaks and he hides his face in the crook of her neck, like a scared child.
"You matter too much, Ahsoka. I don't know why, but you do. You make me feel... I don't even know how to describe it... like I am worth another chance, despite everything. Like there is still something worth living and fighting for." he continues and the fact that he would probably interpret it as rejection is the only thing that keeps her from breaking into fresh tears.
"You make me want to make you smile, to make you happy." he adds.
"You make me feel the same." there is no one left to tell her that she should not feel like this, that she should never encourage these feelings.
They are what's left, and they need this to survive, just as much as they need sustenance.
"I don't know what to do. I know I have to let you go to keep you safe, but I can't. And I tried... I tried to put some distance between us, but it felt wrong, so very wrong... Sending you away would be like trying to breathe without air." he whispers.
He has pulled back enough that they can look each other in the eye. His are even more red-gold than usual, swollen with tears.
He is beautiful, and brave and terrified, and she feels exactly the same as he does. Like a part of her would die once more if she let him push her away.
"Then don't. Breathe with me. We have lost too much already to do this to each other." she whispers, then inspiration strikes her.
"He would love it, you know? To watch us throw away what happines can still be found in this Galaxy because we are afraid of him. To watch us cower and die bit by bit. It's just like you told me when you rescued me: if we give up, we give him a free win."
It's on the verge of manipulation, but she hardly has any other choice, and when a glint of defiance, of hope even, appears in his eyes she knows it was the right thing to do.
"So what do we do?" he asks.
"He thinks he's taken everything away from us, so we build something new in spite of him. He thinks he's broken us for good, so we fight back every day by healing." she says and as she does she realises that this is as important as stopping his minions and twarthing his plans.
"We defy him by living on our terms." he adds.
He seems to be on board.
Ahsoka can't even describe how happy it makes her.
"Exactly. What do you think?"
"It's a good plan." he says quietly.
She can feel him relax even further against her, as if exhaling a long-held breath. He lays his forehead against hers and closes his eyes.
He looks exhausted, but also oddly content and peaceful, like the first night they slept side by side, and he doesn't let go of her.
"I missed you." he admits quietly.
"Me too..." she has been waiting to say it for long, long days.
"I want to have more days like we had at the sinkhole. I was happy." she adds, feeling almost embarrassed by the intensity of her longing.
"We will have them, my Lady. I promise. As many as we want." he longs for them too, for her company, for happiness and confort.
It shows in his every word, in the way he holds her even closer, in the brush of his fingers against her tearstained cheek.
The impulse to kiss him flashes through her veins, making her skin prickle with heat and electricity.
She stops herself just in time, mentally slamming her foot on the brakes.
She can't do it, not like this, not without asking him, and certainly not without thinking of the consequences.
He's beautiful and vulnerable and so, so fucking amazing, and it feels so right to be there in his arms, to hold him, to bask in his warmth and presence, to comfort and be comforted.
It feels perfect and she's not going to ruin it by giving in to her hormones. Even if he somehow retributed, of which she has no indication (she doesn't even know of he's into women, for crying out loud!), he doesn't deserve to be used as emotional stress relief, to be treated as a tool again.
After all he's been through, he deserves to be loved, and she doesn't.
Not that way.
Not for real.
She's only even considering it because she's literally cooped up with him.
It's Aldeeranian Syndrome or something like that.
"This needs to stop. Immediately." she tells herself.
She takes a deep breath and exhales just as deeply, visualising the fire draining out of her and into the steel plating below them.
"Is everything alright?" Maul asks.
A tinge of apprehension has seeped into his tone once more.
Ahsoka nods, not quite trusting her voice yet. "I am a bit all over the place." she says finally.
"I am sorry I put you through so much stress." He shifts his hold on her and one of his hands rises to cup the back of her head, sending happy goosebumps all the way down her spine.
"You... you were just as stressed." she offers, hating the way her voice grows quiet and husky.
"I am exhausted." he admits.
"You haven't slept much lately, have you?" she probes, but gently.
Maul makes a negative-sounding noise in the back of his throat.
"I kept on dreaming that I lost you as well."
"I am right here. I am not going anywhere." she tries to reassure him, but she knows that her words can hardly help against the terrible thoughts and memories that seep in like poison in the dark hours of the night, against the nerves that sing with anticipated pain and humiliation.
She cannot claim to begin to understand how hurt he has been, but she has had her share of trauma and she knows things don't work that way.
"Would... would it help it if I remained with you?" she whispers.
Her heart races, her cheeks burn. She tries to ignore it.
She is not doing it for herself. She is just trying to help, she tells herself.
Maul looks at her in silence, doubt in his eyes and Ahsoka curses herself for having pushed him too far.
She braces for rejection, rehearsing apologies in her head.
Her anxiety-fueled internal dialogue is so loud that she almost misses it.
Her train of thought slams instantly to a halt and she holds her breath, waiting, listening.
"Please, Ahsoka. Stay." he repeats.
She almost melts in relief.
"I will. For as long as you want me to." she promises.
Somehow they manage to move back to their beds without letting go of each other. Ahsoka wouldn't be able to recall how, but it hardly matters: Maul is warm and relaxed, curled as tightly as possible against her back, his arms wrapped around her in a tight, gentle embrace.
In theory it should feel too hot, but in practice it is perfect.
It feels good to be held, to take comfort in another's presence and comfort them in turn.
His breath sends pleasant shivers against her lekkus as it evens out in sleep.
Thunder cracks and rolls in the distance. Outside the storm has finally broken and rain pours in torrents all over the Gauntlet, murmuring and pattering against the cladding in an oddly relaxing symphony of noises.
Lulled by the storm and by Maul's embrace, she falls asleep more easily than she ever has in the last year.
Chapter 8: The Village
Apologies for the long delay in posting. Work and other projects have kept me too busy to be able to update lately, and then there was the Tumblr meltdown...
So this chapter finally shows Maul's PoV and his take on the situation. The plot goes forward and so does the relationship between the characters.
Bear with me if this is slow going. The action will arrive eventually, but for now the focus is pretty much on the relationship between the characters and on their healing/learning process.
They can't go around kicking arse if they're struggling to cope.
But this is a hopepunk story in more ways than one and militant antifascism will arrive eventually.
Chapter warnings: dysfunctional coping mechanisms, grief, guilt, mental health issues, aggression, stress, swearing.
P.S. if tumblr melts down even further you can find me as secondgenerationimmigrant on Mastodon @witches.live
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Their life on Dathomir is not really easy, but it's surprisingly good.
They hunt and forage for food, train and learn together or from each other. They sleep in the Gauntlet or under the stars when it's too hot to stay indoors.
They have their low moments, quite often to tell the truth, but they laugh too, even though it seems like a sacrilege at times.
They climb and run, they play, competing just for fun, and it feels so good that he doesn't even mind losing anymore.
Sometimes they embark on longer quests that have them camping out in the forest or in half-destroyed villages for a few days, but their little camp next to the Gauntlet feels increasingly permanent.
He is not quite sure of it, because he's never really allowed himself to get attached to a place before, but he thinks it feels increasingly like home, and he relishes how their meagre belongings are jumbled together, scattered in their peculiar brand of order around their room, their bed.
Sometimes they joke about how domestic they have become, but the ruse it's pretty transparent. They both enjoy the company, the comfort, the safety.
Ahsoka is not his apprentice nor, Force forbid, his master. She is partner, his companion, his friend even.
He had never imagined he would have any use for a friend, but he does. He needs her just as much as he used to need Savage or his mother and it's scary because it means that someone could use her to hurt him, but he's tried and he can't do without her any more than without his prosthetics.
She's part of him now.
He's come to terms with it, with the need to care for her and protect her, to make sure that she's safe and happy and that she has all the knowledge she needs to protect herself in case he can't.
Just like she does for him, in fact.
It should be galling to have that barely-Knighted Lightsider think that she can protect him, as if she was a better warrior than him or something, but in fact the only thing he finds inside himself when she tries is gratitude.
He's grateful for all the small things she does to make him feel less broken, for the camping food under the stars, for the comforting words, for the worry and the scoldings when he does something to harm himself, for the warmth of her smooth skin against his as they sleep tangled together under a blanket.
He tries to retribute as much as he can with his imperfect understanding of emotions, people and life, but even if he makes mistakes (as he must), she always seems to appreciate the effort.
To her it doesn't seem to matter how flawed and imperfect he is, only that he does his best.
He tries. Hard.
He doesn't want to ruin this new life he has been gifted with.
It's his fourth, or fifth, all counted, but it's the first one in which he' s actually allowed himself to be happy.
And he's terrified.
Happiness is scary.
It's vulnerable, fragile.
Every fragment of life or memory that he manages to reclaim, every newly discovered joy, every burst of excitement and laughter, every quiet moment of peace... it's all something that can be taken away, that can be used to hurt him and break him.
His training was meant to wean him from such need, such weakness, and yet he is seeking it again, even though he knows how much it hurts, even though the knowledge of how much he stands to lose is etched all around him: farmsteads and villages razed to the ground, temples gutted by bombs, sacred groves desecrated, and unburied, broken, charred bodies strewn among the rubble like discarded toys.
What do you think you're doing?
He's the Emperor of the Galaxy, Lord of all.
And you? What are you?
Nothing. Less than nothing.
A speck of dust on his slippers, a worm cowering at his feet.
You can't win this fight. You don't stand a chance.
This, this is what is going to happen once more. This is all you can hope to achieve.
You failed them.
You will fail her.
You will see her die.
The voice whispers in his ear every time he lets his guard down.
It sounds a bit like his own and a lot like Sidious', like the voice floating in the darkness of the tunnels, the voice that for long years used to tell him how weak and despicable and unworthy he was, the voice whose lies prevented him from realising who the real enemy was until it was much too late.
In spite of it all, it is still as compelling. Sometimes he has to physically hold on to something to prevent himself from running away from all he has reclaimed, from giving up on all of it and holeing himself up somewhere to be forgotten, to feel nothing and be nothing.
If he had been on his own, he probably wouldn't have made it.
Eventually he would have crumbled, descending into insanity once more.
But he is not alone this time.
Ahsoka is with him.
When it's all too much, she is there with her voice, her presence, the curve of her easy smiles, the warmth of her embrace.
"Talk to me." he asks her, clinging to the last shreds of self-control.
She always does.
She fills the silence with her warm, bright voice, telling him of all the ways they are going to triumph against their tormentor, of how this is not over yet, and the whispers recede, quieter and quieter, until he can think again, until he can breathe again, until he can pick himself up from the floor once again and continue the fight.
She makes him remember why he is still fighting and every time it is a little easier to recall, a little harder to forget.
The Nightpeople, his people, have fought until the end, until the last warrior standing, just like the Sith from Malachor V, whose spirits Sidious had imprinted on him when he was barely more than a child to motivate him to fight.
The ancient dead's maddened voices claimouring for revenge had been the only counterpoint to the whispers of shame and despair in the darkness of Lotho Minor, the only anchor, no matter how twisted and broken, he'd had not to give up back then.
Just like them, his people have been slaughtered by someone who believes that he can erase whole cultures from history and dominate unopposed.
The Jedi Order back then, the Sith as Sidious envisions them... they are the same: oppressors who are happy to leave graveyard worlds behind them in the name of their all-encompassing, coercitive vision of the future.
Well, fuck them all, he thinks to himself.
Sidious made him into a weapon, the weapon of the Dark Side that was supposed to break the chains of the Galaxy and set it free.
Obvously he lied.
He meant it as a joke, as a subversion, because he is clearly happy with keeping the chains where they are, as long as he can be the one holding them.
It was never a joke to him though. It was his calling, his destiny, his sacred mission, something bigger than himself or even his master, the thing that made him stare death in the eye over and over with a smile on his face, that made hardship, pain and sacrifice bearable, almost welcome.
He can't bring back his dead family, or recover all the years he's lost because of Sidious, but this... this is his to reclaim, his to make real, his to bring to fruition on behalf of the living and the dead.
This is his duty, and it has always been, only now he truly understands what it means, who the real enemy is. This is the cornerstone on which he can rebuild the rest of his life.
He can still make justice.
When the voice comes calling, sometimes he manages to cling to this nugget of clarity.
"I am not nothing." he snarls back, letting his pain turn into anger, into strength.
The power of the Dark Side burns hot in his veins.
"I am the fire that cleanses, the storm wind that blows the fog away.
I am the hunter in the darkness, the weapon that shatters the chains of oppression.
I am not yours anymore.
I am free." he tells the voice, over and over, louder and louder, until it is all but deafened, until it shrivels and crumbles into ash.
He doesn't fall, but he does stumble, and when he comes round Ahsoka is always next to him with a smile and a comforting touch.
"You're the strongest person I've ever met, you know?" she praises.
Maul doesn't feel particularly strong in those moments, just exhausted and under siege, but he never contradicts her.
Her smiles are sweet and bright and too precious to waste.
They fight together every day.
Everything they do, almost every breath they take is an act of defiance, of self-assertion.
They take care of each other in spite of those who want them to suffer, to die.
They clear up the rubble and restore what is still standing in spite of those who have attempted to destroy it.
They honour the dead in spite of those who wanted them to be unmourned and despised.
They salvage all the scraps of documents they come across, and learn, and treasure that knowledge, in spite of those who wanted it to be erased and forgotten.
It's back-breaking, soul-draining work, but it needs to be done.
To him it is as necessary, if not more, as honing his skills to oppose Sidious' minions on the battlefield.
It is the only way he has to show his people, his family, that he cared about them, that he misses them and mourns them, that he will not forget them.
The only way he has to make amends, even if it is way too late, as usual.
They have just finished erecting a cairn over the tomb of a group of warriors, a group of Sisters and Brothers and Mando'ade of Death Watch they found in the main square of a half-demolished village, fallen in the middle of a huge heap of droid scraps.
Maul vaguely remembers them from the battlefield, but if they ever told him their names, he has forgotten them
Their cairn is large though, an imposing mound of rubble, brought by hand from the closest ruins, and the warriors are going back to the Night with all their weapons and all their ornaments.
"To the Unnamed Heroes", the crude stela they erected reads.
Maul and Ahsoka are kneeling in the dirt of the graveyard, before the meagre offerings they have managed to lay out.
A few flowers, a pitcher of sheep's milk, a dusty, rock-hard bread they have found under the rubble of a house. It's all they have to give.
"Ni su'cuyi, gar kyr'adyc, ni partayli, gar darasuum." he whispers.
If the Nightpeople had words of remembrance, he has never known them. These are the words his Mando'ade taught him, the ones they used to share his grief for the death of Savage.
They will have to do.
"Would you be very upset if I asked you something?" Ahsoka asks him, breaking the heavy silence of contemplation and exhaustion.
Her voice holds a hint of anxiety that he's not heard in weeks, her eyes are downcast and glistening with tears, and even her lekkus hang limp and lifeless over her shoulders.
It is not uncommon for either or both of them to break down in tears at the end of the day's work, or even in the middle of it, during these missions, but some weird instinct that he seems to have developed over the course of his cohabitation with her tells him that there is something more.
"You're safe with me, Ahsoka, you know this."
He wraps an arm around her shoulders and pulls her into a partial embrace in an attempt to comfort her and she slumps gratefully against him.
"It's... it's this. The work we're doing here." she forces out, somewhat awkwardly.
Maul feels a stab of regret pierce him, but he understands. This is not her people, nor her duty. This is nothing to her. It's understandable that she might want out.
"You don't have to do it. I can manage on my own." he whispers.
It's a stinking lie, but he says it anyway.
"What? No! That's not what I meant!" she sputters, twisting around until she is facing him but without letting go of him.
"I am glad that you let me help you. I am glad to be part of this. It's important. It feels right." she buries her face against his shoulder, clinging on to him hard, fingers digging in his arms.
He doesn't mind. It's not like he doesn't do it to her in turn at times, and in truth he is glad that she seems to be as hungry for tactile comfort as he is.
He can take a few bruises if it helps her feel better.
He manages to free a hand and slides it gently down her back, over and over in a mutually shoothing motion. Her breath hitches, then evens out and deepens as she relaxes a bit.
"It's just... I don't want my people to be forgotten either." she adds after a while.
"You... you want to build a memorial to the Jedi? Here?"
It takes all his self-control to keep his voice even, but his hand falls still and his spine stiffens as his metaphorical hackles rise.
Ahsoka nods. A small, pained noise rises from her throat and tears well faster from her eyes.
The bloody voice rears its ugly head once more, dominating his thoughts for a moment.
The Jedi are our enemies!
They're self-serving hypocrytes who oppose everything that is truly great and glorious! They're parasites that needed to be destroyed and reviled!
They took everything from us, killed us, maimed us, put us in chains.
They deserve to be forgotten!
For a moment the mere notion of doing something for the Jedi, even for dead ones, feels so completely repulsive and outrageous that it makes his stomach churns and his blood boil with rage.
How dares she even to ask?! How dares she?!
the voice howls and for a moment the urge to hurt her for her trespass burns in his throat and muscles, because she is nothing but one of them...
Do it! Do it! the voice urges, full of sick glee, like when Sidious urged him to kill other child-slaves as training in order to conserve his position as an Apprentice...
Shut up you bastard! Shut the fuck up! he manages to shout back somehow, clinging on to what's left of his hard-won clarity.
Ahsoka is his. His to protect and to care for. He will not harm her, he will not shout at her, he will not humiliate her, no matter how preposterous her requests.
He takes a deep breath and releases it slowly, forcing his mind to clear of all thoughts.
The Jedi were your enemy only because that asshole of your abuser said so, he tells himself, taking the anger the voice had made him feel and repurposing it as a weapon against it.
The ones that killed the Leader and her tribe on Malachor are so long dead that probably their line is extinct, and the ones you've met only attacked you because you were hell-bent on killing them, you dingbat.
It's not that strange, you know? he argues, loud enough to drown the last mutterings of the voice.
If you try to hack someone into pieces, they tend to try and retribute the favour. What else did you bloody expect?
Even bloody Kenobi did what he did in bloody self-defence. He did a shit job of killing you, yes, but that is down to your sodding luck and not to any intentional cruelty, and he would have left you the hell alone if you hadn't gone out of your way to make his life hell for kicks.
He's clenching his fists so hard that he's digging his nails in his palms, but that tirade so uncharacteristically full of swear words is oddly cathartic and is helping him regain control.
He is no longer under the spell of the voice. His thoughts are his own once more.
The Jedi Order was shit? Of course it was! Even Ahsoka says so! he argues to himself nonetheless, driven by the momentum.
And yes, they believed all Sith were evil on principle, but how was that different from your views on the Jedi? They were all told only what their masters wanted them to know, just like you. They were weapons too, just in different hands. And to tell the truth, if Sidious wanted them all exterminated, they were probably worth saving. You should bite the bullet and honour them, at least you'll piss the wanker off! he concludes, but he knows that this is not right either.
This is not about him and his manufactured feuds.
This is about Ahsoka and her welfare.
That bunch of sanctimonious morons were her people, her dead, Sidious' victims just like the Nightpeople, and he knows, he fucking knows that she feels guilty about having forsaken them, about having survived them.
He has been tending to his own spiritual needs, and exploiting her as help, but it has never entered his sodding disaster-zone of a mind to ask her if hers were being satisfied. Very empathetic indeed, you asshole, he tells himself.
