Afterwards, while Eli is still warm and loose-limbed and at ease with the universe, lolling against the single pillow with a hand behind his head, Thrawn sits on the edge of the bunk in the dark and begins to unbraid his hair.
The plait must have fallen, at some point, from the neat pinned knot he wears just above his collar; indeed Eli remembers the vivid black-ink spill of it over Thrawn's collarbone, the loose strands around his sharp, intent face; remembers wrapping the braid's end round his own fingers, tugging gently, barely thinking. He will remember it for some time, filed in among all the other pictures this narrow bed has framed: barely sequential, just—tumbled together, discontinuous. Sheets and hands and mouths.
He wishes he had something to smoke.
The room is cool, cooler than he'd have chosen for himself, and without Thrawn's skin against his, he is beginning to feel the chill. Fends off stiffness with a lazy stretch, lifting his hips and straightening his spine: Thrawn flicks him a glance: says nothing. A little twitch of his lip without significance. Eli ignores him, unwilling to waste the afterglow on vague anxieties.
He could, he thinks, reach out and touch Thrawn's hip with the bone of his ankle. With another lover he might: he's always been easy, after sex. Maybe it's the Lysatran showing through or perhaps it's just him, the way he is. He'll put the tension back on with his tunic and boots, performing against those impossible metrics he never seems to grasp, but in the dark he feels pleasantly shameless, inclined to sprawl, especially when Thrawn too seems less eager to be up and away than usual; and maybe this is one of those nights when he'll linger, and they'll talk for a while–about nothing, really, though he thinks sometimes in these hours cut out of time he could ask any question he liked and get an answer. Not, perhaps, the one he'd have wanted, but an answer nonetheless.
Instead stillness, and only the low light from the indicators on the wall panels and the hum of the engines and Thrawn's quiet breath in the dark. Barely audible muffled announcement from decks away, bracketed by alert tones, filtered through metal like water. The way the dim light makes Thrawn's skin look like frosted glass, rough and faintly translucent, familiar now and yet still startling, still uncanny. Like something from a folktale.
I'd like to see him, Eli thinks idly, in real light. Like this, in real light. A surge of something then like desire or longing, imprecisely defined, a little sad. The sure knowledge that there will be no after: that Thrawn's war will not end. Just this, then, these starside minutes in the dark; just relief, what relief Eli can offer. Thrawn's bent head and his fingers in his own dark hair.
"I could help," Eli says, watching.
Thrawn looks back at him, cool as always, unknowable behind the flat orange-red glow of his irisless eyes. (But the tilt of his head, the slight shifting tension at the edge of his mouth, the stillness of his long hands: this is knowable, and Eli knows. Caution, curiosity. Once you learn the language it isn't hard to read.)
"I don't believe the task is beyond my abilities," Thrawn says, soft and low. Slight amusement, perhaps: something else, too, which Eli can't parse. His eyes linger on Eli's face: drift, slowly, towards his bared chest and stomach, appraising—but it's easy to be looked at like this, somehow; easier than with clothes on. Just a body; not a bad one. Eli thinks of pushing the sheet lower but it would be pointless, he knows: Thrawn never wants a second round.
The moment slows, not unpleasantly. In the dark Thrawn's hair shines as though wet and Eli thinks of water under ice, the black absoluteness of it, the numbing cold. Things moving down there, deep unseen currents. He pushes a hand through his own brown fringe, making a mess: sexily, he hopes, though he suspects not. Wonders what he'd look like if he took to wearing it long—what Thrawn would think.
Maybe for him it means nothing, anyway—maybe all the Chiss wear their hair like this, or maybe it's just Thrawn, in the way the slight chuff of amusement at irony is just Thrawn, or the strength of his wrists, or the way his chin lifts slightly in pleasure to show the long column of his throat. These edges to him that Eli has learned incidentally, without meaning to. The way he blinks at Eli sometimes, long and slow, and then looks away.
Outside in the bright corridor someone laughs, briefly, almost beyond hearing. Thrawn turns his head, just a little. Shifts his position to tuck one bare foot under his knee: the other still flat on the floor. Eli watches him, because that's what Eli does. After a moment he turns his eyes back to Eli, considering.
Pause after pause after pause. All these silences between them, even now.