If he could kick himself, he would.
"Maul?" Ahsoka's voice breaks through his self-reprimand.
He shakes his head as if to clear it. He has no idea of how long he's been... distracted.
"Maul, what's going on?" she asks.
She has moved back a bit, and her eyes are still wet, but, underneath the grief, there is a hard glint in them.
"I... I'm fine." he doesn't know why he says that.
It's obvious that she has felt most of what was going on in his head and that it was in no way even close to fine.
"You're angry." she counters.
Her Force contracts back towards her, like a snail withdrawing back in its shell for protection, but he can still feel her burgeoning sense of disappointment and betrayal.
Happiness is fragile and sometimes it's not even the big things that break it, but the small ones, like a dysfunctional coping mechanism, like an unconvincing lie said in a moment of shame and discomfort, like a desperate, awkward fumble with words.
"Yes! I mean... No!" he blurts out before he manages to sort his thoughts out properly.
Ahsoka lets out her breath in a short, sharp snort.
"I should have imagined." she comments, her tone grave and flat.
All of a sudden, she's standing, leaving him in the dust without a second look.
"Ahsoka, wait!" he calls, standing in turn.
Dirt grinds in his mechanical joints with a crunching sound.
Ahsoka's lekkus twitch at the sound of his voice, but she doesn't even look back.
Dignity forgotten, he follows her like the lost dog that he is.
"I was not angry with you!" he calls, and this time she stops, just as suddenly as she had started.
"Were you not? Then what was going on? What's the deal?" he tone is harsh, demanding.
She expects a confrontation.
"I... I was trying to process the idea. It's complicated for me."
"Complicated?! This is not complicated at all! You just don't want to do it." she retorts, sharp as a dagger.
"No, it is not like that..." he tries to explain, but she is hardly listening.
Rage and pain emanate from her in waves.
"You say that you understand, that you care, but you're just a self-centered, egotistic asshole!" she yells.
Maul reels back from the her words, as one would from a blow.
It's not like you don't deserve this he tells himself, but knowing that her words are not unjustified doesn't make them hurt any less.
Ahsoka makes to turn tail again.
The temptation to yell back at her and tell her to go screw herself rises within him like the tide, but he forces himself to ignore it he wants to fix this, not make it worse, so he does the next logical thing, reacts quickly and grabs her trailing hand.
"Please, Ahsoka..." he manages to say before she twists in his grasp, swift as a snake, and decks him in the face with all her might.
Maul sees it coming with barely enough time to twist his head and avoid getting his nose in the way, clench his jaw and take it.
He lets go of her and stumbles back, shaking his head to clear it.
Blood trickles down his face from a cut over his cheekbone and his eye is starting to swell.
She gives it good, he thinks with a hint of pride. Those teras käsi lessons have paid off.
A pained noise shakes him out of his contemplation.
Ahsoka is standing there, her bloodied hand held in front of her, an expression of painful distress and horror on her face.
Maul knows that he should be angry, she's just hit him after all, but the thought does not click.
As she slowly folds to the ground, face drenched in tears, holding her wrist in her other hand, the only thoughts that float in his mind are mine, hurt and damn!
Before he knows, he's kneeling on the ground next to her.
Ahsoka makes another distressed noise and tries to shy away, so he stops and raises his hands in surrender.
Force, if she's hit him because his anger had made her feel unsafe, he deserves much worse than a black eye.
"I am not going to hurt you, I promise." he whispers.
Her eyes are wide and full of panic, her breathing pattern overly fast and irregular.
He slowly reaches for her hand, but as soon as his fingers brush against it she twitches it away with a pained noise.
A string of swear words flash through his mind.
He's taught her the technique and she's learned it well, but she doesn't have the experience or the conditioning. She must have made a rookie mistake and fractured a finger, or, worse, her wrist.
"Please, let me see to it, Ahsoka. I only want to help you. Please, my Lady, let me help you..." he's talking precipitously, hearts thumping in his chest.
He knows it's not life-threatening, but her distress is affecting him acutely.
When he tries again she doesn't shy away and lets him touch her. He cradles her hand in his like something precious (it is) and summons the closest metal canteen with a flick of the Force.
Her knuckles are bloodied, but no more blood appears when he washes it away, and yet she sobs quietly as he checks her slender fingers and wrist attentively for bruises and swelling. To see her like this... it physically pains him.
"I am sorry Ahsoka... I am so sorry. I shouldn't have reacted like that. It's hard to unlearn all the lies, but I should have done better by you." he whispers feverishly as he works.
He feels so ashamed he barely dares to look at her, so he focuses on the shape and feel of her hand, on the texture of the calluses from so many years of weilding her sabers, on the small nicks and cuts that pepper her skin from hard work and mishaps, on her natural markings, the same colour as freshly churned cream, that start at her wrists and twist up her forearms.
Beauty and strength and kindness, that's what she is, and so, so important, and yet his apologies are doing nothing for her. If anything she's crying even harder.
"You shouldn't have had to ask. I should have understood, I should have done something way before this point... I... forgive me Ahsoka, please. I know it might be hard to believe it now, but really care for you. It hurts me to see you hurt, to know that I have hurt you..."
When he feels a sudden jolt of movement, he expects another not-undeserved blow. Instinct makes him flinch, even though Sidious usually took it as a sign of weakness and beat him harder for it, but instead of another punch to the face, he receives a lapful of sobbing, shivering Ahsoka.
It's more a tackle than an embrace, but she wraps her arms around his shoulders and hides her face in the crook of his neck.
"'msorry!" she sobs, over and over.
Her lips tickle against his neck and the collar of his tunic is drenched with her tears.
"What... what are you sorry about?" he asks, still slightly on edge, even though the heat of her skin makes him want to melt against her.
"I called you names. I hit you." she sounds mortified, pained.
"It's not like I didn't deserve it, Ahsoka. I was really behaving like an asshole." he says, hoping to soothe her, but his words have the opposite effect.
"No! You didn't! You weren't!" she exclaims, raising her head from his shoulder and looking up at him.
"I hurt you." she repeats, slowly lifting her hand towards his cheek.
"You're bleeding because of me..." her fingers trace the edge of the small cut he had almost forgotten about and it stings, but at the same time it feels so oddly pleasant that he has to bite back an inappropriate groan.
"It's barely a wound, Ahsoka. A couple of days and it will be gone." he counters quietly so that she won't notice how much this is affecting him.
"That's not the point. I was supposed to keep you safe... and here I am, taking my stress out on you because I can't articulate it." she argues.
He's not the only one who is too strict with himself. They really are a pair in several different ways.
"I don't feel unsafe with you, Ahsoka. We are still healing. We will mess up every now and again. This changes nothing. Not a single thing." he argues back, holding her as close as he dares.
Now that he knows what's wrong, he's not going to let this incident ruin things between them.
"You are not a bad person." he adds.
"I feel like one." her voice is small, brittle, but she is relaxing once more against him, holding him and letting herself be held.
He takes it as a good sign.
"I know how hard this whole thing is for you, and yet I was jealous." she confesses, her tone flat and grave, dulled by guilt.
"Because at least I have bodies to bury and tombs to place offerings at." he concludes for her.
She tries to speak but all that comes out is a strangled sob, so she nods, fresh tears welling from her swollen eyes.
"We will fix this, my Lady. We will fix it together." he promises.
Ahsoka nods, sniffling and wiping tears from her eyes with the heels of her hands.
She seems so very young now, so very tired...
"We're done here." he decides.
"Are... are you sure?" she asks, but he won't be swayed.
It's only late afternoon, it's true, and they would have a few more hours of light to work.
In any other circumstances, he would have continued until full darkness, but he can't stomach the idea of forcing her to suppress her grief again. It is no smaller or less important than his. She has every right to it and to express it in any way she sees fit.
This time he's going to be the one to support her.
"Let's go back to camp." he says. It's all the warning he gives her before he shifts his arms around her and stands, holding her against his chest.
Ahsoka yelps in surprise, but makes no move to climb down.
"You don't have to do this." she objects, but her heart is clearly not in it.
If she's anything like him, outbursts like this must leave her tired and emotionally drained. Hell, he is feeling like that even though he's managed to avoid a breakdown. All considered, he's doing this for his own reassurance too.
"I know, but it will still be my pleasure." he retorts as he starts to trek back to their camp.
Said camp is not far, sheltered under the vines growing over a miraculously intact wooden trestle, all that it's left of a former garden.
The location is scenic, but the camp itself is not much of a looker: a fire-pit lined with former paving slabs, a stash of scavenged food, their bedroll and the Mando speeder bike that came with the Gauntlet, with their packs strapped to a homemade luggage rack. Essential but functional, like the rest of their things.
By the time he sets Ahsoka down on their bed, his arms ache and shake, but he doesn't regret it. Being so close to her, comforting her with his presence... it was well worth the effort.
"Are you hungry?" he asks.
Ahsoka nods weakly, wrapping the blanket around her shoulders.
Nights are getting colder. For once Maul is grateful for Gar's overlarge tunics.
Apart from the years in which he's subsisted on whatever rotting garbage he could put his hands on to keep hunger at bay (or worse things... things that screamed and begged for mercy as he dragged them in the darkness), for most of his life he's eaten high-protein, gluten-free ration bars and supplements, and Ahsoka didn't fare much better in the Order.
For both of them homemade food and the act of cooking are not just a source of nourishment, but, and more importantly, of comfort and care.
A potful of water from the pump he repaired in the village square, some flour from some kind of starchy pulse a sackful of which was hidden in the basement of a house they tore down to make the cairn, a handful of dried mushrooms from their own provisions and a chunk of crumbly, sharp salvaged goat's cheese, plus time and patience, and eventually they have two bowls of steaming, thick, savoury porridge in front of them.
They eat in exhausted but companionable silence, sitting side by side on a torn mat and eventually curl together on their single bedroll, under their single blanket, as close as they can.
After days of hard work and with not enough water to spare for a proper shower, Maul knows he must stink, but Ahsoka hides her face against the side of his neck and inhales, as if he smelled like flowers or a fresh kill.
"When we're back, you'll pick a place close to our camp and we'll start working on your memorial." he whispers.
His fingers trace idle patterns on her side and ribs through the thin tunic she wears to bed.
"Are you sure?" she worries.
"Of course. You will want to perform rites there, won't you?"
Ahsoka nods. Further tears stream from her eyes.
"There you go. It will be easier if it is close by." he concludes with a smile.
"But... but your family is buried nearby." she objects.
"So what? Didn't you tell me that they're not really there? That they're back in the Force, that they are in every star that glitters, in every breath of wind, in the sun glinting on water, in every birdsong, everywhere?" he reminds her and before he knows he is crying too.
Force, he misses them so much... all of them, even the half-remembered cousins he had dismissed as ignorant hillibillies.
And yet somehow he feels as if they really are there, still watching over the two of them, still caring.
Somehow he knows they won't begrudge her this.
"You remembered..." Ahsoka whispers, her eyes going wide in surprise.
"It is a beautiful poem, even though it was written by a Jedi. And it's comforting to see it this way. It's another wonder you have shown me, my Lady. One of many." he retorts warmly.
Even in the low light of the dying fire he can see the blush rising on her cheeks, tinting them pink and bright orange like a sunset.
"I am lucky to have found you, Maul. I know my brethren would throw a massive fit if they could hear me now, but it's true. You are a good person."
Her voice is quiet and sweet and her fingers ghost against his still-swollen cheek, sending pleasant shivers down his spine.
She makes him want to be better, to be more than just the weapon he knows himself to be. She makes him want to be a man, worthy of care, of affection, of these beautiful bittersweet moments, of her.
Unnamed, half-unknown emotions churn in his hearts, making them feel to big for his chest, large and tumultuous enough not to leave him enough air to speak, so he curls closer to her, petting her lekkus with the gentlest touch as they drift together towards sleep, until eventually the storm inside him subsides, leaving behind an interval of crystal clarity between sleep and wakefulness.
"I love you, Ahsoka Tano." he manages to say before the Night claims him as her own.
Ni su'cuyi, gar kyr'adyc, ni partayli, gar darasuum = while I am alive, you are dead, while I remwmber, you are immortal.
Chapter 9: The Pool
Apologies for the very long delay between chapters, I am trying to write scientific grants and original fiction and to help organise climate justice actions, so there is never enough time to do anything... sigh.
This chapter follows directly from the prveious and starts to deal with Ahsoka's request... and her feelings, with some ancestor worship, magic and necromancy thrown in for good measure.
Warnings: some mild suicidal ideations, grief and angst.
The sound of running water from the shower is a humming background to her thoughts and the heat soaks into her tired muscles. The foresty, honeyed scent of the soap fills the vapour-laden air as she lathers it onto her skin, grasping the slippery block with care and patience. Solid soap is not something she is accustomed to. Its making is an archaic practice long fallen into disuse and oblivion on Coruscant.
This is from Dathomir, made by hand by the Sister (or the Brother) in whose half-destroyed house they found it. Now that they are running out of the stocks they had on the Gauntlet, they are replacing them more and more with goods they have scavenged from the ruins or crafted themselves using Dathomiri recipes.
It's another way of preserving their culture and knowledge.
This particular herbal soap is supposed to soothe the body and the soul. After the last few days working among the ruins and her latest breakdown, she needs all the help she can get to relax.
She takes a series of deep breaths, exhaling slowly every time, but the thoughts she's trying to banish don't leave.
She is not sure she even wants them to leave, even though it would be wiser.
Dear Jedi Agony Aunt , Ahsoka thinks to herself in full sarcasm mode, for the last few months I have been cohabitating platonically with the former-enemy-turned-saviour/best friend for whom I have a huge and definitely not just platonic crush.
He's arrestingly handsome and sweet and brave and we work really well as a team and have great fun together. He supports me when I am too broken to function, and he trusts me enough to show how vulnerable he actually is under his extremely-competent-stoic-killer façade.
I thought that what I felt for him was just Aldeeranian Syndrome, but lately I am not so sure.
I care for him. A lot. I might even love him, not that I would know how it feels, because Jedi...
Problem is, he's been abused most of his life to the point that sometimes he goes non verbal becaude he lacks the emotional vocabulary to express what he feels. Also, I don't even know if he likes women.
Actually, judging from the hate-crush he used to have for my grand-Master Kenobi, he's probably into guys.
And even if he were into girls, he's been gravely injured in battle some fifteen years ago, so he is most likely incapable of fully retributing my interest even if he wanted to, and the very last thing I want is for him to feel humiliated because of this.
Now, a few days ago said beautiful disaster of a man told me that he loves me. He didn't know I could hear him, and he probably meant it in a totally platonic "you're the little sister I never had" way, but I can't help but hope he didn't.
What should I do?
As she had imagined, no response is forthcoming. The Force doesn't usually deal with Jedi relationship troubles and her received wisdom has nothing useful to teach her.
A Jedi Elder would have advised her to cut ties, or would have transferred her to a different mission, a different planet, a different quadrant altogether to keep her and the source of her doubts separate.
Perfect, selfless service with no ulterior loyalty was what her brethren expected: no family, no love, no friendship, no other committments were allowed but the one to the Order. There was no life beyond service. Everything else was a distraction, a liability that had to be set aside for the Greater Good.
At the time of her Padawan vows, with the War looming on the horizon, the Sith gaining ground and the knowledge that if it hadn't been for the Jedi she would have lived a short, brutal life in the slave quarters of Tattooine, and that she had nowhere else to go should she refuse, Ahsoka had accepted the whole package without blinking.
She had bent the rules to be with Barris and then with Lux, but never challenged them.
She accepted that her need for love was a flaw that she needed to fix, she accepted that she was wrong in seeking it, and that the pain she felt when it ended was a just punishment for her transgressions.
Now in hindsight her upbringing was not so dissimilar from Maul's, minus the overt abuse and violence.
Both had been taught that their life was not their own, but just an instrument in a larger cause to which they were supposed to sacrifice everything they had, everything they were, all of their dreams and desires; both had been pressed into service when they had been too young to actually understand and had no choice but to accept it.
It is ironic how in a way the Jedi and the Sith had been nothing but a twisted mirror of each other.
Maybe this is just a sign of how far she has fallen, but she doesn't want to pretend that what she's feeling is not happening. She doesn't want to degrade all of this to a mistake, to a base desire, to a weakness.
This makes her feel alive, cared for and stronger than she's ever felt. Strong enough to look back on her past and notice all the ways it was twisted and broken and wrong. Strong enough to dream she can build a better, fairer future for herself and others.
So what if I love him? she thinks to herself as she towels herself dry, trying the word for size.
She is not sure what it means in truth, but if it's anything like wanting for someone to be happy and safe, like craving for their company, their touch, their presence, like treasuring every little happy moment spent with them, like wanting to hold them and never let them go, then yes.
She loves him with every little bit of her heart and, if she's honest with herself, she has for a while. At least since the night they decided to fight together for their lives, or maybe even earlier, since the sinkhole.
It's been so long that she doesn't even remember anymore, and all the while she had not even realised.
She is very tempted to hide in the fresher until she's had a bit of time to process the revelation, but she's already been there for a while and they have quite a lot to do. Plus, she's never been the type of person to hide from a challenge, and she's not going to start now.
Taking a deep breath, she opens the door and steps out.
Maul is there waiting, dressed in Nightpeople clothes: baggy dark grey trousers and a sleeveless, knee-length tunic with a hood, chinched around his waist by a leather belt from which dangles the Darksaber. The cut on his cheek has nearly healed, and there is a lively glint in his eyes.
He looks absolutely stunning, proud and confident, like a prince of his people. It takes all of her concentration not to stare or worse.
"You look like a Sister in these." he comments, taking a couple of steps towards her until they are standing at less than arm's length.
Her outfit is not dissimilar from his, except that the cloth is a shade lighter and bluer, more faded indigo than grey, and the cut is slightly more femini ne, with a fitted waist and a bit more room up top. They have recovered both from some kind of armoury attached to a ruined temple and probably belonged to a local cadre of initiated warriors and even though they are clean, they are obviously not new.
"I hope you don't mind." she says, trying to read the signs of an impending flashback, like the one he'd had when she had worn Rook's clothes, in his glinting, slightly hooded gaze, but he seems serene, content.
"I don't. Are you comfortable?"
Ahsoka nods. "Designed for battle, aren't they?" she comments appreciatively.
A small smile appears on his face. "Most likely."
That was one of the reasons why they picked them up, the other being that everything else was in the laundry bin or way too large to be any use to either of them.
It is easy to forget because of his powerful, intense presence and vitality, but Maul is not a large man. Broad-shouldered yes, but wiry with lean muscle rather than bulky, and not very tall. He's barely taller than her, so that standing like this they can't help but look in each other's eyes.
"They suit you." she can't help but say, smoothing a hand over the soft fabric of his tunic.
His hearts beat fast, fast, fast under her palm, faster even than normal for a baseline Zabrak because of the reduced blood volume they have to deal with, and his body radiates comforting heat.
Suddenly all she wants is to melt against it, to lay back down on the bed with him and drift into a peaceful trance as they hold and pet each other like the other night in the ruins. The need to kiss him prickles under her skin like a fever.
"So, do you want to train this morning, or shall we start looking for your Place of Remembrance?" Maul asks, stepping back and turning towards the door.
Ahsoka swallows her disappointment and forces herself to calm down. Duty first, sentimental troubles later.
She will find the right moment to tackle the issue.
They head towards the mesas with an old-fashioned paper map and a compass. Dathomir doesn't seem to have a satellite network, not a functioning one at least, so they make do with old-fashioned navigation techniques, charting their course through gullies and defiles in search for the perfect place.
The Twins are already high in the sky when she finds it: a crack in the cliff-face hides a deep rock shelter that forms sort of a natural chapel, the pinkish sandstone flanked by flowering trees in bloom. A brook flows through the entrance, babbling among large, smooth rocks covered in purplish moss, a quiet, soothing sound that reminds her of the Room of a Thousand Fountains back at the Temple.
"Here?" Maul asks, hovering a step behind her.
Ahsoka nods. Her throat has constricted with tears once again, taking her voice away.
"It's a good place." he reassures her, laying a hand on her shoulder.
"Thank you." she whispers.
"I didn't do anything." he counters, shaking his head.
"You're here." she points out.
She reaches for his hand and he lets her take it, twining his fingers with hers.
"I will always be by your side, Ahsoka." he says, a warm smile spreading on his face.
Her heart twinges almost painfully.
I love you, she thinks, but keeps her silence as they walk towards the entrance of the shelter.
Inside, the limestone is fine and smooth like the inside of a shell, tinted greyish from its natural reddish-pink by the harsh green light of her lightsaber. The darkness outside the circle of illumination is deep and velvety, like soft, rich cloth, the quiet almost absolute, broken only by the soft, liquid sounds of the brook and by their breath.
"Here, try this." Maul hands her a stick-like flashlight which glows warm and orange.
The cave glows like a sunset, striped with subtle shades of darker pink, yellow, red and orange, its walls smooth except a boulder-like projection on one side. The floor is also smooth limestone, overlaid by a thin layer of dust, and at the center of it lies an almost perfectly circular pool of dark, deep waters, filled by the brook as it filters through a crack in the back wall.
Pale shapes dart through the gloom, disturbed by the light and dark algae and moss line its walls.
"A secondary sinkhole." Maul notes.
A second flashlight in hand, he's examining the space with an almost awed expression.
Ahsoka shares his awe. The place would have been perfect as a shrine for his tribe or as a shelter for some kind of native wildlife, but there are no traces, no bones, no excrement, no potsherds, no trampled artefacts, to suggest either kind of occupation.
The cave looks pristine, as if it was waiting especially for her, and thrums with the Living Force, beckoning, promising peace and purpose.
"How do we do this?" she asks.
For a moment, the weight of the responsibility overwhelms her, almost cutting her breath off.
"This is your Memorial. I can and will help you, but you will have to do it. With your Force, your will and your voice." he replies quietly.
"My voice?!" Ahsoka repeats, uncomprehending.
"To speak the names of the dead is to give them life." he recites.
"Not literally, I hope." she can't help but joke trying to lighten the solemn atmosphere.
Maul doesn't laugh, though. If anything, for a moment he looks slightly worried.
"No, I don't think so. You'd need specific rituals for that." he replies earnestly.
Ahsoka gapes at him like a beached fish.
"Then it's true... the witches..." she sputters.
"Yes, it is. The Sisters knew how to raise the dead to fight for them." he concludes for her.
"And before you ask, no: I don't know how to do it, and even if I did, you don't want to do it, trust me." he hastens to add, looking chagrined and a bit nauseous.
"Undeath is never a good look. You'd much rather remember your people as they were." he looks away, down to the limestone floor.
"The strange bodies we find every now and again..." Ahsoka dares to ask, taking his hand in hers once more.
"Sisters, twice-dead, summoned to fight as ravenous ghouls in the last battle."
"They did what they could against treachery and overwhelming odds." it's all Ahsoka has to offer.
"A fitting epitaph for both your people and mine." Maul comments with a harsh laugh.
He means it as a cruel, bitter joke, but something clicks in her mind as he speaks and suddenly she knows how to do it.
Her feet move almost without her knowing and she's standing next to the pool. The flashlight rolls on the floor.
A blade glints in the shadows. She barely flinches when it flashes across her outstretched palm.
Fat drops of blood drip in the pool.
Time has ground to a halt and the air is so still that she can hear them impact with the water with a clear, sharp sound.
"Hear me, spirits of Dathomir. Hear my words, grant my wish." she calls.
Her voice echoes under the vaulted roof, returning to her in whispers and hisses that sound nothing like her voice. The pool ripples and a fine green mist starts to condense around its rim, as if someone had thrown some dry ice in it.
"Jedi!" a formless voice hisses.
"Enemy... Censor... Zealot..." many others echo.
"No, I come here no longer as an enemy, no longer as a bearer of unwanted dogmas, but as a supplicant!" Ahsoka retorts, pushing those words through the Force with all her will, but the fog ripples ever more furious, tangling around her legs hungrily.
Ravenous, yes. This is the right word. They are going to eat her alive if she doesn't convince them to help her.
"Listen o Sisters! Like you, my people were betrayed, like you they were slaughtered! One enemy undid both, one hand, one will, one blade. We are like twins in our grief." she tries to argue.
"Sidious..." the voice screeches.
"Thief... traitor... murderer..." the rest join in.
"Yes... Our enemy, mine and yours. - Ahsoka continues, feeling a surge of elation flash through her - Please, o Sisters. Let my people rest here. Let them be welcome in peace, let them be remembered like you are. Let them survive as memories, and I will make sure our enemy is stopped and defeated. I will make sure that what happened to you and to my people never happens again." she declares, even as the mist climbs up her legs, burning her skin through her trousers.
"Foolish child! Making promises you cannot keep." the voice hisses.
"Orphan of the Light... lost child... all alone..." the chorus taunts, words like daggers, cutting her to ribbons.
"She is not alone."
Maul is standing on the other side of the pool, a knife in his left hand, the other extended on top of the water, dripping with blood.
The mist recoils as if fanned away by a great wind.
"The Son... the Son is back... he's alive..." it whispers, twisting in awe.
"I am, and as long as I live, I will fight by her side. I will protect her, defend her, avenge her if need be." his voice is quiet but sharp as steel.
"You will not harm her. She is mine." he commands.
Ahsoka feels her heart miss a beat at those words.
Jedi are the children people could live without, the ones who were given up: her mother could never protect her (maybe she didn't even want to, all things considered), the Order expelled her and then tried to pretend it was alright, no harm, no foul, but he is ready to take on his undead, vampiric relatives for her, to let her wish come true, even though it is nothing to him.
Apart from Anakin, no one has ever fought so fiercely for her.
"Is it true? Are you his?" the mist whispers, licking at her ears with soft green tendrils.
Unspoken lies a doubt, a question, a challenge, but she doesn't rise to the bait. She has guilt-tripped herself enough already. Her decision is made.
"I am, and I will stand by him, come whatever may, because he's mine." she says.
I love you, I love you so much... she thinks, leaning forwards. Their hands touch over the pool, blood mingling.
"So mote be it." the mist says and explodes outwards in a green geyser, leaving calm, dark waters, flat as a mirror.
Ahsoka catches a glimpse of a bone-white face, black tattoos and quicksilver eyes.
Asajj... she thinks, but the face is sharper, older, framed by long salt-and-pepper hair studded with sharp Zabrak horns.
"Well chosen, my son..."
Ahsoka is not sure if she's heard or imagined those words, all she knows is that as the image fades into ripples, Maul's expression goes from belligerent, to awed, to absolutely devastated in the space of a breath.
He moves like a blur, but somehow she is a split second faster and flies across the pool, tackling him to the ground before he can dive into it to follow her.
"It's OK now. It's OK. There is no need to jump. She's not really there in the water." she whispers, holding him close as he lays there on the ground, sobbing.
"I know. I know... but she was here... I heard her..." he almost almost wails, squeezing his eyes shut and grabbing his temporal horns as if to keep his head together.
He does that a lot when it's all too much and it would be almost cute if it didn't mean that he can't cope.
"Your mother was here because you were. Because she loves you. She wouldn't have wanted you to jump." she insists.
He's not told her who she was, but there is no need.
She only saw her briefly, but could not help but notice that he looks quite like her, with those sharp, narrow features and bright, piercing eyes.
"I know... but I miss her so much, Ahsoka. I..."
Words fail him for a long moment. The silence is broken only by the sound of their breath.
"She died to save me, you know?" he says eventually, his voice small and hesitant, as if he's ashamed of it.
"You would have done the same for her." she says, not to reassure him, but because she knows him enough to know that he would have.
"I tried. She didn't let me." he confirms. Regret rides thick on his voice.
She knows he wishes she did. Dying would have been easier than living up to that kind of love, to that kind of responsibility.
"You know why." she whispers.
Her hands move almost on their own, stroking rythmically down his back.
"Now I do." he admits, tightening his hold on her.
She doesn't know how long they lie on the ground like that.
The floor is hard and gritty, but it's not too uncomfortable, and she almost regrets it when Maul eventually lets go of her and sits up.
"Next time warn me when you feel like doing something like this, alright?" he chides, gesturing towards the pool.
He doesn't look angry, though. Even though his expression is stern, there is a glint of amusement in his eyes.
Ahsoka feels her cheeks heat up in a blush, almost in spite of herself.
"I thought it was a good idea to ask permission rather than forgiveness. How was I supposed to know that your relatives would actually show up?! Dead people don't usually do that!" she argues, crossing her arms over her chest.
Maul gives her an amused look. A brief bout of laughter escapes him.
"We're not good at staying dead in this family. You'd better get used to it." he declares.
Ahsoka gives him another hug, brief but tight.
"I am glad that you don't. And thanks for standing by me. It means a lot to me."
"I couldn't let my unhinged aunts eat you, could I?" Maul retorts, looking just as embarrassed.
"They wouldn't really have, would they?"
"Maybe..." he starts, unconvinced, then shakes his head.
"To be perfectly honest, probably they would have. At any rate, better safe than sorry, no?" he replies with a shrug and a dollop of forced cheerfulness.
Ahsoka nods decisively, feeling the delayed effects of dread.
Oh Force... What a way to meet the in-laws... she can't help but think, in spite of herself.
"Cheer up, my Lady. I think they liked you."
He stood while she was freaking out and now he offers her a hand up and a grin, which she readily accepts.
"How do you know?" she asks nonetheless.
"Well, they didn't eat you straight away. That's a clear sign of appreciation, isn't it?" he replies, totally serious.
Ahsoka can't help but laugh and as he joins her she feels the remains of shock evaporate from her.
If this was a test, they clearly passed it, whatever that might mean.
The spirits have accepted her request and her pledge. She has a nagging feeling that there is something more to it, but at the moment she is just happy to be alive, content to bask in the acceptance.
Chapter 10: Funerary Rites
Ahsoka has her wish granted and the dead can rest in peace and power.
Also, feels and a hint of my headcanons about the whole "pacifist Mandalorean" situation.
The ritual is inspired by polytheist practices, because the day I'm going to strat treating the Force-religions of Star Wars through a standard "fantasy christianity" lens is the day I will stop writing.
CW: grief, guilt.
Sorry for having dropped out of the face of the earth for more than a month, I was writing scientific grants (n=2), then I had to deal with facility users at work and with a paper, plus environmentalist activism and original fiction.
I survived only thanks to a mix of Dark Side and caffeine, and I am not yet out of the woods, so I cannot guaratee a regular schedule for the future, but I have the best intentions of seeing this to the end and beyond.
It takes them several days of careful, grueling work before they are done.
They sleep just outside the rock shelter, with the sweet-rotten smell of the flowers and the sound of the brook, and toil almost from dawn to dusk inside, the darkness broken only by the light of their torches and the silence only by the rasp of metal on stone and by stray whispers and echoes coming from the pool.
The Nightsisters watch over them as they work, welcoming the dead to their final resting place, as promised.
The sandstone is soft and easy to carve even with their improvised tools, but the task is made daunting by the sheer number of names that need to be memorialised.
Many thousands of people, full Jedi, Padawans and Initiates, perished after the emanation of Order 66, many on the battlefields of the Civil War, shot through the backs by their own troops, their comrades of a hundred fights and many more, the scholars, the young, the wounded, the frail, the old, at the Temple on Coruscant or in other outlying facilities across the Galaxy.
She can only thank Maul for his obsession with Obi-Wan for even being able to pay homage to them all.
If he hadn't decided to hack into the Archive and download a copy of the whole database to get back to speed about his quarry, she would have been left with maybe a hundred of scattered names, a tiny fraction of all that loss.
Her clanmates, her fellow Padawans, the Knights and Masters that taught her or whose path crossed hers during the War. Those are the hardest names to carve.
The chisel feels heavier than a mountain and tears blur her vision, but she persists.
If she doesn't have the strength to remember them, no one will.
She goes on, carving name after name until her hands ache and her eyes and throat itch from all the stone dust, in spite of the goggles and rebreather that Maul has made her wear, until grief and frustration accumulate like the grit at her feet and she feels like screaming or breaking something.
Somehow Maul always seems to know that she's gone too far before she does herself.
He takes the chisel from her hands and leads her outside, to the open air, to the soft light of the Twins. He makes her sit on the purplish grass on the banks of the brook and helps her take off the PPE and wash the grit from her face and arms, gives her water to drink and food to restore her strength. He sits next to her, close enough to touch but not quite and talks to her, trying to reassure her or distract her.
Sometimes he even tries to tell her a story, and even though his stories are mostly cautionary tales of rather gruesome merc-ing accidents happened to acquaintances of his, the quiet sound of his voice and his presence never fail to slowly pull her back from the brink of despair, to remind that there is more to her life than the guilt and grief that she is feeling at the moment.
She remembers how to breathe deeply, how to bask in the warmth of the Suns on her skin, how to laugh.
He's her lifeline once more, but this time she does not begrudge him for it.
If she had words for it, and the courage to say them, she would tell him that she loves him for it, but somehow she never manages.
She is afraid.
Afraid that the the love she feels for him might not be the same that he feels for her, that her misplaced words and feelings will scare him away. She knows for sure that she doesn't stand a chance at surviving this without him.
She doesn't want to lose him so she keeps quiet even though day after day, night after night, her tongue nearly burns with the temptation of saying it out loud.
By the time they finish, Ahsoka feels emotionally and physically exhausted, but she can't help feeling also a little bit proud of their accomplishments.
In the light of the candles they have laid out in strategic locations all around the cave the carvings flicker and flutter like living things, the basic symbols of Aurabesh acquiring an almost artistic quality.
Maul has taken the Darksaber to the boulder projecting from the back wall of the cave, hacking it into a sort of altar.
The symbol of the order, an upright lightsaber flanked by open wings, looms large over it, and carved next to it stands the Jedi Code, carved in large, precise letters.
The idea that he has done this for her in spite of his past hatred for her brethren moves her to tears.
"That ugly?" Maul jokes, shifting nervously from one foot to the other.
Ahsoka makes a negative-sounding noise low in her throat and wraps him in a bruising hug.
"It's beautiful..." she manages to say.
"Why did you..." she starts, but doesn't quite manage to finish the sentence.
"Those are the words by which they lived and died. They shouldn't be forgotten either." Maul explains.
"It's not worth doing something unless you do it to the end?" Ahsoka prods.
"Exactly." he agrees with a severe nod.
"Thank you." she whispers, then lays her head on his shoulder and closes her eyes, basking in the relief of having accomplished her mission and in the safety of his support.
"Do I have the time to make libations and leave some offerings?" she asks eventually.
"All the time you need." comes the reply.
The water from the brook is not strictly lustral, but it's clean and bracingly cold.
Ahsoka strips down to her underwear and splashes herself as well as she can, washing off all the dust and sweat from her skin as quickly as she can while Maul sits close by, his back turned to her, eyes closed, humming tunelessly under his breath.
She turns her clothes inside out and towels herself off with them, then slips on the clean scavenged dark red robe (more like a dress, really) she has packed for the occasion.
"You can turn now." she announces, straightening it self-consciously.
Her heart does a little flip as he does and her hands suddenly feel a bit sweaty and cold.
She knows that she has not changed for his viewing pleasure or to seek his approval, but... the truth is that even now she hopes that he might find her as beautiful as she does him.
"This is different." Maul looks more perplexed than anything else, an eyebrow quirked upwards and a slight tilt to his head.
"What, you've never seen someone in a dress?!" she half-jokes, trying to hide her disappointment.
"Well... no, not really." he replies, looking down and rubbing the back of his neck.
"Not even your relatives?!" she insists, looking as perplexed as he did previously.
"Again, no. I landed here in the middle of a war and this clothing doesn't seem very martial." he argues, stepping closer.
"It's thin and flowing. It would get caught and torn in the vegetation. And it doesn't cover your limbs. It seems ill-suited for fighting, but I do understand its aesthetic appeal. The embroidery is very intricate." he concludes politely, nodding to himself.
Ahsoka bites her lip and nods back. She doesn't know if she wants to slap him for being such a square sometimes, or herself for deluding herself that it would be any different.
"Do you require me to get changed to pertecipate in the ritual?" he asks promptly, as if nothing had happened.
"Not strictly, but it would be nice." she replies, swallowing her disappointment.
It is her turn to face away while he washes in the brook in an amusing little concert of splashes and hissed curses. He likes the cold even less than she does, if anything.
"There, all done." he announces moments later.
He's wearing a fresh pair of trouser and one of Saxon's baggy shirts, open and untucked. A strip of bare patterned skin is visible down his torso and stray droplets of water still cling stubbornly to him, glittering in the light.
Ahsoka clenches her hands into fists, trying to suppress the desire of wiping them off herself.
They are going to perform funerary rituals, it's not the appropriate time to entertain impure thoughts, she chides herself.
They re-enter the shrine hand in hand.
He holds a torch and she carries a basket with a pitcher of water, sticks of incense, a large bunch of wildflowers collected from the forest around the shrine, even more candles and a bottle of some kind of homemade spirit that smells strong enough to lift paint.
Maul hangs back as she pours water on the altar and waves incense all around it to consecrate it.
She doesn't know the proper words, she was never meant to be a ritualist, so she improvises, like she did on the first day.
Her brethren do not appear in the mist like the Nightsisters, much to Ahsoka's mixed relief and disappointment, but the quality of the silence changes, becoming denser somehow, more present.
Ahsoka moves around the cave, waving her incense around and sprinkling the walls with water as she chants.
The smoke of the incense blurs everything together, but even then she cannot help but spot a cluster of carvings executed in a different hand from hers, squarer and sharper, like the carvings over the altar.
Maul has carved a handful of extra names close together.
One of them stands out in particular: Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn.
She remembers praying before his tomb every year on the anniversary of his death, kneeling on the ground next to Anakin and Master Kenobi, candles and incense and offerings before them. She remembers the tears on their faces, remembers the stories of how a Sith had cut him down and of how Master Kenobi had then defeated him, throwing him down the Theed plasma reactor in pieces.
There are more, though: Jedi Master Anoon Bondara, Padawan Darsha Assant, Padawan Eldra Kaitis, and a bunch of others.
She brushes the carvings with fingers still wet with lustral water.
"Are these...?" she whispers.
She can feel Maul's presence at her back, tense and silent.