And then with the usual imperceptible speed Thrawn makes some decision, though as usual Eli doesn't know exactly what: only watches as Thrawn pushes the half-braid over his shoulder and turns his back to Eli, straight and upright. An invitation or perhaps a request. His bare back always narrower, somehow, than Eli expects, all smooth lean muscle, flecked with scars in darker blue. The sharp line of his shoulder blade.
The braid, half-undone, hanging loose against his spine. Nearly to his waist.
Eli sits up.
In the narrow bed he hardly needs to move but he rearranges himself anyway: folds himself at Thrawn's back, side-on, half-cross-legged, his knee against Thrawn's hip. Pauses for a moment, considering. He has watched girls do this, before, on leave on Lysatra or in borrowed Coruscanti bedrooms; but the men of the Empire wear their hair short, and it has been some time since he touched bare skin on anyone who isn't in this room. An odd thought; not a loss.
As he takes the braid in hand it reveals the place at the base of Thrawn's neck where the vertebra shows against the skin: without thinking Eli presses two fingers there, affectionate: Thrawn breathes in.
Sorry, Eli wants to say, though he isn't sure why, so he says nothing: strokes the place again, gently. In his other hand the braid a living weight and smooth as silk and as lovely.
Thrawn says nothing.
And when Eli begins to unbraid, to comb his fingers smoothly through the ends and then upwards, loosening the twisted strands, Thrawn breathes out again, long and steady, nearly a sigh: his head tilts forward a little, and Eli resists the urge to stop and set his hands instead to the tense muscle of his shoulders, the visible tightness in his neck, the way he had on the day this had started, thinking of nothing but easing an ache. (Thrawn had almost broken his wrist at the first touch: had looked so intensely, so fiercely something, such a whole wild array of inexplicable unexpected emotions—but they'd found their way to it, in the end.) Now instead he keeps to the task at hand, unweaving, up past the shoulders to the place where the braid comes together at the back of the neck—reaching forward to gather the strands that had fallen loose while they fucked, which Eli had pushed back from Thrawn's face, behind his ear, and Thrawn had closed his eyes slowly and opened them in that silent Chiss something (a thank-you? a plea?) and pressed his mouth—barely a kiss—to the inside of Eli's wrist—
Oh, Eli thinks, suddenly. Oh, you too. That surge of something, again.
He finds he has paused: resumes. Fingers against scalp, now, gentle and firm. Thrawn breathing smoothly, his shoulders loosening. Eli wonders if he will sleep, tonight, when he returns to his own quarters. Hopes so.
"You want me to braid it back up?" he asks, fingers still twisted through.
Thrawn's shoulders tightening again: a long silence, so long that Eli understands he must have missed something—nearly moves away, nearly asks what's happened, though he knows there would be no answer—
"If you would," says Thrawn.
+ + +
Later, on the Steadfast, with his own short braid tucked down his collar, after Thrawn has stepped aboard with his little crew of misfits and hot-headed young jedi—"Oh," the boy says, grinning wildly, "You must be Eli," like it means something—after the preliminary debrief and the neurotically precise intake process for passenger-prisoners, after dinner, he finally catches Thrawn's eye and cocks his head in that old invitation. Trusts that Thrawn will find his way. Lets his eyes linger on the braid, loose now over Thrawn's shoulder, to make it clear that there will be a conversation.
No one had explained it to him, of course—no one had explained anything. He'd just been handed a data chit and told to access the ship's libraries from his console. Had spent two weeks reading about customary greetings, and the colours of the Families, and meal protocol in the presence of fleet officers, and then, suddenly, in amongst the gestural tone modifiers and the correct order and placement of collar-flashes: The practice of pair-braiding is not a tradition of particular antiquity, but within the past few centuries it has developed a determinative role in establishing and signifying romantic relationships, especially in contexts where other markers of status may not be worn. An odd giddiness to the sudden understanding: frustration, ache—so many nights biting down on love—but a joy to it, too.
"You didn't tell me," Eli says, more amused than annoyed about it now, when Thrawn finds his quarters at last.
"No," says Thrawn, and Eli knows that once he would have thought that a blunt and obscure answer but it's impossible to imagine how, when Thrawn is folding his hands like a newly-made navigator asked not to run in the corridors, when he's dipping his chin in shame-contrition-accountability like a lieutenant called to task for inattention on the bridge—
Eli clicks his tongue, once, in affection-derision, and Thrawn's eyes widen slightly: then he raises his chin, slightly, to show his throat, and blinks, very slowly.
Eli blinks back.