"Yes, they are our kills. Mine and my brother's." he replies just as quietly.
There is a melancholy tone to his voice, something almost like regret.
"You didn't have to."
"Yes, I did." he insists, looking away.
"Maul..." she whispers, holding out a hand to brush against him, but he sidesteps out of the way.
"I will wait outside. I think I need a bit of air." he adds, looking pale and almost ill.
Ahsoka takes a breath to object but he's quicker.
"This is about you and your people. Don't worry about me, I'll be fine." he declares and retreats leaving her with no other option than to leave the ritual half-finished or go on without him.
The tussle between the two is brief and in the end she recognises the truth of what he said. Their issues can wait until she's done, for once, she tells herself as she resumes her circuit of the shrine.
It takes her about half an hour to complete the ritual and leave the offerings on the altar.
When she leaves the shrine Maul is still waiting outside, sitting on the bank of the brook, curled up with his arms around his knees, gazing in the distance.
Ahsoka flops gracelessly on the grass next to him, hoping and praying she is not flashing anything to the wider world in that unfamiliar dress.
She knows it's serious when he barely reacts.
"Hey, are you alright?" she whispers, brushing a hand down his back.
"I don't know." comes the quiet reply.
He still refuses to look at her, but it's a start and she knows better than to pressure him to talk.
She just rubs his back in soothing circles and waits, allowing herself to enjoy the warming light of the Twins.
"I... I could feel them." he says after a while.
"Who?" Ahsoka asks.
"Your dead. Gathering. Listening. I... it felt wrong for me to be there." he replies, curling up even tighter.
"What happened to my brother, to my mother... it put some of the things I have done in perspective. They hit too close to home." he continues.
"You are not him." Ahsoka repeats once more.
"Am I not? You know what I did in Sundari." he turns towards her this time, snarling like a cornered nexu.
"I know. She was my friend too." she retorts, harsher than she would have liked.
Satine's death had devastated Obi-Wan, but it had also affected Padme, Anakin and her profoundly.
Even though she had later learned that there was another side to her supposedly enlightened rule of Mandalore, that the story was not so neat and polished as it was commonly believed to be, but a lot more complicated and ugly with all its corollaries of assimilationism, discrimination and punitive austerity, and that vast segments of the Mandalorean population outside Sundari wanted her gone and her government dismantled, she had genuinely loved and admired the Duchess for her personal qualities when she had met her and she had loved her almost like a daughter.
It was not something she could just cavalierly dismiss.
Maul cringes and looks away again.
Every line of his body betrays tension and the urge to bolt, run and hide from her and from himself.
"You know what's the difference between you and him? This: the fact that you have come to regret it." she adds, much more gently.
"And what difference does that make? It's not like it cancels what's happened." he retorts in a belligerent, irritated tone.
"No, of course it does not. But you can choose to do things differently from now on. - she insists, refusing to let him wallow in sterile guilt and self-pity - You can make things right in the future. Counterbalance the shitty things you've done with beneficial ones. It's not too late." she concludes, reaching out for him once more.
"Do you really think so?" his voice is quiet and uncertain, but he doesn't shy away again.
He leans into her touch and allows her to scoot closer until there is barely space between them and her arms are wrapped around him as if to protect him.
"I do. I think you already are. You're helping me so much." she whispers.
"That is hardly penance, my Lady." he retorts.
The smile that accompanies those words is small and lopsided, but it's definitely there.
Ahsoka lets out a relieved sigh.
"It's not self-flagellation that the dead are after." she remarks.
It's all too easy for him to fall back in the routine of punishing himself when the stress and discomfort become too much to cope with, but she is determined to show him that he can find other ways to deal with his negative feelings.
"I know. It's justice they are after." he agrees almost immediately, with a nod and a determined glint in his eyes.
"Yes it is. And we will make it together. I promise you." she whispers.
He returns her embrace her back just as fiercely and for long moments they just sit there in the afternoon light, basking in each other's presence and their renewed committment.
Leaves rustle overhead, the brook gurgles at their feet and the spirits of the Jedi slowly merging back into the Force feel like the warm glow of an additional sun.
A huge first step has been taken and the road ahead is clear.
Ahsoka has never felt so serene before.
Chapter 11: A Feast
Sorry for the long delay again. The usual excuses about work, cliamte activism and original fiction committments apply again.
I am not sure anyone is still checking for updates on this, but here it goes, finally a new chapter.
Contains some of my considerations about the "pacifist Mandalorean" situation, which are based on the British treatment of Ireland and Scotland. Yes, that bad.
Also, finally a development at least some of you must have been waiting for almost as much as the characters themselves.
Warnings: grief, hints of PTSD, cultural erasure and assmiliationism, some mentions of not-quite-healthy coping mechanisms and low self esteem.
The rest is basically soft fluff.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They only go back to the Gauntlet much later in the afternoon. The sky is darkening at the horizon, tinted in a riot of shades of purple, lilac and maroon.
Ahsoka knows she will never stop marveling at these sunsets, so beautiful and yet so different from those she has grown up with.
"Do you mind if I have a hot shower?" she asks after they leave their gear in the hold.
In the last week the most she's had were bucket baths with the cold water from the brook and she longs for a proper shower with steamy water, proper soap and the time to apply some moisturizer on her skin after it has been dried to parchment by all that dust.
"Of course not. Take your time. I'll get the food ready." Maul replies, heading towards the galley.
By the time she's done with her ablutions and out of the fresher, a wonderful smell of cooking food has filled the Gauntlet.
Ahsoka follows the tantalizing trail to the clearing just outside the ship.
Maul has been quite busy, it seems.
The pair of rabbit-like animals that had been maturing in the refrigerator for the last few days crackles on spits over the fire-pit, a pile of roots roasts among the coals nearby and another one of fruit rests nearby.
He is sitting on his usual log, an expectant look in his eyes.
"By the Force! That's not dinner, that's a feast!" Ahsoka cannot help but blurt out in her enthusiasm.
Maul cringes, shrinking on himself to take less space and attract less attention, and looks around with a slightly frantic gaze, as if he is trying to fix his mistake before her verbal warning turns into something worse.
Ahsoka mentally slaps herself. She knows he is already feeling all guilty and self-destructive at the moment, she could have phrased that remark a bit better, so that it wouldn't sound like a reproach, especially since it is the opposite.
"I mean, it looks great... And it smells really nice... and there is so much food... it must have taken you a lot of work." she backpedals as fast as she can, lowering the tone of her voice and kneeling so that she won't loom over him.
It seems to work because Maul straightens up a fraction at her words and his gaze loses that "trapped animal" quality.
Some embarrassment remains, but she can live with that, especially since he looks so cute when he's embarrassed.
"You have barely had a decent meal since we started working on the shrine." he points out, and he's not wrong.
The mere smell and sight of all that food is making her stomach rumble.
"Besides, my warriors from Death Watch used to prepare a feast after each battle, to celebrate our bravery and commemorate our fallen brethren. And tonight we have much to commemorate, and much to celebrate: your brethren, the victory against oblivion, your bravery. I thought it would be fitting." he adds with his usual, quiet intensity.
Ahsoka tries her best not to cry, even though her eyes burn and itch with impending tears. She stands and circles the fire, moving slowly and deliberately so as to not alarm him, then sits next to him on the log.
"Thank you." she whispers.
Her arms wrap around him almost spontaneously and he hugs her back just as naturally, without any hesitation.
He's always hungry for physical reassurance, just as she is.
"Ahsoka, why are you crying? Did I..." he asks nevertheless.
She shakes her head, then buries her face against the side of his neck and he almost immediately cups the back of her head with his warm, warm hand and strokes the base of her lekkus in a soothing rythm.
It's strange how comforting that gesture has become for her.
"You didn't. I am just too happy." she manages to purr.
"And that can make you cry?!" he asks.
She doesn't lift her head, she is too comfortable the way she is, but she can tell from his voice that he must look quite confused.
"Sometimes. All very strong emotions can make you cry. It's like an escape valve for excess neurochemicals. It feels cathartic." she tries to explain.
He goes quiet for a moment, pondering the matter.
"I guess it makes sense, from a biological standpoint." he muses.
"I still don't like the idea of seeing you cry, but if it has to happen from time to time, I'd much rather it be because you're happy." he declares finally.
Ahsoka feels another flash of inappropriate feelings rush through her. If only she could tell him... but they are not yet in a stable enough emotional and psychological place for that. Neither of them is.
Maybe they will never be, she tells herself, so she pushes all dangerous, most likely harmful, impulses away and just tightens her hug.
"You're a good friend, Maul. The best." she says, and whatever else she might feel for him, that much is true.
Maybe that's why she loves him so much.
"No one has ever said that to me." he whispers.
It's not hard to imagine why, Ahsoka thinks to herself. This must be the first time he's had the chance of being someone's friend.
"That doesn't mean it's not true." she argues.
Maul sighs and rests his head against hers.
"What would my life be without you, Ahsoka?"
"Quieter? A lot less wet and complicated?" she ventures, trying to make a joke out of it.
"Lonely. Desolate. Mere survival. Unbearable." he counters, shifting backwards so he can look at her.
"I did this because it is supposed to be about community, about family, and back then when my men roped me into their celebrations I didn't understand it, but now I do, and you are the person I want to share this with."
They used to say that Sith are master liars and manipulators, that nothing that comes out of their mouths should be trusted, but Ahsoka cannot detect any trace of untruth in his words, in his gaze and gestures, in his Force, only earnestness and a deep, sharp need for acceptance.
Words fail her and more happy tears bloom in her eyes but she wipes them with the back of her hand. She is done with crying for today, she just wants to enjoy this gift with him.
"You will have to teach me. I have never done this before." she says.
"Really?!" he looks surprised and a bit sad for her, but he cannot quite hide the undercurrent of excitement in his voice.
He is glad this is her first time, that this is going to be theirs and their only, with no baggage.
"Yeah, my folks were bigger on prayer vigils and meditations on the impermanence of life than on feasting. You will have to show me the ropes." she explains with a shrug.
"It's nothing too complicated. - he retorts, visibly glad of being able to teach her something, for once - People share the food and drink together and share stories. Food and drink are not so important, I've seen my warriors feast with tinned beans, questionable sausages and lukewarm beer, but the stories are: stories of friends, brethren and lovers, of battle and remembrance, some from long, long ago, turned into poetry and passed down through countless generations. Gar was a great storyteller, he could keep the whole clan spellbound for entire evenings. Even I couldn't pretend I didn't care. I was glad I had learned Mando'a in my youth: those stories kept me as riveted as anyone else." he narrates with a mixture of pride and nostalgia.
"Sagas?! You've heard the sagas recited in real life?!" Ahsoka blurts out.
Maul looks confused but answers her question anyway.
"Is this what they are called? Why is this a big deal?" he asks in turn.
Ahsoka hesitates, mentally debating whether to tell him or not, then bites the bullet.
Only the truth would do.
"Because they were forbidden by Duke Kyrze, Duchess Satine's father." she reveals.
His expression becomes a study in confusion and outrage.
"What?! Why would he do something like that?!" he exclaims, tensing on his seat.
"Because he wanted Mandalore to become modern and enlightened, just like the Core worlds where he had grown up and had been educated." she replies quietly.
"He outlawed everything that he considered barbarous and backwards, anything that even remotely smacked of following the old ways: the initiation and adoption rituals, the burials in kurgan tombs, the prayers to honour the ancestors, and sporting one's clan colours, or wearing beskar'gam. He even forbid people to speak Mando'a."
The more she talks, the more outraged and incensed he looks.
"He tried... he tried to erase them as a people." he whispers finally.
Ahsoka cannot help but nod.
"May the ancestors crush that... that hu'tuun dar'manda in the afterlife, just as he tried to crush his people!" he explodes finally, and coming from him, the last warring Manda'lore, the two worst insults ever conceived my the Mando'ade sound even worse.
Death Watch and the other Mandalorean insurgents were his people too, just as much as the Nightpeople.
He might have conquered the Darksaber in battle, but nobody could ever remain Manda'lore for long without the support of the warriors.
Many had tried, only to find a triple death by the hand of their supposed subjects and a watery grave at the bottom of a bog.
Death Watch had chosen him, they had adopted him into their ranks and loved him well enough to change their clan colours for him and to fight until the bitter end against the might of both the CIS and the Republic.
Even though he might not have known what it meant at the time, she knows he loved them back just as fiercely.
"He is long gone and his dynasty has crumbled to dust. And the clans will survive, they always did. Their stories will go on." she whispers, placing her hand on his arm.
This seems to calm him down a bit.
"Nevertheless I will keep them. I will not let them perish." he whispers.
His voice is hard as steel.
"I will teach them to you, so there will be two of us to keep them. But not tonight. This feast is not about my people, it is about yours. I have already taken up too much space." he adds after a further pause.
"Well, you are mine too, don't you remember?" she teases, even though she finds the notion anything but laughable.
"Oh, I do. Always." he replies looking straight at her with a small smile at the corner of his lips.
Ahsoka has to look away, before she does something unadvisable like snogging him silly.
She knows she shouldn't encourage this possessive language and behaviour, but this is not about ownership, it's about belonging, about being each other's safety, each other's home.
"So, shall we get started? I think the meat is ready." Maul proposes, nodding towards the two rabbit-things, which look well-roasted and ready to eat.
Ahsoka nods and offers her plate, where he deposits a hunk of meat and heaps of vegetables.
"I have found some of this too. For toasting. Do you think it would be appropriate." he adds, pulling a bittle of Mandalorean brandy from behind the log.
"Wow, that's strong. - Ahsoka comments with a low whistle - Where did you find it?"
"This was Gar's. I have no idea if it's any good but it was his favourite, and drinking is part of the tradition." he explains, looking a bit dubious.
"You don't drink, right?" Ahsoka guesses.
Maul shakes his head.
"I always thought it was ill-advised to put oneself in a position of weakness like that on purpose, but it's different now. I am safe with you." he adds with a smile.
Ahsoka nearly melts inside.
"T-thank you. - she stammers - If it's your first time I would go really easy with that." she adds quickly, hoping that reddish light of the fire will be enough to conceal her blush.
"Just a toast." he promises.
He pours barely a finger-depth of liquor in their cups and makes a show of re-capping the bottle and hiding it away.
"What do we toast to?" she asks, giving her drink a cursory sniff.
The brandy smells like warmth and overripe fruits, delicious.
"That's for you to say." he retorts.
His nose wrinkles when he does the same.
Ahsoka has to bite the inside of her cheek not to laugh.
"To the fallen. May they live forever in the stories of their people." she says finally.
They eat their fill and talk, long through the night. Well, Ahsoka does most of the talking, but Maul listens intently to her stories, laughs with her when she laughs and holds her close when tears overcome her.
They toast some more, every time they find something worth celebrating, and even though now she has realized that it wasn't a paradise, there are still very many things that she misses or admires, and even though they only sip the liquor every time, she is becoming more and more light-headed.
"Tell me about him." he asks at some point, after the moon has already gone to bed. Ahsoka doesn't need to ask who is "him". There is only another Jedi he ever cared about, albeit in his own distorted, messed up way and she knows he has been burning with this question for a long time, and has only just found the courage to ask.
Maybe she shouldn't encourage it, but he genuinely mourns him, even if maybe for the wrong reasons, and she doesn't have it in her to play the grief police, so she talks.
She tells him of the first time she met him, of how at first she thought he was going to be her mentor, of their missions together, of the fun they had even in the middle of the war, of all the times she and Anakin had disobeyed him.
She tells him of his duels, of his rivalry with Grievous, of how he always strove to be better, selfless, chivalrous, impartial, a perfect Jedi.
"It was kind of sad, you know? He always tried so hard, as if he had to prove something." she comments.
"He had." Maul nods to himself, looking into the depths of his cup.
"What... what do you mean?" Ahsoka asks.
"He was rejected as a Youngling." Maul reveals. His lips curl in disgust.
"No one wanted him as a Padawan because he was too passionate and headstrong, so they carted him off to a farm of some kind to moulder and rot and only took him back when he single-handedly saved a whole bunch of other rejects from slavery." he continues.
"You're making this up, aren't you?" she tries to joke, but his grimace only deepens.
"I wish I was, but it was all there, in his files. Every word of it. They almost pushed him away. Can you imagine? The folly of the Jedi Order had never seemed greater to me than when I read it." he comments with a bitter little laugh.
"But who am I to judge... I was foolish too: I gravely underestimated him when we first fought. I sensed his fear and mistook him for easy prey because I thought he was afraid of me. But he wasn't, now I know. Like me he was only afraid of failing, of giving the Elders the satisfaction of saying that they had always known that he would be a liability, and he used his fear to gain focus and strength, to win." he narrates and he's smiling as if the revelation was a particularly pleasant one.
"So you're saying he's won by cheating?" she asks, frowning.
"No, not by cheating, never. - he shakes his head and raises his hand, as if the mere idea was abominable to him - By wanting to win even more than I did, enough to embrace his own worst fear and use it as a weapon." he adds.
"But that can't be true! That's what a Sith would do!" Ahsoka exclaims, shaking her head back an forth as if she could dislodge the idea. She wants to think he's lying, but his words feel like the truth.
"I couldn't believe it either, to begin with, but I replayed those last moments of our fight over and over in my head for the best part of thirteen years, Ahsoka. This is what happened. This is how he won: because he was desperate enough to push past his limits to overcome anything in his path." he argues, but then his eyes look in the distance, as if he was seeing something invisible to her, and his voice grows quieter and gentler.
"He was bright in his desperation, and beautiful... like a Sun. The memory of him he was the only light that ever shone in the tunnels where I was left to die, the only good thing I could still hope for." he whispers. Ahsoka wishes she had the courage to tell him to stop, but she cares too much for him to tell him to swallow his grief because it's making her uncomfortable.
"So why did you want to kill him?" she whispers back.
Maul shakes his head.
"I was lost, and going after him seemed like an easy way to get back on track and regain control over my life. I wanted to defeat him, sure, to prove that I was the better swordsperson, stronger in the Force, more determined to win, but beyond that... I said I wanted to kill him, and I put up a good show, but I am not sure I ever really wanted to, because I knew that if I ever managed to, I would lose him, and I knew that I wasn't ready for that... I needed him. I needed to know that he was out there, somewhere, that I would see him again. Hell, I even took down a few people whom I knew were after him, because I didn't want anyone else to harm him." he confesses in a whisper wrapping his arms around his torso in a forlorn gesture.
"You... you cared for him, in your own way." she tries to reassure him.
Maul shakes his head again.
"I thought I did, but it wasn't true, Ahsoka. I did not care for him in any way that really matters. That was not love, it was a twisted, broken parody, like those pictures of nexu cats drawn by people who had never seen one in their lives." he adds.
"You didn't know how it felt." she retorts.
He's told her before about how no one had ever shown him love before his brother, how even then he had not allowed himself to see it, and every time she thinks about it her heart breaks a bit more.
Her arms wrap around him and he lets her pull him close with no resistance, relaxing in her embrace.
"No, I did not. But I do now, and I know that was not it. It was as different from it as the harsh light of the day from a cool night." he whispers, laying his forehead against hers. They're so close that she can feel his breath puffing against her lips and her skin tingles pleasanty everywhere they touch.
"I would never dream to harm you, or to hold you against your will, Ahsoka. I only want to be with you, to give you all the support, all the safety and happiness I can, for as long as you will let me." he adds.
Ahsoka cannot tell if it's the context or the alcohol, but those words and the intense, earnest tone in which he's saying them as they hold each other close are suddenly too much for her to resist.
Part of her is trying to tell that she shouldn't, but the liquor has made that pesky voice quieter and fuzzier, all too easy to ignore.
It only takes a moment, a slight tilt of her head, for their lips to meet, and it's just a brush at first, something that could be discounted as accidental, but he doesn't recoil.
No, when she moves back he follows her, a small, hungry noise curling in his throat, seeking that contact
"Do you..." she manages to say.
Her heart beats like a drum in her chest, her hands shake, balling in his tunic because she fears that without something solid she will fall apart from too much happiness.
"Yes... please!" he whispers eagerly, so, so eagerly and before she knows he has pressed his mouth against hers once again, clumsily, yes, but altogether willingly.
His lips are soft and firm against hers and he tastes like the liquor they have been drinking, sweet and heady and warm. Her head spins with more than alcohol, her skin feels too warm, too tight. Electricity sparks wherever they touch, arms wrapped around each other for support.
She's been waiting for this for a long, long time and it's just as good as she had imagined and then some. The warmth of his touch, the faint traces of herbal soap mixing with his own scent, the drum-like beat of his hearts... he is all she can feel, all she can think about.
Her lips move against his almost of their own accord, deepening the kiss and her heart nearly explodes with happiness when he responds in kind, moving tentatively, but in sync with her.
This is worth the wait, worth the insecurity and the anxiety.
His hands trace her back, her nape, her lekkus, trail up her sides, as if he couldn't get enough of touching her, and he whimpers against her mouth, needy, breathy, quiet noises that make her feel dizzy with pleasure and hungry for more.
It's not the first time she's aroused by his touch, but this time there is no reason to pull back, there is no reason to hide it, and when her hands move to roughly push his tunic off his shoulders, she thinks nothing of it, and it's a mistake.
She feels him tense against her and before she knows he's pushed her away and somehow put the trunk on which they were sitting between them.
He kneels on the grass breathing hard, shaking. His eyes are full of panic. He's terrified, and it's her fault.
"Maul..." she sobs. She tries to crawl over the trunk to go to him, to help, but he holds a shaky hand up and halts her.
Of course he doesn't want her near, Ahsoka thinks.
She knows that she is anything but the victim here, but she can't help the tears.
She's done this to him. She knew what was at stake, what she stood to lose and yet, she's ruined everything to satisfy her selfish desires. She's made him feel unsafe, and things are never going to be the same again.
"I am sorry... I am so sorry. I shouldn't have done any of that. It's never going to happen again, I promise. Never, ever. It was a mistake... a stupid, terrible mistake. All of it." she sobs, sinking her fingernails in the bark to keep the impulse of reaching out at bay.
He may never be able to accept her touch again, after what she's done.
"No." Maul's voice still sounds strained, but some of the panic has melted away from his eyes.
"It ended up badly, but it wasn't a mistake, Ahsoka. Not for me... It was the opposite of a mistake. I... I wanted it so much..." he adds shakily, almost shyly, hands balled into fists in the fabric of his trousers.
Ahsoka's laments and recriminations are immediately cut short and speechlessness takes over.
"I know that we're tipsy and these things happen when people drink and there is not much behind it. You didn't like it. I understand. I know little about these things and I know what I am... just an old, crazy cripple... why would you even consider giving me another chance?" the more he speaks the calmer he manages to sound, but Ahsoka knows that it is not real calm, only bravado to hide more pain and self-hatred.
"I... No, that's not what i meant!" Ahsoka stammers.
"Then what did you mean?! Why was it a mistake?! How do I fix it, Ahsoka?! Tell me, please!" he exclaims, and there is desperation in his voice, in his eyes, in the way he grabs his horns in a white-knuckled grip, and at that sight Ahsoka cannot help it.
She vaults over the trunk and kneels at his side.
"Shhh... it's alright... it's OK..." she whispers, inching closer and watching him even more closely for signs of rejection.
"No, it's not." he retorts, shaking his head.
"It is instead, I promise: it's all just a big misunderstanding." she insists, and something in her words, or maybe just in his tone seems to calm him down.
"I wanted this, just like you did. And I liked it a lot. But you were hurt and panicking, and I guess I panicked too and said things I didn't really mean." she tries to explain, and little by little the desperation ebbs away, thankfully.
"I thought I had hurt you. I thought you'd never want me to come close to you again. And that sacred me, Maul, because I care for you. I..." she whispers.
She wants to say the words, but they get stuck in her throat and her eyes start to sting again and she doesn't even know why she's crying anymore, but his arms wrap around her and he pulls her onto his lap, holding her close as they both tremble in relief that nothing is lost or too broken, that it was just a hiccup.
"Shhh... It is not your fault, Ahsoka. You asked, you did everything right. I know I am safe with you. And it felt great. I don't even know why I... I started remembering things. I am sorry." he whispers
"Shh... don't." she tries to stop him, but of course it doesn't work.
"But I am, because this was our first kiss and even I know it's supposed to be special and I ruined it..." he argues
"If anyone's, the fault should be of the person who gave you those memories. And nothing was ruined: it was an awesome kiss, and I've heard that they only get better with practice..." she dares to tease, holding her breath as she waits for an answer.
"You... you would do it again?!" he exclaims, and it's sad that he sounds so amazed, so ready to believe himself unworthy.
Ahsoka twists in his embrace so that she can look at him.
"I would." she says.
"Now? Would you like to do it... now?" he asks after a brief hesitation.
He cradles her face in his hands and his lips brush against hers again.
The kiss is quick and gentle, just a brief contact, reassuring more than passionate, but it still leaves her breathless and so happy that she feels like she's going to burst.
The words burn on her tongue again, aching to get free, but he's quicker.
"I love you, Ahsoka Tano."
She's already heard those words before, but this time she's sure it's not a dream or a delusion.
"I love you too, Maul of Dathomir."
hu'tuun dar'manda = coward not-Mandalorean (renegade, denier of one's ancestry and culture)
Chapter 12: Morning After
Hello readers who have somehow stuck with me even though my update schedule has been awful.
In my defence I had some serious science cans of worms to fix, plus a bunch of original fiction works, an European grant on sustainability and the mess that is organising actions with Earth Strike.
Here is another chapter filled with fluff, but also with the discussion of some serious issues, such as the age difference and various kinds of power imbalances between the characters. I have played with canon a bit in terms of Ahsoka's age and origins, to make sure everyone was as legal as possible, but even if they are both trying to be as ethical and respectful in their relationship, the main characters have a canon age gap of some 15 years.
If this disturbs you, I suggest that you stop reading right now, because it was my explicit intention since the beginning to develop their relationship beyond the platonic stage.
WARNINGS: discussion of slavery, low self-esteem, implied past abuse, implied child neglect/abuse, discussion of age difference, discussion of power imbalance, mild disassociation, mental health issues.
P.S. Since you're reading a story about rebelling against an explotative, oppressive system, I urge you lot to take a day off on the 20th of September (schoolchildren worldwide and adulrs in the UK) or on the 27th of September (adults worldwide) and get on the streets for the Global Strike for Climate. Click on the following link for more info on local dates, times and locations https://globalclimatestrike.net/
He wakes up in some kind of bed with only the vaguest memory of how he got there.
His head feels fuzzy, his thoughts sluggish and confused, and stomach queasy and his mouth dry and sour.
Different scenarios unfold in his mind's eye even as he forces himself to stay relaxed and breathe evenly so as not to alert his captors.
Was it anaesthetic gas?
Sleep pills dissolved in his drink or food?
Some kind of poison smeared on a dart?
Who were they and how did they manage to catch him by surprise?
Is it another of Sidious' tests?
Questions pile up unanswered.
Try as he might, he cannot remember even a single detail of the ambush.
At least whoever did it was kind enough not to strip him naked or tie him up for torture, he thinks, repressing a sigh.
He should be way more worried about this than he is, but somehow he cannot muster any great stirring of alarm and anger.
Whatever they have given him must have been really strong.
The Force purrs all around him, tinged with calm and satisfaction in spite of his predicament, he notices peripherally.
That means that they didn't use any Force-dampers either. This is good.
The only thing left to figure out is what is the (warm, soft, heavy) thing lying half on top of him and how to get out from underneath it without tipping off his captors.
He no sooner thinks of it than something starts slithering on his chest.
Part of him screams bloody murder into his mind, rattling out a catalogue of warm-blooded creatures with tentacles who make a habit of eating people, but it's a small, surprisingly irrelevant part of him, and it can only stare in horror as his free hand moves almost of its own volition towards the maybe-snake/maybe-tentacle-thing and strokes it gently.
"Uhmmm... this feels good. Do it again, please..." Ahsoka moans, rubbing her nose against the side of his neck.
"Oh..." he manages to think, taking a deep, relieved breath.
Memories reassert themselves, filling in some of the gaps.
He remembers the funerary banquet, the toasts, the long hours spent talking, laughing and crying under the stars... he remembers a kiss, interrupted, then another and another, the two of them staggering to their bed and kissing each other to sleep between words of love.
He told Ahsoka that he loves her and she didn't run away nor did she deck him in the face. Upon the contrary, as far as he remembers, she said she does too.
He knows he should be happy, and he is, but... this is almost too good to be true, too neat, too perfect. Reality seldom looks like that.
What if in fact it is not?
What if it is just a very vivid wish-fulfillment fantasy, another hallucination like the ones he used to have back on Lotho Minor?
What if he has been imagining all of it since the beginning?
What if she was never with him at all?
"Maul, are you alright?" she asks, shifting on the bed so that she is leaning over him.
Her voice seems real, and so does the touch of her fingers upon his brow, but at this stage he doesn't know anymore.
"I... I am not sure." he manages to say. His voice feels strange and slurred.
He tries to open his eyes, but the little light in the room feels like a knife in his head. He closes them again and squeezes them tight, biting back a groan.
"I feel strange and my head hurts like hell..." he confesses eventually.
"You're hungover." she reveals.
Maul can hear a hint of a smile in her voice.
"I am sorry. We shouldn't have had so much to drink yesterday night..." she adds, smoothing her fingers on his brow once more, digging in harder with her fingertips.
This time he cannot repress a groan. Force, it feels good.
"It's your first, isn't it?" she asks.
Her thumbs press at the junction of his brows with his nose, and the metaphorical knife dislodges, allowing him to open his eyes.
She is kneeling next to him, a fond smile on her lips. Her eyes sparkle with humour.
Force, she's so beautiful.
"And the last, if I can help it." he groans, even though if this is what he can expect when he's hungover, then maybe he can brave the headache and queasiness a few more times.
Ahsoka lets out a brief laugh.
"Everybody says so, especially the first time, but you'll feel better soon, I promise." she adds, leaning even closer, until he can feel her breath puffing against his lips.
"I already am." he rasps.
His voice sounds pathetically hoarse and his hands twitch with the impulse of pressing her close to him until there is no space left between them.
Her eyes are wide and dark, more depthless black than blue, and when she looks a question to him he cannot help but nod in response.
He wants it. He needs it
Her mouth presses against his, soft and warm and hungry, even though he must taste like the inside of a trashcan.
She doesn't seem to mind though. Her lips move against his, her tongue darts out to part them. He lets her in and responds as well as he can, letting her lead the dances.
His arms wrap around her, pulling her on top of him.
The warmth and the scent of her skin, the feel of her solid, firm body on top of his, her kisses... it all feels so tangible, so undoubtable, and yet a part of him still doubts.
"Is this real? Are you real?" he asks when they pause for breath.
Force, he wants it to be, even though he knows he has done nothing to deserve love or happiness.
Ahsoka gives him an odd look.
"Great... If she didn't think I was crazy before, she definitely will now. Way to go, mate..." he thinks, feeling a flush of heat rise up his neck and face.
Ahsoka doesn't recoil or laugh though.
"Have you been having night terrors again?" she asks instead, concern and kindness written large on her beautiful face.
"N-no... I... it's just that I am not terribly good with reality, at times and this... this seems too much like a dream to actually be true." he confesses, breaking eye contact.
It's odd how she makes him feel safe enough to reveal her his weakness. With her doesn't have to pretend he's alright and suck it up. He's allowed to hurt and be afraid.
It's scary, but he wouldn't do without it. He can't. Not anymore.
"But it is. Promise." she whispers, placing a kiss on his brow, then closes her eyes and lays her forehead against his with a sigh.
"Do I make you happy Ahsoka? Am I enough?" he asks nevertheless.
He knows he shouldn't poke the sleeping rancor, but he can't help it. She is brave, beautiful and bright, she could have anyone she wanted and he doesn't want her to settle for less only because he's there and available.
A puzzled look appears on her face, her lekkus flick in confusion.
"You do and you are. Why wouldn't you?" she asks.
"I... I don't know. I was an enemy to you and yours and... And I have lots of issues." he replies, rather diplomatically.
She doesn't like it when he says he's crazy. The substance doesn't change, but saying issues makes it sound like they can be solved. He is growing to like the idea.
"I thought we had already dealt with this. I don't need you to be flawless. I love you just as you are." she says.
"Doesn't it bother you that I am much older than you?" he insists.
He's a masochist, yes, but better to ask now than to always live with this doubt.
"How old are you?" she asks in turn, unfazed.
"I... I don't know. Early thirties. Savage was the same age as Kenobi. I am a couple of years younger, I think." he replies.
Force, this is embarrassing.
"You never kept count, right?" she whispers.
"Yes, and I never managed to work up the courage to ask my mother. I didn't want her to realise how little I remembered of her and this place."
He missed so many opportunities to talk because he didn't want to look broken and pathetic... in hindsight he doesn't even understand why he did it.
His mother loved him as he was too, she would have understood, she would have helped.
Not everybody is like Sidious, actually the majority of people are not, thankfully. He wishes he had realised it earlier.
"How old do you think I am?" Ahsoka asks him point blank.
"I... Eighteen? At least?"
Force, has never thought about it before, he just assumed that the Jedi wouldn't send a child to command a batallion on a suicide mission against a former Sith with a proven track record of killing Jedi and his bunch of really angry, heavily armed Mando'ade.
Her battle prowess and determination have always made her an adult in his eyes, an equal, and he has always treated her as such, but, if truth be told, he has never really given the matter any further thought.
Now the only thing he can do is to hope that he has not made a horrible mistake and that she really is at least eighteen.
He hopes it with all he is, because if she isn't, what does that make of him?
"Officially almost nineteen. Actually between nineteen and twenty-one. No one knows for sure." Ahsoka replies.
"What?! How?!" he blurts out, confusion cancelling relief. Now that he is getting into the habit of not policing his thoughts and speech so severely, he is doing it a lot.
"Same reason as you: slaves don't have birthdays." Ahsoka replies, looking away and pushing herself back to a sitting position, away from him.
Words escape him for a long moment.
"You... you were a slave too?" he manages to ask as he struggles to sit up in turn.
His head spins. He doesn't quite know if it's because of the brandy or because of her revelation.
He doesn't quite know how to feel about it. On one hand he's relieved that he hasn't... that he hasn't done a Sidious on her, on the other he can sense Ahsoka's grief.
That is an old wound that has never quite stopped hurting, a pain he knows well enough because he shares it, at least in part.
Ahsoka nods, arms wrapped around her torso for protection.
"I was born in a plantation in Zygerrian space. Master Plo Koon found me during a mission, noticed I was Forceful and brought me to the Temple. They scanned me, of course, but the results came out funny because I was severely malnourished. Besides, medscan datings don't work as well on mixed folks." she continues. Her eyes are fixed on the far wall, her voice is a sad monotone.
Maul's eyebrows shoot up in confusion.
Mixed folks? What is she even talking about?
"I mean I always knew that I looked different, I am shortish, my features are rounder, my markings are subtler and my eyes are human-blue instead of dark, but I never knew why until I hacked into my file after I left..." her voice cracks and tears start pooling in her eyes.
Maul wraps his arms around her as if he could protect her from what she found, from what hurt her.
It only makes her sob harder.
"I just wanted to know where I was from, if I had anywhere else I could belong to, but the only thing I found out is that I look the way I look... that I am half human because the owner of the plantation was human." she wails, burying her face against his chest in shame.
Her thoughts filter clearly through the Force.
No one ever wanted me. Why should you?
Maul grits his teeth. He knows these poisonous thoughts and the harm they bring all too well. He didn't know he had a family who loved him until he was an adult, before then Sidious used to tell him that his mother was a prostitute who sold him for a fix of spice, or who wanted to get rid of him because he was mixed, that he was worthless, a mistake, the product of abjection and violence, that no one had ever cared about him and no one ever would, that the only thing he had was Sidious himself.
Even now that he knows the truth, that he has seen it and felt it, he is still fighting against those lies.
How much worse can it be for her now?
"Shhh... It's not true. I want you. I care for you. I doesn' t matter how you were born or who your parents were, Ahsoka. You are the youngest Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, you duelled against Grievous twice and survived, you fought me to a standstill, you survived everything that life threw at you. You are amazing. You are enough for me, no, you're perfect." he whispers, petting her lekkus to reassure her.
"Then why do you have such a hard time accepting that she may feel the same for you?" a voice whispers in his head in return, deep and gravelly and strangely comforting.
"Savage?!" Maul calls back, but as soon as he concentrates on it, the voice disappears like a mirage.
A wave of grief nearly overcomes him, but he pushes it back.
In all likelihood his brother has not returned as a Force-ghost to advise him. He's not the heroic character in an Old Republic legend, he is a person with a long list of mental health issues. He is probably just dissociating, it's not like it's the first time, and who could play the part of the responsible, sensible adult in him better than his older brother?
And of course his inner Savage is right, just like the real one used to be.
He is trying to make life harder for himself, no, for both, by questioning his self-worth, and look where his self-martirisation had led them! All he's managed to achieve is to trigger Ahsoka into a breakdown.
"I... I know. - she sobs, holding on to his shirt as if she was trying to squeeze the life out of it - I know you do care for me, and I... I don't even know why this is happening. Everything was fine, I was happy... I am happy with you."
"It's alright, Ahsoka. You felt safe, you let your guard down and it sneaked on you." he tries to reason and this seems to comfort her a little bit.
"I wanted to help you, but as soon as I started talking about it... it all came back to me and I went back to feeling worthless, unlovable, a mistake, like the first time I realised where I came from. Part of me wanted you to be as disgusted with me as I was. I wanted to push you away." she whispers, shivering in his arms.
"If everything you care for is a weapon pointed against you, you might as well pull the trigger and get on with it, no? At least this way you can control the pain." he retorts flippantly.
Her montrals dig into his chest, but he spares no thought for the ache.
It's odd how it is easier to take care of her than to take care of himself. It's easier to see things more clearly, to recognise how they are both harming themselves, and each other by reflex, by believing the worst of themselves.
Truly they are equal in all things, including this. Whether it is a curse or a blessing it remains to be seen.
"I am scared of losing this, of losing you. Like you were when you tried to push me away, I guess. It just took longer for me to realise it." she confesses and it seems like the confession is helping her regain some measure of control. The sobbing stops and she starts breathing more freely, more evenly.
Good, he thinks.
"I am still scared. I am just very good at hiding it." he jokes, but it is a sad joke at best and they both know it.
"I wish we didn't feel like we should hide from each other. - Ahsoka sighs - I know I can trust you. You are my friend, as well as everything else." she adds, placing a kiss on his neck.
Maul bites back a groan.
Ahsoka has a devilish knack for finding all his weak spots, but this is not the right moment to lose track of the argument. This is important and even though it might change things in a way he doesn't like, he has to say it. He's not going to walk in blindly into another "potential-Sidious" situation just like the one just narrowly avoided.
He's not like that, he's not going to be. He's going to do the right thing, no matter what.
"I am all that you have left. That's what scares me most." he reveals.
"Why?" Ahsoka asks immediately, lifting her head in alarm.
"Because it means that you don't have terms of comparison or alternatives, because you have to rely on me for all your relational needs. Add to that the fact that I am older and more experienced than you... The reason why I even brought it up is because I know that these arrangements can go really badly." he explains.
Really badly probably is the understatement of the century, but he really doesn't feel like going into more detail.
His head hurts as if he's been pummeled and they have just averted a crisis or two. For once he wants to have a serious conversation without causing a breakdown in either of them.
"I get your point, but I have seen people make it work. Master Kit Fisto and Knight Ayla Secura had more or less the same age gap as we do, and they worked. Also, you might be older, but you are not more experienced than me." Ahsoka replies without missing a beat.
Her eyes are still wet and red, but her gaze is sharp and holds more than a spark of humour.
"You're better at killing people than I am, but in terms of relationships...well, you are a total beginner, and it's understandable, given what happened to you. I am your first friend, you first romantic interest, the first person you allow yourself to be vulnerable with... If anything, I have power over you." she argues, shooting him an amused glance.
"Yes, you do." he admits immediately.
A blush rises up his face. Thankfully it is dark enough that she won't be able to see it.
He knows he should mind about it, but the truth is that he doesn't. He's alright with her taking the lead in these matters, even a bit more than alright, in fact...
"But you never used it to harm me. I know you won't." he asks, trying to salvage his dignity.
"Never, I promise. And I know you wouldn't use your greater experience of military matters and leadership to control and use me either." she retorts.
"No, never. I would never do this to you. You are not my property, I am not your master. I am done with perpetuating the harm I suffered." he replies immediately, crossing his arms on his chest.
Ahsoka smiles. Her fingers brush against his cheek and then she darts forward to place a kiss on his lips.
"You are a good man, Maul of Dathomir." she whispers.
For a moment Maul's mind goes completely blank in astonishment.
It sounds like a joke, but the earnest glint in Ahsoka's eyes, the tone of her voice, everything tells him that she is being serious. Really, absurdly serious.
She means it, in spite of everything.
"Uh... no one has ever said this to me..." he stammers.
"I guess they didn't know you as well as I do." she retorts with another smile and another kiss, but this time he is expecting it and reacts in time, kissing her back and tugging her closer.
A small sound of contentment escapes her lips and she follws his lead, climbing onto his lap to press herself against him as much as she can. Her hands cradle his face, her lips devour his... Force, it's so perfect... so perfect.
He is not going to try and ruin this again. He will fight for it, even against himself if need be, but it is not a war he can wage alone.
"I love you Ahsoka. I want this to work. Help me, please." he whispers, hiding his face against her neck.
He can feel her pulse thrum in the side of her throat, just below the skin. Its two-part rythm is oddly comforting in its alienness.
"I will, if you help me. We are both hurt and fragile, but we can make this work, if we trust each other and ourselves, if we fight as a team. Do you think you can do this with me?" she asks, just as quietly. Her hands smooth gently down his back, trying to soothe him, but it is not quite enough.
Somehow he manages to get rid of his shirt almost without letting go of her and after a moment of hesitation he can feel her hands slide against his skin, warm, so warm, and real.
He had never even imagined he could need this, but he does and she is giving it to him gladly, without asking anything in return.
"You deserve to be happy. Both of you." the voice rumbles quietly, and it's right, again.
"Yes, I do. With you I can do anything." he promises.
Chapter 13: Brothers
Hi everybody, sorry for the horrible delay again. I thought that after the 20th of September strike things would be a bit better, but my team won the EU grant and there were thousands of things to organise, then science and then more climate action.
Now I am in hiatus from organising, but the UK General Election looms, and so does the next science deadline, so I am still super, stupidly busy.
I am still writing this story as much as time constraints allow and I want to stick with it, but you will have to be patient regarding updates.
Now for the contents, this chapter is part unadulterated fluff and part grief, like most of this story.
I am playing with some hints of Maul's characterisation shown in the novel Lockdown and giving you my own version of how the Siege of Mandalore finished and how Maul and Ahsoka escaped Order 66.
The infamous scene in which Ahsoka hurls ableist insults at Maul referenced in the Ahsoka novel that came out a couple years ago has happened in this version too, but as we've seen Ahsoka has been trying to make amends about it.
I am probably breaking canon in the description of what Rex does at the Siege, but he and Ahsoka deserved better. Heck, the Clones deserved better.
And remember folks, found and chosen families are just as valid and real as biological families, maybe more.
Lastly, I like the idea of Maul being somewhat more comfortable with being Mando than with being a Nightperson, at least to begin with, because of the lack of interactions with his birth culture until the very end and general lack of social skills. I hope I am doing a good job of showing how he slowly becomes more comfortable with his Nightperson identity and cultural legacy and with being bicultural.
CHAPTER WARNINGS: grief, discussion of slavery and cultural erasure, referenced mass slaughter, referenced past trauma (no spoilers), references to underage drinking.
As usual, read at your own risk.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
His affirmation was a bit too optimistic, he realises just a short few minutes later, because one of the things he definitely cannot do is to remain in the galley as Ahsoka prepares breakfast.
The lights are too harsh, too white, too bright; they feel uncomfortable even on the best of days, but now they are positively painful. His head pounds, his eyes burn and water and to top it all, the smell of Ahsoka's cooking, frying oil and umami and spices, all stuff he normally loves, is making his stomach churn and heave in an ominous way.
"I... I think I have to go out." he rasps eventually, and shoots out of the galley, and then of the ship as fast as his alcohol-impaired coordination will allow.
Outside the light is much dimmer, its reddish hue much more easy on the eyes, and the air smells like petrichor and vegetation from the light rain that must have fallen during the night.
Maul finds a more or less dry spot next to the ashes of their campfire and sits down, closing his eyes and breathing slowly through the nose to get his stomach to calm down.
No amount of kisses and sweet, gentle touches can compensate for this kind of discomfort.
He is never touching a single drop of brandy ever in his life, he decides.
A rustle of leaves informs him that something approaches. His eyes shoot open and he tenses, bracing for a fight, but the only other being in the clearing with him is a largish, gaunt bird, black of feather and sharp of beak, not unlike the crows who used to roost on the balconies of the LiMerge Tower in Coruscant, except for a crest of longer feathers on its head. Said bird is hopping closer and closer to the remnants of their fire, in all likelihood attracted by the leftovers they have abandoned there the night before, too distracted to care about cleaning up.
A rookie camping mistake... They were lucky it rained, or they could have attracted even nastier neighbours.
Maul mentally adds "induces unforgivable sloppiness" to the mental lists of reasons why he should never consume any kind of alcohol again.
"Why do people even bother?" he asks himself.
The bird, noticing that he has noticed its progress, stops in its tracks and gives him a long, considering stare, tilting its head one side and then the other as if to assess him from every possible angle. Its gaze is as sharp as its beak.
"I am not going to keel over and die right now, if that's what you're thinking. You'd better look for dinner somewhere else." Maul warns, staring back at him.
"Caw!" says the bird, undaunted, hopping even closer to one of the plates.
Maul can't help but grin and makes no move to chase the featherball away. He has a thing for brave beings, and it looks like this one has just earned its lunch with its antics.
"Caw to you too, vod'ika. Help yourself." he says, chuckling and shaking his head.
The bird gives him one last piercing look with its black, glittering eyes and another "Caw!" and digs in, snatching slivers of meat and cartilage off the remains of the roast and as many pieces of bread and fruit as it can and gulping them down.
"Wow, you're hungry, aren't you?" Maul comments, raising his brows.
Is it nesting season? He doesn't know enough about his homeworld yet to be certain, but he cannot exclude it either. What if Vod'ika has a clutch of little murder-birds to feed, somewhere?
"You're getting soft! Weak!" the usual voice hisses, but this time he doesn't even have to silence it himself.
"There is nothing wrong with caring." his inner Savage intervenes, drowning the voice out completely, cancelling it as if it had never existed in the first place.
A wry smile appears on his lips. It's beyond sad that he never had the courage to admit it before, but at least there are positive sides to dissociating, after all.
A plate with a hunk of meat still on the bone and some bread lies next to the log where he is sitting.
Maul eyes it critically for a moment, then picks it up. The food doesn't look great after it has been rained on and explored by all sorts of insects. He's eaten worse before, when he was starving, but that time is past.
They have plenty now, and the bird needs it more than they do.
He tears a strip of meat and holds it out towards it, making a soft, clucking sound in his throat.
Vod'ika responds with a quiet "sqwawk!" and leaves the bone he was worrying alone, refocusing on the meat with a ruffle of feathers.
"I am not going to hurt you, promise." Maul wishpers, raising his unoccupied hand.
The bird ruffles its feathers again, then takes a tentative hop forward and stops, assessing him again.
One of its claws clenches and unclenches in the dirt and it twitches its tail. The Force brings him a whiff of desperation, of ravenous hunger, and it resonates with the memories branded deep in his mind. He remembers how it feels to be so hungry it hurts.
Instinctively he reaches out in the Force, projecting the feeling of pure, cool water and warm food and shelter, of Savage's voice, not just of lack of danger, but of its active opposite: safety, comfort.
Maybe his connection to the Living Force is not strong enough for him to tame a rancor like his mother used to do, but it's enough for this.
Vod'ika hesitates just a moment more, maybe to prove that it can, then hops closer and finally takes a higher assisted leap, perching on his knee.
It wouldn't be much fun if he was whole, but things being as they are, he can barely feel its sharp claws scratch against the beskar of his prosthetics.
Vod'ika's snatches the meat from his hold in a surprisingly careful move and he tears another one, offering it to the bird as soon as the previous one has been swallowed.
"You haven't eaten in a while, have you?" he whispers.
Vod'ika makes a small, plaintive call and snatches another piece of meat.
A shower of fragmented images washes over him through their tentative connection in the Force: a being, white-skinned, featherless (a Sister, his Sister who raised him from the egg), not-stone, four walls, keeping away the rain (their house), full-belly, warmth, nest-feeling (it was safe there), and then big noises, far away, his being leaving to defend her nest, and then time and empty-feeling and hunger, waiting waiting waiting for its being to return, until he couldn't wait no more.
Maul pulls away with a gasping breath as if breaching from a pool of cold water, but the sadness of that last thought lingers: Vod'ika feels as if by leaving their empty house to look for food he had betrayed her.
"Hey, it's not your fault." Maul chides gently.
"If anything it is mine." he thinks to himself.
"Caw! Caw!" Vod'ika interjects.
There is a chiding tone to it and he hopps along his leg until he can butt his feathered head against Maul's torso.
"Hey! What...?!" he exclaims, more surprised than anything, but Vod'ika has already returned to his starting point and is staring at him, projecting as much sternness as a bird can muster.
"Alright, alright. Not mine either. Sidious'." he capitulates.
It seems like now his support network includes also a half-starving featherball who is too smart for his own good...
Vod'ika emits a strange metallic chirp and hops in place, evidently pleased, then bumps his head against Maul's hand, rubbing his crest against his palm.
It takes him all his concentration not to snatch his hand away in surprise. He doesn't want to startle him away.
"You... you want to be pet?"
This time it rings like an affirmation, but there is an undertone of sarcasm, as if Vod'ika is saying something like "well, duh".
"Alright, alright..." Maul mutters under his breath.
His hand brushes hesitantly against Vod'ika's head. His feathers are a stiff and soft at the same time, smooth under his fingers, pleasant.
Vod'ika clicks his beak and shivers slightly, closing his eyes and leaning into the touch.
"I... I guess that you like it..." Maul whispers.
Vod'ika makes another metallic chirp and this time he can clearly feel his happiness radiating through the Force. A warm feeling of pride and contentment spreads through his chest, making him forget the early nausea and unpleasantness. Maybe it's not much, but he's made some kind of difference, for once.
"You are a good, brave bird, vod'ika." he says quietly, daring to do something different and scratch him under his beak.
Vod'ika nearly melts, chirping loudly and throwing his head back to grant him better access. If birds could purr, he would be doing it.
A peal of argentine laughter nearly makes him startle. Both he and the bird turn immediately to the source of the noise, hearts thumping in surprise and remembered fear.
Ahsoka is standing at the foot of the ramp, a tray with two plates heaped with food and a bottle in her hands and a wide grin on her face.
"How... how long have you been there?" Maul dares to ask, as soon as he finds his voice.
He's allowed himself to be careless, distracted, like he'd never even dreamed of before.
"Nest-feeling!" Vod'ika transmits, playfully butting his head against Maul's hand.
Yes, safety. He feels safe here, with her. He feels like he can allow himself to relax, to be vulnerable.
This is what peace must feel like.
"Long enough. I didn't want to disturb you, it was altogether too cute." she replies, still smiling.
She wouldn't smile if she was displeased or disappointed, he reminds himself, pushing the obligatory anxiety in a corner of his mind.
"Can I come closer?" Ahsoka asks.
"I... I think so." Maul replies but sends Vod'ika another stream of feelings to let him know that Ahsoka is safe, just to make sure.
The bird caws in agreement and stays put as she navigates her way around the mess and sits at arm's length away.
The smell of food wafting from the tray hits him, and this time the feeling that starts churning in the pit of his stomach is not nausea, but hunger.
"It smells really nice. What is it called?" he asks.
There are eggs for sure, still runny among pieces of different sorts of veg and leftover dried fish, all soaked in loads of bright red sauce that seeps through the mound of yellow-tinged rice on the side. He's never had anything like this before.
"I don't know. Kix never told me." she replies.
"He was our medic at the 501st. This was his favourite hangover remedy. It worked every time." Ahsoka explains patiently.
She hands over the plate and a battered fork and Maul wastes no time in shoveling some food in his mouth.
Flavours explode on his tongue, bright-mouthed: salty and herby and smoky... and spicy as hell, burning in his mouth and even in his nose, just like the food his ori'ramikad used to cook when times were good and supplies were plentiful on those days they were not on campaign and there was time to make a proper meal and eat it in peace, chatting next to the fire.
"Hmmm! This is good! Cooked like a SuperCommando would!" he blurts out, chasing the food down with a drink of fermented milk.
Ahsoka blushes. She probably knows enough about the Mando'ade to know that it was a compliment.
"Rex and his brothers taught me. People used to say that they were not real Mando'ade, but they tried." she replies, forcing a smile on her face even as her eyes start to shine with unshed tears.
Family is more than blood, or so his ori'ramikad told him, and those are the people she fought side by side with in a thousand battles. They were more than subordinates, more than friends, they were the only family, no matter how much messed up, she has ever had. And they loved her like one of their own. His brief stint as their prisoner on Sundari, after she tricked him into her force-field trap, has taught him as much, at least.
He can still remember the moment when the call arrived. If he concentrates, he can almost hear Sidious' voice resonating through the comm.
He remembers how blank the clones' faces looked afterwards, how flat their voices, how mechanical their movements. They looked empty, as if something had chased their personalities away and replaced them with blind obedience.
He remembers their bleached blonde Captain writhing on the floor, trying to tear at his own head, screaming at Ahsoka to run, to get away now, calling her sister.
He remembers how his eyes met those of the Clone Captain for a moment before the writhing man opened the force-trap where he was being held.
He remembers the plea in them and he remembers that in that moment, as the Force screamed with the death of ten thousand Jedi all across the Galaxy - slaughtered like the Sith from Malachor, like his people, and it was not glorious like he had imagined for so long, but terrible, wrong and nauseating - in that moment he knew he had to answer to it and protect her, even though she was nothing but an insolent, irritating whelp, that he owed it to the Force, somehow.
Without knowing it, with that final act of love and defiance Rex had saved them both and scored his own little victory against Sidious' plot.
Those memories were enough to convince him that Purge was not the product of long-plotted betrayal, like some had said, but of coercion, hijacking, of a compulsion of some kind, instilled not through the Force, but through some other engineered means.
The Clone were slaves, bred to fight and die without any alternative, and Sidious had a great part in their making. He wouldn't have left anything to chance. He wouldn't have left them any meaningful choice, just as he didn't leave Maul any.
The Clones had been victims of the plot, just like the Jedi. Millions of pawns sacrificed for the endgame, forced to kill the people they had grown to respect, if not to love...
Something shifts inside him at the thought, painful and nauseating like bone grinding against bone in a fracture, like an old, rusty door in the darkness, creaking open with a whiff of the smell of death, threatening to release something terrible.
Vod'ika headbutts him once again and the feeling dissolves.
The door slams shut and disappears, sealing away whatever ghosts it hides, but a nebulous, undefined dread lingers, dull and nauseating like phantom pain.
Maul takes a deep breath and pushes it back, grounding himself with the feel of Vod'ika's feathers under his fingers.
"Hey... is everything alright?"
Ahsoka's hand on his shoulder dispels even the last few traces of it, allowing him to breathe more freely.
He nods and forces a smile on his lips.
He has the feeling that sooner or later he will have to confront whatever is hidden behind that mental door, but that moment is not now. Today he just wants to be left in peace by his messed up psyche and have the time to get used to the new situation with Ahsoka, to enjoy the day and her affection, if it's not too much to ask.
"Your brothers were Mando'ade, Ahsoka." he says finally, once he's calmed down enough.
"And not because of who their biological origin was, but because they chose to be. Because they fought bravely, because they loved and protected their family, because they kept the traditions as much as they were able, even in slavery." he explains quietly.
He has only known them for a couple of days but it was enough to get a feel of the kind of persons they were, and they were so much like his own clan that it had been a special kind of torture to see them chatter and joke around the campfire while the people who belonged to him were dead or on the run, their world shattered over and over.
"The past doesn't matter, only the person you choose to be. Anyone who chooses to be Mando'ad, with all that it entails, is one of the Mando'ade, is family. That is all that matters." he explains, while she looks on intently, eyes still glistening with tears.
It was not just a figure of speech, now he knows. There was no hidden catch, no conditions. They meant it when they said it, they meant it to the bitter end, and it hurts to know that he'd never believed them until it was too late.
"Is that what you believe?" she asks.
"Yes, it is."
Vod'ika squawks and hops away, and a moment later Ahsoka has wrapped her arms around him and hugged him hard enough to take his breath away.
"For what? Telling the truth should be the bare minimum between us." he tries to deflect, but hugs her back all the same, placing a kiss between her montrals.
The kiss however doesn't have the expected effect. Instead of sighing and relaxing, Ahsoka bursts out in a nervous fit of giggles.
"Can you... can you imagine if Rex could see us now?!" she says, giggling still.
Maul can't really see the humour in that.
"He'd probably think I am coercing you or corrupting you to the Dark Side and would shoot me on the spot."
Ahsoka's laughter dies out and she pulls back to look at him with a stern, intense expression.
"I wouldn't let him. He's my brother, and you are my partner, and I love you both. I wouldn't let either of you harm the other."
"I wouldn't try. I know he saved us both, and a Mando'ad always repays their debts." Maul replies, just as solemnly.
Ahsoka nods and looks down, a veil of sadness descending over her features.
Rex and his brothers are most likely dead. Sidious wouldn't have left such a loose end behind himself.
If he has not programmed them to commit suicide after their dirty deed was done, he would have definitely sought out and eliminated all those who had managed to defy him and resist the compulsion, he thinks but doesn't dare voice those thoughts.
"So your brothers taught you how to treat hangovers, but did they also teach you to drink?" he asks instead.
A smile reappears on Ahsoka's face, a she shakes her head.
"Force, no! Rex didn't want me to even smell their booze... I learned at the Temple."
Maul looks at her with utter surprise.
"At the Temple?! I thought...."
"Yes, well, the Elders wouldn't have let us either, we just went behind their backs. Something thrilling and transgressive to feel like our lives were not completely under someone else's control." she explains, a somewhat forced smile on her face as she pushes the food on her plate around.
"It was a tradition among the Padawans. My Master partecipated in it too. Folks would try to smuggle some in from their missions and someone even fermented leftover fruit and bread in a closet to make homemade beer." she continues.
Maul's face twists in a grimace.
"That sounds utterly awful."
"It was! The most disgusting booze I've ever tasted! Nobody ever had the stomach to get drunk on it."
Ahsoka laughs again, sadness seemingly forgotten. For now.
He wishes he could ask her more, he wishes she would tell him of the first time she got drunk, of her first hangover, of her brothers, of all the things that made her happy, but their past is a minefield, and every sliver of happiness is tangled with loss and pain.
There is scarce solace in memories. They will have to make new, happier ones from which to draw strength in the moment of need.
"So what do you want to do today?" he asks point blank, laying his fork across his empty plate and stretching his back.
Ahsoka hesitates for a moment, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of fish.
"Can we do something that doesn't have to do with death?"
The way she says it, with a mixture of defiance, embarrassment and guilt, is so endearing that he can't help but grin.
"Yes. I think we reached our quota for a while." he agrees, chuckling quietly.
"We can have a climb close to the sinkhole and eat somewhere scenic where we can see the sky. I think there might be a shrine up there to explore. How does that sound?"
Ahsoka smiles, blue eyes sparkling and her enthusiasm and happiness makes the day seem brighter, more vivid and beautiful.
"That sounds like a great plan!"
"Caw!" Vod'ika agrees, hopping up and down on the tree trunk.
"Hey! Who invited you? What if I want to have some alone time with my partner?" he tries to joke.
Ahsoka's argentine laughter fills the air again, and Vod'ika takes it in stride, hopping back on his leg and chirping his metallic chirp.
"Nest-feeling! Flock-mates! Adventure!" the bird transmits, leaning over to let Ahsoka pet him.
Yes, that's what happiness feels like, Maul thinks.
vod'ika = little sibling (Mando'a)
ori'ramikad = SuperCommandos (Mando'a)
Mando'a is a language that does not encode gender. All words are gender-neutral.
Chapter 14: The Ascent
The GE 2019 has come and gone. We fought and we lost, and now we will have to fight again, ever harder. Perhaps the world was never a decent place, it was always cruel and unfair, but that doesn't mean it has to be. We can make it better, we have to believe this, or life won't have any purpose.
And now I am back with this story, which in many cases has been my lifeline when things seemed too overwhelmingly shitty.
This chapter is bittersweet, rambling and a bit too long perhaps, but I couldn't find a way to split it satisfactorily, so here it goes.
It touches on cultural erasure and cultural imperialism, on how anthropology and other humanities were abused by imperialists and colonisers of every stripe and size to justify their civilising mission, as well as on internalised feelings of inadequacy and biphobia.
It also addresses the Evil Matriarchy trope, as used in the cartoon. Those of you who have read "Breaking the Chains, Forging the Links" will already know that I don't like it and that I think it's mostly a male power fantasy for incels and meninists who think that women are oppressing them somehow.
I am not some second-wave White Feminist(TM) to advocate a matriarchal utopia because gender power imbalances are always not good, but I also know that patriarchy is not an absolute norm and there have been significant deviations from it in history and among people in the Global South.
My depiction of the Nightpeople owes a lot to the social structure of the Mosuo people of Yunnan in South-Western China (see https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/apr/01/the-kingdom-of-women-the-tibetan-tribe-where-a-man-is-never-the-boss).
This chapter also contains the first part of my alternate take on the Choosing ritual.
Apart from that there is some gratuitous anthropology/archaeology and the usual gratuitous climbing references.
If you want a visual of the route imagined by Maul this webpage has everything you need http://www.alpinist.com/doc/web10w/newswire-brazilians-monte-roraima
WARNINGS: mentions of cultural erasure and cultural imperialism, mentions of past trauma, low self-esteem, hints of internalised biphobia, mild mental health issues, very minor animal death due to predation by another animal.
Between one thing and the next, by the time they are ready for adventure it is almost midday.
They pack a couple of backpacks with gear, a change of clothes, their canteens and enough food to last for a day or two and set off towards the tepui at a leisurely pace.
Last time it was all about speed and adrenaline, about getting there fast and efficiently, the scenery a half-noticed blur, but now they are content with taking it easy and taking it all in: the dappled play of light and shadows among the foliage of the centuries-old trees, the half-seen skittering of small creatures at the margin of their vision, the heady smell of a hundred different types of flowers, glowing faintly in the shade of the trees, the spongy and springy texture of the rich, dark loam under their feet, the calls of the birds in the canopy, the buzzing of myriads of insects, flitting, crawling and slithering all around.
Neither of them has ever had much of a chance to just enjoy the scenery and contemplate the beauty and raw unfettered power of Nature, it has always been about missions, about performance, about achievements, but now they don't have to answer to anyone but themselves, so for once they just allow themselves to slow down, meander and explore everything that catches their fancy.
This is their home now, the land where their dead rest in peace and power. This is where they will always return.
They have every right to study its rythms and its ways. They have every right to learn to love it.
Overhead, Vod'ika flits from tree to tree, chittering and chirping happily, and occasionally dives, beak and talons outstretched, and emerges with a prize, a crunchy, luminescent bug, a juicy berry and once even a furry, purple rodent who squeaks piteously before Vod'ika snaps its neck with a hard, sharp shake and starts feasting.
The Living Force hums all around them, like background radiation, neither Dark nor Light, but somehow both at the same time, speaking of decay that brings new growth, of death that brings new life, of the perpetual change that allows the environment to persist and thrive.
It is beautiful and terrible, awesome in the purest sense of the word, and to be sharing this discovery with Ahsoka makes it even more special.
It's almost as if her wonder and surprise, her happiness, amplify and focus his, like lenses in a saber, until it is almost painful.
How did he live so long without this?
The woods whisper around, their voice is tantalisingly close to words, but they tell none of their secrets.
There is no need though, he already has the answer he seeks: he lived like he did because he was forced to, because it suited Sidious to make him blind to beauty and awe, to make him believe that the world contained nothing but pain and violence and exploitation, that everything was about ownership, domination and self-interest, and that everything apart from that was just convenient lies.
He was wrong.
There is beauty in this world, there are love and friendship, belonging and family. There are people helping each other because they can, standing by each other in the face of certain defeat, in spite of advantage, of reason, of survival.
For a long time he has not allowed himself to recognise them for what they were when he saw them because it was easier, safer to be blind than to admit that all his life had been built on lies, but now that he has let himself see them, they can no longer be unseen.
His life, the life where he was alone, unloved, surrounded by hate, was a lie, and that is alright.
He has lost nothing of real value.
Nothing but chains, really.
He is free to choose now, free to live his life with open eyes and open hearts, free to experience the world raw and unfiltered, in all its splendour and atrocity, free to remake himself into the best of what he can be.
And there is much strength in all of those things that Sidious had tried to take from him, there is courage, defiance and passion.
The Dark Side never asked for his life to be pruned down to mere survival, Sidious did, and he can be ever faithful to it, even with the new knowledge that he can belong, that he does belong.
"Thinking happy thoughts?" Ahsoka asks quietly, brushing a hand against his.
Maul cannot help but smile and twine his finger with hers.
"The happiest ones." he replies and it seems to satisfy her as she stops any further explanation with a long, breath-taking kiss.
The purple grass is soft and welcoming beneath them and they have all the time in the world.
"Straight up, then?" Ahsoka asks, when they get to the foot of the tepui, eventually.
The sheer rock walls loom over them, striped with red, purple and cream.
"I suppose so." Maul replies, contemplating them critically.
No approach seems more attractive than the others and he can't really tell where the temple is.
If it's on the flat top of the tepui, then they are in a bit of a pickle, because that is be at least 300 meters up a sheer, unprotected rock face with the last stretch at a challenging overhang before topping out.
It would be a great adventure, but it would need a bit more planning and supplies than what they have at the moment, because there is no way they can go all the way up in a single day, he thinks, mentally charting the route: more food and water, a lot more pitons, a few more coils of rope for safety and a couple of hammocks to sleep through the ascent, hanging over the drop. They would probably have to craft some of the equipment themselves he considers, but the perspective does nothing to dampen his excitement.
It would be an amazing project to undertake and share with Ahsoka, he thinks, but at the same time a nagging feeling of disappointment lingers like a bad aftertaste.
He had liked the idea of exploring an old cult-place of his people, of learning something about them, of connecting with them somehow. He doesn't want to give up and regroup.
"If my people used the temple regularly, there must be a relatively convenient access route somewhere." he muses aloud.
He can imagine his mother going up the hard way and enjoying it, but there is absolutely no way some of the older Sisters would have made it to the top.
"Maybe we should have a hike around the base to see if we can find it. There's bound to be a path, or a basket-on-a rope. "
Ahsoka grimaces and shudders a bit at the thought, understandably so.
That kind of thing tends to be replaced only when it breaks and who knows how long ago that has been?
"That way?" Maul proposes, pointing towards the direction that would bring them closer to one of the abandoned villages.
In the worst case scenario, if they don't find anything by twilight, they can camp at the foot of the tepui and continue the search in the morning. It's not like they have a tight schedule for their plans.
"Why not?" Ahsoka replies with a shrug.
Vod'ika lands in front of him, hopping up and down and flapping his wings.
"Eh?! Are you alright?"
Maul hunkers down to his level, but a cursory examination shows no signs of injury and the Force doesn't whisper of any threat.
"Caw! Caw!" he insists.
"What is going on with you, bird?" Maul finally sighs.
Vod'ika ruffles his feathers and clacks his beak with an evident mixture of resignation and frustration that makes Maul think that if birds could roll their eyes, he would, and starts waddling resolutely down the trail in the opposite direction.
"Is he...?" Ahsoka interjects.
"Yes I think he's impliying we're dense."
"Caw!" Vod'ika affirms, barely pausing to look over his shoulder.
Both Maul and Ahsoka cannot help but burst out laughing. That bird could give points in sass to Kenobi.
"Alright, other side then. We'll follow you." Maul acquiesces.
Vod'ika accepts their capitulation with a satisfied chirp and takes to the air again, guiding them out of the forest proper and through a dense patch of scrub to a different area of the foot of the tepui.
"In hindsight, it was pretty obvious." Ahsoka comments, wrinkling her nose.
The access route hardly deserves the designation of path: it's barely more than a switchback track that even a goat would be suspicious of, but it's at the end of a very obvious paved processional route that cuts through the scrub and tapers off in the distance towards a village or perhaps another sanctuary. Something else definitely worth exploring at a later time, Maul thinks as he examines the area, searching for clues that might tell him why his people would come here to worship, what did they think and feel as they did.
Luminescent marks are scattered at intervals among the tumble of rocks of the cliff to indicate the route, and the stone is worn in places by the passage of countless feet through the centuries. Even now, wild grasses have barely started their quest to swallow the road. It is clear that they came here quite often and cared well for the place, that it was important.
From below the temple itself, more or less halfway up the cliff, looks like a darker stain against the stone. Their binoculars show them the mouth of a cave or a tunnel, decorated with a profusion of incised reliefs.
"That's some committment to spiritual practice." Ahsoka comments, whistling quietly.
"I guess not doing anything by half measures must be a cultural trait." Maul replies with a shrug and a grin, much to her amusement.
The ascent is less arduous than they had assumed; the path is well-trodden and evident, flanked by more carvings filled in with some luminescent paste so that they would be visible even at night, and dotted with wider terraces where a procession might reasonably pause to catch their breath.
Shards of pottery and other trampled artefacts peek out among the stones, lost during a ritual or deliberately buried for some purpose he will never get to discern.
On larger shelves of rock carved out of the cliff face flowers, candle stubs and offerings have been deposed : decorated bowls filled with charred grains, cups with dried-out traces of drink, shriveled fruit, burnt animal bones.
If he closes his eyes he can almost see Sisters and Brothers chanting and swaying at the sound of hand-drums and rattles, the smoke of the offerings rising to the sky. He can almost see his mother standing tall and proud before the altar, wreathed in green mist and fire, leading the ritual with her sonorous voice. He can almost smell the incense, almost feel the breeze of the night that makes cloaks flutter, almost sense the barely contained excitement of the celebrants, but the meaning of it all escapes him.
He can almost see it, but those are images without context, pretty and detailed but shallow. He can reconstruct but not understand what his relatives, his people were doing here only a few months before, perhaps only a few days before the end. He didn't care to understand then and now he cannot hope to, even if he aches to. There is no one left to ask, no one who can explain him who they prayed to, what were the words they chanted, what did they ask for.
He's been cut off from all of this and the phantom pain burns in his heart.
"Hey, are you alright?" Ahsoka asks.
Her hand smooths down his arm in a soothing gesture.
"Was I projecting much?" he counters instead of replying, forcing a smirk on his face.
Ahsoka lifts a hand thumb and index held a hair's breadth apart.
"Only a teeny tiny bit." she says with a wink.
A sigh escapes his lips unbidden. This was meant to be a break of lighthearted enjoyment and exploration and he's ruining it, like everything else, really.
"What is wrong?" she asks, but thankfully he cannot detect any hint of irritation or disappointment in her voice, only concern.
"She cares for you." Savage's voice reminds him from his subconscious, because of course he needs that reminder.
Thirty-something years of living in a state of high alert to merely survive are hard to undo.
One step at a time, he tells himself, taking a deep breath and releasing it, together with his worries.
"This. This is the problem." he says finally, gesticulating widely to embrace the whole ritual space.
"I should know what all of this means, because this was they life of my people, and it should have been my life, and yet here I am, gawking at it like some bloody tourist! It's infuriating!"
The words burst out of him like steam from a kettle.
It seems ridiculous but Ahsoka does not even try to laugh.
"I know how you feel. It was almost the same for me on Shili." she says instead, looking down at the ground and fingering her headdress.
"What do you mean?" he asks.
"Shilian Togruta have complex ancient coming-of-age rituals and the Jedi Order didn't want to look as if they were trying to suppress indigenous cultures." she explains, the sarcasm evident in her voice.
"It had a policy that each year all Togruta initiates of the right age would be shipped off to Shili for their rites, so the year before the war I boarded a ship and was sent there with a few other kids for my Huntress initiation." she continues.
"I gather it wasn't a good experience." Maul ventures.
Ahsoka shakes her head.
"It wasn't all bad. It felt great to be out of the Temple, out in the open and out of sight of my normal instructors. Whatever happened there would have no bearing on whether I got chosen as a Padawan or not. It was freeing." she explains with a shrug.
"But it felt wrong too." Maul interjects.
He thinks he knows where this is going to end.
"Yes, it did." Ahsoka confirms, a wistful smile on her face.
"The majority of us barely knew a word in Shilian and only knew about Togruta culture from books and elective courses. We listened to the Elders and followed the instructions of the Hunt Leaders, we tried to assimilate as much information as possible and to do everything right, but we had no lived experience of that culture and its values and everybody knew that we would not be allowed to live by them later." she explains.
"It was a performance." Maul summarises.
"It was. And the worst is that we knew and the Elders knew, and they knew that we knew. It was an act that the Jedi Order set up to appease the public opinion and that the Elders agreed to take part in to play it safe and avoid looking too hostile to the status quo."
"And you were just caught in it." Maul concludes for her.
Ahsoka nods again.
"Exactly. I think that was what finally drove home the idea that we had nowhere else to go, no place outside the Order. I never seriously thought about Shili again... I guess for the Order that was an added bonus to the whole gig." she declares flippantly.
"The conniving, manipulative bastards..." he growls.
His anger flares in the Force, lifting a cloud of dust from the floor and making small loose objects shake and rattle.
Ahsoka's hand cups his cheek and she leans over to kiss him. It's just a brief peck on the lips, but it's enough to derail his furious train of thoughts.
"They can't harm me anymore, and I have a home now, here with you." she says.
He's thought about that before, savouring the concept in the privacy of his mind, but to hear her say it out loud... it's perfect. So bloody perfect, in fact, that even the part of him who is always on the lookout for danger and vulnerabilities shuts up for a blessed moment, letting him enjoy the feeling in peace.
"Say that again. Please..." he manages to say eventually.
Ahsoka smiles and hugs him tight, then places a ticklish kiss on his neck.
"This place is home now." she repeats quietly.
"I mean, I even made a deal with your vampiric aunts and everything... I am here for the long haul, just so that you know." she adds with a grin.
Maul buries his face in the crook of her neck, mindful of his horns, and breathes deeply in her scent.
No one said it was going to be easy or frustration-free, to reclaim the past and the Nightpeople's culture but he can still do it... no, they can do it together, like they promised the night of the storm, he reminds himself.
Knowledge and belonging, like all things worth undertaking, take time, effort and continued practice to master.
One step at a time, he tells himself once again, taking another deep breath.
"Shall we continue, then?" he asks eventually, stepping back from her embrace.
Ahsoka nods, but whips out a small holovid recorder.
"Let me just take a few pictures."
"I thought we were not meant to be tourists." Maul chides, crossing his arms on his chest and arching a perplexed eyebrow.
"Not tourists, no. Investigators, or archeologists if you wish. Since we don't have any other sources, we need to have good records of cultural practices to draw good conclusions." she explains with a grin.
"I took archeology and anthropology electives. I was thinking of going into academia, but then the war happened..." she adds with a shrug that doesn't quite mask her wistfulness.
With the enthusiasm and dedication she puts into everything she does she would have been a great scholar, Maul thinks.
"Well, at least now you get to practice, no?"
Ahsoka grins from ear to ear and nods hard enough to make her lekkus flop. Her eyes sparkle with excitement.
"You'll help me right?" she asks nevertheless.
"Always." he replies, grinning in turn.
Her excitement is contagious.
"Great! Let's get this survey started, then!" she exclaims, pulling out a notebook and a pencil and shoving them in Maul's hands.
He eyes the equipment critically.
"What am I supposed to do with these?"
"We're going to record the position of inscriptions and offering deposits so that we can come back and study them in more detail later. It's like a sketch of the site." Ahsoka explains without hesitation.
"Like a crime scene sketch?" Maul asks, toying restlessly with the pencil to hide his embarrassment.
It's alright not to know. It's alright to ask questions. She is not going to be angry if he does, he tells himself.
"Same principles." Ahsoka reassures him.
"It's going to be fun, you'll see." she promises, planting a kiss on his cheek.
Once again she is right. Surveying the path is actually quite fun and concentrating on the task of recording the arrangement of stelae and ritual areas takes the edge off his feelings of loneliness and disconnection.
Slowly some patterns begin to emerge, but it's still much like trying to decrypt a message when you have only half of it.
And it's not for lack of sources, no. There are plenty of written records, very ancient and almost faded or fresh and newly incised and everything in between, and they most likely explain the purpose and significance of this place and these rites, but the annoying fact is that he cannot read Nightscript beyond being able to recognise the couple of glyphs that make up his name and the three that make up Savage's.
At least his mother showed him that...
Force, he was so blind, so stupid!
He should have stayed and learned instead of haring off with some half-baked plans for revenge!
How could he have possibly thought that it was a good idea? How could he have thought that all of this was not important, not worth his time?
Ahsoka instead seems undaunted by his ignorance and praises him for each scrap of knowledge and each snatch of intuition he can squeeze out of his mind.
Flashes of images appear every now and again before his mind's eye, showing him snatches of of rites, a fragment of a song or a prayer, bringing to his nostrils the metallic scent of freshly spilled blood, the smoke of burnt offerings, the aroma of incense.
The spirits are trying to help, but, as it's customary for spirits, at least in his experience, they are not too coherent.
Still, it feels good to know that they are supporting him, instead of rejecting him as he would probably deserve.
Ahsoka seems oblivious to these interludes and completely absorbed in her work. She takes picture after picture, recording their position on the map, and every now and again whips out a tiny 3D hand-scanner and passes it carefully over the inscriptions.
"What are you doing?" he asks finally when curiosity becomes too much to bear.
"I am taking a digital squeeze of this inscription to study later." she explains without a trace of irritation at his interruption.
"If we're lucky and find a bilingual inscription or two, we might be able to decypher Nightscript and read all of this." she adds a moment later, gesturing widely to embrace all the stelae and ostraka cached in the bend of the path they are surveying at the moment.
"Or maybe we'll be luckier still and some old scholar will have done it for us. Coruscant Uni has the largest repository of dictionaries and books about ethnolinguistics. If my old login doesn't work, we can always hack into it."
A wide, mischievous grin appears on her face. She looks adorable.
"Are you truly inciting me to commit a felony, Lady Tano? Truly you have fallen far..." he teases, but there is no bite to his words and he chases them with a kiss on her soft, smiling mouth.
"Force, I don't think I'll ever tire of this..." he thinks.
It's then that another flash hits him, more intense and coherent than the rest.
A Brother and a Sister, dressed in their best finery and festooned with garlands of luminescent flowers, deposit the stela together with the others with utmost care.
His fingers brush gently against the glyphs he's carved and his Sister smiles fondly at him.
He's fought hard for this moment and the Force has granted it to him through the power of the Son. He doesn't think he's ever been so happy in his life.
Their names are carved in stone together now. She's Chosen him.
That means forever.
The real world snaps back around him like an elastic band and he pulls back from Ahsoka with a gasping breath.
"What... what was that?!" she exclaims, looking as confused as he feels.
"A memory of this place." he ventures once he's managed to get his breath under control.
More fragments of memories are showering him like a rain of iron shavings, faces, voices, words he cannot understand whispering just at the edge of his perception and through it all a feeling of joy, excitement and anticipation of something wonderful and magic and worth waiting for.
"These... these are Choosing stelae." he manages to say.
"Choosing? Blimey..." Ahsoka comments, eyeing the finds critically and with more than a hint of disapproval.
"You have heard of it."
And from her reaction she must have heard the standard version that circulates in the Core worlds, courtesy of a bunch of blinkered Light-sided scholars who couldn't imagine that a woman-centric system of belief and customs could stand to the test of time without extreme coercion, that it wouldn't be basically patriarchy in reverse, but eviler, because it would take so much more effort to keep up something supposedly so unnatural as women in charge, he reflects with a sneer.
"Yes, I have. We had a series of lessons about Darkside cults." Ahsoka confirms with a grimace.
"And let me guess, they told you that the evil Darkside witches enslaved the poor men of Dathomir and used them as breeding stock against their will, didn't they?" he enquires, trying to keep his sarcasm to the minimum.
It is not her fault, he knows that. That is an old, old lie that has been repeated for so long that it sounds almost like the truth, one that the Nightpeople never bothered to correct (as if someone would have believed them if they could believe some self-righteous Core-worlder instead) because at least it kept people away.
Ahsoka nods, but he can tell that a healthy amount of doubt has made its way into her thoughts.
After all, this is not the first lie of the Order she has been made aware of.
"What does the Force feel here? What did those memories feel?" he asks.
She closes her eyes and a wrinkle of concentration appears on her brow. Her lekkus twitch slightly as she tunes into the feel of the place.
"It feels solemn and formal, but..." she starts then bites her lip, considering her next words with a deeper frown.
"Happy... people here were happy. Both Sisters and Brothers. It doesn't feel at all like it would if what they told me was true." she concludes, almost dismayed.
"I know the feeling. I had heard the stories too." Maul consoles her, wrapping her in a quick hug.
"So how was it? For real I mean?"
Maul lets the silence fill the air for a moment, gathering his thoughts.
"It was a mess: households held something like twenty, thirty people at a time, from the very tiny to the very elderly. People dated and broke up freely. Grown men lived with their mothers and sisters and looked after their nephews. And then there were collateral relatives, cousins and so on. Bonds were tightly knit... more so because of the war. There was hardly a moment of privacy." he says finally but his words cannot quite mask the fact that even if he found it supremely overwhelming and anxiety-inducing, he misses it.
He could have gotten used to it in time. He could have grown to love it.
"Not dissimilar from Mando society, then?" Ahsoka ventures.
Maul lets out a brief laugh.
"Not really, but at least among the Mando'ade I had Rook and Gar to run interference when it all became too much. Here nothing except my mother could dissuade my relatives from pestering me. Most of the time she thought I could use the interaction, unfortunately."
"I can imagine you had quite a fan club: you are extraordinary, after all. Even among the Order people were fascinated by you." Ahsoka retorts, a veil of red rising to her cheeks. Perhaps she was one of them.
"And horrified, I'd wager. Of me, of my brother and of Grievous."
A grimace appears on his face at the association, but it's undeniable: Grievous was his successor in the role of the scary, alien tribal warrior meant to draw the attention of the Jedi Order while Sidious was left to work in the shadows.
"It's the fascination of violence, abnormality and irredeemable otherness. The fascination of monsters." he argues, taking a leaf out of the sociology books she has lent him to keep boredom at bay.
Ahsoka blushes even harder.
Did she have a hate-crush, as she likes to call them, on him even before knowing him? Surely she has too much good taste to have had one for Grievous, or at least he hopes so.
"Perhaps it was so for the Jedi, but I am sure that your clan saw beyond that and realised how brave and determined and loyal you are. You are a formidable warrior and a natural leader, there is no hiding that." she argues right back at him and now it is his turn to blush and look away.
"I... I..." he tries to reply, but his tongue feels tied and unwieldy.
Did people really think this of him even when he was hating himself so much that it took all of his reserves of sense of duty not to top himself to spare the Galaxy more of his uselessness?
"If you ever were a monster, you were their monster. You are my monster now, and I love every part of you..." she adds in a whisper, before kissing him.
The Force thrums with her unconditional affection for him, and the ambient radiation of a thousand Choosing processions, of their promises of eternal love and loyalty, amplifies it thousandfold, until he's almost drowning in it.
He's never really believed he was any of the things she said, he's never believed he was enough, let alone extraordinary, but Ahsoka does, just like his mother, Rook and Gar did, just like Savage did until the very end in spite of his many failings, and perhaps he can try to believe in them if he can't believe in himself.
Didn't the scholars say that a monster is a being that can transcend categories and limitations, an omen of change and tumult? That sounds like him, Nightperson and Mando'ad and Sith, survivor of the unsurvivable and hybrid in every possible way.
That sounds like what being a Sith should feel like.
Perhaps to be a monster is not such great tragedy.
Perhaps he can pull off another impossible feat and be a good man, like Ahsoka thinks he is, and a monster at the same time.
Perhaps in this special place under twin red suns, wrapped in the support of his ancestors and his partner, he can find the strength to do so.
"Have you ever seen a Choosing?" Ahsoka asks eventually, once they have settled comfortably on the ledge, wrapped in a loose embrace and silence has settled equally comfortably between them.
"Only once, just a few days before... before Sidious attacked. Raze and Jana had been together for years but they wanted to make it permanent before it was too late." he narrates.
Ahsoka casts him a silent questioning gaze.
"So it was a confirmation ceremony of sorts?"
"Most of the time. As far as I could gather, it was a challenge to make sure the committment was serious and the Force was in favour of the union." Maul tries to explain.
What happened to Savage and Feral was not a Choosing, it was something else, an exception, a mistake caused by Asajj's expectations and by the emergency. It had to be. There is no other explanation that can reconcile the pain and trauma he knows Savage had been put through with the memories that keep flashing all around them and with what he has seen that day, with the excitement, the jokes, the laughter and the way Raze looked at Jana as if she was the most beautiful, most precious thing in the whole Galaxy.
"Did they fight?" she asks.
From where they are sitting they can see glimpses of what looks like a theatre or an arena in the distance, hidden in a ravine.
Maul shakes his head.
"Raze was a shepherd and a poet."
He was maybe twenty-five, ochre-skinned and thin as a rail. The big bulky woolen cloak dyed orange and brown in chequered patterns wrapped around his shoulders made him look even frailer, but his back was as straight as the carved staff he was holding in a vice grip, his voice was sharp and resonant as the snap of a whip.
"So what did they do? A rap battle?" Ahsoka asks, an eyebrow quirked mischievously.
"Yes. Pretty much." Maul deadpans and she bursts into laughter.
"You're serious, aren't you?"
He nods, watching the play of emotions on her face: amusement, then doubt, then curiosity.
It's fascinating and lovely how freely she shows them, without repressing them or trying to dissimulate.
Her mentor, the pilot boy from Tatooine, must have been a whole different brand of Jedi from Kenobi and his incredibly annoying, perpetually placid mien. Thank the Force, really...
"So how did it go?" she prods.
"So there were a group of Brothers and Gar Saxon, standing in the middle of the assembly grounds, trading rhymes and insults while drummers and lyre players made music to help them keep the rythm. They went on and on for the best part of the night: whoever couldn't come up with a comeback within a certain time would be eliminated, until only one was left."
And he was sitting there, close to his mother's throne, feigning indifference while the crowd clapped and cheered, but actually just as enthralled as anyone else.
"Raze was absolutely on a roll. He never missed a beat and had always the right turn of phrase ready to goad the opposition and excite the audience. He annihilated the challengers one by one, until only he and Gar were left." he narrates.
"That must have been epic." Ahsoka comments quietly, her eyes wide and sparkling, waiting for more.
He had never thought that telling a story would feel so fulfilling, so rewarding.
"It was." he says, pausing again for dramatic effect, like his lieutenant used to do, even though he is conscious that he is but the palest imitation.
He is sure that she would have loved to hear Gar tell her one of his stories, she would have been in awe of the centuries and centuries of knowledge and lore passed down to him from countless generations through the sagas and of the confident ease with which he performed them and shared them.
She would have loved how his smooth, sonorous baritone seemed to fill the night around the campfire or the galley table and made the weary warriors forget all pain and grief for a few precious moments by evoking eras long gone, when the Mando'ade stood proud and free.
"They dueled long into the night, almost evenly matched, trading rhyme for rhyme without pause..."
He remembers the way the light of the fire caught in Saxon's moon-pale hair, making it shine like molten gold, the hint of laughter in his voice and how his grey eyes sparkled with heat and mischief as he spoke, spearing through him over and over as he cast his gaze not towards the judging Elders, but towards him as if he was speaking just for him, as if his judgement was the only one that mattered...
"It was a contest of endurance as much as of cunning, and though neither was Forceful, not the way we usually think of it, the Force roiled thick and stormy all around them and they were in it, riding that flow..."
He remembers how, pushed by some unknown impulse, he extended his own Force towards them, opening himself up to them.
Raze felt reassuring, like bloodkin, like family, like a distant echo of himself, somehow but what Gar felt... it was hard to describe: it was something far more visceral and intoxicating than mere allegiance and loyalty, something that at the time he couldn't quite begin to comprehend but that nevertheless hit him like a punch to the gut as soon as he brushed against it.
He remembers recoiling back in confusion, hearts pumping frantically, mouth suddenly dry and a fluttering feeling in the pit of his stomach.
He remembers how Saxon also faltered, how their gazes met for a moment.
His voice wavered and fell silent before haltingly resuming a strophe. He regained confidence with every word, but Raze had already sensed his opening and made his final move while the Mando was unbalanced.
"But in the end Raze had a lot more to lose if he failed, so he gave his all. He was relentless and inspired and eventually the Force granted him victory. Jana Chose him." he adds with a shrug.
It's not a great conclusion to the tale, but he never claimed to be a real storyteller and his mind is elsewhere, back in the assembly grounds on the night of the Choosing.
The Brothers had cheered Raze, lifting him up on their shoulders and carrying him around the field in triumph, chanting his name and eventually deposited him in front of the Elders and of Jana to receive a final blessing and a crown of flowers before Jana dragged him away, perhaps towards this very temple.
Among the confusion he saw Gar slinking silently off to one side with Rook, as the two of them were wont to do, perhaps to soothe his wounded pride with some brandy.
As he watched him walk away, tired and defeated, his face flushed with exertion, his pale hair plastered to his forehead with sweat, some strange instinct had stirred inside him, urging him to run to him, to grab hold of him and pull him back to the light and somehow make sure that everybody knew what the Force already did, that Gar bloody Saxon, skald and lieutenant of the Supercommandos, second to none in bravery and loyalty, belonged to him, to stake his claim just as unequivocally as Raze and Jana had staked their mutual one.
It took all his hard-won self-control and focus to fight that incomprehensible urge and even so he couldn't help but walk towards them, slowly and with an appearance of calm, yes, but inevitably.
"It's the ritual. Whatever happened here is influencing us because he swore himself to me." he told himself as he walked, hearts thumping madly in his chest.
But Rook had sworn herself too and yet the urge wasn't there, a part of him whispered.
It was the smoke of the herbs, the beat of the drums, a stray effect of his mother's magic, or worse, the Other, still lurking in the darkness in spite of his mother's efforts, now rising like a predator in search of blood, just like when he fought with Kenobi, just like when he dreamed of exacting revenge, of painting that pale pink skin crimson and purple with blood and bruises, of hearing that smooth voice break in screams and sobs and beg him for mercy.
Gar turned towards him, as if he too had felt a disturbance and was looking for its source and for a moment they just stared at each other in silence under Rook's watchful eyes.
The urge roared in his ears, loud like the engine of the Gauntlet, pushing, pushing, but Gar didn't deserve this, to be used and hurt and humiliated because he was too crazy, too broken to keep it together when magic was involved.
Gar had fought countless battles at his side, saved his hide from Dooku, he had sworn himself and he was not Sidious to repay loyalty like that. He would never be.
It was his duty as Manda'lore to protect him, and he would, even from himself if need be.
He would not fail again.
"You did well, Saxon. Bravely battled." he blurted out just to break the silence, patting his shoulder as if he was an overgrown hound.
He wasn't wearing his armour and the heat of his skin filtering through his sweat-soaked shirt almost seared Maul's hand.
Gar smiled and it was something happy and vulnerable that he had never seen on the big Mando's face, but somehow it suited him, and suddenly it was more than he could take.
He took all the dignity he had left and turned tail without waiting for a reply, fleeing among the trees until the roaring quieted and the hunger faded to something not unlike the pangs of starvation.
It hurt to repress that urge, but he had done the right thing, for once, and even though it faded but never really left, grief and the necessities of war conspired in keeping a safe distance between them.
He has managed to protect Gar from whatever madness lurked inside him, but not to keep him safe, not when it mattered most, and now that he is gone, sometimes he wonders whether it was madness after all or just something for which he had no words back then, but that was not that different from what he feels for Ahsoka now, whether his fear had robbed them both of something precious and irreplaceable.
"You and Saxon... did you...? Were you together, at some point?"
Ahsoka's question is quiet and hesitant, but breaks through Maul's thoughts like the shot of an ion cannon.
Oh Force, he must have been projecting again, thinking too hard, too deep about it, and now Ahsoka knows and...
"I know it's not my business, alright? It's just that you go all broody and melancholy when you talk about him, you wear his clothes when you're sad..." she adds, laughing quiey in embarrassment or perhaps to try and defuse the situation.
Maul is speechless with embarrassment. If Ahsoka caught on to this so easily, and from such flimsy evidence, it must have been painfully obvious to everybody else in both his clans. That is, to everybody except him and Gar, of course.
"I guess it could have been a deep friendship, but, I don't know, it feels... different." she adds, making a vague gesture with her hand.
"We... we weren't." he manages to say, eventually.
"I didn't... I didn't know how to deal with the things I was feeling. I was afraid of hurting him. And I suppose he was too. We just... passed by each other, reaching out but never really touching." he explains after a brief pause, looking away from her in embarrassment and fear, but she just tightens her hug, pulling him flush against her.
"I am sorry that you lost this too, on top of everything else." she whispers.
"Are you not mad?" he asks nevertheless.
"Why would I be?"
Maul shrugs and makes a vague, wordless gesture with his hand.
There are so many things she could be mad about he doesn't even know where to start.
"Retroactive cheating is not a thing, just so that you know, and to be honest I always assumed you liked guys." Ahsoka sounds matter-of-fact, almost amused.
"Actually, I thought I had no chance at all to be with you because you only liked guys. That's one of the reasons why it took me so long to tell you that I liked you." she adds and a bit of self-deprecation creeps into her voice while a veil of colour rises to tint her markings with delicate sunset shades.
"I don't like either guys or girls. The average specimen of either leaves me completely indifferent. I like only some select, special people..." he retorts, feeling a bit confused.
Why would something as indifferent as what people have in their pants had any bearing on whether he would care about them?
"I never said that being bisexual meant being promiscuous or indiscriminate. I am bisexual too..." Ahsoka interrupts, trying to assuage him, but his train of thoughts has already moved long past that stumbling block.
The thing is, he doesn't like people because of their aesthetic appeal, but once he likes someone he finds them more appealing than anyone else.
The only thing that Ahsoka and Gar have ever had in common is that they both cared for him even though he was an undeserving mess, that they were ready to help him and to protect him even from himself, and that he had already adopted them as his in a more general, clannish, platonic way.
"I think I only like people if I know that I am safe with them." he distils eventually, feeling acutely self-conscious about how vulnerable it makes him sound.
But it's alright: Ahsoka has his back, as always, enveloping him with her arms and her Force, shoring him up.
"I am honoured that you trust me so, Maul. I really am." she whispers, brushing the tip of her nose against his.
"No one deserves it more than you, Ahsoka. No one."